January 12, 2023

Juan Sánchez Peláez (Venezuela) 1922-2003

Juan Sánchez Peláez (Venezuela)



Juan Sánchez Peláez was born in Altagracia de Orituco in the state of Guárico, but his family soon moved to Caracas, where he was educated and lived most of his life. He attended university in Santiago, Chile where he befriended the poets of the radical surrealist group Mandrágora. He published his first poems in their magazine and it was through this encounter that his life-long interest in surrealism began. He was deeply influenced by his readings of French poets such as Rimbaud, Éluard, Michaux and Césaire.

     Sánchez Peláez’s first book Elena y los elementos had a profound effect on Venezuelan poetry, outlining a distinctly Venezuelan form of surrealism that was very influential on the generation of avant-garde poets who emerged in the 1960s. During the 1950s Sánchez Peláez lived for several years in Paris, where he met the American artist Suzanne Martin. Upon his return to Venezuela, he published his second collection, Animal de costumbre, a sequence of 26 poems written mostly in France. These poems began his move away from surrealist excess toward a minimalist style he continued to develop over subsequent decades.

     Sánchez Peláez made his living as a teacher, translator, journalist and diplomat, living in Venezuela, Colombia and Trinidad. In 1969 he was a Fellow at The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, after which he lived in New York City for two years. It was in New York that he met his wife and muse, the Argentine Malena Coelho. In 1975 he was awarded Venezuela’s Premio Nacional de Literatura.

     During the final decades of his life, Sánchez Peláez published an extremely limited amount of poetry although he continued to write on a daily basis. His final collection, Aire sobre el aire (1989), is a sequence of 14 short poems, one of which first appeared in an earlier draft in Octavio Paz’s magazine Vuelta. The year after his death, the Spanish publishing house Editorial Lumen released his collected work Obra poética, which includes nine new poems written in his later years.

    Although he is revered in Venezuela and Latin America by a growing circle of devoted readers, Sánchez Peláez remains a relatively unknown poet. Throughout his life, he was a friend and mentor to several generations of Venezuelan poets including Eugenio Montejo, Luis Alberto Crespo and Jacqueline Goldberg. His friend the Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis referred to him as “Latin America’s best kept secret.”


-Guillermo Parra




Elena y los elementos (Caracas: Tipografía Garrido, 1951); Animal de costumbre (Caracas: Editorial Suma: 1959); Filiación oscura (Caracas: Editorial Arte, 1966); Un día sea (Caracas, Monte Ávila Editores: 1969); Rasgos comunes (Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores, 1975); Por cuál causa o nostalgia (Caracas: Editorial Fundarte, 1981); Aire sobre el aire (Caracas: Tierra de Gracia Editores, 1989); Elena y los elementos (Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores, 2001); Obra poética (Barcelona: Editorial Lumen, 2004).



Profundity of Love


The love letters I wrote in my childhood were memories

of a future lost paradise. The uncertain trail of my

hope was signed in the musical hills of my

native country. What I pursued was the fragile roe deer,

the ephemeral hunting dog, the beauty of the stone that becomes an angel.


I no longer faint in front of the sea drowned by kisses.

To the encounter with cities:

For guides the ankles of an imagined architecture

For nourishment the fury of the prodigal son

For ancestors, the parks that dream under snow, the

trees that incite us to the deepest melancholies, the doors

of the oxygen that make the south’s warm mist shudder, the fatal

woman whose back leans sweetly on the shadowy



I love the magic pearl that hides in the eyes of the

silent, the bitter dagger of the taciturn.

My heart turned into a night ship and a custodian of the


My forehead is the tragic clay, the mortal candle of the fallen,

the bell on autumn afternoons, the sail heading towards

the least venturous port

or the one that has lost the most to the storm’s blows.

I see myself facing the sun, in front of Mediterranean bays, a voice

flowing from a lawn full of birds.


My love letters were not love letters but rather entrails of



My love letters were kidnapped by the ultramarine

falcons that move across childhood’s mirrors.


My love letters are offerings from a paradise

of courtesans.


What will happen latter, not to speak of tomorrow?” murmurs the

decrepit old man. Maybe death will whistle, before his enchanted

eyes, the most beautiful love ballad.



-Translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Parra



(from Elena y los elementos, 1951)





Elena is earth seaweed

Ocean wave.

She exists because she owns the nostalgia

Of these elements,

But she knows it,

She dreams,

And trusts,


Standing on the rock and the coral of the abysses.


Actually, Elena

Knows the simple things,

Because before being a damsel

She was Siren and Ondina.

And before being

Siren and Ondina,

She swam in the whirlwind, in the number, in the fire.


I must have fallen onto the trail, and recalled,

Oh delirious host;

Right there, where the afternoon and dusk are appeased,

They separated me.


I had another love,

Pure like ecstasy,

Fragile like fantasy,

Absolute like my other love.


I heard a trumpet of fog in the desert

My falcons emerged from the foliage.


In all seasons

In autumn or in spring

Elena is earth seaweed

Ocean wave.


-Translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Parra



(from Animal de costumbre, 1959)

New Year


Without any delight, surpassing myself with this serpent confined all along the body, alien to this actual, illusory permanence of woman, in this nocturnal cavity of wandering stars and jumbled syllables.


-Translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Parra



(from Filiación oscura, 1966)





César Moro, beautiful and humbled

playing a harp in the outskirts of Lima

said to me: come into my house, poet

always ask for air, clear sky

because we must die some day, it’s understood

we must be born, and you are already dead

the floor will always be here, wide and mute

but dying from the same family is to have been born.


-Translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Parra



(from Aire sobre el aire, 1989


Guillermo Parra said...

A correction: Suzanne Martin was an artist Juan Sánchez Peláez befriended in Paris. She was not his first wife.

damar varnish said...

a correction On november l6 l961 at the "mayori" of the 15th arrondissment in Paris, Ellen Lapidus married Juan Sanchez Pelaez. The artists Jesus Soto and Mario Abreu were witnesses and enjoyed the dinner reception following the ceremony at the home of Gail Kernan in Neuilly Sur Seine. Ellen gave birth to two of Juan's daughters at the American Hospital in Paris. For more information see: www.artistlapidot.com