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Poetry

Angel, Interrupted

Reginald Shepherd

University of Pittsburgh Press, $24.95

by Karen Volkman

Angel, Interrupted is the second volume of poetry by the passionate and prolific Reginald Shepherd, whose first collection, Some Are Drowning, was selected by Carolyn Forch for the Associated Writing Program's Award Series in Poetry and published by Pitt in 1994. Through lush, fluid lines and an elegant fusing of high speech, ardor, and irony, the dream-dense, sensuous world evoked in the first book evolves and extends its obsessions in this wildly accomplished successor.

The differing strategies of the two books can be established at the outset from their titles. Some Are Drowning confronts its readers with a statement of fact, though whether intended as wail, warning or whisper we cannot be sure. Angel, Interrupted presents two seemingly opposing terms, each trailing its comet-stream of associations. While the "angel" seems a boast and a challenge, it is the "interruptions" that make up the body of the book, keeping it and its evolving speaker merely, magisterially human, earth bound, and grounded:


We interrupt this broadcast
to bring you a fatal infinity, the difference between fiction
and a clouded-over sky. We interrupt these lines
to bring you pebbles spilled from an open palm, someone
cleaning out his mind: here are some pockets
filled with salt, useful in case of dehydration. The only thing
between us is the world, sidewalks and shrubs, windows
glutted with finite regrets. You can't walk through
the thinghood empty-handed, shirking the knives
of fact.
("The Angel of Interruptions")

Although Shepherd is a richly lyric poet, with an emphasis on internal investigations, his repeated "we" emphasizes a shifting concern--increasingly, he situates poems in public spaces such as lakefronts, parks, street corners, dance floors, a porn theater. In "The Angel of Interruptions,"--presented as a sort of preface to the book--facts, shreds of diction, the disparate languages of media and love, break in on the poet's meditation with a string of urgent avowals, both distraction and warning. Here and elsewhere, the poet becomes a sifter of public and private speech, a mythic observer wandering in both idyllic ("Two Versions of Midsummer") and bacchic ("Narcissus Learning the Words to This Song") landscapes, honoring yet questioning the apparent coherence, the sufficiency, of what he sees. Beneath the curious multifaceted persona Shepherd evolves for himself--part pariah, part statesman, part suitor--lurks his quotation from Frantz Fanon: "O my body, make of me always a man who questions." Racial otherness is read as urgent entitlement, a vocation to decode. "Here is the ruin of representation at rush hour," writes Shepherd in the opening line of this poem. In the lyric's eternal present, he positions the reader in a state of ruin and in a perpetual rush, an opening gesture that will shadow the varying tone and psychic resonances that follow.

If Some Are Drowning suggested, in its title and through the course of its poems, the trials of simple survival in an alien element, Angel, Interrupted takes a more progressive stance; against the descent of drowning in the first book, the prospect of ascent looms ever present in the new one. At the same time, water continues to recur as image and motif, but here as a freer, less threatening medium, as though the speaker had accepted immersion--in images, sensations, contradictions--as a natural state. Whether the waters he conjures are healing, ravaging, or simply polluted, Shepherd succeeds in instilling in this atavistic icon a fierce modernity. To read these poems is in fact something like stepping into an unexpectedly strong current, as the poet carries his reader along rigorously emjambed lines through shifts of perspective and tone:


I dreamed out drowning there, but couldn't spell
that sea's white syllables, So beauty stood
upon the water. The radio's repeated madrigals
all night, coldness and romance compose themselves

to improvise a singing renaissance. Who ever thinks
or hopes of love (wind-spattered pane, a way, a world
where spring was never waiting): I never did, except
of clean white skin, the moon (metallic, matte)

pinning white notes to every wave that slaps the shore
repeatedly, insulted by erosion.
("Deep Water")

This is a pretty accurate assemblage of Shepherd's poetic strategies: high romance of tone; interpolated emendations and additions; conventional allusions (spring and moon) undercut by self-irony ("coldness and romance compose themselves"); and the suggestion of an underlying violence in words such as "spattered," "slaps," and "insulted." Overall, the sheer excess of sonic texture and stance suggests a sensibility drawn to abandon, while the prosodic interruptions reveal one equally suspicious of it. (The breathing space provided by stanzas here is in fact a rarity; the poems more often submerge their reader in the opening lines and don't let her up for air until closure.)

While Shepherd's poems echo (and quote and paraphrase) many predecessors--including Stevens, Frost, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Ovid--the most overt kinship must be with Rilke. The famous angels of the Duino Elegies (modernized and brought to the big screen by Wim Wenders in Wings of Desire) hover precipitously over these "interruptions," as does the related theme of touch, what may or may not be kept and held. In a letter regarding the Elegies, Rilke wrote that "Nature, the things we move about among and use, are provisional and perishable . . . just because of that very provisionality they share with us, all these appearances and things should be comprehended by us in a most fervent understanding, and transformed." This quotation could serve as a gloss on Shepherd's text as well. But what a charge of complication and repercussion when the "provisional and perishable" includes "a green suede jacket with PERVERT / stitched on the chest" and a lover's baseball cap announcing "PLEASURE . . . in turquoise letters" ("Soul Music"). Where Rilke went on in his letter to condemn the factory-made rubbish "crowding over from America," the many contemporary poets who regard the Elegies as a touchstone feel compelled to account for out kitsch among those things we "move among and use." For Shepherd, the base-ball cap, the warning sign "NO DIVING/SHALLOW WATER SUBMERGED ROCKS," a tattoo reading "Beauty," help illuminate the process of the individual defining and being defined by a culture.

In addressing complexities of race and sexuality, Shepherd sidesteps the narrowing prism of identity politics, approaching his subject through the exploration of an inner life. In Stevensian fashion, he ruminates on the intricate trade-off between reality assembling itself through the consciousness and the consciousness constructed by its received signs. These signs, grown glaring and literal--and as intimate as clothes, a cap, a tattoo ingrained in the skin--, raise questions regarding representations of reality, of who is claiming the authority to write one's own, or another's, desires, prohibitions, identifications. Inevitably for Shepherd the inquisitions circle back to bodily beauty, reflecting his reverence for the human form in both its actuality and its many attitudes of formulation, of posture and pose. By invoking figures of classical myth (including Narcissus, Adonis, and Eros) at times in address, at times as alter-ego, he links these icons of manly prowess and boyish self-obsession to a contemporary quest for place, claiming a kind of attitudinal lineage, though not without self-irony:


Histories of men I haven't met
are waving goodbye from cabs. I author my loss
for the beauty of its afterward, shared hours spent alone
with these glass flowers. I have outlived

my allegory. Send me forget-me-nots.
("Narcissus Learning the Words to This Song")

If the body is the battleground for racial and sexual difference, it is also the site of shared experience and sameness, a leveling longing that transcends its outward variations: the allegory exists to be outlived. Shepherd's is subversive swooning.

Extending his interrogations into the realm of art and its attendant longings, Shepherd wrestles with issues of entitlement in one of his angriest poems:


And then I said, that's what it means
to testify: to sit in the locked dark muttering
when you should be dead to the world. The muse
just shrugged and shaded his blue eyes. So naturally
I followed him down to his father's house
by the river, a converted factory in the old
industrial park: somewhere to sit
on threadbare cushions eating my words
and his promises, safe as milk
that dries the throat. If I had a home,
he'd be that unmade bed. He's my America
twisted in dirty sheets, my inspiration
for a sleepless night. No getting around that
pale skin.
("Skin Trade")

Obsolete, slovenly, self-deceiving, the blue-eyed muse reveals only by indirection; in contrast to the flights of winged Fancy, this suspicious character drags the poet down to a sort of toxic riverbed choked with debris: "I'm spending nights / in the polluted current, teaching sunken bodies how / to swim. . . . Every other step refers to white men / and their names. The spaces in between / are mine." Like Adrienne Rich's speaker in "Diving into the Wreck," the poet-speaker here must make sense of a disintegrating cultural lexicon which regards his trespasses (which his incursions by definition are) with indifference if not hostility. How a poet as steeped in a white, Western poetic tradition as Shepherd mediates an individual vision through "the spaces in between" is one of the great raging dissonances of this book: "I'm counting / down the days in someone else's / unmade bed." Shepherd's fusion of meditation/supplication and belligerence/hipness, the classical distance in is tone, and his flashes of irony and rage orchestrate themselves in response to this inevitable subtext, the alien, intimate nature of the tradition he works within and against.

Such conflict powers both individual poems and the whole airy arc of Angel, Interrupted. Eloquent even in structure, it is shaped by linked obsessions, sensation and matter--the word "blue," a color, sound, or image closing one poem and picking up again in the next, producing a tide of nuance and association, a sequence operating by internal logic and rhythmic motif. Spun of water, wind, and fire, Angel, Interrupted is an ardent, urgent book. Amidst the interplay of its warring elements, Shepherd etches ephemeral, resonant dramas of intellect, passion, and flesh.



Strange Relation

Daniel Hall

Viking Penguin Poets Series, $13.95

by Timothy Donnelly

For all their successes, the poems in Daniel Hall's debut, Hermit with Landscape, had an overly refined--at times even prim--air about them, a stiffness engendered by strong technical skills in combination with a large measure of emotional restraint. Heightening the book's decorousness was Hall's subject matter: as hinted by the title, the bulk of the poems in Hermit with Landscape shied away from the impassioned and sloppy interaction of people, and when they did hazard the interpersonal, kept flat, anonymous, and withdrawn in tone. "[A]t some range," said one speaker, "everybody falls / short of the ideal anyway."

Surprisingly, Hall has fashioned a second book almost exclusively from material eschewed in his first: Strange Relation (a winner of the 1995 National Poetry Series Competition, selected by Mark Doty) is concerned primarily with the society of others--family members, friends, intimates--and the risks and rewards that are part and parcel of membership in this society. What's more important, this topical shift has been accompanied by a marked enrichment, an invigoration, in Hall's style. The result is a far more sensual, spirited, and hearty collection than the first.

Although Hermit with Landscape never explored the psychology of the loner or ascetic in any moving depth, we got the idea: these "hermits" preferred, whatever the cost, the calm security of reclusion to the various bumps and disasters that company can bring. The book's most satisfying poems were those that admitted to some measure of ambivalence towards solitude, some loneliness or pathos. Take "Oblique Passage," in which a man who has "willed himself / entirely out of touch" is at once "dismayed" and "electrified" when the wall he has built begins to crumble. Or take "Dusting":


Beautiful, visitors used to say
absentmindedly, glimpsing the figurine
(courtesan, bronze) ensconced in the fine
bay window. And it was, in a way
that the irises swaying outside
would never be, multitudes driven
unresisting from season to season,
year after year. When the old man died,
his favorite weathered the neglect
indifferently. The pose she held
had taken a lifetime to perfect,
would take a life, at last, to comprehend.
Dust fell, and her hand was filled,
awaiting the touch of a human hand.

Most of the sonnet's lines are pinched back from five to four beats in length, and all physical motion (except for the involuntary "swaying" and "fell") is left out of the picture. In this poem, at least, the resulting stiff, stifled, prim quality suits the lifeless material. It's a pocket tour de force, its power generated not by blazes of imagery or scintillating language but by wit: the substitution of "dust" for "a human hand" (recalling the biblical "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return") pulls us from the poised, emblematic miniature into the realm of meditation on death, the need for human intimacy, and the relation between the two. It's the best poem in the book, but still so stately, so staid.

Death is again considered in Strange Relation, but more directly, with gusto; the new poems derive their strength from startling sensual imagery, a frank emotionality, and a greater sense of stylistic play. Not that Hall has altogether forsaken the balanced, measured voice of Hermit with Landscape, with its subtleties of thought and technical grace. But he has "loosened up" significantly, broadening both the range of material from which his poems are made and the strategies used in making them. Even the scale here is wildly diverse: on one end, a charming ten-line lyric on the thirst for "something big" ("Coca-Cola"); on the other, a sprawling blank-verse epistle, by turns campy and plaintive, addressed to the poet's little brother ("Strange Relation"). The book opens with the energetic trimeter quatrains of "A Fifties 4th," a recollection of a fogbound fireworks display. Such misty, nebulous material might have made for a fizzle of a kick- off, but Hall renders it vividly:


Word came down: the show
would go on, in spite of fog
thick as water. Then the initial
stumpf, and a rocket rose

to a dead-center, rib-
rattling concussion, like a fist
of the sea balked in granite
underfoot.

The directness of the first line starts the poem off with punch, and Hall sustains this force throughout. From the apt onomatopoeia of "stumpf" to the dramatic hesitation derived from the first stanza-break, from the second stanza's fracturing of "rib-rattling" to the muscular music of its simile, Hall isn't simply revisting memory, he's revivifying it; he presents us with a breathing animal, not dusty taxidermy.

Like "A Fifties 4th," most of the other poems in the book's first section, titled "The Children's Hour," investigate shades of familial relation with stunning physicality. Emotional and physical intimacy seem inseparable in Hall's work, particularly the poems rooted in childhood, a time when emotional energies often assume bodily expression. "The Beanstalk," for example, examines the poet's boyhood relationship to his father with beautiful, innocent sensuality:


Night shift freed you up for an afternoon
with me. Beyond the shades, the world
dimmed and brightened, but our dusk held:
your chest rising beside me, mountainous,
loud with booming passages, a heartbeat
truer than my own vowing to go on
and on. . . .

Curled against you, eyes drifitng upward
and inward I would struggle to the end
of every story. And if you slept, the tale
would continue, embellishments unfurling,
leaflets arranged according to patterns
lost on me yet, up and up, without ending,
without change.

Hall's knack for extended metaphor--manifested by the many allegorical or emblematic poems in the first collection--is put to more complicated, pleasurable use in this poem. Beginning quietly with "curled," the poet slowly unravels an image of child as seedling, vulnerable and green with his ear to his father, then conflates his maturation (both inward and outward) with the imaginative act of "unfurling" an unfinished story. One can imagine what Hall might have made from the metaphor before: a poem on a plant, third-person and tidy. But here, the artistry is extraordinary, the tender, sweet image too subtle to cloy.

Hall's metaphors aren't always so dulcet. In fact, much memorable imagery found in Strange Relation smacks of the morbid, the grisly, the macabre. In "Black Squirrels," an odd tactile indulgence sparks (bizarrely) a reminiscence of the faulty communication between the poet's father and paternal grandmother:


I saw one yesterday
plastered to the street, its
tail still ticking in the wind,
head craned a little up
and forward, hitting a note
out of my range, a twist
of gore clamped between
perfect yellow teeth. I ran
a fingertip across one paw's
individual knuckles, stroked
the glossy belly, again
and again, until I found myself

lost in the voluptuous dark
of my father's mother's coat.

Perhaps the prolonged description is meant to commemorate the autoptic act, but fondling roadkill seems an unlikely transport, an odd whiff of parfum exotique. "Black Squirrels" flaunts its gross appeal, even if the implicit comparison of rodent corpse to grandmother (also deceased) unleashes in the poem an emotional undercurrent never adequately acknowledged. In a sense, this passage provides a dark parallel to "The Beanstalk" above: it embodies a base form of physical intimacy to match the poem's botched familial relationship. But Hall treads through this painful territory with less confidence, less agility; the poet who protected himself by shutting others out in Hermit with Landscape seems yet to have mastered emotional hurt.

In the middle of Strange Relation falls a loose grouping of eight lyrics dealing with other art and artists, from Dickinson to bonsai. Although this section lacks the intimate oomph of those before and after it (Hall self-consciously calls it "Borrowed Scenery"), poems such as "The Winged Torso of Eros" show the stylistic advances the poet has achieved:


You will never change, your life
suspended here, sealed off from the rush
of traffic and the weather, a twist of flesh
touched and wondered over by the likes
of me. Everything breakable in you
has been broken, but for those of us
who will not see, you take flight with a rustle
of ghost wings--your wings, too,

gone now, snapped off at the base,
even your sex--(a squeak of sole
on tile as Red Shirt leaves the hall)--
Oblivion beckons, you nod Yes, yes. . . .
But he's coming back, we all do, to say
No, I will never let you go.

Here we have another statuary sonnet, but the lifelessness of "Dusting" is altogether gone; Hall imbues the figure with an interiority only hinted at in the earlier poem. There's so much going on: a playful nod to Rilke, a winning melodrama ("Everything breakable in you / has been broken. . ."), a dust devil of punctuation and typography (dashes, parentheses, ellipses, italics). The verbal sensuality alone (rush, twist, touched, broken, flight, rustle, snapped, squeak) makes "Dusting" pale in comparison. Furthermore, it seems that Hall is more comfortable with the damages brought on by human contact when he approaches the material from a somewhat wry perspective.

Hall meets with similar success in Strange Relation's final section, "World and Time," especially in the triptych "Corpus" and in the book's closing poem, "Mangosteens," in which the speaker and his Chinese lover polish off a kilogram of the rare fruit for which "Queen Victoria / (no voluptuary) once offered a reward. . . ." There's more lusciously unappetizing imagery here, again expressive of an ambivalence ("Each thick skin yields to a counter-twist, / splits like rotted leather. Inside, snug / as brain in its cranium, half a dozen / plump white segments. . ."), but an ambivalence over which Hall wins control, working it to fine dramatic effect in the poem's--and the book's--finale:


His letter,
tattooed with postmarks, was waiting for me
back at the ryokan, had overtaken me
at last, half in Chinese, half in hard-won
English, purer than I will ever write--

Please don't give up me in tomorrow

The skin was bitter. It stained the tongue.

I want with you more time

What lends these italicized words their beauty is a slightly skewed syntax and the emotional vulnerability that it suggests. The "purity" referred to is threefold: the words are linguistically unelaborate; they denote a simple, essentially unconflicted desire; and they lay the speaker's (or letter-writer's) heart bare, revealing without guile or obfuscation. Hall is probably accurate that he will never write so purely as this--indeed, anyone who does probably isn't writing poetry at all, or at least not very well--and it would be regrettable if he tried: he shows too great a gift for figurative language, music, and wordplay. Furthermore, he's fundamentally a poet of mixed emotion, and although it often smolders subtextually, the fire of such conflict anneals his work and should not be put out. It's the third kind of purity that Hall might want to look into: the laying bare of the heart. Despite Strange Relation's frank emotionality, these poems do not study the heart's interior so closely as the memories, events, and individuals that affect it; certain veins of introspection are never quite struck. Hopefully this will come in time, for the relation of the poet to his own complicated heart should prove to be the strangest and most significant of all.



Ballad of the Blood: The Poems of Maria Elena Cruz Varela

A bilingual edition, translated and edited by Mairym Cruz-Bernal with Deborah Digges

The Ecco Press, $22

by Forrest Gander

"When worst got things how was you? Steady on?" asks John Berryman in his Dream Songs. There are poets who notably are not "steady on" when things get bad, and the wobble in their language signifies something unspeakable, a rage or pain so constrictive that its only precipitates are clots of language. Such is the case, for instance, with the Jewish poet Paul Celan, writing in German after the Holocaust, and with Danielle Collobert, a contemporary French poet who struggled with and succumbed to her own demons. And such is the case with Maria Elena Cruz Varela, a Cuban living temporarily in Puerto Rico, whose lyrical gestures shear away into fragments. Her poems direct our attention to an overwhelmingly painful aspect of the Cuban poet's experience. On the back cover of the book, on the dusk jacket flaps, in the preface by Digges, and again in the introduction by Cruz-Bernal, that experience is iterated; any subsequent reading of the poems is freighted with the reader's knowledge of Varela's oppression.

What we learn is this. After the Union of Cuban Artists and Writers gave Varela a National Award for Poetry in 1989, it expelled her from its ranks in 1991. That same year, Critirio Alternativo, an anti-Castro group led by Varela, published a manifesto denouncing Castro and calling for economic and democratic reforms. Varela was tricked by friends, dragged from her home into the street, and taunted by a mob that tried to force her to eat her manifesto. Afterwards, she was imprisoned for nearly two years during which time she began to suffer the irreversible effects of a vitamin deficiency. When she was released, she applied for and was granted a visa to travel to the United States and more recently to Puerto Rico, where she now lives with her daughter and teaches at the university as a visiting poet. Her son continues to live in Cuba.

All this prefatory material helps prepare us, presumably, to interpret some of the moral implications of Varela's stylistic and aesthetic choices. The fragments, the stammering progressions, the anaphora and repetition central to the poems might be seen to enact the difficulty of articulation under duress. Likewise, Varela's shattered syntax may metaphorize the violence acted out on her body. The poems stumble forward, their stubs showing:


If everything is so hard. If everything hurts so much.
If one man. And another man. And again another. And another.
Destroy the spaces where love is kept.
If it weren't hard. Hard and tremendous.
If it weren't impossible to forget this rage.
My clock. Its tick-tock. The route to the scaffold.
My ridiculous sentence with this false cord.
If it weren't hard. Hard and tremendous.
I would cast this verse with its cheap cadence.
If it were this simple to write that I love you.
("Love Song for Difficult Times")

Often the poems will begin with a sentence or two and then suddenly contract like snail horns, as though they struck something dangerous, into a tight coil of one or two words. Gradually a longer line will poke out again. Typically, "Variation of Helen" begins:


The war that began in my favor was but an offering.
Hatred's resource where my flesh was absent.
Wretched. Frozen. Of vaporous gauze. Afar. I didn't rest.
Screams. Spears. Carriages destroyed my dreams.

The short fragments halt the lyrical momentum of the first two lines, introducing a percussive countermusic. Beaten out into little spasms of language, the lines develop an extraordinary rhythmical tautness. This doesn't change much within the poem or from poem to poem. Varela maintains the high tension in her staccato and her lines allow only the barest rebound from their flex.

Despite their vivid emotional pitch and pounding intensity, the poems are not particularly visual. There are no explosions of detail. The force of the poems is expressed more through fricative juxtapositions than through images. "Screams," "Spears," "Carriages" (the Spanish carruajes might be better translated as "chariots"): these are general nouns. "Wretched" and "Frozen" are general adjectives. "Afar" is either an adverb or a noun. What is interesting is the conglomerate Varela makes by squeezing together modifiers, phrases, whole sentences, and single nouns. The various distinct grammatical units, pressed together, don't necessarily produce larger syntactical coherences. Meaning coheres, but the grammatical elements often maintain a degree of separateness. For instance, it isn't clear whether "Wretched" modifies "flesh" or the speaker or something else. Does "Afar" act as a noun or describe "war" or "I"? "Screams" and "Spears" float freely in a completed syntax before "Carriages" arrive to destroy dreams. In their multiple roles, Varela's fragments generate a language of disorientation, a kind of shorthand that stresses impulse over continuity and emotional surges over the structure of normative grammar. It is a syntax that asserts itself and the individuality of its component parts against the hierarchy of prescribed order, as Varela asserts herself against a prescriptive government.

While the prefatory material by Cruz-Bernal and Digges flushes out the historical urgency of Varela's poems, it tends to focus on the drama of Varela's life and not on her poems. The portrait of Varela drawn by her main translator--"her intensity made me drunk . . . she wore a yellow blouse opened down the back . . . As she spoke, the shoulder of her blouse would fall down her arm"--seems contrived from a Harlequin romance. Imagine someone writing that way about Pablo Neruda or Hart Crane, poets who were also intense and sensual. Unfortunately, Varela herself often resorts to similar romantic clichs. Her poems are rife with angels, and several, like "Let's Cry and Be Happy" and "The Hour of the Lonely Ones," border on being sappy. Throughout the collection, Varela borrows from the standard pantheon of tortured beauties and artists--Van Gogh ("Delirium of Sor Juana for Van Gogh," and "Self-Portrait with a Cut Ear"), Frida Kahlo ("Lament for Frida Kahlo"), Helen of Troy ("Variation of Helen"), Eve ("Daughter of Eve"), and Virginia Woolf ("The Wall")--in ways that neither undercut nor even challenge our customary modes of thinking and feeling about them. When she mentions music, it is Beethoven and The Ninth. These references only dramatize Varela's feelings of alienation by conventionalizing and romanticizing them. Here, for example, is "Self-Portrait with a Cut Ear":


It's dawn. Again. Life is obliging. Obliging us.
It's dawn. Again. Dissolved in speech. Locked
in a spiral down to the last fall,
fall into nothing, horror of nothing. Devouring us.
I come with my relics of all that is wrong.
With one ear gone. And bleeding. A bullet in my temple.
Abandonment. Ridiculous bedroom of a miserable hotel.
The world was standing outside. A party of others.
I spied on them. Hungry eye nailed to openings.
I come from all that is wrong.
I travel from the torturous circles of hell.
I come from what is wrong; just that: from the wrong.
But it's dawn. It's dawn again. Obliging. Obliging us.

"Dissolved in speech" she writes in the second line, in one of those notable floating fragments, describing at once "life" and "dawn" and the poem's speaker. In another poem, "The Ship of the Insane," she writes, "Because I no longer know. Because if I once knew, / dissolving among brambles, I have forgotten." Along with guilt and mendacity, dissolution is a central theme in the collection. "Each time I dissolve / more in the occasional waters" she begins in "Ora Pro Nobis." In various forms of dissolution--forgetting (from "Nocturnal": "Forgetting is the descending mist"), erasure (from "Memories": "the blurred profile I'm erasing"),departure (from "The Jump": "We break. Scattered"), and mortality (from "The Hour of the Star": "She loses herself with the century")--Varela confronts her central agonies and prepares "for the final act / which is defeat" ("Poem without a Guitar").

But she won't be defeated easily. Varela's project is to write against dissolution, against oblivion, with an unflagging energy.

What does flag, occasionally, is the translation. Although Varela doesn't use an exotic vocabulary, even simple words are sometimes mistranslated. In "Away from Paradise," the lines "Una mujer y un hombre se juegan a los naipes la rutina / y soportan la rabia fracasada"--literally, A woman and a man play cards the routine / and suffer their frustrated rage--come across in the Cruz-Bernal/Digges version as "A woman and a man play rooting out like a game of cards, / they hold the hand of their anger . . ." Now sometimes a good translator, losing the language play of the original in one line of the translation, will try to recover an equivalent play elsewhere in the translation. Perhaps that is what the translators think they are up to here. But to me, these confusing lines are untenable.

There are a number of similar cases. Just as words have rings of association that translators try to pass on from the host to the target language, words in the target language may have deviant associations a translator will try to avoid. So the poem translated as "Poem for a Slinger" more readily invokes, with an English-reading audience, Ed Dorn's famous long poem Gunslinger than the image of someone handy with a slingshot, which is what the Spanish word "hondero" means. In "Dias Irae," the lines "Rota la antigua alianza revelo agonizante / que el paisaje es redondo. Que redondo es el ojo" --literally, Broken the ancient alliance I reveal dying / that the landscape is round. That round is the eye--are translated by Cruz-Bernal and Digges as "Broken, the old alliance. I deadly reveal / that the scenery is round, the eye round." Aside from the alterations of syntax and punctuation, which are, perhaps, defensible, there is simply an important difference between deadly and dying. Too frequently, the translations are messy.

At best, Ballad of the Blood showcases poems, like "Ballad for the Blood without Pretext," in which an emotional force strains against the hesitations of the punctuation. Such expressive tensions can shake us by the teeth. Oftener, when she writes, for instance, "I am the fatal song to Eleanor Rigby" or "Promises happen / like a desperate antelope," the poetry dissolves into sentimentality or, as she writes in "Declarations," "an excess of intangibles."

Those who are particularly interested in contemporary Cuban literature in English may be more satisfied to read Ren's Flesh by Virgilio PiŅera, translated by Mark Schafer, or Palms of Darkness by Mayra Montero, translated by Edith Grossman (who also recently rendered a brilliant, horrific, and sometimes hilarious novella on "los disaparecidos," Ayacucho, Goodbye, by Peruvian wunderkind Julio Ortega). Other exciting Caribbean writers, including Cubans Marlene Nourbese Philip and SeŅal Paz, are featured in the current issue of the literary journal Conjunctions.


Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review



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