An Esssay by Indran Amirthanayagam c) 2008
Midnight has passed and I wonder still how to speak about the backyard. How could I have let the grass, weeds and bracken grow so thick? There must be all sorts of insects, butterflies and rodents flying and scampering about….rivers with mysterious Indian names: Orinoco, Amazon, Parana…gold, shawls and quixotic guerrillas with masked faces….a few Nobel laureates as well celebrated on birthdays and prize days and in some houses on ordinary Sundays. How to speak of people, squat and brown in highlands, where the air fails to deliver oxygen to the bones, and tall and bronzed on the beaches of Rio and on the cobblestones of Cartagena. How to speak of a continent which I know through poems and fictions, where I have set foot in just a few places, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, El Salvador.
I came to Latin America following Neruda back home. He had been consul in my birth country in the 1920s, set up house in a then pristine Wellawatte, where he entertained a mongoose and assorted visitors from the multiple ethnic groups of the richly hued island. Neruda wrote Residencia en la Tierra when not kept company in that blindingly-lit island where the sun’s rays shone through decorum and clothes: “That Ceylon light gave me life/gave me death at the same time/because living inside a diamond/is a solitary lesson in being buried/is like turning into a transparent bird,/a spider who spins the sky and says goodbye.” He wrote from that solitude of the diamond while gazing upon the wild surf on the Southern beach. Later in life, he sought that surf again, in Isla Negra, Chile where he set up a dream house and wrote “That Light,” one of the poems from his book of memories: Isla Negra: a notebook.
I first learned of Neruda from a fellow Sri Lankan, J, whom I met in Honolulu in the early 80s. J had been imprisoned on a political charge for six years in the island but had access to hundreds of books from the Red Cross. He read all of them including a selection of Neruda. I was presented then to Latin American poetry as one of resistance, read by political prisoners in jail. How lovely to discover that the resistance rose out of a profound sense of love and loss—I think of Neruda’s 20 love poems: “tonight I can write the saddest lines…love is short, forgetting is long.”—and that this Spanish language writer was indeed singing the whole of America with his ample throat.
Neruda was a monster, to use the Latin American phrase to describe a great figure, one who changed the landscape or named it for the first time. Whitman had that kind of reach in the United States and throughout human history we find in all cultures some version of the epic poet. Yet, what Neruda gave us was infinite variety, from the surreal complexities of Residence on Earth, to the ever popular odes to common things like onions and shoes, to the great work of his late period, the zen-like distilled and impossible inquiries of The Book of Questions.
I begin with Neruda because he served as my Spanish Virgil leading me through the circles of America (while Whitman had that role in English). Of course, I say America to include the whole continent, even Canada at the risk of falling into perhaps a false idealism. I also should dispel with that polemic and silly notion of the backyard. I will say it in a sentence. The backyard exists only for those who wish to persist in the folly of making distinctions between peoples and positing one set of influences above another. I realize the sentence has become a bit long. Let me try again. The backyard is a misleading invention of the smug and mediocre fellow who can’t see beyond his own red, white and blue nose. One more attempt: the backyard exists only in the mind.
I come from Sri Lanka but I am resident in the front yard of my house, seated on a canvass chair, with a book of poetry in my hand along with a pipe. I also have a sign. It says I have arrived (along with countless other immigrants). And we too are America.
I also advocate Whitman’s contradictory impulses—“I am grand, I contain multitudes.” This is a useful posture to assess the conversation between North American and Latin American poetry. And I believe there is a conversation despite what some Spanish language poets tell me almost every day.
The naysayers are of course poets who have access to both North and South. They are often resident at US universities and move in a subculture of Latin American literature that circulates through the fifty states. Of course, Whitman’s boast also includes the idea that all groups have a role in America, even Latin American literature hands, as present company demonstrates.
So these friends tell me that US poetry, the sort written in English, does not draw inspiration from reading contemporary Latin American poets. Of course, this is hard to defend when looking at reality with a microscope. Countless festivals take place in Latin America with US poets invited or self-invited. They come to read and listen, break bread, exchange books, and go back to the fifty states with the sounds of contemporary Latin American poets buzzing in their ears. Now, I agree that some of these US poets know little Spanish and find themselves marooned at these festivals, dependent on a translator and bemused by the vast numbers of gathered poets.
There is no greater discouragement for the poor listener or reader than to be obliged to confront round table after round table with five or six poets on each one. My mentor at university used to ask me if I could imagine for 10 seconds the awful implications of the atomic bomb—ten seconds of pure concentrated thought. In the case of poets I would have to say that 120 minutes marks my limit for a day, the rest of which I can spend in reading them quietly back in my room, or as some awfully impolite fellow bards have done, leave the twenty pounds of donated verse in their rooms for the cleaning ladies and the not so amused organizers of the festival.
I mention festivals to point out that reality is always more complex than the popular and emotional feeling of being left out, of belonging to a minor stream within the United States. Why do we worry so much about our place in the conversation? I suppose receiving an invitation to a conference, especially if the ticket has been paid, assuages one’s ego, fortifies the idea of having some expertise, some unique knowledge to share.
Having purchased my own plane ticket I take the Whitman approach—the Whitman who self-published various editions of Leaves of Grass—who had to hawk his poetry as some poets and critics gathered here. Come out of the closet those of you who paid for your own books. No harm in a bit of investment in your own future. Here we can agree to engage in those ancient practices among insecure and ignored poets, namely execution of M.A. and M.D. The acronyms mean Mutual Appreciation, and in the case of poets safely dead or engaged in such horrors as writing simple, declarative sentences, Mutual Destruction. But of course the mutual is a fiction in the latter as the attacked poet is indeed very dead, although he may have been a monster in his time—I think of Ezra Pound for example with his early lyrics or the T.S. Eliot of Prufrock—subject to diatribes by some contemporary poets tired of his overreaching influence like hearing 15 hours straight of heavy metal music during an interrogation session that otherwise features four hours of brightly-lit and broken sleep and a few minutes of temptation when a member of the opposite sex straddles the poor prisoner and reads neo-baroque verse.
I refuse, by the way, to endorse any particular candidate for the title of monster except of course the usual, and most likely dead ones, that we all know and have incorporated into our languages: Neruda, Borges, Vallejo, Paz, Huidobro. And I mean both our principal languages, as these poets have helped shaped both English and Spanish sensibility. I imagine they have also shaped poets who write in some of the indigenous tongues. An urbane and yet mythologically-rooted poet like Natalia Toledo writes in zapotec and Spanish, and I have a hunch has incorporated the monsters into her incantatory zapotec. There are also living masters, Parra, Pacheco. There are great novelists who have poetry in them: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fernando Vallejo. And there are fine upcoming poets who deserve wide readership: the Argentine Ariel Schettini, the Mexicans Jose Eugenio Sanchez and Julian Herbert and others here united.
I understand that the age of the dinosaurs has passed. I think of Jose Donoso’s novel Donde Van a Morir los Elefantes (Where the Elephants Go to Die). I don’t have a copy of the novel but understand that the elephants or monsters end up on obscure American campuses, removed from the hurly burly of Rio or Santiago, Mexico City or Havana, not to mention Los Angeles or New York. Here their only tasks are to bicycle about between classes and guide graduate students on theses and of course teach, try to preserve the collective memory, to include even Eliot and Pound, and to mention someone now forgotten, Conrad Aiken.
How many Latin Americans know Conrad Aiken? I think concern that the conversation goes one way is misguided. With the exception of John Ashbery and a poet like Charles Simic who writes in an easily translated style, few contemporary Latin American poets know new poems by contemporary American poets like Mary Oliver or Louise Gluck or Sherman Alexie. Again, translators keep busy and microscopic examination can always reveal new strands of conversation in and between the Americas. The NEA collaborated with Mexico’s Conaculta recently to publish two bilingual anthologies of Mexican and American poets. So Sherman Alexie is now part of Spanish language poetry. Writing programs—inspired by the U.S.’s MFA—have sprung up now in important universities like Diego Portales in Santiago, while transnational poetry movements have expanded thanks to the internet. In 2002, a UN-mandated Dialogue Among Civilizations led to coordinated poetry readings in hundreds of cities around the world on the same day. I organized one in Chennai, India where I had been posted at the time. A vina player strummed in between the poets. A bharata natyam dancer turned head and hands with fast and deft gestures. The evening became a feast of cross pollination between different art forms.
I like these global events. They help dispel solitude and the feeling of being left off the head table. Let us put all the poets at the head table. Let us write vigorously and with economy and clarity. Let us display our linguistic prowess and our common sense. Let us work to create a public television channel in Spanish in the United States. Let us move Univision and Telemundo towards creating a conversation with authors series. Let us work in our communities and globally to increase readership for poetry. And yes, let us have standards. “Let us go, then you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky/like a patient etherized upon a table.” Let us advocate clear and searing metaphors. And let us always support the translators. Alastair Reid educated me about Neruda and Borges. Rae Dalven brought me Cavafy in high flown and demotic registers. Cavafy became Cavafis in the Spanish of Cayetano Cantu.
I mention Cavafy to remind all of us that our influences are catholic and have no end. We are poets shaped by the sun, wind and stars, by the books we read in original tongues and in translation. And we must put our queer and straight shoulders to the wheel. There is much to do and little time. We can stretch that time if we take our neighbor as our reader and not resign ourselves to communication between specialists in university refuges.
I believe poets should exercise their social obligations as bards of “the past, what is passing, and what is to come”. They should write frequently to the opinion pages, contribute book reviews, insist that newspapers like the LA Times return to writing about poetry. Surely, a bit of advocacy would help, a letter writing campaign, even contacts with House and Senate representatives. April was the cruelest month but is now the month when poetry is celebrated all over the United States. Let’s find other hooks to capture the imagination of our peoples. And let’s not be snooty about our secretaries and oil rig workers, fishmongers and bus conductors. We belong to them as much as the Medicis. In fact, we belong to neither. We are our own society within the larger society and we have our charge, self-appointed perhaps, but powerful. Auden, Ginsberg and Neruda should serve as our models-- la poesie engagé but written with vigorous and fresh metaphors to be etched in the hearts and minds of readers and listeners.
Let me finish with a sampler from three poets who gladden the imagination and make me feel confident about the new Latin American generation. These poets read the United States and will be read in the United States. The wave has already begun to move the sand. Julian Herbert’s poems were featured in the last Americas issue of BOMB magazine. Jose Eugenio Sanchez has just returned from Iowa and publications in US magazines and acclaim on US stages. Ariel Schettini, an earlier Iowa grad, returned to Argentina to be a poet, critic and reader of the Americas from his perch on Arenales Street in Buenos Aires. I expect to see his work come out in English very soon. I have taken the liberty of translating the poems. Here is Ariel Schettini’s The Annunciation
I do not know if he was an alien or angel
(but surely he came from outer space).
He looked at me without knowing
if I was a genius or charlatan.
He needed a description
and I gave it to him,
because I thought
that everything wandering up there
wants to know how. Besides
I only had descriptions.
When I could no longer speak, he told me:
I am sick. I know, I know, I told him.
And that night we made love
because the rest was the enemy
and sex appeared the only safe thing to do.
He told me: I am sick. This is war. No?
I replied: No. No, I told him.
I could have fallen for that alien
as easily as I could have not.
Afterwards, he told me:
I am sick. And I could not make
But I kept watch
over the imaginary night
like those who fear and wait
for life in space.
He left like the dead, or thieves
or the nun in The Sound of Music:
without a farewell.
I don’t know if he was an artist,
the kind that give reasons for
trips to the planets.
But that night I saw
him kiss the world
as if he was kissing me.
--c) 2008 Ariel Schettini, trans. Indran Amirthanayagam
NEW YORK WAS LEFT SUDDENLY
WITHOUT JOSEPH BRODSKY
an old car guffaws by
a trembling fellow offers what you want
prostitutes in overcoats huddle together against the wind
some uniformed gents leave a bar completely smashed
a vagabond stretches out his hand
at street’s end a police patrol car
lights up as it moves slowly to the right
a couple leaves the theater
two black men speak to each other
and in the shop window in front
a pair of silk socks
they seem more indispensable than us.
--c) 2008 Jose Eugenio Sanchez, trans. Indran Amirthanayagam
THE ASS’S HEXAGRAM
What’s to say of an ass?
I never said a thing.
An ass stood next to Leticia’s mouth:
his ardor sprang from the moon
and he scratched
against me furiously.
There was an ass in Juan Luis’ house
and they charged us five pesos to ride him.
I never rode him.
There was one swollen and black floating in a stream,
another very yellow in an Arctic dream,
and the ass of the comic strips,
and an ass a little crosseyed in Gabriela’s gaze
looking over its shoulder from a country of scent.
So beastly this word
that it disgusts me still. How to found
the angels’ flight in a back kick.
How to be the fur and chew
upon the blinking
of a sonorous breath among the sunflowers.
Without carriage drivers or feats, hardly honeycombed
or a girl’s insolence.
Without laws or allegory, just submerged
in the copperish afternoon
like a train by Turner.
The sameness—I never told you—
this same ass
detained in his rat-colored skin
in front of a vulgar backdrop of green stalks.
The pleasure of living like an animal and striving
like the sage or the laurel.
-- c) 2008 Julian Herbert, trans. Indran Amirthanayagam
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