Like his contemporaries, the Argentine Ricardo Güiraldes, the Chilean Pedro Prado, and the Colombian José Eustasio Rivera, Alfonso Reyes was above all a writer of prose, yet at no time in his life did he cease to write poetry. He began to write verse at an early age, and his first poems appeared in print when he was sixteen. The poems reflect his love for ancient Greece and for the sculptures of Phidias and Praxiteles. Reyes’s first book of verse, Huellas (footprints), containing pieces from the years 1906 to 1919, appeared in 1923. These poems reveal a Parnassian influence evident in the works of other Latin American poets of the time, yet they already showed some of Reyes’s characteristic variety of subject matter, mood, and style. Later, he would make use of realism (especially in his descriptions of Mexico) and Surrealism in Gulf of Mexico.
There is something of the dilettante about Reyes the poet; chatting with or about his friends, musing over feminine beauty, worrying about death, reworking the ubi sunt commonplace, or simply delighting in intellectual silliness. “I prefer to be promiscuous/ in literature,” Reyes wrote in the poem “Teoría prosaica” (“Prose Theory”), claiming further that he preferred the antiquated measurements of the almud, the vara, and the cuarterón to the metric system. Reyes kept his poetic sanity by alternating “the popular ballad/ of my neighbor/ with the rare quintessence/ of Góngora and Mallarmé.”
A traveler and an explorer in different worlds, Reyes made use of everyday speech, the Greek chorus, the monologue of Mallarmé, the Spanish of the Golden Age, and names from the Tarahumara pharmacopoeia. Reyes exhausted all sources of Spanish vocabulary. In his poems, there are Latin expressions, Greek words, and obscure Arabisms not normally used in conversational language—alcatraz (cornucopia), almirez (brass mortar), alquitara (still)—yet none of these occurs in such profusion or within such complicated syntax as to overwhelm the reader. Reyes delighted in place-names, in words peculiar to certain countries that gave his work local color—ñañigo (member of a secret Cuban society of blacks), tamanco (Brazilian sandal)—and in chatty words—corretón (gadding about), copetín (little goblet). He frequently repeated synonymous or near-synonymous words in the same line, as if searching for maximum precision—curuja, buho (both meaning “owl”); alfónsigo, pistacho (both meaning...
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