Dehiscent: in botany, the spontaneous rupture of a plant structure at maturity to release seeds; in medicine, the rupture of a wound with much discharge.
In this strong, propulsive collection of poems translator Forrest Gander uses dehiscent for the Spanish word diesminandose in one poem, and in the title of a second for ensimismada. López Colomé’s images draw on the dual meaning of the English word. The botanical one with the positive pitch of natural propagation of a species (picture a milk pod releasing its silk parachuted seeds) occurs for example in poems that reference the tibuchina flower and almonds, and with images of bees filled with pollen, silk flowers and blooming real ones (“My Life’s Portrait”). López Colomé though is not a “nature poet.” The substance of the poems are also wedded to the medical, colored by the idea that pain, pus, blood are pouring out of a wound. Thematically López Colomé touches on both, related concepts over and over again. The language also performs a verbal dehiscence, as is announced in the poem “Heart’s Core”:
. . . .
a certain sentence
a shard, black onyx dart,
keeps hitting the target inside me
with all its sinister, atomic
How curious that it feels less like prickling than throbbing.
that between words
we find the heart’s core,
not merely an account of it.
there, where pain isn’t forgotten.
There, where memory
in signal strength enduring
with no need
to plead its case.
. . .
You know that you are in the hands of a master who has control over language. Echoes of the cultural past (“a shard, black onyx dart”), religious imagery allusively rendered (“the heart” in its iconographic Latin American role) are interwoven with the contemporary “atomic” and the technologically yoked reference to light, “candescent.” Thematically the poet is addressing the realities of pain at the heart’s core, but which can only be pointed to “between words . . . not merely an account of it.”
While this poem relies strongly on inner feelings that seem intimate, many of the other poems tell about states of emotion/being at a more distant remove. In this next poem the reader also encounters the use of images and language drawn from the poet’s reality. From the three part poem “My Life’s Portrait,” the second section, WATERWORM AGAINST A BLUE BACKGROUND:
eight year old
on her way from the possible
to the shameful.
in the guise of a good girl
who learns to not be herself,
to sit still, all but immobile,
to adopt a pose
from this moment on
The expression on her face, fabulous.
A dress of purple velvet
with a lacy collar;
socks conscientiously folded down
to the top of the ankle
new patent leather shoes.
But her hands once again
escape the artist . . .
They reach into the future.
And they oblige
everything else to pose.
As she would pose and stare at that garden
with its interminable whirlwind
and the dizziness would intensify
until she tumbled into the grass
that when her body wasn’t spinning around,
the stars themselves were circling;
then the telescopes in her eyes
would gradually funnel
away the delirium bit by bit . . .
Because I refused to be
a still life,
I lost the only grip I had.
The very cord that set me free
was twisted around my neck
a transparent slipknot
between the bars of my fingers
as I made
The speaker ruminates on the ruptures in life; it starts with the promise of seemingly unlimited possibilities reduced on the one hand by societal expectations, and on the other hand the challenges of human existence. While the picture which emerges is dim—flickering fireflies seen through bars of fingers curving into a fist—it is not, from the adult speaker’s perspective, without humor or glimpses of happiness, the “fabulous” expression on the child’s face, the twirling of an eight year old in a garden.
This next poem continues with the child grown into adulthood. The “torment” emerges at the end, in the acorns grown into a choiring grove, a potentially poetic cliché that actually terrorizes. Gander interprets this in his introduction as an allusion to the cancer which López Colomé dealt while writing many of these poems.
Enormous solids were falling
from who knows what heights,
who knows what places.
and in my mouth
an inky taste. Ready.
enormous kernels of ice;
with a scandalous impact,
didn’t bury me, terrorized,
under the covers.
It didn’t happen, it wasn’t that.
A below-zero temperature
drove into the soft center of my bones.
A truly searing cold.
Nothing to do with monsters came to pass.
Nothing to do with endless distance.
Nothing to do with brutalities.
Only the agony of acorns.
Only a cycle that completes itself
every few years
and transforms into a tropical forest
a choiring oak grove.
Which is my terror.
In one of the longer poems “Dehiscent, Enraptured Invention” López Colomé brings another key concern of hers, the pull toward some spiritual reality, although not one tied to any traditional religious tradition.
To be able to speak
jubilant infinite moment
moment jubilant infinite
infinite moment jubilant
and as if that weren’t enough
to burn and sing
by no one
the weird world’s
distant core . . .
and what follows. There is an inner light here, with words as fuel, language in-itself pouring outward:
To be able to speak
underlinings or cursives
at the center of an immensity
without any outside pressure
knowing that the vital forces
peel away from muscle easily
and drift off
and you drown
and it doesn’t matter
since you’re protected
. . .
The first poem cited above, “Heart’s Core,” includes that image of a black onyx arrow piercing the heart, a contemporary version of ecstasy of St. Theresa captured once in Bernini’s sculpture. Here though the angel and long arrow are language itself. López Colomé makes it clear in her “Afterward” to this collection that her religious upbringing included exposure to religious poetry. She recalls that the words, the sound and movement and moving of the hearer, were her revelation, not that of a god’s visitation. As a child she confessed, “When I pray, I talk to God, but He doesn’t talk to me.” To which her confessor counseled, “Pray in your own words.” This directive she says gave her “a whole new imago mundi; a capacity to describe perceptions and emotions in a fresh way, with intimate verbs.” In adolescence she realized that “you could save the right words just to talk to yourself, without the Most Holy watching over your shoulder . . . a dialogue with my personal penumbra.” López Colomé is a religious skeptic, but definitely a fideist in the power of the Words.
Finally, the metaphor of dehiscence strikes me as a great way to understand the project of translation. The idea that a text, especially in the concentrated form of poetry, bursts out into multiple meanings in its original language, then in a translated text, and further in the two held in the tension of facing poems in Spanish and English. In López Colomé’s and Gander’s hands this bursting sometimes is propagative, at other times a lancing of wounds.
I have on my bookshelf at least five different approaches to that proto-text of vernacular poetry, Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which translators try to match the terza rima structure, others the plain meaning of the text, with all sorts of ground in between. Gander, an accomplished poet (essayist and novelist) in his own right and translator of many Spanish language writers, honors the voice and tone of López Colomé. If you pick up one of Gander’s several collections you would encounter a different voice, with his own unique concerns. Yet his approach is one of a poet with word choices that represent the meaning of the original, not the plain translation. Some of the changes are practical—both inventive and of a more mechanical, problem solving nature. The poem ‘Almendra’is in English titled ‘Almond.’ In the last stanza of the poem López Colomé draws attention to the actual word “almendra,”:
Consonantes trituridas A vowel and two consonants
sin gastar savia en balde worth the spit it takes
se repiten, se digieren to chew them, repeat, and digest
se repiten sin cesar them one after another
ene dé erre ene dé erre ah el em ah el em
n d r n d r alm alm
The translator has the challenge in a poem that uses in Spanish three consonants (consonantes trituridas) n, d, and r, which of course do not occur in the English translation, the word almond. So the first line quoted above keeps the intent but changes the literal wording, to a vowel and two consonants, which in “almond” are alm in Gander’s translation. Note here as well Gander’s mastery of Spanish colloquial speech in translating the second line to an English saying (not) “worth the spit it takes.”
Gander is able to take the project one step further, for example, in “Tormented,” when he translates “Un verdadero calor frio” not into “A truly/really hot cold,” but instead into the intended, equivalent meaning in English, “A truly searing cold.” Perhaps another English word could have been used in the place of searing, but I am hard-pressed to come up with any better.
Then there is a wholly different level of the translator’s engagement and interpretation. With true artistry Gander takes a series in Spanish “lagrimas, anhelos, nadieras” and turns it into “tears, longing, and ratty nothings.” Ratty: that’s a nice touch, as is the translation of “Aparacete tal cual, / resono” into (the Gander added italics and explanation mark) “Show yourself!”
In a world where what is truly of value received attention, López Colomé and Gander would be soon going on tour to read from this collection in the same range of venues that a popular rock group might appear. As it is, I urge anyone who wants to read moving poetry that unfolds with multiple re-readings to buy this book, and then to buy a second and third copy to put into others’ hands.
One other MLA thing worth mentioning is that Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush (of Middlebury College and Northwestern University respectively) won this year’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for their translation of Stèles by Victor Segalen, which was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2007.
NYRB published Segalen’s Rene Leys a few years back, and based on the bits I’ve read of Segalen’s biography, both of these books are on my “to read” shelf. Here’s a bit from a review of Stèles that appeared in The Believer (today it’s all about The Believer) earlier this year:
When Victor Segalen first printed Stèles in Beijing in 1912, the Republic of China had just been formed, ending two millennia of dynastic rule. When he expanded and republished the book in Paris in 1914, the Western powers were on the verge of successive world wars that would effectively end their colonial system of governance. Five years later, Segalen was dead at the age of forty-one, from either suicide or a severe foot injury suffered while taking a walk in the woods.
So when Segalen refers to “the crumbling unsteadiness of the Empire,” it’s not entirely clear to which sovereignty he’s referring, a situation made even more confusing by the fact that he was a European living in China who wrote sections of Stèles in the voice of an imaginary emperor. If this is history as an allegory for the psyche, then Segalen—unlike many writers, adventurers, and hippies before and since—didn’t go to the East to find himself. Rather, he was committed to “the intoxicating eddies of the great river Diversity,” along with a desire to saturate himself in Chinese culture.
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