Book reviews, Culture

Denis’ roar of laughter

The night is a faceless angel, / A black horse, / his shadow gallops off into the distance, / from the lights, / he flees, he keeps out of sight, / and weaves the winds for black wings, / and it is his skin where he hides his shadow, / and it is a night more powerful than mine. “The geometry of water”, by  Fernando Denis.

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Armando Orozco Tovar


His roar of laughter is needed in the city where few laugh, and where he makes up for them all.

The poet is a pixie, who travels through the streets making fun of everything and everyone, except poetry. He never was a drunk, as many believed and he claims, “All it was, was that I was searching, experimenting and writing during frosty nights.”

One day, late at night, he arrived sober with a poem in his hand, he greeted me and said, “Look, this is what I’ve just finished writing.” It shocked me quite a bit. I still remember it.

He then added, “I don’t have anywhere to sleep.” I said to him, that it was David Cherician who he should show his poem too, a poem written in pen, fine print, and on a dirty piece of paper. The next day, I realised that the Cuban poet was staying at a hotel by the entrance of the old town, La Candelaria in Bogotá. They had let him sleep there that night.

When was the first time I saw Denis? It could have been in 1997, ten years after the poet arrived to the Atlantic Coast. I remember that Víctor Hugo Triana, at the time, was the director of a poetry workshop at the University of Externado Colombia. As I was told, he invited various poets to his apartment to get together and talk. When we were going in, he pointed at Denis, who had been with the group of poets all night, and said, to him, “The only person who cannot come in my house is you.”

And Denis sat on a wall adjacent to the building’s terrace and started to cry. I stayed by his side comforting him, recalling the warnings from fifty years ago. The job market in the city, when someone wanted to rent a room and they had to pray, “They do not rent to people with children, dogs. Neither to coastal dwellers, nor blacks.”

That day, none of us knew a single verse of Denis’ poetry, and the intellectuals scorned it before even reading it, as they always do. The exception was writer, William Ospina and translator and poet, Nicolás Suescún, who upon getting hold of his work, supported him and recognised his talent from the beginning.

In those days, I used to invite him to the university where I lectured so that he could read some of his poems printed on paper, a favour from a typist friend of mine who had been seduced by his poetry. Later the favours became more frequent.

It was the era in which the cursed poet, (not poor, as per Roca) grabbed the limelight, and even more so when Cristian Valencia, a columnist for El Tiempo, wrote: “Fernando Denis: damned poet?” The poet from Cienaguera responded, “One can see that you have not read bad poems.”

Suddenly in 1997 Denis shot to fame, when the District Institute of Culture published his “The Invisible Creature in the twilights of William Turner“, dedicated to Damnar Hilda and William Ospina. It was reviewed by El Tiempo on its editorial page, “Supported by the District Institute of Culture and Tourism, which recently published a book of poems by Fernando Denis, ‘The Invisible Creature in the twilights of William Turner’ has received the highest praise from experts, and tough critics.” (…)

I wanted to see the faces of those still hate him when “The geometric water“, edited by the Norma Editorial Group in 2009 was published. However, I don’t think they showed their faces. Earlier in 2004, the weekly magazine Voz wrote: “The Invisible Creature … is the key book of the nineties in Colombia.” One Thursday like any other, Fernando Denis read his unpublished poetry in the Agora of the Librería Alejandría bookstore, which I run. It will be successful once again.

(Translated by Emma O’Toole)

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