New South new North

A review of 'América Invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets'

Right: Joaquín Torres-García, Uruguayan artist whose work originated the term “America Invertida,” in 1903. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

América Invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets

América Invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets

ed. Jesse Lee Kercheval

University of New Mexico Press 2016, 286 pages, $24.95 ISBN ISBN 978-0826357250

It is common that, when speaking about Uruguay and its culture outside the country, the name of Joaquín Torres-García — Uruguay’s most notorious visual artist — pops up, and now, after MoMA’s 2015 retrospective consecration, perhaps even more so. Here, for instance, it is found in the title of the anthology. In fact, América Invertida “verbalizes” the powerful upside-down map of South America that Torres drew in 1943, declaring, polemically, that “our North is the South.”[1] Kercheval’s homage does not stress the original confrontational nature of the image though, since her collection is clearly a vivid attempt at creating a poetic bridge between the United States and Uruguay — geopolitical entities that can be read metonymically — in the name of a sustained poetic interchange.

In this sense, it is worth pointing out that many of the authors — such as Miguel Avero, Laura Chalar, Victoria Estol, Javier Etchevarren, Agustín Lucas, Fabián Severo, Paula Simonetti, and Karen Wild Díaz — had previously been published in North American journals; and that at least one, Laura Cesarco Eglin, is currently teaching in US academia. Most noteworthy, however, is that since the publication of América Invertida three of the selected poets have published books in the United States: Never Made in America by Martín Barea Mattos; Roly Poly by Victoria Estol; and Anti-Ferule by Karen Wild Díaz. Kercheval’s idea of transnational communion is also easily verifiable with the choice, unusual and stimulating, of having all the poems translated by other poets — all North Americans or working in the US — including herself.

Another peculiarity of the anthology resides in the age range of the selected writers, defined as “emerging”: all twenty-two of them — nine women and thirteen men — were born between 1976 and 1989, creating a panorama of the most recent voices with a clear perspective. The book includes generations of people that were born during the Uruguayan Dictatorship (1973–1985) or shortly thereafter in order to present, through their verses, a “response not to history, but to what it is like to live in Uruguay now.”[2] Since the works of several poets that were marked directly by the dictatorship are already available in English, it seems a savvy choice. Also, one can hypothesize a sort of quasi-sociological perspective on actuality given the great variety of styles and themes gathered in order to present an exhaustive panorama of the country’s contemporaneity.

On a formal level the anthology proves to be rather kaleidoscopic. Although free verse is obviously pervasive, there is space, for example, for a series of sonnets by Horacio Cavallo and Francisco Tomsich that play intelligently with repetitions of words through the collection, in a type of soft parody, of mythological figures: “Poor Daedalus advised his only son: / follow me, child, but keep the middles sky, / for the sun ruins things that go too high. / Your path, my dear, must be a level one” (32). Also, a few cases of poetic prose are included, for instance the delicate lyrical “narratives” by Laura Chalar, or the pieces set in a surrealist mode by Alex Piperno, as exemplified by the long list of oneiric scenes in “Sahara”:

a collection of girls without shoulders lets their skin grow yellow until they are shifted somewhere else.

a collection of transparent and portable stones turns acidic like a string of garlic in the crotch of girls with a family vocation (184)

An interesting displacement of language can be found in the work of Fabián Severo who writes his lyrics in “portuñol,” a language spoken along the Uruguay-Brazil border that combines Spanish and Portuguese. His compositions mimic the orality of Severo’s native Artigas, a region in the northernmost part of the country, that “has a language that nobody owns” (240), as one of his poems — “Night Up North” — observes (unfortunately but understandably, this is lost in translation).

A similar heterogeneity marks the whole book on a thematic level as well. As Kercheval points out in the introduction there are still traces of the past, as seen in a reference to Uruguay’s indigenous people — the Charrúas of the seventeenth century — in Sebastián Rivero’s “Mud” (“one day they went west / and are now extinct” [220]), although it is the dictatorship that is most present as a sort of spectral figure. This collective recent trauma smears several pages. One example is Javier Etchevarren’s “Punta Carretas,” a poem about the actual transformation of an ex-prison into a mall: “the prison is a shopping center now / that boutique was my cell / its plate glass windows my bars / I don’t see the cattle prod among the electrical appliances” (104).

Another instance is Rivero’s “No name” which possesses terminological references to the violence perpetrated by the State in those dark years in a rather blurred context: “on beaches / unnamed body bags / sprawl slack in seaweed” (212). Elsewhere social concern leads the game, presenting different worlds colliding: next to Paula Simonetti’s descriptions of marginalized people stands the pseudobiblical and vaguely satirical verses of Juan Manuel Sánchez, in a critique of the new consumerism that structured Uruguay’s recent years of relative economic bonanza. In “For the Seals,” for example, he prays:

There is no salvation
without work
nor work without profits. 

Collect our debts
as we too
from our debtors. 

And deliver us
from recession
amen. (229)

A third group of poets represented in the anthology are those who focus on their own experiences, and are generally inclined to anguish and desolation: this could be the legacy of Uruguay’s most famous literary figures, those of the Generación del ’45 and their “existentialist” tendencies (most notably Idea Vilariño’s). Consciously or unconsciously, Alicia Preza, Elisa Mastromatteo, and Martín Cerisola all seem to walk this path. There are also feeble sparks in the opposite register — the satirical and the grotesque — in América Invertida. One case is “El Hosky” (the pen name of José Luis Gadea) who plays the role of the “bad boy” in the collection with his use of slightly risqué language as compared to the rest of the authors, and a poem, “Benedetti is a Good Grampa” (“As a teen, I would sit on his lap / we brewed coffee and freebased / what a cock Mario had, what a poet” [128]) that symbolically kills one of the most well-known Uruguayan writers of the last century (although the fact that Mario Benedetti was more respected by the general public than by academics waters down a little the rebellious act). Much more subtle, almost surgical, is the wit expressed by the quick and surprising poems of Victoria Estol, among the best in the book, such as “Flesh and fingernail”:

i traverse your hippopotamus neck
scale your trachea
cut your vocal cords so you’ll stop your speaking

arrive at your inner ear
slash your tympanic membrane

i fall in a crouch to the stable and retake my seat
perch on my elbow on cold marble

and smile at you while I plot my coup. (90)

In the end, the only misrepresented category is that of visual and concrete poetry (barely touched upon by Martín Barea Mattos and Paola Gallo), which has a solid tradition in Uruguay — one need only think of Clemente Padín — and the new practitioners who keep it alive, including Martín Palacio Gamboa, Matías Ygielka, and Malena González, to name just a few, who all belong to the same generation.

América Invertida holds many merits: vital and diversified translations, a clear age-oriented focus, a sufficient number of poems by each writer so as to give an idea of each poet’s approach and stance. Kercheval even lists, in the short biographies of poets and translators at the end of the volume, who their favorite writers are — in English and Spanish — as to clarify genealogies and, maybe, soothe the usual “anxiety of influence” of her authors. The only flaw of the anthology is the absence of the provenances and dates of the poems, something easily emendable in future editions.

The English-speaking reader has at their disposal various ways to access the modern Uruguayan poeticproduction. In fact, in addition to América Invertida three other fairly recent anthologies that cover the twentieth century have also been published: Contemporary Uruguayan Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, edited by Ronald Haladyna (2010); Hotel Lautréamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay, edited by Kent Johnson and Roberto Echavarren (2011) and Touching the Light of Day: Six Uruguayan Poets, edited by Laura Chalar (2016). It is definitely the best time ever to embark on such a worthwhile trip.  

1. See Joaquín Torres García, “Lección 30: La escuela del sur,” in Universalismo constructivo: Contribución a la unificación del arte y la cultura de América (Buenos Aires: Poseidon, 1944).

2. Jesse Lee Kercheval, ed., América Invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2016), xiv.