Pulitzer Prize Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Finalist

Watchword by Pura López Colomé, Wesleyan University Press

By Gregary J. Racz in Review: Literature and the Arts of the Americas

"If poetry teaches something, it is a belief in the marvelous linguistic world," Pura López Colomé writes in the Poet's Afterword to
Watchword on the occasion of winning Mexico's coveted Villaurrutia Prize for the book. Language's transformative, even curative potential permeates this bilingual volume redolent of its author's recent bout with cancer. Lôpez Colomé's bravura poetics reflects the extent to which language and experience are intimately entwined in the poet's mind, as the following lines from "Eco" | "Echo" illustrate. The speaker of the poem, written in memoriam for Emily Dickinson, fears she may figuratively drown until remembering a line from her poetic precursor allows her to breathe again:

And in that instant comes
the low echo
of a beyond beyond,
a language archaic and soaked
in syllables and accents suited
for re-de-trans-forming,
bringing light
which brings out
from beneath another skin:
the hollow of a voice
which speaks alone.

Other poems offer oblique meditations on family relationships, intimate contemplations of the natural world, and knowing insights into the body's vicissitudes.

Forrest Gander, an award-winning poet and translator in his own right, proves more than equal to the task of rendering López Colomé’s frequently self-referential Spanish-language complexities. Time and again, his magisterial versions of her lines shine through. In “Diálogo de la ceniza” / "Dialogue of the Ashes," for instance, when a bureaucrat recording a death "autoriza, / da el sí / a una permuta / en cenicienta bagatela,” Gander’s lines soar in English as someone "marking yes, / permitting / the Cinderella-like transformation / into a knickknack of ashes."

Other times, Gander pushes English to its Greco-Latin limits, practically inevitable when preserving medical terms such as "meninges" (which he glosses in his Translator’s Notes), but more pronounced when rendering, say, the title "Tres escenas lacustres" as "Three Lacustrine Scenes." Would "Three Lake Scenes" have sounded too pedestrian for López Colomé's elevated register? "Dehiscent," "pertinences," "albescence," and "[a]rborescences" also make cameo appearances, with English words occasionally italicized where their less marked Spanish counterparts are not.

Elsewhere, Gander's diction hews more closely to the Anglo-Saxon, as in "El cuadro de mi vida" / "My Life's Portrait," where "Desde mi anagnórisis augusta / mi percatarme" becomes the more prosaic "From self-awareness, / a grave perception." Perhaps a jolting lexical choice or flustering semantic shift should be expected, then, given the rhetorical challenges of the original? The second stanza of "Llaga profunda" / "Deep Wound,” for example, begins unremarkably enough-- "No todas las niñas, las muchachas en flor, / adornan las riberas de las frescas corrientes / que perfilan los valles de la infancia"-- but is rendered as the more strained "Not all the girls, budding young women, / spackle the banks of the nervous rivers / that churn through childhood's valleys," Proustian reference intact. "My Life's Portrait" ends "Finally I saw you. / I saw myself finally. / There was no one to tell," while the original reads "Te vi al fin. / Me vi por fin. / A nadie pude recordar." What is this last line up to?

Yet, just when readers may be wondering whether Gander is behaving more like a creative writer than a translator, a phrase appears to remind them how wonderfully both facets of composition coalesce in this exceptionally gifted poet. Toward the close of "Machihembrado" / "Tongue-and-grooved"-- the nifty English title boding well for the verse to come-- the rather Latinate "De luminoso sonreír con la mirada" is alchemically transmuted into "You, with your lustrous eyes shining," for which one is tempted to shout: "iEstupendo!, Pura López Colomé. Forrest Gander, bravísimo!"

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Read Other Reviews Here
(by clicking on the publications below):

By Kristin Dykstra for BOMB
By Grant Barber for
Three Percent
By John Pluecker at Literal
By Jeffrey Cyphers Wright for
Brooklyn Rail
By John Taylor for The Antioch Review
Interview by Grant Barber at Three Percent
Interview by Jen Hofer at Make Magazine
Interview (podcast) by Erica Mena at Three Percent
Harriett (Poetry Foundation)

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Pura at Harvard University's
Lamont Library