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October 16, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Translation 5 — Coral Bracho, David Huerta, Homero Aridjis


Coral Bracho, as imagined by Carlos Fuentes


I am blocking on writing a review requested oh so many months ago by Poetry Flash, on three new bilingual editions, translations of important Mexican poets born between 1939 and 1951. My hope is that I can speak more authentically in blog-voice, at least break the writing block, then rewrite for print. Let’s see how that works. The books are:


Coral Bracho (1951), Firefly Under the Tongue, translated by Forrest Gander, New Directions

Homero Aridjis (1939), Solar Poems, translated by George McWhirter, City Lights

David Huerta (1949), Before Saying Any of the Great Words, translated by Mark Schafer, Copper Canyon


I’m gonna confess right away that I have long held a prejudice against Forrest Gander as a translator, ever since he published a butchered version of one of “my” poets, Elsa Cross, in Black Warrior Review. Gander translated ropa as “rope” and cabellos as “horses.” I wrote in protest, he replied with a half-apology. Stipulate that I approached Firefly Under the Tongue with a jaundiced eye.

The New Directions edition presents a napkin-portrait of Coral Bracho by Carlos Fuentes, who never met the poet: it is more startlingly accurate to the heart than any photograph.

Coral Bracho‘s poems began erupting thirty years ago; I’ve known her for twenty-five, and hung out with her at festivals in Colombia and Argentina. Coral’s poems are miasmic implosions in slow motion, occuring under water or in sex like dreaming, or dreaming like sex, neuronic edges of lace abrading on lucidity at the mitochondrial level, density of syntax almost resolving as it approaches a substantive. Then the firefly goes out, the poem’s over.

Bracho is quite a unique poet, hard to compare to anybody in our poetry world. Marianne Moore on acid, maybe.

Forrest Gander‘s willingness to reach for the less-expected route, which had such disastrous results in the Elsa Cross mistranslation, serves him well with Coral Bracho’s poetry. In almost every stanza Gander finds a graceful equivalent which is pleasingly not imposingly cognate. Here’s at random the first three lines of a very typical Bracho poem,  with its reeks and textures of pulp and biological process, followed by my own ho-hum “most expected” translation, followed by Gander:


Te amo desde el sabor inquieto de la fermentación

en la pulpa festiva, insectos frescos, azules.

En el zumo reciente, vidriado y dúctil.


JOS trot:

I love you out of the unquiet flavor of fermantation,

in the festive pulp, fresh insects, blue.

In the recent juice, glassy and ductile.



I love you from the sharp tang of fermentaton,

in the blissful pulp. Newborn insects, blue.

In the unsullied juice, glazed and ductile.


Every change from expectation heightens.  I have to hand it to Gander: he’s done a bang-up job of transmuting Coral Bracho into elegant, exciting English. Firefly Under the Tongue will expand our sense of what is possible, both in poetry and translation. In poetry because what Coral Bracho is doing, perceptively equivalenced by Forrest Gander’s eloquent solutions, always at least equal to their task of transmuting her Spamish immersion into square old English that was never the same, and sometimes well beyond it, equal, that is, to a good poem.

It’s not the first time that a poet has proved me wrong about my first negative take on their work. In 1973 I published a review in Dustbooks panning a Yale Younger Poets first book by a California kid I’d never met named Robert Hass.

One more segment of Bracho and Gander to enjoy, from a new poem, Dame,. tierra, tu noche (Give Me, earth, Your Night):


Dame tu abismo y tu negro espejo.

Hondos parajes se abren

como fruto estelar, vomo universos

de amaranta bajo la luz. Dame su ardor,

dame su cielo efímero,

su verde oculto: algún sendero

se abrirá para mí, algún matiz

entre sus costas de agua.


Give me your abyss and your black mirror.

The depths open up

like star fruit, like universes

of amethyst under the light. Give me their ardor,

give me their ephemeral sky,

their occult green: some path

will clear for me, some trace

through the coastal waters.

* *

I’ve written at length about David Huerta previously in the Flash. In 1986, I compared him with his compatriot Alberto Blanco, with the great L.A. poet Jack Grapes and the Chicano poet Juan Felipe Herrera.

I read sixty pages into Huerta’s dense 387-page poem Incurable one sleepless Mexico City night, convinced that Huerta had said it all, it was no use — but I couldn’t ever finish wading all the way through his endless fractical incrustrations of underbrush. Wandering the almosty equaly foreign market of San José, Costa Rica with me in 1995, Elsa Cross told me the greatest Mexican poet was David.

David Huerta’s father, Efraín Huerta (1914-1982), “El cocodrllo,” was the poetry lion the Left had to put up against Octavio Paz, and Efraín wasn’t really up to that comparison, but like the basball papas,  the old Crocodile tutored his kid — in the library smelling oif Alas cigarettes which is now a casa-museo.

The greater son, David Huerta. is Whitmanesque in line but urban, more deeply educated and less self-indulgent than his best comp, Allen Ginsberg, but less charismatic as a projected persona. Against this kind of stature, Mark Schafer is an excellent and reliable translator, one who takes fewer risks than Forrest Gander. Fewer risks than Gander is forced to take in order to negotiate Coral Bracho’s brilliant dissolves. Forrest Gander sculpts Bracho’s underwater finesses. Mark Schafer gets to work in marble.

Let’s take a gander. The following stanza works as a Huerta self-portrait, in the familiar voice. I dunno how WordPress will do with linebreaks…


Cada tema entra alguna vez en el claroscuro de la palabra que la convoca,

la cosa, la mera cosa rala y directa, cede a la ola del lenguaje,

la frase recortada termina en el agua de la página como un pedazo de madera para el naufragio tenaz, deseoso, escéptico, niebla de filo en llamas,

del escritor: a este mar has llegado, hijo del hombre,

pedazo agitado de la neutra realidad, encendida pobreza con sólo oscuras manos para meterlas en esto, hirviente y desolado,

con ojos vagos para el enorme trazo que todo te daría,

con la boca meticulosamente puesta en el silencio de escribir, mientars afuera tiembla el verano con pesados reflejos.

Every topic enters at least once in the chiaroscuro of the word that summons it,

the thing, the thing itself, spare and to the point, bends before the wave of language,

the clipped phrase concludes in the water of the page like a chunk of wood for the tenacious, desirous, skeptical shipwreck of the writer, fog on its edge, aflame:

you have arrived at this sea, son of man,

flustered chunk of neutral reality, kindled poverty with nothing but dark hands to stick to this bubbling, disconsolate mess,

with blurry eyes for the huge stroike of the pen that would give you to everything,

with your mouth miraculously set in the silence of writing, while outside summer trembles with ponderous reflections.

Mark Schafer provides some nice solutions: Blurry, flustered, mess. But while in Fireflies we continually have to marvel at the high-wire act as Gander encounters ingenious exits to Bracho’s house of mirrored cards, Schafer in Before Saying achieves the more difficult feat of becoming invisible, his translator’s decision-making process deceptively transparent as against David Huerta’s big-boned structures.

There is a line in the sand in all Latin American poetry over the last 20 years or so, a divide best explained in David Huerta’s line above:


the thing itself, spare and to the point, bends before the wave of language


David Huerta and Coral Bracho are both included in Medusario, a 1997 continent-wide anthology featuring a Neobarroco manifesto. The New Baroque was enunciated by the great gay Argentine poet Nestor Perlongher (1944-1993) who died of AIDS. Perlongher visualizes poetry as a swirling matrix of campy layers of gauze overflowing the signifier. Neobarroco: neobarroso. Newly muddy. Almost opaque. Huerta and Bracho share an interest in mixing it up with language, collaging imagery with plethora of what’s to hand.

The Neobarroco may very gingerly template with our North American and Euro Post-Avant. In that case, cognate to our School of Quietude (as named by the venerable Ron Silliman) is an opposite Latin American option toward spare verse and transparent content. This takes powerful root in Pablo Neruda’s deep and sonorous residence on earth, Residencia en la tierra. Alberto Blanco (1951) is probably the greatest voice of this strand today, but fellow-Mexican poets José Emilio Pacheco and Homero Aridjis, both born in 1939, share much of Blanco’s practice of clarity. Pacheco and Aridjis were always, for over a decade, the youngest poets in every anthology, a remarkable feat (of politics as well as poetics), before the youngsters born after WWII, led by Blanco, Huerta, Bracho and Elsa Cross, broke through.

Homero Aridjis is a profoundly ecological poet who has put his fame and time where his principles are, fighting to save the monarch butterflies that winter by the billions in the mountains of his native Michoacán, the sea turtle that lays her eggs on Caribbean beaches, and the gray whale that calves in the lagoons of Baja California. Aridjis writes to the point, with an open eye and a sense of humor:


Araña erótica

en medio fuga

quedó aplastada

en pared humana


Erotic spider

in mid-escape

left flattened

on human wall


Translator Geirge McWhirter sensibly eschews the otiginal’s rhyme while conveying the poem’s sharp outline with an English palette: the parallel of erotic/escape and a taut rhythm.

Joyce Jenkins and Poetry Flash asked me to write about Aridjis in the first place, and then I insisted on Bracho and Huerta to draw a larger scope. Aridjis is a wonderful humane poet with a  lots to say about the world and its trauma and peril. I’ve used his insightful, visionary poems to great effect in my classroom teaching with Poetry Inside Out.


Soy un indocuemntado de la eternidad.

Sin papeles he cruzado las fronteras del tiempo.

Detenido por agentes migratorios

del momento y de la muerte, he saltado

en el tablero de ajedrez de los días.


I am one of eternity’s illegal aliens.

I have crossed time’s borders without proper papers

Detained by the immigration officers

of life and death, I have jumped

across the chessboard of days.


McWhirter is a reasonably trustworthy guide to Pacheco, but I can’t help being impatient with him. He has a weakness for the literal, following and even going beyond the already extensive Spanish sentence-order. Where did “proper” come from in line 2? Shouldn’t “life” in line 4 be birth?

Día y noche veo a tu hermano

cortando el pasto de la muerte


Day and night I see your brother

out cutting death’s grass for it


In the Spanish language, Death is a woman, la señora muerte, as etched by Juan Guadalupe Posada: a calavera, a skull-gal ready to have a good time, and it’s her lawn your brother is mowing.

I don’t see any good reason not to go with the euphonous, and cognate, mowing the lawn of Death. Or maybe mowing the lawn of Lady Death. Mowing lawn better verb than cutting grass — don’t ask us to imagine scissors.

I have to say that I value Aridjis very highly and after all McWhirter, minor glitches put aside, will serve decently as a window for those who don’t have much Spanish. Because of the geography of poetics, Aridjis is much easier to read than Bracho or Huerta. My mild dissatisfaction with McWhirter’s translation explains a lot about why I was blocking on writing this review.



Leave a Comment
  1. Malcolm Gregory Love / Oct 17 2010 7:42 am

    Wow. That is one hell of a review. So rare to see a review that actual teaches instead of just listing deficiencies. I loved Solar Poems, and now I’m inspired to read the other works you reviewed.
    I am so glad to have found your site — I will be going through you older posts.
    Thanks for sharing your work with us!

  2. Maggie / Oct 21 2010 7:31 am

    Que execellente! Makes translation make sense and no language lends itself more to such wide choices than spanish. None.

  3. James Michael / Dec 4 2010 8:06 pm

    I enjoyed the poems and your comments. I searched my dictionary for “vomo” of “vomo universos de amaranta”, before I realized it was a typo. Or was it a practical joke?


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