Andrea Chapela is the daughter of a physicist and a mathematician, so she naturally studied chemistry. Luckily for me, she’s also a creative writer. The exciting thing about the poems in Fundamentals of Applied Chemistry is that they are a scientist’s exploration of life and relationships through poetry—and at the same time, a poet’s exploration of life and relationships through chemistry! Not only that, but they’re funny, cutting, insightful—and a lot of fun to translate. Ars poetica as lab report? Breakup poem as description of Bond Theory? I’m in. I think I learned more scientific terminology via translating these poems than I ever did in my high school chemistry class! To her credit, Andrea is also a patient teacher and was very helpful in talking me through the structural ideas guiding many of these poems. Though I don’t think intimate knowledge of the laws and structures she references is necessary to reading these poems, her explanations and diagrams were helpful in making sure I translated in such a way as to convey the overall metaphors. Andrea is an accomplished fiction writer, and these poems indicate she has a bright career as a poet as well.
– Kelsi Vanada
The three poems included here are from Arturo Loera’s book La retórica del llanto (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2014). Apart from one poem in the anthology Poets for Ayotzinapa (Mexico City Lit, 2015), this is the first time his work has appeared in translation.
Loera’s voice is always candid. It treads that risky line where “poetic language” becomes difficult to distinguish from common ways of feeling, thinking, and, in this case, mourning. This is hard as hell to pull off. Often, though, it is a mark of good poetry. The imagery draws almost exclusively from the near-at-hand–place-names, regional attire, childhood memories–but is nevertheless rife with ambiguity. The language is plainspoken even as it works full-gear to perform multiple tasks at once. The simplest moments are the most equivocal. Whenever possible, I have tried to create equivalent effects in English.
On the whole I was strict with the meanings of individual words but not above taking liberties for the sake of sound. Example: replacing the Spanish word for “alcohol” with “liquor” in English just because it sounds better coming after “shatter.” There is a strong rhythm, conversational quality, and incantatory pulse to these poems which I hope feels familiar to American readers.
– Garrett Stanford Phelps
Italo-Mexican writer Fabio Morábito’s patient, nomadic gaze observes the world through the cracks and fissures of everyday life in order to disclose its discontinuities, uncovering along the way the secret lives of people and things. As a geographic and linguistic immigrant–from Italy to Mexico and from Italian to Spanish–Morábito sets his writing in a perpetually liminal space, seeking anonymous points of convergence made possible at the edges and borders of the surface of things. In order to do so, he purposefully displaces himself, tempting the void, as he states in a poem from De lunes todo el año (“A Year of Mondays”), “In order to feel alive/ we must be standing on a kind of desolation.” (All translations are mine.)
Morábito is the rare author who practices fiction and poetry with equal dexterity, and “The Sailboat” is the first story in his fourth collection of short fiction, Madres y perros (“Mothers and Dogs”), published in 2016 by Editorial Sexto Piso. The fifteen stories spring from quotidian situations and places in Mexico and abroad, but his writing soon reveals unsettling enigmas: two brothers worry more about a dog locked in an apartment who hasn’t been fed than they do about their dying mother; a man’s evening jog on a racetrack turns into a savage battle between runners when the lights go out; a daughter learns to draft business letters as an homage to her mother. The stories leave us with what critic Peio Riaño calls a “deaf question that is never truly answered,” that nevertheless offers new ways of viewing and caring for our world.
I was an ardent reader of Morábito’s poetry before I discovered his fiction and essays. Often-overlooked everyday things and people who are commonly forgotten–for example, a swing set, a group of construction workers, the old pipes running up a bathroom wall, a cow grazing in a field–are given space in his verse to be resignified and to resignify, in turn, the poetic subject and the reader herself. In Morábito’s fiction, this amplified process obliges us to question constructions of order and meaning, and to contemplate the false coherence of systems of knowledge and representation, memory, and narration.
– Sarah Pollack
Elsa Cross is a Mexican writer and philosopher, widely recognized as one of the most important voices of her generation. She has produced a considerable body of work that consists of over 20 collections of poetry, books of essays, and translations. Octavio Paz wrote that Cross “is one of the most personal voices in recent Latin American poetry. Her work, already extensive, brings together some of the most perfect poems among those written by recent generations of Mexican authors. I say ‘voice’ and not poetic writing; although it is written, above all it is spoken. Two opposed aspects are united in Elsa Cross: complexity of thought, and diaphanous diction.”
Bomarzo (from which these poems are taken) is a book-length sequence examining a relationship through the lens of the Italian garden of grotesques built in the mid-16th century by the Italian architect Pirro Ligorio that gives the book its title. Both the imagery and the language used in these poems are ornate and dreamlike, reflecting the phantasmagorical nature of the sculptures of orcs and other creatures which inhabit what is called the “Villa of Monsters,” designed to shock and express grief rather than to delight or amuse. And this poetic trip through Bomarzo is metaphoric, not literal, resulting in a nostalgia as much for things that never were as for those that never could be.
For the translation, I’ve tried to preserve Cross’ heavy utilization of Greco-Latinate terminology, to reflect both the location and a certain linguistic extravagance that echoes the Park’s eerie beauty.
Relatively little of Cross’ work is available in English, although Shearsman Press in the UK has been striving valiantly to redress this. They published a volume of Cross’ Selected Poems in 2009, and have just brought out two more of Cross’ shorter Greece-inspired collections in a single volume entitled Beyond the Sea, translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano. A bilingual edition of Bomarzo is forthcoming from Mexican publisher Vaso Roto in 2017.
– Lawrence Schimel
Using her background in psychotherapy, Glafira Rocha blends genres and fractures forms to introduce us to texts devoid of spatial, temporal, and character delineations, thus fully delving into the psyche of each voice. Like Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake and Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, Rocha’s Such Tales is a work of fiction intended to disturb and unsettle. Spanning nearly nineteen thousand words in length, the volume centers on human conflict, inviting its audience to examine the catalyst for evil that resides in the relationships among the people Rocha depicts.
The situations explored in Such Tales include, among others: a killer struggling to find his keys after murdering a mother and her two children; a psychopath pondering mass homicides; a dying woman experiencing her final thoughts, visions, and hallucinations; two highly driven women competing for power within the same career and the same mind; private letters describing a father’s absence, a wife’s loneliness, and the incestuous sexual abuse of their child; people wandering around a town vivid with remnants of the revolution for freedom; the loss of a child testing an elderly woman’s faith; a paralytic discussing his shoe fetish; a woman living with depression and struggling to move through her day; the brutal death of a relative affecting everyone and no one equally.
– Gustavo Adolfo Aybar
The poems featured here come from a series entitled “El asalto a las putas,” or “Whorehouse Raid,” which takes up the old film cliché of gunslingers shooting up a saloon and making off with women thrown over shoulders–an event depicted in the second poem. The cartoonishness of this scene is not downplayed, but it is offset and undermined by the poems that bookend it. The title of the poem that precedes it, “far west will never can forget” is meant to be a Spanish speaker’s interpretation of English, implying that Wild West tropes are perhaps more alive now in the cowboy landscape of northern Mexico. The poem acts as a forlorn meditation on the waning of the Wild West mythos in the face of urban modernity. In contrast, the final three surprise us by introducing the rarely heard voices of the women themselves as they sit around telling stories that begin in bravado and jest, but fall silent when the tales turn to sexual subjugation. Their tragedy is framed by an epigraph in which Hollywood’s idealized Wild West outlaws–Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid–weigh in from beyond the opening poem’s veil of history, saying “did you ever imagine this butch / no sundance this doesn’t smell right to me.”
Readers may find it helpful to note that Sánchez finds his footing more in rock and roll than the literary establishment, claiming that he only became a poet because he couldn’t be a rock star. He’s currently rectifying that with the support of his experimental rock band, un país cayendo a pedazos, which describes itself as “a fresh cocktail of humor, criticism, sex, rock, and performance.” To check out their performance of “el asalto a las putas,” along with other multimedia fun, go to: http://unpaiscayendoapedazos.tumblr.com.
His newest book, jack boner & the rebellion, will be published in February 2014.
– Anna Rosenwong
After being pensioned off for his unstable behavior, Mr. Gordon experiences a fracture of his spirit in an artificial, Californian Eden. In the shade of the tree of a thousand leaves, at the edge of a swimming pool, Gordon transcribes his thoughts, memories, and questions while striving to sort out the harassment he experiences from his wife and his best friend, engaging all the while in a dialogue with an interior voice determined to finish off what remains of his sanity.
Death on rúa Augusta is the diary of a person who cannibalizes his own self. In this narrative poem, Tedi López Mills masterfully delves into the machinery of consciousness in order to exhibit, boldly, that slender thread that keeps us attached to the world. A masterful work of contemporary Mexican literature, which shares both the human depth of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito and the teasing ambiguity of Johann von Goethe’s Elf King, it does showcase one truth at the heart of all human life: No person is to be despised as worthless; no person can ever be deprived of her or his dignity. Even the “zeros” among us are all “classics after our own fashion.”
Latin American literature is world renowned for its richness in a variety of genres–poetry, the essay, the short story and, of course, the novel. Spanish-language literature in diary form seems less well known. Ocosingo War Diary is the first-ever English translation of one well-known writer’s twelve-day ordeal, which took place in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, near Guatemala. Efraín Bartolomé gives an eyewitness account of the New Year’s Eve massacre of 1994. Published to critical acclaim in Spanish in 1995, Ocosingo is part of a now classic tradition of testimonial literature in the vein of Elena Poniatowska’s Massacre in Mexico (1971). Part pastoral elegy, part eyewitness reportage, Bartolomé’s artful war diary is as much a prose poem as it is a memoir.
The unspoken cliché that writing should reflect the world in accurate language unveils itself provocatively in Mexican poet Jorge Fernández Granados’s poem “Principle of Uncertainty.” Its speaker posits that to perceive something like truth in “unreliable hiding-in-plain-sight / reality” you have to witness, and do your best, because “(the closest) proximity or (furthest) / distance are the error / from which we love or judge.”
Another unspoken cliché that the collection Principio de incertidumbre (2007) voices aloud is that poetry can speak the world at all, since writing ultimately is a translation of experience. Principio, Granados’s seventh book, whose title I translate literally as “Principle of Uncertainty,” wishes to suggest that this is not a treatise on Heisenberg, but rather an experiment with how his principle might work in poetry. Thus, we read the “hurried notes” of an observer faced with the uncertainty of knowing anything precisely. And knowingly, Fernández Granados’s free verse of mostly unpunctuated lines that wobble between phrases and across line breaks expresses uncertainty, but in ways that lead the reader into surprising detours and notable arrivals.
In a seeming contradiction to the preceding, a matter of punctuation appears in the ars poetica, “F(l)echas en la noche / D(a)rt(e)s in the Night,” which underscores the poet’s denial that he can write at all, even while he writes. A parenthesis as lexical item opens a window for the use of the same variable in English translation: F(l)echas – fechas” almost mirror each other, as do “Da(r)tes – dates,” with the minor enormity of the lazy “e” in “dartes,” hence “da(r)t(e)s,” a manuever almost compensating for the size differential between “flechas” (“arrows”) and “darts.” I have calculated that adding an additional “( )” to bound the “e” could be an intelligible, even an aesthetic choice, though I recognize it is a kind of error.
The real issue comes into focus in the variously stated refrain “no podría escribir” / “I could not write,” the resulting clause of a statement contrary to fact: “As if there were in words something able /to translate it.” The world, that is, and I couldn’t, says the poet. But the implied meaning of such “if” statements is present tense, in other words, the poet “can’t write,” he can only “transcribe / excavate” what the lyric says in the end: “in the difficult words that are nothing / surely but inseparable shadows hard / ruins teeth or darts in the night / that project things / the singular things of this world…” all clarified in the light of another morning. Even though the meaning of the refrain changes in the course of the poem, I (am bound to) render it as written grammatically, and all the while know that its meaning is variable, uncertain, and significant. Though I have done my best, I am not able to translate it, I can only approximate it.
(W. Nick Hill)
Marco Aurelio Ángel-Lara (Mexico, 1970) is a Mexican writer whose book of aphorisms, El atril de la luciérnaga, was published in 2011 by Arlequín. Marco has been anthologized in collections of Hispanoamerican poetry and awarded with poetry, essay, and short script international prizes. He obtained a Ph.D. in Critical and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. He has taught philosophy and Latin American literature for several years at different universities in Mexico and Europe.
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).