Forrest Gander

Pulitzer Prize Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Finalist

Reviewed by Carlos for Powell's Books

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Poetry in Translation is a complicated topic. In this age of trends where sometimes if Latino writers fit the mold publishers are eager to supply, one is nearly guarantee publication, I’m skeptical of anything in translation. However, in the end, a book can only be judged on its own merits. And thanks to a PEN foundation grant, Forrest Gander and Kent Johnson translated The Night, a book-length poem by a Bolivian poet named Jaime Saenz. There aren’t many Bolivian writers in print in the U.S., as a matter of fact, the only that comes to mind is Edmundo Paz-Soldan who teaches at Cornell (which probably helps him in the publishing angle).

 The Night
was written by a morbid and unusual man, Saenz would bribe workers at the morgue so he could take body parts home to use as inspiration for his poetry. He struggled with alcoholism, lived with his mother until he was forty, he was a Nazi sympathizer, and worked for many years as a clerk for the American Embassy in the capital city, La Paz.

 Here’s a small sample from
The Night
            Through he high-tension cables which trace the contour of the hills and then plunge to the fields

             the night broadcasts itself in invisible sparks that flicker here, now there in the eyes and buttons of neighbors not yet taken by sleep

             and who valorously stay fixed to the doors of their dwelling to witness the first onslaught of the night.

             This first onslaught has, in truth, a mysterious source,

             and no doubt it spurts up from the dead who have died for the sake of alcohol and who now swoon and babble at the vision dangled before them by the other side of the night,

             and this has to do with the casks, the kegs, the bars, and the huge vats of alcohol dreamed each and every night by drunks known only to me,

             and who, having drunk their whole lives to the seams, writhe, screaming for alcohol, in atrocious spasms on soaked beds and in deep cloacae.

             These drunks have learned plenty and they’re got patience,

             and know the other side of the night has sunk itself into the shafts of their spines

             and gone down in their throats,

             which retain forever the redolence of alcohol,

             which is exactly what torments them unrelentingly, through the long, long hours of the night on the other side of the night.

 If you haven't read Saenz in Spanish, the bilingual edition released by Princeton University Press is actually quite a treat. This is a find for several reasons. It isn’t political, as a lot of South American poetry tends to be. This poem comes from an obscure country, in obscure style, with something profoundly dark yet true for the reader. There is something reminiscing of Pound or Poe, yet different culturally. It’s a surprise, that a small, conservative society could give us someone like Saenz. Whether you love poetry and are looking for something new and weird, or for some reason feel interested in Bolivian literature, this would be a must read. Some of his other poems from Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems Of Jaime Saenz are available on Jacket Magazine. I hope to find a copy of it on my next trip to Powells.
´┐╝Jaime Saenz (1921-1986) is Bolivia’s leading writer of the 20th century. Prolific as poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer, his baroque, propulsive syntax and dedication to themes of death, alcoholism, and otherness make his poetry among the most idiosyncratic in the Spanish-speaking world.

As the author of one of Latin America’s first openly homosexual novels, the as yet untranslated masterpiece
Los Papeles de Narciso Lima Acha, Saenz’s work also stands as a singular example of artistic and personal courage.