Berenguer, Amanda/Materia Prima: Selected Poems of Amanda Berenguer/Eds. Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson/Ugly Duckling Presse/2019/$22
Gimferrer, Perre/The Catalan Poems/Trans. Adrian Nathan West/Carcanet/2019/$21.99
Gorga, Gemma/Book of Minutes/Trans. Sharon Dolin/Oberlin College Press/2019/$16.95
Gomez, Lupe/Camouflage/Trans. Erin Moure/Circumference/2019/$13
Rodríguez, Reina María/The Winter Garden Photograph/Trans. Kristin Dykstra with Nancy Gates Madsen/Ugly Duckling Presse/2019/$18
reviewed by Jeremy Paden / October 2021
In 1828 in the journal About Art and Antiquity, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “Left to itself every literature will exhaust its vitality, if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one.” Though the discipline of literary history has borne out the truth of this affirmation, according to the founders of the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) only about 3% of books published in the US are translated works. One can hear an echo of Goethe in their assertion “that reading literature from other countries is vital to maintaining a vibrant book culture and to increasing the exchange of ideas among cultures.” The BTBA was created in 2007 to promote fiction and poetry in translation. Each year since then, they have nominated and awarded a prize in both areas. The 2020 longlist for poetry included two books by Latin Americans, two by Catalans, and one by a Galician.
The formal revolution that unmoored poetry from the constraints of rhyme and meter at the beginning of the twentieth century also opened lyric poetry up to the epic, philosophic, and descriptive modes. We have been writing in the wake of this upheaval ever since. All five of the books considered here explore the possibilities of formal experimentation and play with the boundaries of the lyric voice. All include prose poems, employ various linguistic registers, and play meta-literary and self-referential games. Each volume also includes ancillary materials (author interviews, introductory essays, textual commentary, musings on translation) that help situate the poet and speak to the craft of translation.
In Materia Prima: Selected Poems of Amanda Berenguer, Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson gather a sampling of the mature, experimental verse of the Uruguayan poet Amanda Berenguer (1921-2010)—works written and published between 1966 and her death— as rendered by eight translators and poets. In 1966, Berenguer, a member of Uruguay’s famed Generation of 45, published her tenth volume—also titled Materia Prima—and left behind formal poetry. While Berenguer sought out new modes of expression from volume to volume, she circled around a set of interests: cosmology, mapping, phenomenology, non-orientable objects (like the Klein bottle and the Möbius strip), and various kinds of ekphrastic poetry.
In the section titled “Composition of Place (1976) and other visual poetry from the 1970s,” Berenguer turns to the carmina figurata of Apollinaire’s and Huidoboro’s calligramas and the Brazilian concrete poetry of the Sixties and Seventies. In these poems, she uses math—graphs, equations—to plot her poems. Urayoán Noel translates this very challenging poetry. Rhythm and rhyme, we know, are deeply dependent on what particular languages allow. Berenguer’s experimentation, whether in the poem plotted as a graph or the crossword-puzzle arrangement of other examples, is equally dependent on the strange particularity of a language. This play is not dependent on sound but on the graphic element, on how letters in words intersect one another. These ostensibly speak about celestial and terrestrial mapping, but written in the 1970s during Uruguay’s military dictatorship, they also chart the political violence and terror of the time.
Berenguer’s interests in mapping, ekphrasis, and possibly even in non-orientable geometric objects come together in the sixty-three-section prose poem, “A Study of Wrinkles: Contributions to the Field of Cosmology,” that mixes longer multi-sentence and multi-paragraph entries with one-line aphorisms, like section eight, “Wrinkles are the straw from which old age builds its nest.” Or fifty-six, “That special way that facial wrinkles or caterpillars have makes me think that the face must be as tender as lettuce and as easy as a ripe pear.” Section fifty-six turns on the aural pun of arrugas (wrinkles) and orugas (caterpillars).
Even as Berenguer’s language games explore the particularity of Spanish, the influence of modern world poetry runs through her verse. Her last collection, for example, turns to Emily Dickinson to explore “The anthology of Death—.”
As the title suggests, in The Catalan Poems Adrian Nathan West selects only from Pere Gimferrer’s Catalan poetry. Gimferrer made a name for himself writing in Spanish as part of the Novísimos, a group of young poets interested in the Baroque and Neobaroque. His second collection won Spain’s 1966 National Poetry Prize. In 1970, he turned away from Spanish, the language of his formal education, to write in his native Catalan. Gimferrer writes in both form and free verse, and West, it seems, follows Gimferrer’s formal constraints, translating when called for into apt and surprising rhyme. Comparison is unfortunately hard as this is not a bilingual edition.
The anthology’s first poem, “Snares,” from Els miralls, has a Wallace Stevens epigraph, “Poetry is the subject of the poem.” After running through a catalog of poets from Goethe to Rimbaud and Yeats and an extended section on Orpheus and Eurydice it confesses:
This poem is
a succession of snares: for
and for the editor of the poem.
The meta-textual and self-referential games played in this poem and others are more than the creation of a closed literary world; instead, they are the outward-facing political act of crafting a literary language. Both Catalan and Galician were respected medieval literary languages that fell into disuse; both experienced a Romantic Renaissance in the early nineteenth century, only to be squelched by chauvinistic nationalism; both, likewise, resisted Francoist censorship and by the 1960s writers had created the beginning of a modern literary tradition.
The last poem of the anthology, titled “Lay,” after a late-medieval poetic form, begins with an epigraph by the fifteenth-century Catalan poet Ausiàs March and makes the political thrust of the volume clear. It moves through a series of conjectures about what affliction, censures, and conquests might teach concerning expression to affirm that even
if we do not know the word of the last rites of dead air, of air buffered by wind,
the plutonic blister of air, still we know that to live is the Latin the bird spoke as it chanted to Percival. . .
And it concludes with images of political resistance, “we clasp the flickering wick of the bomb. . . a red kerchief daubed with blood.”
The book ends with a selection of micro-essays from Gimferrer’s award-winning Dietari (1979-1982), or Diaries. These lyrical meditations on language, death, and the role and nature of art, as well as the figure of the writer and artist present true and fictionalized accounts of brief moments taken from the lives of various writers and artists and provide a window into the poet’s wide-ranging readings. The placement of these at the end disrupts the chronological organization of the book, yet their commentary on writing and language help frame the anthology as, among other things, a linguistic, cultural, and political project.
Written in free verse with a smattering of long prose poems, The Winter Garden Photograph (1988), by the Cuban Reina María Rodríguez, was her second book to win the prestigious Casa de las Americas Prize. In Naomi Lindstrom’s 1999 review of the book, she stated it would be difficult to translate and of interest mostly to an audience of readers who specialize in Cuban literature. Thankfully, Kristin Dykstra worked diligently for over to a decade to translate the book, and her work was longlisted for the 2020 BTBA and National Translation Award and won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.
Self-revelation and self-concealment take place simultaneously in Rodriguez’s poems. For example, the poem “possession” begins by announcing,
I don’t confirm having come back. or having been there.
my mental travel can mean
taking possession of a memory that persistently
This mental travel, these memories recounted in the first person, might not even be those of the poet. The title poem—which explores a childhood memory through an old photograph—is an ekphrastic poem on a photo of Roland Barthes. At no moment does the poem clarify who the speaker is. Indeed, the poems of this collection, many of which are ekphrastic and seem to be confessional, complicate facile autobiographical readings. As such, they stand in stark contrast to the confessional, direct, and politically committed poetry sanctioned by the Cuban literary establishment.
The prose poem “a moment of blackness,” dedicated to Minnie Marsh, a fictional character in Virginia Woolf’s short story “An Unwritten Novel,” burrows into the indeterminacy of the speaker’s voice. At a certain point, Minnie Marsh (a made-up name for an unnamed character in a story that explores the line between truth and fiction) walks out of a complete edition of Woolf, into Rodríguez’s Havana, and moves into the body of the speaker’s lover. From then on, the speaker’s thoughts and questions track with the themes explored in Woolf’s story, down to how the poem undermines the confessions made.
If Rodríguez uses a personal, confessional voice that conceals as much as it reveals and that resists simple autobiography, the Catalan poet Gemma Gorga in Book of Minutes (2006) refracts the personal voice through everyday objects. This book is a collection of sixty numbered but untitled poems, an hour’s worth of prose poems that range across the seasons and turn the briefest of moments into polished gems. Quite unlike much modern Catalan poetry, Gorga’s poems are not overtly political. They focus on small, insignificant moments—a dinner shared among thirteen guests (poem “1”), a walk in the rain (“16”), a librarian putting away a book (“31”), the clearing of a table (“33”), a Buddhist monk striking a prayer bowl (“57”)—and contain echoes of fairy tales, of wolves and vampires, Mary Poppins and the Eucharist. At times, they make deeply personal confessions, as in “36” where the speaker remembers a Romanesque fresco and states, “You have emptied my life of angels and left me with the painful clairvoyance of member.” Or, “59,” “I arrange the pieces of my skeleton, as though they were the twenty-eight domino pieces.” Many are dusk and evening poems that explore solitude and death. Yet, while melancholy in tone, they also sing about the need “to seize from life the last morsel of light” (poem “1”). These also consistently return to language and the magic of words. Often, economy of diction is sacrificed in translation for the sake of clarity and context. Sharon Dolin, though, trusts and preserves Gorga’s terse language as it moves between an intimate, first-person voice and stranger moments, like when it seems that the speaker is a book in a library or a cracked plate. Dolin’s introductory essay reminds us that passion guides and sustains translators in their work; indeed, she taught herself Catalan to translate Gorga.
Camouflage (2017), by the Galician poet Lupe Gómez, is a mix of free verse and prose poems that eulogize a mother and rural mountain life. Erín Moure, the translator, notes how these poems bring us the “inappropriable and exorbitant” by focusing on “the body, women’s bodies” and on community (109). Early in the collection, Gómez writes,
You had no dreams because women in villages don’t dream.
The economic backwardness of Galicia was a form of artistic avant-garde.
This weaving together of the personal/domestic with the political runs throughout the collection.
We all went to bed and left you in the political silence of the hearth. Sometimes you dozed still holding a cheese.
The village glowed, like a guerrilla girl in the Viet Cong.
Gómez weaves together multiple voices, not just her own, to provide a picture of a forgotten community, forgotten and marginalized because of agrarian poverty and linguistic chauvinism. Yet, she reminds us, “The language resists in the stomach of the dead farmer.”
These five books span fifty-one years of modern poetry and represent three nations (Cuba, Spain, and Uruguay), three languages (Catalan, Galician, and Spanish), and four literary traditions (Catalonian, Cuban, Galician, and Uruguayan). While Gómez and Gorga dive deep into Galician and Catalan and seem not to engage the wider world, the other collections, to quote Rodríguez, have “searched foreignness / for escape and the permanence of definition.” All of these poets explore the possibilities of free verse and lyrical prose: Gorga polishes her language into tight, gnomic prose poems; Gómez incorporates hers into a documentary project; Gimferrer blurs the line between fiction and literary essay; Berenguer maps her body; Rodríguez complicates facile notions of confessional poetry as autobiographical. These poets also explore the political potential of lyric poetry, denouncing political violence, resisting official aesthetics, and giving voice to marginalized languages.
Jeremy Paden is the recipient of an Al Smith Award in Poetry and 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. His illustrated and bilingual children's book, Under the Ocelot Sun / Bajo el sold del ocelote (Shadelandhouse Modern Press, 2020), co-won a 2020 Campoy-Ada prize for Children's Literature. He has translated poets from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Spain. He is Professor of Latin American literature at Transylvania University and is on the MFA faculty in Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing, where he teaches literary translation.