When young W.S. Merwin met Ezra Pound in a windowless room at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Pound advised the aspiring poet to begin his career translating, or to, as he put it: "Study the roots, not the twigs." Translation, Pound held, was a way to inculcate poetic voice; it revealed new possibilities of one's native language. Merwin, then eighteen, took his advice and began translating soon after his sojourn in Europe, a trip he describes in his memoir Summer Doorways. Merwin's first major translation, The Poem of the Cid, soon followed, the result of another encounter with a poet-translator, Robert Graves. While tutoring Graves' son in Majorca, Merwin met Dido Milroy who would help him get a job with the BBC, translating medieval poetry, which led to his rendering of the Spanish epic.
Some sixty years later, Merwin has racked up a long list of translations: The Song of Roland, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, poems by Dante, Osip Mandelstam, Basho, Pablo Neruda, Guilhem Ademar. However, it is his translations from Spanish that stand out, not only because they greatly outnumber his translations from other languages, but also because they demonstrate that a tradition some had considered minor is abundant, rich, and varied in both content and voice.
Some have characterized these translations as part of Merwin's open support for multiculturalism, yet one glance at the fringe poets he has translated - in some cases not even widely known in their original language - indicates that Merwin is instead, as Pound had advised him, finding the language of poetry wherever that language happens to be. Merwin, who lived in Mexico and is married to an Argentine, has a strong connection to Latin America, and much of Merwin's verse bears signs of the poetry he has translated from Spanish. Take for example his translation of Robert Juarroz's Vertical Poetry.
The Argentinian Juarroz may not be as well known as some of the other Spanish-language authors Merwin translated (i.e. Federico Garcia Lorca), he seems to have been a lasting influence on Merwin's work. Juarroz's introduction to his vertical poetry, as rendered by Merwin, reads:
Going up is onlya little shorter or a littlelonger than going down.
To read the three lines about "going up", one must move down. To get there, however, the reader would have had to have read it at least twice, which guarantees that the way back 'up' - not reading - is much shorter. The same verticality can be found in Merwin's recent poem "Blueberries After Dark":
my mother told methat I was not afraid of the darkand when I looked it was true
In this stanza, as in the Juarroz's text, causality and realization play to the line breaks. By the second line, we're unsure if his mother is reminding him or instructing him, but by the third it seems she's done neither; she's simply dispelled his fear. Through the verticality of these lines, as Juarroz might have called it, the speaker's nostalgia almost reverberates, creating a sensation somewhere between eerie and wow.
Merwin's latest translation, Pieces of Shadow by Jaime Sabines, is noteworthy both in that it is the first English translation of the popular Mexican poet's work, and because it offers a glimpse of a yet unknown influence on Merwin. In his foreword, the translator writes that he often carried a volume of Sabines' poems with him when he travelled, returning to the "hoarse, angry, bitter, affectionate, vibrant" poems in spare moments.
Jaime Sabines and his countryman José Emilio Pacheco were often described by critics as vernacular. In contrast to the Latin American Modernists - famous for preferring obscure, archaic, sometimes even foreign words - the vernacular poets wrote colloquially, in conversational tones. Sabines' popularity could be rooted in this different tone, not to mention the fact that many of his poems deal with love, a subject many of his contemporaries avoided. Even those that did, such as Pablo Neruda, did so through open, celebratory, ceremonial tropes, rather than the sort of bitter and paradoxical ones found in Sabines' verse.
Despite Sabines' evident sentimentality, there is little of the personal or confessional in his work. Instead, Sabines camouflages himself in ambiguity. A particularly powerful poem from his first book Horal (1950), for instance, begins:
I don't know for certain, but I imaginethat a man and a woman fall in love one day,little by little they come to be alone,something in each heart tells them that they are alone,alone on the earth they enter each other,they go on killing each other.
While the first three lines build towards certainty, and, one would believe, autobiography, the last three inch away from the familiar into something unexpectedly troubling and anonymous. Is Sabines describing murder or copulation? How far removed is this 'I' from the imagined couple? And thus we, like the speaker, aren't "certain" either. The poem ends in an even vaguer parenthetical note:
(I'm not sure about this. I imagine it.)
A cautious idealist, Sabines' poems can flirt with the didactic, but with the raw rancor you might find in a brassy bolero. The results are emotionally charged aphorisms. The poem "On Illusion" reads:
On the tablet of my heart you wrote:desire.And I walked for days and daysmad and scented and dejected.
Other poems from Horal are less lyrical, like the one-line "On Death":
Given Sabines' early success as a poet, it's almost hard to believe that in the seventies he had a brief stint as a politician, until one discovers his father was a general in the Mexican Revolution, his brother was a politician, and his nephew is the current governor of Chiapas. Then again, Sabines was never as openly subversive as his translator - who in 1970 donated the money he won from his Pulitzer Prize to anti-war groups.
"The Official Daily" is his most overtly political poem. It seethes with anger (something uncharacteristic in the poetry of his translator). The poem begins, "By presidential decree the people don't exist", and later the Minister is heard saying, "I wipe my ass with the people". However, that is not the end of it; the unrhymed turn comes,
This is the best the people can hope to be:a roll of toilet paperof which they can write the history of our timewith their nails.
Pieces of Shadow is filled with so many great poems - presumably selected by Merwin - that one wonders why Fondo didn't publish Sabines' complete works. As excerpted in this collection, most striking are the great departures each of Sabines' books marked in his career. Within ten years, Sabines moved from Adam and Eve, a series of anecdotal prose poems describing the beguilingly naive relationship between the first couple, to the first-person epic phrasings of Tarumba, to the extremely personal Weekly Diary and Poems in Prose. Other, perhaps less well-known poems, such as "I'm out to find a man who looks like me" (it continues "to give him my name and my wife and my song"), are welcome additions to this "best of".
Sabines' dedication to what Pablo Neruda referred to as "wide open poetry" - that is inclusive poetry - leads him to some funny places, certainly for his Mexican audience. Prose poems like "Yuria", in which the poet proposes to beatify prostitutes, and ends up praying to them, or "Here We Are, Together Again", which describes Noah's Ark as a wild orgy, must have certainly raised some eyebrows among his predominantly Roman Catholic readership. However, the honesty of these poems keeps them from being simply outdated shock art and shows them to be something much more endearing and truthful.
At heart, Sabines reveals himself to be a hyper-masculine figure marred by paranoia, a Mexican Woody Allen. Underneath the lists of lovers and meditations on love, we find his fears: television, death, burials, and himself, amplified by fame. In fact, the last poem of the collection, "Job's Worry" sounds like something right out of Annie Hall:
All of the sudden I feel persecuted by good luck. Everything is turning out right. I'm enjoying good health, and love, and money. What did I do? What can I do to deserve it?My God, is this one more of your tests?
Of course, neither us nor Sabines can ever know, and thus Job's dilemma; even at the end of his career, Sabines continued to ask himself that ultimate existentialist question: "Why me?" And perhaps Merwin - a Poet Laureate comfortably at home on the 19 acres of reserve land he owns in Hawaii - asks himself the same question. It's a perfectly ambivalent ending to this meeting of like-minded spirits.
Pieces of Shadow is part of a series of poetry translations by the Mexican publishing house Fondo Cultural Económica, under the name Tenzontle. The hardcover, fluorescent editions are sleek. Copies, however, are hard to come by in the States. I hope these worthy Fondo editions can still sneak onto Anglophone booksellers' shelves and wrangle up the critical attention their fine work deserves. Besides, by now, with literature in Spanish being translated to English more than any other language, I guess we've come to a consensus that this language and its literary traditions aren't so minor after all.