Muscular Heaps: Yván Yauri’s Fire Wind

Dan Rosenberg

Translated by Marta del Pozo and Nicholas Rattner. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011. 80 pages. $14.

The title of Peruvian poet Yván Yauri’s second book, Viento de fuego, could be translated literally as Wind of Fire. For this translation, Yauri’s first into English, Marta del Pozo and Nicholas Rattner decided on Fire Wind—the punchier, less melodramatic, more suggestive option. Like all good translators, del Pozo and Rattner are not programmatic; they make their decisions on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes they render possessives following the Spanish syntax: “los pechos hirsutos / de mis rústicas abuelas” becomes “the hairy breasts / of my rustic grandmothers.” Other times, they go for the more concise option: “el aullido blanco / de la noche” becomes not “the white howl / of the night” but instead “night’s white / howl.” Though they generally follow the original poems with remarkable fidelity, keeping their translations rhythmically bound to the original, del Pozo and Rattner are wisely wary of transforming voluptuous Spanish into bloated English.

Disappointingly, the translators’ names don’t appear on the cover of Fire Wind, as if Ugly Duckling Presse were uncharacteristically devaluing the work of translation. Though there is a “Translators’ Acknowledgements” page, the translators don’t even have bios. (As it turns out, del Pozo is a PhD candidate in Peninsular Literature at UMass-Amherst and a poet who has published a book in Spanish, and Rattner holds a Masters in Literature from UMass-Amherst and has taught in Chachapoyas, Peru.) Wonderfully, though, the translations are en face, allowing us to see more clearly del Pozo and Rattner’s fingerprints as well as the shape of the poems in their original Spanish—an important feature when some, like “When the Living Rise,” use white space as a visual component.

Though the book is eighty pages long, after subtracting front- and back-matter and the untranslated poems presented on the verso of each two-page spread, there are only thirty pages of translated poetry. Which means Fire Wind can be read in a gulp. What you swallow in that gulp, though, is a sensual conflagration of earnest, passionate, intimate poetry. Yauri stuffs the reader’s mouth and the mind with his driving rhythms, his wide net of references, and his insistently physical diction. These poems are political in the best way: they’re prophetic, but not didactic, and they wear their energy, their violence, and their righteous beauty on the surface. Yauri’s voice has an aggressive swagger, a cavalier jazziness, and the sexualization of his subject matter can be arresting. The first poem, “Ritual,” begins:

I slip from your earthen hips
love the otorongos that breathe
savor your tidal flanks
a slope aflame
where your breasts
burst with mangroves
with latex      with mercury
warm pollen in its abyss

This attitude toward the earth, at once intimate and domineering, lands firmly within a long poetic tradition: the male poet sexualizes his homeland (in this case, Peru) to create a narrative of love laced with appropriation. But Yauri knows such a stance is not without consequences. By the end of the poem, sexual conquest turns to self-awareness and a kind of mourning:

now that the thread is lost
in the stream its
pointer of light
its fire of flood
navel of snow
we will pile on
your purple trail
the living
and the dead.

The poems in Fire Wind are insistently Peruvian. Yauri claims César Vallejo, the most internationally-renowned Peruvian poet, as a “decisive influence,” and the book is dedicated to “the centenary of José María Arguedes (1911-1969).” (Interestingly, since Viento de fuego came out in 2007, the dedication must refer to this translation, published in 2011, rather than the original text.) A central figure of Peruvian literature, Arguedes was part Spanish and part Quechua (the indigenous people of the region)—as are the poems in Fire Wind, which include enough Quechua words that the translators appended a glossary to the back. The entries in the glossary range from minimalist to didactic: The entry for wawa just says “baby,” but the one for guano describes in detail the exploitative history of guano harvesting in Peru.

Derrida suggests that paratexts like this glossary violate “the economic law of the word” by revealing “the impotence or failure of the translation.” If the translation is good, why would we need such crutches? Indeed, translators’ prefaces and other framing devices can distract from the poems and, in extreme cases, serve only to highlight the failures of the translation. However, given how little access we have to Quechua words and cultural history in the United States, and given how central the relationship between the imperial and indigenous languages is to the book’s entire project, I am grateful for del Pozo and Rattner’s willingness to flaunt the chinks in their translation armor.

The voice in Fire Wind identifies with both the natural world and an unspecified “us”—perhaps, in line with Yauri’s politics (he is an active Marxist-Trotskyite), the working-class Peruvian people—in opposition to a “Master” or an “Empire.” When he says, “I am us,” Yauri offers both a communist twist on Rimbaud’s “I is another” and a direct send-up of Whitman’s “I contain multitudes.” Yauri’s phrase in the original Spanish simply says “soy nosotros,” eliding the pronoun “yo,” or “I,” to offer instead “[implied I] am us”—thus enacting a (sadly untranslatable) submergence of the self into the greater vox populi. This gesture can drive the poems toward more overt political rhetoric, as in the end of the title poem:

you who announce the squall
the inexorable wave of your assault
like a young boulder determined I fly
swiftly in the storm
I flow skillfully striking
to the center of your navigable force
for in the clear depths
of your brave rivers
I want to find
freedom.

This obligation to speak for others extends beyond the human; these poems attempt to speak for the land as well. The lush variation of the natural world, and the various means by which people have attempted to tame it, is a driving aesthetic impulse behind the poems in Fire Wind. After invoking both the stopwatch and the hectare, human ways of regulating time and space, Yauri suggests:

all that
reconnaissance of the land
so ready
to devour us
and we protest
because it has fallen to us
to hoard
these splinters
        this dispersed
                clarity
to pile it up
in a prolix little heap
impregnated with voices
compensated with the world

With their peripatetic attention span, these poems indeed function like “splinters” and “dispersed / clarity.” With their lush phrasing and excess (to an Anglophone ear) of adjectives, they certainly are “prolix little heaps.” And these heaps are so muscularly arranged, so crammed full of things, that they ultimately become a potential avenue to salvation: polyvocal language which, like Marianne Moore’s imaginary gardens full of real toads, is “compensated with the world.”

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