Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

Reviewed by Stephen White for Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas

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After the publication of her critically-acclaimed second book El ser que va a morir (Being toward Death) in 1981, Coral Bracho became one of Mexico’s leading voices in poetry. Born in 1951 in her country’s capital, Bracho is the author of eight books of verse. Firefly under the Tongue is a well-chosen representation of the breadth of Bracho’s work over a thirty-year period, beginning in 1977. Its bilingual format with translations on facing pages will give readers a double linguistic chance to work their way through this challenging, enigmatic poetry.

In his succinct, insightful introduction, Forrest Gander asserts that Bracho’s verse “probably changed the course of Mexican poetry with its erotic undercurrent, its radically indeterminate syntax, and its phenomenological openness.” This bold claim about a writer from a country that has produced world-class twentieth-century poets such as José Gorostiza, Xavier Villaurrutia, Octavio Paz, Rosario Castellanos, José Emilio Pacheco, and others. But it might be true, even if Bracho’s poetry is an acquired taste. It is likely, given literature’s tradition of generational rupture, that in the early 1980’s Bracho was breaking with the socially-oriented colloquial poetry of her predecessors, especially the Castellanos of “Kinsey Report,” with its revealing persona poems about Mexican women in a brutally sexist society, and (in her short stories and novels) the indigenous world of Chiapas. These thematic concerns to not define Bracho’s poetry, which is certainly demanding, but does not threaten an established order. When she does attempt to engage a world deeply divided along ethnic lines, for example in “The Indigenous Voice,” her efforts remain on a predictable surface: “It’s the dolor/ of the voice that is stopped. Of that timeless/ and profound voice/ that just like that is stopped. That just like that/ dies to us.” The “us” and “them” awareness in this short poem (published less than a decade after the Zapatista uprising), in which indigenous voices flicker and die like fireflies, is an honest, but limited, description of a problem that other writers, including Rigoberta Menchú from Guatamala, have examined in more profound ways.

This is not a criticism of Bracho’s poetry but rather a warning about what the reader should not seek in her fluid oneiric lines that eschew history and linear time. In other words, a reader who likes the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal would need to have a very open mind to find Bracho’s poems satisfying. Gander has done the best he can do to orient English-speaking readers to the poetry in Firefly under the Tongue and classify Bracho’s work in recognizable terms. Butt he truth is that an Ashbery of irrupting street voices and realiza, mixed with dense philosophical speech in urban exteriors by means of disjunctive syntax, is not necessarily a good comparison.

To consider Bracho on her own terms as a creador in the Spanish language might not be as useful for readers of a book published by New Directions, but it is important to understand Bracho as part of a genealogy that makes her a descendant of Góngoroa and a close literary relative of neobaroque poets such as José Lexama Lima in Cuba or, especially, Néstor Perlongher in Argentina. Bracho’s strongest poetry may even strike some readers as an extension of Paz’s abstract poetics and immersion in cyclical time, though Bracho tends to write from a softer, more intimate, psychological interior.

So, how should an English-speaking reader react to a poetry that works against so many of the current literary conventions in the United States? For one thing, we should be grateful to Forrest Gander for his careful, risky approach to translation. In his classic essay, “Misery and Splendor of Translation,” Ortega y Gasset says that there are basically two ways to translate: either one attempts to bring the original text closer to the target language, or one attempts to bring the translated text closer to the original (the strategy he clearly prefers). Gander repeatedly and consciously seeks to expand the parameters of what is considered acceptable in English by opting for cognates, which means, in Bracho’s case, a strange Latinate vocabulary that rarely surfaces in contemporary U.S. poetry: fugacious, umbracious, alveolate racemes, lubricious, deliquescent, plumbeous, efflorescence, lacteal, herbaceous, feracious, violaceous (the last three of which are from the book’s title poem). And, yes, it all sounds delightfully strange in Spanish, too, though there is a tradition for this exquisite, erudite poetic language, beginning with Rubén Dario, who established Latin America’s literary independence from Spain. Besides, Rexroth always recommended translation as a way of saving oneself from one’s contemporaries.

Firefly under the Tongue is a good chance to test this theory. All the poems in this gathering by Coral bracho are well worth reading, but those that seem most effective in the English translations by Forrest Gander are slightly less radical in terms of the stress they place on the Anglo-Saxon part of the language, such as the first stanza of “From this Light”:

From this light in which, with delicate
eternity falls. From this wakened garden,
from this shadow.
The threshold opens to time
in which the things of the world
are magnetized.
They take on time’s depth
and it sustains them and offers them up:
clear, round,
generous. Freshened and filled with time’s exuberant volume,
with its festive splendor,
with its deep starriness.
Solid and particular,
their space
and their moment fuse, their very orchard
of sensation. Like discrete stones
in a garden. Like pauses parsed
inside a temple.