THE CHRONOTOPE || Yvette Siegert on poetry + translation

Translating Alejandra Pizarnik

Posted in Language, Latin America, Literature, Pizarnik, Poetry, Translation by Yvette Siegert on Wednesday, 24 October 2012

It’s been ten years since I started translating the entire work of Alejandra Pizarnik. Maybe college is the best time to start such a project, when the exuberance of her unedited prose and the obsessions of her lyric resonate with the life-before-us ardor of being young and literary. Her work is Kerouac, Nietzsche, and J.D. Salinger bundled up into the one essential existential suitcase containing your Cixous, your Sartre, your Arendt, your diaries of Virginia Woolf. No more Plath comparisons, please.

I recently started going over my manuscripts, now that I can bear to. (The wonderful people at New Directions are publishing a collection in the spring.) Here’s what I’ve discovered all over again: Pizarnik’s Spanish is exquisite. It is not cringe-worthy the way it felt the first time I rebelled against her. Behind the syntactic flights of fancy is an artist willing to take greater risks than most, for the sake of writing about the impossible and the essential.

I don’t know how I translated Pizarnik the first time around, in that one intense and endless swoop during my senior year when I had finished my coursework but didn’t have enough money to escape to Berlin. Maybe it was because I didn’t know any better. And because she said things I couldn’t say. She gave me visitor’s access to the slimmest, most inaccessible mandorla of the intellect and imagination: a punishing metaphysical sector that I longed for, but that I wouldn’t know how to inhabit on my own or for very long.

Those manuscripts. They are the epitome of a college-dorm existence in the dot-matrix era. I had serious issues with typeface: “Vivaldi” and the smallest possible Garamond, with Spanish punctuation. I had no idea what it meant to be a translator. All I knew is that Alejandra wrote in my native language, so to speak, and that I should do right by her and by Spanish—by my family, by South America—by being faithful in the English. Unfortunately, my train of thought when it came to mimetic reasoning was about as foolhardy as my selection of fonts. Because what I wanted was for my translations to look the way Pizarnik’s poems looked in the Lumen edition. If I could make my translations resemble her poems, I thought, then that would indicate fidelity—a kind of mimetic alliance—while communicating to my advisor a praiseworthy sense of authorial advocacy and scholarly exactitude. It would succeed in embodying Pizarnik. It would soften the blow of her suicide. Alejandra would exist again. Translating, on some level, is less about a wish for transmission and communication as it is about a longing for linguistic synesthesia and alchemy, for bringing back the dead. (I think I translated because i was grieving.) What does it mean to translate her? It is like discovering the first writer who means anything to you, who helps you make sense of the world. It is like your first romantic experience of autumn. My translation drafts of Pizarnik’s diary entries are smudged with sauce from Ollie’s. “A Musical Hell” has all of Agueda Rayo’s patient, lucid edits in the margins, along with my indignant, neurotic, post-adolescent protestations. The draft of “Diana’s Tree” is embarrassing; the lines are accurate and they do not sing. Dios bendito, what is that line about wolves, and what was I thinking with those verbs? And I think “Extracting the Stone of Madness” is water-damaged from sitting under a plant in Columbia’s German department during the penniless summer of 2002, when I stored all my belongings in my thesis advisor’s office. The point is, these translations were as much a part of my daily life as my wallet and keys, long before I had a smartphone to distract me. Off they’d go on the subway to Carnegie Hall with me. Off they’d go in my notebooks to public lectures, to the park, and on dog-eared visits home. I would sit for hours in my studio on West 113th Street, looping songs by Alicia Keyes and rendering these lines into English and inhabiting Pizarnik’s depression with an energy that frightened and still baffles me. Sure, my best friend had to come rescue me from my studio in the afternoon so that I could laugh and get some sunshine, but that work sustained me and gave me permission to write. You can graduate from college and forget that tactile ardor for literature, or pay nervous lip-service to career practicality by pushing aside such poetry and its fanciful “excesses.” I put away childish things, and regretted it. Pizarnik’s poetry—flawed, outrageous, utterly difficult—has helped me remember why literature matters. Her work is vital and full of grace.


Horror #69, by Efraín Huerta (trans. Yvette Siegert)

Posted in Efraín Huerta, Latin America, Nonce, Poetry, Sheer Happiness, Taxonomy by Yvette Siegert on Sunday, 21 October 2012
Horror #69
The quetzal
To the
—Efraín Huerta, Poeminimae
(Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2005)

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.) 

Disconcerted, by Efraín Huerta (trans. Yvette Siegert)

Posted in Latin America, Marxism, Poetry by Yvette Siegert on Friday, 19 October 2012
My former
Of Marxism
Have gotten
Harder to
Some are
Sitting now
In prison,
Others with
A scepter
In their hand.
A mis
De Marxismo
No los puedo
Unos están
En la cárcel,
Otros están
En el
–Efraín Huerta, Poemínimos
(México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2005)
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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.