THE CHRONOTOPE || Yvette Siegert on poetry + translation

Poem, by Emilio Westphalen (trans. Yvette Siegert)

Posted in Foreign Literature, Latin America, Poetry, Sheer Happiness, Westphalen by Yvette Siegert on Friday, 19 October 2012
Here is one of my favorite short poems by the great and delightful Peruvian Surrealist Emilio Westphalen (1911–2001): 
Perhaps nothing
can ever compare
to making love
on a bed
of tomato sauce,
unless it involves
doing it while lying
on low-grade cuts
of red meat fresh
from the temple.
Tal vez nada
pueda compararse
a hacer el amor
en un lecho
de salsa de tomate,
si no es hacerlo en uno
de trozos menudos
de carne de res
recién sacrificada.
Emilio Westphalen, from “Cual es la risa”
(Poesía completa y ensayos escogidos, Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 2004. Con permiso de los Herederos de Emilio Adolfo Westphalen.) 


Posted in Alaida Foppa, Foreign Literature, Literature, Music, Religion, Roland Barthes, Stein, Uncategorized by Yvette Siegert on Wednesday, 26 May 2010

I did pick up The Grain of the Voice this week after Sunday’s post. The whole book is a collection of conversations with Barthes, translated into English. I opened to “The Phantoms of the Opera,” an interview with Hector Bianciotti that happens to contains the passages that explain the book’s title. Barthes starts out with an analysis of singers’ voices:

The voice has the very status of language, an object thought to be graspable only through what it transmits; however, just as we are now learning, thanks to the notion of “text,” to read the linguistic material itself, we must in the same way learn to listen to the voice’s text, its meaning, everything in the voice which overflows with meaning…

My voice teacher has a client in her 80s who consults her because she says that the elderly are treated as if they were invisible, and she wants to be seen and heard. I started taking lessons because I have always spoken—and sung—too softly, and because singing well makes me happy and helps me think.

The grain of the voice is not indescribable…but I don’t think that it can be defined scientifically, because it implies a certain erotic relationship between the voice and the listener. One can therefore describe the grain of the voice, but only through metaphors. *

Maria Callas’ is “tubular,” hollow with an off-pitch quality. Gundula Janowitz’s voice suggests to him a “milkweed acidity, of a nacreous vibration, situated at the exquisite and dangerous limit of the toneless.” I don’t really know what that means, but somehow, the very act of reading that description almost helps me hear her. A friend once described the grain of my voice as “lemon tea with rum,” which I’ve never had any interest in tasting.

I’m not interested in analyzing Barthes here. I simply love listening for the way his interviews, whether in French or English, usually manage to sound “translated,” but in a crisp, lapidary way. Even dry passages about Michelet sound nuanced and clear and suddenly whimsical, like a steady passage out of Haydn heard over the radio. Here is Barthes in conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévi (and, unwittingly, with Stein and Foppa):

I can’t manage to get excited over politics, and these days a discourse that is not impassioned can’t be heard, quite simply. There’s a decibel threshold that must be crossed for discourse to be heard. And I don’t cross it. Politics is not necessarily just talking, it can also be listening. Perhaps we lack a practice of listening and attention.

Then Lévi asks,

Did you know Gide? No, I never knew him. I saw him once, from a distance, at the restaurant Lutétia; he was eating a pear and reading a book. So I never knew him; but there were a thousand things about him that interested me, along with many other adolescents of the time as well…He was a Protestant. He played the piano. He talked about desire. He wrote.

BHL: What does being a Protestant mean to you? It’s difficult to say. Because when faith is gone, only the imprint, the image, is left. And the image belongs to other people. It’s up to them to say whether I “seem” Protestant…I might say, very cautiously, that a Protestant adolescence can provide a certain taste for or a certain perversion of inwardness, his inner language, the subject’s constant dialogue with himself.

I hear “Protestant” and remember playing the piano at church all through my childhood. I hear “Gide” and picture my graduate advisor’s dear, flatulent bulldog who wore the name well and slobbered all over my poems.

This makes me feel an impossible closeness with the bookish pear-eater.

Magritte pear

*(Le Nouvel Observateur, 17 Dec 1973; Hill&Wang: 1985, p. 183)

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Posted in Alaida Foppa, Foreign Literature, Latin America by Yvette Siegert on Tuesday, 25 May 2010

In the summer after my junior year of college, one of my fellowship advisors urged me to read The Decline & Fall of the Lettered City, a cultural history of Latin America during the Cold War, written by Jean Franco, an emerita professor of literature at Columbia. I bought a copy in Cambridge—as a birthday present to myself—and started reading it on the bus back to New York. I couldn’t get past the first page of the introduction, though. It begins:

In 1953 I sailed to Central America on a Dutch merchant ship that reached Santiago de Cuba a few days after the attack led by Fidel Castro on the Moncada barracks. We found the shops closed and the whole town in mourning. I was on my way to Guatemala and was living there when the Arbenz government was overthrown by a mercenary army subsidized by the United States. From one day to the next the city became a hostile territory—friends had taken refuge in embassies; there was no longer news over the radio, only marimba music; and at night the curfew confined us to the house. What I remember most vividly about that time was not the emptiness of defeat but the poet Alaíde Foppa de Solórzano reading her poems during the curfew, an experience that was to leave a trace in everything I have written, especially in this book. Literature is a protagonist in this drama of loss and dislocation not only because it articulated the utopian but also because it is implicated in its demise. That is why what began as a a book on the Cold War and culture developed into an exploration of a postwar battlefield from which many of the old landmarks seem like ghostly remnants. (Harvard: 2002, p. 1)

That was enough for me. At that point, I remember that I started sobbing. Although I knew nothing about Alaíde Foppa and had never read her poems, that image tapped into what I can only describe as a deep, unexamined grief. The text also woke me up, in that heady way in which certain books can astonish you. I don’t think that I was able to pick it up again for months, and even today, I keep that book on my desk as a reminder of what literary criticism can do.

But that same summer, I ran into another new title, Looking for History, by the journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, and that eerie-wonderful thing happened: the two books proceeded to engage in a conversation that seemed intended specifically for who I was at that moment. (Yes, I am a superstitious reader who thinks that certain books find you when you most need them.) When I reached “The Harsh Angel,” an essay about Che Guevara, I was surprised to come across Alaíde, whom Alma describes with incredible gentleness:

[Che Guevara] knew, of course, that his death would fan that flame [of revolution]. One wonders if he had any sense in the final awful weeks of how badly things would end, not just for him but for everyone involved in the ubiquitous attempts at armed radical revolution that followed upon his death. I am thinking now of Guatemala, which, more than any other country in the hemisphere besides Cuba, formed Guevara’s view of the world and was a testing ground for his ideas about class warfare and the struggle for liberation, and which paid the price. And I am thinking of the Guatemalans I knew, like the poet Alaíde Foppa, a feminist editor, art historian, and critic, who was a great friend of my mother’s. Alaíde had lived in exile in Mexico with her husband, Alfonso Solórzano, since the 1954 coup against Arbenz. They had five children, including Mario, who returned to Guatemala in the late seventies to found an opposition newspaper. The youngest, Juan Pablo, joined a Guatemalan guerrilla organization. The group’s founders, who had trained in Cuba and been directly encouraged by Che, shared his faith that a small group of steel-willed men could win the people’s support and overthrow an unjust regime, no matter how large or well trained the enemy’s army might be, or what foreign powers might decide to intervene. In 1979, Juan Pablo was captured by the military and killed. In Mexico City two weeks later, his despondent father died when he walked into oncoming traffic.

Just before Christmas of the following year, 1980, I arrived in Mexico from Central America, expecting to spend Christmas Eve with my mother at Alaíde’s house. That did not happen, however, because when I walked into my mother’s apartment I found her holding the phone, silent with shock. Alaíde, following her son’s death, had apparently made the decision to match his sacrifice: she traveled to Guatemala City on a courier mission for the guerrillas, and there, the caller on the phone had just told my mother, she was almost instantly detected and “disappeared” by the security forces. According to information gleaned by her relatives, she was kept alive and tortured for months. Her corpse has never been found.

And then Mario was killed. I had last seen him the previous year. We had had dinner in Mexico City, and he had listened joyfully to my account of the Sandinistas’ overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua—a spectacularly unforeseen event, which I had covered as a reporter, and which had revitalized flagging guerrilla forces everywhere. I had no idea that within weeks of my meeting with Mario he himself would go underground, joining the guerrillas’ urban infrastructure in the Guatemalan capital. He learned in clandestinity of his mother’s disappearance, and then he too was betrayed. Someone revealed the location of his safe house to the army…and Mario was ambushed and killed.

Alaíde and Mario appear in my memory whenever I try to make sense of those fervid times…Alaíde was exceptional only in that she was sixty-seven when she responded to the call issued in Havana by Fidel on the day he told Cubans that Ernesto Guevara was dead. “Be like Che!” Fidel cried, and the exhortation gave purpose to an entire generation that desperately needed a way of being in the modern world, a way to act that could fill life with meaning and transcendence.  But, in the end, Che…could offer only one course of action, and this was his tragedy, and that of Alaíde and her children: the only way to be like Che was to die like him, and all those deaths were not enough to create the perfect world that Che wanted.” (Vintage: 2001, pp. 83-85)

I am thinking about my family—Salvadorans, Hondurans, Colombians, Mexicans—as I copy Alma’s text. This history is visceral. All I can say here is that the account of Alaíde reading her poems at curfew is something that I carry with me. It challenges and makes me hopeful, and holds me accountable to the things I love. Alaíde Foppa was disappeared seven months before I was born, and her case has not been closed. She makes me hunger to be alive in the world. This blog is written in her memory.


Posted in foreign, Foreign Literature by Yvette Siegert on Monday, 24 May 2010

This week, the weight of following blogs, the news–it all became too much to process or carry, to the extent that I could barely manage to hear word from the people I love. Overload means that I stopped thinking in paragraphs. The sight of manuscripts dismayed me. I didn’t check my mail. I stopped speaking, except when it was absolutely necessary, and then the words I did manage to say sounded translated and stammered, as if I’d stored them in the freezer for safekeeping, then left the country and forgot language, and had now come back bankrupt of any expression and had decided to defrost a handy arsenal of phrases to get me through the day. I’ve spoken idiomatic American for 23 years, yet there are still moments when I feel like a kindergartner, at once fascinated by the world but impossibly bombarded by English. This week I hit a limit. My hands ached, my back was beleaguered, like that image by Lorca of Antoñito the Camborio moving through a sluggish day with the “afternoon slung from his shoulder” until he gets thrown in jail. Keeping up with opinion about the world felt oppressively antithetical to the act of living in it. I took lunch by myself in Times Square several times this week and watched the crowds and sat blankly in the sun. If you’d asked me to be analytical about the weather, I would have stared at you in panic. As it is, I decided that I didn’t care about “Lost” or about media walls or the annoying things that clever people post on Twitter. I have a television in my bedroom but no cable service, and my friend upstairs has cable, but no television, but somehow this arrangement works for me right now, as hapless as it may be. Why this incredible need to be in the know about ephemera? The problem with consuming this information is that it tends to make me lose all sense of priority. If I could read just one thing this week, if I could sit for hours with one delicious text and not have my mind flit from thoughts about magazines and the iPad, to the Colombian elections, to my students’ final projects and the many graduations I’ve missed this month, to real estate, to the difficulties of bel canto and the squeamishness I feel singing art songs in Italian (something about scaling “svegliatemi Ninetta, perchè non dorma più” makes me cringe the first couple of times)–if I could put all this aside and read any text this week, I’d curl up in the rocking chair and go back to Barthes, to The Grain of the Voice, which, incidentally, is the book my cat loves most:

The adjective is inevitable: this music is this, this execution is that. No doubt the moment we turn an art into a subject (for an article, for a conversation) there is nothing left but to give it predicates.

The Little Prince

Posted in Foreign Literature, Sighting of the Day by Yvette Siegert on Sunday, 16 May 2010

Location: Downtown 2 Express train at 96th Street

Description: A burly man, possibly in his late 50s, wearing a baseball cap, dirty white sneakers, and greasy shirt and shorts, taking meticulous notes inside his copy of Le Petit Prince.

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