“Moss on a Smooth Rock” is from Un mar en madrugada (A Sea at Dawn), by the Uruguayan poet Silvia Guerra, published in 2018 by Hilos Editora, Buenos Aires, Argentina. The English version of this book is forthcoming from Eulalia Books in 2022.
Guerra’s work is notorious for its complexity, its concreteness of image and abstraction of thought, and its convention-defying syntax, capitalization and punctuation. With a long-standing interest in linguistics and psychology as well as a deep affinity for the natural world, Guerra’s poems go beyond the self in an effort to imagine the world from the standpoint of other beings, living and nonliving. For centuries, humans have assumed a monopoly on consciousness, even arrogantly denying the subjective experience of other mammals. But scientists are at last confirming what any dog or cat owner has always known: animals are not unfeeling automata any more than we are. But while only some creatures are proven to be sentient, can we be so certain that others are not? “How can we be so sure that plants feel no pain?” asks Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. What about rocks? Guerra dares to imagine they are.
At first, it seems simple to outline the role of place in poems by Reina María Rodríguez. She began writing poetry in Havana, Cuba, a city that permeates much of her work. She grew up in a building on Ánimas Street, not far from the ocean, in a neighborhood of modest means. Eventually she and her partner built a tiny apartment on that same building’s roof out of largely recycled materials, and there they ran a historic, open-air cultural salon in the 1990s. Today Rodríguez remains interested in everyday life, in the realities accessible to inhabitants moving through the city streets. Alongside her explorations of the present, she incorporates memories from her neighborhood into many poems.
Hebe Uhart’s “A Trip to La Paz” is delightfully misleading in that we never arrive at our destination; we never see the city that touches the clouds. This essay is concerned with a different kind of beauty—the getting there, the buzzing potential of travel. It encapsulates why we embark on grueling car rides, on flights, on long train journeys, in the first place.
These poems and versions are from Claudia Prado’s El Interior de la Ballena (Editorial Nusud, 2000), a novel-in-verse based on Prado’s agrarian family legacy in Patagonia. Prado is an Argentinian poet and filmmaker known for making groundbreaking, socially progressive art. El Interior de la Ballena was her debut, a poetry collection that received the bronze Concurso Régimen de Fomento a la Producción Literaria Nacional y Estímulo a la Industria Editorial del Fondo nacional de las Artes (this is the third place award for the biggest literature prize in Argentina). Mixing fiction with oral history, Prado imagines her ancestors’ 19th century migration from the Basque Country into Argentina and, ultimately, southward into the oceanic desert. These poems offer a rare look at the Patagonian plateau between 1892 and 1963, years of intense immigration and population growth, written through a feminist lens. In addition to poems written in the poet’s own voice, the book also makes wide use of monologue and persona techniques, weaving together this intergenerational story through a multiplicity of voices: here speaks a woman who, against her will, is taken to that desert; here is revealed the thoughts of an orphan laborer; here, a chicken thief celebrates his sad prize. In El Interior de la Ballena, Prado uses her page to privilege the often unseen and unheard, composing in silence as much as sound, and in so doing creates a poetics of Patagonia itself. When read together, the poems quilt a place, time, and lineage through a story of strong women, wounded and wounding men, and a rural and unforgiving landscape from which hard-scrabble labor is the origin of survival.
On December 5, 1976, I arrived in Madrid from Argentina. I flew Iberia airlines, caught the plane in Montevideo because I was afraid of the disappearances happening at the border. I left wearing summer clothes, as if I were a tourist heading for the beaches of Uruguay, then, two or three days later, landed in Madrid, where it was winter. My father and sister saw me off. It took me six years—the years of the dictatorship—to return.
Edurne Portela’s novel, Formas de estar lejos, recounts the story of the slow disintegration of a marriage, worn down by apparently small acts of emotional violence (invisible, even) which, taken together, gradually destroy not only the protagonist, Alicia, but also the perpetrator of those acts of violence: her husband, Matty. The title of the novel itself, as is often the case, is virtually untranslatable. A literal rendering might be Ways of Being Distant although, as I worked on my translation, I found myself thinking of it, in a nod to Gabriel García Márquez, as Chronicle of a Divorce Foretold, one in which the breakdown of the relationship can be attributed not so much to the inherent incompatibility of the partners (whatever that might mean) but rather to the alienation they experience in their personal and professional lives, and the way they respectively succumb to and exploit wider social forces such as patriarchy, male violence, social conservatism and racism. I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that this situation gradually transforms the narrator of the novel into a prisoner and her partner becomes her unhappy jailor.
Translated from the Spanish by RICHARD GWYNappears below in English and Spanish
I translated Inés Garland’s “The Old Dog” shortly after publishing one of her best-known stories, “A Perfect Queen,” in a special Argentine edition of the New Welsh Review, a few years back. I first came across Inés’ short stories on a visit to Buenos Aires in 2011, and was immediately drawn to her portrayal of individuals—almost always women—either at moments of self-realization brought about by the actions of others, or else struggling against an impending sense of loss or betrayal. But there is also a kind of detachment in her writing, as though her characters were teetering on the edge of some other, unknown revelation.
“The Old Dog” attracted me because of the tension between the two elderly human characters, and the way that the animal interloper seems to bring them together, however clumsily. The anecdote about the man’s former wife abandoning the family dog on the roadside—which, it is implied, has also been the fate of the dog in this story —is a horrible reminder of human cruelty, and helps us re-evaluate, perhaps, our initial lack of empathy for the male character.
A, E, I, O, U. The rhythmic concatenation of these five vowels is the tachycardic pulse of Mario’s poetry, and it cannot be imitated in English. Feeling for correlative patterns in the jangle of our consonant-frontal idiom is something like transcribing the pitch values of a Max Roach drum solo for honkeytonk piano. I do what I can with alliteration but even the relatively long decay of the M or the out-hissing S does not match the multi-textured overtones of a hard O spilling through the rails of its word-cage when struck, trailing a foam of soft E’s across the rubble.
Mario Santiago Papasquiaro: Two Poems in Translation
Like many translators, I grow weary of talking about “faithfulness” and “betrayal,” about whether it’s “possible” to translate poetry, about what gets “lost” in translation. These queries quickly become platitudes, and platitudes are tiresome. But what’s always relevant, always urgent, and always exhilarating to me about translation is the idea of respect. The practice of care. One of my favorite translators, Sophie Hughes, recently said in an interview: “I approach a text that is already complete, mature, sure of itself, and it’s my responsibility to look after it, to respect it for what it is (its nature or essence), whilst protecting it from linguistic butchery, from translationese, from too many mistakes or outlandish mis- and reinterpretations.” And how can we respect anything for what it is until we truly listen to what it has to say about itself and how it sees the world?