Reviews

The decidedly American, Whitmanic grain

A review of Matthew Henriksen's 'Ordinary Sun'

Ordinary Sun

Ordinary Sun

Matthew Henriksen

Black Ocean 2011, 120 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9844752-2-3

To address Matt Henriksen’s poetry, we start with a passage from Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:

… from the eyesight proceeds another eyesight and from the hearing proceeds another hearing and from the voice proceeds another voice eternally curious of the harmony of things with man.

I cannot think of a better definition of poetry’s visionary impulse. The poet employs his or her senses in the service of a perception that is not of the order of this world. It is a mode of perception that points to another world right here in our everyday homelessness. The key to the visionary impulse is in our mutual sympathy: if the poet is curious about “the harmony of things with man,” then we too can be curious. The aim of the visionary impulse is to explore the endless ravishments and ravagings — harmony’s dualities — of the unacknowledged worlds within our world.

Matt Henriksen is a visionary poet in the decidedly American, Whitmanic grain. His first book, Ordinary Sun, is a record of his process of discovery and invention as he has harnessed various strains of the American Visionary. Throughout the book we find Blakean prophecy as filtered through the Beats’ rebellion against the limits of stifled selfhood; we find James Wright’s pessimism bound in pastoral; we find a Stevensian beatitude; we find Romantic Brooklyn (R.I.P.); we find the haunting Southern convulsions of Frank Stanford; and we find the transcendentally homespun observations of the Williams lineage. 

This list of Henriksen’s influences, though incomplete, should indicate the calico quality of Ordinary Sun. Its varied inspirations are never far from the textual surface, while prosodically the poetry bounces between the baroque and the plainspoken. In terms of tone, it is a book of extremes. Take for instance its opening stanza, from the quietly powerful patchwork, “Copse”: 

An eye is not enough.
A hand rubs an unpainted fence. 

Compare this to the book’s final poem, “Ordinary Sun,” a simultaneously propulsive and idling text that at its opening declares:

The Center that Pretends to Start the Engine
Ignores the Regime of Endless Centerlessness.

The contrast between beginning and end should be telling. In “Copse” the straightforward statement that “an eye is not enough,” suggesting an uncanniness of the body (of being homeless in one’s body), gives way to a subtle, visionary treatment of bodies moving through domestic space. In “Ordinary Sun” the center continually gives out as the poem thrashes through various registers, from the bombastically surreal to the plainspoken. The book ends where it begins: with a disarmingly straightforward couplet, suggesting this time a literal homelessness: 

When she came to the curb
I held out my paper cup. 

Between beginning and end is a dappled collection of poetry that stems from a deep engagement with the doubled, dual perception of the sort Whitman espouses in his Preface. If the couplet is the stanzaic form that best conveys both duality and the turning of thought, it is no surprise then that it is the most commonly employed form in the book. Henriksen is a strong turner. Viz:

We’ll miss the world bitterly.
We’ll go on without it.

(“Ordinary Sun”)

Light from the garage: hands from the tree.
Memories stopped making sense.

            (“Gorge”) 

Sometimes she’d touch
a body in her empty bed.

            (“Gorge”) 

At such moments Henriksen touches a sort of Stevensian grace. In fact, the Stevensian Moment — when the turning of thought is seduced by a hypnotic prosody — peppers the poems throughout Ordinary Sun. It can be heard in phrases like “all edges edging,” or “cloudless marrow burning stones,” or “Birds beyond the window cried the glass.” At other moments — no less charged with Vision — the rhythms are softer, the images homelier: “A bucket in the garage burned.”

What is interesting about Henriksen’s disparate influences, prosodies, and attentions are the tensions that arise between them. One could dismiss this mottledness as an indication that Henriksen has not absorbed his influences, though the presence of so many lineages converging in his poetry is one thing that makes it unique. It is refreshing to read a contemporary book of poetry that is diverse in its attentions without boasting its diversity. This evidences Matt’s fidelity to poetic process, which is finally a fidelity to poetry. But to place process over product — especially when the poet is not working in fixed forms — will lead to varied results. And the results are varied in Ordinary Sun. Take for instance these four lines from “Carolla in the Midden”:

In refuse we find a hidden refusal
to die, a shape

that never forms, a blinking eye
that will not shut. 

The first turn — “In refuse we find a hidden refusal / to die” — embodies a negative truth on level with Williams. It offers a clean angle on the connection between garbage and death that, though abstract, is married to sense. But “a shape // that never forms” is overly abstract, and “a blinking eye / that will not shut” is easy surrealism. These second and third turns are both abstractions severed from perception — they veer into a realm of entropic symbolism. The impulse here is visionary, but in moments like these Henriksen loses his vision.

While I feel that in these lines Henriksen is attempting to stretch the poetry beyond its impulse, they do stand as further evidence of his motley poetics, combining as he does so many seemingly contradictory influences. One of Jack Spicer’s many characterizations of the act of poetic creation was of the poet wrestling with the limits of the poem. Here Matt is wrestling with the possibilities inherent in past poetic traditions by reconfiguring them in new ways, as he does throughout the book. It just doesn’t always work.

When Henriksen’s attentions follow objects perceived, employing a visionary perception rooted in the senses, the poetry is strongest:

We set our bodies on the grass.
Stones held our breath. 

            (“Copse”) 

The plainspoken tone here conveys a densely charged moment. The scene described could be one of astral birth, just as much as bodily death. There are dual undertones of the terror of disembodiment and of creature comfort. It is a true marriage of the quotidian and the visionary, the Of This World and the Of Another World, the core dualities of Henriksen’s purview.

While moments of Ordinary Sun seem oddly abandoned, I find a poetry that makes visible its lacunae — or its scars — much more engaging than another well-wrought urn. Maybe Henriksen knows when the spirit of the work has left him, when the corpse of the words on the page is all that’s left. Rather than cut open the corpse and attempt to Frankenstein a new poem, he lets us readers do what we will with what he has.

Of course I am hypothesizing here, projecting a philosophy of poetic composition onto Henriksen’s practice based entirely on my own bias. Maybe “a blinking eye / that will not shut” will be the one relic from this book to survive a millennium from now, after several apocalypses have occurred and only shreds of shreds of our era remain. If so, so be it.

But here is the point: Ordinary Sun offers a variety of visionary embraces of ordinary life, and in much of its prosody is an acute awareness of the ways inspiration momentarily inhabits and slips away from us. Poetry does not care whether the poet is able to finish the poem. Matt Henriksen not only knows this, he has reckoned — and wrestled — with it within the space of poetry itself. 

These books need to be collaborated with

A review of Debrah Morkun's 'The Ida Pingala' and Aimee Herman's 'to go without blinking'

The Ida Pingala

The Ida Pingala

Debrah Morkun

BlazeVOX 2011, 100 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-60-964074-3

to go without blinking

to go without blinking

Aimee Herman

BlazeVOX 2012, 156 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-60-964080-4

Debrah Morkun’s new book enacts commingling (“here is my torn dress made of semen”); is a non-monetary fiduciary — an ethical holding between the Ida Nadi (lunar Nadi, site of comfort, nurturing, said to control mental processes and to be the site of the “feminine” aspects of personality, represented by the color white (“the forest was open”)) and the Pingala Nadi (solar Nadi, stimulating, said to control vital somatic processes and oversee masculine aspects of personality, represented by the color red (“a virile member of the eternally repeated word”)).

This book is: “two ancient things combusting” … “sperm glass egg socket.”

Nadis are not nerves, they are channels; conduits. I often consider Nadis as elongated mini trenches. As veils removed from the vein for the sake of flow. Always to increase flow. If only, to increase flow toward pure desire. Morkun’s The Ida Pingala is a toward. A toward and a through. This toward and through is relevant in considerations and pursuits of Kundalini (coiled/corporeal energy), of which Morkun’s The Ida Pingala is interested.

Kundalini has an extremely compelling relation to the possibility of unlocking or inhabiting pure desire. This desire is not inherently in/of the genitals. It is located in the base of the human spine and needs to be cultivated toward the genitals. The Ida Pingala is a draw by libidinal amplitudes. It is by way of this libidinality that Morkun brings gender and sex (as elements capable of relation with each other and with other elements) into her book.

The content of this book moves in and out of many different types of relations (from “a glittery Honda Civic” to “the halls of saints”). Objects, individuals and sensations interact here. The Ida Pingala (without particular delineation of such movements) funnels and simultaneously switches as matter passes through it. Is this book a handbook for working with the eroses of the psyche from within embodied states?

The Ida Pingala’s cover is comprised of a dual statue: exhibiting both a stone woman and a stone phallus. Here, seeming opposites are brought in aspect-based relation to each other; are in an energetic cull toward uniting. And we, as readers, are swallowed up in this funneling and switching.

The work (with uniting) that Morkun engages here, is something that reveals Morkun’s genius re: torque-instigations of previously perceived oppositions. This book is a virtuous hunt for fusions (“motley firmament”), for strange exposures and disclosures that are revealed by way of unforeseen or odd conjunctions. Whole view focused on overlapping; on certain studded myopias as they are amalgamated.

It is true that as we move from one Nadi to the next (the sunset to the sunrise to the sunset) we can learn to exercise one and two together in personal ways. But, this takes time — takes effort. Takes embodying duration and focus in order to get to “a tradition of eternity … tradition of hoisting.”

Hoisting as a way to host well, a lingam made of petals. A largess, being needfully translated by pearls.

***

Aimee Herman’s to go without blinking is a particular and fierce calisthenics (a “smothering [of] loins”) being performed around a deeply intended apparatus. Herman states in the intro of the book: “this body of text practices trilingualism and contraction.” I would go so far as to say that the book also practices triangulating and contradiction. With these four activisms acting in combination, we as readers are able to experience tgwb as something that both haunts us and hinges us. I would not go so far as to say that we ever get a hug (or anything approximating it) in this book, but we do get a hinge, and as we move through it we find ourselves desperately swinging.

To move by choice through something of such “sacred disturbance,” as tgwb is, is important. I am saying that this book needs to be collaborated with; needs us to collaborate with it. There are various points (in the process of moving through) where we are seduced into staying. It is almost as if an under-voice says: “just keep reading,” and we do. We must. Herman recognizes that the deep sway of her workings (in twgb) are not nice or simple or pretty. They are violent and juicy (they need to be so). They are “slick back polynomial” driven by an accumulation of jolt-like parts. The aspects of this book perform like a sweaty “bravado of sprouts fondling soil.”

In tgwb we are barraged (I always mean that as a compliment) with gritty and edgy content (“She was persuaded to use her cunt as a cabinet” / “Gabriel from Chickopee tried to fuck the gay out of me and almost got away with it” / “I would tear out my cunt and give you mine just so you could fondle decontamination”) — so much pertinent information regarding identities, genders, aesthetics, wishes, body realities, artifice, suffering, etc. I feel like Herman has somehow gotten it all into this marvelous book!

If we are conscious as we go through metallurgical transformations, what remains? These poems. These poems whereby beauty is able to be an embodiment of disparate aspects: “She thinks of beautiful women, wearing her fingers, wrinkled, like an article of clothing” / “She just wanted to know what it would feel like to be feminine: pigment of wax” / “When the stick of honey is gone, one must turn toward the bitter.” Herman turns us. We are here and we are gathering this butter.

These scenic genital-details are anything but gentle; I can hear my own scream building wildly as I read them. I scream inside of me for the arousal I feel. I scream inside of me for the anger I feel. I scream inside of me for the altered-ness I feel. I am not sure if Herman was meaning to induce readers to such states, but by sharing her life and visions, these scars — it has become impossible that we not feel these things right along with her.

At its core, tgwb is much like the heartfelt narratives of Lidia Yuknavitch’s novels, but Herman’s pieces are schisms of a form slowly coming together. By body, by light, by night. No Aimee, you are not the “only one to notice the night.” Because you are showing it, sharing it by way of tgwb, I notice this night with you.

And yes, dear Aimee, when you die, I will play at your funeral.  The song will be a full-handed violin melody reminiscent of the image of whole fruits inside of an enormous, ever elongating mouth: “washing [your psychic] mouth with fruit carcass” as a way to counteract all effects of the impositions you have encountered.

Architecture rings true

A review of Carol Watts's 'Occasionals'

Occasionals

Occasionals

Carol Watts

Reality Street 2011, 90 pages, $12.50, ISBN 978-1874400523

When the occasion arises, or for a particular occasion, or perhaps once in a while, or in the case of Carol Watts’s Occasionals, poems written from September 2006 until September 2007, or not poems but a poem in rigorously regular “cuts,” sixty-eight altogether, divided into four equal segments: “autumncuts,” “wintercuts,” “springcuts,” and “summercuts.”
 
The opening cut/poem begins with the largest durational sentence:

So sit down with your green tea
as if this was your last day, leave
the ledgers unfinished and overdue,
and tell me what you take with you,
now, the sounds of instruments ringing
on pavements, a crow mulling over
trails of aeroplanes, everyone out
in the town, and sirens going.                         (“autumncuts” I) 

The lines invoke Ezra Pound’s “And then went down to the ship,” but instead of setting keel to adventure on the sea, we are home, domestic, with “green tea” and “ledgers unfinished.” We are in a writer’s mind highly cognizant of the natural world, where “spiders hang / in mating season” and “Hydrangeas shoot pale green flowers.” Indeed the specific things in the occasional world are a part of the great delight a reader experiences in the poem. Specific, even in this first poem, in evocation of domestic, economic, personal, urban, aeronautic, and noisy domains. Yet all the things that invoke such a world are, as well, “words.” 

                                                  waiting for
replacement, by someone else, words.

Once into the poem, into its words and world, one finds not a simple definition or inhabitation of domestic and natural spaces, but a linguistic experience, akin to a Language poetry environment, except articulating not quite what one might expect of a language poem as, while the reality of the depicted world is constrained, it is also fully constructed and present, or at least its presence is fully indicated, fully gestured. And, as any painter knows, gesture carries a world of meaning.
 
Consider a passage from “springcuts” IV:

Memories, the warmth on green feathers
spreads, the cries. Of distant. Calling,
screeing of swifts, piling over. Sycamores,
so many green bunches of keys, floating.
Might unlock depth, is it now. That seasons
give way to density, will they. Flow,
as they did once. On another scale,
dropping. Wax, the way it cools, skin.
Rucking into something monumental later.

Divided by periods and commas, the representation of the real and of ideas remains fairly close to complete. The real is thus presented as something constructed, yet construction itself is called into question, and the markers we call punctuation also function simply as timing devices. Flow, that which we think of as continuous, stops and starts again. But not quite. “Of distant. Calling.” works as impediment to flow, yet also shows the partialness involved in memory. The whole and the fragment (the partial). Both are here. It is as though Watts has taken, from Louis Zukofsky, both “the” and “A,” and given us “this.” As the next cut, “springcuts” V has it, “In the nature of this.” The natural has a thisness about it, becomes a sign, lifted up.
 
Perhaps I am presenting Watts’s work as a philosophical idea, or even a demonstration of a poetic. And, while it might be that, it also contains the personal, which comes through in glimpses, inferences, double entendres.

                                       You think you have it.
Taped, then it returns and you see. Your
self, approaching. Unconscious, a deer
in the undergrowth, or embarrassed at.
Meeting, didn’t you just come by the other.
Other way, she might say, you. Answer, yes.
Are you caught out by each. But time goes,
it does not unpick from. Skin is older,
ready to crepe up behind you.                  (“springcuts” VIII) 

There occurs an urgent, sometimes joyous, sometimes startling physicality in Occasionals, with “cells bursting out of” (“springcuts” X), “vital heaving in city bodies” (“springcuts” XV). Yet if there occurs intense eroticism, it signals not just a personal experience, but the world as erotic embrace, as when “birds adapt, raid / brief tongue incursions. Sheltering, from. / Battery, then they dart in open. Dares, / how many. Sound, bound, soar more.” The erotic is, in this instance, a matter of language as well, so that, while the “tongue incursions” seem obvious, the climactic release powers through in “Sound, bound, soar more,” a culmination of openness and escape, linguistically speaking as well as literally soaring.
 
Toward the end of Occasionals Watts writes, “Life signs. It will be mayhem” (“summercuts” XVI). Rich life, in all its clarity, and all its messiness. Yet though rich and fulfilling, one always desires more. Fulfillment is momentary.

                        The way dancing spreads your
shoulders, is never enough.                           (“summercuts” XVII) 

Finally, no matter the thisness of the world, there is an implication of something else. The poem ends, 

                            Steam rises from the cup. Tell me who is.
Here, now. This. When my sheet is full. 

Here and now, but when? Where? This, but what? “My sheet” is my list of duties, but also the cover to my bed, and a metaphor for my life.
 
I have seldom read a poetry so exact, yet so longing, expressive of what just might be, somewhere. So abundant, yet with such awareness of our partialness. A poetry that makes of its sentences an architecture that invokes, at the same time, brokenness and clarity. Robert Duncan writes, in “Apprehensions”:

THE DIRECTIVE
 
is a building. The architecture of the sentence
                             allows
personal details,   portals
reverent and enchanting
construction from what lies at hand
                            to stand
for what rings true. 

Occasionals rings true. Truth is beauty, or truth is an architecture of beauty.

A language bent to its own unique use

A review of 'Between Words: Juan Gelman's Public Letter'

Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public LetterBetween Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter

Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter

Juan Gelman

Coimbra Editions 2010, 126 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-9826556-2-7

Juan Gelman is an Argentine poet, born in 1930. Although he began writing and publishing at an early age, he seems to have received major recognition only rather late in life. In 1997 he won the Argentine National Poetry Prize, followed by several other prestigious awards, culminating with what’s considered the highest Spanish language literary award, the Cervantes Prize, in 2007.

Considering this level of acclaim, English translations are still fairly sparse. Amazon has only two listings besides the volume at hand. One, “Unthinkable Tenderness,” is a 1997 University of California Press broad selection, edited and translated by the late Joan Lindgren. The other is “The Poems of Sidney West,” a 1969 sequence styled a “pseudo-translation” in which Gelman assumes the persona of a cowboyish United States poet he pretends to be translating. The English translation by Katherine Hedeen and Victor Rodriguez Nuñez was published in 2009 by Salt Publishing in the UK. Not listed is an earlier Coimbra Editions selection, “Commentaries and Citations, also translated by Lisa Bradford.

A Google search will reward the querier with a downloadable PDF version of Sidney West. And, also, translations of various individual poems by Hardie St. Martin, most notably at Michael Rothenberg’s e-zine Big Bridge.

Because it includes representative poems from various phases of his life along with a detailed timeline, “Unthinkable Tenderness” may be the most useful English introduction to Gelman. But it necessarily provides only selected nibbles from Gelman’s twenty-some books. It also lacks Spanish enface, and given the translation quandaries posed by Gelman’s innovative language, and discussed below, this is a real drawback to a more than casual reader.

“Between Words,” a bilingual edition, consists of a single short twenty-five-poem sequence, an extensive introduction by the translator, and a long afterword “conversation” between Gelman and Bradford. It stands well on its own, but the sequence gains additional weight when read in the context of Gelman’s life’s work as presented in Lindgren’s edition.


The legacy of the disappeared

On April 12, 1995, Juan Gelman used his column in the Buenos Aires newspaper Pagina /12 to write “An Open Letter to My Grandson or Granddaughter.” Some excerpts might, perhaps, provide a useful introduction to “Between Words”:

Within the next six months you will turn nineteen. You would have been born one day in October 1976 in an army concentration camp, El Pozo de Quilmes, almost certainly. A little before or a little after they assassinated your father with a shot in the head from less than a half meter’s distance. He was helpless and a military detail assassinated him, perhaps the same one that kidnapped him along with your mother in Buenos Aires that 24th of August …

Your father’s name was Marcelo; your mother’s, Claudia. Each was twenty years old at the time, and you were six months in your mother’s womb when this happened. They moved her — and you within her — to Quilmes when she was about to give birth. She must have given birth there under the eyes of some doctor/accomplice of the military dictatorship. They took you from her then, and you were placed — it usually happened like this — in the hands of some sterile couple, military or police force, or some judge or journalist friendly to police or military …

Thirteen years have passed since the military left the government, and nothing is known of your mother. On the other hand, in a sixty-gallon oil drum which the military filled with sand and concrete and threw into the San Fernando River your father’s remains were found thirteen years after the fact. He is buried now in La Tablada. At least in his case there is that much certainty.

It is very strange for me to be speaking of my children as your parents-who-never-were. I do not know if you are a boy or a girl. I know you were born. Father Fiorello Cavalli of the Secretariat of the Vatican State assured me of that fact in February 1978. What has been your destiny since, I ask myself. … I suppose that you have been lied to a lot …

I have wondered all these years what I would do if you were found — whether to drag you out of the home you knew; whether to speak with your adoptive parents and establish visiting rights, always on the basis of your knowing who you were and where you came from. The dilemma came up and circled around time and time again, whenever the possibility arose that the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo had found you. I would work it out differently each time, according to your age at the moment. It would worry me that you’d be too small or not small enough to understand what had happened, to understand why your parents, whom you believed to be your parents, were not, even though you might want them to be. I was worried you would suffer a double wound that way, one that would cause structural damage to your identity as it was forming …

You are almost as old now as your parents were when they killed them, and soon you will be older than they got to be, they who have stayed twenty forever. They had dreams for you and for a world more suitable and habitable. I would like to talk to you about them and to have you tell me about yourself; to be able to recognize in you my own son and to let you find in me what I have of your father — both of us are his orphans …


An earlier open letter

In the late 1970s, Gelman began writing a sequence of poems addressed to his lost son, Marcelo, that would be published in 1980 under the title Carta Abierta, a mi hijo. At the time, he was a de facto exile from Argentina, living in Europe. He had been sent to Rome as a public relations representative by the newly restored Peronist government, just before its factional descent into the civil “Dirty War.” Gelman’s loyalties were on the wrong side of the military junta that took control in 1976 and began kidnapping and eliminating “subversives,” many of whom were simply disaffected youths and students with perceived leftist sympathies. Gelman’s son and daughter-in-law were among the tens of thousands who subsequently “disappeared.”

While writing Carta Abierta, Gelman, who turned fifty in 1980, was suffering not only the loss of his son and son’s family, but the loss of his country. Although not officially proscribed, his left-revolutionary sympathies — expressed journalistically as well as poetically — were well known, and he would likely have been “eliminated” if he returned to Argentina. The lists of the “disappeared” were never public.

Given the immediacy of these wounds, Carta Abierta seems an almost superhumanly heroic undertaking. It’s not the “open letter” you might expect in the circumstances. There’s no polemic, no politics, no obvious rage. Simply a conversation between father and son and a tangible, whispering loss. Redeemed not by solidarity or cause or country, but by a certain sensed music reminiscent, say, of a stabat mater. Or, maybe more consciously, in Gelman’s case, a mourning tango strain in which Argentina bears implicit musical witness.

The sequence opens:

hablarte o desharblarte / dolor mio/
manera de tenerte/ destenerte ;
pasión que munda su castigo como
hijo que vuela por quietudes/ por

arrobamientos/ voces /sequedades /…

… paredes
donde tu rostro suave de pavor
estella de furor/ a dioses / alma

to tell you or untell you /my sorrow/
a way of having you/ unhaving you/
passion that worlds its punishment like
a son who soars through serenes/ through

reveries/ voices / aridities …

… walls
where your fear soft face
explodes in fury / ah dieux / soul


Wordplay and word work

The passage above gives an initial sense of a language bent to its own unique use. The “slashes,” a hallmark of Gelman’s poetry, are explained by Gelman in the afterword interview: “As you know, slashes in poetry mean that the words below are part of the previous line that is too long to fit … I began to introduce them in the middle of a line, sometimes various lines, and at the end … to mark rhythms, sever concepts in order to show more than one of their faces, give a work the possibility to not fly, to show its skeleton, to signal a deficiency. I don’t know. This is how I see it now. One shouldn’t place too much credit in a poet’s explanation of why he writes as he does.”

The explanation is clear enough, but I think Gelman’s qualification beginning with “I don’t know …” adds a salient element. Bradford’s translator’s Orientation discusses Gelman’s “manipulation” of language in Carta Abierta at length. She notes an “exacerbation … of diminutives, hyperboles, archaisms, and grammatical gender disagreement, which gives the sensation of feminine discourse, as if the poet were trying to speak to his dead son in a mothering tongue …” And “to read this collection of poems in Spanish is an act of faith: ambiguity hovers above all meaning and demands an active participation in the deciphering of uncanny images and ‘amphibian’ words that grow out of permutations of words in combination or unorthodox grammatical forms.”

Bradford’s acceptance of this challenge is no doubt a major reason her translation was awarded the 2011 National Translation Award by the American Literary Translators Association. She raises several parallels, among them the “opaque and aleatory verse” of Language poetry and the complex “multi-perspectivity” of Celan.

I think Celan — who famously struggled with the inexpressibility of his mother’s murder in her murderers’ mother tongue — provides a closer frame of reference to Carta Abierta than Language poetry. Gelman’s “amphibian words” (his own term) are certainly not random-aleatory, here. An example, above, might be “a dioses” (ah gods), or Gelman’s slight variance on “adioses” (goodbyes) — which Bradford nicely renders as “ah dieux.” And unlike Language poetry, the work isn’t driven by an academic experimentation. Gelman’s comment on “not placing too much credit in a poet’s explanation” seems to imply a poetics driven by sub-articulate need. I can’t picture a serious Language poet so casually dismissing theory. As he also does elsewhere in the interview, on the subject of “amphibian” words: “As I’ve often said, in my case there are no philosophies; there are only necessities.”

But despite obvious emotional similarities with Celan, the “slashes” and neologisms (at least as translated here) seem communicative rather than hermetic innovations, enabling rather than confounding the reader. Bradford references Pierre Joris’s translation of Celan as a sometimes model, but I remember Joris, at an ALTA panel talk, expounding something along the lines of “If what you’ve translated makes sense, then you haven’t translated Celan properly.” Conversely, Bradford’s Gelman seems to speak in a language clarified by its eccentricity.


The translator’s conversation

Every successful poetry translation entails an active conversation between translator and source; and requires the interpreter to take on, as ably as possible, a personal attempt at poetry. If poetry is anything, it’s flight, and the chasm between prosaic reiteration and poetry in the target language can’t be methodically bridged by engineering. In this case, Gelman is already conversing with his lost son. If that elusive conversation between living and dead is to be maintained as the heart of the poems, adding a translator’s voice — even as a whisper — is tricky.

Bradford seems uniquely suited for the task. She’s an Ohio-born American who’s made her home in Argentina for years, where she not only teaches comparative literature at the university level, but also raises horses and cattle. Her sense of Argentine culture and idiom is probably as deep as any immigrant’s can be. She also had the advantage of direct contact with Gelman, so her “conversation” isn’t just with the text.

The first sense of her gently interjected voice comes with the title (which she mentioned she vacillated over throughout the project). The direct translation of Carta Abierta is simply “open letter.” “Public letter” is a much less often used variant in English. Her explanation for the final choice is straightforward: “What made me decide was … the political implication of his having become such a public figure, and since he so often works with paradoxes and opposites, it even seemed more poignant that [the poem] should become public, when it hasn’t been for years.”

For me, there are even more shades of appropriateness. An “open” letter is most often a complaint, directed to an institutional or personal offender. Carta Abierta is, on surface, apolitical, deeply personal, almost “private.” It’s written, not to the offenders, but to their victim. Its political implications are present only in the delicate probing of a wound caused by the oppressors’ bullet. It’s an “open” letter in the way that, say, the first Corinthian epistle is an open letter. St. Paul’s audience was gathered in the context of the crucifixion, and Gelman’s context is a national as well as a personal atrocity; an official, if secret, execution. But Gelman’s sequence, as with St. Paul’s “tongues of men and angels,” speaks to profundities beyond the crime. Beyond even the ironies that Bradford cites, “public” rather than “open” seems a more neutral, quizzical entree to the sequence, leaving the reader with less preconception.


A father’s mothering voice

As with any parent absorbing the death of a grown child, Gelman heartbreakingly revisits his son’s infancy, speaking at times in the pre-grammatical voice parents will use with toddlers and mixing genders, referring at one point to his son as “nina” and himself as “la padre.” As Bradford puts it: “we find the repeated use of diminutives and superlatives, typical of a woman’s speech when talking to a child, but sounding uncomfortably sentimental in English.” Perhaps, or maybe not. But Gelman’s word-bending requires “active” translation and Bradford’s perception of sentimentality coaxed her to add her own “motherly tone,” consistent, maybe, with the way a hip, educated contemporary mother might phrase things. For “hijito” (little son), she says “kindertot,” a usage that finds itself up to Gelman’s several coined word variations.

In poem III:

… ¿como reamarte/ amor callado en

lo que compraste con tu sangre nina?/ …

… how to retender you/ tenderness silenced in

what you bought with your kinderblood?/ …

or:

… ¿almita que volas fuera de mi?/
¿tan me desfuiste que ya no veré
crepuscularte suave como hijo
companandome a pulso? /¿delantales

que la manana manano de sol?/

¿bacas que te pacieron la dulzura? /

little soul that flies beyond me? /
you untraveled so far that I’ll never see
your twilighting tender as a son
comradding me by hand? / kindersmocks

that the morning morrowed with sunshine?/

kows that grazed on your sweetness? / …

Bradford’s misspelling of “cows” follows Gelman’s toddlertalk, “bacas” for “vacas.”


To slash or not?
 

Reading the excerpts above, the question occurs: Are Gelman’s “slashes” more obtrusive in English than Spanish? Is their purpose equally served in both languages? If not, should a translator look for a more productive equivalent?

The conventional use Gelman describes for the Spanish slash — an indicator that a poem’s long line had to be broken to fit page space — is usually addressed in English simply by indenting the continued line or with a bracket. Would, something as simple as replacing the slash with a space read more naturally in English? Then, the lines above would read something like:

little soul that flies beyond me?
   you untraveled so far that I’ll never see
your twilighting tender as a son
comradding me by hand?   kindersmocks

that the morning morrowed with sunshine?
   kows that grazed on your sweetness?

Comparing the two, I think not. The slashes are, after all, probably as odd in Spanish as in English. And to my maybe overly imaginative ear, Gelman’s slashes are reminiscent of the breaths a tango squeezebox sucks in between notes. Or the wheeze of an old pedaled pipe organ; an earthbound counterpoint to fugue.


A sacramental saudade

There is no indication that Gelman, who is of Jewish heritage, is observant or has any particular religious affiliation. But Bradford’s observation that the sequence is akin to an “act of faith” is apt. In the afterword interview, Gelman references his reading of various mystic poets:

I became attracted to … Jewish medieval poets because of their expression of exile, particularly the early ones, and the mystic poetry of Saint John, Saint Teresa, the Beguines of Antwerp and other troubadours of God, Master Eckhart, etc. All of them manifested what I like to refer to as the absent presence of the beloved, and they kept me company. For them, God was absent. For me, it was my country, my friends and relatives who’d “disappeared” … And I would listen to the tango poets on a tape recorder — not only then and not out of mere nostalgia. I enjoy tango a great deal.

Gelman’s touchstone is tango, but his “absent presence” is probably as close a definition as possible of the supposedly inexpressible essence of tango’s Brazilian-Portuguese cousin saudade as expressed in fado.

As the sequence builds, the word alma (soul) appears more and more, not as the traditional solace of immortality, but as an ongoing organ of human pain and wandering loss. As in IV:

con la cabeza gacha ardiendo mi alma
moja un dedo en tu nombre /escribe las
paredes de la noche con tu nombre/
sirve de nada / sangra seriamente/

alma a alma te mira …

with head hung low my burning soul
dips a finger in your name/ scrawls
your name on the walls of night/
amounting to nothing/ solemnly bleeding/

soul to soul she watches you … 

Though secular in context, the tone here doesn’t seem all that incompatible with, say, Saint John of the Cross and the experience of spirituality as wound. But as the sequence progresses, Gelman’s conversation with the dead seems to conjure echoes of Rilke — especially some of the Sonnets to Orpheus and the passage in the first of the Duino Elegies that speaks about the “thwarted destinies” of dead youths, the strangeness: “For someone once held in endlessly apprehensive hands — to no longer exist, even your very own name tossed aside like a broken toy.” And in death: “Strange to see everything coherent fluttering loose around the room this way.”

In Rilke’s elegy, “Angels … often don’t know whether they’re traveling among the living or the dead.” And Gelman, in mourning, lives in that coexistent country. As in XIII:

… ¿puedo yo
desasirme de mi para ya asirte

por arrabales/ plazas donde busco?/
¿quedo pensando porque no te halle?/
¿ gano tu pérdida para perderme?/
¿desalmåndome llegue a tu almitar?

… son of mine/
are you flying around these sorrowings? / can i
unaffix me from myself to finally fix you

in the outskirts/ the parks where i search for you?/
do i win your loss to lose myself?/
unsouling myself to reach your shut eyed soul?

Or, in XXIV:

te destrabajo de la muerte como
puedo / pobre de vos le alma carmina
dentro de sî / y ojalå resplandezcan
piedras que pulo con tu respirar/

i unwork you out of death as best
i can /deprived of you the soul goes walking
within herself / and hopefully these stones

shine as i buff them with your breath/ …. 

At some invisible point leading up XXIV, the sequence has already begun to move from mourning to something akin to sacrament and consecration. As they near the end of the sequence, the poems seem to take on the role of a priest holding up the host at Mass. Gelman’s lost son seems to join “the ones” (in Rilke’s sonnet no. 14:1) “who sleep in the roots and grant us … this hybrid of speechless strength and kisses.” And Gelman the wounded exile seems to be finally able to bring himself to address his wounded homeland in the ending to XXIV:

… compañero
de los creidos/ de los afligidos/

por tu pobrear se alzan los soles que
illuminaban rostros/ sufrideras /
para que nadie se humillara / fuera
ternura que estuvieras / vivo / sos

… companion
to the staunch/ to the downtrodden/

because of you deprivings suns rise up /
illumine faces / sufferingblocks /
so no one need face humiliation / it would be
tenderness that you were / alive / you are

And in the ending to the final poem, XXV:

¿almas? / ¿bellisimo? / te descånsaspec
del desamor? / ¿amås? /¿alma que tierra/
¿abierta al sol de la justicia? / ¿hijas? /
¿incansable de puro desufrir?

do you soul? / bellisimo? / are you resting
from the unlove? / do you love? / soul that earths /
open to the sun of justice? / are you sonning? /
unwearied from pure unsuffering?


The public aspect

The sequence ends with a brief postscript dedication: the 24th of August, 1976, my son marcelo ariel and his wife claudia, pregnant, were kidnapped in buenos aires by a military commando squad. the son of both was born in a concentration camp. just as dozens of thousands of similar cases, the military dictatorship never officially recognized the “disappeared.” it spoke of “those forever absent.” until I see their bodies, or their murderers, I will never give them up for dead.

Although Carta Abierta can be read as a private meditation, it’s implicit in the title and the end dedication that it achieves its full strength as a public document. Gelman presents himself primarily as a mourning father, but he mourns as one of many Argentinians who were either directly or indirectly faced with what must have been the major cultural crisis of their generation. Argentina, of course, had a history of coups and military “praetorianism.” Yet the systemized process of violence that began in 1976 was unprecedented in both breadth and cruel efficiency.

The callousness seems particularly shocking in the extra-legal, but still official, process suffered by Gelman’s daughter-in-law: Abducted in the final trimester of pregnancy, presumably subjected to interrogation, and sentenced to death at parturition.

Whether openly condemned or not, how could she not have suspected? There’s something almost medieval, Inquisitorial, about such a killing. And what danger could a twenty-year-old present to the state that could justify such summary death sentences? As far as can be determined, Claudia was only one of several hundred pregnant young women, similarly “processed.”

Gelman’s body of work is large and diverse, he draws inspiration as much from history and poetic ancestors as from current events. Elsewhere, he filters his own exile and alienation through his “com /positions,” “commentaries” and “citations,” more or less collaborative translations, interjecting himself into poems by Saint Teresa and Jewish mystics.

The lively, wide ranging interview that ends “Between Words” makes clear that while Gelman’s poetry has always been involved with politics, he’s gone well beyond partisanship and isms. He may be left-sympathetic, but talks of departing “the CP” before being expelled. Talking about his own tastes in literature, he notes the independence of the muse from faction, refusing to criticize Borges for being insufficiently political; admits to enjoying both Pound and Celine despite their fascism and anti-Semitism: “You can read so many supposedly leftist poets, who are perfectly awful; frankly I’d much rather read Ezra Pound.” He evokes Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva as examples of poets responding to political oppression — a historic and human phenomenon plaguing right and left indifferently, and certainly not unique to Argentina.

Even so, browsing Joan Lindgren’s selections you become aware that the Carta Abierta sequence, while arguably the heart of the matter, is only a small part of Gelman’s response to the shock of the Junta years. In “Sheets,” a poem that appears to precede Carta Abierta, he begins: “sleep my son between sheets of grappa / I will protect you if it takes the whole bottle / while death surrounds this house …”

In another poem of the period, “Noises”: “those steps, are they looking for him? / that car, is it stopping at his door? / those men in the street: are they after him …”

Then, later in 1980 in “They Wait”: “we’re going to begin the fight again / the enemy / is clear and we’re going to begin again / we’re going to correct the errors of the soul / its pain / its disasters / so many little friends wasted / little sons wasted … we’re going to begin all of us / against the great defeat of the world / little compañeros who never end / or who burn like fire in the memory / again / and again / and again.” 


The public record

On February 28, 2011, The Guardian in London ran a lengthy story headed “Argentine Dictators Go on Trial for Baby Thefts.” Some excerpts follow:

Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone are accused in 34 cases of infants who were taken from mothers held in Argentina’s largest clandestine torture and detention centers. … Also on trial are five military figures and a doctor who attended to the detainees.

The case was opened 14 years ago at the request of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a leading human rights group. It may take up to a year to hear testimony from about 370 witnesses … this is the first trial focused on the alleged plan to steal as many as 400 infants from leftists who were kidnapped, tortured and made to disappear during the junta’s crackdown on political dissent. …

The dictatorship generally drew the line at killing children, but the existence of babies belonging to people who officially no longer existed created a problem for the junta leaders. The indictment alleges they solved it by falsifying paperwork and arranging illegal adoptions by people sympathetic to the military regime.

… Some 500 women were known to be pregnant before they disappeared, according to formal complaints from their families or other official witness accounts. To date, 102 people born to vanished dissidents have since recovered their true identities with the aid of the Grandmothers, which helped create a national database of DNA evidence to match children with their birth families.

The stolen grandchildren of Estela de Carlotto, co-founder of the Grandmothers, and poet Juan Gelman are among the cases cited in this trial.

And, earlier, here’s an excerpt from an April 25, 2008, Canadian Press article on the award ceremony for Gelman receiving the Cervantes Prize in Spain:

Gelman’s son Marcelo and daughter-in-law Maria Claudia were killed during the Argentine dictatorship. Gelman spent years tracking down a granddaughter born of that marriage and reared in adoption in neighbouring Uruguay.

It is one of Argentina’s most famous cases of babies being born to political dissidents, taken from their mothers and given up for adoption. Gelman met his granddaughter Macarena for the first time in 2000. When she learned the poet was her grandfather, she changed her last name to Gelman. Macarena Gelman was among relatives of the poet who attended Wednesday’s ceremony.

A happy, though bittersweet, ending of sorts, but even so, as the article goes on to quote Gelman’s Cervantes Prize acceptance talk: “The wounds are still not closed. They beat in society’s foundations like a cancer that does not rest. The only treatment is truth. And then, justice.”

On equal footing

A review of recent works by Urayoán Noel

T. Urayoán Noel performs at Illinois State, February 2011. University Galleries. Photo by Brian D. Collier.

Hi-Density Politics

Hi-Density Politics

by Urayoán Noel

BlazeVOX 2010, 106 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-60964-031-6

Kool Logic/La logica kool

Kool Logic/La logica kool

by Urayoán Noel

Bilingual Press 2005, 81 pages, $13, ISBN 978-1931010290

The author of several books of poetry and translation, Urayoán Noel brings a satirical voice and a contemporary urban consciousness to the traditional notion that the poet will entertain and enlighten. The results, in his hands, are a well-done weird. Inevitably, they’re also compelling, and then a penny drops, and they provoke.

Seen from one perspective, his 2010 collection Hi-Density Politics (Buffalo: BlazeVOX) represents a shift from Noel’s earlier work. Its greater emphasis on process and constraint yields a new experience on the formal level, particularly where Noel has used new technologies to produce his teeming metropolis on the page. Yet Hi-Density Politics offers all the more when considered as an extension of his previous books, published in 2005 and 2008. Noel’s playful takes on language, references to Puerto Rican culture, deep engagement of critical dialogues around island and Nuyorican poetry, and commitment to performance spring into relief. Taken collectively the books produce a historic meditation that collides with, and intensifies, the frenetic energies emphasizing the immediacy of urban life in Hi-Density Politics.

Published by Bilingual Review Press in 2005, Noel’s first book was Kool Logic / La Lógica Kool, featuring a title poem that demonstrates the “kool logic” of late capitalism. As the names of the publisher and book would suggest, this collection immediately drew attention to Noel’s skillful transitions across borders between English and Spanish. The poetry engages social scenarios shaped by contradiction, tempering its frankly pedagogical poses with punk and comic attitude. Here Noel displays his enjoyment in redeeming older poetic forms with absurd, yet pointed, contemporary vocabularies. An influential 2007 anthology of US Latino writing, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, picked up material from this book. There the selection emphasizes Noel’s interest in renovating traditional poetic forms with pop irreverence. Editor Francisco Aragón also suggested that Noel, who brings an unusual degree of double fluency to his bilingual work, may represent one future strain of US Latino writing: “a poetry where Spanish and English are on equal footing throughout.”[1]

Noel’s second book, Boringkén (San Juan: Librería La Tertulia / Ediciones Callejón), follows through on that promise of a thickly bilingual writer who challenges both sides of the divide by refusing to keep his cross-cultural performances segregated. It also asserts a contemporary moment in collision with its own historical trajectory. This move potentially opens up the poems to a whole set of readers interested in hemispheric history, and in Puerto Rico in particular. The risk, of course, involves losing those who lack that exposure and don’t care to get it. I’m of the opinion that it’s worth learning something new to read this poetry — as one more way to access its many layers of intelligence — so I’ve included shards of context here.

Boringkén, the title of this 2008 book, refers to the term “Borinquen”: the name for Puerto Rico once used by indigenous peoples, as their word was transcribed into the Spanish language during colonization. The name is recorded quite early on through its use by Juan de Castellanos (1522–1607) in an epic poem about the Americas, prominent more for its great length and useful subject matter than artistic mastery. Another name recorded in this same epic poem is Urayoán, a cacique (Native chieftain) who carries out the experimental execution of Spaniard Diego de Salcedo in order to prove that Europeans are mere mortals, thus illustrating that the conquest of the Americas consists of acts that are human and not divine, which in turn signifies that indigenous peoples can put up resistance to them. The term “Borinquen” and the image of Urayoán have been recuperated in the contemporary period by new generations of activists and writers, so the cover of Noel’s book alone invokes five hundred years of history — poetry bursting with epic proportion.

Rather than solidifying the sense of epic inside the book, though, Noel dismantles it. He deconstructs his title, turning it into plays on “boring” and “ken,” on the ever-iconic Barbie and Ken, and all manner of puns and wacky sound-based riffs. The pleasure he takes in sound is reminiscent of Edwin Torres, and I’m also reminded of Torres’s interest in creating a “No-ricuan” world (which, among other things, might be paraphrased as the Zen inhabitation of Boricuan conceptual landscapes). Noel has collaborated with Torres on the performative interventions of Spanic Attack, further suggesting useful overlaps. Emphasizing the interest of performance, as in the earlier packaging of Kool Logic / La Lógica Kool, Boringkén comes with a companion CD that explores the use of audio and new media tools for drawing out performative elements lost on the page. These prefigure his performative uses of his newest book, on which I’ll expand later.

Another factor uniting Noel’s three books, which suggests links back to predecessors like William Carlos Williams, is the hemispheric vision he brings to his poetic explorations of American cities. It’s a longstanding convention in Latin America to refer to the “lettered city” of modern life. Noel, who takes a keen interest in handmade objects produced by international avant-garde movements and enjoys making collaborative art object-books, wants to know what poets have been doing in marginal zones, in the back alleys and little workshops of the symbolic city: talking about their favorite cult books, making chapbooks from recycled cardboard, collaborating with visual artists to produce small handmade editions. They produce these low-tech objects, seeking to keep the final product inexpensive, in the tradition of the little magazine. Still, their environment is complex: while making low-tech handmade editions, they’re increasingly likely to be interrupted by someone’s Blackberry or smart phone. Poised between the old and the new, these poets work in Mexico City, Mexico; Lima, Peru; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. And again, they are also in the USA: in New York, in San Juan. Noel brings the hemispheric scene back home to the nation, to the metropolis on its mainland and the urban life of the colonized island.

It may be tempting to call Noel “Nuyorican,” for a variety of reasons, one being that this term has made it into the US critical lexicon. However, it’s not strictly accurate. Noel was born in 1976 in Puerto Rico and lived out his formative years there, so New York is not the community of origin, meaning that the island must be asserted differently. 

While Puerto Rico still evokes a sense of foreignness to many Americans, this foreignness is partly residual, the result of the island’s general invisibility in our history books. Given that this invisibility continues unabated in much of the country today — magisterial publisher W. W. Norton & Co. itself may now have come out with a giant US Latino literature anthology demonstrating texts and contexts, but this doesn’t mean that a majority of Americans yet understand Puerto Ricans and other US Latinos to be “really American” or include them as significant contributors to our national cultural frameworks — I’ll throw in a few essentials here. As one of the outcomes of the Spanish-American War (think 1898), the island came to be part of the United States, eventually becoming a commonwealth. All Puerto Ricans — and this includes people living on the island, as well as those who have moved around on the mainland — have been citizens of the United States since the passage of the Jones Act in 1917. Puerto Rico was never made a state, nor was it released to independence; instead it has been given creative titles, such as “free associated state.”

Thus I am writing, technically, about a thoroughly American writer, but one who happens to have been born in San Juan, Puerto Rico — an other American city, long left off the maps of the mainland and consequently out of our knowledge bases about “American culture.” While activists have explored platforms for independence and resisted the nation’s colonizing embrace, another facet of this problematic involves the reluctance of mainstream US culture to acknowledge that Puerto Ricans have a significant place (resistant or otherwise) in the nation’s history.

The ongoing between-state of Puerto Ricans — sort of in and sort of out of nationhood, inhabiting a state of statelessness, one part US and one part Latin America — has given rise to diverse artistic reflections, some from the island and others from the mainland. Poet Victor Hernández Cruz writes in “Airoplain,”

They can keep Puerto Rico just give us
the guava of independence depending on no bodies tortures dreams
of the past or future within the present State no State ever of things

Urayoán Noel, a careful reader of work from and about the island, observes that in these lines, “Cruz jettisons the return to the native island and imagines in its place a utopia of the stateless.”[2]

Noel builds on this vision to explore the state of statelessness in each of his books. Sometimes he pauses to mark its political contours; more consistently, however, he uses poetry to move through artistic and linguistic veins opened by the political register. The concept of utopia that he credits to Hernández Cruz sets up the possibility of a fertile space, one which by definition can only ever be imaginary. As far as Noel is concerned, this Puerto Rico of the mind simply begs to be explored by the bohemian Rican, adapting Ginsberg’s attitudes to his own field of vision.

Noel’s second book, the one entitled Boringkén, opens with a suggestive quotation. It is a line from Luis Muñoz Marín (famous as the architect of modern Puerto Rican society): “I have lost you in a fog of perfect words.” In the larger context of Noel’s work, this recycled admission appears to be addressed to the island itself. The nation’s loss then allows (and requires) it to be configured and reconfigured through the imagination.

The term “Nuyorican” is useful for tracing the lineage of Noel’s poetics — not because Noel claims this identity for himself, but because he responds directly and extensively to the Nuyorican literary tradition. The word combines “New York” with “Rican” to indicate people living in the metropolis of the mainland United States, marking out a diasporic positionality. As critic Maria Damon emphasizes, the term Nuyorican is “understood to contain multitudes”[3]: Puerto Ricans have a historically rich mix of ethnic identities on the island, reflecting the complexities and discontents of hemispheric history, even before immersion into the diaspora’s cities. Afro-Caribbean identity, for example, has an important if historically contested place in island life. Anthropologist Jorge Duany emphasizes another form of complexity: where migrations to the mainland are concerned, Puerto Ricans have been less likely to carry out permanent and one-way moves than to pursue comings and goings, a fluctuation.[4] These complexities have been productive for literary culture. In the last half of the twentieth century, as is now well known, Nuyorican poets created a dynamic cultural movement, organized that now-famous poet’s café in New York to support art as a community, and gained national recognition for US Latino/a poetry after publishing their first anthologies in the 1970s.

Noel is the member of a new island-raised generation: one that has begun to take those Nuyorican writers of the late twentieth century seriously as precursors. Not all island readers initially embraced diasporic culture, nor do they today.[5] Noel credits an unusually progressive professor at the University of Puerto Rico with seeing the value of Nuyorican contributions earlier than most island readers and exposing his generation to them in an open-minded way. Today Noel is extending his professor’s classroom gesture by completing a scholarly book about Nuyorican poetics.[6] His gestures may still seem radical in an island context where “diaspora” remains a vexed term. Duany does use the word, writing in 2002 that “as Puerto Ricans move back and forth between the two countries, territorially grounded definitions of national identity become less relevant, while transnational identities acquire greater prominence.” But the hybridity of mainland Puerto Ricans was still often perceived as a threat in cultural circles on the island in the new century: “Many local scholars and creative writers deride Puerto Ricans in the diaspora because they cannot speak Spanish well or conduct themselves in a proper Puerto Rican fashion.”[7]

Noel takes the fluidity of Puerto Rican populations as a point of great interest. In his creative writing, he riffs off the diasporic texts and performances from his position as a Puerto Rican writer raised on the island and now living in New York, though in a significantly different way and moment than the Nuyorican writers he highlights. Noel was based in New York for many years as an adult and now moves back and forth between Albany, where he works, and the Bronx, which feels like more of a home and creative base.

Whereas Ginsberg looms as an important precursor to Noel’s poetry, then, so does the inimitable Pedro Pietri (1944–2004). Now one of the most famous of Nuyorican writers, Pietri invented a memorable performance persona. He called himself The Reverend and transported his writings in an old suitcase labeled “Coffin for Rent.” Pietri generated his own imaginary Puerto Ricos: for example, he collaborated with artist Adál Maldonado to elaborate “El Puerto Rican Embassy,” a satirical, interdisciplinary project dedicated to “a sovereign state of mind,” complete with its own passport.[8] Clearly commenting on the paradoxical location of the island as a proto-nation at once colonized and stateless, El Puerto Rican Embassy is also its own answer of sorts to the ongoing questions that Duany raises in his more recent meditations on the fluidity of Puerto Rican life: “What is the meaning of Puerto Rican identity? Where is it located? How is it articulated and represented? […] How can a people define themselves as a nation without striving for a sovereign state?”[9]

Noel revisits Pietri’s most famous poem, “Puerto Rican Obituary,” in his 2008 collection. Pietri’s work is a classic originating doubly, once in its performative incarnation during the Young Lords’ establishment of the People’s Church in New York and once on paper via Pietri’s book (of the same title) in 1973.[10] It features four emblematic characters: Juan, Milagros, Olga and Miguel. In Pietri’s poem these working-class figures compete with each other for status and die dissatisfied with their lot in life. Pietri urges them to break out of a mindset he sees as politically ineffective and build a new, more independent and historical consciousness, one that requires renegotiating their relations to the island. By touching down on this historic poem, Noel asks questions about what it means to be living in the language environment of our new millennium, a fascination that comes to unite many poems in Hi-Density Politics.

His riff on Pietri’s English-language poem is bilingual in a particular way: it employs more Spanish than Pietri’s famous poem and appears in an edition published in Puerto Rico, both indications of Noel’s precise spaces of engagement. Thus his poem citing Pietri, “Down with Boringkén,” embodies the voyage of Pietri’s legacy to the island on two levels, via language and site of publication. I give this excerpt from the first (Spanish-dominant) half of Noel’s poem alongside an unpublished translation that he rendered himself:

A ver si a Juan y Miguel
ya les llegó su Lexus

A ver si Olga y Milagros
ya hicieron las paces
y ahora comparten casa en Tallahassee

A ver si Manuel
si hizo par de millones                                   
en el boom de los dotcomes
de fines de milenio

A ver si el Boringkén dócil
le ha cedido el paso, por fin,
al Boringkén dúctil
sin privación
del consumo […]                                               

Let’s see if Juan and Miguel
already got their Lexus

Let’s see if Olga and Milagros
already made up
and now share a house in Tallahassee

Let’s see if Manuel
made a couple of millions
in the end-of-millennium
dotcom boom

Let’s see if the docile Boringken
has made way at last
for the slack
and unfettered
Boringken of consumers (46–59)

This critical question about what today’s economy means for the conditions of everyday life is one of many rewarding pairings that becomes visible if we read Noel’s books as a step-by-step poetic interrogation of life on the island and the mainland.

More specifically, it’s clear from the above excerpt from “Down with Boringkén” that Noel was dwelling on the notion that “Puerto Ricans in the United States are caught up in a process of ‘transition.’” It’s a point articulated decades ago by sociologist Juan Flores and fellow scholars, who explored relations between literature and society as they sought to create respect for the cultural work done by Nuyorican writers.[11] Noel’s poem pauses on their statement, “We must ask, transition to what,” treating this idea (originally published in an article in a 1981 issue of Daedalus) as one still pressing for writers in the new century (212). His poems from Boringkén and other books also respond to their identification, in the conclusion to the same 1981 article, of a “backdrop of persistent inequality and commercialist distortion” confronted by Puerto Rico’s diasporic writers (213). Even as one may open up to visions of a greater fluidity, these tensions endure.

Another dynamic layer of Noel’s earlier books that will continue into Hi-Density Politics emerges around his adept uses of performance. His use of rhyme can be ironic or ridiculous on the page while also setting the stage for a delivery that wakes up the room, particularly if delivered with hip-waggling to a Casio-keyboard soundtrack. Hi-Density Politics is, like his earlier books, imagined in relation to performance, but in experimental ways that may not be immediately obvious to readers from the page alone.

Reviewer Rebecca Mablango-Mayor calls Noel “the next in a generation of beat poets and performance artists willing to take themselves and their work as seriously and as unseriously as possible.”[12] Pursuing the question of how humor can enhance performance, she found that in the 1990s, while he was in New York, Noel decided that “rock language, with its sense of disposableness and immediacy, could deflate the grand gestures of formal poetry and provide a moral voice to his poetry.” I would add that Noel’s self-designated “bohemian” side opens out into many kinds of experimentation into how the body of the performer can do its thing. It is a physical parallel to his scholarly research into how diverse Nuyorican poets have done theirs. Working with a band, he has tapped into punk and other urban, counter-cultural styles. As this turn suggests, he rejects some aspects of mass culture in favor of resistant takes — for example, he embraces low-budget approaches and refuses to conform to the boundaries of television-friendly artistic styles.

His 2010 collection may in some ways seem more critical of established Nuyorican poetry conventions than anything else, perhaps even striking at the initial parameters through which the broader framework of “Latinidad” has gained ground in US literary publishing in recent decades. Expectations that the poet’s task is to “represent” a group identity, whether such ideas may exist in conscious or unconscious ways for audiences, are registered and critiqued. In the first poem of Hi-Density Politics Noel’s persona claims to be “rocking the identity cutout,” a phrasing that sounds ironic, ambivalent at best, about stagnant performances of identity (“HI THEN *salutation+,” 67). This “cutout” line may perhaps be read as a disclaimer, informed by the sort of concerns about commercialist distortions previously noted by Flores et al. The same poem makes reference to juggling loyalties and suggests that art can become opposed to community, then asks whether poetry itself becomes the community (58, 59, 60).

To some degree, then, Noel risks breaching sensitive boundaries around the relation between identity, imagined community, and the success of art forms he hopes not to re-inhabit, such as more commercialized and institutionalized variants of slam and spoken word circuits, and the pages of anthologies as framed in prior decades. He also writes from a semi-outsider position that does not take acceptance into a putatively Nuyorican world for granted or aim to become its next representative face. Like Boringkén, that is, Hi-Density Politics dangles the option of epic before us, then sets about happily dismantling and repurposing any components of which epic might have been composed.

However, dwelling on signs of ambivalence and breach alone could also cause Noel’s poetry to appear overly dismissive of other poets or assertions of Latino traditions, in my representation. In fact I think it would be a naïve misreading to over-emphasize signs of disaffiliation in the critiques posed by Hi-Density Politics, especially if we overlook the plethora of signs of engagement (visible through Noel’s criticism, representing commitments of many years, as well as his poetry). This book may be critical and indeed, avant, but it is so in a particular and conscious way that treats ethnic canons, working-class expression, community activism, performative poetries, and the artistic possibilities of historical knowledge with respect.

So the question becomes: how is it significant that his persona’s 2010 salutation — a sort of manifesto encoded in terza rima — throws down the following critical challenge?

You can keep the poem that anoints —
That represents — that narrates or “gives” voice —
Find the voice that poems — that disjoints!

(“HI THEN [salutation],” 37–39)

This figure prods the audience to inhabit spaces of contrast, seeking not stasis and certainty but sites of negotiation and provisional balance between positions — and sites of risk, where dismantling must be part of the process.

Noel’s ongoing attention to the number three in Hi-Density Politics suggests a link to third spaces: places neither here nor there, therefore somewhere else and escaping oppositions. One poem, for example, thematizes that number three about as emphatically as it could be done: it consists of 333 numbered phrases, each containing three terms. A third space may be a site not captured as a state, offering the disembodied pleasures and “sovereignties” of utopia. It merges into the many possibilities offered by the city of Hi-Density Politics, which as Sueyeun Juliette Lee observes, is both actual and virtual, “a space of hybrid possibility and discursive play.”[13] Liberating as this map may be, the city as technological space is not freed of history in its changing present, but sutured to it.

The challenge to terms of representation appears again later in the book, with emphasis on the now:

give it up for the bodies of the moment!
the unrepresentative ones
but unrepentant
the cropped and crappy, crip and queer,
flopped and failing, flailing, hopeful ones
the ones that make the night what it is, our blessed ruin

(“hi-din sites [body slam]” III, 67–72)

The determination to be provisional and unrepresentative links Noel into avant-garde circles embracing the marginal and the small. At the same time it returns him to diasporic literary concerns about interrogating one’s position with regard to multiple locations, among them markets and their historical bases, as well as the island perpetually “on the move” (Duany’s central metaphor). Noel, it seems, has a deep interest in the ways all of us are necessarily complicit in the circuits we inhabit; at the same time he is not exempting himself from the responsibility of developing a critical vision, even if it is necessarily developed (like that of another canonical Caribbean writer, José Martí) during residence inside the belly of the beast.

Writing processes he designed for the new collection explore the impact of new technologies on the movements of language. His emphasis on circuitry in the poems suggests to me that it’s worth pausing to review the circuits he elects to inhabit with recent projects. Noel invites his audience to join him on his symbolic tour of the hemispheric Americas experience. Recently he has participated in the cartonera movement that connects San Juan to Mexico City, Lima, Buenos Aires and more. As a translator, he has brought recent work by Edwin Torres into Puerto Rico in a spunky, bright green cardboard edition produced by Atarraya Cartonera. Atarraya’s website includes photographs of the making of cartoneras, as well as links to other organizations producing these low-budget interventions around the Americas. With Hi-Density Politics Noel also joined the ranks of poets allied with Buffalo’s BlazeVox Books, linking its rust belt sensibilities into the hemispheric circuit where he carries out his experiments in process and constraint.

One poem in the new book emerged out of the question, “How does an English-only voice recognition application on a Blackberry interpret phrases spoken to it in Spanish?” Noel took the rich, complex Spanish of poems from César Vallejo’s Trilce, read them into his Blackberry, and wrote down the English phrases the Blackberry “heard.” The writing by Vallejo (Peru, 1892–1938)[14] is resonant, somber, lovely, all the more so when it breaks with aspects of formal syntax. Because sound recognition software is programmed to engage phrases widely used in today’s computing environments, Vallejo’s words reappear in absurd and fragmented terms.

These fragments constitute Noel’s poem, entitled “trill set.” Its transformations of Vallejo are striking for their sheer play of sound, and striking all over again for their brief and funny glimpses into tensions driving the circulation of English in technological environments. Noel’s poem replicates Vallejo’s layout, as illustrated by these two short excerpts:

       Era era.

    Gallos cancionan escarbando en vano.
Boca del claro día que conjuga.
era era era era.                                                

(Vallejo, II / 5–8)

     Data Data

     Dido scans the owner is co-bundle in buying
oh and I will be ethical to
a data in data and data                                                

(Noel, II / 5–8)

             La creada voz rebélase y no quiere
ser malla, ni amor.
Los novios sean novios en eternidad.
Pues no deis 1, que resonará al infinito.                        

(Vallejo, V / 11–14)

             Lack and add levels said no kidding.
Saddam might do to him what
you know Ríos sentinel US entered me that
Westor Amazon that I think you need to                        

(Noel, V / 11–14)

Who could say that this homophonic, apparently nonsensical “translation” by the Blackberry has not caught some tangible history in its nets?

When Noel then turns his printed version of “trill set” into a score for a performance, two readers can produce a multifaceted experience. One plays a sort of straight man, inhabiting the sounds and spirit of Vallejo’s originals. The other provides the absurd and engaging contrast regarding “global sound” as produced through the Blackberry’s limited perspective. Having played the Vallejo role partnered with Noel’s (non)global Blackberry voice in a February 2011 reading, I can testify that it draws engaged laughter from an audience — and the person attempting to voice Vallejo’s original Spanish while keeping a straight face takes a bath in cognitive dissonance. The results are energizing.

Afterwards listeners shared reactions with me. Most said they found the presentation of this poem unexpectedly funny and laughed with everyone else at the time. (One of my students added that Noel’s performance persona is that of “an Energizer bunny”: he hops around, winding everyone up.) A common reflection that followed was that Noel’s work on the page really does function as a script for performance. Several people then went further to reflect on the relationships this poem illustrated between English and Spanish, as those are shaped today by the communicative devices and applications with increasing influence in everyday life. These listeners said, ultimately, that “trill set” isn’t funny, not at all: its very awkwardness represents the grace of an effective provocation.

By contrast to the live performance, the poem-score’s initial appearance on the page of Hi-Density Politics — like other entries in this particular book of experimentations — could be largely opaque to a reader. Noel’s explanation of the writing process, which he provides in an “Acknowledgements and Notes” section at the beginning of the book, is helpful. Even with insight into his processes, though, Noel has written a challenging text. His inventiveness with language surfaces quite clearly — Rodrigo Toscano is right to refer to this book as “furiously cute” in his blurb. But what of other layers of meaning on the page, so often required to seduce audiences into a second and third reading? In Hi-Density Politics he flirts with moments of unmeaning and unperformability, especially for audiences who can’t see a live performance bring the page to life, or for those who do not find a poem written in threes fascinating. It’s likely to be even more challenging for those who haven’t read much Puerto Rican or Nuyorican writing and will thus miss his rapid spinouts into context and traditions.

Yet from these scores he draws performances that can be comprehended on several levels at once, contradictory as the audience’s experience of language can be. Better said: Noel has a rare gift for using poetry to perform contradictory states in language.

Some of his themes should be recognizable, if via fragments, to any contemporary reader who uses the Internet or reflects on economics. With a little more effort — say, by looking up the link about Guánica that Noel offers in his process notes — one can see that his pleasurable language gaming ties into historical issues at stake in this book.

Noel composed his poem “guánica” by recording comments into his Blackberry while sitting on the beach at this location. Columbus is thought to have landed at Guánica with Spanish ships in 1493, emblematic of European trajectories of conquest in the Americas. US ships followed, landing at Guánica in 1898, a date marking the rapid rise to power of the United States in the Caribbean. These ship-emblems thus point to a key stage in the development of the schizophrenic roles played today by the United States in relation to Puerto Rico and Cuba. (These two islands, if opposed via national frameworks today, were once portrayed by another poet, Lola Rodríguez de Tió [1843–1924], as the “two wings” of the same Caribbean bird.)

Noel delivers his historic vision with emphasis on extreme immediacy, folding long and short scopes of time into each other. Each subsection of “guánica” opens with documentation of the precise minute in which he spoke into his Blackberry. His words were constrained by the one-minute span of its recording capabilities:

3:45 pm

first Columbus

then the Americans
in 1898

go
global

return to
condition
of meaning

made
unmade

this waterlog

these puddles
of history

and i can see for Miles (57–71)

Meaning, like the island itself, shifts in and out of sight. Through this very cycle of contradictions (meaning/unmeaning; appearance/disappearance; historicity/immediacy), the poems pull history to surface: that is, like the texts, history manifests on the horizon of the page in the form of a process.

History as poetic process bears echoes of many voices. In the above excerpt from “Guánica,” the last line has at least two reference points. Noel notes that Nelson Appleton Miles commanded US forces that landed in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American war. Meanwhile, generations with a whole other cultural literacy will recognize in the same line Noel’s reference to a hit song from the Who, “I can see for miles.”

Who can see what, and what do we choose to see? A critique inciting us to confront inequalities of global vision from the inside, Noel’s vivid and layered Hi-Density Politics invites us to give our own fine retro-pop dismissal to a long stupid history: to a specifically literary stupid history: to that archival vision in which US Latino and island poetries, and the sophisticated issues they engage, were so long ago and far away! as! if! invisible. The book proposes that an ongoing shift in optics move not only toward greater visibility, but toward a visibility in living color and motion: one complex enough to sustain debates and multiple positionalities within and across communities, while remaining open to sites and bodies as yet unimagined. This challenge to the audience to operate in post-invisibility modes, while dodging traps of stasis and violence that can accompany visibility, may be the highest-density element of Noel’s utopian poetics.

Noel advertises the point that his hi-density politics make for difficulty up front. His salutation/manifesto, welcoming the reader to his own personal city on the page, scans across a spectrum of thorny images and tensions. The debates he draws into the body of the poem fulfill the promise that the book’s terrain will be constituted as an irreverent, dynamic urban space, one that does not want to be fully apprehended.

In keeping with his overall insistence on inhabiting spaces of contradiction, the salutation closes with a sober turn into natural cycles. The poem’s final image follows the rotation of day into night:

The poem as a difficult relating
(A city, a polis, and its tics) —
As urgent as the day — an urgent fading.

It’s an elegant, surprisingly holistic advertencia, at once a notice and a warning about shifting ground: the nature of the writing to come.


Author’s note:
In addition to the publications cited below, I would like to thank T. Urayoán Noel for answering many questions I asked him during his visit to Illinois State University on February 23–24, 2011. His replies, as well as a class session he led, influenced my remarks situating his work. He also translated the excerpt from “Down with Boringkén,” cited here, at my request.

 


 

1. Francisco Aragón, ed., The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007), 8.

2. Francisco Aragón, Ray González, María Meléndez, Urayoán Noel, and Lidia Torres, “Restless music and ticking bombs: Five poems of Victor Hernández Cruz, interpreted,” the Poetry Foundation.

3. Maria Damon, “Avant-Garde or Border Guard: (Latino) Identity in Poetry,” American Literary History 10, no. 3 (Autumn 1998): 486.

4. Jorge Duany, The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 2.

5. For a brief, useful overview addressing related issues in earlier decades, see Edna Acosta-Belén’s article, “Beyond Island Boundaries: Ethnicity, Gender, and Cultural Revitalization in Nuyorican Literature,” Callaloo 15, no. 4 (Autumn 1992): 979–998.

6. The Café and other Nuyorican projects opened their doors to writers of diverse backgrounds. When speaking of the range of cultural work these projects have accomplished as a whole, and over time, Noel acknowledges both ethnic and cultural variants on Nuyorican identification.

7. Duany, The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move, 29.

8. See images here; quotation is taken from Pietri’s 1994 Manifesto.

9. Duany, The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move, 2.

10. See a video of Pietri performing the poem here.

11. Juan Flores, John Attasini, and Pedro Pedraza Jr, “‘La carreta made a U-Turn’: Puerto Rican Language and Culture in the United States,” special issue, Daedalus 11, no. 2 (Spring 1981): 212.

12. Rebecca Mablango-Mayor, Review: “KOOL LOGIC: LA LOGICA KOOL by URAYOAN NOEL,” May 22, 2007.

13. Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Review: “Hi-Density Politics: Urayoán Noel,” The Constant Critic, March 14, 2011.

14. See César Vallejo, Trilce, trans. Clayton Eshleman (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1992).