Linguistic experimentation and political rebellion went hand in hand in the work of the Ecuadorian Adoum, a leading figure of the Latin American neo-avant-garde who wrote his verses in what he called "postspanish."
Jorgenrique Adoum turned his own name into “postspanish.” Melding the “e” of Jorge to the “e” of Enrique and vice versa, he transformed his own signature into a banner of sorts, an embodiment of his politically charged rebellion against linguistic conventions. The Ecuadorian poet, who has been hailed by Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda as “the best Latin American poet of his generation,” has finally made his book-length debut in English—or, more precisely, in “postenglish.” Just out from Action Books, and translated by Katherine M. Hedeen and Víctor Rodríguez Núñez (the same duo translated a chapbook of Adoum’s poetry for Eulalia Books in 2019), prepoems in postspanish and other poems brings together three of Adoum’s most groundbreaking books: Currículum mortis [Curriculum Mortis] (1973, 1979), prepoemas en postespañol [prepoems in postspanish] (1973, 1979), and El amor desenterrado [Love Disinterred] (1993). A rare instance of Ecuadorian poetry getting translated into English, the book topples the false dichotomy between political commitment and formal experimentation. Adoum writes, in a word, “southamericanly,” taking aim at the regulations and conventions of imperial language and knowledge. “Within such ruin,” writes Hedeen, “a new rationality emerges: postspanish.”
As Hedeen details in her excellent translator’s note, Adoum was a leading figure of the Latin American neo-avant-garde: poets born mostly in the late 1920s and 30s, whose writing was profoundly shaped by the revolutionary fervor of the 60s, wherein radical art was mobilized to bring about social transformation. Artists of this generation answered the collective call to action to challenge and undo coloniality through art. For Adoum (and now Hedeen and Rodríguez Núñez), language is the terrain in dispute, the space through which this undoing takes place. The poems, ranging from seven lines to twelve pages, deploy various poetic devices in their attempt to reinvent—but also “de-invent”—the Spanish language, from numerous neologisms (“coinciobedience”; “superunderdevelopment”; “exiled exskied”’), to rearranged prefixes (“this disactivity of postliving”; “countersilent and vice versa presleeping”), and juxtaposed discourses (“in this monastery of sores or pustule terrace / paralysis and scrofula”).
Adoum’s writing takes on a poetic motility out to challenge coherence and convention. It works to free up the poetic, linguistic, and epistemological norms that originate in colonialism and the imposition of a colonial language. To achieve this, he and his translators perform a double temporal displacement: a return to a pre-time before capitalism and empire, and the forging of a self-determining post-time. Both are crucial for Adoum’s attempt to let radical, alternative existences make themselves known through his writing.
Adoum’s decolonial poetics unearths new temporal categories—“postnight,” “postevening,” “daybeforetomorrow or dayafteryesterday”—in turn abrogating the supposed objectivity of existing organizers, like “morning” and “today.” Much of the book evokes avant-gardist César Vallejo’s Trilce (1922), in its rebellion against Western definitions of sense, order, and time. I hear Vallejo’s “the suit I wore tomorrow” (in Clayton Eshelman’s translation) echoing in Adoum’s “summer happened around the middle ages” or “i read in tomorrow’s paper that yesterday there was / oncely a change of government that doesn’t change.” Many of Adoum’s poems toy with the notion of infinite interchangeability, undercutting any anchorable meaning within language. It comes across most clearly through wordplay with prefixes: “unlearning what the hell happens to man,” “I should dethink the things,” “occupying your nothingness stuck in your demanning,” “you preknew (like everything else),” and “for always / postknowing.”
Adoum renews a Vallejian poetics of disassembly and reassembly, but he does so within the 1960s decolonial drive. I can’t help but read it in dialogue with Cuban poet and intellectual Roberto Fernández Retamar’s call to action in Caliban (1971): to reject and break apart (neo)colonialist forms of culture and knowledge, to then “rethink our history from the other side” (my translation).
This rejection of convention also conjures José Ignacio Padilla’s theory of avant-garde language in El terreno en disputa es el lenguaje (2014). Padilla argues that Latin American avant-gardes from across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries share a drive to disrupt the supposed transparency of language as a strategy of capitalism (but also, empire) that presents language as a depoliticized, objective space. Avant-garde practices across time have sought to obscure language—materializing it, rendering it unintelligible, tearing it apart to piece together something else—disrupting the theoretically straightforward symbolic flow of language and capital, but also, I think, the logic of Western “rationality.” A number of Adoum’s “prepoems” parody the positivism of natural and social sciences. “Electrocardiomathematics,” for instance, asks its reader to “determine the maximum level of destiny concentration / that will instantly invalidate the notion of longitude.” Another poem, “Ecuador,” draws a connection between Western forms of knowledge as scientific justifications for (neo)colonialism. Referencing “Darwin data,” “natural / selection and survival of the fittest,” the Ecuadorian speaker identifies as the subject of “First World” experiments: a Pavlov's dog made to watch a man get murdered “to see how its gland fills up.”
“postspanish” as a neo-avant-garde mechanism for probing and undercutting (neo)colonialist order might take on its most visceral form in the book’s treatment of death. Like the title of the first of the three collections included in this edition, Curriculum Mortis, life is redefined in relation to death across the book. The living are “precadaver” or “closetocadaver,” life is a “disdeath,” to die is to “defuturize,” and rather than to “survive” Adoum speaks of “surdeath.” For the marginalized, daily death appears as the only guarantee:
but every monday is the same
you go back to work like to your country
vietnam indonesia biafra where it dumps buckets of dying
Lifelessness is also, quite literally, policed: “that’s why of course suddenlyly police find out / what number how why and most of all / why the fuck are you still living.” While writing the first two books from exile in Paris (he had left Ecuador in 1963 to travel and was unable to return home because of the military dictatorship), the internationalist ethos of Adoum’s denouncement of (neo)colonialist deathmachines (to make my own, Adoum-like neologism) is palpable. Reading these poems in 2021, after a year in which the sacrifice of the poor for the “good of capital”—inseparable from the “good of empire”—has perhaps been more blatant than ever, Adoum’s work has a hard-hitting cyclical quality to it. “Death is necessarily a counterrevolution,” he writes in a masterpiece of a poem titled “May 1968 (21st Century?).”
Across a number of prepoems, love, too, is the subject of linguistic invention—“getmeupearly tomorrow so we can relove / and redo my body pairedup”—but Love Disinterred, which the translators have chosen to publish alongside the two earlier books, is the true star of this undertaking, underscoring the interrelation of love, revolution, and radical poetics in Adoum’s writing. This long poem responds to the Lovers of Sumpa, remains of “two skeletons lovingly embraced,” found in an ancient Paleo-Indian cemetery by archeologists in the 1970s in present-day Ecuador— “fossilized love,” as Adoum’s speaker calls it. The unearthing urges the speaker to rethink all categories (“I have suffered tenday weeks and fourteenmonth years / but these centuries were short”), but, most of all, love:
For this body eternity, act eternity
is that what it was for, the love we unlearned with time and is no longer today or is not still?
The poem even critiques the way patriarchal and religious structures restrict sex, which especially oppresses women, who are “convinced by spouse and priest that in them / was only an opening for a child to come out.” The implication here is that the right to pleasure was equal before the arrival of Western religion and colonialism to the Americas. If postspanish offers a means for denaturalizing and rethinking, Adoum extends its reach to patriarchal notions of love and sex, suggesting revolutionary potential within new—or pre—ways of love.
What does it mean to translate Adoum’s profoundly decolonialist project into another imperial language and, moreover, that of neocolonial power? This is a question that Hedeen and Rodríguez Núñez have considered deeply, embarking on a parallel project to disrupt the coherency and hegemonic familiarity of English from within. Hedeen writes of explicitly conceiving of the translation project as one of political tergiversation, in the sense of deserting a cause or position: “[to] turn renegade, [to] abandon any loyalty to the language of neocolonial power.” Translation as tergiversation can be read as subversively reframing the Italian adage, “traduttore, traditore” (translator, traitor), which has long structured discourse around translation. Here, the subject of the “betrayal” or “treason” is not the original author, but rather the target(ed) language of English, and what it underpins: (neo)colonialism, ethnonationalism, border militarization. The treasonous actor is translator as co-conspirator.
Tergiversation also recalls the avant-gardist obscuring of hegemonic language. If avant-garde poets invent poetic procedures for “destabilizing unity (territorial, national, linguistic)” as Padilla argues (my translation), then translators of this work must invent translational procedures for unleashing this disunity on new terrain, a task that goes beyond side-by-side wordplay. Consider these examples, comparing original and translated verses:
“y no hay silencio por el ruido del corazón terrestre y anacrónico”
“there’s no silence from the terrestrial anachronistic heartnoise”
“y alguien se la inventó a martillazos para querer vivir”
“and someone invented it with hammerblows wanting to live”
“descontento en este descontexto / trabajando y trasubiendo”
“discontent in this discontext / working and workqueen”
“(losotros ¿serán siempre los otros y nosotros solamente ellos y/o?)”
“(otherselves, will other selves and ourselves always only be them e/go?)”
Hedeen and Rodríguez Núñez translate Adoum’s postspanish, but they also break a different group of rules in English. It is what makes prepoems one of the most impressive translations that I’ve ever read—and I don’t say this lightly. Theirs is precisely the kind of translation that emerging and established translators, especially of writing from the Global South, should read, re-read, and re-read again. Where Adoum unsettles the limits of Spanish, opening it up to “prepossibilities” and “postpossibilities,” Hedeen and Rodríguez Núñez’s “postenglish” compels us to ask why English is the way it is, which—as Adoum teaches us—is also to ask: Why are things the way they are? What other sides exist?