What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our series focused on Translation, we invite poet-translators to share seminal experiences in their practices, bringing poems from one language into another. How does the work of translating feel essential to the writing of one’s own poetry? Our contributors reflect on inspiring moments as intricate as a grammatical quirk and as wide-ranging as the history or politics of another place. 

Forrest Gander on “It Must Be a Misunderstanding”

I’ll never forget reading a passage written by Bruno Schulz (and translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska) in which his protagonist, a child named Joseph, is stalked and trapped against a tall hedgerow by a howling, vicious, black dog that Joseph realizes, at the last second, is not a dog at all but, he explains, just a “man, whom, by a simplifying metaphoric wholesale error, I had taken for a dog.”

Such dream logics are at work all through Coral Bracho’s most personal and emotionally expressive collection of poems, It Must Be a Misunderstanding, dedicated to her mother who died of complications from Alzheimer’s. But instead of Schulz’s characteristic atmosphere of anxiety and terror, Bracho finds tenderness, humor, grace, and even a kind of bravery in the interactions of personalities who encounter each other in a “Memory Care” facility which Bracho compares to a “kindergarten or asylum or abstract space.” In the parallel worlds of the residents, a wall might be perceived as a man in a stiff suit, shadows might be taken for realities, light might be apprehended as traces of motion, quiet is strafed with fragments of voices, and everything exists and doesn’t exist at the same time.

I chose to translate this whole book rather than another selected edition 1 because, although composed of individual poems, It Must Be a Misunderstanding is really a deeply affecting book-length work whose force builds as the poems cycle through their sequences. The “plot” follows a general trajectory—from early to late Alzheimer’s—with non-judgmental affection and compassionate watchfulness. We come to know an opinionated, demonstrative elderly woman whose resilience, in the face of her dehiscent memory, becomes most clear in her adaptive strategies. The poems involve us in the mind’s bafflement and wonder, in its creative quick-change adjustments, and in the emotional drama that draws us across the widening linguistic gaps that reroute communication.

Surely, one of the reasons that these poems speak so potently to me has to do with the fact of my own mother’s recent death due to complications of Alzheimer’s. A long section of my most recent book, Be With, is concerned with my relationship with my mother during her last years. Now those poems are too painful for me to read, but I find Coral’s poems uplifting—as I suspect you will.

It’s typical in translations from Spanish to English that ambiguities derived from non-specific pronouns often need to be rendered more specifically. If in one line, a man and a woman are talking about a jaguar, for instance, and in the next line the poet writes “Tiene una mirada tranquila,” the translator must make a decision about whether the man (he), the woman (she), or the jaguar (it) has that tranquil look. In poems that take place in a facility where people are literally losing their minds, mistaking identities, and having hallucinations, the ambiguity of the pronouns in Spanish can take on the legerdemainish drama of three-card monte.

Bracho’s poems have philosophical and psychological underpinnings even when they are descriptive. Her work has always managed to mix abstraction and sensuality, but in this book the two merge into a particularly resonant combination. We are inside a mind, maybe many minds, considering a mystery with signal attentiveness, openness, and love.

1 Firefly Under the Tongue: Selected Poems of Coral Bracho (New Directions, NY)

Writing Prompt

Create a poem from a real, imagined, or reconstructed conversation that you’ve had with someone. How will you lineate it and why? The reader should be able to tell something significant about either or both of the speakers — something essentially defining of their personalities.

— Forrest Gander

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Jack Shear

Forrest Gander

Forrest Gander, a writer and translator with degrees in geology and literature, was born in the Mojave Desert and lives in northern California. His books, often concerned with ecology, include Be With, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, the novel The Trace, and Core Samples from the World. Gander’s translations include Alice Iris Red Horse: Poems by Gozo Yoshimasu and Then Come Back: the Lost Neruda Poems. Often collaborating with artists such as Ann Hamilton, Sally Mann, Graciela Iturbide, and Vic Chesnutt, he has received grants from the Library of Congress, the Guggenheim, Howard, Whiting and United States Artists Foundations.