César Moro: Poetry between the Old and New Worlds
Posted on 6 January, 2015
César Moro, a poet of astonishing fertility in terms of the quantity and the quality of his images, is a figure between two worlds, drawn and torn by the absolute demands of poetry and the circumstances in which he developed his work and his life, and in which he gave sense to both. The feeling one gets when reading most of Moro’s prose is that this is a man full of rage and indignation. His poetry, of a profound lyrical breath, is brimming with life and beauty, with a dramatic, and at times comical (or ironic) sense. A towering solitary man, made so by his own rigor, which separates him from any flirting with facile tricks, with docility or complacency. He establishes, nonetheless, fertile and solid loyalties, deep friendships, and unrelenting commitments.
César Moro (César Quispes Asín) was born in Lima “the Awful” in 1903. School, like any other institution, was oppressive and of scant interest to him. Of his education at a Jesuit school, his only fond memory was of his learning French (the language in which he wrote a large part of his poetry). The unbearable parochialism, the hostility towards any form of poetic expression which characterized life in the Peruvian capital between 1920 and 1930, the mediocrity of the intellectual atmosphere in “Cretin America” –as the Peruvian poet called our unfortunate countries- led him to migrate to Europe in 1925. In Lima, the long periods of military dictatorship, of cultural isolation and lack of freedom of the press, had driven many to exile or isolation. Moro´s fascination with the turtle, a creature whose attitude he mimics whenever he feels threatened, probably dates from this time. Like the turtle, Moro carries his shell over his back, to preserve himself from the world’s insensitivity and gaudiness.
Before settling in far-off horizons, he had already written several poems, and published some of them. Among these –which can be traced back to 1924— “Cocktail amargo”, “El corazón luminoso” and “Anadipsia”, appeared in Trujillo, in the El Norte newspaper, in January, 1925. Other poems from this same period remained unpublished. André Coyné, the most tireless promoter of Moro’s work, and an intimate friend of the poet, considers them to be “youthful poems, of unequal quality, but all of them manifesting the freedom and richness of a fantasy on the brink of dazzling us with new evidence, without ever ceasing to befuddle us”. (1)
In fact, by this time his work displays a knowledge of and an interest in avant-garde literary schools, including Dada. His “bestiary”, entitled “Parque zoológico”, dates from this period as well; here, Coyné finds all those qualities that will make Moro valuable as a poet. He is, therefore, a rather well formed writer when he disembarks in France in 1925. He has left a poetic testimony of his journey: “La carga del azúcar”, written in Puerto Chicama during a stopover. Later, in Arcachon and Paris, he wrote some verses which Coyné gathered in the plaquette Primeros poemas. It was, however, with his arrival in Paris that his true biography seemed to begin, when he seemed to start living, as if in the atmosphere of the City of Light his being sprang to life, as a chrysalis breaks its cocoon as it comes into contact with a space where it feels able to spread its wings, brilliant and multicolored, which were only waiting for the suitable surroundings to shine in all of its splendor.
Towards 1926 or 1927, he came in contact with the Surrealist group, through Alina de Silva, and devoted himself immediately to their activities. From this moment on, Moro, as a gesture of rejection towards the traditionalism and conservatism of his country of origin, assumed French as his poetic language. He would express himself in Spanish in very few occasions after that. While taking part in Surrealist activities, Moro juggled odd jobs in order to avoid falling into the degrading condition of being an “employee”, surviving through occasional jobs, such as Cafe waiter.
Within the group, Moro was appreciated by André Breton, Benjamin Péret, Paul Eluard, and his poems appeared in Le surréalisme au service de la révolution. Furthermore, he was one of the poets who published a collection of poems in honor of Violète Noziéres, a young woman condemned for having killed her stepfather, who abused her. The Surrealists defended her, together with other “criminal” women. At this moment, the Peruvian poet fully identified with the movement’s position, both artistically and poetically, as well as politically. However, the fact that he came from an underdeveloped country gave him a perspective on certain issues which the others lacked. His membership in Breton’s fraternity notwithstanding, he developed harmoniously during his Parisian years.
Alongside his writings, Moro carried out an extensive activity in the visual arts throughout his life. His work includes collages, gouaches and Surrealist automatic techniques (equivalent to automatic discourse in writing). These works feature the lyricism and delicacy also found in his verses. He exhibited in Brussels —Cabinet Maldoror— in 1926, and in Paris —Paris-Amerique Latine— in 1927. Luis Mario Schneider considers that for Moro painting is a mode of introspection. However, as much as he persevered in this practice, I don’t believe his visual language reached the level of excellence which distinguishes his writings. His written works, close to Benjamin Péret’s in its freedom, in its raving imagination, in its humor, gradually acquired greater consistency, and an ever more personal character. Because of his origin, and excepting some artists from the Antilles, the only Latin American who took part in the Surrealist movement in the 1920´s. Later on, there would be celebrated figures, such as Roerto Matta, Wifredo Lam and Aimé Cesaire, among others.
In early 1934, Moro left Paris via London for Lima, where, in the words of Coyné, “he lighted the first Surrealist flares”. (2) It was there, in 1935, that he organized the first Surrealist exhibition in Latin America; it included works by the painters Jaime Dvor, Waldo Parraguez, Gabriela Rivadeneyra, Carlos Sotomayor, María Valencia (almost all of them Chilean) and several works of his (38 of the 52 comprised in the show). The catalogue, which includes texts by the Paris surrealists in translation, also includes a statement by Cretin, the Turtle: “The comfort of clothing / is not sufficient exercise”, poems by Emilio Adolfo Westphalen and others. The following year he embarked on a violent dispute in writing, with a leaflet entitled El obispo embotellado, with Vicente Huidobro, whom he accused of plagiarism, depriving him of any merit in the domain of poetry. He attacked him with the same fury he displayed regarding the political vagaries of Diego Rivera, the indignation he felt at Eluard’s homage, or the mediocrity of a French painting exhibition in Lima; a rage in tune with the most virulent Surrealism. Westphalen was his ally in the defense and promotion of Surrealism in Peru. In 1939, in the Peruvian capital, the only issue of the magazine El uso de la palabra saw the light; it was edited by Westphalen in collaboration with Moro, even though Moro was already living in Mexico City. This publication, faithful to the spirit of the most militant Surrealism, displays a marked internationalist tendency (following also the tenets of the Parisian movement), and it includes translations of Breton and Eluard, contributions by Agustín Lazo and Alice Paalen, a poem by Westphalen, and a Manuel Álvarez Bravo reproduction, among other things. Thus, along with Westphalen, Moro sowed in Peru the surrealist seed, with great passion and tenacity, in an apparently barren ground. The work of poets like Xavier Abril, Alberto Hidalgo and Alejandro Peralta, however, would be unexplainable in the land of the Inca without Moro’s and Westphalen’s tenacity in growing the surrealist seed there.
Embracing the political stance of the movement, César Moro sided with the defense of the Republic as the Civil War broke out in Spain. Between late 1936 and early 1937, Moro, Westphalen and Manuel Moreno Jiménez published five clandestine issues of CADRE (Comité de Amigos de la República Española / Committee of Friends of the Spanish Republic), which was suppressed by the police.
In March,1938, just barely preceding André Breton’s arrival, César Moro settled in Mexico, where he lived for the next ten years. The Mexican capital, “with a 30 to 40 years cultural lag regarding Europe”, readied itself, for good or bad, to receive the surrealist leader. In the midst of the opposition of the Stalinist intellectuals, who boycotted Breton’s activities and set out to harass him, some friends and sympathizers welcomed him cordially, and a stimulating network of exchanges was established. Among these was César Moro, who introduced Breton to the Contemporáneos circle. When the surrealist leader arrived in Mexico, in March, 1938, Moro displayed great dynamism: Schneider mentions him as the probable organizer of the materials published in Letras de México. He translated the surrealist poems included therein, and a poem of his, a tribute to Breton, was also published. Furthermore, he appears in some photographs showing the Frenchman surrounded by Mexican friends. He frequented him, perhaps pleasantly evoking his Parisian days. Breton mentions him in his text Souvenir du Mexique. After Breton’s departure, Moro carried on as a promoter of his ideas in the Mexican press, commenting on such works as Trajectoire du rêve, along with some articles published in Letras de México. Shortly afterwards, in 1940, Moro again played a significant role as a promoter of Surrealism in Mexico, when he organized, with Wolfgang Paalen (who had arrived in 1939, along with Alice Rahon and Eva Sulzer), and in collaboration with Breton, from Paris, the Exposición Internacional del Surrealismo, which opened in January at the Galería de Arte Mexicano. The catalogue includes a text by César Moro, an exulting piece of writing where he attempts to define, through poetry, the essence of Surrealism.
In 1942, Benjamin Péret, along with his wife Remedios Varo, arrived in Mexico. Months later, Leonora Carrington arrived too. Moro represents a hinge figure between the two groups of exiled surrealist artists who settled in Mexico in those years: one organized around Péret, including, besides Leonora and Remedios, Katy and José Horna, Moro himself, and the young Mexican painter Gunther Gerzso. Whereas this clan did not function as the Breton fraternity in Paris, in terms of publishing collective declarations and organizing somewhat scandalous events, it did feature the production of works in common. They met almost every day, played together, disguised themselves, and sometimes their games gave rise to valuable collaborative works. Moro took part in these ludic-poetic activities. In 1954, he published Trafalgar Square, illustrated with a drawing by Remedios. They met in Gabino Barreda Street, at Péret’s house, or at the Horna’s, where Katy painted them on the occasion of Leonora’s wedding to Emerico Weiss, in 1946. Moro devoted a text to Carrington’s work.(3)
During these years, he published regularly in El hijo pródigo, and became an active collaborator of Dyn, the magazine edited by Wolfgang Paalen. In the group gathered around Paalen, collective activities were fostered even more, since they had a publication and could count on a good network of galleries. In fact, both Paalen and Alice Rahon exhibited regularly in Mexico City, as well as in some cities in the United States. Moro was very close to the Paalens too. He wrote two texts about Alice’s paintings: “Alice Paalen” and “Algunas reflexiones a propósito de la pintura de Alice Paalen”, both included in Los anteojos de azufre, and a very beautiful essay about Paalen’s work (“Wolfgang Paalen”, also included in Los anteojos de azufre). He shared with them (as well as with Péret) an interest in Pre Columbian cultures, and he broadened these painters’ and poets’ perspective regarding the Pre Hispanic world, through his knowledge of the Inca. Thus, his closeness with this group turned out to be very fruitful. In 1943, he published Le chateau de Grisou, with an engraving by Wolfgang Paalen; in 1944, Ediciones Dyn published Lettre d’amour, with an etching by Alice Rahon. Moro’s deep friendship with Alice Rahon inspired his poem “Varios leones al crepúsculo lamen la corteza rugosa de la tortuga ecuestre”, dedicated to Alice and to Valentine Penrose, who had traveled together in India in 1936.
Since he never returned to the Parisian group, it was easy from a distance to free himself from the fascination that Breton exercised over his friends, whom they loved, in the words of one of them, “as one loves a woman”. The differences separating Moro from the surrealist leader were of a personal nature, intimate, relating to irrational issues, against which theory and loyalty to a cause are powerless. Even though Moro would later argue ideological differences, his distancing from Breton stemmed from the defense the latter made, in Arcano 17, of heterosexual love as the only legitimate one. Hurt, Moro denounced –not without reason- the shortsightedness of a man who had placed himself as the ultimate champion of freedom, freedom in love as well, defending his position from his profound knowledge of psychology. Moro, however, remained eternally faithful to the surrealist spirit and its essential tenets: freedom, love, dreaming.
An important part of Moro’s activities, of his relationships and interests, was unrelated to Surrealism. His closeness to the Contemporáneos group, especially with Agustín Lazo and Xavier Villaurrutia, and the admiration and passion he felt in his later years for the work of Marcel Proust, were external to the Parisian movement’s sphere, responding as they did to aspects of his emotional and spiritual life that had little to do with Surrealism. In spite of his withdrawing from the group, his work, as much as his person, were always appreciated by the surrealists. Breton wrote to him in 1955, when he carried out a poll about “magical art”. Moro replied with his usual brilliance and sensitivity.
In January, 1956, César Moro died of leukemia in Lima. His death went unnoticed by Bief, the surrealist main publication at that time. Shortly after, however, in 1957, when André Coyné published the plaquette, Amour à Mort, the Peruvian’s poems attracted the attention of Benjamin Péret, who requested permission to include them in a surrealist poetry anthology. It is not without good reason that Stéphane Baciú has called Moro “the Benjamin Péret of Hispanic American Surrealism”: he is close to the French poet, not only in terms of a raving imagination, a boundless freedom, and a poetic fecundity, but also in his intransigence, his ferocity to defend his beliefs, and his “purity”, wholly free of any concession. After his death, a large part of his unpublished work was published through the efforts of his friend Coyné. However, Moro remains largely unknown as poet, painter, translator, and promoter of Surrealism in Latin America.
This essay was published in Lourdes Andrade, Siete inmigrados del surrealismo, Cenidiap, Conaculta, INBA, 2003.