Monthly Archives: June 2012

Update on Brett’s hip surgery

Brett wanted me to post an update on his medical situation (I’m his son Jonathan, whose music site he frequently links to). Brett had to have hip surgery this week, to replace part of his artificial hip. He’s doing fine, but his doctors want him to do some of his physical therapy while in the hospital setting, so he’ll remain there for the next few days to do so. It may be a while before he posts again, so he didn’t want everyone wondering what had happened.

His hospital has wi-fi, so we may be bringing him a laptop on Sunday. Until then, feel free to post here or email him, and eventually he’ll respond to everyone, since once he’s home, he won’t exactly be running all over the place — thus, plenty of time for living-room emailing.

On the suelta translation project

contemporary latin american literature in translation            The good news today is that two of my translations appeared on Friday, June 15 in the online journal suelta, in its first-anniversary anthology otra suelta: contemporary latin american literature in translation. (Look for it at  The Spanish feminine noun suelta means a release or a setting loose of something, in this context perhaps ideas in the form of words that are then set loose on a page or screen; otra suelta, then, is another release of the collection’s ten stories from their original language into the added freedom of one more. Another part of suelta’s creative mission is to pair each story with a piece of art also from the interconnected worlds of Latin America. The same visual art accompanies the literature as it moves into English.

But why should this release from any one language to another matter to a general reading public in, say, the United States of America? In reflecting on this question over the years, I often recall an essay that my friend and literary compadre Alejandro Bekes originally published in 2003 (as “Tres Miradas”) in his brother Sebastián’s mimeographed local journal Iletrados, and which I translated a couple of years later (as “Three Views”) for the late online magazine New Works Review. In particular an anecdote he told about Goethe.

Alejandro Bekes, Argentine poet, essayist, translator

Alejandro Bekes, of Concordia, Entre Ríos, Argentina

It seems the great master of German letters was approached in 1808, at the time of Napoleonic dominance on European soil, by a group of intellectual compatriots who wanted to bolster Germans’ patriotic sentiment and national pride by publishing an anthology of the best German poetry, for the largest possible audience. They asked Goethe to suggest works and authors that he thought should be included. After consideration he replied that, whatever they used, they should include foreign works in translation from other languages. Bekes’s central point in relating this was that, in so doing, Goethe had not only reminded them of the positive influence of foreign literatures on their own, but demonstrated to them the importance of rising above and looking beyond the nationalist contingencies of any moment.

Certainly in a post-9/11 United States, and at a time of continued economic crisis and instinctive circling of nationalist and dangerously partisan wagons, we could stand a heavy dose of the enrichment and broadening of perspectives that literary translation and other ventures in inter-cultural and inter-national understanding promote. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to be involved in a project like suelta’s. I hope that you will check them out and spread the word.

Ecuadorian writer Esteban Mayorga

Esteban Mayorga

Any literary translator of limited renown will tell you that the work would not be done at all if not for love of the task. Esteban Mayorga, the Ecuadorian writer and translator whose story “Tough” I have set loose in English, says as much through the voice of his harassed and comic narrator, a former slave and now Roman citizen who says in passing that “translation is a supremely entertaining task even though, one must admit, very badly paid.” That may well be my favorite individual line in the story, though what first grabbed my attention was the quirky and even daring originality of its concept: the evocation, through the single perspective of a Roman man who with his wife is completing their 97th translation of Homer’s Odyssey, of a whole imaginative and ancient world as well as the sorrow of one family’s existence within it.

art by Adriana Lara

Artificial, by Adriana Lara
(art accompanying Mayorga’s “Tough”)

My other translation is of Colombian writer (and also translator) Juan Sebastián Cárdenas’s “You Like this Garden of Yours? Keep Your Children from Destroying It!” In my initial hurried skimming of his text I was immediately and deeply intrigued by the essayistic quality of the story and the extreme earnestness of its fragmented and affecting style. The long title comes from a repeated refrain (quoted in Spanish) in British writer Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel Under the Volcano, which is in turn inspired by a sign in Mexico City’s Borda Gardens. As that title suggests, especially if you have already encountered Lowry’s mid-20th-century masterpiece, this story evokes the nature of reality and human yearning in the midst of violence, ecological degradation, and our bedeviled quest – not too infrequently by the medium of drugs – for forgetfulness or transcendence.

Colombian writer Cárdenas

Juan Sebastián Cárdenas

I had myself not encountered Lowry’s book before reading Cárdenas’s story, so I feel some debt to him for having turned me to its sad yet exhilarating narrative, itself a fragmented and structurally challenging text. But if like me you are into such things I would encourage you to locate a copy of it and dive in. The exertion was well worth it for me. As has been my work on these two stories, each of which is well deserving of a broader readership. And, in any case, will deliver its punch more quickly, if perhaps ideally by more than one reading.

art by Radamés "Juni" Figueroa

Sin Título, by Radamés “Juni” Figueroa
(art accompanying “You Like this Garden…?”)

On the Poetry of Ronald Pies and the Lyrical Brilliance of Anaïs Mitchell

Ronald Pies, a writer acquaintance from my stint at editing the late online journal New Works Review – also a member of the faculty at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Tufts University School of Medicine,– has just published a poetry chapbook called The Heart Broken Open after one of its poems. It is available to purchase from the Harvard Book Store where I, after about three or four readings in preparation for this review, have just purchased my personal copy.

The book is richly literary in style yet highly accessible to a wide popular audience and especially for those seeking solace in times of grief. And unlike the doggerel that is often handed to those suffering life’s vicissitudes, which somehow always fails to connect with me, here is an unsentimental poetry that comes deeply from life’s hard places yet is full of honest sentiment and the comfort that comes of good living and good literature. The chapbook contains twelve short poems equally divided between two sections entitled “Sorrow’s Body” and “Resurgence.”

The Heart Broken Open begins with “Return toBrooklyn,” an evocative piece in which a grandmother is “weav[ing her] way / back toBrooklyn” even as her family is losing her. The speaker remembers a day “whenConey Island / was safe” and her “accent thick / as hot pastrami.”

The more we lost

of you,

the more your speech



“I want some cawfee,”

you whisper.

These images, as others’ throughout this small collection, suggest in concrete language a larger story that remains hidden. I find myself remembering the voice of my own maternal grandmother as she read to me decades ago from the dialect poetry of James Whitcomb Riley.

In “Villanelle for a Dying Smoker” we hear the subject’s prayer: “Dear Lord, forgive me for the cigs and crystal meth.” In the next stanza we are posed this question: “Why should I or anyone care / for a life so willfully bereft?” That implied judgment is answered in the poem’s final stanza, whose last two lines echo back the refrains that drive home the poem’s pervading sense of compassion for whomever suffers:

Your eyes had no more light to spare.

My right hand took your left.

Your neck pulsed, your nostrils flared.

Every muscle fought for air.

In the title poem the speaker alludes to “a chirpy technician / your granddaughter’s age” and closes with what he wants to tell her but cannot, because “her eyes / are so painfully blue, / and so young.” (Likewise in part two the speaker of “Summer’s Lease,” who would warn his daughter of darkness and death but she “stop[s his] mouth / with eyes of wild azure.”)

The first part ends with a poem of profound sweetness, “After Chemo,” in which the lover sings to his beloved: “Come you home now, love”; and later:

Come home now

and let me rub you

with oil

of sandalwood.

I think, with sad irony, of Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” though the rhythms here are a bit more Biblical and bereft of the particular beauties of youthful passion. More immediately I think of my father, who loved my mother beyond measure and parted with her too early last September.

But happily this book of sorrows is not without life’s resurgence as in signs of spring and life’s cycling backward in all its forms, though never really far from death’s sting. As in “The Lilac Borer” in part two:

As if to say

to April

and us

that worms

and blossoms

come and go,

as all things must.


Anais Mitchell

Anaïs Mitchell

In a final note let me pay homage to musical artist Anaïs Mitchell whose folk opera Hadestown called her to my attention – or my son the music reviewer did. Hadestown retells the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, his descent to the Underworld to bring her back. Mitchell’s lyrics are highly literate, even literary; in the final song her lyric praises not the fair-weather bird or flower but one who sings or blooms (like Orpheus) in the darkest times: “I raise my cup to him,” Persephone and Eurydice sing on the melancholy morning after that bold lover’s defeat .

But I come to this subject because Mitchell’s new album Young Man in America, her first after Hadestown, is now available. Here is a link to Jonathan’s review: His able and eloquent words will give you a deeper sense of her musical and lyrical brilliance beyond what I have attempted above.

On the Socialism of Indigenous America

Golden UFOs book coverMy personal copy of the bilingual edition of Nicaraguan priest, poet, and revolutionary Ernesto Cardenal’s Golden UFOs: The Indian Poems (English translations by Carlos and Monique Altschul) has been sitting on a bookshelf since I bought it several years ago at a used-bookstore in Bloomington. Published by the Indiana University Press in 1992, it contains an introduction by my former professor Russell O. Salmon, who is sadly missed these three years or so since his unexpected and untimely death.

Back in the ’80s, aside from teaching me a good deal about Argentine literature, Professor Salmon spoke passionately about the Sanctuary Movement that rose up during the era of President Reagan’s anti-Communist adventuring inCentral America. A new sanctuary movement may be necessary in the present era of the Obama Administration’s baffling military support for the murderous regime in Honduras, which overthrew a popularly elected socialistic president and has instituted a reign of terror over every democratic impulse in that troubled land.

I come to this subject, in any case, by virtue of Cardenal’s Indian poems which I have finally started reading. And its opening poem, “Golden UFOs,” has much nuance to lend to the national discussion that we should be having about the cross-pollination of capitalistic and socialistic tendencies that is an essential component of a larger discussion about national values and priorities. It is simply irresponsible to throw around ill-defined bogey-words like socialist and liberal as if their real meaning were devilish and diabolical.

Liberals and commies and socialists, oh my!

Ernesto Cardenal

Ernesto Cardenal

The small-c communism and small-s socialism that Cardenal observes among the Cuna Indians of a small island chain off of Panama have a remarkably lot in common with the early Christians of the second chapter of the Book of Acts, among whom “all who shared the faith owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (New Jerusalem Bible).

Of these Indians Cardenal writes: “I knew of the Communist system / of this unknown Central American nation”; and “They have been socialists for 2000 years.” Further, guided by the words of their teachers:

Among all of them they built everyone’s houses.

The land belonged to the whole tribe.

The deer, the great fish, shared by all.

Perfect interisland harmony.

And further, in response to the disorder and inequality brought by traders, whom they no longer allowed on their islands: “All must be equal.” Then Cardenal quotes one of their teachers: “All united like many arrows. / Like the arrows of Ibele when he went to attack the evil spirits” (pp. 5, 13, 15).

While clearly we in the U.S.A are unlikely ever to go the distance toward such a pure brand of socialism (nor are our variously socialistic Western European friends, who have managed to create supremely livable if imperfect societies without anything resembling Soviet-style totalitarianism), it wouldn’t hurt us to recall that our national history is rife with examples of communitarian experiments such as, in the 19th century alone, John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida Community in New York State; the Rappites’ or Harmonists’ community at New Harmony, Indiana (so wildly successful that they uprooted themselves and went back to Pennsylvania lest they jeopardize their humility and communion with God); and the Mormons’ United Order as practiced in Nauvoo, Illinois and later in Utah – and there have been others of a more secular nature.

But back just briefly to Cardenal, this passage with its allusion to the title that the poem shares with his book:

Turpana had told me inPanama:

There you will find what you like

a Socialist society.

The traditional here is revolutionary

I tell him now in the sand facing the reef.

Turpana had studied at the Sorbonne.

And he tells me now facing the green water:

Before they said Ibeorgun [“their mythological hero or demigod,”

p. xxv] came in a cloud of gold,

now in a flying saucer of gold.

But it is not that they believed in this truly.


They see heaven as a city of light, pure light.

That is why they say of gold,

gold means light.

Or that Ibeorgun did not have a mother,

it means his ideas are eternal.

And come from heaven (pp.23,25).

I like this reflection on the ability of these Indians to extrapolate, to read symbolically and thus with some nuance their own sacred texts, whether spoken or written. I wish that more of our own readers of the Christian Bible could do as well, thus perhaps allowing themselves to live their faith in their own hearts and church communities without so much fear – and without intruding on the private freedoms of others of more liberal interpretation, including fellow religious.

But that is another subject. What interests me most particularly in Ernesto Cardenal’s verse – at least as it pertains to the present meditation – is its  reflection on the concordance of the rampant liberalism and socialism of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles with comparable traditions of the Cuna Indians of Panama and Colombia.


Thomas Merton

It is worth noting too that Ernesto Cardenal, though associated as Minister of Culture with the Sandinista government that in the Reagan era we were taught simplistically to fear and hate, is a devout priest who not only risked his life to defend his fellow Nicaraguans from the murderous regime of the dictator Somoza but took years studying Western European ideas and history as well as the indigenous histories of all the Americas from north to south – and who at the Seven-Storey MountainTrappist monastery of Gethsemane in rural Kentucky became an intimate friend of Thomas Merton, beloved for his own internationalist meditations (the original sense of the word catholic, or catholicity) and for his memoir of spiritual conversion The Seven Storey Mountain.