Micrograms by Jorge Carrera Andrade (trans. Alejandro de Acosta, Joshua Beckman). Wave Books. 96 pp., $16.00.
Susan Sontag, in her essay on Walter Benjamin and the melancholic temperament, “Under the Sign of Saturn,” considers Benjamin’s love of small things and the poetics of the miniature: “To miniaturize means to make useless,” she writes. “For what is so grotesquely reduced is, in a sense, liberated from its meaning—its tininess being the outstanding thing about it.” The miniature turns the user or observer back into a child (“love of the small is a child’s emotion”), whose imagination is unencumbered by the use value of things.
Wave Books’s recent publication of Ecuadorean poet Jorge Carrera Andrade’s 1940 Micrograms, poems one could call miniatures—most are about three or four lines long—swathes the poems in between layers of critical apparatus that are very useful, to the extent that one begins to suspect a self-consciousness about the poems’ brevity that calls to mind Sontag’s thesis. For not only are the poems tiny, but there are only thirty-one of them, altogether about 120 lines of poetry—hardly enough, one might think, to constitute a book. And yet the manner in which this critical apparatus—which includes a translator’s introduction, Andrade’s introduction sketching out a mini-history of the microgram, a second Andrade introduction, and, following the poems, a section of Andrade’s translations of Japanese haiku, and a translator’s note on that—takes on a status equal to the poems themselves productively questions the autonomy of the poem as object, and makes the tacit argument that poems are only one element of a complex organism of thinking, research, reading, and being in the world. The flowers, let’s say, of a flowering tree, of which are equally significant the roots, the trunk, the branches, and the leaves. Andrade’s original publication included four of these six elements; the translators, Joshua Beckman and Alejandro de Acosta, added the two translators’ notes, thus building upon a presentation of the poems that is well-cued to our zeitgeist, in which interest in both explorations along the critical-poetical seam and reflections on translation is high.
The expository gates through which the poem-seeking reader must first pass through the book only make the arrival in the inner chamber that much sweeter, and one is rewarded with the likes of:
WHAT THE SNAIL IS
tiny measuring tape
with which God measures the field.
Sontag’s miniature is here accorded a use value—of a sort; part of the pleasure of this poem, and of many in the book, is the contradiction between the absurd scale and the serious intent accorded the entity attempting to function within its parameters.
But before diving into the poems, a bit more about the introductions, and thus the “micrograms.” What is a microgram, anyway, which looks so suspiciously like a haiku? Andrade, who lived the cosmopolitan life of the South American poet, full of diplomatic postings as far-flung as China, makes explicit that the microgram is only the most recent iteration of a long tradition of miniature poems, which he traces through Spain, Latin America, Japan, and France. He in fact has only given it a new nomenclature: “And the microgram, that tiny lyrical composition whose name only I have invented . . .” replacing the designations “epigram,” “song,” “saeta,” “haiku,” “proverb,” “poetic riddle,” and the like. Indeed, the word microgram is appealing, with its pseudoscientific character and its nod to the microscopic, implying a degree of looking at the world that will reveal qualities inaccessible to the naked eye. The scientific shading accords with the fact that Andrade is conscious of his position along the transitional process of the industrial and technological revolutions, and he acknowledges that his instrumentalization of little natural creatures has a trace of the elegiac about it:
The hummingbird, the snail, the macaw, the crickets, are all concluding their festival of color and sound before the advance of the motor, that hurried heart of the twentieth century. But this does not signal the death of the microgram. It will be reborn, rather, adorned with an urban character. The hero will no longer be the oyster or the swallow, but any of those mechanical creations that are transforming our time into an Age of Steel.
This position, between the old world of “nature” and the new world of industrial-technological “culture,” is explored in the poems via the tensions and resolutions between the two. The relentless pressure of the human to wring a use value out of every living thing is everywhere at play, culminating in a discord between an Enlightenment ideal of total legibility and the stubborn persistence of the non-human to remain illegibly itself. The snail is pressed into a service it can only render in its own manner—which is of course to render no real service at all—and in the process the snail’s real use value is erased, the snail is mechanized. Legibility is the most consistent metaphorical application to the microgram’s creatures in this deeply metaphorical set of poems. For example:
Late Night Toad: your little
the moon’s blank page.
Again and again in the poems creatures are writing, typing, spelling, keeping manuscripts (that’s a clam), deciphering. In this, of course, they constitute proxies for the writer himself, and this act of anthropomorphism circles back in on itself, displaying the will both to empathize and to conquer, a paradox of which Andrade is well aware. The references to God, meanwhile, expand the number of planes on which these ludic engagements with scale can play out, but they also leaven the relationship of human to animal with the inference that the human is subordinated to a higher power—it sets in motion a play of hierarchy whose elements are hardly stable. The fact that the “Late Night Toad”-proxy’s “typings” (its croaks, presumably) strike a moon that remains blank further empties the act of writing of its use value for all but the futile beauty of it. In
even God is using living creatures to achieve legibility, although what God writes remains indecipherable for the human. Or is what God has to “say” exactly that—that birds exist, and that their existence is an expression of something that is and must remain unreadable, irreducible to a “meaning”? Sometimes the refusal to yield use on the part of the animal is pronounced:
The turtle in its yellow case
is the clock of the earth
stopped centuries ago.
Dented now it hides
among the tiny stones of time
in waters’ blue cover.
The human imagination succeeds—in imagining the tortoise as a clock—where it must also fail: the clock stopped centuries ago.
It is hard to agree with Andrade that the microgram may in the future (which may well, of course, mean now) be reborn with an urban character, for there is little that is miniature about the urban, and hardly any aspect of the urban is free of use value, however much a flâneur may fantasize experiencing the city in total freedom from its exchanges. Walter Benjamin’s love of the miniature—as well as his sustained engagement with the urban—expressed itself in his writing as an affinity for both the fragment and the short form, but the microgram’s tininess is far more radical. And it is also highly imagistic; it is hard to imagine urban images—the sheer scale of, say, a factory or the Empire State Building—contained imaginatively within the spatial possibilities it offers. Haiku was conceived as a mode to engage with the natural world, and particularly the seasons. Skyscrapers don’t lose their windows in autumn; streetlamps don’t put out flowers in spring. Nature exists in the city only in carefully controlled doses, whereas culture is hypertrophied, so that the balance between them that Andrade explores in his micrograms could easily be lost were the “heroes” indeed the “mechanical creations” he figures. This tinge of nostalgia for an imagined future that never came into being further lends the book its high charm.
Andrade’s micrograms come to us across gulfs of time and space and ask questions about our own historical moment—after seventy years of long poems, trailing in the wake of The Cantos and the like, what kind of ground can the tiny stake out for itself? Does The Cantos have any more use value than “WHAT THE SNAIL IS”? What does tininess actually signify, and on whose scales? Wave Books and the translators are to be applauded for undertaking this refreshing reclamation project, which leads to reflections that more than trump its modest size.
Donna Stonecipher is the author of three books of poetry, most recently The Cosmopolitan (Coffee House Press, 2008). She lives in Berlin and translates from German and French.
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