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David Shook

Book Review

Abecedary

by on March 29, 2018

Abecedary, by Pablo Jofré
Review by John Venegas

 

Is it too much to describe the act of writing as paradoxical? So often the transcription of words to the page is painted as an effort by humanity to defy our own mortality and exist in conceptual form beyond the tapering of the mortal coil. And yet pages and scrolls decay. Ink bleeds and cracks. Arrangements of zeroes and ones can become corrupted, and hard drives and tablets (stone or electronic) can be shattered. There is something romantic and horrifying about that idea, of defiantly shouting into the voice and, if nothing else, amplifying the echo as best you can. But I think it also tends to overwhelm the idea and power of the present moment. In our post-(butnotreally)-post-modern haste to deconstruct meaning, it becomes all too easy to overlook the fact that in the moment, in your moment, meaning really does exist. It is locked in perpetual motion, constantly evolving and influenced by external forces, but it still exists, processed and filtered and constructed by you. It is unique to you, and while the rest of us may be able to catch glimpses or fragments of it in the right light, only you can ever see it for the beautiful and titanic thing that it is. I think it might be more productive then to think of literature (and, in truth, any art) as a conveyance vehicle by which we try to share snapshots of our meanings. Most of the time, texts do this implicitly or incidentally, existing by their very nature as things that can never be authentically recreated, only replicated. But sometimes a text, even a small one like Pablo Jofré’s Abecedary, can take this impossible gymnastics routine of an existential concept and grab it by the horns. In this collection, Jofré is equal parts poet, philosopher, linguist, mad scientist, human, social critic, and extraterrestrial as he invents a language all his own.

Being present (the waves and their rhythm).
Feeling in your own essence.
Knowing that others exist and communicating with them
through the universe. […]

To save you the Google search (because I already needed to do one), an abecedary is a language primer, oftentimes in the former of a letter table, meant to teach a student about the pieces that a language uses to construct words. Jofré’s Abecedary is a fascinating take on that idea, both because of its necessity and its layout. The collection is a series of poems arranged in alphabetical order, beginning with “Abyss” and culminating in “Zenith”, and, as you might now be guessing, that is not coincidental. Jofré is taking us on a journey from a place of nothing, a place of no meaning and identity, to a place that “is an emotion; human energy / (pure, sweet, sanguine).” Not every letter of the Spanish alphabet is addressed, because while our paths to actualization are often similar they are never the same, and some letters take more time than others, because our lives often stall or meander when the path is obscured.

Immolating yourself is cleaning the body, which was already dead,
and the memory crushed by the world.

Moreover, the poems follow no predictable curve in their emotional state of being. You are as likely to be terrified as you experience “Xenophobia” as you are immersed in “Hue”, because the path is a much a construct made on the spot as anything else. What this all adds up to is a priming of expectations against your better judgment. You have likely read experimental poetry before and you know that your subconscious predictions are rife with inaccuracy, but you’ve also probably learned your ABCs and you might be able to still hear that silly little song in your head. That is just part of Jofré’s genius here. Through just the structural constraint of his text, he makes you aware that you can still be oblivious and even indoctrinated. You might “know better”, but you are still making assumptions that can be ill-advised. Hell, I did it just a moment ago in guessing that you might have heard the ABCs song.

Waking up is the fear of not knowing where one is, who one is.
It is the lack of concepts, of heaven, of homeland,
it is the not knowing if I am lying down or sitting at a table.

And, as it turns out, the idea of thinking you “know better” is critical to both the poems of Abecedary and our world today. We are watching a person being born this collection, someone who perhaps already possessed a frame of reference before finding themselves in the “Abyss”, as they deal with the repercussions of the loss of meaning before welding a new one together. That speaker is bombarded with information, at times recollected from an old life and at times through relentless observation. With each poem and each new piece of information, there is a sense that the speaker may touch on some fundamental truth at the heart of everything, or even the heart of themself. There is a dogged determination in the language, even through its elegant beauty, to keep swimming through the pain and the distraction and grab new pieces to build the monument of meaning. We receive no sugarcoat, no soothing, protective hug; the process of individuality and sisyphean task of definition are painful and overwhelming, made all the moreso when one is being threatened and tortured into accepting someone else’s idea of meaning. Make no mistake: Jofré is not gentle is his critique of how hard we make this already laborious task on one another and ourselves. In particular, “Fear” is mercilessly terrifying poem, not because it blames the idea of being afraid, but what we let ourselves do when we are afraid; the justifications, the destruction, the self-mutilation of external violence.

Shapeless piece of the living being.
Liquid that imperceptibly creeps
and interjects its opinion

This idea that we have to be mindful of our effect on others wraps around beautifully in the poetry to connect again with how meaning is formed. If you believe that you are responsible for your actions and that your perspective is yours, then it would be the height of futile, selfish cognitive dissonance to deny those facts for other people. Jofré is building an alphabet (read: perspective) that is relatable, foreign, and most important of all, human, and in doing so he is not only exercising his right to exist and be heard but calling on the rest of us to do that same. This is baked into Abecedary on every level, even in the fact that many of us will read it as a transliteration. In my particular case, I have a copy that contains both Jofré’s work in the original Spanish, and David Shook’s transliteration into English. Shook’s work, incidentally, is as impeccable as ever. The adjective-noun relationship and placement is one of the biggest differences between Spanish and English in my opinion, and Jofré does not make the translation of his work simple by virtue of the density of his use of language. But there are several moments where, in direct comparison of the two versions, Shook’s tweaking feels lip-smackingly perfect in a way that even someone who speaks both languages might not see coming.

“The kiss it a newborn animal. It speaks, it whines,
It writhes on its placenta. It resists
the abandonment that will come; inevitably.”

+++++

“El beso es un animal recién procreado. Habla, gime,
se retuerce en su placenta. Resiste
al abandono que llegará; inevitablemente.”

In his prologue, the brilliant Will Alexander says that “Abecedary condenses via poetic semaphore lingual neutron stars penultimate to incalculable eruption”, and I find the astral metaphor surprisingly apt for what is at play here. We are, in essence, getting to peer into a mind and watch lingual fusion take place. Matter is being rendered and remade, often violently, and the cosmic mind behind it is in awe of the possibility before it. We look up at the sky and see the light of stars that died billions of years ago, and that light changes our lives in immeasurable ways, most of which we cannot understand or anticipate yet. Abecedary is a beautifully apt reminder that, in the universe’s penchant for cycles and equilibriums, that same conceptual causality is going on inside of and between us.

Abecedary is available now through Insert Blanc Press.

Book Review

Confetti-Ash

by on May 18, 2017

Confetti-Ash, Selected Poems of Salvador Novo

Translated by Anthony Seidman and David Shook

 

In 1581, Sir Philip Sydney completed the The Defence of Posey. It was a response to an argument from a Puritan minister who claimed that the arts, particularly poetry, were egregious affronts. In The Defence, Sydney makes several comparisons between the act of writing poetry and godliness, specifically referring to both as the act of “making”. He claimed that poetry was paying honor and homage to God himself, as it was a human imitation of the creation of the universe. To be fair, I do not agree with such a lofty juxtaposition, if for no other reason than I believe poetry can only come from the mortal, those bound for death. But I am reminded of Sydney’s impassioned argument as I read Confetti-Ash, an amazing collection of Salvador Novo’s poetry translated to English by Anthony Seidman and David Shook. As the reader moves through the text and steps into the mind of the collection’s many speakers, we are presented with an ensemble of the human experience, treated with the curiosity of an inspired, curious, powerful, and even hubristic being. The real divine comparison here is not to the god of the Abrahamic tradition, but to Prometheus, or perhaps more appropriately, Huehuecoyotl – beings with an intrinsic link to the human condition, and who can appreciate our multi-facetedness.

Confetti-Ash is a collection with an almost compulsive need to run the gamut of extreme emotion. This is, as one would expect, due in large part to the choices made by Seidman and Shook, and they deserve plenty of credit for including a truly quality selection of Novo’s work. But it is primarily a result of Novo’s brazen ethos. He was known for being unapologetically homosexual in a country with a conservative Catholic elite, and his determination is present in several poems.

Ha descendido el cielo / por los ferrocarriles de la lluvia / Contemplacion. Egoaltruismo. / Cristianismo. Narciso.

Heaven has descended / via the railroad of rain / Contemplation. Ego-altruism. / Christianity. Narcissus.

This is a voice unafraid of divine judgment and aware of the hypocrisies present in so many dogmas and their social implementations. But it is not critical for the sake of vengeance or the need to rebel. Rather, it is peaceful in the sense of doing what the speaker feels needs to be done, regardless of the consequences. This peace will constantly give way to passion, however, in both of what we would consider positive and negative emotions. Genuine anger and fear weave in and out of an embrace with an emphatic need for love.

Por la calle habia / en cartels rojos y en bocas asperas, / extranas palabras / que se grababan en mi cerebro como enigmas / y habia acciones y efectos / cuyo motivo me preocupaba indagar.

On the street there were / words on red posters, gruff voices / strange words that stuck in my brain, like riddles, / and there were acts and results, / whose motives made me worry about finding them out.

On the surface, a stanza like this seems to be ambiguous, to the point of reluctance. But such is the effect of Novo’s work that even the seemingly mundane is laced with emotion. The reader can feel the blur of images and sounds and their inherently visceral nature. The reader is confronted with the idea that a determination to not look away will not necessarily lead to clarity, that bravery in the face of fear will not inherently bring understanding or a peaceful resolution. In point of fact, there is an implicit suggestion that bravery appears only in the face of the fear of the unknown. And the riddles add an intellectual dimension to the fear and the courage, teasing us on an Oedipean level because we are perhaps all tragic protagonists who must know.

As Jorge Ortega and Anthony Seidman point out in their respective foreword and afterword, Salvador Novo is almost criminally underappreciated with regards to the upper echelons of Mexican poets. He is a writer that aggressively resists easy labeling and confinement, unafraid of explore everything from gender role reversal within a binary system to agonizing grief at the thought of losing a loved one. And yet there always remains an undercurrent of mischief and impetus, as if something beyond even Novo’s understanding compels him to move and cause no small amount of strife. The speakers of his poetry are spirits that revel in and dread the newness, the protean metamorphosis they engender. In this I am reminded of W.E.B. DuBois, Gloria Anzaldua, Prometheus, and the shaping of a new identity, where a Mexican must confront his Spanish, his Azteca, and his Mexicano, the duality that is in and of itself something entirely separate.

I highly recommend this book to all of our readers, especially those of you who, like me, are irrevocably and blessedly Mexican. But the truth is as the world is dragged kicking and screaming into multi-cultural self-awareness, we can also use the beautifully written and translated Confetti-Ash as a reminder that we are neither the origin of this expansion of the human mind nor its endpoint.

 

Confetti-Ash is available now through The Bitter Oleander Press.

Book Review

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems

by on August 23, 2016

diseno-de-tapa-kyn-taniya-print1Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems by Kyn Taniya

There is something to be said about the importance of translation in regards to literature. I would not have been able to experience the work of so many writers that I love and admire if it were not for the endeavor of translators. Sometimes, the translation is coupled with a work being re-issued after many years, shining light on authors that may not have had much exposure outside their language. Allowing the work to breathe new life and hopefully widen the reach of their powerful words. When I am handed a book of translation it is quite frequently an exciting moment. The gravity of the process that it took in order for the book to reach my hands does not fall lightly on me. This was especially true with the book Radio: Wireless Poem In Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems by Kyn Tania.

 

Originally published in Mexico in 1924, where it now considered a cult classic of the estridentista avant-garde movement, Radio has now been translated after 92 years for a new audience to experience. The first thing that strikes about this bi-lingual collection is the sheer modernity of the work. The poems in this short collection feel like they could have easily been composed today as they were in the early 1920’s.

 

Poems discussing wireless technology and celestial objects, making reference to radio waves, could be seamlessly interchanged to discussions of cell phones and Wi-Fi signals. An example of this is in the poem “Midnight Frolic”:

 

           Silence

Listen to the conversation of words

in the atmosphere.

 

There is an insupportable confusion of terrestrial voices

and of strange voices

faraway

 

The feeling of connection in these poems – that is hopeful in many ways – still bleed so beautifully into the feelings of unease that has only grown exponentially as technology has grown. Today the voices we hear are schizophrenic and never ending (unless you are lucky enough to pass through a data dead zone which is becoming more and more infrequent). The idea of broadcasting yourself out in the world is still such a novel idea today, one that I grapple with on frequent occasion. Because it is still so new, the rules and etiquette are ever changing, what may be socially acceptable one day may be strange another day. You just have to listen to the right voices.

 

The concepts and feelings in regards to technology are coupled with social unrest, political instability on a global level, and loss of loved ones to make poems whose words are cutting, sincere, and contemplative. In the poem “… IU IIIUUU IU …” (of which there is a great recording online of the poet reading it) we are presented with broadcasts of problems and occurrences around the world: Deaths in Chicago, unrest in Bagdad, sports heroes, and more all for sale to consumers at low prices. So quick and accessible it would be a shame not to take it all in.

 

When I read these poems I was given the realization of how much the world has really not changed. There have been advancements in technology that have pushed us closer together, closer to the stars, yet closer to oblivion; however the sentiment, the soul of what concerns us as human beings is still very much the same. The poems that live within this collection are fresh, and vibrant. Just as alive as when they were written.

 

Radio by Kyn Tania is available through Cardboard House Press