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Firefly Under the Tongue: Three Mexican Poets in Translation

a review by John Oliver Simon

Firefly Under the Tongue: Selected Poems of Coral Bracho, translated, with an introduction, by Forrest Gander, New Directions, New York, 2008, 133 pages, $16.95 paper,

Before Saying Any of the Great Words: Selected Poems, by David Huerta, translated by Mark Schafer, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington, 257 pages, $20.00 paper,

Solar Poems, by Homero Aridjis, translated by George McWhirter, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 262 pages, $17.95 paper,

A powerful generation of Mexican poets who grew up under the august shadow of Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, were challenged by the immense intelligence of the old poet, nourished by the system of becas, grants and fellowships that Paz created, and all more or less found a critical distance in which to develop their own voice, is now becoming available in English translation.

Dawn of the Senses, a selection of Alberto Blanco (1951), translated by many hands, including my own, came out from City Lights as early as 1995. The Selected Poems of Elsa Cross (1946) was published in 2009 by Shearsman, again with some of my own translations, but the edition is monolingual, always an unfortunate choice, and the English versions of uneven quality.

The New Directions edition of Firefly Under the Tongue presents a napkin-portrait of Coral Bracho (1951) by Carlos Fuentes, who never met the poet: it is more startlingly accurate to the heart than any photograph.

I'm gonna confess right away that I have long held a prejudice against Forrest Gander as a translator, ever since he published a butchered version of Elsa Cross in Black Warrior Review. Gander rendered, among other atrocities, ropa (clothes) as "rope" and cabellos (hair) as "horses." I wrote to the mag in rather condescending protest; Gander replied with a half-apology that failed to convince. Stipulate that I approached Firefly Under the Tongue with a jaundiced eye.

Coral Bracho's poems began erupting about thirty years ago; I've known her for twenty-five, and hung out with her at poetry festivals in Colombia and Argentina. Coral's poems are miasmic implosions in slow motion, occurring under water or in sex-like dreaming, or dreaming like sex, neuronic edges of lace abrading on lucidity at the mitochondrial level, density of syntax almost resolving as it approaches a substantive. Then the firefly goes out, the poem's over. Bracho is quite a unique poet, hard to compare to anybody in our poetry world. Marianne Moore on acid, maybe.

Forrest Gander's willingness to reach for the less-expected route, which had such disastrous results in the Elsa Cross mistranslation, serves him well with Coral Bracho's poetry. In almost every stanza Gander finds a graceful equivalent which is pleasingly not cognate. Here's the first three lines of a very typical Bracho poem, with its reeks and textures of pulp and biological process, followed by my own deliberately ho-hum 'most expected' translation, followed by Gander:

Te amo desde el sabor inquieto de la fermentación;

en la pulpa festiva. Insectos frescos, azules.

En el zumo reciente, vidriado y dúctil.

(from "Una luciérnaga baja la lengua / Firefly Under the Tongue")

J.O.S. trot:

I love you out of the unquiet flavor of fermentation,

in the festive pulp. Fresh insects, blue.

In the recent juice, glassy and ductile.


I love you from the sharp tang of fermentation;

in the blissful pulp. Newborn insects, blue.

In the unsullied juice, glazed and ductile.

Every change from expectation heightens. Festiva becomes "blissful," frescos is "newborn," reciente transforms into "unsullied." Almost against my will, I have to hand it to Gander: he's done a bang-up job of transmuting Coral Bracho into elegant, exciting English.

Firefly Under the Tongue will expand our sense of what is possible, both in poetry and translation. In poetry, because Coral Bracho approaches reality through microscopic textures of language in a way that complements and illuminates the work of North American women poets such as Lyn Hejinian and Kay Ryan. In translation, because Bracho's elusive moves are perceptively equivalenced by Forrest Gander's eloquent solutions, always at least equal to their task of transmuting her Spanish immersions into square old English that was never the same, and sometimes well beyond it, equal, that is, to a good poem.

It's not the first time that a poet has proved me wrong about my first negative take on their work. In 1973, I published a review in Dustbooks panning a Yale Younger Poets first book by a California kid I'd never met named Robert Hass. Years later I sent a postcard to Hass confessing that "Meditation at Lagunitas" had changed my mind. But damage had been done.

One more segment of Bracho and Gander to enjoy, from a new poem, "Dame, tierra, tu noche / "Give Me, Earth, Your Night":

Dame tu abismo y tu negro espejo.

Hondos parajes se abren

como fruto estelar, como universos

de amatista bajo la luz. Dame su ardor,

dame su cielo efímero,

su verde oculto: algún sendero

se abrirá para mí, algún matiz

entre sus costas de agua.

Give me your abyss and your black mirror.

The depths open up

like star fruit, like universes

of amethyst under the light. Give me their ardor,

give me their ephemeral sky,

their occult green: some path

will clear for me, some trace

through the coastal waters.

I've written at length previously about David Huerta (1949) in the Flash. In 1987, I compared him with his compatriot Alberto Blanco, with the great L.A. poet Jack Grapes and the Chicano poet Juan Felipe Herrera. One sleepless Mexico City night I read sixty pages into Huerta's dense 387-page poem Incurable, convincing myself that Huerta had said it all, it was no use—but I couldn't ever finish wading all the way through his endless fractal incrustations of underbrush. Elsa Cross told me in 1995, as we wandered the almost equally foreign markets and museums of San José, Costa Rica, that the greatest Mexican poet, without a doubt, was David.

David Huerta's father, Efraín Huerta (1914-1982), "El cocodrilo," was the great red hope the Mexican Left put up against Octavio Paz after Paz left the Party and criticized the Soviet Union and later, the Sandinistas. Efraín wasn't really quite deep enough for that mano a mano, but the old Crocodile tutored his kid in the library smelling of unfiltered Alas cigarettes that is now a museum, and the son grew up—like a Barry Bonds or Junior Griffey spending his childhood in the clubhouse—greater than the father.

David Huerta is Whitmanesque in line but thoroughly urban, more deeply educated and less self-indulgent than our best comp for him, Allen Ginsberg, if less charismatic as a projected persona. Against this kind of stature, Mark Schafer is an excellent and reliable translator, one who takes fewer risks than Forrest Gander; fewer risks than Gander is forced to take in order to negotiate Coral Bracho's brilliant dissolves. Forrest Gander sculpts Bracho's underwater finesses. Mark Schafer gets to work in marble.

The following stanza works as a Huerta self-portrait, in the familiar voice. The writer at work reflects himself in a shadowy hall of mirrors:

Cada tema entra alguna vez en el claroscuro de la palabra que lo convoca,

la cosa, la mera cosa rala y directa, cede a la ola del lenguaje,

la frase recortada termina en el agua de la página como un pedazo de madera para el naufragio tenaz, deseoso, escéptico, niebla de filo en llamas,

del escritor: a este mar has llegado, hijo del hombre,

pedazo agitado de la neutra realidad, encendida pobreza con sólo oscuras manos para meterlas en esto, hirviente y desolado,

con ojos vagos para el enorme trazo que todo te daría,

con la boca meticulosamente puesta en el silencio de escribir, mientras afuera tiembla el verano con pesados reflejos.

Every topic enters at least once in the chiaroscuro of the word that summons it;

the thing, the thing itself, spare and to the point, bends before the wave of language,

the clipped phrase concludes in the water of the page like a chunk of wood for the tenacious, desirous, skeptical shipwreck of the writer, fog on its edge, aflame:

you have arrived at this sea, son of man,

flustered chunk of neutral reality, kindled poverty with nothing but dark hands to stick to this bubbling, disconsolate mess,

with blurry eyes for the huge stroke of the pen that would give you everything,

with your mouth meticulously set in the silence of writing, while outside summer trembles with ponderous reflections.

(from "Index")

Mark Schafer provides some nice solutions: Blurry, flustered, mess. But while in Fireflies we are continually called to marvel at Gander's high-wire act as he encounters ingenious exits to Bracho's house of mirrored cards, Schafer in Before Saying achieves the more difficult feat of becoming invisible, his translator's decision-making process deceptively transparent as against David Huerta's big-boned structures.

There is a line in the sand in all Latin American poetry over the last twenty years or so, a divide best explained in David Huerta's line above:

…the thing itself, spare and to the point, bends before the wave of language

David Huerta and Coral Bracho are both included in Medusario, a 1997 continent-wide anthology featuring a Neobarroco manifesto. The New Baroque was enunciated by the great gay Argentine poet Nestor Perlongher (1944-1993) who visualizes poetry as a swirling matrix of campy layers of gauze overflowing the signifier. Neobarroco: neobarroso. Newly muddy. Almost opaque. Huerta and Bracho share an interest in mixing it up with language, collaging imagery with the plethora of what's to hand.

The Neobarroco may very gingerly template with our North American and Euro Post-Avant. In that case, cognate to our School of Quietude (so named by the venerable Ron Silliman) is an opposite Latin American option toward spare verse and transparent content. This takes powerful root in Pablo Neruda's deep and sonorous residence on earth, Residencia en la tierra. Alberto Blanco (1951) is probably the greatest voice of this strand today, but fellow-Mexican poets José Emilio Pacheco and Homero Aridjis, both born in 1939, share much of Blanco's practice of clarity.

Of course, the large work of Octavio Paz absolutely straddles and includes the above divide, ranging from spare and minimal to exuberantly lush.

Pacheco and Aridjis were always, for over a decade, the youngest poets in every anthology, a remarkable feat of poetry politics as well as poetics, before the youngsters born after WWII, led by Blanco, Huerta, Bracho and Cross, broke through. Homero Aridjis is a profoundly ecological poet who has put his fame and time where his principles are, fighting to save the monarch butterflies that winter by the billions in the mountains of his native Michoacán, the sea turtle that lays her eggs on Caribbean beaches, and the gray whale that calves in the lagoons of Baja California. Aridjis writes to the point, with an open eye and a sense of humor:

3. Telegrama de Puerto Rico. Final de juego

Araña erótica

en medio fuga

quedó aplastada

en pared humana.

3. Telegram from Puerto Rico. Game End

Erotic spider

in mid-escape

left flattened

on human wall

(from "Arañas o no arañas / Spiders or no spiders")

Here translator George McWhirter sensibly eschews the original's rhyme while conveying the poem's sharp outline with an English palette: taut rhythm and the parallel of erotic/escape.

The Flash asked me in the first place to write about Aridjis, and I insisted on including Bracho and Huerta to draw a larger scope. Reviewing one book, all you can say is some variant of isn't that nice; with several voices in hand it's possible to sketch a cultural landscape. Aridjis is a wonderful humane poet with lots to say about the world and its trauma and peril. I've used his insightful, visionary poems to great effect in my classroom teaching with Poetry Inside Out.

Soy un indocumentado de la eternidad.

Sin papeles he cruzado las fronteras del tiempo.

Detenido por los agentes migratorios

del nacimiento y de la muerte, he saltado

en el tablero de ajedrez de los días.

I am one of eternity's illegal aliens.

I have crossed time's borders without proper papers

Detained by the immigration officers

of life and death, I have jumped

across the chessboard of days.

(from "Por la puerta verde / Through the green door")

I can't help becoming impatient with George McWhirter translation of Aridjis. This translator has a weakness for the literal, following and even going beyond the already extensive Spanish sentence-order. Where did "proper" come from in line two? "Life" in line four seems a poor simplification for nacimiento ("birth").

Día y noche veo a tu hermano

cortando el pasto de la muerte.

Day and night I see your brother

out cutting death's grass for it.

(from "Pasto negro / Black grass")

What a weak line McWhirter ends up with in English! In the Spanish language, Death is a woman, la señora muerte, as etched by Juan Guadalupe Posada: a calavera, a skull-gal ready to have a good time, and it's her lawn your brother is mowing. McWhirter's sad little "it" at the end of the line only reminds us of how much is lost when we go from Spanish to English, neutering Death. I don't see any good reason not to go with the euphonious, and cognate, mowing the lawn of Death. Or maybe: mowing the lawn of Lady Death.

I have to say that I value Aridjis very highly, and after all McWhirter, minor glitches put aside, will serve decently as a window for those who don't have much Spanish. Because of the geography of poetics explained above, Aridjis is much easier to read than Bracho or Huerta. My mild dissatisfaction with McWhirter's translation explains a lot about why I was blocking on writing this review. Here's a luminous fragment of Aridjis to close (though I do want to quibble with the three blah "thes" in McWhirter's final stanza):

Ya despierta,

con la luz en los ojos,

Ya di las cosas

con la luz en los labios.

Ya márchate al mundo,

con la luz de todo ayer.

Wake up now

with light in your eyes.

Say things now

with light on your lips.

Go forth now with the light

of all the yesterdays into the world.

(from "Poderes de la luz / Powers light has")

"Go forth" now and read these three great Mexican poets, and honor the selfless service of their translators.

John Oliver Simon is a poet and translator who received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literary Translation. Caminante, a narrow road into the far south, is his most recent book of poems. Son Caminos, his selected poems in Spanish, was published in Mexico City. Former statewide director of California Poets in the Schools, he is Artistic Director of Poetry Inside Out, a poetry and translation program for children from the Center for the Art of Translation; he is also a Poetry Flash contributing editor.

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