A Sea Breaking Open

Review of América Invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets, Edited by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Courtesy of University of New Mexico Press
The pitch of her name in each person set off a train she was conducting — some headed east, taking grayness with them like someone turning a page.
El tono de su nombre en cada persona comenzaba un tren y lo dirigía — algunos hacia el Este, llevándose el gris como quien cambia de hoja.
– Laura Cesarco Eglin, trans. Lauren Shapiro, “If the Storm Can” / “Si la tormenta puede”

Fluid motion drives the poems in this collection, taking shape from sonic lyricism and striking images, poised at the intersection between history and daily life in Uruguay. This collection takes its name from the drawing América Invertida (Inverted Map of South America) by Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García (1874–1949). Following this drawing, the collection foregrounds emerging Uruguayan poets and pairs them with American poet/translators to make the works accessible to an English speaking audience. Editor Jesse Lee Kercheval describes the process of forming and gathering material, relating that she “went to night after night of poetry readings … collected books and unpublished work, reading more than sixty poets before finally selecting the twenty-three Uruguayans born before 1975 who appear in the anthology.” The spectrum of works and poets included serves as a testament to the broad relevance of this collection, and the expansive view it offers on Uruguayan poetry.

By introducing the translations first, this collection makes a move toward acknowledging the time, labor, and artistry that goes into translation.

The collection is laid out to its best advantage, with the English translation first, on the left side, followed by the original poem on the right side. For longer poems, the entire English poem appears first and then the original. This is useful for several reasons. First it allows the reader to read the translation and consider it as a poem, and then to approach the original to get a sense of where the English poem is coming from and how it may derive from, and converse with, the original. Second, it would also be possible to just open the book and look at the right side pages, in order to read the original poems straight through and get a sense of how they might relate to each other and to appreciate the range of styles, subjects, and viewpoints presented by the collection.

By introducing the translations first, this collection makes a move toward acknowledging the time, labor, and artistry that goes into translation. In addition, this arrangement foregrounds translations as works in their own right, rather than mathematical conversions between words with equal meanings, roots, and connotations. There is no one-to-one equivalence between any two languages, and the relationship between English and Spanish (or in one case in the collection, Portuñol) is no exception.

The sea serves as a common denominator for many of the poems in the collection. The flow of sounds, rhythms, and seascapes cast with fresh eyes tie together moving currents in fluid motion. The ways in which the poems converse, resound, and renew language belie the length of the volume, which reaches almost 300 pages. In the poem, “Aguacero,” by Laura Cesarco Eglin, translated by Lauren Shapiro as “Downpour,” we hear the sea echo a political history of erasures:

the sea keeps licking the sand

to shape it more than the wind

the steps that leave their prints

are erased, disappearing

like they disappeared you

el mar sigue lamiendo la arena

para moldearla más que el viento

las pisadas que ahuellan

se borran desapareciendo

como te desaparecieron a vos

The waves and wind wipe away a person’s steps with the same force as a government under which citizens are disappeared without a trace. One of the strengths of this collection is the way in which sound repetition and rhythm in the original poems are reflected in the translations.

The sea stands in for all facets of life in these poems. It creates location and motion and ties together the polyphonic voices represented in the collection. Images and sounds of the sea are continually renewing themselves throughout the works. In the poems of Miguel Avero, translated by Jona Colson, we find multiple examples of vibrant seascapes. The poem “Mar descascarado,” / “Sea Breaking Open,” offers us waves of sound repetition from the perspective of fish:

like the dream of fish

and above the earth

a sea breaking open.

Como el sueño de los peces

y encima de la tierra

un mar descascarado.

A similar landscape undergoes a transformation into human dimensions in the poem “Ese mar,” / “That Sea.” Avero and Colson offer sonic oceans of kisses and silence,

the last gray ashes of the kisses,

the last sounds

of a fine rain that was

cloak and happiness.

Even though

we called that weather intemperate

and the gentle breeze


las últimas cenizas grises de los besos,

los últimas sonidos

de un fino llover que era

capa y felicidad.

Por más

que a aquel tiempo le llamamos intemperie

y a la suave brisa aquella

le decíamos silencio.

The variation of line lengths in this poem and its translation create a varied tempo that mimics the tide. The sea appears as breeze and silence, fine rain and happiness. We see similar shifts in tempo in an untitled poem by Martín Cerisola, translated by Keith Ekiss:

Release beauty.

As if it were unbounded toward the throat’s sea.

Metal. Song. Shoal.

Soltar la hermosura.

Como si fuera sin límites hacia el mar de la garganta.

Metal. Canción. Cardumen.

As the lines progress, the variation in length and the metrics of the sentences create a striking tempo, ranging from the short first line to the longer second line, to the staccatto effect of the last line. The sound repetitions in both English and Spanish weave assonance and consonance across the disparate sentences and rhythms.

These poems create a mirror between English and Spanish, built on sound repetition in each language and rhythm which ties them together. Other poems in the collection retain Spanish in the English translation, and even switch English words in the original poem into Spanish in the translation. Erica Mena translates the title of Laura Chalar’s poem “por dieciocho,” to “avenida 18 de julio,” which gives the reader a clue to the meaning of the somewhat cryptic original title. In the poem “Montevideo,” the English title is the same as Spanish, naming the Uruguayan city, in which

The jacaranda afternoon

stretched over the boat-shaped house.

The air swirled with shards of sun

and sparrows in noisy filigree.

La tarde del jacarandá

se tendió sobre la casa-barco.

En el aire giraban esquirlas de sol

y gorriones en inquieta filigrana.

In the Spanish, we hear repetitions of vowels, s and r sounds, and the hard q and c sounds, as well as the g sounds. In English the s and r sounds repeat, as do the long vowels and dipthongs. The jacaranda remains the same, echoing the retention of the title city.

The poems of Victoria Estol, translated by Seth Michelson employ the strategy of switching English words in the Spanish into Spanish words in the English translation. In an untitled poem, we find the lines

I’m beginning to get what you want from me, but let’s take it slow.

I believe in suicide attacks. Ten cuidado.

Empiezo a entender lo que quiere de mí, pero vayamos despacio.

Yo sí creo en los hombres bomba. Be careful.

The poem in Spanish contains the English phrase “Be careful,” which ties into the sounds of the Spanish, with “be” continuing Spanish i sounds, “care” echoing “pero” and “ful” repeating the v in the first sounds of “vayamos.” In the English translation, we see the vowels and consonants of “take it slow” reappear in the Spanish phrase “ten cuidado.” The English translation thus mimics the Spanish through the reversal of languages and the strategy of sonic echo between languages.

América Invertida represents both a milestone in the translation of Uruguayan poetry to English and a starting point for the continuation of this necessary dialogue.

In addition to sound and rhythmic repetition, the poems in América Invertida weave in scent and sensory stimuli. The poem “Huelo a “Ámbar Paréntesis,”” by Paola Gallo, translated by Adam Giannelli as “I Smell of “Amber Parenthesis,”” offers a scentscape as well as a visual panorama. The poem ties human needs to metaphors of image and scent, claiming

Thirst and seduction

speak the same language,

scent of fresh flowers

in the distance,

of spices in the hair.

La sed y la seducción

hablan un mismo idioma

olor a flores frescas

a lo lejos,

a especias en el pelo.

The economical use of words in the Spanish and the translation belie the powerful impact of sound quality, sensory detail, and visual resonance. Thirst and seduction are transformed into language, distant flowers, scented hair. The English repeats s sounds, f sounds, and vowels to converse with the tight sound web of sed and seducción, mismo idioma, olor and flores, lejos and el pelo. Here, as in elsewhere in the collection, it becomes obvious that both poets and poet/translators have been well chosen for their compelling writing and the variety among them.

The involvement of translators who are also poets in their own right adds richness, complexity, and subtlety to the English translations.

In keeping with this variety, the collection presents the multilingual and multivalent work of poet Fabián Severo, translated by the equally versatile poet/translator Dan Bellm. Judging from the sections included from the poem Noite nu norte / Noche en el norte, translated as Night Up North, a translation of the full poem is clearly in order. In the sections of the poem included in América Invertida, Severo and Bellm move deftly between linguistic systems and registers, shifting fluidly into and out of the border language Portuñol. Echoing the work of poet and scholar Gloria Anzaldúa, Severo and Bellm address the complexities of borderlands. The poems’ narrator elucidates this geography:

we come from the border.

Not from this side, not from the other.

The ground we walk on isn’t ours

nor the language we speak.

We come from the border

like the sun that’s born here

behind the eucalyptus trees

and shines on everything over the river

then goes off to sleep

behind the Rodríguezes’ house.

We are the border

more than any river

more than any bridge.

semo da frontera

neim daquí neim dalí

no es noso u suelo que pisamo

neim a lingua que falemo.

Nos semo da frontera

como u sol qui nase alí tras us ucalito

alumeia todo u día ensima du río

i vai durmí la despós da casa dus Rodrígues.

Nos semo a frontera

mas que cualqué río

mas que cualqué puente.

In an echo of the multilingual and multi-register voice projected by Anzaldúa in Borderlands, Severo and Bellm practice a variety of strategies to convey the complexities of the relationship between Spanish and Portuñol, and between the people of the borderland and their languages. Because Portuñol draws from Spanish and Portuguese, as well as forming a hybrid linguistic system, the selections of Severo’s poem presented in this collection make an ongoing series of subtle shifts between and within language. Bellm’s translation picks up these cues, leaving sections of the translation in the original language and marking shifts in language by register changes in English.

As with all the selections in América Invertida, Severo’s work and Bellm’s translation clearly call for a full translation of the work in question. Editor Jesse Lee Kercheval notes in the introduction that several of the pairs of poet and poet/translator included in this collection have gone on to work on full length translations of works begun for this project. Throughout América Invertida we have clear evidence of the careful consideration that Kercheval and the poet/translators brought to this collection. The variety of poems, styles, and themes are a testament to Kercheval’s research. The involvement of translators who are also poets in their own right adds richness, complexity, and subtlety to the English translations. América Invertida represents both a milestone in the translation of Uruguayan poetry to English and a starting point for the continuation of this necessary dialogue.