November 2011

Elizabeth Cantwell


Fire Wind by Yván Yauri, translated by Marta del Pozo and Nicholas Rattner

"we are all transparent / like torrid mountain wind," proclaims the epigraph to Fire Wind. Perhaps we are, but the poems that fill Yván Yauri's book can't claim the same thing. Fire Wind is simultaneously oblique and piercing, fluid and substantial. It both announces and veils its designs -- designs on language, on politics, on the reader -- in its strange stanzas. Although I couldn't really tell you what a "fire wind" is, a Google image search pulls up gorgeous and threatening illustrations of flames tracing themselves in patterns across black backgrounds; a picture of a wind turbine on fire; the cover of a German rock group's second album, entitled Fire Wind; and an image with a leotard-clad woman engulfed in a blaze that can only be described as "sexy." And really, all of these images except the third would be valid illustrations for Yauri's work. 

Fire Wind is Yauri's second book, but the first of his four books to be translated into English. The translators of Fire Wind, Marta del Pozo and Nicholas Rattner, have done their best to make Yauri's poetry accessible to an English-speaking audience, providing more than sufficient context for their work. The original Spanish text appears on every even-numbered page, facing the English translation, and there's a short glossary at the back of the book for some Quechua words that could not be adequately translated into English. 

Of course, even the glossary is slippery: 

otorongo    from uturunku -- a jaguar that lives in the low jungle;
                   also may refer to a thin-stemmed herb that can grow
                   up to a meter in height and is used as an infusion to
                   treat rheumatism. 

The world of Yauri's poems is one in which the jaguar becomes a thin-stemmed herb -- in which the predator turns its cheek and offers up a healing promise. But is this promise genuine? 

It's not a stretch to locate the narrator of many of these poems in a jungle; Yauri is Peruvian, after all, and nearly sixty percent of his country's territory can be classified as selva: "forest," "jungle," "rainforest." His verse celebratesthe bounty and verdancy of the land, treating the earth less as mother than lover

I slip from your earthen hips
love the otorongos that breathe
savor your tidal flanks
a slope aflame
where your breasts
burst with mangroves
with latex    with mercury
warm pollen in its abyss 

The insistent sexuality of these lines seems, at first, to be a provocative description of a sort of green erotics. But the entrance of latex jolts us out of the embrace of the mangroves and into a clinical textbook, a laboratory, a CVS aisle. Sure, non-synthetic latex is a naturally occurring substance, a milky fluid meant to keep insects from eating plants. But our modern ears are quick to notice Yauri's finger pointing away from the jungle and toward a suburb somewhere, one hauling its streamlined technology -- its corporate sensibility estranged from the land -- out of a holster. His poems bear witness to a siege, a long war of attrition: 

Every time they reappear
their tentacles
more like hooks.
Drilling with hysteria
into these refuges. 

The insects have not been repelled. They fix their multi-lensed eyes on the vulnerable thin stems and hammer away. 

But Fire Wind is not merely an environmentalist's treatise, a poetic screed against deforestation or mining. Rather, Yauri's political concerns merge with the personal, the spiritual, the mental. What does it mean to feel separated from some primal substance, to feel estranged, to feel apart? When we have forgotten our names, how do we find each other? Is it true that, no matter how hard we try to control the things around us -- to somehow tame our desires and our visions, make them amenable to the mundane and the concrete -- the world will go on howling wildly anyway? There will be darkness ("we are a skein / unraveling fear"), but there will also be a glorious endurance ("we have made it this far / with a blaze / in our arms"). 

The book's preoccupation with Earth translates into a vivid consciousness of the landscape of the page. Fire Wind is divided into two parts, "Fire Wind" and "Down the Tumultuous River," and each part has its own formal sensibility. "Fire Wind" consists of eight poems that you might call "lyric," many of which wreak havoc on traditional sentence-oriented syntax and punctuation. When Yauri speaks in "Terrestrial Rhythm" of 

                                        our war
of movements against the Master's
venom      a Time
that blows through pitted alleyways
one can discern 

the color of the path, 

we have trouble deciding whether it's the alleyways or the path that one can discern, whether the "Master's venom" is Time or something worse, something unnamed. The scattered ambiguity of the form produces an unsureness in the reader, a trepidation: am I reading this right? Is this really what's around the corner, or is something still coming?   

"Down the Tumultuous River," on the other hand, is one continuous, panting exhalation, a long poem that comes out in bursts of short lines that almost always comform to grammatical expectations. Many of these poems are addressed, in an unsettling way, to "you," unsettling because Yauri uses the very syntactical simplicity of his lines to force "you" to listen, to make "you" take another look in the mirror, now unsure of what "you" might see: 

You brand your tracks
on the hairy breasts
of my rustic grandmothers. 

You are a distant speck.
The stranger on the ledge
who precipitates
an incandescent delta
through his veins. 

You are this stranger -- you are the perpetrator of these strange and estranged actions. Fire Wind uproots you, buffets you, sets the jaguars after you and then turns them into greenery mid-leap. Like some bastard combination of W.S. Merwin, Cesar Vallejo, and T.S. Eliot (yes, Yauri notes that "it has fallen to us / to hoard / these splinters / this dispersed / clarity"), the poems in this book move fluidly between political statements and personal meditations. And the end of "Down the Tumultuous River" even sounds something like a love poem: 

I am us
like globules
and thighs with eyelashes
your navel   my knees
wild ribbed mane
you are my nails 

This is a love poem ripped from the forest and thrown into the city streets, a love poem in which the narrator finds himself astonished by the gulf between his need for a partner and his fear of this joining. The Other here is both the keratin that grows from Yauri's fingers and the spike of metal fixing him in painful place. 

And even in this supremely personal moment of navels and eyelashes, Yauri continues to reach for something more universal; the Spanish globulos, like the English globules, simultaneously circulate in our veins (yes, that incandescent delta) and give birth to the stars (Bok globules). Just so, Fire Wind comes at you from an elemental place in your gut, and then, as you double over, twinkles mischievously at your discomfort from somewhere in the cosmos a million years behind us, somewhere that can't ever be domesticated. 

Fire Wind by Yván Yauri, translated by Marta del Pozo and Nicholas Rattner
Ugly Duckling Presse
ISBN: 978-1933254760
80 pages