Poetry seemed to be the current that ran under my writing of novels. Sometimes, I felt like I was wrestling with the language of fiction to wade into a quiet pool of poetry… in 2011 I had been working on a novel in English, titled Residence on Earth*, and another one in Spanish that I had completely reorganized so that two timelines could move forward without getting stuck. This one is titled, Lo que queda en la memoria.
But in the midst of making sense of writing in two languages, a part of me felt fragmented still. That is the place where my book, Sobrevivir y otros complejos: Narrative Poems in Englillano, came from.
I had actually been working on this book without knowing it. There were a number of poems that tended to swing, in pendulum fashion, back and forth between Spanish and English (code-switching*), but in my writing there wasn’t just one word that jumped over to the other language, there were complete thoughts, and entire images. I also had poems in one language or the other that didn’t seem to inhabit the same space of the contemporary poems– these poems were speaking from different times in my life.
One day, while translating another poet’s work from Spanish to English, I gathered all my fragmented writings and began to edit in earnest. Something joyous happened– I had a sense of a complete language, and something troubling; my theme was survival, sobrevivir, the determination to survive despite chaos, abuse in childhood, and depression.
As a novelist and short story writer, I had not wanted to write autobiographically, nor to explore the writing of memoir or personal essays and non fiction, although I have published some pieces. But in my hands I had a collection of narrative poems, a form that allowed me to think and to write about living and surviving, about death, about pain, alienation, anger, and in a word, complexes. Complejos. Or, issues. The complex issues of being a creative person and still battling with the concept of annihilation of one’s identity, figuratively mostly, but also the fleeting thought of suicide in moments of great pain.
This is how I wrote the pieces in Sobrevivir, and edited, organized, and wrote a Prologue– by entering a place where my writing self could heal the fragmentation from trauma over the years.
The longest piece in the book is “Pasos en el pasado,” in which the speaking voice recalls childhood’s awakening into consciousness, but through the stages of dreaming and recognizing one’s essence within the dream, as in the section Cabeza de serpiente– Head of a Snake:
Sometimes I saw my own face emerging /a Giant the backdrop of dreams/ an enormous face that spoke to me:/ this is a dream she said don’t be afraid/ and I woke up/ I untangled and emerged/ conscious on the bed
This piece also explores memories of a previous existence, experienced as dreams, but questioning the possibility of life lived on another plane: “… It seems as if I find a memory within the dream and then I know I’ve been in that city in that old House with those people there. They know me. I know them. We are Of the old ones.”
I translated this poem as “Footprints in the Past,” and several others that were written entirely in Spanish, but I didn’t translate the ones where the language shifted. It was important to recognize that this is a book that offers a bilingual reading, an experience in itself, and so I only translated the English where I felt the poem existing in both languages. And at the same time, I chose to name my brand of trans-language as a bridge between English and castellano, my Chilean Spanish, with its own intonation and inflections (which is not “Castillian” Spanish at all, but very South American).
In the Prologue, which probably traverses the most between languages, I wanted to capture my existential truth about why I write, and how this connects our identity to past and present.
“… y me pregunto, cómo se llega a la fotografía que muestra el alma, ahora que ya he aprendido a escribir? ¿cuál es la relación entre el vivir y el escribir when one is approaching time? I don’t know, but I think that if one has chosen to be a writer, es porque al llegar al momento en que tu imagen, that photo, the way other people see you matches the way you feel, entonces, finalmente se puede vivir.”
Ultimately, I think today, this book was for me an exorcism of a writer’s demons that could free up emotional– and creative– space, to continue writing. There is humor in it, of the geeky, nerdy, wordsmith kind, as well as Blues, erotic imagery, history, and exploration of form. Since I taught creative writing (MFA Program at Goddard College) for many years, and now I teach literature, I was thrilled with the chance to indulge in my own linguistic feast. For me, this is the book I am most proud of– most satisfied– because I worked on it at a deep level where I poured the best of myself. When I decided to publish the book myself, as part of the Escritorial series of bilingual books, I knew I would have to answer to my reader and to myself– no one else– and this awareness gave me the freedom to do my best.
“When the way other people see you matches the way you feel, then, finally, one can begin to live.”
*Code-switching is a term used by Chicano and Nuyorican poets, beginning in the 1970s
*Residencia en la tierra is the title of a collection of poetry by Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, 1935
——-Originally published in http://PrefacMe.com on January 11, 2012. PrefacMe is a social pedestal for self-published authors.
March, 2011: Just published! ¡Recién publicado! Sobrevivir y otros complejos: Narrative Poems in Englillano es un libro semi-bilingüe. Algunos poemas están escritos en Spanglish and the author has translated some poems
into inglés o castellano. Otros se han quedado en su idioma original.
For sale at: amazon.
com and BarnesandNoble.com as well as:
Estas páginas tal vez no durarán mucho. Las notas vienen de días sueltos, como páginas, en los últimos años, el resultado de un sitio web que abrí en Apple’s mobile.me
(advertencia: las gráficas son bonitas, y seguro que te vas a entretener, pero por más que adoro mi Mac y todos las cosas Mac– debo admitirlo: nunca nadie verá tu página de web porque no la podrán encontrar).
En todo caso, le dedico este lugar virtual a Manuel González Prada, cuyo libro, Pájinas Libres me impresionó mucho cuando lo leí en los años 70, (del siglo 20) aunque recuerdo muy poco… lo que importa es su ejemplo, que este escritor peruano nacido en el siglo XIX quiso crear una corriente nueva en la mente estrecha de nuestra tradición literaria. Luchar por el arte y el pensamiento libres, nunca pasa de moda.
Those noir movie dreams
I think I am dying but I’m alive.
I fret all night long with my dreams, confusing them with anxieties from real life until my side aches so, I can no longer sleep. It feels as though, with age, I can fool my body into thinking we are sleeping but we are not. I have never felt so separate from my body as I do these nights. In the dreams I ache and fret and tell my dream personae that injustice has taken place. That a manager at a hotel should give me a clean blanket, please, one not so full of dust and detritus. The hotel is in a movie set, the fancy Harlem of the 30s. I wait by the marble desk and feel cold. Other guests obtain their blankets, their comfortable rooms, but I keep missing my turn. I try to fill in the registration form that I’ve filled already, when I dreamed this dream a half hour ago and everything went according to plan. Now, however, I squint in the dream and make words appear on the form. I try to write my name– I know where it goes, the other side of the page. But Someone has filled in some of the blanks in red ink, juicy letters, made with a fountain pen with red ink. I can no longer figure out how to finish the form and try instead to speak with the man behind the desk; he was broad-shouldered, dark skinned, young, only he’s vanished. Now we are downstairs, in the parking garage. The man I was speaking to is wearing a creamy uniform. He’s a famous actor who shows me to a parking spot marked with the number 12. He becomes someone I know from my real past and then I know I am dreaming because my friend is dead. A train appears. My son is on the platform, wearing a blue uniform, a blue cap. He picks up suitcases from passengers. I flash him the number 12 with my fingers so he will get credit on his paycheck. “I’m parking cars,” I tell him.
But when I wake up I am relieved because I know I don’t have to work today. I am very tired. I know I have been struggling with my mother’s illness. She lives far away and I can’t help her day to day, yet I feel her daily frustrations from here. Impotence and guilt. She has many years to live if she can fight her way through diabetes, but how on earth do all these problems translate into the dream from which I have awaken? My brother works in the sun of Texas and is not well, getting dehydrated every day. Perhaps he was the man behind the desk.
By the time I make it to the mirror I know the muscle in my shoulder is pinched. The gray covers my head like a cap, lopsided from sleeping hard against my pillow. I push and tug at it, but under the gray dusting my hair is dark brown, growing still and forming an uneven pillow of wavy locks on the left side of my head. How is it possible– I am still young. There is more to come. I am not dying.
Now, what am I to do?
Did you ever try to get through filling out a questionnaire without giving anything away? Or, at least, giving away as little as possible, just to get through the required paces in order to get on with whatever business brought you to the place.
Earlier this summer I had tiny crack on one molar and was forced to go to the dentist. I delayed, put it of for about a week until my tongue got in the way and developed an oral wound. What’s the euphemism, a canker sore? But it was not so bad. I rinsed with salt water, bit on a vitamin E capsule, tried tea tree oil and hydrogen peroxide. I scared the thing into going away and that bought me another week or so of denial. In the meantime, I was sick of U.S. news, frightened to death by Latin American news, depressed to no end by news everywhere else, so I tried Juan Goytisolo again, “Marks of Identity,” translated, and got through a few more chapters.
But then I had to go to the dentist. An old filling from another molar broke off, just the tip of it, which made it very sharp and unhygienic at any rate– it was time to go. There was a dental office near my home, referred by the 1800dentist service which is very thorough, and asks you a ton of questions you don’t want to answer. I did get an appointment, finally.
At times like these, one takes stock of the situation and feels fortunate, or should do. Very fortunate. I’d be able to go. I’d be able to pay. The pain and discomfort would be over. My boss recommended an even better dentist, but what the hell, the appointment was for the next day. There are more serious matters going on in light of which my dental problems are a mere blemish, besides! No, I was very clear that I was fortunate and should definitely quit whining and get to the dentist. This new dentist would never need to know about the horrible event that happened when I was 11 years old, in Chile, which traumatized me forever about going to the dentist. Suffice it to say it involved fevers and gangrene, and I never want to talk about it ever again. Which is why one goes to the dentist at times like these.
I went. It was hot out, but the office was pleasant, there were small paper cups and a water cooler available, and magazines to read that were not too healthy. When I got there I was given the usual questionnaire, but they also offered me a tour– that should have given me a clue. I took the tour and tried to finish the questionnaire quickly. Nope, nope, nope– wait– yes? Oh, that will take too long to explain and will bring another question and I don’t remember the date anyway. Nope, No, No, and No, I don’t want any counseling about my smile. Why are they asking me this? Yes, I think my teeth could look better, but no, it’s not the most important thing in the world to me right now: I’ve got bigger fish to fry, to quote my friend, Vin.
This was the longest questionnaire. I tried to give it back, only to find out I had skipped an entire page, both sides. The dentist came to shake my hand. In two seconds, he’s gotten two of my former professions out of me– teacher and civil servant– and I found out his daughter is a jewelry designer. Nope, nope, I’m reasonably afraid of dentists, yes, and these questions are dangerously close to making me uncomfortable because they keep poking their concrete reality into my denial while I just want to get my molars filled so I can go back to my own life.
No. If you promised me a perfect smile this minute, I would not drop everything I’m doing to go after it. Is there something wrong with that? If I could save some resources by recycling this paper cup, wouldn’t I do that, though? Yes, of course I would, I’m slipping it into my bag right now. I’ll drink from it the rest of the day. Finally, I got to see the dentist.
These days feel like that. We are in the waiting room of intrusive realities threatening to burst in on the script we have prepared for the age: We are human; we’re not overgrown bacteria. We’ve made it to the 21st century (by the skin of our teeth) (bacteria, at any rate, don’t have teeth) and we should have some respect for ourselves. We’ve screwed up the planet by pooping where we sleep but we have every intention of cleaning it up, and even though we’ve got despots who are still slaughtering people wholesale, never fear, our movie stars are on the case and they’ll organize something to take care of it, and if not they, then it will be the next generation, maybe the children of generation Z. I suppose after that we reboot, and we go back to generation A?
No category. No subject matter. The only subject matter there is. Consciousness. We write about it from all different angles. I think sometimes we make an agreement to ignore our consciousness so we can be banal for a while and get on with the business of the day. It’s a healthy thing to do. Too much consciousness and one could get stuck, immobile for eternity.
Suddenly I am reminded of that day early in the summer, and I wonder how I got lulled into compliance for so long. The dentist offered me his brand of what is known today as “personal dentistry.” I think it costs more, but you’ve got to make sure you’re wide awake when you make your choices about whether to get cavities filled or your fears addressed. I did get a bit of therapy that day, got x-rays taken, found out I could still choose to go heavily into debt to obtain a lovely smile, and learned a neat trick to isolate the tension in my shoulders, breathe in, hold it, exhale in one big lump of air saying “aaah!” like John McEnroe, and voila! The ball of pain is remarkably eased. Still, I had to snap myself out of a bizarre trance of obedience to insist: Okay, so now, can you work on my two molars?
Reality erupting. The dentist shrugged and got to work, no longer so friendly, no longer Super Cool Hip Dentist, DDS.
I got to work on defragmenting myself, repairing the tine cracks where this stranger had managed to insert doubt.
Surprisingly, I think I’m still working on solidifying my identity. Or, the hard shell of my entity. The self that looks at the world and decides which part to grieve for. The process isn’t over yet. Perhaps, a reason for joy. For thankfulness.
They ‘re like the first thoughts that come
taking a turn around the corner
first anything that promises there will be life
if we follow them.
The ones that came today were
simple, old, had paraded
once or twice already,
that pain, and the treatment for pain
are the objects that stand still
while it is we who move
we who change from
this thought to the one that will hurt less:
cognitive therapy– huh…
is that what it is
is that all it is, like
these first thoughts of the morning
going for a walk with the dog and promising myself
But for now, the ache’s still there
I haven’t moved past it yet
though at least there are first
lines, first entries
on my ledger.
So it’s night. The difference between this hot night and the one I remember is time, desolate, winter red, cielo furioso. At that time, who knew anything. They were here still, a long way from being freed. Now, it is we who are trapped…
I pass through mornings working, always occupied, yet anxious that there will not be enough time to complete everything, and I will be caught up short, saddled with another project that does not belong to me. That is why I d
o not call. I run before the phone rings and catches me in responsibility.
Then evenings. On my desk a million beautiful ideas throw off ligh
t and color my way. They are small ideas. I can work on realizing those for hours, until my back burns on either side and I have to hold on to my knees to get up, the desk, so I can walk away and get some water. Water makes me think of this sky again. I love that it has so much force. I love that it is about to explode at any moment with its fury.
It was a sand painting for a moment.
And then the fury is gone.
- Can Anyone Write Poetry?: Thoughts on Teaching and Writing (marianaromocar.wordpress.com)
- On Returning Books (prefacme.com)
- (Poet) Playwright Spotlight: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (dramachicks.wordpress.com)
- The State of Arabic Science Fiction (in Translation) (arablit.wordpress.com)