Accomplish / a tenuous / fixation / Memory (John Godfrey)
I live in Providence now and recently I’ve started to forget my dreams. Today, I bought a journal and wrote a few fragments from memory: blue fireworks, a cow glowing in a field, a white peach floating in a jar. As I was leaving Buenos Aires I started doing something similar, though the dreams turned into to-do lists, random thoughts, lists of things I wanted to do but knew I wouldn’t. They projected on into the morning of my flight, and in the car, going to the airport, when I kept saying I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave here, and you, shifting anxiously in the drivers seat, kept saying but you get to go to diners again, you get to live in a place called Providence.
Today I wrote about a man sitting on the steps of a tall building. The sleeves of his jacket are too long, and each time he passes his hand over a page of his notebook – it’s balancing on his knees – everything he’s written disappears. I have a vague memory of sitting beside him, looking over his shoulder cautiously, but I’m not sure this happened. Like in a John Godfrey poem, small details come at me like impressions, and sometimes those impressions feel like memories, or something I remember distinctly as a feeling, though I’m not sure who it belongs to exactly.
Like the first time I was in Buenos Aires, I wrote to a friend that it was the city of people running very fast. Standing in a long line downtown, a woman in an orange sweatshirt nearly knocks me over running by; since then it becomes a quiet obsession. Now that I’ve lived here for almost a year and a half, it’s become the city of long long walks. Yesterday I walked to three places I’ve been meaning to go: the pizza place on Cabrera, the ESMA (the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos, former detention center during the dictatorship), one of the small bookstores on Corrientes. Today I walked one length of the city – from Palermo to San Telmo – to meet you for dinner. We order seafood and pasta and try to make light conversation. I’m leaving in 3 weeks. The noise in the restaurant is overwhelming, and the couple next to us keeps reaching across the table to touch each other. On the way home, there’s barely anyone on the street – it seems incredibly wide. Our bodies keep knocking against each other exhaustedly. As with anything involving eros, the trouble is with boundaries.
On the 39 bus, the air is definitely too cold for what I’m wearing. The women behind me are reading a text message to each other and laughing, and as I start to fall asleep I know I won’t be able to understand them, though it feels like enough just to be close to it.
I am standing outside Bar Montecarlo. It’s one of the oldest bars in my neighborhood, and I want it to be “my” bar, though I haven’t been inside yet. I am carrying Roberta’s book in my bag. It was recommended to me by my friend Viki, who I know through our friend Rebekah, who she knows through her friend Celeste. In the first poem, a mother and daughter sit in a park in the evening, wanting it to never end. “There is no better company” – everything feels incredibly calm, light. “The color of the park,” which is never actually named, seems instead to accumulate around the things inside it: the dogs, the mate, the company of the daughter, the leaves. At one point the speaker – who we don’t yet know is a mother – holds up “the four fingers of a hand,” and suddenly, the dogs “have turned yellow,” moving “like leaves / flying very low.” The reader starts to get the impression that the speaker’s desire makes things happen. Or that she lets herself form there, at desire’s edge. “We would like to tie them up by the tails,” she says, referring to the dogs, “make kites / before the lanterns turn on.” I am drawn to this uncanniness, the way the poem’s placid tone can so quickly turn violent. As I keep reading the book, I find myself wanting to linger inside the poems, though they seem like fragile, almost dangerous enclosures, and this feeling only gets stronger as I read more of it, though I don’t know I’ll translate the book yet.
I am sitting in a bar across the street from my apartment that plays terrible music. I would much rather go to a number of other bars, but I come here because it’s convenient, even if the music makes me somewhat miserable. Over a muzak version of “Private Dancer,” I arrange my usual stack of books– some I’ve been carrying around for months for comfort, and some I recently just found here. In Ana Porrua’s Caligrafia tonal, I read this phrase about Roberta’s work over and over: “algo se naturalizó allí pero a la vez se convirtió en artificio.” Something becomes naturalized but at the same time turns artificial. The waiter – who I haven’t seen before – comes over to take my order smiling, but when he hears my accent he looks disoriented, even disappointed. This is an experience I have often. I am near-bilingual (though I’d never feel comfortable saying I’m actually bilingual). I am of Colombian, Portuguese, and Scottish descent. My grandmother, on my Dad’s side, came from Cali, Colombia, and my grandfather came from Portugal via Brazil. They met in Harlem, where my grandmother was working as a seamstress and my grandfather was renting rooms, and they lived there for years before opening a diner on Long Island called The Small Fry. After this, they moved to St. Petersburg Florida – the climate was easier on my grandfather’s asthma – where they raised my Dad and his brother near a school with very few immigrants. At some point, my grandfather started going by Al, instead of Caetano, and my grandmother started going by Grace, instead of Graciela. They told their sons to speak English, because this would make things easier on them. So when my Dad was sent to Colombia on assignment for his job – many years later – this was the first time he spoke consistent Spanish (or felt in some new way Colombian), and when I visited my grandmother every year until she died (my grandfather died well before I was born), this was my first contact with the language, however refracted through my teenage distraction toward her stories. And when, after reading and falling in love with Borges in college, and thinking I wanted to read him in Argentina, or many years later thinking I wanted to live there to study and translate contemporary poetry written by women, it wasn’t without some confusion, or shame, or some unnameable feeling, that this language felt both familiar and strange, natural and distorted coming out of my mouth. And though I felt it didn’t really belong to me (though I, in some ways, belong to it), and well after giving up the hope of “knowing” Spanish completely (or all the narratives it fits inside), I would still pass through long periods of resenting English, though it’s the language I translate into, and live in, and write in, and all this made for a particular feeling of displacement I had never been quite so close to, or felt so deeply, also a distinct kind of curiosity, a near-situatedness, so much so that just reading certain things, or writing this makes me feel like I’m immersed in it again, and, at this distance, a joyous feeling ensues.
My first weeks back in the states I wake up every night in the middle of the night. In those weeks we write to each other often about our dreams – long, dense descriptions at first, then they become sparser, then we stop. I remember you saying once that at your happiest you never dream. For me, when I’m anticipating happiness, or some other recognizable emotion, I dream the most vividly, but I can’t remember periods of not. Of course it’s not a question of whether or not I do, but how quickly I forget. Or – in my made-up reasoning – that in the wanting, or anticipating something, the part of me that’s absent makes room for those kinds of memories. Those weeks, but also the weeks before and after those weeks, I wake up in the middle of the night with the hot impression of something on my body and I chase it quietly for the rest of the day.
Pessoa: “My dreams…I walk with them. Their alien imperfection.”
I’m sitting on a bed surrounded by papers. Within a week of first reading Tendal I’ve drafted a very rough translation of the book. Though I wouldn’t necessarily call the poems straight narrative, each one describes a scene from a world imagined, lived in, and authored alternately by a mother and daughter. The book itself is peopled by strange, inscrutable figures – Tomato Face, The Panda Bear, a despondent horse, La Reina Batata, a Cow with glowing nipples – but also written in a way that feels intimate, quiet, serene. However it’s the moments when something sinister, something uncanny breaks through in the poems without necessarily compromising this tone – uncanny in the sense of unhomely, in its literal translation from the German, as Cathy Park Hong points out recently in her essay “Against Witness,” – that seem to define them for me. When this happens, the poems are able to not only juxtapose the supposedly “natural” with the artificial, but also the at-hand and the unapproachable --– what the poem can and cannot do. For example, in the poem “Shells,” here in my translation, the speaker – in this case the mother – wants to protect her daughter from some unnamed, encroaching danger:
In a pocket the shells from the sand
she goes on picking
the ocean doesn’t impress her much
she prefers to find these kind of treasures
like mature fruits
the sand leaving her hand
the water leaving hands
in turn the shells
you can keep them in a box
like lesser moons
that you spread across a table
Later, when the speaker starts thinking about the ocean – “you can’t keep it in a box / the same with blood,” a new, darker feeling enters the poem. Suddenly the shells are not soft comforting objects, but living, reacting creatures, both aware and symptomatic of these shifts: “everyone laughs…because they don’t know / shells are sad / they’re sick.” In this, we see the way the speaker’s desire consolidates in brief enunciations of self, or desires for the wholeness of self, but also the poem being unable to fully concretize these desires, protect them against the passage of time, or create enclosures of safety. That the world of the poem is not invulnerable to the world outside it seems obvious, but the speaker’s will to pause, or linger at these thresholds becomes something beautiful, something that edges against the sublime sense of danger, exorbitance, awe; also something imperfectly calibrated against what is humanly possible and what is not.
In another poem, “Baldío,” the daughter describes a scene in which she and her friends discover a circus horse, “who had two different colored eyes”:
A blue eye and the other brown is called sarco.
Later came the jokes
he has one brown eye and the other azulado
but it was all to conceal that we wanted the horse for ourselves
we had fallen in love with him
If you can look at the open field to know if a storm is coming
I’m going to look into the eyes of my horse
the blue one if I want to see the ocean
the brown one if I want to see the earth.
The way this poem builds on its own sense longing, all the while approaching the death of the speaker’s grandfather: “did you know that Pascual went to heaven / I say yes but it’s a lie / the horse and the grandfather running through the open ocean…” reveals not only a long process of sublimation – a continual loss of self-other boundaries – but also that imagination exists at desire’s core. When translating “azulado,” a play on “a su lado – at it’s side,” I wanted to leave the word as it was, not because it is untranslatable, and not only because I love the sound of the word, but also for the silence it carries (I think I mostly realized this later), the way it might, and not without leaving an impression, relish in passing the reader by.
…to establish for ourselves…the long list of words within us whose sense escapes or, taking this farther, to fix the syntax of this language we are babbling. (Édouard Glissant, tr. Betsy Wing)
I am sitting in a poetry workshop at Florencia’s house. The topic is feminism and poetry, and so far we’ve read Maria Moreno, Fernanda Laguna, Alfonsina Storni, Susana Thenon, Alejandra Pizarnik – next week we’re going to read Juana Bignozzi. It’s the middle of winter and everyone I know complains. Earlier, walking with Viki, I tried to pretend it was nothing – bragging about how it gets so much colder in Chicago – but now I get it. The winter in Buenos Aires is cold and damp and the dampness gets in your bones. Within a few weeks of denying this, I am wearing many layers and wrapping myself exaggeratedly with scarves. At Florencia’s house we huddle around the space heater while her cats move on and off the balcony. We’re talking about the figure of the monster in Pizarnik’s poetry and reading the poem Sala de psicopatología, “Húmeda. / Concha de corazón de criatura humana.” While Florencia talks I take an absurd amount of notes, which I don’t read afterwards, but when we talk as a group, I feel alive and present. When we do writing exercises, I sit there uncomfortably and wait for everyone to write and share. I say I can’t write in Spanish, or that I’m “not ready” – maybe the next time – things like this. At one point I bring in a poem I’m writing in English, and then do a translation into Spanish very quickly, and this feels strange and goes over badly. I feel like it’s not my place, or that I won’t be able to; I’m also afraid it would come out “bad.” This feels incredibly stupid now, and I wish I had done it, and I would, and anyway, this is one of the things I regret.
“The Cartwheel” is the most beautiful poem in the book. The first few times I read it, I thought the speaker was the daughter, but lately I’ve wondered if the poem exists, if all the poems exist in a liminal place where these two voices combine: “When I was a girl / I didn’t know how to do a cartwheel / when I brought my arms to the ground / I didn’t dare / lift up my legs.” Here, the poem moves from invoking nostalgia, or the reader’s expectation for nostalgia – “as for the other girls / they all did cartwheels” toward the visual, even the spectacular realm, flooding the poem with a strange light: “they were stars / turning / turning.” I love the way the poems open up to create spaces for awe, fear, joy, while also keeping those sensations incredibly close-seeming. If much of the book exists at thresholds, and if one of those thresholds is between the past and the present, I don’t think Roberta wanted to commemorate the past, necessarily, but instead to draw the reader into the new experience of the poem – to intensify, even slow down perception there, even if those distances are ultimately reinforced. Strangely, as I was translating the book, I kept having the sensation that I was recalling a memory that wasn’t mine – like something had taken root in me and was slowly coming to bear. And the way the poems so often point to something while also pushing through so much more – that feeling, like a new capacity, is something I’m reminded of each time I read her: “my open body / was flying over / the surface of the earth.”
When I walk between our apartments, I always walk the same way. I know that if I walked back on the street parallel, I’d pass that café with the old stools and counter, or I could stop at or the Carioca, or I could take Velasco all the way to Chacarita, or walk up Vera. But I like the way I go. And I usually listen to the same song on repeat. There’s a strange way this repetitiveness doesn’t make me feel stagnant, but more like I’m approaching some new sense of freedom. It’s something I’ve never experienced before and it’s a feeling I really can’t describe.
I’m here to see Martín Gambarotta read at La Sede. I’m sitting on a pillow on the floor. Many poets I’ve met and know are here. I sit next to Nurit – we catch up – and suddenly a conversation forms around me. That’s Arturo Carrera, someone says. There’s Alejandro Rubio. There’s Marcos and Gabriel. There’s Luciana, who I haven’t seen in months. I nod along to what’s being said, then move just before the reading starts, leaning my head against the back wall. Martín is a poet I’ve been reading steadily since being here, and months later I’ll decide to translate his book as well. My whole life I’ve felt an anxiety in these situations – being between conversations, the moments of passing anonymity – but there’s also something I really like about it.
At some point I have the thought that the animals in the book are getting progressively more tired. Mid-way through, the horse from “La frontera” is despondent, leaving “wakes of glass,” so no one can follow its tracks. And Tomato Face, though she’s all lit up, is also very impetuous: “you had to not move anything, or else she would blush.” And the speaker who arrives at the shore in an abandoned city – “the ocean isn’t modest / in the winter” – and stands there calmly while minnows dance on her hands. Or the cow that “lays down alone in the middle of the plain / over the letter P of the province of Buenos Aires,” watching the stars while her nipple lights up like lanterns. Now when I read this, I realize Tendal is full of these small moments of excess, specifically feminine excess, and it moves between the poems in strange, almost imperceptible ways, and when you read the book you can feel its inextinguishable agency throughout.
Dije chau, y me fui a vivir a las lechugas (Roberta Iannamico)
I am at a translation conference in Minneapolis. I’ve moved back, and passed through many uncomfortable periods of adjustments, and I’ve settled into Providence where I’m writing and teaching. Roberta’s Tendal came out as a chapbook with Toad Press, and I’m working on a bunch of other projects involving and not involving translation. I’m at the conference to observe – I’m not on any panels. My friend Jake and I wander around but split up when he goes to a reading of North African poets, and I go to a panel on the Latin American neo-baroque. In the 90s in Argentina, there was a supposed split between the neo-baroque writers and the neo-objectivist writers – though many people also say this “split” was exaggerated, invented by critics. In any case, I first read Nestor Perlongher – very associated with the movement in Argentina – many years ago, and then most recently in Florencia’s workshop when we read his poem “Cadáveres.” The panel is small and there’s a pretty limited crowd. It begins with a well-known translator reading his translations, then asking each panelist to comment on how the neo-baroque is political, then disputing that a poet one of the panelists translates could be considered neo-baroque, then repeatedly saying he wants to talk about the “political,” as if that was ever in question here. Things get heated and people leave the room. It’s absurd and not. The neo-baroque – though often associated with decorum, word and sound-play, experimentation, also resistance to repressive political regimes– is not the same in every context, there are multiple baroques in the Americas. To call it one thing, as if a translator were simply facilitating access to a work (and its meaning) by translating it – as if the circulation of these texts, and their dialogue with other texts was not just as important – this seems incredibly dangerous. Translation, like any other form of representation, is not unmediated. Anyway, it felt good to be able to talk about this afterwards. Sometimes it's not hard to place hope in new things.
When I’m feeling stuck in my apartment, I go outside and walk toward Avenida Córdoba along Dorrego, sometimes turning along the windy street that leads into Chacarita, past the tennis courts, and the long snaking brick wall, or I walk along Arévalo, past the butcher’s with the cow statue outside it, and the Italian restaurant we went to once, and the neighborhood bakery with the mediocre empanadas, or the new pizza place that just opened up on Gorriti that I’ll never go to, or the kiosko on the corner of Costa Rica with the best dorritos, or I walk across the bridge going into Colegiales toward Chloe’s house, and then back again, and then all the way down Honduras, past Juan B. Justo and the train tracks, and back up El Salvador, and up Pasaje Voltaire, past the scaffolds back on Arévalo and the grocery store that’s always closed.
I am sitting outside Bar Montecarlo waiting to meet Roberta for the first time. I now consider this “my neighborhood bar,” but I’ve only really spent five afternoons here over the course of a year. When she arrives she’s carrying a backpack – we’re going to read later together at La Sede – and though I’m nervous the minute we start talking I feel at ease. We talk for a while about the 90s generation of poets in Argentina, the generation I’ve mostly been studying – and the male-dominated editorial world, the neoliberal emphasis on 'clarity,' especially from the 90s on – and the poets we like, the presses, etc. I ask her some minor questions about the poems – words here and there – but mostly we just want to talk about the title. In Spanish, “tendal” carries multiple meanings: “clothing line,” or anything used to gather what is fallen – a sheet, or canopy, or a harvesting net. But it also means a trail of things left behind, “un conjunto de cosas tendidas,” whether strewn there forcefully or left there to dry. I told her for me the book read a bit like a scene of aftermath – not really a recollection, but a re-living of something with an essential absence at its core. She said she had written it as she was leaving Buenos Aires – not about that necessarily, but during that time. We hesitated a bit, but decided on that title in English. Then we chose the poems we’d read later. For a month when it had otherwise been so unbearably hot, the light was perfect when we left. We walked for a bit into Palermo, which she kept saying over and over again had changed.
In a way this turned into an essay about love. Today the snow stopped in Providence, but the blizzard, and the snow days that followed finally gave me the time I needed to write this. It was difficult when I finished the translation of Roberta’s book, because rather than feeling actually finished, there seemed to be so much surplus, so many lingering questions and doubts, language that didn’t say anything and maybe wasn’t meant to. One thing I can say about why I love Roberta’s work so much, is that part of it exists beyond explanation, beyond the condensation of possibility. There is a way language can turn its back on desire: sanitize, sanctify, even in the translation process – the grossly mistaken idea that a translation should strive for one-to-one equivalencies, should smooth over dissonance, gaps, only move between familiar aesthetic paradigms, etc. In any case, Roberta’s work, for me, is a way to read simultaneity in place of closure, and I hope to always stay close to it. Like somewhere, someone is grieving a loss, and someone is walking through a park with yellow dogs with their daughter, and someone is walking along the coast of the widest river in the world, on a hot night, and I am here in my kitchen, where it’s just been snowing, and the air is fresh, and I’m making lunch for tomorrow.
Alexis Almeida grew up in Chicago. Her recent poems and translations have appeared, or are forthcoming in BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Prelude, Bone Bouquet,The Elephants, and elsewhere. She is the author of Half-Shine (Dancing Girl Press, 2016), and the translator of Florencia Castellano's Monitored Properties (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016), and Roberta Iannamico's Wreckage (Toad Press, 2017). She has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Vermont Studio Center, The Center for Book Arts, and elsewhere. She was recently a Fulbright research fellow to Argentina, and now lives in Providence where she teaches writing.