The Poetry Project

On Commonplace by Hugo García Manríquez

Judah Rubin

Hugo García Manríquez’s Commonplace approaches the Mexican state as an incomplete allegorical sign. Mexico, as an entity, is inseparable from the sign-system of the militarized world of the war on drugs and the ecocide of late capitalist extractivism. García Manríquez writes, “When we read literature / we read the budget / of the Mexican army // When we perceive artworks / we perceive the budget / of the Mexican army.” For the author, this is familiar poetic territory. His 2015 Anti-Humboldt is an erasure of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), strategically reread and reassembled. As Divya Victor notes, this document itself acts as an oppositional reading. Anti-Humboldt does not dispense with NAFTA; instead, it highlights those stubborn constellations of discomfiting and ill-fitting international legalese that, in the creation of a documentary transparency, become opaque to themselves. In Commonplace, García Manríquez is working at the fact of syntactic flattening of the major buildup in the Mexican armed forces during the so-called War on Drugs (including the development of the supposedly more “civilian oriented” National Guard under current Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador).

Militarization often relies on the appropriation of the zoological and mythological, and the naming of military hardware stands in both for the obfuscation of extinction-level events and for many of those same critters whose names are appropriated. In section three of Commonplace, we turn to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which in many ways is representative of the transitional state before and after the 1910 Mexican Revolution. In García Manríquez’s book, we take a tour of the Palacio’s design, where “You read about animal mascarons…The mascarons of human heads / represent the rifle FX-05 Xiuhcoatl.” Xiuhcoatl, the turquoise serpent wielded as a weapon by the god Huitzilopochtli, enters here as a way of marking the transformation of the national mythos. “The flowers and the mascarons of the Palacio / made by the Italian sculptor Gianetti Fiorenzo,” García Manríquez writes, “are indistinguishable from the 267,500 active / members of the Mexican army.”

The indistinguishability of the contemporary military budget from Mexican cultural heritage emblematized in the Palacio de Bellas Artes is, thus, central to this work: “Begin in any place of the totality // Begin, for example / with 40 combat aircraft, begin / with helicopters armed with additional / capacity for the precision / bombing of land // Bombers that are an extension / of the impact on my mother’s cheekbone / when I was 17.” I think García Manríquez would agree with critic Fredric Jameson who writes that the study of capital itself is the “true ontology” of the contemporary period: to understand our time is to understand its economic rationality. García Manríquez’s writing performs this mapping adroitly, demonstrating the way the biographical (“the impact on my mother’s cheekbone / when I was 17”) is coterminous with the hypermilitarized present of specialized military aircraft.

Commonplace is firmly located in this fractured and fracturing totality (“Beside history / our own indexicality”), but, and this is where I find Commonplace to be so brilliant, the text pivots to think with the Popol Vuh in its consideration of the more than human world. The Popol Vuh is a K’iche Maya story of creation which, as poet and critic Edgar Garcia reminds us, refers to itself as “an instrument for seeing.” A syncretic product of the colonial period, it envisions, as Garcia writes, that “the power to create is summoned in language: what is needed to bring about the dawn from the darkness is a proper way of speaking, of ordering the world in language, which [the Popol Vuh says] is one and the same with a proper way of seeing.” García Manríquez comments that “The Popol Vuh records the rebellion / of the objects and animals / against human endeavors” within which “…exist an imminent historical lesson,” namely that “before after sound / before after sense // a new nothing // traverses the poem // as capital / traverses the century // reactivating insurrection / the insurrection / of objects / the uprising / of matter.” Thus, though the Popol Vuh was written down in the 18th century by a Dominican friar, likely based on a 16th century Mayan version, in Edgar Garcia’s words, complementing what García Manríquez writes in Commonplace, “the book equates its penumbral anticipation, in its moment in the darkness before the dawn, with the darkness of colonialism.”

The “rebellion / of the objects and animals” does not exist outside of the “progression of continuous moments / before the collapse”—as though one could pass into a space outside of material entanglement, outside of the fact of the violence the Mexican state must project in its specific historical formation, which is actualized within the time of everyday life. But it is the uprising of objects that is retained in their mobilization in parataxis. The insurrection of objects comes from their anaphoric repetition. Directly after García Manríquez writes “The brink doesn’t vary / under the weight of the concrete / it varies in its liberation” he begins the final movement of the book where stanzas beginning “The collapse spreads as far as the liberation of” are followed by a litany of threatened or endangered fauna. Here, where language is most taxed by war, there is slippage—collapse spreads “as far as…liberation.” Though the collapse of species and ecosystems is imminent, it also “enters language exits” (“entra al lenguaje sale”). At the far end of ontopower, there is liberation from language itself.

This book is thickened with the fact of violence’s pervasive reality that is found in both the ontological (“just as the fauna is indistinguishable / from the 2,675,000 active troops”) and in the syllogistic transformation of, say, one endangered sea turtle for another. “A list collapses onto the forms of life…of 221 animals on the brink of extinction.” For García Manríquez, “The list is an attempt to / approximate reality.” At the site of collapse, Commonplace (Lo Común) braids the agonizing reality of that “true ontology” in which any commoning is bound up, no doubt, in the quotidian and necessarily so. It is, as García Manríquez writes, “The collapse of abstraction / as another form of freedom.”

#271 – Winter 2023