Hidden Roads: On ‘Ruta Dos’ by Daniel Calabrese

Ruta Dos
Daniel Calabrese
Colección Visor de Poesía (2017)
144 pp

Ruta Dos, referred to officially as Autovía Juan Manuel Fangio, is a highway in Argentina that runs from north to south, Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata, passing through the town of Dolores where the poet Daniel Calabrese grew up. Driving along this road, with its straight shot of gray pavement swathed by yellow grass on both sides and its big sky above, there’s a sensation of space and open road. In the right state of mind, to travel along this road is to see everything for the first time.

Divided into two ‘stretches’, titled ‘Kilometre 207’ and ‘Heavy machinery’, Calabrese’s book of poems (originally edited by the Santiago publisher Aguilar in 2013, translated into Italian in 2015 by Fili d’Aquilone, and re-edited by Madrid publisher Visor this year) takes Ruta Dos as a metaphorical starting point. While the road does form a genuine physical backdrop, the poems are more concerned with a different, ‘invisible route’ that links interior and outside. Are these routes oneiric? Experiential? Sentimental? Possibly all three. Calabrese, an Argentine poet who has been living in Santiago de Chile for the past decade, dedicates his book to the right and left ‘costados’, two sides of the road, possibly interpreted as ida and vuelta, journey and return. But his route is far from the mere loop of going and coming back. Ruta Dos is a journey in search of greater complexity.

Several of the poems are written in a state of exhaustion, an illness in which the author is ‘overwhelmed by the simple life’— for the simple life is not enough. In a number of ways, Calabrese seeks to add intricacy to the surface of events, to shred categories that seem fixed and challenge obvious contrasts. He is attentive to the way that seemingly opposite concepts are often not very far apart at all. The distinctions between loving and not loving, life and death, animals and gods, swimming underwater and basking in the sun, are very fine ones. ‘We are immortal but only very slightly,’ he writes. And: ‘Between what you felt and what you now feel there is no more than a tiny difference.’ A tongue-in-cheek poem called ‘The differences between my dad and Kerouac’ lists a number of similarities between the two men, before noting that the Peronist father of the author, unlike the Beat poet, only got drunk once in his life.

Calabrese is particularly attentive to sound and silence. Urban life is noisy with its growling motors, shouts, and hammer blows of demolition, ‘the metallic sound of the city’ that covers up more subtle sounds. Somehow one must recover the ability to hear. Silence and stillness are necessary as a starting point, not because they are desirable in themselves, but because they permit one to start to really hear — real sounds, that is, not the ones heard while distracted. Calabrese wants to hear the inaudible, what would be caught by a microphone held up to the trees of the forest, the low voice of nature:

We let the microphone run on
all night in a desolate forest.

The next day we let the recording play
but nothing but a whistling could be heard.
It was like the metallic wind
of a sterile planet.

We played it faster.
Then low sounds appeared
like a conversation between two trees
that spread out from the field
toward Ruta Dos.

Sounds can speak of things beyond themselves. Calabrese listens to Satie’s Gymnopédies, and writes that ‘in brief minutes we learn together, in silence and with patience, new things about good and evil.’ The sound of some words, like ‘wineskin’ [odre] or ‘hinge’ [gozne], can also trigger memories — in Calabrese’s case, those of his mother. All of this applies to other senses as well. Just as stillness is needed to appreciate subtle sounds, a blank and refreshed palette is necessary to begin again with other senses. Some of this sounds a bit like Proust, and the author does pop up a few times in the text, both as a serious influence and as a knowing reference to the pretensions of a young reader from a small town like Dolores. (In ‘Yield’, Calabrese writes that ‘There’s always one who drinks and then says / he read the complete In Search of Lost Time / yes, complete, the seven novels, / and who cried at dawn / in front of a map of London.’)

Calabrese is terrified of a life of pure action, which reduces to an undesirable simplicity, a mere going through the motions. For him, everyone has a kind of river inside, but some take better care of it than others. Most people don’t even notice the litter at their river’s edges, the trash that has begun to accumulate; they just move through the world like dead people. Once again, the line between the living and dead, in most cases, is not so great. What is the solution? To take refuge in one’s thoughts? No: for Calabrese does not want to turn completely inward either, toward the self. This is a dead end, a ‘calle sin salida’. But perhaps this dead end, however painful it may be, is necessary. Perhaps it can be a new start, an entrance into the ‘mythological belly’ that makes one reconsider all things. Moments of no return might be ‘accidents’ that form an irremediable rupture, but they might also be decisions on behalf of stability.

Birds appear often, especially migratory birds, birds that have become disoriented. Birds that turn in confused circles, destabilized from some weight. ‘I move in circles,’ he writes, ‘like a bird with only one wing’ and a ‘forbidden weight / on the side of the heart.’ The idea recurs of a weight that causes collapse. Poetry begins from ‘that chink between chaos and order’, from the necessity to discover how the edifice was put together and start again from those junctures. ‘It’s the time to be born again / so that afterward we can find joy in being alive. / And it’s good to know this again.’ At one point, Calabrese writes that he has now put down roots in time, while a woman he once knew keeps traveling into the past. These are poems written with a view out both the windscreen and rear-view mirror.

In the search for ‘some mystery’, Calabrese finds happiness in the lights alongside Ruta Dos, and the experience of swimming in the depths of an Australian water tank. This mystery might take other forms, however — in one poem, an iron ingot appears in town and is used for various purposes, from holding down photographs to helping to keep a dog warm in its kennel after the metal has been heated in the sun. Some people want to bury the ingot and dig it up, to try and understand death. Death — it appears frequently as a preoccupation. The void is ambiguous, for it is can mean both silence and emptiness. In any case, the shadow constantly approaches, and Calabrese thinks of Grünewald’s Christ, with its unusual weight and repugnant wounds. He feels sick looking at a nearly dead animal by the side of the road, at a dog shot by its owner and tossed into the river. Death can come in this form too — what do such physically present and pointless deaths have to do with mystery?

Perhaps Calabrese’s preferred understanding of mystery has to do with just this. The attempt to understand the beginning and end of things. The investigation of time. Time does not necessarily begin from a starting point and move forward simply; it can be non-linear. Calabrese writes several times of watches, which always seem slightly menacing, as they tick forward incessantly: a movement also made by the ‘absurd watch’ of the heart. Time, somehow, can also bend back, as a kind of mirror, ida y vuelta. Time can occur differently for those who speak to one another. Just as the two sides of a road mirror one another, Calabrese sees his own concerns in those of another: ‘Everything that happens / happens between us.’

And once again we speak
of the subtle life,
of those destroyed by time,
we speak of birds
who ate themselves out of sadness.

In his introduction, Raúl Zurita notes the religious, metaphysical element in Calabrese’s work, writing that ‘inspired by a concrete landscape, it is shot through with a strange religiosity, a sort of nostalgia for a place that does not exist and a time to which one will never return’. Return, no — but the past does make the present possible. It carves out paths in time, and opens up new routes. It exists constantly as a possibility — not the other side of the road suggesting return, but a different direction altogether.

Through his attempt to see time as something other than relentless forward progression, and through his identification with other animals  — even if he admits he can’t yet quite get inside the mind of a dead stone — Calabrese has carved out an intimate trajectory. Sometimes it seems illuminated to him, other times pointless. But the fact remains that: ‘I look for meaning in that theory of the changing ‘I’ / and life as a long object of four / dimensions extended through the length of time / (a secondary and personal route).’

And we left that place
by an invisible route,
measured out forever,
ready to begin and begin again.

— Jessica Sequeira