Aim Toward the Infinite: A Review of Origami: Selected Poems of Manuel Ulacia

            Manuel Ulacia (1953 – 2001) was the grandson of Manuel Altolaguirre and Concha Mendez, two artists in Spain’s “Generation of ’27,” associated with the liberal leftist reform movement of Spain and persecuted by Franco at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Ulacia’s family first fled to Cuba and then settled in Mexico, where the poet was raised. Manuel received a master’s and Ph.D. in Hispanic literature at Yale in the 1970s, where he specialized in the poetry of the gay Spanish poet Luis Cernuda. Ulacia would then return to Mexico, teach at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, become a protégé of Octavio Paz, and eventually become president of PEN’s Mexico chapter, where he actively supported dissident writers. Furthermore, Ulacia was gay. He died in 2001 at age 48, swept out to sea while swimming off a Mexican beach. 

            In this lovely bilingual Spanish-English edition of his selected poems, Indran Amirthanayagam has introduced English-speakers to the lyric intensity and fervor of this remarkable little-known poet. 

…Ulacia’s style is one of heightened mellifluous imagery, mixed metaphor, short fluid lines, and both surrealist and symbolist qualities.

            Youthful, well-off, and free-spirited, Ulacia traveled worldwide finding sex and romance in Santorini, Britain, Paris, Tunis, Morocco, Scotland, Manhattan, etc. An admirer of English Romantic poetry, rare among Spanish-speaking poets, Ulacia’s style is one of heightened mellifluous imagery, mixed metaphor, short fluid lines, and both surrealist and symbolist qualities. It’s an ardent verse tempered in languid emotionality. It exudes homoeroticism, too. 

            “Seed” begins:

                                                            in love with himself

                                    in love with his own echoes

                                                            drifting at night

                                    as he passes among broken mirrors:

                                                            a breath

                                    agitated and violent

                                                            like the hurricane that advances

                                    swirling around its eye

                                                            matter concentrates itself

                                    the remains of the shipwreck

                                                            sink overwhelmed by everything

                                    luminous egg of air

                                                            incandescent gold seed . . . (p 43)

            The sexual implications of this poem’s title, which suggests semen and possibly the solipsistic or communal pleasures of masturbation, is continued through lines such as: “suspended in nothingness/ you are the silk cocoon/ of an immense worm/ or a child’s balloon/ escaping from the hand/ egg of air/spore of desire/ bursting soap bubble. . ..” The pleasure of ejaculation brings “a rain of signs/ among the assonances and consonances/ of thunderclaps.” Ulacia describes this private act as “the dissemination/ of everything in nothingness.” (pp. 46-47). This release of the “egg of air” and “spore of desire” by the “hand” is a celebratory act of liberation where the “everything,” the potency of sperm, is disseminated into “nothingness,” an act without union, without the procreation that biology commands. 

            The poem closes with an allusion to a “pitcher that breaks/ pitcher that pours/ primal matter.” This matter is like a “cocoon of the constellations,” perhaps alluding to the white “cocoon” of the tiny spermatozoa, which appear in droplets like a constellation of stars.

            Ulacia ends with:

                                                                                    universe with a butterfly’s wings

                                                alphabet goddess

                                                                                    your scattered body

                                                seeks order

                                                                                    the vowels of your flesh

                                                are in love

                                                                                    with the consonants of your bones

                                                alphabet goddess

                                                                                    transfigured in language

                                                you are the world’s absence (p. 47) 

            Ulacia’s poems showcase a complex relationship with sexuality throughout the collection. In “The Stone in the Depths,” dedicated to his father, Ulacia remembers witnessing his father’s death which provokes thoughts about his family’s history and his sexual awakening:

                                    While my father’s breath is extinguished,

                                    anguish is reborn,

                                    a sharp-edged stone in the throat.

                                    Those meals in my younger years,

                                    where you could only hear

                                    scraping of cutlery on porcelain,

                                    elusive glances

                                    that hid the blush that produces

                                    the passion of flesh,

                                    and my secret games in the bedroom,

                                    while the hurtful light, coming through

                                    the window, illuminated the clouds of

                                    the jug, empty plates and crumbs,

                                    for in my lascivious daydreams

                                    my singular desire had been revealed.

                                    No longer would I be the image of

                                    the hero dancing with a girl on the screen,

                                    nor the maker of factories,

                                    nor the discreet man society applauds,  . . . (p. 101)

            Ultimately, it becomes a poem of loss and reconciliation. Ulacia must acknowledge his sexual differences vis-à-vis traditional masculinity: “the [straight] hero dancing with a girl on the screen” or the “[manly] maker of factories” and the realization that he never will be accepted by his father’s society.

            The elegy further emphasizes this poignant inner-gay conflict:

                                    While my father’s breathing

                                    fades away slowly,

                                    I want to tell him

                                    that all I ever wanted

                                    was to live the truth of my true love,

                                    but he no longer hears anything. (p. 103). 

            Ulacia’s gift for visual imagery is on display in “Arabian Knight”:

                                    Mountains, olive trees,

                                    vegetable fields   in the valley,

                                    the high ochre walls

                                    of the Royal Palace in the old city,

                                    the night breeze,

                                    the muezzin’s voice, faraway monotonous,

                                    the usual café and its parishioners . . . (p. 167)

With an exquisite sensuality of memory, all his work has a fresh lexical beauty and a sensitive cosmic dreaminess. It’s a pleasure to read him. He says it best in “Origami for a Rainy Day”:

                                    The rain that beats the windows

                                    is the same as yesterday’s.

                                    The noise of the drops

                                    has stimulated the tree of your nerves.

                                    You have returned to live what no longer exists.

                                    You have gone and come back.

                                    In your skull, dissimilar times and spaces

                                    have joined together, creating

                                    a star of many points

                                    all of which aim toward the infinite. (p. 157)