- Cities in Ruins: The Politics of Modern Poetics by Cecilia Enjuto Rangel
In her Cities in Ruins: The Politics of Modern Poetics, Cecilia Enjuto Rangel takes an unusual approach to the question of ruins. Rather than constituting traces of the past to be explored from a critical and temporal distance, ruins in modern poetry, she argues, take the form of immediate ruptures of the contemporary moment, offering a way of speaking about violence in the present tense. In the book’s very framing and at certain moments through its development, Enjuto Rangel alludes to the spectacular violence of early twentieth-first-century terrorism, which resulted in the creation of instantaneous ruins. But her own meditations on poetry carry her and the reader into less sensational terrain, where the category of ruins encompasses a variety of slower experiences which structure or punctuate the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: from the refashioning of cities, through the reimagining of modern bodies and the spaces they inhabit, to the experience of war and its effect on national and international subjectivities, both lyrical and political. True to Enjuto Rangel’s frame, nonetheless, is the sense that this engagement with what she loosely terms “ruins” involves an attempt to grapple less with history than with a present moment in the process of often painful unfolding. As she underlines in her conclusion, her chosen poets “see in ruins ‘a material embodiment of change’, . . . political, historical, emotional, cultural; and they resist the possible temptations of a backward-looking nostalgia to transform their indignation and their reflections into constructive and critical readings of the present and the process of modernization” (273).
The book is lively, opinionated, bristling with insights and with aesthetic and critical confrontations. Over the course of five chapters and a conclusion, Enjuto Rangel engages with a broad range of writers from the Anglophone, French, [End Page 185] and Hispanophone traditions: Charles Baudelaire, Luis Cernuda, T.S. Eliot, Octavio Paz, Langston Hughes, Nicolás Guillén, Antonio Machado, César Vallejo, Rafael Alberti, Miguel Hernández, and Pablo Neruda. She places this international constellation of poets in intriguing dialogues, although at the cost of sacrificing a broader presentation of their respective oeuvres and the place within them of her chosen poems. It must be noted that Enjuto Rangel is disarmingly unabashed about the risks and payoffs of this kind of comparative endeavor. As she notes early in the book, there are certain challenges inherent in the desire to counterpose particular authors, aesthetics, and thematics, since the three points of comparison do not always align neatly: hence her choice of texts is sometimes governed by the need to find a provocative parallel between the work of two authors rather than finding texts that fit comfortably under the rubric of actual ruins (13). By this logic, within the modern textual landscape, almost anything can be treated as a ruin.
For the most part, this gambit pays off. In chapter two, for instance, which focuses on the poetry of Baudelaire and Cernuda, an exploration of bodies and rooms is folded into the larger thematic of ruins through the notion of a crisis of representation in modernity (74–75). Enjuto Rangel here presents excellent parallel readings of poems such as “A une passante” and “En medio de la multitud,” “La chambre double” and “Habitación de al lado,” “Le Cygne” and “Otras ruinas,” readings which are sensitive to different historical contexts of production. The book’s third chapter offers a thoughtful analysis of recuperations of the baroque —from both reverential and parodic perspectives—in the writings of Eliot and Paz, making the suggestive argument that modern poetry is, constitutively, a poetry of ruins, and that the textual palimpsests presented by these two allusive poets configure a ruined landscape. The reader might wish for more differentiation between the moments of these poets’ writing—specifically, an exploration of Paz as a reader of Eliot—and a greater sense of what some of the poetry, particularly Paz’s Homenaje y profanaciones, actually looks like, yet the chapter is rife with insightful...