Saturday, July 19, 2008



The River is Wide / El río es ancho: Twenty Mexican Poets -- A Bilingual Anthology Edited and Translated by Marlon L. Fick
(University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2007)
[Poems by: Rubén Bonifaz Nuño, Coral Bracho, Héctor Carreto, Alí Chumacero, Elsa Cross, Juan Cú, Jorge Ruiz Esparza, Jorg Esquinca, Gloria Gervitz, Francisco Hernández, Elva Macías, Myriam Moscona, Óscar Oliva, Jaime Sabines, Tomás Segovia, Lillian Van Den Broeck, Verónica Volkow, Francisco Ávila Fuentes, Hernán Bravo Varela, Bernardo Emilio Pérez]
                   What sleeping snake do you want to wake in me?
                   -- Tomás Segovia

This is the place for your mirror,
your desire to run that is mine to rain.

Look at our side. How many names does it take to close a door?
I pick up a pen to tell you something. (. . .)

                   -- From ''Yoviendo / I See I Rain '', Francisco Ávila Fuentes

Editor and translator Marlon L. Fick generously hands these poems to us and steps aside. The 452-page volume presents deep selections by contemporary Mexican poets, presented first in original Spanish and followed by what Fick refers to as an “offering” of English translations. The anthology does not aim to explain or account for the landscape of contemporary poetry in Mexico and distinctly avoids the defining a canon or chronology. Rather, we are encouraged to read these selections and excerpts as discoveries, and to find ourselves wholly absorbed in the direct encounter with the poems. The River is Wide is a joy -- the poems included are diverse in form and voice and uniformly excellent. Long established poets Ali Chumacarro, Jamie Sabines and Rubén Bonifaz Nuño are represented and well balanced by selections from ''three young poets'' Francisco Ávila Fuentes, Bernardo Emilio Pérez and Hernán Bravo Varela. It could be said of any work in this volume that, as Rubén Bonifaz Nuño writes, ''it chatters and whines and twists me / down to the tongue of the shoe.''

+ + +
Does it bother you, Vargas,
that I'm sleeping with your wife?
Be reasonable, my friend,
I'm more handsome – what can you do?
and let me remind you,
                   I'm your boss.

                   -- To an Employee, Hector Carréto

Poems build like punchlines in the selection from Hector Carréto, with metaphors piled sky-high only to be realized in moments outside metaphor, as in "The Doe" where ''my word was not able to achieve Poetry . Other poems unravel as material asserts itself, as in ''Poem from the Interrupted Dream'' or ''Within Reach of Her Mouth'', where to kiss the ''goddess of golden nipples and perpetual smiles'' one may ''kiss gently the pages, / but please don't slobber on them, you might / mess up my magazine.'' Carreto is charming and slight. The clown of a poet-figure in these poems offers brief, complex structures rich with linguistic tensions and a fast hilarious release.

+ + +

The selection of Elsa Cross's poems features twenty pages of short lyrics. Their airy meditations on nature hinge on the strange disconnect of perception in relation to passing time and distance. In Whispers, 'The water drinks itself against the wet earth. / The geese eat from my hand. / Wild geese / that pull away like boats in the air.'' Cross opens the sorrows of perception and finds that slippage is easy. In "Silence", she writes;
                   . . . leaves
amass over the earth
like plaques of bronze.

Your silence invades me,
it takes me from myself completely.
And in the root of that moment
word and thought
thought and desire become one,
and they sink into your silence.

The subject matter here is less about the natural objects described than the play (and strangeness) of visual sense, and these poems are stunning in their effort to continually relate subject through distancing motions and misapprehensions.

+ + +

Other selections simply urged me on in further readings of authors' work. Juan Cú's ''Additions to the Book of Whores (fragments)" are block pages of aphorisms that in a clever, gathering chorus. All focus on whores: ''The whore with free will scopes out the man. / The audacious whore is surely a widow. / The quiet whore looks for a loudmouth... / '' Similarly, Coral Bracho's selection here merely points to a greater philosophical project – in the poem Stone in the Sand, as in others ''The two play with a stone / emanating light ... observe it, / cover it. They spin it softly.'' and I am left with a desire to better acquaint myself with her greater project and its aims. I was likewise curious about the dizzying excerpt from Lillian Van Den Broecks' The State of Anonymity. The selection included consists of short titled poems, repeatedly cycling between topics that include an elm tree that bears pears, a magician's violent act, and the interactions of 'Maria" and "the Outside.'' These selections from broader projects suggest the long poem is alive and well in Mexican contemporary work, but it is a struggle to read such work without context or a sense of the greater project.

+ + +
Strip away all the flesh
until the verse remains
in the sonorous dark of the bone.
And the bone is smoothed, polished and sharpened
till it becomes a needle so fine
it passes through the tongue without pain,
though blood stops up the throat.

                   -- Until the Verse Remains, Francisco Hernandez

The title of the volume refers to the distance between Mexico and the U.S., and addressing the literary distance in particular seems to be a major goal of this volume. It's a crucial task: so many U.S. Spanish-language students have a functional knowledge of the language, yet little knowledge of Mexican literature, myself included. Fick has opted for a minimalist anthology and wants to avoid ranking and canon-making, but the trade-off here is a disorienting lack of context. Original dates and volume titles are missing, author bios are very brief, and the preface does little to explain the translator's method. Fick reportedly worked with each poet, but he says little about collaborations or his methods for selecting work. An essay and bibliography would be helpful here--after awakening readers' interests you can give them access to further reading by providing historical/chronological context and guiding them to poets' other works.

Still, The River is Wide is an excellent collection, much needed and well executed. The poems are delivered to us in the care of a wonderful and deft translator, who maintains the singularity of voice within each authors work with a grace that seems to fade the interference to a minimum. The clear, loyal line-by-line interpretations are ideal for the Spanish language student, adding another dimension of usefulness to a beautiful book. Fick provides a primary contact, rather than a reading or a version, and opens the door to new encounters.


Denise Dooley lives in Rogers Park, Chicago. She writes poetry and fiction and works in science education outreach at Northwestern.

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