Excavations of subsoil and surface

A letter from Hugo García Manríquez

This commentary is a collaboration.

Rogovin photo 

Milton Rogovin, Appalachia, 1962-1987

Poet and translator Hugo García Manríquez, who writes in both Spanish and English, wrote me a superb letter in response to my last commentary. I’ve translated it here (Hugo’s English is likely better than mine, but we wanted to work together on inhabiting the space between our languages)—and interspersed some responses of my own. Italics indicate text originally written in English in Hugo’s notes. I’m switching colors to indicate my notes within Hugo’s notes.

By the way, if it seems like I’m dropping not-so-subtle hints that I’d be really excited for more folks to respond to these posts by writing me on facebook or email, or by getting in touch with editrix extraordinaire Jessica Lowenthal, it’s only because I am.

Casa hecha con partes traseras de televisión, Tijuana

Ingrid Hernández, Casa hecha con partes traseras de televisión, Tijuana/House made from the back panels of televisions, Tijuana


A few notes, which I wrote quickly after reading your note on Jacket2. A thousand thanks for taking the time to write and share this. You made my day, as they say.

Miners I

First, I loved your post, but more than that, it made me think of that question that lurks underground (miner questions, or question miners): for what, poetry? toward what end, all this? and in the midst of this unhinged present. Question miners, or miner questions.

Extracts: Gold Mining -- Michelle Dizon
Michelle Dizon, from "Extracts"

(The phrase Hugo used in Spanish is pregunta(s) minera(s), about which he said: “the questions themselves are miners, carrying their tools, and working below ground?”—and suggested the phrase “miner questions”—that is, questions that are miners. I also liked the resonance of mining questions, the idea of a question miner as an analogue to a coal miner or a gold miner or etc. On the topic of gold mining, Los Angeles artist Michelle Dizon’s piece “Extracts” explores the resonances and dissonances of gold mining in the Philippines: unsettling, beautiful, unsettling. The other work about mining I return to often is Lucy Raven’s minutely, lushly attentive film Chinatown, which tracks the extraction and adventures of copper as it moves from the ground beneath Ruth, Nevada to Beijing, passing through many places in-between.)

 from Chinatown, Lucy Raven
Lucy Raven, from Chinatown

Miners 2

Reading about the communicating vessels among poets and miners or artists and the subsoil, caused me to recall the excellent photographer Milton Rogovin, who died recently, this past January 21st. Rogovin was born in NYC, and traveled throughout many parts of the world, creating portraits, of miners in particular. His photographic series are moving and unadorned. Miner photos (or photo miners?). And the connection with Chile. He made stops in Mexico, China, Cuba and Chile, where he met Neruda, I think. (Neruda wrote a text “about” Rogovin’s work.)

Miners 3

I learned of Rogovin’s work almost by accident: he lived for many years in Buffalo. And among other projects, he devoted his time to photographing families every 5 or 10 years, so you can see the changes and the passing—the pressing—of time: photography with deep empathy. Puerto Rican families, Black families, Native Americans, young pastors. (My favorite photo is of a young Black pastor holding his baby in his arms as he gives a sermon. Behind him, a sign reads Be filled with the Spirit and his eyes express simultaneity with that message.) Perhaps that’s the message of all photography: you are simultaneous with time, that shoreless context. Which makes me think of how well you’ve expressed the efforts of poets and artists of all kinds, everywhere. Miner assemblages.

from Churches, Milton Rogovin
Milton Rogovin, from "Churches"

This is the Rogovin link Hugo sent. I find this one to be better, as you can see many of Rogovin's photo sequences, including a number of the ones Hugo mentions above.

In one of the light rail stations in Buffalo, there are a number of Rogovin’s photos. For two years, I passed them by with no knowledge of the context to which they pertained (we were the context to which those photographs pertained).

Miners 3.5

We are the context to which these photographs pertain. I was introduced to Tijuana-based photographer Ingrid Hernández’s work by Tijuana/Houston writer, translator and interpreter John Pluecker (whose posts on violence in the state of Tamaulipas (scroll down to April 15, 2011) and the cultural climate in Tijuana are especially sharp). Ingrid’s photographs—portraits?—of everyday spaces and objects document human resilience and imaginative inventiveness in contexts of often extreme marginalization.

de Tijuana comprimida, Ingrid Hernández
Ingrid Hernández, de "Tijuana comprimida"/from "Compressed Tijuana"

How do we begin to notice what might easily go unnoticed? What can noticing do—molecular change in the mind?—and how can we make space for what we see to inform a more nuanced and activated perception? Where and how do perception and action link? How do we respond to what we see when that vision exposes realities that are inescapably uncomfortable?

from Hecho en casa, Ingrid Hernández
Ingrid Hernández, de "Hecho en casa"/from "Made In Home"

Mattering metaphors I

I remember that one day, while I was talking to a “poetics person,” I said that I used the subway to get to and from the university, and that person told me “that’s for the ghetto.” Which made me think how many people around me were ignorant of (in the sense of to be dismissive of) or were ignorant of (in the sense of to be unaware of) the city.

trans     positions: I see no place for automaticity in this world. In the moments when translation is the least smooth, the least fluid, fissures bloom: the space for thinking opens. In Spanish, the verb ignorar means both not to notice, to be unaware of, and simultaneously not to account for, to be dismissive of. In English, how carefully do we think of what we ignore, of the impulses and needs and cultural forces that make up the frequently automatic process of ignoring something? Perhaps a certain ignorance is necessary to survive. (Total awareness and total paralysis are perhaps one and the same?) So where do our useful blinders—allowing focus, concentration, action—become blinding, limitations that make our complacency and complicity possible?)

You can move as a miner in the subsoil of a city. At least Rogovin’s photographs kept us company, reminding us that this subsoil was not just metaphoric, and that the relationship of surface to underground, in terms of class, remains present more than ever in the United States.  

We insist on "mattering" metaphors to—"innocently"—name this dystopia.

And a city is a context, if it is anything. A multitude of citations, not a polyphony.

Other contexts in that city, like that of the tiny church where slaves used to spend the night, waiting to cross into the “free territory” of Canada... Miners and their contexts expand.

And finally:

These years here I’ve grown to enjoy the music of Appalachia. It’s eerie and hopeful, at the same time. And it requires time, for a foreign ear like mine. And it’s always reminded me of Canto Cardenche. Have you heard it? It’s funny—although my mom, and I myself—well, my mom’s family is all from the north, I’d never heard of this kind of canto, which now only a few people ever sing, in Coahuila especially. In the afternoon, after work, they’d sing, a cappella. You’ll hear what I mean in the link, it’s a “canto pelado” (in the sense of naked). And it reminds me a LOT of certain musical traditions from the South, and maybe from Appalachia. I’ve always believed there’s a relationship, or at least, there is in my head, so then it makes sense.

(And here the relationship between work and canto is central; I recommend the documentary “Lomax The Song Hunter,” which touches on this idea in relation to a range of traditions, from Scotland, Ireland, and Spain, and of course in the great chain gang songs, from the South.)



P.S. More info on Rogovin, from Hugo...

P.P.S. Keep an eye out for Alex Abramovich’s upcoming piece on Lomax in the London Review of Books (thoroughly annoying that the LRB blog is available for free, but you can only read a quarter of an article before paying for the rest...), which articulates a necessary and brilliant critique of the ethnographic approach in a capitalist context.

P.P.P.S. I had written Hugo to ask him a few questions about this translation, and particularly to check if the link I found to the small church in Buffalo that was a stop on the Underground Railroad was the church to which he referred in his letter. It was, and he added these thoughts:

Yes, that’s the church. I’d completely forgotten the name—how great that you found it! And now that I see the link you sent, I’m reading the words “underground railroad” (how could I have forgotten that term when I was writing my earlier notes!!). I suppose one might translate that as Clandestino (with its specific charge for recent history in Latin America, in relation to resistance struggles from Argentina to Chiapas)—what is hidden, and also curiously close, sonically, to the Intestine (Clandestino/Intestino or Clandestine/Intestine). Intestinal history, as is said over there, but now I read that term with a different charge. Beyond its near homophony, it recalls other problematic historical undergrounds, touching each other, close. I’m thinking again of our notes, and an insistence on the presence of history—this history, these metaphorical and literal undergrounds, the clandestine routes of a train (metaphoric) as a means to achieve liberty (literal), and the clandestine routes of Latin American resistances.

Today when I asked Zaidee (Zaidee Stavely, Hugo's wife, who works for Radio Bilingüe with a particular focus on environmental justice and the Latino community) if she remembered our visit to that church, she said: “Yes, in fact, when I walked in I couldn’t stop singing that Hazel Dickens song (!!)—and she began to sing the song. I’m still amazed, listening to it now, by the power of that song, and its resonance with the place, as in these lines:

Sing those hymns we sang together
In the plain little church with the benches all worn
My burden is heavy, my way has grown weary
I have traveled a road that is long

—and especially, I’m amazed at why Z, immediately when she walked into the place, remembered the lines from that song she’d grown up hearing (her mom plays Old Time music), and she couldn’t refrain from singing them. What else can one do in such situations, other than seek out synchronicity with a place—sonically or in whatever way. I’m so envious of people who have that kind of relationship with music!

And so I am once again humbled, and reminded of the impetus behind my last post, which was gratitude for those who have come before, and—gracias, Hugo—for those who are here now, making work, making conversation, making the world. And thinking of underground—or perhaps airborne (as breath, as sound)—routes, the wonder and synchronicity and elasticity of the connective structures that link disparate persons, dispersed melodies, distinct practices.

 Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard: "Won’t You Come and Sing For Me"