Reviewed by Andrew Seguin
Homero Aridjis’s angels have not fallen, but the world has. Nature has been destroyed by humans, who clamor and shriek amid drought, heat waves and violence, consoling themselves in red light districts and drinking all the while. Chances are you will recognize this world: it’s ours. Aridjis’s angels materialize in it to observe its men and women and participate in their lives, sometimes as mundanely as classmates or mail deliverers, and at other times as otherworldly presences that invoke the supernatural. But they are not sword-wielding saviors from Heaven, here to rescue humankind; they are liminal beings from between Heaven and Earth, made of God and Man; they are powerful in some ways and utterly powerless in others.
The ambiguity of these creatures is the most compelling aspect of Aridjis’s A Time of Angels, the latest book by the prolific Mexican poet and environmentalist. Offered by City Lights Books in a bilingual edition, with translations by George McWhirter and beautiful illustrations by the Mexican artist Francisco Toledo, the volume offers pleasure for the eye as well as the mind. Whether you believe in angels or not, there are ideas about their nature, and the relationship between the human and divine, to contemplate here.
If you are hoping for musical pleasure in the verse, too, you should attend to the Spanish more than the English, if possible, for Aridjis’s style is plain, and McWhirter has rendered it in an English that tends towards flat prose. In maintaining Aridjis’ straightforward tone, McWhirter has, at times, introduced new meanings to the poems. Note these lines from “The angel is a blue silence:”
El ángel es un silencio azul
que se percibe con los ojos.
An angel is a blue silence
we make out with our eyes.
The Spanish verb “percibir” shares the same root as the English verb “to perceive,” and a more literal translation of “que se percibe” would be “is perceived.” McWhirter’s choice of “we make out” here adds two new shades of meaning to the phrase. For one, the inclusion of the pronoun “we” adds viewers to—and includes readers in—the act of seeing the angel in a more direct way than the Spanish. Secondly, the English compound verb “to make out,” in a sensory context, is usually employed for objects that are difficult to apprehend because they are on the edge of vision (e.g. “I could barely make out the house in the distance.”) So McWhirter has also introduced a note of uncertainty to the perception of the angel. Given the ethereal quality of the creature, “make out” fits in its own way, but it strays slightly from the Spanish. Such is the dilemma of the translator, who must make imperfect choices, losing some senses while gaining others. In this case, McWhirter has gained little; the Spanish “que se percibe” denotes a definite, visual apprehension that is muddied by “we make out.”
But the translation in no way prevents readers from engaging Aridjis’s ideas about angels, which he describes explicitly in the first (and titular) poem:
Said God: ‘Angels cannot be seen
by the eye for they are in our eyes.’
Said man: ‘Then, the angel
we search the world for
is within us, it is us.’
In this conception, the divine exists in every human, it need only be sought out, like a pig uncovering a truffle. But Aridjis also puts forth a subtler example of his thesis. God refers to “our eyes” when speaking to man about angels, and through one possessive pronoun reveals a relationship between all three beings. Like God, poetry is in the details.
Aridjis’s details keep his theological conceit from remaining an abstraction, and they tether his angels, and this book, to earth. In “Red light district” Aridjis writes, “Through the red light district I followed the angel with big feet.” In a hierarchy of adjectives, “big” would fall at the most basic level, expressing a concept of scale in a general way. Yet it is that quality, which captures the cadence of human speech and the way people are casually described in conversation, that humanizes the angel and makes it recognizable. The angel, too, is subject to the same inheritance of physical attributes that, like humans, it has no control over. Later in that poem the angel catches, in midair, a man trying to leap to his death from the top of a building, and I couldn’t help but envision its clunky feet, dangling high above the ground.
As the book progresses, the poems enumerate the qualities of angels, and the ways in which humans and angels are interrelated. So A Time of Angels can be read, too, as a taxonomy. “Each angel is the size of, the color / and age of the man (or woman) / it guards over” Aridjis writes in “About the angels.” Later, in “An angel as its own double,” “An angel who has seen its own double dies / because it turns into itself and its material / counterpart.” The specificities of what angels can do, and who they are, are both mundane and fascinating, and the thoroughness with which Aridjis explores the subject is one of the strengths of the book. Angels have gold eyes; they have eyes on their wings; they do not give alms to beggars; they pass through walls; one sleeps in “a horizontal hole in the old city / with one door that opens onto the air / and ads for booze and condoms.”
Which is to say that the angels, in Aridjis’s mind, might resemble us more than we would like. So why is it a time for angels? That is the fundamental question that the book poses and answers, albeit obliquely. There is no doubt the world Aridjis observes and presents, like the one in “The ecological angel,” is in need of help:
For months a scarlet macaw flew back
and forth searching for a tree to land on.
But only came upon stones and burning stumps.
The earth, like a lidless eye, took the brunt
of the scorching sun that braised every part of it.
Angels observe this scene, but they do not intervene as does the angel in “Red light district”; there is no staying of the clear-cutter’s saw, no restoration of canopy and fauna to the denuded landscape. Instead, the angels are “waiting on the roofs for the true dawn.” It’s not clear what that true dawn would be — a rebirth after apocalypse?—but what is clear is that Aridjis’s angels are not to be our saviors.
The final poem in the book, “I don’t go out in the world any more,” contains the lines “I don’t go out in the world any more, / they disfigured the street, / cut down the cypresses on me, / killed the birds, / blew away the tigers.” It’s an angel speaking, seemingly from beyond hope. It begs the question of whether we, and our planet, are beyond saving. Aridjis, through his political and environmental work, has fought to save the planet and its species, but the poems in A Time for Angels allow him to explore darker territory where that may not be possible. More than a time for angels, Aridjis’s poems suggest, it is a time for self-reckoning.
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