Small Symphony of the New World (Pequeña sinfonía del Nuevo Mundo) by Luis Cardoza y Aragón

This avant-garde prose poem was written between 1929 and 1932 but published only sixteen years later, well past the heyday of French Surrealism whose influence had shaped the Guatemalan author’s singular and somewhat obscure work. The themes and the language of Small Symphony primarily stem from Luis Cardoza’s sojourns in Paris, Florence, Havana, and New York. The first city, where he studied medicine, exposed him to the works of Breton, Tzara, Eluard, Desnos and Artaud. The juxtaposition of illogical images and events employed throughout Cardoza’s text is the result of that exposure. Florence lent to Small Symphony its medieval churches as well as contributed its greatest poet as the protagonist: the basic plot of the poem, if such a category can be applied at all to this freewheeling composition, is that of Dante wandering about in New York City. In Havana, Luis Cardoza met Federico García Lorca, another poet whose presence can be felt in Small Symphony. It has an obvious affinity with Lorca’s famous collection Poet in New York. What is more, not only does Havana provide some scenery and images to Cardoza’s poem, but it was also in Cuba’s capital that he stumbled on a group of striking workers shouting: Mueran los telefonos! (Telephones must die!). That patently surrealist phrase uttered in the broad daylight became the catchphrase in the poem. And, finally, New York, where Cardoza served as a consul, became the main setting of Small Symphony, albeit the version of the city in the poem considerably differs from the original because of the time-space transformations it undergoes in the thrall of dream logic.

Approaching this work is not an easy task as any attempt to summarise what happens will be a crass imposition of the reader’s structure onto the text that is as resistant to ordering as a blob of oil to mixing with water. To my mind, the best way to start discussing Small Symphony is simply to give an overview of its dramatis personae. We realise that the poem pullulates with life and hectic activity when from the very start we overhear a lively chorus of voices whose owners come from the natural world: a pine tree, a heap of snow, a stone, birds, and a spider hold an excited, abstruse conversation whose true meaning implacably escapes us. We also encounter Christian martyrs. The most prominently featured among them are Saint Denis of Paris, Saint Agatha and Saint Lucy carrying around the attributes of their martyrdom, which are, respectively: the severed head, the torn off breasts, and the gouged-out eyes. The biblical figures that appear in the poem include Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Magdalena, and Lazarus. Then there are characters of Classical mythology such as Diana, Venus, Helen of Troy, Niobe, and Apollo. Aztec mythology is represented by Xochipilli, the god of art, games, dance, and flowers, the earth-mother goddess Coatlicue, and the Feathered Serpent. There are historical personages such as Christopher Columbus and Napoleon as well as fictional characters like Sleeping Beauty, the Thief of Baghdad, Robinson Crusoe and Bluebeard. Also of note are miscellaneous groups: conquistadors, crusaders, centurions, generals, acrobats under the dome of a cathedral, underground divers, and empty suits of armour. And amidst this cacophony of images, there is the protagonist, the Florentine poet Dante, roaming the streets of New York in a bewildered daze.


New York City, circa 1932. Photo by Samuel Herman Gottscho. Image Source

Dante is confused by the strange and chaotic environment he has been thrown into. He is tormented by thirst and oppressed by the absence of other people in the street. He is unable to speak, foaming at the mouth each time he wants to utter a word. He finds a temporary respite in the cool interior of the church on Wall Street “carbonised by the stained-glass windows”. When he leaves the building to continue his walk through “the mechanical landscape”, he stumbles on a pile of fresh horse manure, and, all of sudden, breaks into tears, throws himself to the ground and smears his face with the excrement. The organic matter allows the poet to interact with the world around him and to understand better his own predestination. Dante is ready for his visionary journey: “Suddenly, the presence of the dung saved the world from the shadow of the sensitive chaos. Everything was a miracle, and even that which was rotting in the grease of the earth reached the skies through the translucency of his cry.” The natural world penetrates every corner of the metropolis. The Florentine poet finds himself among parrots, butterflies, larks, elephants, crocodiles, and other animals. There is lush vegetation everywhere. The personification of Spring, probably inspired by Stravinsky’s famous ballet, arrives to welcome him. He becomes her Baptist. Dante’s perambulations take him to Hudson Bay, Brooklyn Bridge, Lincoln Square, and other city landmarks. Wherever he goes, he is exposed to an avalanche of surreal visions that usually defy parsing but fascinate with their hypnotic intensity. Since trying to give the reader an appropriate idea of that kind of imagery by a simple retelling is rather an ungracious task, I have decided to translate a whole paragraph and quote it here by way of illustration. This passage follows Dante’s arrival at the City Hall in which a ball is in progress. On his way, he meets a procuress who is putting on tight gloves and declares to him that she is Theology. The poet also sees a throng of divers emerge from the sea and walk in a long file behind a lighthouse, which is following a flock of sheep. Somewhere, an accordion is playing. All these details are recycled in the translated excerpt, which, to my mind, aptly illustrates the surrealist facet of the poem. Looking ahead, I’d like to point out that Small Symphony is not a homogenous text, and there are places in which the narrative regains logic and continuity. That said, most of Cardoza’s poem is written in the same vein as the following passage.

Necks of languid swans with flame-tipped beaks, with the aspect of a serpent in disguise, the feathered serpent, their wet slithering of a shellfish with the intimacy of the avid, plunging hands in search of the ring which had been lost in the body and could be found neither by shedding light nor with the gravediggers’ hoes, the lilies macerated in haemorrhage, the stars skating with snails, like the hand with or without a glove in the disturbing cylinder of the neck of the swan smooth with forgotten marble and warm with the feathers and blood equal to the blood-spattered bull rings, the abattoirs where the sick offer naked breasts to the vermillion bubbling that subdues the cow, the bleating of rams in meadows and waves, Leda in jovial blood, Europa on the horns, and the ship that sinks, propelled by the bright jet of the lighthouse that yearns to direct it to the shore and then marches across the fields at the head of the divers, surprising in the myrtle Spring, who is born between two bodies hugging each other so tightly that there is not enough space even for a blade of light, and the lustrous women, polished by the gentle rubbing of hands that had greased themselves like those putting on tight gloves and the finger slipping into the dry sheath, and the cry of the shipwrecked in time with the stab and the cry of the girl who was putting on the gloves, and the cry of the red butcher on top of the pale nurse with the bitten face amidst the slow, solemn and majestic march of the heavy divers, lightly floating like balloons, like clouds disguised as men, and the suits of armour that could not be penetrated even by the reflections of the jewels worn by the women sliding over the boundless depth of the blue polished marble, the music spread over hammocks with the abandon of nerves in rachidial liquids, swaying the alcove in the central night with its promontories of dispersed miracles, with its fountain, which plunges into the oleaginous shadow, sweeter than saliva, the mosses and dung, softer than the sands that polish the waters, than the youths who love each other behind the myrtle bush, on the ground, listening to torrents, to the rumbling of the dead and the mountains, listening to the stars sliding like swans across the sky and the steps of the oceanic procession with the blood of the bullfighters and the bracelets of blood for the melancholy necks in which a golden fish sometimes shines in the black foam of hand fans, those leaden footsteps in the wings of doves, against the breasts of turtledoves, melted in the needles inside the throat of the swan that dies incinerated by the flame of the beak, that hand with a carnation, that lipless mouth terminating in a kiss, and the white funerary veils with a swan beak on their bodies of silver or fire crystal, in the waters of the coffin above the dreams of the dead, the swans and the lighthouses macerating gloves and lilies, and the cry and the unhurried cadence of the divers in the desert, looking for the ring in the nights of moss and accordion, and the naked girls with bracelets of honey and blood on their hands, and the sea with the rhythm of a lover, of the subterranean and aerial steps of the divers, amidst the bleating of the white lambs perfumed with urine, sweat and milk, that go to the abattoirs, and the swan without fire, wounded by the lead that the wings of the doves used to have, under the volcano of swords, scorpions, poppies and the delicious glass ground in the smoke of the executed.

Although the New World that Dante discovers bit by bit cannot be peremptorily called a new Inferno, there are some netherworldly scenes harking back to the first part of The Divine Comedy. For example, at one point he contemplates a lurid tableau of hellish retribution: amid sulphurous vapours, some sinners are raised on pitchforks by a bunch of devils, whereas the others are torn apart by hydras and dragons. Just like in Inferno, Dante has a guide who leads him through the kaleidoscopic cityscape of the 1930s New York, which can be viewed as the culmination in the development of the New World dating back to the “blind” obsession of Christopher Columbus. There is as much beauty as ugliness to this new civilisation in which cruelty and industriousness have always come hand in hand. Appropriately enough, the poet’s guide is a child. He takes him by the hand to show the wonders and the horrors that the city has to offer.

When there is a glimpse of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the language of the poem suddenly changes. The logic and coherence return. It seems that the surrealist techniques are reserved solely for representing the chaotic and booming nature of the continent after the conquest. The fact that the narrative regains coherence, however, does not make it less weird. Another important figure comes into the limelight: the narrator himself. Later we learn that his name is Luis, the same as the author’s. The name is inscribed on the sugar skull that he gets on the Mexican Day of the Dead. We see Luis as a prisoner of Aztecs who lead him up a pyramid towards the sacrificial stone to the festive accompaniment of teponatzlis and chirimias. By all appearances, this place surrounded by canals and lakes is Tenochtitlan. Before Luis is laid on the altar so the priest can cut open his chest with a flint knife and tear out his heart, he has to take off the ghastly garment he has been wearing for the ceremony — the skin of his beloved woman, who was sacrificed the day before. The poetic description of the narrator being sacrificed to the sun and war god Huitzilopochtli is then self-consciously revealed as part of an allegory of passionate, all-consuming love. On the Day of the Dead, Luis returns to the scene in his thoughts. The gruesome spectacle unfolding on the Great Pyramid is now revisited as a metaphorical tribute to an infatuation:

Ours is a strange destiny! She had been flayed, and I put on her skin in the mysterious votive nuptials. I experienced the world from the inside, where I could see the stitches and her most secret perfections.

I stepped into her skin, filled it with myself, overflowed it with the phallic impetus spread throughout my being. My hands and feet penetrated her; her sweet little hands and little silver feet were inertly hanging over my forearms and calves.

I shuddered like I didn’t shudder even after being struck with the flint knife, hard with light and fire. Her bleeding skin stuck to my body, pore to pore. I felt the infinite sucking that was draining my life. The priests seized me so I wouldn’t collapse. She appeared to love me with the love of all mothers. I was not only in her womb but also in her entire body, in the entire earth. Our navels were trembling, fused in a secret confluence. The Feathered Serpent bit its own tail.

When I was stripped of her skin, it seemed to me that I emerged from her womb, that I was miraculously born only to die. […]

My body had been devoured. Only my white skull gleamed on the tzompantli next to the skull of the woman I had inhabited. We both experienced the infinite sweetness of decomposition. Together we felt the sweetness and the clemency with which putrefaction was turning us to ash. Our teeth fell off and scattered. It was like a bonfire that starts small, grows to become a huge blaze and then slowly dwindles, cooling down into a mineral. My flesh had experienced such an ecstasy of love: just for a second! Now it lasted for eternity. A love without fatigue, terribly sweet, terribly immobile and obstinate. Quite soon my acclimation was perfect: I believe it was then that I began to see the other side of the coin. And I felt joyful and beautiful like fire.


On the right: a temple dedicated to the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli; on the left: a tzompantli (skull rack). From the Tovar Codex. Image Source

The martyrdom of Saint Denis, perhaps the most renowned cephalophore, is key to the formation of the magic formula San Alondionicarasiodracol, which Dante keeps repeating throughout the poem. This incantation opens the door to a tower whose top commands a vast view of the city. Climbing the tower may symbolise a noble elevation above the chaotic tumult of mundanity and gaining philosophical and artistic freedom. Denis or Dionysius was allegedly the first bishop of Paris who suffered from the persecution at the hands of the emperor Decius for converting people of Gaul to Christianity. According to the legend, he was decapitated on the summit of the hill that came to be known as Montmartre. After the beheading, his corpse picked up the head and carried it for several miles until it collapsed at the place where the abbey of Saint-Denis was later built. During the whole walk the head of the saint had been delivering a sermon. In Small Symphony, the martyrdom of Saint Denis is viewed in a hermetic light. The narrator learns about the reason of his execution from a conversation between a lark (alondra) and a snail (caracol). In fact, the magic formula San Alondionicarasiodracol is made up of the fragmented and recomposed words alondra, caracol, and San Dionisio (the Spanish version of Saint Denis). The Christian saint suffers martyrdom because in his determination to follow the path of God he likewise desires to become a horse. Becoming a horse is the ultimate transformation one can achieve because it is also the wish of God. This longing for transformation discussed by the lark and the snail resonates with Federico García Lorca’s poem Death and might as well be a homage to it. This is how Lorca’s poem begins (translated by Greg Simon and Steven F. White):

How hard they try!
How hard the horse tries
to become a dog.
How hard the dog tries to become a swallow.
How hard the swallow tries to become a bee.
How hard the bee tries to become a horse.


Saint Denis. Miniature by Jean Bourdichon. From the illuminated manuscript of the Horae ad usum Parisiensem. Image Source

Compare this to the similar sentiment expressed by the snail in Small Symphony:

And the meteor wants to become a flame, and the flame doesn’t want to remain a flame but wants to become aether. And the aether wants to turn into a stone and a hippopotamus wants to become a butterfly and the butterfly wants to become a whale… And the poet wants to become God, but God doesn’t want to become a poet. God wants to become a horse. For that, Saint Denis was martyred. Only for that.

The interaction of the transformation desires felt by Saint Denis, the snail and the lark give us the vision of a hybrid being called San Alondionicarasiodracol squeezing its own head as if “to set it free from an invisible diving suit” and walking along the seashore for some time until losing the remaining strength and collapsing onto the sand.

But what about the poet who wants to become God? Does that mean that the ultimate goal of Dante’s journey is to achieve divine status? At least, according to the narrator, it is. At the end of Small Symphony, we find Dante sitting on the coast of Hudson Bay. He is described as a god in transition, “marvellous” and “with two faces”. So, the divinity to which he aspires is of Classical origin. Two-faced Janus could see the past and the future at the same time, whereas the Dante reimagined by Luis Cardoza gains the ability to see and experience the Old and the New Worlds simultaneously. What kind of poetry will be born out of this dual vision? Is it going to be a depiction of hell, of purgatory or of paradise? We last see Dante slowly receding into the distance and “repeating the feat of King Midas”. Whatever his next accomplishment is going to be, it will be marked by a golden touch.

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2 Responses to Small Symphony of the New World (Pequeña sinfonía del Nuevo Mundo) by Luis Cardoza y Aragón

  1. languagehat says:

    Mueran los telefonos! (Telephones have died!)

    Rather “Telephones must die!” — mueran is present subjunctive, not past tense.

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