The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry, ed. Ilan Stavans
Watchword, Pura López Colomé, tr. Forrest Gander
Afterglow, Alberto Blanco, tr. Jennifer Rathbun
from Antioch Review, Summer 2012
The train ride from Angers to Aix-les-Bains took some seven hours, including the change in Lyon, but I had selected a book to read, during the trip, that vanquished the tedium: the 729 pages of The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry. Suitable to the long journey was indeed the variety of the anthology (eighty-four poets, ranging from the nineteenth-century Cuban, José Martí, to a Peruvian and two Mexicans all born in 1962); and as we sped along, it was amusing to imagine Latin American landscapes that I had never seen except through the words I was reading and contrast them to the French fields, rivers, and hills that I was glimpsing, through the window, whenever I looked up from the page. It was a little like reading Catullus and listening to Louis Armstrong, as described by the Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas (b. 1917), who floats away "on the torrent, on the waves / that come out of this chair, this wooden table, this material / that is me and my body in the moment of this chance ... " Not to mention another landscape that soon intervened. A poem by Oscar Hahn (b. 1938) depicted "la nieve en las calles de Iowa City." How could I, a former Iowan, not be touched? Yet when I looked out the window, there was no snow falling; there were no streets in sight, let alone those of Iowa City (or Des Moines); we were streaking through Beaujolais vineyards. Apropos of this, "I prefer to cling to what I invent and not to know what actually exists," writes Gloria Gervitz (b. 1943) in "From Shajarit." This was also my conclusion that day. And it occurred to me that such a declaration suggested an approach to many Latin American poets. By the way, in its arresting use of both eroticism and Judaism, the evocative language displayed in Shajarit, a long excerpt of which is provided in the anthology, makes Gervitz's contribution particularly compelling.
Gervitz's words "dreams" and "invent" bring Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) to mind. Of course, he's included in the anthology, with six Spanish poems (including the famous prose text, "Borges and I") and, interestingly, two love poems written in English. The second English poem comprises these lines from a poet ever fascinated by the ambiguity and fugacity of selfhood: "I offer you that kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow—the central heart that deals not in words, traffics not with dreams and is untouched by time, by joy, by adversities."
One expects to make discoveries (like Rojas, Hahn, and Gervitz) in an anthology, so let me linger no longer over Borges, nor discuss the four poems by César Vallejo (1892-1938), the seven by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), and the three by Octavio Paz (1914-1998); and let me simply add that a single, rather short poem by the increasingly admired Roberto Juarróz (1925-1995), whose thoughtful verse continues to move and influence poets all over the world, is not enough! And if four poems by Vallejo and three by Paz also seem slight, one political poem by the former is rather long and the four-part "San Ildefonso Nocturne" by the latter is very long (and conjures up "invention" once again, when it begins: "In my window night / invents another night"). I'll soon resume my pursuit of lesser-known poets, but I cannot resist the temptation to quote Paz, from the same long poem: "Poetry is not truth: / it is the resurrection of presences, / history / transfigured in the truth of undated time."
In fact, Ilan Stavans, the editor, has selected many more long poems than are usually found in anthologies. This is an original and intelligent feature of this volume for whose subsequent editions, nonetheless, an amusing oversight needs to be corrected on page xxvii of the Introduction: Vallejo first dies "in Spain during that nation's civil war" and then, in the next sentence, he dies again "in Paris (of hiccups, according to some accounts)." I know nothing about the hiccups, but he died in Paris and is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery, where I have stood before his grave.
The Introduction usefully outlines the main movements of Latin American poetry, notably Modernismo which, according to Stavans, emerged in 1885 with the poem Azul by Ruben Dario (1867-1916), and which is thus not the same thing as Anglo-American or European Modernism; and then Vanguardismo, which rebelled against Modernismo and was associated with Vallejo; and finally the post-Modernists who, alongside Borges, Neruda, and Paz, also include the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987)—the emotion and suspense of whose long narrative poem, "The Disappearance of Luisa Porto," absorbs one from the onset to the end. (Interestingly enough, Drummond de Andrade sagely counsels in another poem: "Don't write poems about what's happening.") The post-Modernists thus form a group having little or nothing to do with our own notion of post-Modernism. Stavans also points to various influences, such as travel, translation, and immigration, on Latin American poetry as a whole, and stresses its erotic component.
In this regard, an early poem by the Uruguayan Delmira Agustini (1886-1914) seeks to express "the essence of a superhuman passion." Even more impressive is "Life-Hook" by Agustini's compatriot Juana de Ibarbourou (1895-1979). The five quatrains of her poem provide instructions for her own burial and trace out an indomitable sensuality:
Just at ground level, my love. So the passage
Will be even shorter. I sense
Already my flesh fighting, trying to return
To feel the atoms of a freshening wind.
[ ... ]
Cover me with seeds. I want them to root
In the yellow chalk of my diminishing bones.
Up the gray staircase of living roots
I will rise to watch you. I'll be the purple lilies.
In a biographical résumé, the work of Alfonsina Storni (189221938) is likewise associated with eroticism. Yet the two short, someewhat droll poems provided here are abstract and more "modernist" in our own sense of the term; even "constructivist":
Lined houses, lined houses,
Squares, squares, squares.
People already have a squared soul,
and their back in an angle.
Yesterday I myself spilled a tear:
my God, it is square.
W. S. Merwin is the translator of Juarroz's aforementioned poem, and versions by other American poets crop up as well. The poetry of Joao Cabral de Melo Neto (1920-1999) benefits from the labors of James Wright, Galway Kinnell and, once again, Merwin. Kinnell renders the Brazilian's superb two-part philosophical piece, "The Emptiness of Man," which begins:
The emptiness of man is not like
any other: not like an empty coat
or empty sack (things that do not stand up
when empty, such as an empty man),
the emptiness of man is more like fullness
in swollen things that keep on swelling,
the way a sack must feel
that is being filled, or any sack at all ...
Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop also lend their talents. Ursula K. Le Guin's versions of Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) are remarkably mellifluous and should encourage us to seek out more work by this poet who—have we forgotten? —was not only the first Latin American, but also the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. Let us go back another decade in time. Two early poems also worth discovering are "And thou, expectant. .. " by Amado Nervo (1870-1919) and "Wring the Swan's Neck ... " by Enrique González Martínez (1871-1952). Listen carefully to the English of the former, and to the ideas that are expressed:
Fraught with stars the dark nights come and go
and come and go the dazzling coral days
and the grey of the rains and the fleeting clouds
... and thou, expectant.
[ ... ]
Eternal God, thou never makest haste,
But man is anxious, being ephemeral ...
And of the latter:
Every form eschew and every language
whose processes with deep life's inner rhythm
are out of harmony ...
The culprit? Samuel Beckett, who rendered these and other Mexican poets in 1958 for a Unesco project that was edited by Paz and pubblished by Indiana University Press.
Like the preceding verse, several poems in the anthology have a philosophical scope, sometimes informed by Catholicism. The intense poetry of Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972) is increasingly circulating worldwide, and it is good to have "The Awakening," "Exile," and "Pilgrimage" here. Full of existential malaise and despair, the last ends with a devastating sense of impossibility: "I have called toward never." "The Awakening," a prayer-like long poem translated by Frank Graziano, offers examples of Pizarnik's vivid, paradoxical imagery:
The cage has become a bird
and has flown away
[ ... ]
How is it I don't pull out my veins
and with them build a ladder
to flee to the other side of night?
[ ... ]
Throw the coffins out of my blood
I remember my childhood
when I was an old woman.
Other poets take on different philosophical problems, such as the "chairness of chairs" tantalizing Fabio Morábito (b. 1955) or, quite differently, the "riddle of the self," "the perplexity of living in a body," and "the obscene cage of language" explored by María Negroni (b. 1951) in a long poem full of fascinating ellipses and haunting leitmotivs. The city of Buenos Aires, ships, "arrows," and a "sad sexual rose" recur several times in this at once sensual and heady, intentionally fragmentary meditation. "Nothing has begun yet," writes Negroni in Anne Twitty's fine rendering, "nothing can ever begin / as long as our search for the absolute / finds only absentminded / arrows."
Because Stavans selects a few Latin American poets writing in languages other than Spanish, Portuguese, and indigenous languages (such as Mazatec and Mapuche), I wish he had included the Argentinean Silvia Baron Supervielle (b. 1934). She has long switched from Spanish to French as her literary language and is a highly respected voice among contemporary French poets and prose-writers. However, the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948), who also wrote in French, is present. He was the leader of the Creacionista movement, "which looks at a poem not as a reflection of nature but as a new item in the universe." This ideal may be difficult to reach, except in a banal sense. Let it suffice to say that "Globe-Trotter" is a long poem which, ultimately, can only reflect nature through its lyrical evocation of waves, wind, seagulls, the sky, beaches, and other maritime elements. Stavans, its translator, mirrors some of the original rhyme scheme, though sometimes at the expense of meaning. "Dans cette mer douce prairie / Broutée tous les printemps" does not mean "In this sweet prairie sea / Where all springs make peace." In French the "sweet," "mild," or even, arguably, "calm" sea is equated to a prairie whose grass is grazed on. In the next strophe, "Matelot du couchant" surely refers to a mariner "of the setting sun" and not "of decline," and "sails" is imprecise for "girouettes," which means weather vanes or weathercocks, indeed probably the small ones, affixed to masts, that indicate the apparent wind direction. And three lines later, when the same mariner is now standing "au fond du ciel," I would suggest that this is "at the far end" or, possibly, "in the depths," but not "at the bottom" of the sky. These quibbles notwithstanding, I am glad to come across Huidobro. Another linguistically interesting case is Myriam Moscona (b. 1955), who writes in both Spanish and Ladino. Her Ladino prose poem "The Letter Beth: The Wall" appeals to Jewish mysticism and her short poem "What Was" uses dust as a fleeting image of matter against a backdrop of nothingness; and her style is almost late-Beckettian: "and those dusts / are what were / which are this / which no more will be." Still another poet influenced by Judaism (and his emigration from Cuba to New York in 1960) is José Kozer (b. 1940), whose welcomely quirky prose poem "Naïf" concludes with the odd and troubling image of "a praying mantis before a Book of Hours."
The praying mantis threatens but the Book of Hours, although symbolic of passing time that must end, suggests something greater than the vicissitudes of the mortal soul. The juxtaposition reminds me of the vision informing Watchword, a volume by Pura López Colomé (b. 1952) that has recently appeared in translation. (One of her poems is also featured in the anthology.) "Like one of the dead / who bury their own dead," she writes in the deep-probing "Dialogue of the Ashes," "I dissolve / in a Platonic interchange / between what I left behind / and what is reduced to crumbs, / a modest, vital withholding, / a crevasse that gets murkier / the deeper you look into it." Watchword is a thought- and emotion-provoking book in that the subtext of several poems is a personal struggle with cancer whereas the texts themselves garner widely and maintain a kind of height that transcends the individual human condition. López Colomé can be graphic ("the same tears / of rapture, / grief, / anxiety, / of being wrung out completely"), but even here the context is not, strictly speaking, her specific self and there is often a movement toward generalization, away from mere confession or complaint. Poems tend to blossom out beyond the body, as it were. Note how different elements, some objective and others personal, compose "Echo," a poem dedicated to Emily Dickinson:
Behind the wall
of hydrogen and oxygen,
very clear, almost illuminated,
you allow me to think
that the Root of the Wind is Water
and the atmosphere
smells of salt and microbes and intimacy.
And in that instant comes
the low echo
of a beyond beyond ...
Alberto Blanco (b. 1951) also appears in the anthology and, like López Colomé, has recently seen one of his important collections issued in translation. Tras el rayo, translated as Afterglow, once again gets me thinking about what we see as opposed to what we invent or imagine. Take these lines as illustrations: "Something important awaits me in the morning: / grass swaying to the compass of some columns / the sky of bones echoing in the abdomen." Does the imagery reflect the poet's heightened awareness of a "real" configuration of "real" material elements—grass, columns, bones, abdomen, and the movement (swaying) or phenomena (echoing) animating them? Or has he invented a new reality, even as Huidobro (above) sought to create a "new item" in the universe? Perceptions like "stars trembl[ing] / over the grass' mane" seemingly depict a real landscape, and it's a striking pristine scene; but what about lines like "this cube of music is already true, / these wings of sky captured / by the pen offer us their familiar, / iridescent, almost real surname"? Blanco indeed notes the "almost real" surname of the wings of sky. Or does this opposition between reality and imagination, between "real" and "almost real" land-, sea-, or sky-scapes, "really" matter, at least in the context of Blanco's and, more generally, Latin American poetry?
I increasingly had the impression during my train trip, and now even more so, that the answer is mostly no. Blanco often seeks out a kind of purity wherein this opposition matters little, if at all. And it matters little whether he finds it in a tangible world graspable through sense impressions or in one reachable only through projected (poetic) thought. Perhaps they are one and the same, after all. Once again evoking a "cube" (in a book that sometimes makes use of geometric figures and scientific notions), he describes ink poured into a "cube of innocence" and then fading "onto its paper." The image sums up well the poet's eschewal of the inessential. Elsewhere he admires "beautiful forms / in the presence of beautiful forms." These are ideal Platonic forms, seemingly. Yet a search for innocence or purity hardly forecloses contact with what we pragmatically think of as the real world. In the splendid title sequence, Blanco in fact arrives "at the rendezvous / of the world and its senses." In the process, the reader rediscovers this very world—our world—as something like a whole made up of intersecting landscapes both invented and not invented. And it is as if we could glimpse what founds them, structures them, renews them invisibly.
About the Author
John Taylor's recent publications include the third volume of his essay collection Paths to Contemporary French Literature, and three translations: Philippe Jaccottet's And Nonetheless, Pierre-Albert Jourdan's The Straw Sandals, and Jacques Dupin's Of Flies and Monkeys. Originally from Des Moines, he has lived in France since 1977.
Yellow Springs, Ohio
Editor: Robert S. Fogarty
Editor at Large: David St. John
Assistant Editor: Muriel Keyes
Poetry Editor: Judith Hall