poetry in translation

Commonplace by Hugo Garcia Manríquez (trans. NAFTA)

By Michael Collins 
Hugo Garcia Manríquez begins Commonplace with a unique hybrid of invocation and manifesto, clearly announcing its meta-poetic intentions in the use of both generally conceptual language and semiotic terminology. The reader is therefore immediately arranged into a mode of engagement that requires applying considerable thought. The approach is necessitated by poem’s subject matter, the connection between the aesthetic and lethal aspects of modern political power and its role in the environmental crisis, which requires not merely seeing through cultural and aesthetic facades but altering inherited modes of perceiving, considering, and valuing lives previously thought “subaltern” and therefore “dead matter.” Hence, there is a clear warrant for the poem to require concurrent thinking about how we think about poetry:
We push history to the side
Turn it into our own indexicality
Aspects, ones from others
The world that produced us
Moments. Moments to intonate aspects


I read the opening lines’ reference to “our own indexicality” as saying that we look at our history within our own context, as part of our own meaning making process within that context. This can be interpreted in two ways that inform one another. First, our world is so different from historical worlds that we, to some degree, can only accurately view it within its own context. Second, this worldview that ends at the boundaries of our own context is itself the form of myopia through which we usually approach reality, which requires continual reframing or complicating of context..

The poem then sets out to consider the aspects of our world within the context of various “moments” of “the world that produced us.” This sounds a lot like a very abstract description of a lyric poem: We are, ourselves aspects of the world, considering other aspects by separating them from one another in discrete poetic moments. However, Manríquez then moves into “discussions about poetry / that are in the end discussions / about politics”: “in those moments / the poems intonate aspects // Aspects gathered and aspects kept apart.” It’s difficult to imagine a poem approaching poetry itself from any more detached, more objective position and language, and it creates an affect toward poetry itself that is distinctly unsentimental and rational. This succeeded in making me curious about why someone would open with such an unexpected tone and perspective, and I wanted to read on. Hence, it was a successful first page.

Continuing, it becomes clear that the objective meta-poetic position is essential to establish because the reader will be asked to question assumptions about the role of literature in our culture and politics. We are often required to think through connections between the parts of an assertion and question its validity for ourselves: “When we read literature we read the budget / of the Mexican army (21). Here we see an early glimpse of the connection the poem will elaborate between the aesthetics within which power shrouds itself and the violence that enforces it. A similar construction invites the reader to connect this constellation of power with what we think are “our private lives” – and the poem’s potential role in them:

A poem is part documentary
part inferno
But first something
about our private lives:
The budget of SEDENA (75)

In order to interrogate this aesthetic-military complex, the poem invokes the Dantean moral quality of guiding the reader through its hellscape, the process modernized by focusing on litanies of documentary evidence. The sardonic aside to “something / about our private lives,” which are constituted by the defense budget, is perhaps a modern echo of “abandon hope all ye who enter here” that evokes the voiding personal meaning by a culture based on subordinating heterogeneity. In this context poetry serves to document not hope but the truth of the hollowness of lives constructed and defined by arms sales and the power they underwrite.

However, this recognition of emptiness is foundational, not nihilistic. The empty space previously assumed to be “our private lives” becomes one in which peoples and cultures previously silenced might approach voice and listening, perhaps a more polyphonic world – or at least an approach to the world that understands that it is polyphonic already:

a new nothing
traverses the poem
as capital
traverses the century
reactivating insurrection
the insurrection
of objects
the uprising
of matter (71)
Manríquez articulates a poetics given life by what have been assumed to be “objects” and “matter” by the perspective of the dominant culture. Poems being cultural products, this revisioning necessitates the degree of self-definition we noted at the opening of the book, in order to differentiate from the inherited cultural expectations of poetry itself.
Arriving at this “new nothing” involves “new articulations” that “are inserted / with constant moments” (23), which seem to replace the personal lyric moment in a corollary to our inner lives having been replaced by military budgets. The oxymoronic phrase “constant moments” highlights both the vapid and generic qualities of these instances, as in the “11,231 constant moments” involving guns sales “designed, produced, and sold / to the Secretary of National Defense” (25). However, in juxtaposition, “constant moments” are also produced by the biome’s endemic wildlife, for example, the
monkey (Alouatta palliata) with its specialized
oral apparatus with its hybrid bones
and larynx developed
forming with the mandible a resonating chamber
that allows the powerful amplification of
the sounds, aspects gathered together
aspects kept apart (25)
Placing the military budget language on the same level as the objective zoological description has the effect of establishing each as an independent world. Yet, we know from the rest of the poem that these worlds cannot coexist. Again, we are asked to think through the ramifications, in this case of the zoological language that acts as a mirror of the scientific aspects of our thinking, describing the creature in ways that from its perspective bring forth some of the wonders of the creature’s organism, but are also quite foreign to its being.
The pathos of this section, which we can only arrive at by thinking though the logical parallels in subject-object relationships, is that we are the creatures defined by our defense budget in the same way that the monkey is described by anatomical jargon. We are still connected to the natural world as was the case in the romantic worldview left far behind in this poem, yet no longer by of a shared soul, so much as a shared subjugation that we can logically comprehend by the examination of the “aspects gathered together / aspects kept apart” that interestingly echo the poem’s opening disclosure of its own processes. Unfortunately, there is far more complexity here than this short piece can address; fortunately, the book is in print.
The poem’s conception of the lyric as a contemplative space also necessitates consideration of the relationship between poetry and time, which we see in the elaboration of “Constant moments / that seem to begin and only begin” (33), such as:
Bombers that are an extension
of the impact on my mother’s cheekbone
when I was 17
I haven’t thought about this situation
for a long time a time that is non-transferable (31-3)
Time in this poem does not stop, reverse, repeat, or any of the other things it may appear to do in consciousness. We inhabit the perspective of chronological time, in which we know that consciousness cannot bring back species that are made extinct or people blown up by bombers no matter how timeless it may appear evoke them in poems.
Perhaps the most pointed result of these reexaminations is Manríquez’s conception of the writing as a continual choice that his poem has endeavored to clarify:
When writing, we do not
romantically confront the blank page
Rather, the confrontation
is historical:
take the side of Sigűenza y Góngora
and protect the Library from the masses
as Mexican letters have done
for centuries
                take the side of lifeforms
the side of the forms of language that
sprout from the riot (57)
Here again, taking the side of nature no longer means to loaf and invite one’s soul, but to think self-reflexively about the threats posed by our own cultural complexes to other perspectives and creatures with whom one shares the world.
One approach to this cultural reflection is to seek out and amplify dissonant perspectives from history such as those contained in the Popol Vuh, which “records the rebellion / of the objects and animals / against human endeavors” (63). The history of Western civilization’s creation of such histories as byproducts of its subjugations gives rise to this role of Manríquez’s poem in our contemporary world:
The historical forms of the continental imaginary
recorded the rebellion of that irrational, subaltern
dead matter
Those forms registered the basic
operation of poetry: the interruption
Within that revolt exists an immanent historical lesson (65)
The “immanent historical lesson” is the way that the forms of “subaltern / dead matter” manage to interrupt the dominant discourse that subsumes them. In their “interruption” of even the texts that contain them, they represent the countercultural basis of poetry, the “immanent historical lesson” about which beings we identify as alive.
Reading these lines, it is apparent that the emphasis on thought in the poem does not render it devoid of emotion or empathy. The reference to the colonial view of whole peoples and biomes as “irrational, subaltern / dead matter” evokes both the degradation inherent in this view and the chilling way in which such thoughts formed – and form – themselves into prophesies that can become self-fulfilling if allowed to continue unchecked in their own self-confirmation due to the failure to recognize counterarguments. The pathos of the poem arises in conjunction with our apprehending from the outside of such a perspective, aspects of which perhaps at one point were unwittingly assumed as our own.
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.


Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling by Riad Saleh Hussein, Translated by Saleh Razzouk with Philip Terman


By Greg Bem

Riad Seleh Hussein’s work has been a long time coming. Impassioned by political activism and experimental writing, Hussein’s work is not to be missed. Following a short but active youth, the Syrian poet (1954-1982) died due to unknown causes after a brief arrest and despite Arabic publications highlighting his contributions to prose poetry in Syria and the Middle East, English readers only now get a gaze into his world. Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling is a powerful book unlike any other and I hope it find its way into many libraries, personal and beyond.

The poetry here is often compared to prose poetry, but one might find more similarities in English to Amiri Baraka and Ray Bremser, with long, sword-like lines cutting out across the page over, and over, and over. The effect in English is hypnotic and stunning, concussive and paralytic, though Hussein’s work is charged with density and relentless presentation of fantastic lines. But these lines are not without difficulty, because they aren’t afraid of war, they aren’t afraid of hardship, they aren’t afraid of carrying the voice of the people, and the country, of Syria:

O poor knives
O dirty human body
O dogs stuffed with sausages, love and the aroma of mint.
I am Riad Saleh Hussein
My age is twenty-two dry oranges
And hundreds of massacres and coups.
Thousands of times my hands have been terminated
Like two trees of happiness in a desert.

(from The Pure Artist and a Clean Flower, pg. 28)

I am reminded of the prose poetry of Burmese writer Maung Day here. I am also reminded of the Hmong poet Mai Der Vang’s recent book of documentary poetics, Yellow Rain. Concerning the lines or the sum, not all of Hussein’s poems are long, of course. Some of the most spectacular moments in the book occur with short, concise poems that are packed with image, metaphor, and a longing to provide words for impossible situations. At other times, these short poems feel like songs or prayers, exquisite and heavy at once:

Forever we shall lead you into the springs.
Forever we shall dry your blood with our green fingers
And your tears with our dry lips.
Forever we shall pave roads for you
And never let you get lost O Syria
Like a song in a desert.

(from Syria, pg. 21)

Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling is not a long book, but it contains the best picture of Hussein that we have in the English language. Many thanks should be given to translators Saleh Razzouk and Philip Terman for their efforts in bringing forward these poems. The book is divided into three sections and includes a swathing survey of Hussein’s work, opening the door for more translations to come. The collection includes historical information, including an opening essay and a timeline of dates centering the poet’s life. It also includes an homage by Terman, reinforcing the impression and inspiration Hussein’s poetry creates.

The sense of love in Hussein’s poetry is second to none, and this love is clearly integral to the poet. In one of the latter poems of the book, a five part love epic, he closes:

What do we do
if there is only one jubilee for the kiss
and many jubilees for the killing.

What do we do?

(from Jubilee for a Kiss, Jubilee for a Killing, pg. 78)

This is a universal love poetry, one that responds to the cycles of violence faced across the world, time and again. That we can appreciate it is a gift. That it can be present during the many breakdowns facing the West is a gift. This is a poetry that will lead us to new forms of resilience and an ongoing commitment to the poetry of the lyric.

You can get the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781734653526/tango-below-a-narrow-ceiling.aspx

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

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

By Michael Collins
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:
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)
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.
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:
She seems to be measuring
an old dream from a distance,
visiting it with her fingertips
behind the bare windowpane
the clouds
leave stains (37)
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:
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
what remains behind
sometimes the only chance
for tomorrow (41)
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:
Thin as a handkerchief
my page I scrub and clean
down to the darkness that destroys it
and is stronger than words
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)
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:
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)
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:
Whoever lends his ear
long will hear the balls rolling
over the felt tables
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)
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:
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)
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.
You can find the book here: Trás-Os-Montes: Poems


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.




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


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


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.