José Antonio Dávila

José Antonio Dávila

The literary work of José Antonio Dávila (JAD) (1898 -1941) is known, above all, for the collection of books titled Vendimia (1939), for his Motivos de Tristán (1957), and for some individual poems that were widely read, such as, for example, “Carta de recomendación” and “Apóstrofe al verde.” Lesser known, by comparison, are Almacén de baratijas (1941) and the unpublished book Poemas, as well as others he wrote in English. His translations, or the work titled Prosa that would be brought out by the Society of Puerto Rican Authors in 1971.

Except for the early amateur work that JAD would begin writing in his youth, most of his works in adulthood coincided with the completion of his medical studies, with a specialty in Urology (1927), and the outbreak, that same year, of the disease that would take his life, tuberculosis. Just before completing his studies, he had married a young woman from the United States, and that alliance meant the final break with a legendary love that for many years could not be dimmed by distance and that, according to legend, inspired the torments of all of his love poems, including those in Motivos de Tristán. But this love, sustained despite the distance, like Isolde, died unexpectedly in 1934 and precipitated the final agony of the ailing poet, as if to accentuate the drama of his life. His poetry, however, merits the reader’s attention not only, or even mainly, because of the events of his life. It is worthy for its own intrinsic merits.

We should take into account that, in the 1920s, although the veins of modernism had not fully been mined, it was well past its peak, with its nationalistic variation in the poetry of Puerto Rico that could well be represented by his own father, don Virgilio Dávila, or Luis Llorens Torres, a poet in love with the heights and glories of the Americas. In that third decade of the 20th century, the rubble of World War I was cleaned up during the explosion of the trends that became known as avant-garde. The scene was teeming with “isms,” as writers identified themselves as “diepalistas,” “noístas,” “euforistas” and “atalayistas,” among other Puerto Rican versions of avant-garde movements. Josemilio González correctly notes, however, that neo-romantic intimism, the offspring of Hispanic-American post-modernism, “is probably the most important trend in Puerto Rican poetry between 1930 and 1965.” González mentions JAD only as a “precursor” to neo-romanticism. But that is the note that predominates and best defines JAD’s poetry, and, if it’s true that we should not declare him the founder of a school that irrigated and fertilized so much territory in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, we still are inclined to consider him a fantastic voice of the movement. Josefina Rivera de Alvarez also traces the Puerto Rican poetry of the 1930s and includes JAD at the start.

Our poet’s neo-romantic intimism survives and carries on with extremely obvious force the national tradition and the modernist rhythms in its speech. Perhaps this is because his readings in a fine library allowed him to carry on his father’s tradition, in his own way, and follow the Spanish classics, or perhaps it was because of the influence of certain English poets he preferred (Keats, Byron, Shelley, Francis Thompson, Swinburne). It is undeniable, as some critics have pointed out, that JAD’s poetry is distinguished by, among other things, its tendency toward the written sonnet “in the English manner,” in the words of Francisco Matos Paoli, who defined his Motivos de Tristán as a classic of form and romantic at its base, as well as besieged by misfortune.

As noted above, Vendimia is a broad inventory of JAD’s poetry. The poems from Motivos de Tristán are represented in the final section of the book, titled “Poemas de un Amor triste.” Like this section, the book is divided into six thematic segments: “Versos del meridiano,” “Versos de la vida moza,” “Siglo de oro,” “Post-rafaelísticas,” “La rueca de Némesis” and “Poemas de un amor triste.” “Kismet” is the poem that opens the book, just as “Ex-Libris” closes it. The sections are very mixed.

The poem “Kismet” is the entrance to another dimension, associated with the past, to the experiences that have flown with time, as in the Filí-Melé of Pales Matos. The first section, however, is made up of poems that are nearly Virgil-like, because of his father, and because of his identification with a sense of nature as “national” and with the social lives of ordinary people. JAD’s words are resonant, sought out, carefully chosen, despite the appearance of immediacy. The verse varies between traditional and modernist, dominated by high art and the rhythm of hemistich. There are no topics: the words emerge fully formed from his heart and emerge modernist, less Parnassian than symbolic. We can find a little of Llorens and something of Miguel Hernández. A note of humor comes out in the images of community characters. We find poems with a modernist recipe, but also others, more lyrical, more open, and finally, a group of reflective poems that are still declamatory, the work of one who knows how to deliver a speech about nothing.

The “Versos de la vida moza” gather the young poet’s energy and vital impulses, the aspirations, the throbbing force of love, the religious doubts. In these poems there is the struggle of the spirit, a little eroticism and aesthetic perceptivity. “Siglo de oro” gathers sonnets dedicated to the classics of Hispanic poetry, from Friar Luis de León to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, although the standout, in my opinion, is his homage to Lope de la Vega. The “post-Raphaelite” poems stop to observe the real and the ineffable in the paintings, walls, people and moments of another dimension. The tenderness peaks in some of these (“Carta de recomendación,” for example), and achieves the transcription of the visual arts to words.

Meanwhile, “La rueca” crosses the deep waters of his metaphysical concerns, death, the recapitulations, the inquiry of “the disentanglement.” A very aware dialogue is established with the reader, the listener, the recipient. In the final section, where the words tend toward transitive forms, this strong presence of a second person, concretely present, comes from the tone of elegy, as shown in the last of the “Poemas de un amor triste,” titled “Para Isolda: en la otra orilla.”

Thus established as a bridge to the other book, Motivos de Tristán opens with a epigraph by the Archpriest of Hita that alludes to loyalty in love: “Nunca fue tan leal Blanca Flor a Flores, nin es agora Tristán a todos sus amores.” The book, which includes more than forty sonnets, is divided into three divisions, each distinct in tone and counterpoint. The first is addressed to a lover in the immediacy of the dawn of love. The second is somber and suggests another time, an afterward, a distance, that leaves clear marks on the meaning and purpose of expressions such as “memory,” “yet,” “today,” “your remembrance,” “now,” “still,” “past love,” and “my affront.” It is an interlude that refers to a fact of death: “Bajo la tierra está.” Finally, the third section wavers between Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and the elegies of Miguel Hernández. In the view of María Teresa Babín, these poems are the genuine expression of upright masculinity, fortified by faith in a secure tomorrow after death.”

Margot Arce de Vázquez, Laura Gallego and Luis de Arrigoitía have noted in JAD’s work “a profound poetry and stark intensity.” “It looks introspectively,” they add, “and the limitation of its corporeal suffering serves to spur metaphysical reflection. Polished by pain, and with a faith sustained despite doubts of piercing irony, yearning for the pantheistic merger with the cosmos. He has “a lyricism both sad and hopeful at the same time.” His loyalty to life is unquestionable. In the judgment of the critics, his marks on the classics and on island poetry are “on a higher aesthetic plane that his father’s.” And by incorporating prosaic ways of speaking into his language, he made it accessible to the common man.

Adapted from:

Reyes Dávila, Marcos. José Antonio Dávila: “Más que vendimia, alas”. Mairena: Veinte poetas puertorriqueños del siglo XX, p 63-68, Año XX No. 45-46, 1998. San Juan.

Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 15, 2014.

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