[Ugly Duckling Presse; 2019]
Alejandro Albarrán Polanco, Cowboy & Other Poems.
Tr. from the Spanish by Rachel Gavin
Agustín Guambo, Andean Nuclear Spring.
Tr. from the Spanish by Carlos No
Enriqueta Lunez, New Moon Luna Nueva Yuninal Jme’tik.
Tr. from the Spanish and Tsotsil by Clare Sullivan
At the end of 2019, Ugly Duckling Presse published a number of chapbooks, including these three: Cowboy & Other Poems written by Alejandro Albarrán Polanco, translated by Rachel Gavin, Andean Nuclear Spring, written by Agustín Guambo, translated by Carlos No, and New Moon Luna Nueva Yuninal Jme’tik, written by Enriqueta Lunez. What interested me about these three specific works is that they all offer rich, stimulating visions of cultural and social conflicts through the lens of indigenous and Mestiza languages (e.g., Tsotsil and Kichwa) alongside or interpolated with Spanish and English. Moreover, the political radicalism at the heart of all three works drew my attention even though I am largely monolingual.
In their collections, Alejandro Albarrán Polanco and Agustín Guambo display a radical political sensibility refracted through shards of shattered subjectivities, while Enriqueta Lunez’s fierce feminist lyricism offers an unsentimental portrayal of generational, and perhaps class, conflict among indigenous women. Neither Spanish-speaking nor a translator, I will simply focus on the English versions of these bilingual and, in the case of Lunez’s work, trilingual, chapbooks.
For many American readers of poetry, the proto-surrealist ruminations of Guambo and Polanco will strike notes of familiarity. In particular, the title poem of Polanco’s work will remind the reader of Ishmael Reed’s most well-known poem, “I Am A Cowboy in the Boat of Ra.” Like Reed’s poem, Polanco’s conjures a sense of world-weariness brought on by both aesthetic inadequacy and historical overload:
The world is no longer enough
for a pile of poems
Glory is no longer enough
for a pile of poems
Life is no longer enough
for a pile of poems
Poems are no longer enough
for a pile of poems.
Polanco’s sense that this “pile of poems” is both inadequate (“not enough”) and excessive in relation to reality (“The world is no longer enough”) exemplifies the modern condition of belatedness — everything has been done, everything has been tried, politically and aesthetically. For the modern poet (that is, every poet after 19th century Romanticism), this sense of aesthetic and political exhaustion can lead to defensiveness (why write if everything has been said?). Polanco’s “Cowboy” manifests defensiveness as an array of de-aestheticized fragments (narrative, too, is finished), amputated stumps. Insofar as his poems are both inadequate and excessive fragments, Polanco eschews both part and whole. Instead, he wants “to write the amputation.” Thus, Ishmael Reed’s “Boat” is now a mere “raft”:
This raft on which I float is a stump and I’m riding
it cowboy-style, riding my stump over the bile, people
will say they saw me mounted on a white swan, they’ll
say that they saw me, but it will be a lie, it will be my raft,
the stump-raft I ride, and I too am a stump, a phalanx
extirpated from my mother’s belly, and I’m also an absent
extremity, I’m a mutilation, I’m a piece of arm floating in
water, amniotic, floating in bile
While Reed’s poem summarizes and satirizes Western history in general, Polanco’s poem narrows its scope, tracking literary history as it moves from objective social and cultural dissolution to subjective cognitive and affective disjunctions. That is, the collapse of social, cultural and political orders mirrors the psychological disorders of the poet:
No one will see the stump because it’s far
inside, in my stomach, in my dark purse, there’s a stump
floating in my sea, but the sea is here inside, I feel it, and I
too am inside riding on the back of a stump, a stump upon
another stump: a cross.
And true to Polanco’s burden under those “piles of poems,” even Rilke’s poetry, full of stars, joins that legacy of a glorious past under which Polanco’s poems labor. Whereas Rilke’s night of “falling stars” evokes both wonder (“each time we looked above we were/ astounded by the swiftness of their daring play “) and relief (“somehow we had survived their fall”), Polanco narrows his focus to the impact of a single falling star:
The collision of a very small star against the body:
its incrustation in the flesh like a precious stone.
Here, Rilke’s starred poetry is a small meteor, colliding against Polanco’s body, leaving in its wake a “precious stone,” the gem that is the collective work of the Austrian-German poet. This aesthetic burden and homage to the past does not mean that Polanco ignores his contemporary exterior world. For example, the poem-essay “Multitasking” condemns the widespread indifference to the suffering we pass by every day in public, eyes locked on our devices (call it digital narcissism perhaps) even as we decry social injustices. Consequently, Polanco reminds us that,
This is not going to stop. Until you raise your head
and look up, this frenetic music won’t stop. This dance with our
mouths open and drooling isn’t going to stop. This isn’t going to
* * *
Of the three chapbooks under review here, Agustín Guambo’s neo-surrealist collection is the most explicitly political. Yet, oddly enough, Guambo’s subjects, however broken by late capitalism and, more generally, imperialism, find resilience in a collective “we” that proffers hope, however compromised:
eden is death galloping in
the damp horizon sprouting from the womb of those trees you
taught me to love
we are the mud
where nobody will sink their hands…
The nightmarish tone of Guambo’s writing, the subjective sense of swirling disorientation in a world that has normalized madness, echoes some of the most hallucinatory passages in Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel Ceremony and, closer to Guambo’s own experiences, the long visionary poems of the Panamanian poet Roberto Harrison. For Guambo and Harrison, neo-surrealism is less an aesthetic “experiment” than a necessary deformation of colonial languages (Spanish and English) in order to recover indigenous insights into the significance of historical experience within mythic time:
I hear mother sing machinehead against
this bullet-ridden faithless sea, which is my heart1
inside my brain rustic sounds age its skin
[ [ [ a n d e a n n u c l e a r s p r i n g ] ]
a new disease dwells in our dna we are infected
with civilization urbanmadness cannibalism isolation chaos
The apocalyptic sensibility here, as it was for Silko, is only a moment within the cycle of destruction and regeneration. Or as Ron Silliman recently reminded his listeners during a Zoom poetry reading, the devolution from the 1950s “voice of god” in American television and film scripts to the present day “voice of guy” in voice overs can be marked as the modern (largely Western) insistence on numinous immanent — not transcendent — values. Guambo captures the tension between this secular sensibility, and its theistic remainders, perfectly in this prosaic passage:
now it hurts
more to see god sitting in the living room drinking coffee
and listening to Patti Smith until dawn/ god unbathed
in pajamas around the house dragging his pain from the
bathroom to the kitchen from the kitchen to the bed
hurts/ god unemployed, with allergies, swearing never
to drink or pet the neighbor’s cats again hurts/ it hurts to
see his tiredness/ the little interest he takes in life hurts/
but I’m not telling you this for you to worry/ god is strong
and I’m with him/ every day I bring him a chocolate / I sit
him in front of the computer, hug him, we watch malcolm
together/ until one of the two of us falls asleep/
* * *
Enriqueta Lunez’s New Moon Luna Nueva Yuninal Jme’tik draws its circle of concerns closer to the personal, but the personal has, as always, political, social and, above all, cultural ramifications. In this chapbook the cultures from which the three languages of the title are drawn are all implicated in their overlapping attempts to condemn and constrain human female desires. Quoted by translator Clare Sullivan at the end of the chapbook, Lunez states that “It is my sense that these expressions possess a female force. Their rhythm, tone, voice, and repetition provide a window into a woman tired of resisting mistreatment by other women and, of course, men.” In short lyric declamations, Lunez condenses three intersecting histories (English, Spanish and Tsotsil languages and cultures) through their effects on her female personae. On the one hand, the Lunez’s persona rails against the way biology and culture are fused into a gendered determinism, fueling self-hatred and self-renunciation:
dejectedly: she shrieks, she cries out
¡Ay, ch’ul pox!
¡Ay, ch’ul me’!
With each taste of aguardiente
she murders her name.
Laments being a woman
On the other hand, Lunex also marks the admixture of shame and pride:
I am a Chamulita, I tell you.
As a girl
I wondered why you named me with such hate.
I yearned for death
dreamt of your clothes and mirror
used your perfume
In this series of untitled poems Lunez depicts two believed paths for indigenous women who do not wish to marry. One can always choose the life of the so-called spinster, so-called, that is, because the woman who refuses, or simply does not, “love” and thus asserts her agency, or independence, can only be “read” as a spurned, passive “case” to be pitied. Lunez probes this assumption, not by writing of this woman with sorrow, but clarity:
Ana renounced love
stayed alone beside the fireplace, in a corner
tied to her mother’s womb.
They never uttered her name
never married her off
no one dared to court her
to whisper fleshly desires in her ear
no one stroked her breasts nothing sated her hunger
In another untitled poem, Lunez depicts a different woman living on the fringes of independence, the unadulterated and complex life of the unapologetic prostitute:
They screamed whore at you
while you sniff cocaine
paint your nails
until your voice falls silent
However varied the lives these women live, and perhaps the choices they make, Lunez refuses to judge them and, more importantly, in her depictions, they refuse to judge themselves:
This is no time for laments
she must rush to meet her lover
maybe have a drink, two or three
sniff the ecstasy of freedom
of knowing she’s a woman.
In accepting the history in which they find themselves — however acculturated, however “inauthentic” — these women depicted by Lunez celebrate their freedoms from old prejudices without giving in to the trap of total Westernization. Free of the terrors depicted in the worlds of Polanco and Guambo, these women, like Lunez, embrace the freedoms, however relative, of who they are and, just as important, who they might become. As translator Sullivan writes in her note at the end of the chapbook, “The…poems complicate a traditional view of indigenous women. By alluding to femicide in poem ten and by openly featuring women who are prostitutes and drug-users in the remaining poems, Enriqueta shows that there is no one way to be an indigenous woman. She admits that, at least in her own community, prostitution can empower women economically and socially.” As all three chapbooks suggest, the non-English-speaking worlds of the Western hemisphere are, have always been, rich, complex, and human, irreducible to their simplistic depictions in the popular English media.
Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of several chapbooks and six books of poetry: c.c. (Krupskaya 2002), On Spec (Omnidawn 2008), The Hero Project of the Century (The Backwaters Press 2009), Adventures of Pi (Dos Madres Press 2011), Howell (Atelos Books 2011) and As Iz (Omnidawn 2018). A limited-edition art project, Trump l’oeil, was published by Hostile Books in 2017. He and Jeanne Heuving edited an anthology of critical essays, Inciting Poetics (University of New Mexico Press, 2019). His new website is at https://www.flummoxedpoet.com/