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Introducing Vicent Andrés Estellés

by Vicent Salvador
Vicent Andrés Estellés (Burjassot, País Valencià, 1924-1993) is unquestionably the most important poet of contemporary Catalan literature in Valencia. A professional journalist and a writer in various genres (prose memoirs and, more sporadically, theatre and narrative), poetry is considered his creative realm due to the quantity and literary significance of what he produced, although the recent reissue of three books of memoirs collected in a single volume (Animal de records, 2013) has revived interest in his prose.

Estellés is an extremely productive writer, the author of thousands of pages of verses, in a great variety of registers, a poet whose works appeal to the general public but also a poet of delicate introspection and formal experimentation. His poetry is in many senses the chronicle of a time and a country – mostly of Valencia in the postwar period and during the Transition – and at the same time an intimate search for the meaning of life through the passions, fears, renunciations, love and suffering, like pieces of a puzzle that the poet tries to give shape to in writing using insistent memory. The result is the moving inventory of a personal, family and collective life, a biographical testimony embedded in history and produced with poetic efficiency.

The theme of his verses is very diverse, at least on the surface layers that cover the internal current of his poetry flow. It goes from civic epic poetry – like the great Mural del País Valencià – to the existential reflections rooted in the experience of death – his own death, which he imagines a hundred times, or that of his months-old daughter, a death that left him scarred. Then there is, of course, the theme of love. Not just the love of unrestrained or obscene verses with which he offers a raw account of sexual affairs, but also that of poems that speak of love and tenderness: the feeling akin to couples or families, or one that evokes imagined feelings of falling in love. The figure of Ausiàs March as a paradigm of passionate love at times becomes a real objective correlative of this poet from Burjassot, who on other occasions filters his experiences through the lens of Greek and Latin classics, as in the case of Horacianes, or medieval Catalans, or through the lens of eclogue poetry – that goes from Virgil to Garcilaso –, a model that his writing subverts with ironic playfulness. In addition, Shakespeare, the French symbolists and surrealists and the Chilean Pablo Neruda, become part of this gallery of references that feed Estellés’ work, which skillfully combines the pulse of the people on the streets with the most refined sources of aforementioned literary traditions.

At the same time, the metre and the stanzas – including free verse and prose poems – are diverse and adapt to each genre model, whether it be a short poem that offers mere brushstrokes of a landscape, the serious weight of a sonnet or the series of deca-syllables and alexandrines (these two kinds of verses are Estellés’ favorites) that allow "more reality" to fit inside the poem, according to Pere Ballart, one of the most lucid critics of the poet. All in all, we could say that Estellés is a virtuoso of metre, of the formal structures that flow from his pen with surprising fluidity and contribute to poeticizing experiences and expressions that would often seem prosaic.

Estellés’ poetry has been extraordinarily well received by the general public – he may be, along with Martí i Pol, one of the most emblematic figures of Catalan poetry from the end of the 20th century. In Valencia’s atmosphere of political transformation he became a symbol of resistance, revolt, and offered a vision of the future, and today – twenty years after his death – he continues to be a symbol that mobilizes popular support through musical events, theatre productions or concerts that encourage collective celebrations. Yet, at the same time, Estellés has entered (through the front door) into the canon of Catalan poetry: the incessant flow of articles, books, dissertations and conferences about him is still continuing today. These people have highlighted, among other aspects, his value as a balanced model of literary language, making him suitable reading for different parts of the population; how he combines the classical and the contemporary, and Catalan and international traditions; his metre and stylistic dexterity; the lyric efficiency of his diction that avoids rhetorical sensationalism; that he has been a recipient of the Catalan Letters Premi d’Honor (1978); or the translations of many of his verses into various European languages. This is all convincing evidence that supports his entry into the canon.

It is true that the publishing and marketing of his work was irregular and often outdated, which prevented a proper assessment of several innovative contributions to contemporary Catalan poetry. For example, Coral romput, the lengthy poem (or compendium of poems) written in 1957 that used Estellés’ own version of internal monologue, wasn’t published until fourteen years later (in the book La clau que obri tots els panys). Likewise, the publication of ten volumes of the Complete works (1972-1990) was done in an arbitrary and capricious manner, omitting (for editorial reasons) some of the most famous poems, such as the Llibre de meravelles. What is needed is a critical edition, – currently being prepared – that would allow for the systematic review of the works of Estellés in the context in which they were originally produced. In the preliminary works of this publishing house we have already been able to verify that the legend of Estellés being an obstinate improviser has significant holes in it, such as when we observe the poetic rigor he used to alter or even completely redo some of his poems (the second edition of El gran foc dels garbons, for example).

Lastly, we can refer to the stylistic elaboration – intuition and/or revision – with which Estellés chisels his writing: ductile grammatical structures, colloquial lexicon cleverly combined with literary words and even literary archaisms; the use of evocative toponyms; a copious use of adjectives that is often startling; the skillful use of adverbs with –ment and predicates; surprising contrasts of tone that convey an ironic diction… Despite being a more metonymic poet than a metaphoric one (a "poet of realities," according to Joan Fuster), certain metaphors and explicit comparisons ("si com aquell que…") are often a procedure for building the poem, and at the same time certain (seemingly discreet) metaphors achieve remarkable effects on many occasions. This is what happens, for example, with the "grapat de safrà" (handful of saffron) of a women’s pubes; the "anagrames de semen" (anagrams of semen); the "tomellos secrets" (secret thyme) that breast milk passes through; or exclamations such as the one that concludes one of the poems dedicated to the prestigious literary city of Gandia in the Mural del País Valencià: "Per tu, ciutat, encara crema el sucre" (for you, city, the sugar still burns), where the burned sugar, in the universe of Estellés’ imagination, refers to the crackling metamorphosis of the crystal palaces into a honey-colored and aromatic liquid that flows warmly – but without an excessive burning that would ruin it, as in the case of the roasted pepper – just like a river of pleasure that lingers upon tasting.

Translated by Margaret Luppino
Vicent Andrés Estellés, Arxiu “Serra d’Or”
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