Cipango. Tomás Harris. Bucknell University Press. 321 pp., $44.50
Cipango. Tomás Harris. Bucknell University Press. 321 pp., $44.50.
Tomás Harris is a name likely to be somewhat unfamiliar to most readers, even readers of Latin American poetry; at least until a few months ago when, after the earthquake in Concepción, the literary world began to take notice of his work. There’s no shortage of Chilean poets making their way into the US literary market, so the omission might be forgivable. In fact, according to Three Percent’s translation database, in 2009 Chile was the third-most-common source of translated works of poetry after France and Japan. Out of the 72 new translations of poetry, fourteen were from Spanish and five were Chilean. Cipango came out alongside new translations of work by Nicanor Parra, Raul Zurita, and Oscar Hahn—all major figures in contemporary Chilean poetry. So we might be forgiven for not noticing the book until now, when the world’s attention is on Concepción, where Harris’s book is partially set.
Cipango is the first book by Harris to be translated into English, and it’s arguably his most important work to date. Written during the 1980s, the middle years of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, Cipango tells the journey of discovery of the Americas as a critique of the politics and culture of the twentieth century. History and myth are important to the very structure of the book, as evidenced by the title: Cipango is what Marco Polo called Japan, and where Columbus thought he’d landed on his maiden voyage. The collection of lyric poems is divided into four parts, but coalesces into a coherent whole, much in the way of Neruda’s Canto General. Neruda, in Canto General, retells the combined myths of origin and the history of the conquest of Latin America, collapsing time into a momentary eternity that emanates from the past and projects through the future. It is ultimately a story of hope. Harris, in Cipango, collapses time and space into a nightmarish “simultaneism,” in which all actions past and future pile in maddening repetition onto an unchangeable present. It is horrifying.
Cipango essentially imagines Christopher Columbus arriving at Concepció during the 1980s. In Pinochet’s Chile, corruption, terror and sin run rampant in a world of greed, prostitution and murder. This, Harris seems to imply, is the reasonable outcome of the violent conquest of the Americas in search of gold and power. The conquistadores’ quest for riches is echoed in contemporary society’s consumerist quest for material possessions. In both cases, the individual is destroyed by the emptiness of their conquest, in the process destroying nature and human relationships. Over and over again, from poem to poem, Harris equates gold with the body in the most visceral ways: “scattered gold teeth, / and fear . . . gold like blood, / thick as shit” (“The Night’s Inhabitants”) and “between your hands, now the gold was becoming / blood, / sperm, / tears / (the face of a crucified man);” (“Sea of Crabs”). There is the gilded whore who appears over and over again, a kind of fallen angel of sex and death and greed inexorably intertwined. And over and over again, we are told, there is no gold. The conquistadores’ violence, Pinochet’s ‘disappearances,’ the murders and rapes are ultimately meaningless, as in “Sea of Desire”:
but there wasn’t any gold,
there was night, many nights,
and Death sliding through those nights
Death like a ghost-ship steering through those nights.
In this mad, dark history there is nevertheless beauty. In moments of poetic grace, the lyrical skills of both Harris and translator Daniel Shapiro shine. The grimy urban rhythm of the poetry pulses beneath the skin of the poems, surfacing in moments of clarity and concision. The most successful moments in the work are when the language is boiled down to its essence, when the poetic voice takes on a liturgical note, and when the translator has freed himself sufficiently from the specter of fidelity (a slippery concept to begin with) to innovate. The first section of the book sets out, fugue-like, the themes that develop through the rest of the work. The first voice, in “The Bridge Over the Bío Bío River,” is the sonorous repetition of phrases in a biblical tone that collapses historical with mythical journey:
And this is clay,
a mixture of earth and rainwater,
a mixture of earth and animal drool,
of earth and sewers,
of earth and blood,
of earth and semen,
of earth and sweat,
of earth and seawater residues:
they say that from this viscous gloomy substance
man was made.
The translator’s prowess with sound is particularly apparent in this poem, despite the prosaic “seawater residues,” and off-tone “gloomy.” A contrapuntal voice appears in the minimalized, rhythmic beats of poems like “Danger Zones,” which is worth quoting in full:
The horror invents you the Hotel King the
vacant lot of Orompello street invents a hid-
den prison for you at the other end of Concep-
ción Life and Death the same in
every Danger Zone (they were taking bets
on who with one stroke would slice
the man up the middle or cut off
his head with a pike or spill his
entrails) they’re right in the center
of your heart’s orgies the same
yesterday today tomorrow desire
will go away chafing your wounds the marks
the signs here and there red
Life and Death in every Danger Zone
the horror invents you the horror doesn’t
invent itself red to red blood to traffic
light to a body ripped deflowered until
Death here in the southeast corner of Concep-
ción of the Empire of this vacant lot where
the sun never sets a long and narrow strip
of Death with no oasis to pause to
breathe to pant you’re right in the center
of your heart’s orgies Hotel King
inside these walls the same yesterday today
in the year fifteen twenty there was a
great tyrant with many plans and
many people without any fear of God
or human compassion.
The sharpness of the lists and the repetitive phrasings are urgent here, working against the mythic storytelling voice; making palpable the tension of real horror superimposed on mythic horror. The strangeness of the poem’s form on the page —punctuation-less, and with extra spacing—forces the reader into its sensual pulse. The regrettable line breaks on uninteresting words like “the,” “in,” “to,” “a,” and “and” partially undermine the connection between the surreal images and the insistent pounding of the poem, so carefully constructed in the bizarre half-word line breaks like “hid-” and “Concep-”. In a poem like this, relying on empty space for pacing, line breaks place crucial emphasis on the final words, and these meaningless words collapse under the added weight, damaging the structure of the poem. It’s difficult to negotiate between avoiding the homogenizing tendency of translation and meeting the expectations of lyrical poetry, but line breaks are one place where Shapiro might have taken some poetic license in his translation with great success.
Despite those faults, Shapiro’s work in translating this book is nothing short of momentous. In his introduction, he talks about the eighteen years he spent working on the piece, and his success is evident. Where it is most visible—and because of it, the poems are most effective—is where he innovates in English. Compare this passage from “The First Mirage” in the original and in English:
este filme transcurre desde los huesos hacia adentro,
desde la garganta hacia abajo,
desde el pensamiento hasta las vísceras,
this film takes place marrow-deep,
You don’t need to be able to read the Spanish to see that he’s drastically shortened the lines, constructing compound words and phrases that make full use of the punctuated quality of English speech. Rather than trying to impose Spanish’s longer rhythms, full of lengthened vowels, on the English, he takes the images, freeing them from language (as Octavio Paz encouraged translators to do) and re-forming them in ways that will allow them to exploit the full power of their new casings.
Cinematic language recurs throughout, and in poems like the above, sequences of one-word lines seem to be miming a close-up-and-cut technique of image construction. Perspective and person are telescoped, reality is simultaneously uncomfortably close and filtered through distance. In “Islands of Sand” we are told parenthetically:
. . . (This world is a horror movie.
These acrylic palm trees don’t correspond to
anything real. The sound of the sea is produced
flapping huge plastic sheets.
Few things correspond to their original models. That’s why
it’s possible to reproduce such wonders,
chancres, organic mud, orchids, light, glimpses.)
The falseness doesn’t make the horrors any more tolerable, and it spins the poem into a nightmare of dirty surrealism, a term I’ve seen more in describing film than literature, which tends towards dirty realism. It is a controlled nightmare, hyper-real and tortured by the dizzying torrent of grotesque images. Their juxtapositions, and the slipperiness of time, make this landscape surreal: “fake horror turned into real horror” (“Journey of No Return”).
Stasis in repetition is a key mechanism of this work. The expectation in lyric poetry is for repetition to move forward, to propel or recontextualize the lines. This comes from the word verse, versus (return), which at its essence defines verse-poetry, in Roman Jakobson’s phrase, as “recurrent returns.” Verse poetry implies repetition. In Cipango, images, phrases, and entire lines (sometimes several) are repeated within the same poem, and from poem to poem:
. . . the world was a circle
in black and white, inhabited by two red
fish devouring their reflections instead of
prey. . . .
”Sea of Red Death”
The world was a circle in black and white
laid waste by ghosts,
inhabited by two red fish
devouring their reflections
instead of prey.
. . .
the world was circular, in black and white, inhabited
by two red fish devouring their reflections.
”Sea of Red Fish”
The surreal images repeat like a skipping record or a looped video, poems stuck on a few images that can’t be escaped, can’t be left behind, and so prevent us from moving forward. The slight alterations in their use fail to add novelty to the images, exaggerating the effect of stasis created by this repetition. The circularity of this image especially, and its self-cannibalization, is terrifying in its implied inescapability. Though the intention is clear, the effect becomes deadening in overuse, and rather than linking the poems together it makes them seem more or less redundant or interchangeable. After the ninety-odd poems in the book, it seems as though there is a bag of images that Harris is limited to pulling from, and the bag isn’t very deep.
In some places, the subject outweighs the style. At times, this becomes a poetry of ideas, couched in prosaic language almost seems like it would be more successful as prose. The beginning of “Journey of No Return,” for example, reads:
This is what I saw, Your Highnesses,
but there’s an aftertaste of dreams
that mixes deceptively with what’s real,
The unnecessary adverb and the redundant phrasing mask the potentially interesting idea, turning it into cliché. Fortunately, the subject is interesting enough to carry the book through such occasional slips.
Harris is a poet of substance, and Cipango is a testament to his innovativeness, stuffed with pop culture references and literary allusion, shifting between slang and archaic formal language, and accumulating the horrors of the past and the horrors of the present in a cascade of grotesque images. Underpinning it all is the criticism of the capitalist dictatorship in Chile and consumerist world culture that it grew out of: the obvious outcome of colonial conquest. This is not a pleasant work, it is not full of lyrical beauty and pleasure, and it is not easy to read. Neither is it an overtly political work, promoting an agenda or sliding into a moralistic mode. It is tough, gritty, disgusting, and powerful for that.
Erica Mena is a poet, translator, designer, and printer. She is pursuing her MFA in Translation at the University of Iowa. Her original poetry has appeared with the Dos Passos Review, Arrowsmith Press, and Pressed Wafer, and her translations have been published most recently with Words Without Borders. She also co-hosts the Reading the World podcast on literary translation.
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