Translation is home. Whenever I travel, I seek it either by reading translations, or by translating as a grounding exercise. Lately I have been translating into English poems from Jewish Latin American poets, specifically works by conversos or those written in Yiddish and Ladino by immigrants and their offspring. And—in a room of her own—Alejandra Pizarnik, whose life makes me think of Emily Dickinson. I recreated these two poems while visiting my mother, who has been suffering from Alzheimer’s. Pizarnik distills the fibers of existence so as to reveal the madness that palpitates underneath. Her poetry is contagious. The toughest part is to convey her silences. I wish I had met her.
Through mantle, earth, gender, air
through false stories and true
undistracted by pectin, pucker, time
scale, sugar, seed, dripped rainbow of
oil, prism, crushed berry residue, om of home, acid, oxygen song—
I grip jelly jars to my eyes
mock binocular my way to You—
It had been fifteen years since my family left for the US, but my grandparents’ room in Gomel had not changed. I sat on the same Soviet-era sofa, holding the same replica of Cheburashka, my childhood-favorite TV character. The occasion of my visit had prompted Dedushka, my Belarusian grandpa, to take me to the village where he was born, now dilapidated, to generations of ancestors’ graves, through documents that told something of our fragmented history. One evening Dedushka donned his army uniform, and presented me with a newspaper clip detailing my father’s death. My grandmother was quiet, resigned to the shadows of old books and toys.
My neighborhood is called Afrikanisches Viertel, and my flat is on Guinea Street. There’s Kongostraße, Togostraße, Kamerunerstraße, Transvaalstraße, Sansibarstraße, Otawistraße—I could go on, but you could also just Google Germany’s colonial conquest of Africa.
R is for raw sewage, riverine wetland, rubbish, rookery of herons and egrets, rusting barrels of toxic waste. I try to imagine all of this at Pig’s Eye Lake. Surrounding it, marsh, cottonwoods, floodplain, bluffs above the great river. It’s a place the Dakota consider sacred, James Rock says. Čhokáŋ Taŋka, the Dakota call it: the big middle. I try to imagine the burial mounds that were blown up with dynamite, and railyards, locks and dams, dredging, and all the household trash that was dumped in the marsh, the industrial debris: lead-acid batteries, solvents, electrical transformers, burnt sludge. Eight million cubic yards, some of it fluorosurfectants—the so-called forever chemicals needed to make non-stick frying pans, stain-repellent for couches and rugs—the PFOS that have spread everywhere, now taint my blood, and yours, and every creature’s.
I went to the for water, although I had no thirst, again
unable to find Not sleeping, roaming restless, hunting at 2am for on my phone, no rabbit hole too deep, however dull, aching tired as though I had been Only three days into this, asked how mywas going, I launched into a tense that the question even deservedand saw how hard, again, I was trying not to the plain fact that right in front of us,
again, the cop had emptied his into a human, now yet shackled to his hospital bed. That again, a young had taken down a human with a military grade yet away from the scene unhindered. And that, again, we were being asked
to choke offthoughts, stifle any sound, stave and belt the chest to our agitation, keep breathing because, again,
The warm May evening fairly sizzled with bats. Out from under the crannies of Congress Avenue Bridge, Mexican free-tailed bats slipped out in threes, then tens, then hundreds, and flooded the Austin night, sipping from the skies tens of thousands of pounds of insects, as they did every spring and summer night. I felt at once the tickling of wings behind my ears and began shivering uncontrollably. No, fortunately not a bat—just the flick of a stranger’s ponytail at the back of my neck. But the shivery feeling remained; that contact with a stranger was a switch point in my mind. Any kind of creature, wonderful or mundane, slinked in the nooks and crannies of the city celebrated for its weirdness.