Juan Rodolfo Wilcock’s Two Phases

Horacio Armani

Juan Rodolfo Wilcock died in Lubrano, in Italy’s Viterbo province, on March 15, 1978, according to the Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata. He was born in Buenos Aires on April 17, 1919, and he died shortly before his 59th birthday. Because there are few people alive who know about his work or life, some biographical details should be given before referring to the two phases of his writing: the Argentine, his work in Spanish, and the Italian, his work in Dante’s language.

As a child, Wilcock lived in Switzerland and England. It seems that he learned Spanish in London.[1] In Argentina he became an engineer and worked in Mendoza, but he abandoned his profession for literature. In 1940, at only 21 years old, he won the prestigious Martín Fierro Award for his poetry. Obviously, he was one of the main poetic figures of the time. He edited and published two poetry magazines: Disco and Verde memoria. A great translator of prose and poetry, Wilcock’s versions of Rimbaud’s Le bateau ivre and Kerouac’s Desolation Angels are still remembered for their excellence. His ironic and reserved personality did not make him very sympathetic. Perhaps his aggressive way of talking made his homosexuality unforgivable for many. In the literary world, he was perceived as an irritating presence, and he responded to that criticism with a poet’s disdain. Everything Argentinean became despicable to his lyrical unconformity, which belonged to another century and hemisphere. According to Héctor Bianciotti[2], Wilcock convinced him to leave Argentina with him, and they sailed off on a ship one day in 1957. During that trip, Wilcock forgot his companion, finally abandoning him without any explanation. In Rome, Wilcock became well known in a difficult milieu and in a language (Italian) in which he learned to write perfectly. His experience was the opposite of that of Cortázar, who never wrote in French. In Italy, Wilcock also distinguished himself as a translator—work that would become his mainstay—principally of Joyce and Marlowe. He wrote plays and collaborated with important newspapers such as Il Mondo, La Nazione, and Sipario. In addition, he wrote columns for L’Expresso and La Voce Republicana. He published short stories, plays, and poetry in Italian. Wilcock died of a heart attack in a small town in which he had isolated himself, just as he had done in Argentina.

His writing in Spanish

The six books he published in Buenos Aires—especially Los hermosos días (The Beautiful Days), his best work—situate him in a delicate and subtle lyricism inspired by English and German romanticism. He was unique in the way his poems achieved a melancholy and extreme refinement of a spirit uneasy with reality, and he looked for, in the ethereal atmosphere of ideal poetry, solace and salvation for le mal de vivre. An example of this is the poem “El inminente” (“The Imminent”) from Los hermosos días:

Como la lluvia sobre el agua,
el cielo gris, las nubes
todo desciende y huye.
Entre las olas cruza un ala oscura.

¡Oh déjame ver en tus ojos
un dibujo con palacios de cristal, con estanques
donde flotan las plantas!

He muerto ya de amor,
no existo, soy el aire,
estoy en torno tuyo.
¡Oh amante! un nombre como el viento,
el color de los árboles, una rama
sobre tu frente suspendida, el tiempo,
el tiempo que tú quisieras atravesar,
la época de las flores.


Like rain over water
the gray sky, the clouds
everything comes down and escapes.
Among the waves a dark wing crosses.

Oh, let me see in your eyes
a drawing with crystal palaces, with ponds
where plants float!

I’ve already died of love,
I don’t exist, I’m air
I’m around you.
Oh, lover! A name like the wind
the color of the trees, a branch
suspended above your brow, time,
the time that you wanted to travel through
the season of the flowers.

In Paseo sentimental (Sentimental Stroll), Wilcock presented another aspect of romanticism. He had serious fun following, in some compositions, the example of certain romantics from the nineteenth century. Then he initiated a time of rupture, a time when he experienced an increasing sarcasm. In Sexto, his last poetry book published in Buenos Aires, this shows in a composition of notable verbal perfection:

Mis pasos en la noche de mármol de Venecia
como un eco repiten pasos de otros amantes
sepultos bajo el piso desigual de una iglesia
entre damas adúlteras y duques navegantes.
De sus vastas pasiones no quedó nada, nada,
y quedaron en cambio su escudo y su palacio;
sin embargo, una noche como esta innominada
se creyeron eternos y fuera del espacio,
y creyeron que el fuego y el mármol y el Tiziano
no durarían tanto como eso que sentían
ascender por las ondas marmóreas del verano
hacia un mosaico púrpura de nubes que se abrían.


My steps in the night of Venetian marble
Repeat like an echo other lovers’ steps
buried under the uneven floor of a church
among adulterous ladies and seagoing dukes.
Of their vast passions nothing remains, nothing
and there remains instead their coat of arms and their palace;
yet on a nameless night like this one
they thought themselves eternal and outside of space
and they thought that the fire and the marble and the Titian
would not last as long as what they were feeling
to rise through the marble waves of summer
toward a purple mosaic of opening clouds.

A very good friend of Silvina Ocampo, he collaborated with her on a play that was never performed.[3]

Sadly, the skepticism and sarcasm that pervaded Sexto took Wilcock away from Argentina, which lost a poet whose work would come to follow a more ironic and critical path.

The first time I saw him was around 1947, I was 22 years old, and La Nación had just published one of my poems. At that time, a group of young people who had started writing and publishing gathered at the home of María Elena Walsh.[4] One Sunday, María Elena invited us to visit a neighbor, Pepe Fernández, who was a distinguished piano player. Wilcock was there, listening in ecstasy to Monteverdi. When we were introduced, he exclaimed, “Ah, you are the one who writes those little verses in La Nación.” For the rest of the afternoon, none of us paid much attention to him. Afterwards I saw him occasionally (not often) at conferences or literary reunions. I did not like him, or rather his verbal aggressiveness intimidated me. I was very shy, and I did not know how to respond to him.

Many years later, in 1960, I spent some time in Rome on a scholarship from the Italian Cultural Service. One day, Eugenio Guasta, who lived in the same residence for scholars as I did, told me that Wilcock had asked us to be his witnesses at the civil registry so he could adopt a young Italian as his son. We had to testify that Wilcock was not married in Argentina, a requirement that, according to Wilcock, was fundamental to the country’s laws. There were also two Italian witnesses at the civil registry. We were made to wait for approximately two hours. During this time, Wilcock hardly spoke to us. He was sitting, sunken in a leather armchair, his face as impenetrable as his silence. I never saw him again.

I have often wondered why I did that favor for someone who was so inconsiderate of others. The answer is inescapable: If I had not admired his poetry as I did, I would not have done it. I give myself the same answer when I wonder why I am writing these pages.

The Roman phase

Some time ago, I was browsing new publications in a central bookstore in Rome. I noticed a book that had just been put on the table: Poesie, by J. Rodolfo Wilcock (this is how he signed his books in Italian). Once again destiny brought me face to face with the poet, forcing me to confront his memory and his work. The back cover of the book, sober and carefully edited, stated that before Wilcock established himself in Italy, he had distinguished himself in Argentina “as a young writer from Borges’ circle.” Inevitably, for Italians, every Argentine writer is one of Borges’ disciples. The description continued: “Like his master, Borges, Wilcock chooses at times to enunciate in verse the most acute aphorisms,” something that is attributed further down to Wittgenstein’s influence.

The book includes all the poems written by Wilcock in Italian, along with a series of unpublished poems as well as a selection of poems published in Spanish and translated by Wilcock himself. None of those I love the most were included, not even “En el Tigre,” a poem that almost all Argentine anthologies have included since its first publication. I was consoled by the fact that “Noche tranquila” and “El inminente” were selected.

The book flap enumerated all Wilcock’s prose but inexplicably forgot some of his books of poetry, including Luoghi comuni (1961) and La parola morte (1968). Moreover, the place where he died was listed as Velletri when he actually died in Lubrano, a town near Viterbo.

Wilcock published ten books of prose in Italy, the first of which was entitled Il caos (Bompiani, 1960), a compilation of short stories that I commented favorably on in La Nación when they were published by Sudamericana in Argentina. The other titles are Lo sterepscopio dei solitary (1972, Adelphi), La sinagoga degli iconoclasti[5] (1972, Adelphi), Il due allegri indiani (1973, Rizzoli), Il tempio etrusco (1973, Rizzoli), L’ingegnere (1975, Rizzoli), Frau Teleprocu, in collaboration with Francesco Fantasía (1976, Adelphi), Il libro dei mostri (1978, Adelphi), Fatti inquietanti (1961, Adelphi), and Teatro in prosa e in versi (1962, Bompiani). This list is probably incomplete because it contains no title between 1962 and 1972.

The last poetry

It is not true, as the back cover says, that in a “very short time, Wilcock changed at the same time language and skin” and reappeared “as a poet who introduced in the Italian lyricism an unheard bittersweet tone, an Alexandrine mastery, a capacity for such spite that motivated him to reimagine the most ancient rhymes, the most elemental and forbidden.” The reference to changes in his poetry is also inaccurate. The specified changes have been in Wilcock’s poems since Paseo sentimental, except that in Italy they were considered to be an original contribution while in Argentina they were viewed as a passing fancy. His ironic and sententious streak, which was already completely developed in Sexto, continued and became stronger in his Italian period. The same tone is found in his erotic poems, which have been praised by Italian commentators: “Like Cavafy and Penna, Wilcock has been one of the rare modern poets who knew how to write a love poem (see the astounding Epitalamio or the Italianisches liederbuch)”. Here is one of his poems:

La fama, yo, que nunca la he perseguido
y ahora persigo a quien la lleva en mano;
yo, que las puertas de la riqueza siempre
miré cerradas, hoy las veo abiertas;
yo, que parecía loco y melancólico
me veo en cambio alegre y sabio.
Oh llama, aluvión de jaspe y malaquita
voz de jade de la Opera de Pequín,
isla errante, paloma, cataclismo, amor que vuelves dulce lo que era áspero,
me has quitado el juicio, el sueño, ¿qué más quieres?


The fame that I never pursued
I now pursue the one who holds it in the hand;
I who always saw the doors of wealth
closed, today I see them open;
I who seemed mad and melancholy
find myself by contrast lighthearted and wise.
Oh flame, downpour of jasper and malachite
jade voice of the Peking Opera
wandering island, dove, cataclysm, love that makes soft what was harsh
you took away my judgment, my sleep, what more do you want?

In some of Wilcock’s poetry, the satire and sarcasm are evident: “Benditos los que piensan en el progreso/ yo sólo pienso en la muerte o en el sexo”, “Blessed are those who think of progress/I only think of death and sex.” His Italian poetry conserved the irony, the grotesque, and the mocking of reality that he shared in Buenos Aires with Silvina Ocampo, two related spirits who influenced each other.

I never understood why Wilcock chose to live in Italy and not in England or France, cultures more in agreement with his temperament. Likely it was because even though his father was British, his mother was Italian. Italy was essentially a continuation of Argentina (richer and more intense, of course, due to its cultural background and the beauty of its landscapes and cities), and he saw in Italy the same flaws that Argentina had offered him. In both places, he was dissatisfied with his life and with himself, and he probably would have felt unhappy anywhere. In his last years he cut himself off from Rome. The ambience in which he lived and his yearning for love, even as he got older, are described clearly in his poem “Espacio” (“Space”):

En mi habitación no hay nada
excepto el fonógrafo y un lecho:
Y también en el corazón no hay nada
excepto un hijo de mí diverso.

Así hay espacio para moverse
tanto en el corazón como en el cuarto;
he arrojado los harapos al fuego,
tirado al mar los sentimientos.
No todos tienen vacío el cuarto,
no todos tienen el corazón vacío,
aún se puede dejar entrar
cada mañana un mundo nuevo.


In my room there is nothing
except the record player and a bed:
And also in the heart there’s nothing
except a son unlike me.

Thus there is space to move
in the heart as in the room;
I’ve thrown the rags in the fire
thrown the feelings in the sea.
Not every one has an empty room empty
not every one has an empty heart
it is still possible to let in
every morning a new world.

Without knowing it, Wilcock’s hopes remained in the finesse and the subtle features of some of his admirable verses, which will continue to occupy a distinguished place in Argentinian poetry.


NOTES

  1. Wilcock’s father was British and his mother Italian. (translator’s note)  // back
  2. An Argentine-born French author and member of the Académie Française.  // back
  3. Los traidores, Losada, Buenos Aires, 1956. (translator’s note)  // back
  4. Argentine poet, novelist, musician, playwright, and composer.  // back
  5. Translated in English as The Temple of Iconoclasts, Mercury House, San Francisco, 2000. (translator’s note)  // back

HORACIO ARMANI (b. 1925 Trenel, Provincia de La Pampa; d. 2013 Buenos Aires), writer and journalist. He published fifteen books of poetry and received for his poetry the First National Prize of Poetry and the First Municipalidad de Buenos Aires Prize, among other honors. For his work as translator of Italian poetry he received prizes from the Consejo de Ministros de Italia, Il Piombino, and the Premio Internazionale Eugenio Montale. UNESCO chose his Antología de poesía italiana contemporánea for its collection of preferred editions edited in Spain (Málaga) and in Argentina (Losada). His posthumous book Aventuras de la palabra: Borges y otros mitos (2013) collects twenty essays on poets and poetic subjects. He has been translated into French and Italian.