Clare Sullivan on Translating Alejandro Tarrab’s Litane

(Cardboard House Press, 2017)

When Cardboard House Press editor Giancarlo Huapaya invited me to translate Litane by the Mexican poet Alejandro Tarrab, I gratefully accepted. I had taught his poetry once in a graduate seminar and knew that I would learn a lot by trying to convey his verses in English. I also knew that he was respected by fellow poets and by readers and so thought the translation might actually get read. Then I started to re-read his poetry and my initial joy turned to frustration. What was his poetry about and where was it going? How could I translate something I couldn’t understand? Thus began a series of conversations that only recently ended when we edited the proofs last month.

One of the first things I noticed about Tarrab’s poetry was how erudite it was. It contained allusions not just to other literature but also to philosophy, science, the visual arts, and music. This is one of the reasons he’s known as a neobarroco (“neobaroque”) poet, a term coined by the Cuban poet Severo Sarduy to refer to writers that use various techniques to question the meaning of poetry and of human existence. In the case of Tarrab, these discourses are woven so completely into his verses that, at times, the poetic voice is indistinguishable from others. For example, in the poem that opens the collection, “preguntas esenciales hacia la propia familia,” the poet borrows ideas from Wittgenstein and even credits him in the margins. But the poet’s own philosophy riffs off Wittgenstein to such an extent that it is impossible to know who is talking. Even when italics seem to indicate a direct quotation, the reader begins to realize that this is not necessarily so. As Tarrab himself explains in the last line of his “Notes” at the end of the book: “Not all italics indicate quotes.” Curiously this line, too, is written in italics.

Frankly, when I reached the end of Litane this time around I felt like the poet was toying with me. I wondered how seriously I should take all these references and if I needed to understand Wittgenstein and Einstein and Barthes in order to understand his poetry. How would I ever meet my deadline if I read all the books that Tarrab had read before I began to translate? Here I had some help from a colleague, Jacobo Sefamí, who wrote the prologue for my translation. He explains that “Tarrab points to an intertextuality that tries to obliterate the sense of an author in his most rampant egocentrism, to enter into a dialogue as one more voice in the chorus that precedes him.” In other words, this multiplicity of voices aims to demonstrate one of Litane’s major themes: the crisis of the modern subject.

After I got over the initial shock at Tarrab’s erudition and started to find some of the works he referred to and to get the gist of them in the context of his verse, I started to grapple with something else that was difficult about his poetry. Tarrab eschews structure and grammatical conventions (another feature of the neobaroque), so that those many voices tend to run together. For example, in “preguntas esenciales” there is a stream-of-consciousness melding of voices and genders:

colors are a disturbance
if you get closer to that bright blue that can be seen toward the shore it would seem that she calls you come on touch me whole come on touch me with your eyes and what’s more delve into my blood actually it’s a burning color the catchy color of poison come on careful don’t come to me come on i am overburdened as a fluorescent luminous shining distortion

This poem is also written in prose style with very few line breaks to tell us where to pause. And, as if the lack of structure for these multiple voices weren’t enough, Tarrab plays with language down to the level of the word. He borrows words from other languages such as Nahuatl, Hebrew, and Latin. He even goes so far as to invent words, not only in his native Spanish but also in Latin and Italian. I was beginning to realize that nothing could be taken for granted in Tarrab’s poetry. The word “solípedo” might be defined by the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy as an “ungulate,” or “hooved animal,” but Tarrab clutches instead at the meaning of each syllable in isolation, so that the word is better translated as “creature that walks alone.” And “sínfonos,” though it sounds like the adjective “sinfónicos,” is actually a neologism he invented to personify symphonies. The book’s title itself is a word that the author invented.

To find a way to approach Litane, I began with one of the first details I had noticed about the poetry: its lack of capital letters. This lack is exaggerated in my translation, because I decided not to capitalize the first person singular pronoun “I” (in Spanish, “yo” is always lowercase anyway). Perhaps a way to read (and eventually translate) Litane was to interrogate this lowercase “i” that drifts in and out of the verses. It would be simplistic to reduce this “i” to the poet or to a singular world view; just as the poet questions the modern subject by changing points of view and playing with grammatical conventions, this lowercase “i” undermines the authority of the poetic voice.

In an attempt to reconstruct this fractured voice, the poet searches for clues in the larger culture and also in his own history. The first poem of the collection, “essential questions about your own family,” delves into a personal past, but these questions are far from straightforward and there are no immediate answers. For example, one question comes in the form of a direct quotation from Wittgenstein:

imagine a painting being cut up into small
almost monochromatic bits which are then used as pieces in a puzzle even when such a piece is not monochromatic it should not indicate any three-dimensional shape but should appear as a flat color-patch only together with the other pieces does it become a bit of blue sky a shadow a transparent or opaque highlight do the individual pieces show us the actual colors
the parts in the picture?

This question might serve as a metaphor for how Tarrab constructs his poetry. The individual pieces, taken from personal incidents and dreams as well as the ideas of philosophers and scientists, are perhaps put together on the page to try to construct a picture of the “i.” But the efficacy or clarity of the resulting picture remains questionable. The pieces make more of a collage than a coherent work of art. As Sefamí observes: “The words ‘pastiche’ or ‘intervention’ are used in the titles to indicate that Litane interacts with other texts, allowing their tones, language and temperament to resound, as if it were a palimpsest that needed to be re-written upon, imitations (pastiches) that permit the speaker to find his match in other latitudes.” The poet searches to construct an “i” that will never be complete.

Along with literary and philosophical references, Tarrab uses the visual arts (and the display of words upon the page) to create and interrogate a poem. Once a painter himself, he often uses details from a painter’s toolkit (such as the “casein tempera damar varnish emulsions” that appear in the poem “seagram”) and structures many of his poems visually. The poem “incision,” for example, begins with two columns of words, then changes to prose, and then turns to a single indented column of verse. Its arrangement on the page guides the reader in how to read and interpret the poem. The initial verses work like an echo or perhaps two voices playing off each other. The prose section provides a description, though incomplete, where words have been literally cut out. Then the indented series of verses can be read as a kind of prayer or litany. Indeed, the title of the collection means “litany,” and the poems together can also be understood as a series of prayers or pleas.

The second poem in Litane illuminates another aspect of the “i”. “(T)he family (remembrance August 15, 1925)” alludes to Tarrab’s Jewish heritage; later poems make specific references to his grandfather’s journey from Damascus to Mexico, and to his burial. Nevertheless, this inquiry does not provide a strong family line but rather a “slender black thread.” And, once again, Tarrab doesn’t limit himself to one voice but incorporates a direct quotation from the poet Paul Celan: “the blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.” Yet, even as he looks for an image in the blood, the poetic voice retreats from his own past: “it makes sense to draw back delicately / from the remembrance-tree / the tallit with its five knots in each one of eight filaments.” He has thrown out a sort of life-line, a blood line to the past to help read and construct the present. But what once was a strong root that anchored his ancestors has become a mere filament. Sefamí explains why: “More than cultural hybridity or religious syncretism, what stands out is precisely the annulment of dogma, even though Litane is permeated by a kind of spiritual melancholy, an anguish born of the crisis that the subject endures.” These multiple pleas do not resolve in a concrete answer but rather create more questions and a feeling of unease in the reader.

In addition to the placement of verses on the page, another visual clue that guides the reader and translator is the appearance of photos placed alongside some of the poems. Except for the two family photographs and a scan of the poet’s eye, they are all taken by the French photographer Antoine D’Agata and capture the sense of disembodiment that his subjects (often homeless people in cities around the world) seem to convey. The photographs are disturbing because they morph or cut the human form through long exposure; they are truncated like the verses themselves. For example, the photos that accompany a series of short poems that begins with “como una larga en mis brazos” reveal headless bodies or body parts that are more ghostly than grotesque. The poems, too, have been cut off, as the title, “like a languid in your arms,” shows. We don’t know what the disembodied adjective “languid” modifies. Likewise, in the poem “No estaré ahí” Tarrab cuts out words deliberately, creating a sort of puzzle that the reader must solve: “i leap over the” or

it didn’t happen
or not so many 
with too much force

In order to detect these holes in the poem it helps to read the verses aloud. And, indeed, the most successful translations are the ones guided by sound. In the case of “hunters,” as I read and reread the poem aloud, sound reveals meaning. For example, near the beginning of the poem, the speaker states: “yo hago un plato con las manos / para mostrarte el río.” After initially translating these two verses as “i make a plate with my hands / to show you the river” I noticed that the “o” sound was showing me that the more adequate translation would be “bowl,” and that this word choice made more sense visually as well.

Later in the same poem, the story of these two brother hunters becomes obscured by what appear to be random objects and the use of the imperfect subjunctive verb tense:

como una traza de linternas
como una turba que prende
desde lo fósil y lo estiércol//
como si ahí     en el centro
yaciera un antepasado
y quisiera arrastrar la voz
su final luminiscente

Once again, sound came to the rescue, not to provide complete clarity (something I don’t think the poet ever intended) but rather to offer echoes that pair up words to contrast or compare them. In the first stanza, the sound repetition in “lo fósil” and “lo estiércol” contrasts what is preserved from the past with what wastes away. Luckily, there were similar echoes available in English: “the fossil and the fecal.” The second stanza uses the partial rhyme of “yaciera” and “quisiera” to question how an ancestor who lies in the ground might still continue to speak. Again, a lucky find in English brought these two words together, although the full rhyme is not as subtle as the original:

as if over there   in the middle
an ancestor were lying
trying to drag his voice
his luminous last

This emphasis on sound as a way to access meaning is another technique of neobaroque writers.

Near the end of Litane, one of its most delightful poems consists mostly of sound play. The first two lines of this mostly prose poem recall Lewis Caroll or Nicolás Guillén in the way they invent words and mimic the sound of percussion instruments:

monta. Haz tu clac so. Clac tra pa con tu tea diablo, ta i ma en la giba con los dientes.

In these verses (Tarrab adds some punctuation and capitalization toward the end of the book), the poet breaks up words to emphasize their sounds but meaning is not completely discarded. To translate them, it was necessary to prioritize sound while still trying to approximate meaning:

mount. Make your clack so. Clack tra pit with your firebrand devil, hun ker down on the hump with your teeth.

“(T)ra pa” becomes “tra pit” and “ta i ma” (from “taimado” or sly) becomes “hun ker.” Many times in the poem Tarrab manages to play with sound to create a double meaning. For example, “Con los dientes diablo haz mecer un más” suggests “hazme hacer” (make me do) and “haz mecer” (make me sway), especially when read aloud. In this case, the solution in English is much more clunky than the Spanish: “With your teeth beelzebub make me sway one more.” There is also the sound-driven neologism at the end of the poem “catacum,” a word that suggests both an explosion and a burial place. My solution was to divide the word in order to emphasize the “boom,” changing the single “u” to double “o”: “cata-coomb.” When I had reached the end of the six sections of Litane for a second time, I realized that all these tendencies that had seemed so bewildering were in keeping not only with a particular strain of Latin American poetry but also with Tarrab’s own poetics. Reading the volume more than once also made it evident how Tarrab wrestles with the themes he has borrowed from other writers (such as the presence of evil after Baudelaire) by writing new versions of some of Litane’s poems later in the volume.

In addition to listening to the many voices in the text, I had help from other people in the translation process. I conversed with Tarrab via Skype for hours each week. He answered both simplistic and probing questions with patience and generosity. And fellow translator Wendy Burk couldn’t have been more gracious as she shared wisdom and techniques from her experience of translating another difficult poet, Tedi López Mills. She gave me valuable advice about how to “loosen up parts of speech” in translation so that I wouldn’t cling to such a literal translation. She also suggested that I could “omit words . . . without worrying about the phrasing matching the original exactly.” This point was particularly relevant to Tarrab’s work since he cuts out words himself and doesn’t always obey stylistic or grammatical rules. Many editors at Cardboard House Press collaborated with me over several versions to point out places where I had missed Tarrab’s meaning or might express it better. Translation is not only a work in progress but often a conversation that benefits from a multitude of voices.

But it was Sefamí who helped me to place Tarrab in a tradition of Latin American and international poetry while simultaneously hearing what was distinct about his own voice. He explained that Tarrab fragments his poems as a way to explore “the mysteries of orphanhood, misery, decay, and marginalization.” These mysteries are played out not just in literature but in the quandaries of religion and politics, too, when Tarrab confronts what it means to be a Jewish Catholic and a Mexican citizen of the world. As Sefamí sums up: “The collection begins with the break in his own family origin and that circumstance amplifies, as if in expansive waves, to other realms, such as nation, world, and language. In that sense, Litane unites the suffering chorus that reveals the damage that surges from modernity and continues until our own time with its voice.” Though at first we seek answers as readers, by the time we reach the end of Litane, we realize that answers would be not only unrealistic but also unfair to the complexities that Tarrab’s verses have revealed.