HOW BACKWARD the frontierish hope to hybridize.
I ask for directions to the frontera from the Calle Independencia in Tijuana and the parking attendant looks back at me puzzled. I am told to ask for la línea, the line. Where there is a line, a point moving along in a fixed direction — Mexican Federal Highway No. 1, the world’s busiest port of entry — there is waiting. A leaden stop-and-go of cars, street carts and passengers staring out windows, sometimes for five hours or more. La línea is a terrible delay.
“At the frontera, the Other is repelled. Both sides of the línea are rejected like two magnets of the same sign which only force could keep together, in so far as as soon as we allow them to operate according to their own rules, the separation is violent […] If the apparent theme is bidirectionality or symbiosis, the deeper theme, in contrast, is incompatibility” (Heriberto Yépez, “La hibridación es un engaño. El significado real del arte fronterizo,” Made in Tijuana, 2005).
The delay is caused by a magnetic repulsion of poles.
Heriberto Yépez (born in Tijuana, 1974) has published a number of works pertaining to the U.S.-Mexico border. Theoretical, philosophical, novelistic, and poetic genres collide and push against each other in his dialectic of hybridity, which is nonsyncretizing and incommensurate with synthesis. Many readers will associate cultural hybridity with happy fusion, where differences melt away in the blazing heat of wholeness and implicit unity. The misfortune of such association is similar to the equating of experimental jazz and jazz fusion. One tears itself apart in a conflict of positions while the other is a subgenre keyed for selling crossover hits.
In his writings, Yépez takes issue with what has become of the “hybrid,” a category that he sees as a commodification of contradiction. The “happy hybrid” of multiculturalism has domesticated the Other, packaged alterity for mass consumption, made synthesis marketable — indeed, created a household brand.
The U.S.-Mexico border is an especially fertile region for examining the psychogeography of this conflict of positions: the headspace of the hybrid as he or she tries to move through familiar paths inventively. But it is not with the fluidity that NAFTA gives to commodities that this hybrid moves. It is with the livid antipathy that NAFTA fosters by facilitating the exploitation of workers on both sides of the border that the hybrid crashes into itself. Yépez is at the forefront of a generation of writers who are questioning notions of fluidity and synthesis, a generation that has seen those same categories veil the advent of global neoliberalism. He is at the forefront because he is at the frontera.
The category of hybrid, he contends, must remain a place where radical dialectics can take place, a relation of energizing antinomies: attraction and repulsion, rupture and negation. In Tijuana, the hybrid flips a middle finger to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
I wait in line, like everyone else, in the city of Tijuana.
It is a city with a split mind. Oriented toward the United States, its “psychohistoric unconscious” is a spinal ganglia stretching to pre-Columbian origins. Yépez’s writings are a neuroanatomy of this system. A.B.U.R.T.O.; Al Otro Lado; Here is Tijuana! / Aquí es Tijuana!; Contrapoemas; El Órgano de la Risa; Made in Tijuana; Tijuanologías; Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers; 41 Clósets; Por una poética antes del paleolítico y después de la propaganda. The writer dissects the entanglement of globalization, postmodernism, transculturation, and ancient animism that constitute the city of Tijuana today. Unstable and metamorphic, the spinal ganglia of the hybrid functions through the intercourse of these disparate parts.
And it is no utopia. Metamorphosis disturbs a utopia. It annoys the person who fixes his role in the social order normatively, rigidly, and inalterably. The thought that a person could rapidly and utterly change his psychic or physical form disrupts the prosaic world; it is too poetic. And still, even as people might turn toward the familiar, “if well they came to consider the natural in nature as something alien to their spirit, at the same time they would see in it something amigable” (Horst Matthai Quelle, “El hombre y sus fronteras. Una visión filosófica,” 1991).
Amigable = Amicable; Amicable, adj., 1. gen. Friendly. 2. esp. Of mutual arrangements: Done in a friendly spirit, with mutual goodwill, or without quarrelling or employment of force; peaceable, harmonious. In the Other, the magnetically repulsive, we can still see something friendly. Disturbance is not obliteration — disturbed, we are energized.
“The very notion of a ‘frontera’ suggests that everything encountered in ‘front’ of a person constitutes in some way their frontera, as it separates what that person is from everything else, the ‘I’ and the ‘not-I’” (Ibid.). Frontera, perpetual horizon, a challenging albeit amicably self-alienating encounter.
Approaching the border, the repellant force of the Other increases. That increase pushes us backward from a relation with other persons to a confrontation with a vital internal principal: the self. The self, standing before us, then, becomes something apart, something else. It is an-Other and I, or as Rimbaud wrote, “I is another,” is an us — “a world of self-alienated spirit,” or, as Hegel wrote, “one in which consciousness externalizes itself.”
My mind, we find while waiting in line, is on the outside. Waiting in line, I sense that the delay is caused by the interaction of disparate parts opposed in close proximity.
Heriberto Yépez’s poetics are a counterpoetics, a poetry of embattled positions and conflicted interactions, of a spirit alienated from itself in the process of metamorphosis, of a man painfully transforming into hybrid. Of poetry in a time of economic post-apocalypse.
But who is Yépez, and where does he come from?
A speculative horizon for identity: That from which a person must flee. Horst Matthai Quelle (Yépez’s unusual and unsettling mentor, an anarcho-Hegelian) fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, arriving in Mexico to hurl Hegel into the feathers of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. Matthai Quelle delineated a radical metaphysics of place where the tlamatini philosopher seeks to outpace modern civilization, which rises invigorated at every moment to meet him. This is a metaphysical cat-and-mouse game that seems to occur with regularity in Tijuana. Of his teacher, Yépez recalls: “[he] had no philosophy, but a few ideas which constantly reconstructed his philosophy […] appropriate since in his cosmovision the world reinvented itself in every instant […] a refugee metaphysic […] outcast […] illuminatingly intense […] peripheral barbarian […] the most dangerous philosopher since Nietzsche” (Yépez, “Vida y obra de Horst Matthai Quelle,” La virgen no llama tres veces y otros textos, 1998).
Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent, abides in exile much like Matthai Quelle. He was banished by the dark and smoking mirror, Tezcatlipoca. And yet the two are as inseparable as a human and the image he receives of himself from the mirror. But the smokiness of the mirror distorts the reflection. It transforms as it transmits, making an emergent multiplicity of an apparent singularity. The one is split into two and still somehow must be one.
Yépez takes the notion of energizing fissure one step further than Matthai Quelle, transforming the figure of self-splitting into a transcendent literary form: “Quetzalcóatl is the mouth. The reed from which language came forth […] ‘Quetzalcóatl’ is the spiritual name which the indigenous peoples gave to language.” Mesoamerican Language poetry is thus: “A concept of the convergence of antinomies, a species of synthesis […] an alchemical emblem for enantiodromia […] it alludes to the double […] it is a theory on what the double is. This theory points out that with the convergence of the aspects — the germination of the Below; the fertilization of the Above — a transcendent duality is reached. Quetzalcóatl is a technique for reaching a higher state: metanoia” (El Imperio de la Neomemoria, 2007 [a critical work on Charles Olson and the relationship between American imperialism and Mayan cosmovision; a published English translation is forthcoming. Moreover, there is an exciting circle of writers in Gloucester, Massachusetts — Olson’s own psychogeographic haunt — who have already picked up on, translated excerpts of, and are avidly following the work of Yépez]).
Of the plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl, Laurette Séjourné writes, “the serpent plumes must be speaking to us of the spirit which makes it possible for man — even while his body, like the reptile’s, is dragged in the dust — to know the superhuman joy of creation. They are thus, as it were, a song to the most exalted inner freedom. This hypothesis is confirmed by the Nahuatl symbolism where the serpent represents matter — being always associated with terrestrial gods—and the bird, heaven. The plumed serpent is therefore the sign of the revelation of the heavenly origin of man” (Laurette Séjourné, Burning Water: Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico, 1957).
Of the smoking mirror, Tezcatlipoca, she writes: “Contrasts and dualism characterize all Tezcatlipoca’s functions. He is Quetzalcoatl’s brother and also his enemy; the creator and destroyer of the earliest mythical eras; he is god of divine providence, but also of failure and ruin; he is god of purity and order, yet he protects sin and foments quarrels […] his invisible omnipresence is spirit, air, darkness […] His nebulous and shifting character, and also his connexion with activities of the most profane kind, suggests that Tezcatlipoca is really [chaotic] humanity itself” (ibid).
Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca interact in Yépez’s counterpoetics. His hybrid not only represents a state of mind on the U.S.-Mexico border, but also reaches into a pre-Columbian body of knowledge for its figures, forms and transformations. This prosody is in perpetual flux, unsettled and unsettling — a motivated complication of disparate parts.
Aufhebung, Sublation, Transformation: “Quetzalcoatl is the first man that realizes his godhood: It is the formula for this triumph which constitutes his basic teaching. This teaching is not, then, about a divinity who dispenses grace, but about a mortal who discovered a new human dimension to which he makes his fellow participant. This cycle, consistently associated with Quetzalcoatl, can signify nothing other than the struggle which an individual suffers to accomplish the task of mediating between realities which, without such a mediator, would remain hopelessly separated […] It was understood that the great cosmic work began always with the individual working on him- or herself” (Laurette Séjourné, El universo de Quetzalcóatl, 1962).
“image of the consciousness of this creative duality, is the key image in Nahuatl religion…”
Quetzal, n. and adj., Bird. Cóatl, n. and adj., Snake.
“And, above all, the quetzalcoatic technique refers to the fecund convergence of the internal dyad of the individual. If the dyad captures itself, if the forces are entwined, power and creation come. (Sovereignty and creativity are the primordial aspects associated with the feathered-serpent.) When the metaphor entered into decadence, the power which ‘quetzalcoating oneself’ confers was understood as a political power. Originally — that is, psychically — it referred to a spiritual power.
“Rebirth: To exit the uni-dimensional […] —: Transmutation by means of the journey of antinomies” (El imperio de la neomemoria, 2007).
“The heart is the place of union where the luminous consciousness is made” (Séjourné, Burning Water).
Quetzalcoatl represents the antihybrid, a “man pierced by the luminous arrow of consciousness” at the borders. His psychogeography, like Yépez’s, contentiously unites political and spiritual borders and, in doing so, reclaims the borders for the heart and mind in an effort of spiritual counterconquest. Frontera is the forefront, a place where a new poetic body will reclaim ancestral privileges. Antihybrid is a technique of psychogeographic alchemy.
“Quetzalcóatl is a technique of psychic alchemy. Although it should be clear that alchemy itself is, at its core, a metaphor for methodologies of animistic metamorphosis.”
“The undeniable tradition of metamorphosis teaches us that things do not remain always the same. They become other things by swift and unanalyzable process. It was only when men began to mistrust the myths and tell nasty lies about the Gods for a moral purpose that these matters became hopelessly confused” (Ezra Pound, “Arnold Dolmetsch,” 1918).
“The undeniable tradition” alive in the Americas: In 2005, Yépez published his “narco-realist” novel, A.B.U.R.T.O., about Mario Aburto Martínez, who was convicted for assassinating presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana in 1994 — a novel in the tradition of Libra or Oswald’s Tale. The work is rooted in the quetzalcoatic alchemy of metanoia and metamorphosis. Of the book Yépez has said: “Speaking of pre-Hispanic art, Paul Westheim describes his style as ‘mythical realism.’ In contrast to the epidermal realism of the West, supposedly objective, verism, there is a realism that does not refer to the superficial portrait of the world of appearances, but to the ritual hunt of psychic realities. What is the most profound reality? The plasmatic. In our depths we are deer or assassins, caves or screams; within we are myths” (Entrevista con Adriana Cortés).
ritual hunt, plunge: “alien horns added to his head[…] the stag proceeds through the air spreading light which illuminates the mountain gorges”
Plasma, n., 1. a. A pot; something which has been shaped or moulded. Also fig. Obs. b. Form, mould, shape; anything formed or moulded, image, figure.
When we speak of blood plasma, the liquid in which cells of the blood are suspended, we secretly refer to a possibility of form. Our blood is not fixed but transfixable and transmutable. Shapeable and shaping. Shifting. In our depths we live in a world of metamorphosis.
Rimbaud, again: “is the time of the Assassins.”
“One finds, in Zarathustra’s incantation, something like an appeal to an insurrection of images — those images that the human soul is able to form, in its phantasms, from its own obscure forces. These phantasms testify to the soul’s aptitude for an always-inexhaustible metamorphosis, its need for an unappeasable and universal investment, in which various diverse extrahuman forms of existence are offered to the soul as so many possibilities of being — stone, plant, animal, star — but precisely insofar as they would always be possibilities for the life of the soul itself. This aptitude for metamorphosis (which, under the regime of an exclusive normative principle, is one of the major temptations that man has had to struggle against for millennia in order to conquer and define himself) has not itself contributed to the eliminatory formation that had to lead to man. The proof of this can be found in the delimitation of the divine and the human, and in that admirable compensation by which man — to the extent that he renounces bestiality, vegetality, and minerality, and hierarchizes his desires and passions according to always-variable criteria — reveals within himself an analogous hierarchy in regions that are supra- or infraworldly. The universe is populated by many divinities, by various divinities of both sexes, and thus divinities that are capable of pursuing, fleeing from, and uniting with each other” (Pierre Klossowski, Such a Deathly Desire, 1963; trans. Russell Ford, 2007).
“The undeniable tradition,” “always-inexhaustible,” native to the Americas: “Quetzalcóatl is a spiritual technique with respect to co-bodies […] The concept of Quetzalcóatl is, in itself, the result of an ethnic and cultural mixture, characteristic of Mexican cultures; in no way did the mixture begin with the Spanish Conquest; the mixture was the rule between the cultures long before the arrival of the Spanish, the mixture with the Spaniards was merely a continuation of traditional spirits of transformation of these cultures” (El imperio de la neomemoria, 2007).
Nagualism is the Mesoamerican spiritual practice of self-splitting and shape-shifting, or hybridism before that category was constrained as (multi-)cultural syncretism in the arts, or self-inoculation against mephitic difference, dysfunction, inequality, and inner antinomies. “Through the illusion of hybridism contradiction is obscured, turned commodity. Not able to recognize and accept the other in its complete otherness, we turn it into hybrid, i.e., half me, similar to Us. (Not Other) […] In denial of otherness we constructed ‘hybrid’” (Yépez, “On ‘Hybrid'”).
Nagualism — the practice of metamorphosis — brings us back to encounters with the plasmatic within, the coiled plumed-serpents of our blood self: “It is represented by the nagualistic symbol of a snake doubled and twisted on itself, and was generally portrayed in connection with the “Feathered Serpent” (Quetzalcoatl, Cuculcan, Gukumatz, all names meaning this), represented as carrying his medicine bag, xiquipilli, and incensory, the apparatus of the native illuminati, his robe marked with the sign of the cross to show that he was Lord of the Four Winds and of Life” (Daniel Brinton, Nagualism: A Study in Native American Folk-Lore and History, 1894).
The Naguals are human beings who have the power to turn themselves into animal forms.
“Metamorphosis, or symbol-formation; the origin of human culture. A laurel branch in the hand, a laurel wreath on the house, a laurel crown on the head; to purify and celebrate […] The decoration, the mere display is poetry: making this thing other. A double nature […] will melt into flowing water, will be now a lion, now a tree, now a bristling boar” (Norman Brown, “Daphne, or Metamorphosis,” 1966).
Quetzalcóatl is co-body and convergence; the antinomies, animisms and animals abiding inside a person brought to life, “opposites or antitheses being conceived simultaneously, in defiance of logic — sex, copulation, the two opposite lovers, two magnets at the same time attracting and resisting each other” (Yépez, Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers).
“Saint Actaeon, the hermit; initiate wearing the horns of consecration; like the sorcerer in the paleolithic cave at Trois Frères, a man masked in a stag’s head. Antlers as tines, or tongues, or branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain; a ladder of perfection.
“I will tell the truth, perhaps it will seem a lie: I felt myself turned from my proper shape, and I was transformed into a solitary wandering stag, running from wood to wood; and I am still fleeing from the rage of my own hounds.”
(Norman Brown, “Metamorphoses II: Actaeon, 1972)
“Quetzalcóatl will soon return and when he does each of us is going to go pull him by the robe, saying, “hey, it’s so good you came back from exile, we’ve been expecting you for some time, now go fuck the United States, kick their fucking asses, I’ll help you. And Quetzalcóatl is going to act like he doesn’t know us, as if he doesn’t quite remember us, because when he sees those faces, those faces that we have been seeing for millennia, Quetzalcóatl will be thinking: Motherfuck, they’re exactly the same, I’ve come back to find myself amidst the same spirits reincarnated, gulp, and they’re going to fuck me again, all over again, exactly like before, welcome to Mexico, the country where all the spirits are still alive” (Yépez, Entrevista con Adriana Cortés).
“I do not think that I have followed a touristic criterion in my investigation of various poets and their genealogies, precisely because I wanted to promote the idea of a borderzone poetic language, which I think will be the paradigm that will govern 21st century poetics. By borderzone I mean the broad sense of this notion: A poetics in which various traditions, which had previously only misunderstood each other, must now tightly converge. I do not mean, naively, to allude to a utopian state of syncretism, but to a scene where it is impossible to deny the presence and activity of the Other, because that is exactly the meaning of a border... the border as a limit zone between various worlds, a strategy of unifying separation and differential union” (Yépez, Luna Creciente: Contrapoéticas Norteamericanas del Siglo XX, 2002).
Written in Spanish, Yépez’s critical study of 20th century North American counterpoetics, Luna Creciente, addresses Mexican readers who have closed themselves off from the literary experiments of the United States, whose skepticism of the American vanguard is based on anti-imperialist resentment, and who have surmised that even those experimental poetries that inhere anti-imperialism in their countercultural prosody are still too naïve, too uninformed and ungrounded in the Western canon. Stein, Olson, Baraka, Rothenberg, Spicer, Antin, Alurista, Duncan, Levertov, Ginsberg, O’Hara, Vrankovich, Mac Low, Bernstein, Howe, et al., are not sufficiently rigorous for the literary mainstream centered in Mexico City. Likewise, the North American experimentalist camp has gone on largely unaware of literary experiments to the South. “Blindly parallel.” They are assumed to be excessively rhetorical and rigid, despite their most experimental manifestations: Lezama Lima, Dalton, Vallejo, Huerta, de Campos, Parra, Cardenal, Ak’Abal, Huidobro, Lugones, Guillén, Yépez, et al. Language is an obvious barrier; there’s no poetry sin barreras. Hope for a world without these sorts of boundaries steps over the edge into political Leviathan (cf. Hobbes) […] whereas poetries of social reality must be awake to the lines of social separation, difference and alienation.
But Tijuana is decidedly not Mexico City — the latter has a history of disregarding the perspective and contributions of the former. Yépez’s frontera is the forefront of experimental poetics in Mexico today — precisely because it is the site of “differential union” — even if the poetic circles of the nation’s capital refuse to acknowledge the contributions of its periphery and beyond.
“I frequent the borders. And that’s my basic methodological principle, if one could call it that: Never accept, never take as a beginning or ending point, what the discipline says it is… Focus on the historical relationship that is being policed, or negotiated—the process of “disciplining” that goes on at the edge” (James Clifford, “On the Edges of Anthropology”).
“Ethnopoetics as: the radical search beyond the end of translation” (Yépez, “A Sketch on Globalization & Ethnopoetics”).
“Behind it all there’s a hidden motive too: not simply to make clear the world of the original, but to do so at some remove from the song itself: to reflect the song without the ‘danger’ of presenting any part of it (the melody, say) exactly as given: thus to have it while not having it, in deference to the sense of secrecy & localization that’s so important to those for whom the songs are sacred & alive. So the changes resulting from translation are, in this instance, not only inevitable but desired, or, as another Seneca said to me: ‘We wouldn’t want the songs to get so far away from us; no, the songs would be too lonely.’” (Jerome Rothenberg, “Total Translation: An Experiment in the Translation of American Indian Poetry”).
Relations that bind us also break us down, a flowering war. Related to the dialectical praxis of Quetzalcoatling is the Mesoamerican philosophical concept of burnt water: the tremendously energetic convergence of antinomies brought together, giving life as solar light and hydrating rain awaken blossoms and bodies — to a “flowering stone.” Primordial fragmentation, an indigenous dialectic — not “hybrid” but the self-splitting of metamorphosis.
Yépez is a forceful antipoet, a technician of the boundaries, a split-form borderzone nagualist. He does not require me to consider him the most brilliant writer of the borderzone, because his project of “counter-conquest” disintegrates our conventional understanding of the borderzone, transmuting it to a mythic place whose stakes are very real. His search is for “a book-beyond-the-book […] a new poetic body.” The body of a hybrid, split in ecstatic agony, awaits us. We wait in line. In Tijuana, everybody waits.