Translated by Carolyn Forche
Copper Canyon Press / 2021 / $18.00 / 176pp
Reviewed by Jeremy Paden
Hacer la América: Excavating the American Dream in the 21st Century
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a phrase circulated among Spanish and Italian immigrants that spoke of dreams for a better life: hacer la América, fare l’America, or to make out like America, to strike it rich. Back then, the entire hemisphere was America and seemed a place of opportunity. From 1870-1930, 9.5 million Europeans (mostly Spanish and Italian, and a good number of Germans, Russians, and Jews from the Pale of Settlement) moved to South America. Today, a full six score and four years after the great awakening of the United States of America to global politics and imperial strength, a century plus a decade after the birth of Hollywood, and seventy or so years after the birth of rock and roll and rebellious youth culture, America most often refers to the US.
In Fernando Valverde’s fourth full-length book of poems, America, translated by Carolyn Forché, the name refers to the US and the various national myths and sins of this imperial state. Valverde, a well-regarded Spanish poet, has mostly published with Visor, a leading Spanish-language poetry house. Copper Canyon’s bilingual publication of America is the debut of both the Spanish and the English poems. (Disclosure: on receiving my copy for this review, I was surprised to be listed among those thanked.)
Expat poetry, like that of Luis Cernuda or Elizabeth Bishop, tends to be a conversation with a faraway country. That Valverde would collaborate with Forché to debut these with a US house in a bilingual edition speaks about whom he considers his audience. That a poet and translator like Forché would translate the book, helps situate America within a mode and a circle of concern.
America divides into five sections. An unnamed, introductory grouping of five poems, mostly set in the present, is followed by four sections that provide an idiosyncratic history of the nation. Section two looks at histories of immigration; section three, at race relations, largely in the Civil Rights Era; section four, at the epidemic of mass-shootings beginning with the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting; and section five explicitly takes up death with poems on various kinds of death, from MLK Jr.’s assassination to Kurt Cobain’s overdose.
Readers will undoubtedly see connections to Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York. Both poets are from Granada, Spain, love flamenco, and pay homage to Walt Whitman. In addition, both books are poetic travelogues that examine the underbelly of the nation. Forché’s introduction notes a conversation she and Valverde had about Lorca’s book. Valverde acknowledges the debt and marks a difference. Lorca “wanted to write about the drama of capitalism,” he notes, while he “[has] preferred to talk about America, what it means today.”
The differences are noticeable, though. Lorca’s whirling surrealist imagery speaks to the poetic revolutions of the early twentieth century and to his psychic discomfort finding himself abroad in a new language and culture. In the end, he flees New York for Havana, Cuba. Differently than Lorca, who had not traveled much before his ten-month sojourn in New York, Valverde came to the US already well-traveled, and he has spent the last eight years living and teaching here. Though both are travelogues, Poet in New York is first impressions, while America wrestles with history and myth. America is a poetry of witness that documents and sits with the wounds of the nation.
The opening poem, “The Sons of the Emperor Celebrate Abundance at One with What No Longer Exists” unfurls in long rhythmic and prophetic lines that echo Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Neruda’s Canto General, and Ernesto Cardenal’s epic poetry. The last line reads, “And there was no home in which the hearts of men did not turn to ice.” Between Valverde and Forché there is an alignment of sound, sense, and sensibility. Both are poets of witness that work with long lines. Throughout most of the book, Forché follows Valverde’s syntax. This lets us see both Valverde’s absorption of American poetry, his search, as he notes in the introduction, to develop a more American phrasing, and the care taken by Forché in her translations.
“The Sons of the Emperor . . .” begins, “400,000 children killed to free the world, / the waters of the rivers filled with blood, / the waters of the rivers of Europe with the blood of America.” The word Valverde uses that Forché renders as “children” is “muchachos,” or “boys,” and references the American soldiers killed in combat during WWII. Shortly after this, Forché translates “muchachos muertos” as “dead soldiers.” Her choice to start with children accentuates the youthfulness of those who fight the nation’s wars. As the poem moves forward, the Seine becomes the Saigon and the dead “are the future / become a serpent / before the eyes of the prophet.” The images come from Exodus and speak of an empire whose children have become insensitive “to the hardness of the emperor / to greed / to the vile market / to the codes written with the pain of the weak.” The other poems from the opening section sit with America’s forgotten in scenes from Baltimore and Camden, New Jersey. In “The Wound Before the Tomb of Walt Whitman,” the last poem of the first section, Valverde asks Whitman: “Tell me if it is still / possible to announce triumphant justice / and deliver the lessons of the New World. // I’m going to kiss your lips, they are cold and they taste like the word America.”
Section 2, titled “Promised Land,” teaches us Valverde’s approach. In “Guinea Slaves Arrive at the Plantation of Bonaventure (Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah),” we see his archeological impulse to dig beneath the manicured lawns of the cemetery park to the beginnings of the plantation and the arrival of enslaved Africans. In “Antonio Machado Listens to the Shadows of the Sunset in Long Island,” the poet in the guise of the great early twentieth century poet Machado (who never visited the US) speaks of sorrow and loneliness. Machado is, perhaps, an even more appropriate poetic forbearer than Lorca. Last of all, Valverde personalizes the macro stories of immigration, as in the nine-poem sequence “The House in Lake Alfred” that tells the story of Gordon McNeer, a north Georgia poet of Welsh and Mexican descent.
In the loose iambic meter of the titles thus far mentioned, we hear Forché’s care. We also see it in how she renders back into English Valverde’s Spanish versions of set phrases. For example, in the poem on JFK’s assassination, Valverde notes, “The country . . . is a parking lot on the other side of the road behind a grassy knoll.” In another stanza, Forche translates his Spanish as, “voices rise like a golden city on the hill / because they have stopped wondering / what their country can do for them / and now are willing to conquer it.”
The last poem, “The Country of Lone Wolves,” picks up the strands of loneliness, sorrow, hardness, and death, to remind us, “There is always a wolf in the night of the world.”
From drug addicts on the streets of Baltimore in the opening section to Cobain’s overdose in the last one, the collection seems to say that this harsh and wild land of lone wolves consuming its children like Moloch is America. While the judgment rendered on the American Dream is harsh, the poems are born of empathy, and pray to the “Lord of snow and rain . . . [to] take pity on these men who walk.” If expat poetry looks homeward, Valverde in America, through a deep dive into the history and psyche of the US, tries to build a house in which to dwell while far from home.
Jeremy Paden is Professor of Latin American literature at Transylvania University and is on the MFA faculty in Spalding University’s Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing, where he teaches literary translation. His two most recent collections of poetry are: world as sacred burning heart (3:A Taos Press, 2021) and Autorretrato como una iguana / Self-Portrait As an Iguana (Valparaíso USA, 2021), a bilingual collection of poems originally written in Spanish and co-winner of the 2020 Valparaíso Poeta en Nueva York prize. He has translated poets from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Spain.