"Silvina Ocampo" by Silvina Ocampo [Why This Book Should Win]

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, BTBA judge, journalist, writer, and translator from the Danish. She previously served as editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and as blog editor at Asymptote and Words without Borders. She is currently an editor at the Council for European Studies and teaches creative writing at Columbia University. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.

Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (Argentina, NYRB)

“There is in Silvina a virtue usually attributed to the Ancients or the people of the Orient and not to our contemporaries: that is clairvoyance.” This high praise of Argentinian Silvina Ocampo’s writing came from Jorge Luis Borges, who also made the distinction that it was her condition as a poet which exalted her prose. To the English-speaking world, Ocampo has become known through her short stories as a writer of the surreal, the fantastic, and the grotesque—while Silvina Ocampo, published by New York Review Books and translated by Jason Weiss, is Ocampo’s first collection of poems to appear in English.

Upon reading this collection—and “discovering” Ocampo’s poetry for the very first time—I was struck by the ease with which Ocampo shifts between the quotidian and the dreamlike. These shifts sometimes occur between poems, sometimes within poems—even within lines—guiding the reader through equal amounts of personal desperation and wild mythology. In “The Infinite Life”, for instance, the poem begins in a seemingly realistic present where the speaker ponders the meaning of life as well as life after death—but soon enough, the reader meets Atropos, the Greek goddess of fate and destiny “with her black butterfly face”; a winged horse which “passes like a beam of light through glass”; the distant empire of China and the monks in Tibet; victims of witchcraft, and the “lustrous Mediterranean.” Then, the reader is suddenly pulled back into a familiar reality:

It will not be the same river over the mud,
the burning of trash nor the cart,
the dogs in the suburban nights that
lose their way beside a cruel blond boy.

Yet just as the reader thinks she’s back on solid ground, Ocampo takes her on a new journey in the very next couplet:

There will be no queens of Egypt, nor coins
preserving their likeness, nor will there be silks.

The poems that enchanted me most, however, were Ocampo’s earlier work from 1942—arranged in the first section of this collection under the title “Enumeration of My Country.” This entire section consists of poems describing Argentina’s vast and stunning landscapes in such rich detail—and with such a powerful, almost forceful, voice—that the reader might be led to believe these poems were, in fact, written by some kind of deity. The result? I am left awestruck by both Ocampo’s Dickensonian authority as a poet (I was pleased and not at all surprised to discover in Weiss’s introduction that Ocampo’s final book of poetry was not her own writing but translations of six hundred poems by Emily Dickinson) as well as Weiss’s capacity to render Ocampo’s utterly unique poetic voice.

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