Tr. by Michelle Gil-Montero
Michelle Gil-Montero’s translation of Mexican poet Valerie Mejer Caso’s This Blue Novel – longlisted for the National Translation Award in October of 2016 – is flauntingly genre-bending: despite its title, it’s written in verse, and also includes a number of pages of photographs. Like Eleni Sikelianos’ You Animal Machine and Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, it participates in a tradition of documentary poetics, bringing together image and text to gradually assemble a portrait of a person (or people). As the poems unfold, images and descriptions reveal Mejer Caso’s Spanish, German, and English heritage. This is poetry concerned with memory and the holding of memory.
As a reader, I had the sensation that without the paratextual matter accompanying This Blue Novel (photos, introduction, translator’s note, writer’s biography, and a page of photo captions), I would have had a different kind of relationship to the book. The front and back matter, and the interspersed images, ground the poems in a specific family’s experience. The photo guide tells the dates and location of each family photograph included in the book, placing my reading in a specific point in time, as I learn that Mejer Caso’s ancestors immigrated to Mexico from multiple European countries in the early 20th century. I connect lines of the poems to visual cues; for example, after seeing a photo of a group of people gathered around a dining room table with pictures hanging on the walls, the line “ten brothers monologue / while their father’s portrait absently looks on” is no longer in my imagination, but grounded in the photo.
Some readers may find that the extra material provides a helpful framework for reading the poems. But my sense of these poems on their own, and of Gil-Montero’s translations of them, is far less grounded in the facts of Mejer Caso’s family history than in rich images enacting the play of personal and collective memory. Characters step in and out, places and homes are suggested, and there is a rich remembered object world, but memory is distorted, as though by a wash of (blue-tinted?) water spilled over the pages of a diary. An undetermined second person is frequently used in the poems, as though to include the reader and amplify the possible connections they might make to the text via their own memories. “The century is all of this, condensed in a fist,” she writes. There’s no clear linearity to the family history as told through the poems: different voices speak, and the surreal is allowed to mingle with the real, making us question the certainty of memory. Paradoxically, “Dates are clean daggers / that pen a foreign language.” “This Blue Novel invents nothing. Neither is everything true,” Mejer Caso writes through Gil-Montero’s translation. The text seems not to want to be indebted to anything or anyone, even to its own writer and her family’s story — which is all the more present through the paratextual material, especially the images.
With this in mind, what I admire most about these poems in Gil-Montero’s translations is the restraint she demonstrates. Many of these poems are dream-like, surreal: “Behind our eyelids, we dig for a flag behind a tulip / while Dido’s lament drowns in the dining room.” Though a justified impulse might be to use the translation as an occasion to help clarify images that seem strange, or connect seemingly unconnected lines, Gil-Montero’s translation resists this.
In fact, she even inserts periods at the ends of some of her lines where Mejer Caso doesn’t use them. Grammatically, this often occurs where Spanish can use a string of phrases connected by commas which would be comma splices if the punctuation were transferred exactly to English. But I think the choice to insert these periods serves a larger function, which is to show the English reader how discrete many of Mejer Caso’s lines are, the extent to which they can stand alone, even when they are enjambed. The double-spaced lines in both texts reinforce this, also.
In addition to Sikelianos and Ondaatje, I thought about Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor while reading This Blue Novel. In the preface to that poem cycle, the speaker says, “And now my parachute drops from dream to dream through the spaces of death” (from Eliot Weinberger’s 2004 translation). In This Blue Novel, everything is similarly suspended, hanging, caught in fog, under the threat of death, falling: “I saw my grandparents’ houses go down / like anchors. They sink, I ascend,” she writes, and “The weight of my body sinks with things,” and “Luz is a name that tumbled / the rungs of the generations.” In keeping with the floating sensation in the poems, Gil-Montero often chooses words that lead the reader to a broader appreciation of an image or description—remarkable given the fact that English is such a precise language, and it would be easy in these translations to make images more concrete. A good example is her use of the word “undone” for the Spanish inacabado (unfinished, incomplete) in the line “An undone valley still encircles a young girl, / fan in hand.” “Undone” in English has both physical connotations (like untying a knot) and metaphorical ones (like coming apart emotionally or psychologically), effectively helping the English poem take on the drifting, ephemeral quality of the Spanish poems as a whole.
It is obvious how much attention has been paid to sound as well as sense in the translations. “I shoulder the bridge, I stain / and shine it like the coin of a waning civilization” uses “shoulder” as a verb for the Spanish sostener, rather than getting caught with the ugly hard rhyme repetition of “sustain” or “maintain” (more standard translations of the verb) with “stain.” Often, Gil-Montero’s translations find alliterative possibilities: “at the tart tip / of my fever” captures the sharpness of “en el ácido vércite / de la fiebre.”
This Blue Novel is set out in the traditional en face format, with the Spanish poems on the left and the English poems on the right. I was somewhat surprised by this choice, given that Action Books is known for its experimental and avant-garde books. I assumed that some other bilingual presentation might be better suited to the hybrid quality of This Blue Novel. For the most part, knowing Spanish, I don’t prefer this formatting because my eye wants to track back and forth between the two pages, comparing versions and nitpicking minute choices on the part of the translator. Páginas means “pages,” not “papers,” I tell myself petulantly (however, reading this way did reveal to me the unfortunate loss of a line of poem XIX, which appears in the Spanish but not the English). My reading of either text is disrupted, and it is difficult to appreciate the translations as poems on their own.
And yet, this is a book about “how two families converge and divide to arrive at the life of the speaker. In fact, things tend to come in twos throughout the work.” The en face display adds something to the idea world of the book that would have been impossible without parallel texts, and which reinforces themes the original work concerns itself with. As Alex Niemi writes in her beautiful review of the book for M-Dash: “Reading the Spanish and the English side-by-side is like seeing a ghost behind you in the mirror. They are doubles. They haunt each other.” Talk about form as an extension of content. Here, the very layout of the translation with the original adds to thematic elements of the text.
The double version provided by the en face presentation is like a retelling, recounting, which is what we do when we remember our histories. The line “English is a language of water and good for recounting disasters” reads like meta-commentary about these translations. English is good for Gil-Montero’s versions of Mejer Caso’s poems.
Kelsi Vanada is a poet and translator (from Spanish and Swedish) living in Iowa City. Her most recent work is published or forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review, the Iowa Review, and Asymptote. She can be found online at https://kelsidawnvanada.wordpress.com/.