By David Varno
Each winter for the past ten years, BOMB magazine has featured what they call an Americas Issue, focusing on a specific region of Latin America and covering art, film, music, architecture, and literature. This year's issue includes profiles of César Aira, Nicanor Parra, and Cristina Peri Rossi. The literary supplement, First Proof, is stuffed with poems and stories by, among others, Lina Meruane, Raúl Zurita, and Sergio Chejfec. These three, along with Chejfec's translator Margaret Carson and others, read from their work on Thursday night at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at NYU.
The boisterous, bilingual crowd was ushered through the lobby of the old stone building on Washington Square South, past several cases of unopened wine and floor-to-ceiling, courtyard-facing windows that reflected the scene as they moved into the quickly-packed auditorium for the 6:30 event. The reading's participants were seated at a long panel, each with a microphone. Thankfully, due to the length and quality of the readings, the work was allowed to speak for itself without any further discussion after host Lila Zemborain, professor in the school's Spanish Writing MFA program, gave a gracious introduction.
The reading began with Nicanor Parra's translator, Liz Werner, who translated Parra's Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great, for New Directions in 2004. “He calls it rewriting; not translating,” she said of her work with him, though her tough, dry-witted voice seemed to channel Parra's youthful bite: a wonderful service to a poet who is still working at ninety-four years old. Though most famous for his antipoesía, which serve to reverse our consensual understanding of poetry and often employ a derivation of iambic pentameter to revise the standards, most recently with the collection Lear Rey & Mendigo (King Lear and Beggar), currently available in Spanish from Diego Portales University in Chile, he is currently working on a series of visual artefactos, which consist of one-liners that correspond to objects. Ms. Werner emphasized the artifacts as a departure from the anti-poems, but BOMB's profile on Parra, penned incidentally by Raúl Zurita, illuminates them as part of the process, citing the 1972 publication of Artefactos, which included this one: Yanky Go Home/Pero llevame contigo. (But take me with you). Perhaps she was referring to the new work he is doing. Interestingly, the pieces drew laughter from about a third of the audience as she read them in Spanish, but as she repeated them in English, any amused responses were internalized and muted.
Argentinian writer Chejfec's story, “My Two Worlds,” was read next, in two parts. His translator made the introduction, and divulged that she had not been familiar with Chejfecs's work before taking it on, but suggested that translation is the best way to understand an author's work. Then she began to read his description of wandering in a foreign city of Brazil, after attending a book fair, and searching for familiarity. Her somber tone captured the mood of solitude, but lacked the earnest, outward whimsicality of the story as it reads in print (and as Chejfec read the second half in Spanish, the sleepiness prevailed and it sounded more internal than it actually is). Chejfec's narrator, seemingly autobiographically, stresses the usefulness of maps to cities that are already known, and as he wanders through this Brazilian metropolis he longs for Buenos Aires as it was when he first arrived, “a private stage for those literary utopias of the past that told of a stranger, a representative of the real world, who accidentally arrived in a community that had turned it's back on the real world.”
Next was Chilean novelist Lina Meruane, currently pursuing her PhD in Spanish Literature at NYU. She read from her story “Ay,” which employs the morbid and grotesque to reflect on the warmth of family. “I went at this thinking of the family as a conservative institution to its members,” she said, “but in the course of writing I discovered its function of preservation.” The story is told from a mother's point of view towards a daughter who was recently killed in a bus accident, and develops from resentment of the daughter's rebellion and spite to the difficulty of letting go made viscerally clear as we learn that the parents run a funeral parlor and keep the daughter's body in the back room.
Finally we had Zurita, in a rare U.S. appearance. He read a half-dozen of his autobiographical dreamscape prose poems in Spanish, alternating with BOMB Senior Editor Mónica de la Torre, who followed each piece in English. His voice was sharp and intense, muffled yet urgent, and his eyes penetrated occasionally from behind his heavy gray beard. As he stood listening to the English of “Dream 354 / To Kurowsawa,” which follows the aftermath of the Pinochet-led coup of ‘73 as well as his maternal family history and grandmother's passing, through which he “survived a dictatorship, but not the shame,” he paced behind the panel and his poems shook in his hand. It went on: “Many years later, when it was my turn, her face came down upon me like a white mountain of salt. I wanted to write it, but the words, like smoldering entrails, arrived dead to my fingers.”
Zurita's translator, Anna Deeny, has done a wonderful job capturing the tone, and though it was unfortunate she couldn't attend the reading as she was scheduled to, Mónica de la Torre gave them a nice reverence. It was quite arresting, in light of another Chilean-born author's current residency in the spotlight, to witness a poet who wrote his way through and out of the horrors of 70s Latin America and has the courage to confess his own truth.
Published Feb 4, 2009 Copyright 2009 David Varno