When Elvira Hernández began publishing poetry in the 1980s, the few pictures that appeared of her in literary supplements never revealed her entire face. A hand, an arm, a post, a leaf, a slightly out-of-focus photograph would interrupt the frame to conceal her identity. Whereas some of Chile’s most renowned poets—Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Pablo de Rokha—chose unique pseudonyms difficult to forget, Hernández, whose birth name is María Teresa Adriasola, adopted a pen name that could easily get lost among the crowd. Far from an artistic pose or esoteric performance to gain attention, Hernández’s decision to remain unrecognizable speaks of the very real political persecution that swept through Chile and the Southern Cone during the 1970s and 80s. To write or make art in the asphyxiating environment of Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, in the midst of disappearances and exile, media complicity and a cultural blackout, implied an act of resistance, a conscious decision, despite the risks involved, to create dangerously, as Albert Camus and, later, Edwidge Danticat would say.
Esther Ramón, born in 1970, lives in Madrid and taught one of my very first writing workshops at various café tables in Lavapiés more than a decade ago, where she skillfully introduced me and fellow students to what it could mean to truly collaborate, to be interdisciplinary, to do more than look at a painting while writing a poem and instead to enter into the methods and mindsets of different mediums, seeing the world not only in a different language (in my case) but with a more creative intention. She continues to be a collaborator with other artists and it feels meaningful to translate her work, in a sense collaborate too, and become involved in her poetic world so many years later.
Anna Lidia Vega Serova’s stories make my mouth quirk and make me wince, usually not simultaneously. The pitiless sweep of her narrators’ gazes spares no one, not even the characters they’re latched fastest to. When my own eyes are fixed on the task of translating her words, of scooting puzzle pieces around until they snap satisfyingly into place, I forget how unblinking that narratorial gaze is, how its effect sometimes abuts brutality, and sometimes tips straight in. I remember when I watch other people react to my translations, after it is too late to offer content warnings or make excuses for unlikable women. (What can I say? I like unlikable women—or, more accurately: I admire them.) Vega Serova’s stories brim with them, which is one reason I am drawn to them.
Last year, I wandered through Greece, knocking on all the gates of Hades. I walked along the Acheron River, whose icy blue waters seemed colored by the spirits of the dead. Stalactites dripped onto the back of my neck as a silent boatman ferried me through the caves of Diros. I searched for the entrance to the sea cave at Cape Tainaron, scrambling over sharp rocks below the lighthouse as darkness fell. Sometimes I wondered if my search for the underworld tempted the Fates. I remembered Orpheus, the father of music, who charmed beasts with his lyre and descended into Tainaron to find his lost bride, Eurydice. With song, he implored Hades and Persephone to bring her back to life, and his words moved the deathless gods to tears. They granted his wish, allowing him to lead her out of the underworld on one condition: he must walk ahead of her, not looking back until they left the dark halls of death. Approaching the surface, the farthest reach of light, Orpheus feared his love’s silence behind him. He turned to look and saw her sink back into the depths, reaching out to him and bidding him farewell for the last time.
This piece is a selection from Byobu, out this November from Charco Press.
The Sensitive Toad
From the bottom step, where the stairs rise from the stone path between two patches of grass, Byobu sees a toad cross in front of him, hopping from green to green. It’s followed by another, just as quick. Not long ago, Byobu read a horrendous list of little tragedies that could befall an Englishman in the nineteenth century: it included stepping on a toad, believing it to be a stone in the road. Byobu is not English, nor is he from the nineteenth century, but there he stands on one foot, like a heron, which luckily for these batrachians he is not. On a magnificent summer night like this it’s normal to hear them, but seeing them is not so common, thought Byobu when the third little fellow appeared. Why the third fellow? Well, because as we all know three is a sacred number, and besides, there were three.
Translation and Q&A: Ida Vitale’s The Sensitive Toad
María’s poems from Los analfabetas are gut punches. But tender ones. Questions of identity, colonialist practices and education, and the body in its many forms interpolate delicacies of syntax and form. She writes the trammels of Colombia by digging at the splinters of humanity’s illiteracy.
Both poems “India weaves necklaces” and “She heads out to the forest to unearth roots” clip along with a degree of ease perhaps counter to their themes. They conclude in moments of spiritual praxis: the poetic voice subsumes the complexity of the body (and its wounds) and with it some resolution. Finding that same crispness of language between short verse and proximate observation of the human condition made for rich exercise.
They came at four o’clock in the morning and I was too sleepy to get out of the way in time. They trampled on the big trash bin and planted their heavy boots on the mass of bodies. My hand was crushed under someone’s boot, along with Emad’s arm. I gasped silently. Then someone started lifting my leg, which was stuck under Youssef’s stomach, and then my body too. I clung on to Youssef’s clothes, but the hand lifting me was much too strong for me. I suddenly found my head swinging through the air. I stiffened my neck to try to control it, but it was no use. I couldn’t make out where the voice giving orders was coming from but it was definitely from above.
In common with the other tales in his Libro del tedio (The Book of Tedium), José Ardila performs in “The House” a kind of alchemy with his autobiography, taking inspiration in childhood events and feelings, but stripping them of their specificity to conjure an alternative reality in which the contours of the particular give way at once to the schematic clarity of myth and to the uncanniness of dream.
The story carries what seem to me unmistakeable echoes of One Hundred Years of Solitude both in the inexorable descent of its narrative arc and the subtle magical realism that inflects it, and reminders (the flood, the chaotic fecundity of the vegetation, the demotic rough and tumble of family relations and of course the gallows humour) of its Colombian setting. And yet, shorn of clear markers of time and place and (largely) of names, both the eponymous house and the anxieties of its unnamed narrator become universal.