February 2012

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Leaving the Station

We travel to lose ourselves or maybe to find a new self, says Pico Iyer somewhere. The hypothesis is nothing new: boat-ride has equalled literary and spiritual pursuit since the early days of Romanticism. Few places have played a feature role in the European Romantic tradition as much as Spain has. Thanks in large part to Victor Hugo -- who had lived in Spain for some time during the Napoleonic Wars, and wrote about it in fantastical medieval motifs -- the Iberian Peninsula would be a mainstay in the hearts of foreign tourists all over the world. Much however has changed since Hugo’s days, and despite that, we still have that image of roving gypsies, flamenco, old churches, bullfighting. But cultural memory dies hard, so when the protagonist of Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station is awarded a Fullbright to write a poem based on the Spanish Civil War, he expects anything but what modern Madrid is.

Like many of its visitors, Adam wants to learn Spanish while in Spain. It seems like the obvious thing to do; and it seems like he’s successful, only that he cannot accept that he is actually learning it, given his still limited capacity for self-expression. He plans on cultural immersion, which for him means reading a bilingual copy of Quixote whenever he gets the chance, as well as smoking Moroccan hash, drinking too much, and participating in several emotionally complex relationships. As per his immersion, he also tries to avoid the other Fullbright fellows, and any other Americans, who seem to be everywhere. One passage about Americans in Spain is particularly memorable. It’s the protagonist’s two page tirade against tourists, foreign exchange students, teachers of English as a foreign language, and trust-funders (not to mention loathing “temporary expatriates”; I’d point out that expats are rarely permanent these days). Adam recalls, “Indeed, where I encountered an American I showered him or her with silent contempt.” The ones that he seems to most dislike however are the ones like him, trying to be Spanish. Of course if you don’t then you’re just another ugly American.

Then there’s the language barrier. Lerner captures his experience as language learner beautifully: Adam often must juggle three or four understandings of what is happening, a fantastic way of describing the way one feels when plunging head first into a new language.

While the novel is almost novella, the questions it leads to are large, daring, and pertinent, while never completely divorcing itself from potentially deflating irony (at one point the protagonists swears he won't write a novel about his experiences). Can one authentically travel, and if not, what does that mean for literature? That’s where Atocha Station comes in. Everything seems almost disconnected until that 11-M -- as the Atocha Station bombing, when a commuter train was blown up by Islamic militants killing 191 people is referred to in Spain -- occurs. It’s an event in the sense that suddenly all the bullshit seems to gravitate around it and make sense from it. Suddenly there is gravitas in an otherwise arbitrary world.  

The last leaves more questions than answers, which like the title, or like the Ashberry poems Lerner describes, seem clear on the surface, but ring eerily, gain depth, ambiguity with closer reading. In the end, we're too left wondering, are we supposed to be moved by this work of art? How do we divorce ourselves from that increasingly cynical critical faculty?

I should say I procrastinated writing about the book, and in the time since, have seen that there were lots of other people with great things to say about it, by which I mean that there were people much more accomplished than me saying things about the book. I got an unsolicited review copy of the book a while ago. I saw Atocha Station in the title and figured it was something about Spain. I had heard the name Ben Lerner before, and it said he was a poet, so it seemed interesting, possibly. I planned on beginning the book one night, and stayed up for the next few hours, still and silent. The greatest vacation and simultaneous provocation I've had in a long time. And I should say that a trip to Europe seems to me about as exciting as the innovation of the tomato knife and that almost seems to be what Lerner to is pointing out, the wondrous accessibility his American Fullbright identity granted him in a world that was once exclusive and elitist, which now seems boringly erudite, increasingly standardized.

As Adam is a poet, naturally poetics comes up. The two books that he brings with him to Spain are poems by Federico Garcia Lorca and John Ashbery. It is Ashbery however that serves as both a model for the novel’s prose -- gorgeous -- and as a metaphor for the protagonist’s experience. On one hand, you’re thinking, Oh, I’ve said that before, or read it, or seen it, or heard it, on the other hand, I’m thinking, that’s a really strange phrase. Take the title for instance. Leaving the Atocha Station might be a Facebook status update, that is if it were not for the “the.” You wouldn’t say The Port Authortity Bus Terminal but Port Authority, unless of course you were translating from a Romance language, like Spanish, where the article is necessary. So it’s somewhere in between. And that gets back to the point about traveling, about translation, “going native,” and authenticity.

In fact with the more distance I get from it, Leaving the Atocha Station seems really to be about the act of translation, translating as cultural adoption, implantation, which once seemed to be tied to the idea of authenticity, an authenticity perhaps only truly granted when went "goes native," existing between worlds (although that term originally referred to marrying a “native”). In our globalized world, this is something that more than just Fullbright scholars, tourists, and students face.

However I wouldn’t call it a zeitgeist (not only because I almost can’t pronounce that word). William Carlos Williams had the same questions a hundred years ago. Just look at his name. The man was a living translation, as Jorge Marzán author of The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams, explains in his preface to By Word of Mouth, an anthology of the poet's translations from Spanish.

Son of a Spanish-speaking household, Williams described himself as comfortable with the language throughout his life. While he nursed his fatally ill parents -- first his father, then his mother -- they would translate poems from Spanish together to pass the time. Williams expressed interest in translating authors from Spanish quite a few times, however his translations are not well known. He wrote in his autobiography that he would some day like to translate Lorca too, something he apparently never did, but in the meantime, he translated many others from Spanish. In fact, I wonder if he talked about Lorca because it was the only poet his audience would likely be familiar with. He outlines his idea of translation: “I don’t care how I say what I must say. If I do original work all well and good. But if I can say it (the matter of form I mean) by translating the work of others that also is valuable.”

"Don't care" is right. In everyone of these translations Williams is present, with his micro-machine poetics, coy enjambment and tell-it-like-it-is straightforwardness. The first section of the book, "Others" is named after the magazine where these translations first appeared, the first literary magazine in North America to create an edition devoted solely to Latin American literature. The choices are odd, and brilliant. (One gets the idea that these were his father's choices.) Two Colombians stand out in the bunch: José Asunción Silva, modernista, some claim the best Colombian poet ever (Fernando Vallejo does) and Luis Carlos "One Eye" Lopez. I'm not kidding they really called him "One Eye." Funny thing is those guys fretted over rhyme, are left with only reason. Williams deflates them. All the sudden these pithy, vinegary poets sound like like Robert Frost after four bottles of Robitussin. But hey this is Williams. And he's absolutely right, Williams translating is Williams, maybe even more Williams than Williams is with chickens, broken glass, prunes and all that.

Then come the 1930s, and Williams dips into the Siglo de Oro pervs, you know, Quevedo and Góngora and Anoynmous. Dirty songs with clever rhymes that seem like they're birthed into a bar napkin after a few copas. And in their midst, Miguel Hernandez. Yes, the Miguel Hernández and one other than his poem "Viento del Pueblo." Hernandez becomes martyr and iconoclast of the leftist letters for years to come, after his death in prison, apparently locked up with the playwright Buero Vallejo. Joshua Cohen explains that many of the translations of this period are a result of Williams’s support for the Spanish Republicans in their civil war. Thus the selection is often from El mono azul, a publication edited by none other than the then young and also to-the-left poet Rafael Alberti (soon to be a “temporary expat”). And so we get the first English translation of Miguel Hernandez. (It’s also interesting to this uniformed reader that Williams split with old Ez starting with the Spanish Civil War. I guess that makes sense.)

But Ez is like God, he’s everywhere and nowhere. Even when you distance yourself from him, he’s still right next to you, in this case, a degree of friend between Williams and his new source of Spanish poems for translation Vasquez-Amaral, a professor of Spanish at Rutgers. Granted there are some big names in the 1950-60s selections, but let's not get confused, Williams is the star. His picture's on the cover, as is his name on the spine. So if Williams is going to do Pablo Neruda's famed "Oda a Calcetines" it's going to sound like "socks." Here is the first section:

Mauru Mori brought me
a pair
of socks
that she knitted with her own hands
of a sheperdess,
you’d say they were rabbits.

You don't have to be a doctor from New Jersey to know this thing got Williamized. That's about as intimate and inspired as a routine check-up. But he doesn't stop there. He also takes on Alí Chumacero, Jorge Carrera Andrade (the Ecuadorian poet that Wave Books recently translated, who Williams identified as a peculiarly “American” voice), Octavio Paz, and a reason to keep living, Nicanor Parra (whose next book is to be titled "El marica de Shakespeare" and I might as well mention that fact, the blurb -- which I'm not really supposed to talk about -- has got something wrong. They have it Neruda, Paz and Parra. I guess they're thinking alphabetical order or something, but it should be Parra, Paz, and Neruda, or just Parra).

This is almost like another book of Williams poems, only that the choices of poems and poets are not his, in some cases friends sending him not only the originals, but also literal translations. Does any of this put into question Williams’ role as a translator? Hell no. In fact, it confirms his assertion that his voice, is going to be present even in translation. It’s kind of scary. The Lacanian voice -- you can’t kill it. There it is saying the word chickens. Chickens.

The anthology offers fascinating and extremely geeky notes and appendixes. If you, like me, are dying to hear footnotes about Victorian versus modern poetics in Williams' translation of Peruvian poet Jose Santos Chocano (who old man Vargas Llosa trashed in his very first piece of criticism), Octavio Paz’s meeting with Williams in Rutherford, or a letter to Louis Zukofsky about the prosody of his translations.

The question seems to be what is the object in another language? The image? Has it changed? There is an essence, I feel. And while I read all that last year, and still I'm thinking, I hear you.