September 2012

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Translator as Transvestite

"Uruguayans: you have to catch them suddenly" begins the poem by Roberto Appratto and it seems like a valid assertion judging by the Uruguayan poetry in Hotel Lautreamont. The title is taken from the John Ashbery poem, referring to the proto-surrealist wack-job Conde de Lautreamont, author of Maldoror. Aside from being the first to write wereshark rape scenes, he also changed what Uruguayan literature would come to be known for, crawling from belletristic to demented, in a life span shorter than a whooping cough. Lautreamont not only established an extremely avant-garde standing for his national literature, but also widened the field of what might be considered Uruguayan. For one, he wrote in French and furthermore, he didn’t even live there when much of works were written. Hotel Lautreamont reflects some of this as many of its poets are or were living in Europe or the United States. Not a chronological study, this anthology is an incredibly diverse selection from the fantastic poetry coming out of Uruguay.

Maybe David Foster Wallace’s metaphor for the internet -- as swimming through shit -- might fit for contemporary poetry anthologies. I’m not suggesting that lots are crappy, but there’s just so much being printed, especially in a place like Uruguay. I’ve had friends bring me back small press books, and I've read literary reviews, and yet in many cases was totally missing out on the poets in this anthology. On the same note, reviewing an anthology is kind of like reviewing an entire museum, so you’ll excuse some glossing here and there.

The introduction tells us Marosa Di Giorgio is famous -- famous, you know, like Tony Hoagland is famous -- or at least, Pedro Almodovar wants to turn her poems into films. So, naturally, I flip to those first. While the first selected poems, excerpts from longer works, are neatly played, mincing with rhythm, it was kind of lost in the translation. The inner lives of objects, as played in our lives, could still be made out (flowers and insects in really banal light), however it was the pieces from the prose poem "Magnolia" I returned to:

While the rain fell and the vetch field burned defensenseless and rejoicing and even after, my parents spoke of my marriage and now it was midday in the dark home and the irises from lunch roasted under the lamp and my father spoke about the bridegroom and the tower behind the mountain that we had never visited, and his field and his unconquerable vetch field and his bee-hives.

Normally this green lyricism gets my goat (I can’t identify anything but herbs and weeds in a garden), but in Di Giorgio, the words often are a sound, a presence, more than say an object. In these eerie domestic scenes there's something twisted going on, almost sinister, and I can’t figure out why.

I guess I went to Amanda Berenguer's section of poems because her last name sounded familiar (in retrospect that's only because I know quite a few people with that last name). These were altogether different from those of Di Giorgio's. "Leonardo de Vinci and me" feels at first unoriginal, a child’s view of the adult world, topped with naďve optimism about the future: "When I was thirteen, fourteen years old,/ I wanted to be like Leonardo de Vinci". She describes some of his inventions and then recalls "Back then, Antarctica wasn’t much on my mind./ Nor was I aware, alas what would happen if poles did melt." And then she sees the famous smile, but thinks "Giaconda is freaky./ She inhabits time. It is her very house." Which of these is history? Her learning of official history is matched with her personal historicization of the event. To some degree this is what we all feel as soon as we enter the past, as though it were all there waiting for us, forever inhabiting time. The confessional in this and other poems here reminded me a bit of the Argentine Objectivists like Joaquin Gianuzzi and Juana Bignozzi, only with more willingness to overstate (a trait I am partial to).

Then I’d find other poets, read them, put it down, fall asleep. Then come back and feel like clearly something isn’t clicking, although clicking might only be important for Eduardo Milán for its sonic resonance. His poems chug along on word-soundscapes, manipulating caesura, and near-punning and almost repetition (thanks to the near-punning). Sense hardly moves the words. One listens like a foreigner to a pop song, waiting for a phrase to cling to if only to lead to some reason in this noise. In "El nihilio (The nothing know not be cause)" it's "Lights clouds, lips corners, some with hours:/ don’t say a thing drain your tongue." In "The Best of Magellan (A strait poem)" it's "A universe comes there to hear,/ having destiny as its inhabitant/ of an extraordinary time." There’s something of the epigram in long meandering (metered in the original) lines of this, and this gives you a taste for Milán’s approach.

Sometimes you get lucky with an anthology and you catch a big one. That for me was Gustavo Espinosa. Start with "Diatribe of the Poor Poet":

When Pablo Neruda corrected the proofs
to his Ode to Poverty,
he was already as big and fancy as a hot air balloon:
a poet resembling a tapir or the moon
who had clogged up
labyrinthine sewer pipes
in ocean liners, pagodas and embassies
with pompous defecations...

It builds from there, to caviar, Nixon, farting, "black-tie vultures." In the next stanza Espinosa compares himself to this Nerudian grandiosity. He's in an old folks home with no audience, dreaming of a massive chicken that "deprogrammed the tremendous text of the Aeneid" and then laid "its miserable egg/ inside happiness." Mayakovsky, Roque Dalton, Góngora all show. The last stanza moves into almost a prescriptive stance to suggest that a poet is a "mutant who wanders through ghostly/ supermarkets (Gutenberg’s)/ that are as pornographic and overcrowded as a dream of the pope". Espinosa compare this poetic figure to an old lady who croons for romance on soap operas. It's less than romantic, it's hardly serious, and yet the poems seems to have another intention, albeit it a satirical one: size. All of the allusions refer to size or lack thereof. The last lines read "The poor poet deserves to die / smaller than the black elephant / of Quintus Horatius Flaccus." The Roman lyric's poet's last name Flaccus is either a pun on skinny in Spanish, or an allusion to the supposedly grand ears of the patriarch of the Flaccus. Espinosa himself only published his first book of poems in his fifties, so I do read this as him ironizing his own obscurity.

The editors Kent Johnson and Roberto Echavarren are to be congratulated (hopefully by someone with more prestige than I got): they assembled a unique collection of poets who, despite being relatively the same age, have totally different interests and aesthetics. The only thing they have in common is that they're all worth reading. Does it even matter that this is Uruguay? What is Uruguay after all? To the poets it does I suppose, as all of them chose to write in Uruguayan Spanish. Luckily the translations have made it such that the angloparlante doesn’t have to worry much about that. The translators -- a star-studded cast in their own right -- go to great ends to make these poems work as best they can, in a few cases I spotted often vying for the obscure word. Will these writers take up new identities in English? Or is that not the point. Not sure. If the point is to have an anthology you’ll return to after the first read, and find a poem to worship in Hotel Lautreamont, it succeeds.

Speaking of Montevidayoand (prestige for that matter) Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson have written a manifesto about translation and Ugly Duckling Presse has published it. McSweeney and Göransson are the editors of Action Books, poets in their own right and professors at University of Notre Dame. I mention this to let you know that reviewing this, as in evaluating it, I can only do so as a translator and schnook, a person who reads widely and pointlessly, tangentially and cowardly. Anyway, how are you supposed to evaluate a manifesto, which by definition assumes a position of authority that screams "go fuck yourself"?

Deformation Zone: On Translation's epigrammatic, fractal form makes it difficult to synthesize, and that is surely its intention. In fact its authors coax us, provoke us into their belief that those that communicate, be it translator or essayist on translation, should be made visible. For McSweeney, translation is a dirty affair of oil-checking. For Göransson translation is putting our finger in the wounds of miscommunication between languages. What they want is the opposite of boilerplate. They want boiling plate. Make no mistake this is a manifesto manifesting, festering, and leading us to revive the corpse of language by revealing ourselves to be the dirtbags we truly are! We're also figuratively shit-eating transvestites (McSweeney quotes Divine), although I guess that beats translators as traitors. While I could appreciate some of the points here, I wonder where the political stakes are in all of this? Is there a literary practice as political (as in political economy) as translation? Isn't translation a form of articulation?

It is fantastic that "small presses" are entering arenas of translation discourse that big houses wouldn't touch with yours. Wave Books, for example, has begun publishing a series of translation apocrypha, probably otherwise limited to those with access to author archives, in pamphlet form. There are notes from John Ashbery's translation into Bengali, Philip Lamantia into Japanese, and a translation by Ecuadorian Jorge Carrera Andrade’s "Notes on the Poetry of Pierre Reverdy," re-translated into English. Philip Lamantia's translator Koichiro Yamauchi asks, "Could you tell me what is 'the ogre in the manor house'?" and "Would you tell me what Philip refers to when he mentions 'the federation of the anarchs' in 'Albania'"? Poor guy! While this is an interesting way to see a text, undressed, or at least in the changing room, you have to wonder how the translators might feel about this.

The good news I guess it that translators seem to be materializing, whizzed up like glitter in water on the transporter deck. While some have argued that reviewers should not touch on translations themselves, it seems like that'd be missing all the fun, especially when translators' work is being appreciated now more than ever.

I began this column a few years ago to write about Latin American literature, thinking I knew something about it, then realizing I knew nothing about it. I thought what was being translated into English was maybe less interesting than what was being published in Spanish, and waiting around to see who gets to be picked to be the under 40 or top 25 or best kept secret, seems more and more meaningless given the potentially virtuosic practice of taking words from a certain time and place and transporting them into another radical context. It also seems increasingly clear to me that I want to be a part of that.