Litane, by Alejandro Tarrab
Translation by Clare Sullivan
Review by John Venegas
One of the holy grails in the study of physics is something called a unified field theory. In short, we have theories that work really well for describing the behavior of stars and planets and light, and we have theories that work really well for describing the behavior of particles and fields, but the dream of many a genius is to mathematically describe a theory that can do both. Does this sound familiar to you? Have you, perhaps, encountered another field of study, maybe even one involving literature, where you are presented with multiple theories derived by very intelligent people, many of which provide a fascinating perspective but which cannot encompass the whole despite some insistence otherwise? It is exceedingly easy to forget that we are all looking at existence and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. I am reminded of these theories and many more as I pour over Litane, a poetry collection written by Alejandro Tarrab and translated from Spanish to English by Clare Sullivan. It is a book that is challenging, engaging, demanding of its reader without condescension, and so far reaching in scope I am still somewhat in awe. In an article she wrote for Asymptote, Sullivan describes Tarrab’s poetry as containing “allusions not just to other literature but also to philosophy, science, the visual arts, and music.” Of course, Tarrab is not the first to attempt this, but he does so with such skill in this book that I find the inevitable comparisons to T.S. Elliott not only justified but even a little lacking given this collection’s experimental tendencies.
caminamos por las placinies todo mi ser aposto que cruzariamos que despues de demontar el pabellon cruzariamos juntos para alzar el vuelo intro vuelve el dia tomamos la 132 lunar medeski el fuego la emocion de estar
we walk through the flatlands that my whole being swore we could cross that after dismantling the pavilion we would cross together to rise in flight intro day returns we take the 132 lunar medeski fire the feeling of being
Litane is collection that actively steers into madness; not the forced simulacra of insanity that many authors try to replicate, but the genuine incomprehensibility of filling one’s consciousness to the brim and attempting to process all of that information. It is a truly fascinating experience following each poem as they shift and move. Tarrab abandons pretty much any notion of grammatical constraint and allows his language unbridled freedom to flow and shift between tracks. It is akin to learning from a dancing master who only instructs by demanding that you follow his lead. It takes some time to learn the flow, and even when you do you will make the occasional misstep, but the effect is hypnotic to the point of camouflaging whether or not what you just experienced was extreme improvisation or choreographed with precision. Most immediately I am reminded of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s style, which is always welcome, but Tarrab places his own spin on the technique in that where Krasznahorkai is very intentionally playing with grammar and sentence structure, Tarrab is rejecting the need for such limitations. And if one accepts the notion that great artists do not utilize without purpose, then it is difficult to not see this style as a framing device that blends concepts and voices and thoughts into an impressionistic whole. It is common, and often commendable, for many poets to be hyperfocused, using minutiae and intricate detail to flesh out much grander existential concepts. While Tarrab does this, more often than not he extends his lens to an extreme width, zooming out and providing the forest for the trees. It is a surprisingly refreshing vantage point, and brings with it no small amount of vertigo.
aqui va un diablo hermoso inaudito de satan
no hay tragico en el cielo
en su practica solita es un iluminado
here is a pretty unheard of satan’s devil
there is no tragic in the sky
in his lonely practice is a visionary
I imagine that, if a poet approached a great many publishers and told them “I have a habit of routinely inventing words in my poetry”, said poet would earn no small amount of askance looks and skepticism. So, on a rather basic level, you have to appreciate the impulse to do it anyway – it takes some gumption. But in order to use it in a way that is meaningful and will give it any thematic weight, you quite simply have to know what the hell you are doing. You have to have a superb grasp of language in order to tear it apart and rebuild it into something beautiful. Tarrab meets and exceeds this challenge in spades. It begins with his title, Litane, which I imagine is something about which no small amount of digital ink will be expended. For my part, it is something I’ve quite literally never encountered before: an invented word used for a title, and one that perfectly encapsulates and frames the rest of its text. It is meant to evoke the word “litany”, or “letania” in Spanish, and it raises more possibilities for the collection than a sane person could fully explore in a life time. Is it referring to the cacophony of voices trying to explain their frames of reference? Is it a criticism that hearkens back to Milton’s legions of angels singing praise to an authoritarian god, or is it almost religiously reverential in the sound of so many expressing themselves? This questioning and unfurling of possibilities continues throughout the text. Poems take symbols and figures from history and mythology and rearrange them on a whim, like a child with their favorite action figures and dolls, or an adult playing with the pieces of an unsolvable puzzle. And all the while, the words just flow. The missteps in the dance I described earlier will be exclusively your own.
veias el polvo te travestias al lijar tu prenda pude sentir desde el ascensor al verlas plasmadas como algo inmediato te iba minando de lado hacia el piso
you saw the dust you cross-dressed and smoothing your garment i could sense from the elevator on seeing fem take shape how something immediate was eroding from you from the side toward the floor
Along the same lines, there is fantastic work on display here from Clare Sullivan. This is the kind of translation work you want to show aspiring translators, because she manages the three critical aspects of it beautifully. First, the underappreciated grunt work of matching style, flow, and structure. Then, the ability to recognize when improvisation will do more to capture the artist’s idea than a literal translation. Her use of lower case I’s, something she discusses in her Asymptote article, felt so natural and effective that I hadn’t even realized that it had to be a conscious decision on her part until she pointed it out. Lastly, her willingness to leave in an untranslated word or phrase when it does a far better and more succinct job of describing an idea than would its translation. This also happens to work well with Tarrab’s familiar feeling new words.
sin decir una piedra puesta sobre la tumba, sin decir piedra que daria permanencia.
without saying a stone placed upon the tomb, without saying stone that would grant permanence.
Even as I write this review, a new kind of importance for Litane reveals itself. We are living in an age where the identity of the individual has taken center stage. This, like pretty much everything else, has positive and negative effects. On the positive side, long oppressed voices are finally getting long overdue chances to express themselves and be recognized for their humanity. On the negative side, those who seek to exploit individuality for financial gain have increased opportunity to manipulate that kind of expression. Where Litane fits in is in reminding us that we are not alone. Again, on the positive side, I mean this in a quite sentimental fashion, with all of the solidarity and support that such an idea carries. And on the negative side, we are chastised to not think of only ourselves, to be mindful of the idea that as we express ourselves we better make damn sure that others can do the same.
Litane is available now through Cardboard House Press.