Reviews Felipe Benítez Reyes' The Errant Astrologers
Felipe Benítez Reyes, The Errant Astrologers, Trans. by Emily Toder, Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013. 72pp.
Felipe Benítez Reyes' The Errant Astrologers, a "legend in verse in three acts," follows three "astrologers" (wayward kings, more like it) as they seek a wandering star from a shared dream. Much of the legend finds the kings winding through the wilderness, having abandoned their kingdoms and engaging in philosophic, playful, and sometimes violent dialogue. It becomes clear during the play that, while the sought-after star is their destination, it mostly represents an unknown for the characters. This unknown also becomes a quality reflected in the verse, which itself sometimes meanders.
The book ably floats between the genres of poetry and playwriting, while not calling attention to its floating; this must be part of its appeal: its neither-nor-ness. It indulges in ambiguity, but the prose is approachable; it is neither a strict narrative nor a strictly abstract or philosophical text, but a little of each. Reyes' style shifts between that of an epic poem or ballad:
I, King Damascón,and at times the language is folkloric, fable-like:
who has heard the feet of death splash about
in the springs of blood, when the battleground became a red whirlpool.
…my feet ask me each night:There is also a touch of the unfamiliar and the strange, both in language and narrative. Each of the kings is given a defined character: Damascón, the tyrant; Amerín, the fool; Kagba, the sensitive empath. But while we immediately recognize these characters in their roles, none of them seems real. The only indication of their existence is their acknowledgement of one another; otherwise, we can only trust their apparently thin proclamations of their own importance to their kingdoms. The kings' speech is often highly dramatic, and makes little reference to the material world. The aim of their dialogue, it sometimes seems, is to establish themselves in a vaporous environment; this, paired with their non-sequiturs and circular banter, gives a dreamlike feeling to the bare scenery.
"Where will you take us at sunrise,
Though present, the play's moments of surrealism and allusions to figures such as Jesus Christ and Lear are faint enough to resist pinning it down into a singular genre or discussion. The book is clearly rooted in a literary tradition, and offers a quietly political warning against the futility of ownership and of following costly, unattainable ideals:
Look at a golden crownbut its politics, too, seem to be shielded in order to protect it from the stigmatization that would also threaten to pigeonhole it. It's timely in that way.
in the light of the moon
and it will seem a trinket.
Look at a silver necklace
in the plain light of day
and its poverty will shock you.
The experience of reading Reyes' work is multiple: feeling let in on a private chance encounter between power-wielding strangers, getting lost among spoken and actual circumambulation, and drifting outside the parameters of the book's world that, like Calvino's Invisible Cities, is built of materials recognizable to us but constructed in such a way that it feels alien, mesmerizing. It is just beyond the reach of reality, and carries a secrecy about it that makes its initial seeming-simplicity a bit deceptive. It's a world worth the investment it takes to live within it for a short time.
Jamie Edlin lives with Will & Harry the Dog, writes, and teaches language & writing, in Louisville, KY. She is honored to be among the first contributors to A Perimeter.