|Apr/May 2015 Reviews & Interviews|
Pinholes in the Night
Forrest Gander and Raul Zurita, Editors.
Copper Canyon Press. 2014. 328 pp.
"This anthology of eighteen poems reflects my personal taste," writes Raul Zurita, "and represents, for me, the greatest poems written in Castilian in America." The anthology is Pinholes in the Night, a selection of 18 poems. A 19th poem, by way of epigraph, is twice translated, first from Nahuatl (language of the ancient Aztecs) into Spanish, from which Zurita's co-editor Forrest Gander has translated it into English. Zurita, it seems, has done the selecting, Gander the shepherding of the volume through the logistics of permissions and publication.
As, one after another, Zurita received most of the major literary prizes available to a Chilean poet, and became a mainstream figure, his new original poems have been met with a somewhat cooler reception from the new generation of Latin American poets and he has turned to editing anthologies and translating Dante's Divine Comedy into Spanish. He lived, as a young child, with a grandmother born in Italy and absorbed her love of the latter poem. The titles of his own most famous volumes are adapted from Dante, although the poems themselves are free of the terza rima form he now struggles to strictly carry over into his translation. Those same prizes extended his renown through appearances in the United States with co-editor Forrest Gander among his most enthusiastic and engaged advocates.
As General Pinochet took over Chile, in 1973, and Pablo Neruda expired in despair, Zurita, a young engineer, was arrested for having marched in support of the Socialist President Salvador Allende. It was Chilean poetry's passing along of the baton. He is said to have held the manuscript of his first book in his hand at the time of his arrest highlighting the exchange in the most forceful possible manner. The manuscript resulted in special attention, keeping him in detention on a prison ship for some six weeks until his captors could be confident that it wasn't an opposition document written in code. Once it was discovered to be mere poetry, the officers in charge of the matter threw it over the side of the ship into the ocean. The poet is confident he correctly recollected every single letter in its proper place and an exact copy was eventually published, under the title Purgatory, giving Chilean poetry its newest masterpiece. More would follow.
In 1979, the same year that Purgatory appeared, Zurita and friends founded the Colectivo de Acción de Arte, or CADA, to protest Pinochet's dictatorship and he and the group's protests have since become the stuff of legend. He has become the poet of legendary heroism in the face of crushing despair. A footnote by Gander, at the end of Zurita's introduction to the volume, provides the legend yet another chapter.
Raul Zarita's introduction was written in a fever-dream between serious surgeries with concern that it might constitute the final act of his life. He wrote the introduction from his hospital bed in one take without reference to books, quoting from memory.
What could be more appropriate? This, then, is why Copper Canyon Press has seen fit to publish the poems this poet reveres as the greatest, the most influential South American Castilian poems for his life as a man and a poet.
There is more that marks out Pinholes in the Night as unique among the flood of bi-lingual anthologies of Spanish poems published in the United States since the 1960s. The first poem is short: "The Fugue" by Gabriela Mistral. The poems that close the volume (including Ernesto Cardenal's stunning "Prayer for Marilyn Monroe") tend to be shorter. In between, Zurita's selections tend to come from much longer poems from which gratifyingly long excerpts are presented.
While some 30 pages from Pablo Neruda's "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" or 20 from Cesar Vallejo's "Spain, Take This Cup from Me" may not seem unusual, over 40 pages of Vincente Huidobro's "Altazor" is an uncommon treasure. A new, complete translation of Pablo de Rokha's (nearly 50 page) "The Old Man's Song" is reason enough by itself to consider the anthology a bargain at so modest a price.
We are informed in the translators' bios that Eliot Weinberger has published two distinct translations of Huidobro's surrealist masterwork "Altazor" and it is not difficult to see why. There is every reason to question whether the final two cantos (both included in the excerpt in Pinholes in the Night) can be translated at all. Then there is the question as to how those final cantos relate to the "Preface" and first five cantos (only one canto of which is included) toward which the nearly nonsensical texts clearly harken back after some surreal fashion.
The "Preface" as a standalone poem would have been equal to most poems in the language but Huidobro could not settle for it. He wished to gives us much more, a thing that went beyond (or at least outside of) what poetry had achieved until then. The metaphor of the parachute beautifully returns as a refrain of sorts, enriched by what has gone between:
One day, I gathered up my parachute and said: "Between two swallows
And a star." Here death is coming closer like the earth to a falling balloon.
My mother embroidered abandoned tears on the first rainbows.
And now my parachute drops from dream to dream through the space of death.
Like so much of Pinholes in the Night, "Altazor" is concerned with death. But death here is richer and more vivid than life. Death is not fixed like an earth the poet hurdles toward, it is an earth that hurdles up toward him. This is very near the beginning of the poem and matters are only going to get more disoriented from here, much more.
By the fourth canto, Weinberger is already occasionally having to abandon literal translation for the best near match that can support the sound patterns that are in the process of taking over the poem. "Aqui yace Marcelo mar y cielo en el mismo violoncello" becomes "Here lies Marcello heaven and hello in the same violoncello" in order to provide a corollary for what is becoming the most important aspect of the poem: the sound. Instead of "sea," "mar" must be translated "hello." The variation upon "heaven and sea" far better captures the growing nonsense-verse quality.
Beginning with Canto VI this kind of transposition becomes more often necessary. The text is becoming more associative, manic, more surreal, a process that began with the "Preface." Passages calling for exactly literal translation are interspersed with those that absolutely resist standard solutions (or, perhaps, solutions at all). In Canto VII the poem descends completely into word-salad, resembling psychotic fugue. The poet has been driving himself crazy and has, at last, reached his destination.
Raraurora ecoplaining laleela
The usual questions of translation must be entirely abandoned in favor of exigent methods tailored to meet the special needs of one sound-group, one line after the next. All is nonsense syllables used much like musical notes. Weinberg's corollaries are sometimes brilliant and always as good an answer as one is likely to think of. Because of these special demands, one can almost picture him making each individual decision, settling it carefully in place with a pair of tweezers.
The greatness of Rokha's "The Old Man's Song" is of an entirely different sort. The poem, little known now, is deeply human. The old man is bitter about his losses. No attempt is made to accept them and present a strong, wise persona, for which reason he has genuine wisdom to pass along.
A husband and wife team, of Carman Giménez Smith and Evan Lavender-Smith, were commissioned to do the translation specifically for Pinholes in the Night. Because of their fine collaboration we are introduced to the ironic truth and humanity of lines such as:
immortal and murderous Mother Nature,
that midwife of executions.
For all he was bitter about growing old, Rokha interests us so much because he was so capable a poet as to express it in images that portray the experience so precisely.
at this moment, I'm like a ship
that goes out to sea with every fleeting memory in the hold and
accordions for navigation...
While the deep frustration inherent in the experience is a shared one, the details of the experience itself are different for each individual. The poet's anger is fiercely alive. It does not take another poet to immediately recognize that the images here are strangely apposite.
Having been written in a much less politically correct place and time the Smiths do occasionally choose to mute the more unsightly parts of Rokha's poem. The old women that rule in the realm of old age are not "venomous," or "envenomed," as in the original, but rather are themselves "bitter." The poet did not pull up the girls' skirts when young but rather "peeked under" them. Still, far more often even the less sightly passages about relationships between young men and women are kept unaltered. To have done otherwise would have been a disservice even to the humanity of the poet and his poem.
It speaks highly of Zurito's choices that these poems successfully stand shoulder to shoulder beside the long excerpts from Neruda's "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" and Vallejo's "Spain, Take This Cup from Me." That Borges's "Conjectural Poem," Juan Gelman's "Letter to My Mother," Cardenal's "Prayer for Marilyn Monroe," and several other shorter poems are also included only adds to the long list of virtues of Pinholes in the Night. This really is an anthology that stands out from the crowd.