“Don’t Light the Flower”: A poetics for the Americas

Half a loaf of bread and a book.

extra belt notch
Budgetary suggestion for affording books

One of the powers of translation is that it (as act and as actual work) causes us to examine identity formations, the formation first and foremost of our own identity as translators: what we are absorbing, how our cultural structuration as public beings effaces memory in the work that is translated, in fact, destroys the work in the act of translation. Or risks such destruction. It is that bad, my friends: it is that bad. Or that good.

Translation tears a strip off me, a bark, a coalesce of snot and varnish and spit. It takes months to grow my skin back.

In this regard, one of the crucial challenges to translation today in 2012 is the work done on indigeneity, poetics and translation, by the incredible writer and thinker from the austral regions of the Americas, from Chile, the south of Chile (which is like our North in its impact on human memory, inhabitation and bearing), Andrés Ajens.

The translation of Ajens’ essays (published in Spanish in Argentina), Poetry After the Invention of America: Don’t Light The Flower, by American translator and poet Michelle Gil-Montero this year, is one of those brave and salutory acts of cultural interruption. She brings us face to face in English with an intelligence in poetics that demands a rethink even of the word “literature” and an acknowledgement of its traces of colonial endeavour, in considering what it is that poetry itself is.

 In confronting the crux where definition meets extermination, actual human extermination of lives and cultures, Ajens brings together European poetics (Celan, Baudelaire) and American (native and first Turtle Island and unAmerican) poetics pre-Conquest in a manner critical to our endeavours now in poetics AND in translation.

“Don’t light the flower of extermination for me,” writes Ajens, quoting the Pampan poet J.C. Bustriazo Ortiz and putting Bustriazo Ortiz’s poem “Archaic Ballad” in heterotopic encounter with Paul Celan’s “Einmal” from Breathturn. Two traditions, two poetries, to derive and articulate the start (for it is just a start) at a poetics that does not overwrite the laws of the poetry of the Americas with the poetry of and from Europe, the poetry of colonialism.

I recommend a read. Yes, the book is expensive… but if you can afford a dinner out with a friend, you can afford this book, for what it contains is crucial to you. Or eat less; tighten your belt another notch. As Lorca once said: If I were hungry I would not ask for a loaf of bread; I would ask for half a loaf and a book.