Writertranslators Omar Pérez (L) and Daniel Borzutzky (R), 2014. KDykstra.
Writertranslators Omar Pérez (L) and Daniel Borzutzky (R), 2014. KDykstra.

Translator as fulcrum:  a point central or essential to an activity, an event, a situation.  Clearly the model applies to any bilingual reading that depends on a translator to quarterback the event for an audience with limited or no ability to understand the writer’s original language. 

However, this entry takes the notion of the fulcrum differently. Daniel Borzutzky has been developing a fulcrum poetics, one located among the activities & events & situations where poetry and translation balance off, moving against and with each other.

Categorized by its publisher as “nonfiction,” Borzutzky’s 2015 collection Memories of My Overdevelopment  articulates that vision overtly. Previously, compelling relations between translation and his other writings of poetry could be suggested if one read across his works, but even then the connections would be visible primarily to people doing specific, related projects.[1]   

In 2011 we discussed the fact that some of his writings as translator and writings as poet were emerging in parallel tracks.  While published in separate books, and separated by the perceived divide between “one’s own creative writing” and “translation,” his tracks merged in certain ways that did affect his writing as a whole. Given time, those tracks have now merged in another, substantive way. 

This way depends on their shared grounds of a hemispheric expanse defined around rhetorics of neoliberalism and resistance, which Borzutzky has been conceptualizing in increasingly focused texts.  His gradual construction of a specific hemispheric span for his writing – a span where Latin American expression intersects with that of the US, in translation/poetry worlds – uses those rhetorics as raw material.

As a result, it’s increasingly possible to read Borzutzky’s oeuvre as an extended investigation of life under rampant corporatization and the bureaucracies it attempts to consume.  His intonations serve up the new inter-American epic — or anti-epic? — in the age of neoliberalism. 

It seems, in Borzutzky's recent books, that the “I” is not isolated.  It is subjected to pressures squashing multitudes.  The title poem from The Book of Interfering Bodies culminates with these specifications:

I am not an individual, the man says, as he steps between the bodies who wish to make love.  I am a dead mountain; my mouth is a bloody carcass; my belly is a dead river; my face is a city drowning in a storm.  Perhaps I better go back to the valley, he says, but as he tries to step out of the television screen, he falls to the ground with a thud, and lays there like a pile of rocks. (103)[2]

Not coincidentally, this key poem offers one of many moments where Borzutzky channels a Chilean landscape tradition, in which “unusual geography has played an outsized role in [the] national imaginary.”[3]  Contemporary renditions are particularly familiar to him through his translation of multiple works by Raúl Zurita, whose poetic Chilean topography grapples with the violence of the Pinochet dictatorship.  In Zurita’s hands, and then in Borzutzky’s hands as translator, the wondrous national landscape of Chilean poetic history turns horrific, revelatory, and spiritual; land absorbs the violation of the collective self. 

Similarly, Borzutzky has translated poems from Galo Ghigliotto’s Valdivia, a work equally worthy of the label “necropastoral”:  “The violent climate reeks / worse than a pasture of rotten eyes / bursting beneath the sun.”[4]

In The Book of Interfering Bodies, even though the opposition between individual and collective does operate as a historical and literary force affecting Borzutzky’s views on poetry and politics, that opposition isn’t adequate for making sense of his deployment of rhetoric and horror in his hemispheric necro-landscapes. As repetition and variation play out across his most recent books, they cycle, and they become something more fitted to language current, and unbearable, in the twenty-first century.  The "pounding" rhythm attributed by a reviewer to 2015's In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy exemplifies his unbearable and purposeful repetition.

Blending poetry with prose, Borzutzky’s writing inhales and expels language from his social environments, which is to propose another approach for talking about his repetitions:  as signs of immersion in unbearable language environments.[5]  Many passages capture language in mechanical, nearly self-propelling operations.  The resulting texts target “neoliberalism’s ubiquitous but often nebulous influence on daily life, mental conceptions, political-economic structures, and language, from literary to marketing.”[6]

As critic Michael Dowdy outlines in a book-length study of US Latino/a literature, different notions of how to define "freedom" accompany the rise of neoliberalism.  For its promotors,

neoliberal theory aims to maximize freedom by reducing citizenship to a rational choice model of atomized, possessive individualism.  This conception ties all valences of freedom to the market, dismantles collective forms of organization and ownership, converts states into servants to capital, guts social safety nets and the public sphere, and relentlessly commodifies culture, including modes of resistance.  (9)

Neoliberalism translates.

And so does resistance to its modalities, though its complications merit time and attention (resources increasingly scarce).  Poetic resistance has included writers who "model freedom as a relational concept rooted in diachronic place-based cultural practices and constituted interpersonally rather than held individually" (Dowdy 9). 

Borzutzky's explorations, in which the translator exists as fulcrum, a single small-scale point for relations from which larger motions and visions emerge, offer vivid examples of how such cultural work continues to unfurl.

Chile, one of the famous testing sites for neoliberalism after its 1973 coup d’etat, permeates and restructures Borzutzky’s contemporary northern city.  Remember and historicize neoliberalism’s storied Chicagoan origins and its initial export to Chile.  But Borzutzky's latest writings emphasize a more recent vector of influence.  The Chilean boomerang has returned.

I live in Chicago, a Chilean city in the United States, which is a Chilean nation.  George Bush, when he sought to privatize Social Security, turned to Chile’s disastrous policies as a model. Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor, dreams of converting Chicago’s public school system to the Chilean model, where public education has been radically depleted and replaced with a voucher system, a former love-child of the so-called school reformists in the US. (Memories of My Overdevelopment, 32).

As a result, neoliberal machinery takes over poems in a mechanical spinning out of the machine’s functions, and the result is grindingly, spectacularly inhumane.   here is a link to one of those inhumane poems 

Memories of My Overdevelopment meditates on the grinding of the wheel:  composition translates into decomposition:

45. Everything, writes Gertrude Stein, is the same except composition and
time, composition and the time of the composition and the time in
the composition.
46. The children in my dreams were screaming: everything is the same
except decomposition and the time of the decomposition and the
time in the decomposition.
                                                            (from “talk to me about translation / a broken introduction”)

A poetics of inhumanity, as a conceptual gesture, could try to replicate its dismissiveness, dismiss humanistic aspects of poetry.  But Borzutzky seems to want desperately to fail at dehumanization.  He seems honor-bound to reassert a terrible need for humanity, for he refuses over and over and over to give up the practice of raging against the machine. 

Can the need be met with translation, ideally a site of intersection between human minds?  In Memories of My Overdevelopment Borzutzky depicts translation raging at a central point in collective life, with activities events situations happening all around it.

As the following poem culminates, “we” – a chorus – insist together that translation does rage on.

translation and the continuum of decomposition by way of
introduction to the idea that translation is a thing that decides
when it is to be done but since it is never done we are always
repositioning ourselves as subjects in the worlds we imagine and
the worlds we occupy and since we can’t really tell the difference

between those worlds we engage in translation as a primal force
that comes before everything else which is to say that because we
cannot scream we translate
because we do not know how to interpret the screams of others
we translate
because the broken bodies and the broken nations and the broken

institutions that are always breaking us cannot be understood

we translate
we howl and we shriek and we translate[7]

Corporations, and the state bureaucracies increasingly subjected to their purview, demand measurable productive outcomes from “us.”  Borzutzky wields translation as an essential tool for navigating their warped collectivities, creating a different chorus.

[1] Released in the Ordinance series from Kenning Editions.  The title of Borzutzky’s book performs another gesture of hemispheric interconnection trying to speak across the N/S oppositionality structuring development discourses.  It responds directly to two Cuban works through the title of the 1968 film, Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias del subdesarrollo), dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.  The movie was based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes.

[2] The last half-sentence is a quotation from another touchstone in Borzutzky’s literary pantheon:  Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. The Book of Interfering Bodies was published by Nightboat Books (Callicoon, NY 2011).

[3] The editors excerpt canonical texts from Pedro de Valdivia, Benjamín Subercaseaux, Gabriela Mistral, and Pablo Neruda, among others, as exemplars of this prominent strain.  Also in the anthology, though excerpted to address to the theme of indigenous peoples, is a selection from Alonso de Ercilla's 16th-century epic poem "La Araucana" ("The Araucaniad"), which the editors note "has been called the first work of Chilean literature, the first American epic, the first Chilean poem, and Chile's first history" (85).  The Chile Reader:  History, Culture, Politics.  Ed. Elizabeth Quay Hutchinson, Thomas Miller Klublock, Nara B. Milanich, and Peter Winn.  Durham:  Duke UP, 2014.  9.

[4] Excerpts published in Mandorla:  New Writing from the Americas / Nueva escritura de las Américas 15, 169-172. 170.

[5] Like many of the writers I’m covering in this Jacket2 commentary series, Borzutzky blends genres and doesn’t waste time worrying about how to dissect the result.  Readers interested in the imperatives of specific books, such as The Book of Interfering Bodies, will not find it hard to see that Borzutzky draws apparently “non-poetic” zones of language into his poetic orbit through these formal conflations.

[6] Here I adopt words from Michael Dowdy.  He summarizes a way to view poetics as emerging from “bajo el signo neoliberal,” or “under the neoliberal sign,” itself a phrase from another commentary, John Beverly.  From Dowdy’s study  Broken Souths:  Latin/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization.  Tucson:  The University of Arizona Press, 2013. 7.

[7] Complete poem reprinted with the permission of Daniel Borzutzky and Kenning Editions.