Praises & Offenses: Three Women Poets from the Dominican Republic by Aída Cartagena Portalatín, Ángela Hernández Núñez, Ylonka Nacidit-Perdomo (Trans. Judith Kerman). BOA Editions. 160 pages, $16.00.
More Offenses than Praises
First, let me praise the project. There is comparatively little Dominican literature available in English that wasn’t written originally in English. The likes of Junot Diaz have wholly obscured the literary traditions they claim to belong to. Though to be fair, many South American literary traditions are relatively under-translated compared to the over-saturated interest in Chile, Argentina, Mexico and Cuba. But the Dominican Republic is perhaps the most overlooked. In fact, when I recently began translating a Dominican poet I was told by a Mexican painter “Oh, I didn’t know Dominicans had culture.” As far as I can tell, this is the only significant publication of contemporary Dominican literature in quite a long time in the United States. So bravo, Boa Editions, for taking the risk, and brava, Judith Kerman, for making the effort.
But on the whole, the anthology falls short of what I had hoped for. My first real issue is the selection of the poets. I’m troubled by the fetishization of “women’s literature” in a way that seems to prioritize gender over everything else, as though the mere fact of being a woman makes these poets worth reading. This is a problem, I think, with the abuse of the gender-theory discourse, one that assumes that since historically non-heteromale writing and voices have been elided or eliminated, claiming a position outside of that hegemony automatically lends significance and interest to a work. This cheapens the position for those who are truly concerned with the substance of these positions. And while Aída Cartagena Portalatín has a genuine position of protest on political, gender, and race issues, the introduction’s argument that “the personal is political” is clearly misused and perhaps misunderstood. Acknowledging that the personal, usually the domain of the feminine, can’t be quarantined from the public-political-masculine does not make love poems political missives in and of themselves. And the other two poets in the collection fall desperately short of occupying a position of critique, disobedience, experimentation or any other way of challenging the discourse of the heteromale.
The introducers (translator/editor Judith Kerman and University of Puerto Rico professor Linda M. Rodriguez Guglielmoni) seem sadly aware of that, as they attempt to shoehorn the second two poets into this category in order to make some sense of their grouping of these three poets. It left me feeling like there was some other rationale at work here, perhaps one of convenience or friendship, but certainly not one of true poetic or political affinity.
Since the collection doesn’t fully make sense as a larger unit, I’ll treat the anthology as though it were three separate volumes, which in essence it is. Aída Cartagena Portalatín, the first poet in the volume, takes up almost half the pagecount. That makes sense: she is an essential figure in twentieth-century Dominican literature. She influenced generations of writers, and her poetic career spanned decades, eight books, and several different styles. And Kerman does a great job selecting to show the breadth of her oeuvre. Her early, obviously surrealist-influenced poems experiment with typography and the strategic use of metaphors of silencing and lack of expression:
Mouths will want to speak
and will have no words.
(from “The Eve of the Dream”)
Men have not wept
for the fall of men.
How to weep for the death of one rose?
(from “How to Weep for the Death of a Rose”)
But just as often she falls easily into cliché:, as in these stanzas from “From the Dream to the World”
And the wind is an archer,
the region of the stars a conversation of light,
Life is Love.
And you, earth, awaken,
grow and raise yourself to some new horizon,
in the rarest of the forms my dreams has given me.
Though the problem is essentially one found in the original, it’s exacerbated by the translator’s predilection for ostentatious language and overly elevated cognates. “Rara” is one that comes up over and over again. Kerman consistently renders it as “rare,” when in fact it could easily be “strange,” or “weird,” “unusual,” or any number of other words. The above “rarest of the forms” is stilted to the point of being comical, exaggerating the hyperbolic adoration of nature. Another obvious issue is the elongation of sentences with passive phrasing. The rhythms of romance languages can’t be easily replicated in English, and while the reader can tell what’s being attempted with these tortuous phrasings full of prepositions, in reality they seem overly beholden to replicating word for word the original. Instead of allowing the rhythms of English to be affected by the process of translation, Kerman ends up with sentences like “I will disguise your shout with rare exaggerations, / secret understanding without agony.” (“From the Dream to the World”).
Cartagena Portalatín’s middle poems are overtly political, and though they still experiment with typography they are distinctly less indebted to the surreal movement. These contain an ars poetica of sorts, reminiscent of Neruda’s “I Explain A Few Things”:
BEFORE RESPONDING to the reader’s opinion
of my new poems,
I aim to speak with dignity and elegance, to get to the heart of things,
and make one composition of the thoughts of the dead.
(from “AFTER LYRICAL ENCHANTMENT . . . “)
These overtly political pieces are more interesting precisely because of the confrontational directness of the poet’s address, which limits the reliance on exhausted metaphors. The elegies that make up this section appropriately occupy the personal-as-political space, as in these lines from “To KNOW”:
Justina the seamstress took her own life
after Justina was raped by a son-of-a-bitch.
. . .
Justina’s shame made her hollow.
. . .
Thank you, Justina, I am witness to your weeping.
The final poems, a sequence called “black memories” and the long poem “extermination in grey,” shift into an abbreviated tone, lyrical and modern. Here the translation falters again, adding explicative subjects and verbs to normalize the meaning of the verses instead of allowing their ambiguity and terseness. Contrast the clunky opening two lines of the sequence in English with the more punctuated next three:
way of uprightness knocked down
reduced to its original essence
his inherent problem
Cartagena Portalatín provides important context for reading contemporary Dominican poets (and not just the female ones). Her voice is eclectic, most powerful at its most political, when the trappings of staid metaphor fall away and her human concerns are simply and elegantly naked. Despite my minor quibbles with the translation, Judith Kerman has done a great service making her work accessible to English readers.
The second poet in the collection, Ángela Hernández Núñez, made the smallest impression on me. I was neither impressed nor dissatisfied with her work; it fell into that great middling category of good enough. There are some beautiful lines and phrases buried in the fifteen poems included, but only a few really stand out. The rest blend together into one vague, lyrical mass. Perhaps the problem for me here is the abundance of abstraction, which sounds to me like an attempt at either a prophetic or absurd tone. Take these lines from “Simple,” for example:
Shameless, moving between two flat surfaces,
I cut facets into feelings, like arpeggios.
They wet my back. I feel the pupils of my eyes.
The declarative sentences with somewhat abstracted imagery and the insistence of the poetic I seem an attempt at the strangeness of poets like Tomaz Šalamun, but without his success at actually creating radically bizarre images, as in “Meeting with Myself”:
The patio has bloomed.
A cut through the zone of my weaknesses.
I sleep with pain. I am a stranger to it.
The road back to myself
is long and unknown.
. . .
The poets sicken like apples.
The language of the eternal has been erased.
The green springtime laughs darkly.
Frankly, after one or two stanzas, it becomes boring. While Hernández Núñez is certainly not an unskilled writer, I strongly suspect that her two award-winning novels and five short story collections outshine the three of her five collections of poetry culled for this selection.
The final poet in the collection, Ylonka Nacidit-Perdomo, is perhaps the least interesting. In fact, I would have skipped her altogether after the first few poems, had I not felt an obligation to read through the whole book. Nacidit-Perdomo is the youngest poet collected here, and all the poems included are prose poems. The problem is that they’re rife with sentimental cliché that is unmitigated by their pseudo-experimental form:
On a column in the park I breathe your deep breathing. archetypes of twenty years that swiftly tear away the roundness taken on by the moon.
. . .
I smell of your diffuse skin. of your fingers in loose, ruddy walls of earth. I smell of this herb garden of sweet smiles. of hypnotic beauty. and I am surprised by my absorbing love of your hands extended around a space that moves toward the silence that asks to come back between my legs joining an exhausted breath of stillness in its continuous retreat.
(from “love. floating love. naked love”)
And this continues for thirteen stanzas. In just this one poem. I honestly tried to find some exciting moments in these poems, but I was soured by the overripe sentimentality long before the end. In fact, the poet herself seems to acknowledge her self-absorption, displaying it like some kind of badge:
I have been wrapped in my everyday reality. in absolute sovereignty as an adult woman. in relation to a subject who can move. to a first person.
At first, it’s interesting—claiming the “sovereignty” (though that sounds overly elevated to me) of self-sufficient femininity. But then . . .
your glance launched me into the world. and poetry was then eternity. . . .
Of course. She was nothing before “you.” The translator’s note here indicates that the original Spanish le is intentionally ambiguous in gender and in person (it could be second or third person, male or female). Still, the necessity of another actor to “launch” her into full participation in the world, to help her achieve her creative powers, is at essence the ultimate sophomoric “I-was-nothing-before-you” love poetry. This is the opposite of the claim for the value (and values) of “women’s writing” the anthology makes. The dependence of the self-absorbed I on the empowering you continues throughout:
[when I met you I never thought I was going to hear over the course of time a special being. extremely beautiful. full of multitudes and memories that trust me.]
now that I’ve arrived at the window of your life it seems I have met you before somewhere. perhaps. where the angels sleep with sadness every day.
seeing you, thinking about you, I perceive the landscapes of your childhood. …
. . .
brown eyes. mocha eyes. express your feelings, your re-encounter or anticipated passage with the word to the shore of your easy-flowing nakedness, in the mirrors that you liberate.
(from “words please me”)
It’s not just the poetic I that the other liberates—it’s mirrors too, everything reflects the other and the poetic self is totally eclipsed. This is not the revolutionary act of love the introduction claims it is, but the submissive and incomplete feminine abjectly worshiping her beloved other to the point of self-erasure. She is not exposing a hidden self, or wrestling with identity and self-expression, achieving “in this secret space . . . the real freedom of the individual.” This is the most typical feminine subjugation of self-for-other. I don’t want to end on a bitter note, but the collection itself does, and the inclusion of the final poet calls into question the integrity of the whole project.
The translator, though credited as participating in the introduction, only briefly touches upon her translation strategy here, or her selection strategy, for that matter. The introduction provides historical context, useful for those who don’t know that the Dominican Republic was ruled by a brutal dictator for about half of the twentieth century, and some interesting literary analysis that is focused mostly (and tellingly) on Cartagena Portalatín. I would have also liked for there to be some discussion of how Kerman approached these projects. Though these are clearly three very different poets, they seem to share common uses of language that I am inclined to ascribe to the work of the translator: a tendency toward elevated language and Latinate words that are common in translation from Romance languages, the compulsive use of “rare” and “abandoned to” as repeating phrases, and the weight and torpidity of elongated syntax. If Kerman’s intention was to bring into focus the similarities between these poets, working at different times and in different styles, then that changes the way I read her work as translator.
Caribbean literature seemingly has to be framed politically in order for it to be considered in the United States. If there’s no political approach, it’s irrelevant. Of course, this isn’t true just for the Caribbean. It’s true for Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, etc., etc. If a culture’s literature doesn’t easily fall within the aesthetic development of the “West,” then what gets translated tends to be (or is presented as) politically engaged. This expectation ghettoizes foreign literature into gratifying a cultural desire to see ourselves reproduced in the other. In large part political literature is more accessible: it doesn’t challenge our aesthetic values fundamentally, and it doesn’t force us to move further from a hegemonic definition of “good literature.” And instead of confronting this attitude, Praises & Offenses plays right into it, attempting to fool the reader into believing the last two poets fall into some understanding of gender-political literature by merely being women. There was a real opportunity here to present a contextualized aesthetic that challenges the expectations of English readers. That would be a radical political use for poetry. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t even attempt to do 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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