Latin American Art and Poetry
The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology
The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology
from Pleiades, Winter 2011
The status of Latin American poetry in this country has always been variable. After an explosion of interest in it during the 1960s and 1970s—and as literary camps expanded, sometimes antagonistically, in the 1990s—a commitment to Latin American poetics waned, as did an allegiance to poetry in translation as a necessary cultural value. While the idea that no one culture or ideology could be viewed as superior to another became a commonplace, the days of Robert Bly and James Wright surprising the U.S. literati with translations of Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo were long gone.
Two new bilingual collections, The Oxford Anthology of Latin American Poetry, edited by Ceclia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon-Grosman, and The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry, edited by Mark Weiss, signal the return of our intellectual attention to such poetry. Even better, the return brings with it new blood. Many of the translators in these collections are younger, upcoming poets, some of whom show up in both anthologies: Christopher Winks, Gabriel Gudding, Kristin Dykstra, and Monica de la Torre. In the last fifteen years or so, the only other collection in any way comparable to these is Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, edited by Stephen Tapscott (University of Texas Press, 1996), a fine book, in many ways. Aside from only covering poets of the twentieth century (with a few unavoidable exceptions—Jose Martí and Rubén Darío, both from the nineteenth century—without whose work modern Latin American poetry, and some would say, all poetry in Spanish, would be unthinkable), Tapscott's admirably comprehensive anthology differs from these in notable ways. While a handful of the translators in his collection are associated with early- to late-century Modernism—William Carlos Williams, Samuel Beckett, Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Justice, Charles Tomlinson, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Ely, and James Wright—the majority are not relevant poets in their own right. Furthermore, the anthology gives virtually no space to or descriptions of the translators, reserving all back matter—Appendix, Bibliographies, and other indexes—for the Latin American poets themselves. Most of the translations had already been published before, many of the translators having done the work in previous decades of the century.
With Vicuña and Livon-Grosman, it's clear that many, if not most, of the translators have been chosen for a select purpose (which I'll get to in a moment). On top of this, there is a separate "List of Translators" page (though, frustratingly, no translator's index), including short biographies. Again, these are mostly younger translators, many of them aligned with various avant-garde tendencies. Of course there are a number from the earlier-guard, those poet-translators from the first half or so of the twentieth century: James Irby, W.S. Merwin, James Merrill, Jerome Rothenberg, and James Wright. But the majority are younger, a significant number of whom are also associated with a newer generation of Latino poets, including Roberto Tejada, Mónica de la Torre, Rosa Alcalá, to name only a few, that has eschewed the characteristics of the Latino / a poetry of Identity—the plain narrative style, the assumption that an intact, original, and somehow pure, national "self" can be secured through the poem—so popular in the last twenty to thirty years. Even poets aligned with the more "traditional" avant-garde, i.e. those of the "non-ethnic" variety, show up here, Forrest Gander and Kent Johnson, to name two.
Gathering such young, experimental poet-translators for this project was smart for another reason: to show how similar their sensibilities are to those of the Latin American poets represented here—and not just the ones from the past 40 or 50 years. As Vicuña argues (sometimes a little too forcefully) in her introduction, Latin American poetry, far from being monolithic, has nonetheless consistently and consciously situated itself within and outside of the European cultural and artistic traditions—symbolism and Surrealism, being the most common—it fed on. As such, it has always shared essential qualities with what we tend to associate with experimental or avant-garde work: sounds and words dissociated from, yet containing as much significance as, the "things" they signify, to speak of only one quality.
Latin American art and poetry—in their various forms—have, from the time of conquest, both comprised themselves of, and intentionally addressed themselves to, the clash of European and Indigenous cultures that repeated itself throughout the continent's history. Forced by colonialism into a particular kind of power dynamic that lasted well beyond the revolutions of Simón Bolívar, Latin American artists and poets seem never to have abandoned the anxiety that their work would only be a second-hand version of the European original; this, in no small part, has always informed the work itself, and so, according to Vicuña, many Latin American poets, throughout the continent's history, have actually embraced this conflict, from which arises the tension "that gives Latin American poetry its force" and produces what she calls "Mestizo poetics" (xix). This is the first anthology of its kind to include oral and indigenous poetries alongside those of the Latin American canon. In the anthology's Preface, the editors explain that their inclusive approach demystifies the notion that such traditions were actually separate. Furthermore, they argue that the combination of both poetries—oral and written/canonical—demonstrates the extent to which an experimental poetics has been present in practices that predate Columbus.
The playfulness of many of these translations illuminates the wild leaps in logic and language present in the originals but obscured in previous renditions by "careful" or "precise" translators. Most notable are Gabriel Gudding's renditions of Rubén Darío's work. Darío, the first Latin American poet whose work influenced European literature, is considered to be among the founders of Modernismo—the Latin American movement that blended European Symbolism with indigenous logic and references. Gudding brings Darío's energy and rhythms to the surface in his translation of the latter's "El Canto Errante" ("The Wandering Song"). Consider his rendition of the following lines from the original: "El cantor va por todo el mundo / sonriente o meditabundo" and "En palanquín y en seda fina / por el carazón de la China"; literally, then, this would be "the singer goes all over the world / smiling or meditating" and "by palanquin and in fine silks / through the heart of China." Gudding, who seems to understand that the strict, almost sing-song rhyme-scheme here is as playful, as necessary to the poem, as the content, renders the lines this way: "A singer goes all over the world / impassioned or bored" and "On a palanquin, in gemmy silks / she crosses glaciers in the Alps. / / On a cloud backed and glinting jet / into Buddhist and bright Tibet." Doubtless these kinds of liberties will anger the more traditional scholars and translators. But here we see an example of the kindred sensibilities between poet and translator that appear throughout the anthology. Here Gudding imitates, rather than mirrors, the kind of quirky and absurdist connections Darío makes in his brand of indigenous symbolism.
Equally compelling is Roberto Tejada's translations of José Juan Tablada's work. Tablada (1871-1945), one of the founders of Mexican modernism, is known for his calligrammes or pictures poems—innovative combinations of image and language that point to the materiality of both media even as they refer to the land and history behind their making. Tejada, himself aligned with avant-garde, language-based poetry for the last twenty years, translates the original's disjointed, fragmented mosaic of word and image—impossible to reprint here with any fidelity to the original—such that the very uneasy combinations of European/indigenous forms and content flash and scintillate:
Your thousand lights Havana are the glow
turned into the eyes of women
Your cliffs are encrusted with Spanish bones [.] (104)
This collection reminds us that such conflicts and tensions that make up a Mestizo poetics also include race and gender. In fact, according to Vicuña, such a poetics begins with the pre-Columbian Nahua slave girl, Malintzin, concubine of and interpreter for Cortés. Beginning with this female scribe, and including works by Sor Juana de la Cruz, the famous seventeenth-century poet of the Americas, the anthology brings together, and thus finally acknowledges the presence of, the large number of women who make up a whole tradition of Latin American poetry—a seemingly astounding fact, given the repressive nature of Latin American Catholicism on women up until quite recently. Such poets include Rosa Araneda (who achieved fame in her own lifetime, in the nineteenth century), Delmira Agustini, Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva, Gabriela TvIistral, Alfonsina Storni, María Sabina (an oral poet from Mexico), Violeta Parra (sister of the famous Chilean poet, Nicanor)—to name only a few. In terms of the translators, women, including Latinas, are also well represented here and include Rosa Alcalá, Mónica de la Torre, Jill Levine, Ursula K. Le Guin, Molly Weigel, Kristin Dykstra, and Lynne Alvarez.
The other aspect of Latin American poetry, previously overlooked by purportedly inclusive collections, is the influence of African culture and arts on works by Latin American artists. Showcasing the important works, and thus illuminating the strong presence, of Latin American poets with African ancestry, Vicuña and Grosman's collection gathers a wide variety of writers, including João da Cruz e Sousa (who wrote and published in the nineteenth century), Luis Páles Matos, and Nicolás Guillén—both of whom founded the negrismo movement which celebrated the culture and arts brought by those with African ancestry to Latin America. Here, too, the translators' daring sensibilities imitate and compliment, rather than mirror, those of the original works, as in the first stanza of Julio Marzán's translation of Luis Páles Matos's "Preludio en Boricua" / "Prelude in Boricua";
Tomtom of kinky hair and black things
and other, uppity tomtoms.
secret Cuban buzz-buzz
where the savage drumming
casts its hot shoeblacking.
The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry thus celebrates and revises a canon that has in this country remained fairly modest and static for the last few decades, reminding us again of the vast, vibrant cross-cultural influences and traditions that coalesce around the poetry of a land as varied and sprawling as its history.
If the content and introductions of The Oxford Book implicitly make the argument that Latin American poetry, inextricable from the history of the land, bases itself on the inherent tensions and conflicts that arise endlessly between European and the indigenous cultures—from conquest to Surrealism—then The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry adds another element to those same conflicts—the history of the United States and Cuba after the revolution of 1959. Edited by Mark Weiss who, along with Jason Weiss, has the most translations here, this collection represents the "first attempt at a comprehensive picture of Cuban poetry in the modern period" (3). As Weiss argues in the collection's introduction, Cuban poetry has never enjoyed the kind of attention and success that poetry from the rest of Latin America has in the States (not that much Latin American poetry finds its way here in the first place) for two important reasons: 1) the trade embargo's restrictions on cultural / artistic exchange between countries and 2) the effects of that embargo on the kind of politically motivated decisions about which particular Cuban poets got translated and which didn't.
But such differences between Cuban poetry and that of the rest of Latin America aren't totally explained by the sociopolitical and cultural aftereffects of the revolution. The tension in Cuban poetry between the political and the aesthetic—often portrayed through the metaphor of the tightrope walker, as in Elesio Diego's "The Rope Dancer's Risks"—seems to have established itself in the works of two preeminent 19th-century Cuban poets: Jose Martí and Julián del Casal, the former known for his Whitmanesque lines, extreme imagery and politically conscious work, the latter, an aesthete, for his dedication to the lifestyle and work of the flâneur, for his commitment to Modernismo, the Latin American approximation of Symbolism and surrealism. While each of these two poets certainly left his individual mark on the Cuban poetry of the mid to late 20th century, most poets from the Island—whether writing there or here—tend to incorporate both tendencies, keeping them in a tense, uneasy flux. As Weiss reminds us in the introduction, ever-conscious of aesthetic technique and form, the Cuban poet who chooses to be apolitical in his/her verse nonetheless appears "so counter to expectations that it's inevitably interpreted as a political statement in itself" (6).
By the late 1930s, Cuban poetry had helped to form and embrace another movement—vanguardismo, also known as conversacionalismo, the poetry of which abandoned much of the baroque imagery and language of modernismo in favor of a more straight-forward, direct "conversational" verse. Poets of this movement, such as Heberto Padilla, tended to avoid abstractions and ornate imagery, their influences eventually including the work of Robert Lowell of the Life Studies period. The great exception to this movement, its compliment or counter-weight, is José Lezama Lima, whose works other poets have called neo-barroco. Like Lorca, Lezama took his cues from Spain's Baroque, specifically the poems of Luis de Góngora, and Cuba's Casal. One would have a hard time coming up with even a few U.S. poets whose work compares to this kind of verse. Zukofsky comes to mind, and perhaps younger, practicing poets like Roberto Tejada (whose translations of Lezama, appearing in various anthologies, have received much praise). A literary giant in Cuba, only now coming into his deserved recognition in the U.S., Lezama wrote difficult poetry whose narrative thread seems always to slide beyond the reader's grasp, whose lines take new and strange directions, seemingly without regard to some final, unified conclusion or end. Translated here by James Irby, the following lines from Lezama's "Thoughts in Havana" immerse and threaten to overwhelm the reader in images and tortuous rhetorical directions from the very start of the poem:
Because I dwell like a whisper in a set of sails,
a land where ice is a reminiscence,
fire cannot hoist a bird
and burn it in a conversation calm in style. (59)
In the mid '60s and '70s, Cuba's government applied more and more restrictions on poetry and other works of art until the only verse allowed did little more than espouse party-line dogma and nationalist glory, a poetry Weiss calls "socialist realism." When, therefore, Cuba began loosening such restrictions in the late '70s and '80s, its poetry openly takes on a sense of disillusionment toward the promises of the revolution. But this sense was not without nuance or complications; nor did the newer verse entirely lose sight of politics, as such. Consider the ending of Ramon Fernandez Larrea's "The Land of Elves." Translated by Mark Weiss, the poem's extended metaphor compares the Utopian dream of post-revolutionary Cuba to some fairy land: "maybe there's never been / a golden root or branch or earth for you to wallow in / the land of elves awaits you / / the land will always be far away / like a dream like a belly like the land of elves / / damn." The final one-word line, "cojones" in the original, literally means balls, testicles, though in Cuba and Puerto Rico it contains elements of surprise. Used in exclamation, the (original) word's final and sustained liquid syllable fairly hisses with defiant rage.
Tempting as it might be to read in such satirical verse an implicit embracing of socialism's nemesis—capitalism—these Cuban poems of the late 20th century maintain a relationship to bourgeois/ consumerist culture in a manner similar to and as complicated as that of Latin American poetry toward colonial Europe. Raúl Hernández Novás's long sequence poem is a case in point. As its title announces, "Over the Cuckoo's Nest," translated by Mark Weiss, alludes to, and maintains the same kind of social commentary as, Kesey's famous book, an indictment of the socially repressive, monitorial aspects of his country. In this case, and given the poem's many allusions to figures from the United States, there's an implicit equation between those persecuted in the United States—African Americans, artists, Native Americans (as in Kesey's book) —and those in Cuba. The poem's refrain, "I'm with you Billy," referring to Billy Babbitt, the young, stuttering, ultimately suicidal asylum inmate from Kesey's novel, also alludes to the repetend from Part III. of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," for Carl Solomon: "I'm with you [Carl] in Rockland," another insane asylum. Novás's poem goes on to quote or allude to western (i.e. capitalist/consumerist) icons like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or take up and side with artists like Emily Dickinson, implicitly aligning the poem's speaker with the New England poet based on the popular (but by now heavily controverted) assumption that she, too, was solitary, persecuted, haunted and hunted by a society she both feared and tried to escape.
Both of these anthologies—with their young, aesthetically adventurous translators—should revitalize our interest in Latin American poetry, and by "our" I mean all of us in this country who read and write and/or merely enjoy poetry. Of course, those of us who happen to be Latino/a can feel a certain amount of pride and validation in the fact that the craft and traditions of poetry have such rich, varied, and influential histories in the countries of our relatives and ancestors. But by "our," I also mean English-speaking writers in general. Considering the history of poetic, cultural exchange and translation between these hemispheres—bi-directional and including poets like Whitman, Neruda, Langston Hughes, Nicolás Guillén, William Carlos Williams, César Vallejo, James Wright, T.S. Eliot, and Octavio Paz, to name only a few—it would seem that taking up Latin American poetry, even for the nationalistic purpose of reinvigorating U.S. verse, would behoove poets practicing in this country. But these anthologies also demonstrate the extent to which translation can generate exciting innovations in poetic techniques and forms. The very strangeness and originality of Latin American poetry, as with all poetry in another language, a strangeness that good translations only bring into higher relief, should oblige us to return to and admire it.Pleiades
University of Central Missouri
Editors: Wayne Miller, Phong Nguyen
Fiction Editor: Matthew Eck
Poetry Editor: Marc McKee
Editors-at-Large: Kevin Prufer, Joy Katz