By Elana Spivack
Argentine poet Hugo Mujica lives a rich life. Mujica has been a painter, a Trappist monk and currently is an award-winning poet and Catholic priest. His spiritual understanding of life shows through his potent poetry, some of which he read in Peirce Lounge on Monday, Nov. 10 in a presentation sponsored by the National Endowment for Humanities Distinguished Teaching Professorship and Hubbard Funds. Mujica read a selection of his poems in Spanish that were followed by an English translation by Associate Professor of Spanish Katherine Hedeen.
Mujica’s work covers philosophy, anthropology, fiction and poetry. Vaso Roto, one of the world’s most esteemed presses, published Mujica’s Complete Poetry, 1983-2011 in 2013, the same year he won Spain’s prestigious Casa de América Poetry Prize with Cuando todo calla.
Hedeen and her husband, Professor of Spanish Victor Rodríguez-Núñez, met Mujica in Granada, Nicaragua at a poetry festival in 2011. They quickly realized what a prominent poetic figure he was, and resolved to bring him to Kenyon.
They particularly enjoyed how he utilizes silence and sparseness. “The white space for me feels like a way of giving silence priority,” Hedeen said. Conversely, sparseness enhances his language. Rodríguez-Núñez said, “He wants a language that is very concentrated, that is very full of meaning. … He’s the Anti-Neruda.”
Mujica said quite simply, “To be simple is very hard.”
During the Q-and-A, a student asked Mujica what made him start writing poetry. Mujica responded, “Poetry.” He began writing in the early 1970s, three years into a seven-year vow of silence he took as a Trappist monk. He relayed the story of how he was in the his monastery’s kitchen when he saw a sunset and was moved to write several lines. He had previously been a painter, but lost his passion. Poetry, however, had just reached him. “I felt I was born into some new expression.”
Mujica deliberately read his poems without announcing titles. Hedeen almost let a title slip but caught herself and laughed the moment off. Mujica never explained this omission, but it allowed for fluidity through the reading that connected myriad ideas.
Attendee Isabella Bird ’18 especially liked the poetry’s sensibility. “Most of the time it is contradictory, but I guess it makes a lot of sense in the end because … a lot of things are sort of contradictions,” she said. “There is no other way for them to be.”
Mujica’s work largely featured nature imagery, often musing on water or light before exploration of a more profound theme. Though his poems use spare, direct language, they prove complex when one contemplates his final message about human nature and delving into the soul.
“It’s pure spirituality,” Rodríguez-Núñez said. He described the objectivity in Mujica’s themes, saying there is no “poet persona” that reinforces universality. Hedeen elaborated on this idea, saying, “[The poetry is] so apparently simple and yet it is so incredibly profound that it kind of blows your mind.”
Mujica also effectively combines dense language with emotion. “Thought is central but it’s not separate or distant from feeling,” Hedeen said. “It’s smart and cerebral but not cold.”
Other artists, from film directors to musicians, have influenced Mujica. He specifically mentioned J.S. Bach. “I used to say that the only proof that we have that God exists is the Apasiona de San Matthew and if God doesn’t exist so the Apasiona is God,” he said.
Mujica’s passion for poetry comes from the pure joy of creating. “I couldn’t live without creating,” he said. “So for me what I get is a moment where something wasn’t there and it take[s] a shape and become[s] [something].”
For Mujica, art’s greatest power is making something, a creation or feeling that did not exist before.