poetry in translation

Tràs-os-Montes by Josè-Flore Tappy, Translated by John Taylor

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By Michael Collins
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A bit past midway through Josè-Flore Tappy’s Tràs-os-Montes, we find a short poem that, as well as any, incapsulates the psychospiritual essence of this book-length sequence:
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Between night and day
a narrow strip of land
where the blind body gropes forward,
trying to keep its balance, standing,
before opening its eyes (111)
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The poem, read as the book’s kernel of self, portrays the individual core of the psyche the operates in many of the others in the book through symbiotic observation of and participation in human activity and the natural world, as if “opening its eyes” were first and most deeply understood as a gesture of community. The greater collection arcs between the speaker’s loss of a beloved and several processes that foster life’s continuation in the aftermath; however, at each point we find ourselves balanced carefully between a sense of necessary grounding and continual rediscoveries of the world, the speaker’s affirmative presence within it, and its deepening being within her reverent observations and the reverberating nuances.
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Many of the earlier poems focus on Maria, a woman who works at the speaker’s lodging in remote Portugal, for which the collection is named. In some places in these poems the speaker draws comfort from the unsentimental, somewhat spartan daily routines: “peace has no face, / has four wooden feet / and customary gestures” (33). Others indicate echoes of her own ongoing work of mourning and reorientation reflected in Maria’s activities and demeanor, as here while she is sorting berries:
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She seems to be measuring
an old dream from a distance,
visiting it with her fingertips
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behind the bare windowpane
the clouds
leave stains (37)
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The parallels between Maria’s work of surviving the elements and the speaker’s of surviving loss extend to connections between inherited habits and memories shared with the beloved:
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How to sleep, though,
without returning once more
to the vegetable patch again as if
going back in time, to make sure
everything has been left behind
according to the rules,
and made ready, before the storm
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what remains behind
sometimes the only chance
for tomorrow (41)
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Through this process in portraiture, in which the quiet wisdom and dignity Maria embodies slowly come forth and deepen, the speaker develops an appreciative affinity in metaphor, a transitional bond that helps to facilitate reacclimating to the world through writing poems:
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Thin as a handkerchief
my page I scrub and clean
down to the darkness that destroys it
and is stronger than words
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while she awakens early, like a nail
boring into the cold, braving it,
moving forward,
all her thoughts gathered
into a silent point,
a single point that hurts (49)
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The speaker moves from this psychological symbiosis of the book’s opening to poems that venture out to explore the surrounding worlds. Here, too, there are subtle moments of metaphorical interplay between the literal scenes and physical endeavors and the deeper psychological movements that take place unconsciously in tandem, until they release moments of cathartic imagery rendered, as in this piece, in a seemingly impossible tension between tender and apocalyptic:
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Against fear we will set
the vigorous trail never weary
of guiding us, or of following us,
the stubborn waves that sweep away
the driftwood, their ebb and flow,
and that fragile moment when the lilac-colored sky
shatters like eggshell pressed by a finger,
opening the way to the blank hour,
when between us the cement wall
crumbles, when the sandstone cliff
vanishes, between pink carnations
and asphodels (127)
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In these travels, as well, the speaker’s deeply felt confluence of grace and interdependence inform a perspective that confers a transpersonal importance and dignity upon the people and places the poems render:
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Whoever lends his ear
long will hear the balls rolling
over the felt tables
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they strike with a light flow
what is opaque in us and rises
with sleep,
clicking mutely
on that hazy door
and keeping us alive (131)
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Whether as a result of this sacramental perspective into the quotidian, or simply as another experience of its practice, the speaker’s dedication to bearing witness to the transcendent life facilitates a return of the essence of the beloved:
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Better this faulty lamp
way back in the land than sham
comforts of brighter lights.
In this place without an origin,
remote from the living,
I find you again at last,
make you out (167)
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It remains an open question whether the speaker arrives at this felt presence of the lost beloved by seeing through to the spirit of so many images over the course of the journey – or whether this presence of the beloved, or of something that bonded the two, has been guiding these visions all along, an unconscious or spiritual guidance inverse to but allied with that of Maria’s practical, daily faithfulness.  Such questions make this work compelling for both its intertwined explorations of spiritual and psychological mystery and it modeling of an artistic practice of survival against erasure that offers back to others and the world that known grace that makes it possible for the poet.
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You can find the book here: Trás-Os-Montes: Poems

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Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines.  He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.

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The Dream of Every Cell by Maricela Guerrero, Translated from the Spanish by Robin Myers

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By Greg Bem

stories and forms of classification we didn’t yet realize how urgently we’d need to recover and weave new webs to protect us from subtraction. – (from “Olmedo,” page 19)

In the opening of Maricela Guerrero’s The Dream of Every Cell, before it even really opens, the poet writes: “For the people and communities who care for and defend the forests, jungles, mountains, rivers, glaciers, and oceans subjected to the extractions of empire, with admiration and profound respect” (page 6). This statement profoundly summarizes what is a collection of ecopoetic meditations and love poems to and for the preservation of the environment, our world, our future.

Guerrero’s collection, originally from 1977 in Mexico City, and first published in the Spanish language in 2018, and now here this year, in English, thanks to Robin Myers, feels as much a collection of poetry as it does a document of rebellion, a manifesto, a toolkit on how to think about connectedness and ecology. It is a book about individuals as much as it is about systems. It is a book about personal commitment as much as it is a book about relationships. As Myers concisely describes in the afterword, it is “a compendium of protest and praise” (page 133).

The poet is concerned with the world and anchors this book in a key figure of the poet’s world: a science teacher named Ms. Olmedo, whose teachings are profoundly Zenlike in their simplicity and provocation. Strewn through most of the poems are koan-like insights into how to approach the world, think about the cells of the world, and relate to them. There are poems on trees, on wolves, on biological principles, and investigations into truth.

Counter to preservation is destruction, and counter to the preservationists of this book is empire, is imperialism, is the destroyer. The first quote from Olmedo paints this picture and sets this stage: “All organisms are made of cells, except for viruses” (page 13), and from that flip of the page this book is a scythe cutting open and exposing the raw reality beneath the surface. It is a book that describes movement of life and death, of action and inaction, and of protection.

The language of empire doesn’t care about recognizing that a cell comes from another cell; it only wants to know which cell came first.

(from “The Language of Empire,” page 83)

How empire is found and described ecologically varies from poem to poem. In the prose poem “It’s Raining,” the reader stands face to face with all of Monsanto, greedy with the control of seeds (page 61). In “Data,” precursors to what is widely known as data capitalism is described: “The imperial language of our present day is encoded in statistics, in rivers of data flowing through webs of energy and silicone and salt” proclaims the poet (page 75). Again, this courageous book concerns the specific and the vague, the succinct and the massive.

The Dream of Every Cell is a cunning array of poetic explorations, and it is a book of dreams. It is a book of longing and the imagination. Guerrero writes in a prehistoric passion, thinking of the abstract boundaries that divide utopian paradise, the wastes of today, and somewhere urgently existing in between. I appreciate the poet’s bluntness despite of the poetic imagining. In “Rivers,” Guerrero asks: “Can we imagine a river of wolves lacing through the mesetas and sheltering streams and creeks and communities of life communicating in a language that isn’t the language of empire?” Later, more matter-of-factly, we are graced with a question on healing and treatment: “Are spearmint leaves in tea for stomach pain a form of love?” (from “Mentha Spicata,” page 51). Guerrero isn’t shy to ask us how we reach resolution in our grim world, filled with dynamics of contradiction, where the wisdom and its solutions stare as right in the face.

The book is a stunning 140 pages, and most of it is in prose, and yet it is a bilingual release that pairs the original Spanish next to the emerged English exquisitely. There is something to be said about a movement of language that goes beyond Guerrero’s Mexico into new corners of our webbed, shared existence.

shared breath resounding: breath
ungasped, unanguished,
a respite millions of light years away:
your eyes,
your eyelashes,
just imagine that, Ms. Olmedo would say

(from “Introductions,” page 23)

The Dream of Every Cell is a dense collection, filled with questions seeking responses, seeking empathetic connection. It offers to find meaning between the poet and the audience in a way most poetry books avoid; it finds heights that most poetry books never reach. Guerrero’s audience includes you, and her book is one that, with its wolves and streams and breathing, will offer you visions into a more respectful, supportive future.

You can find the book here: https://cardboardhousepress.org/the-dream-of-every-cell-maricela-guerrero

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com

Birnam Wood/ El Bosque De Birnam by Jose Manuel Cardona – Translated by Hélène Cardona

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By Mark Eisner

This book is a forest of love, the richness grown from the shared familiar roots in the fertile Spanish soil of poetry, then spread around the world.

This remarkable forest is a trove of love, grown from shared roots, originating in the fertile Spanish tierra de poesia. The love of a daughter translating her father’s words for all eternity, published just at his death. A renaissance man, and his daughter, a renaissance woman, all of their wonders, all of their life, all of their art now fused together even more through the act of translation. Both have placed their lives in the service of poetry, and it shows. José Manuel’s poetry is informed by the generation in Spain just before him –– Lorca, Machado, it’s evident in the flavors he evokes –– but he takes the baton to create his own voice, inspiring and insightful voice, propelling yet grounding, salted by his experience in political exile.

Above all, “Ode to a Young Mariner” moved me the most, its qualities emblematic of what makes this book work so well. The poem dedicated to the poet’s brother, who at the same time is the translator’s uncle –– movingly and convincingly so that it rowed my heart with warm, resonating, lingering strokes: the endearment and respect for a sibling, the duty as a mariner like the duty as a poet, the reverence that roots this family, the love that lights the words, the woods of this book.

And what a treat for those who don’t read Spanish to be able to have this collection of this truly special poet’s work finally available, accessible for their easy enrichment.

You can find the book here: https://amzn.to/2w8e5kV

Mark Eisner has spent most of the past two decades working on creative works related to Pablo Neruda. They include Neruda: The Biography of a Poet (Ecco, 2018), a finalist for the PEN/Bograd Weld Prize for Biography. He also edited and was one of the principal translators for The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems (City Lights, 2004) and is currently producing a documentary film on the poet. A bilingual anthology of Latin American Poetry in Resistance Eisner co-edited is forthcoming  in 2020. More info at www.markeisner.net.