Rough Song

Blanca Varela
Translated by Carlos Lara
The Song Cave ($17.95)

by John Bradley

Peruvian poet Blanca Varela had an auspicious life, one in which she befriended Andre Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Henri Michaux, Alberto Giacometti, and Octavio Paz. Paz helped her find a publisher for her first book in 1959 and wrote the introduction to it. Varela went on to become the first woman to win the Federico Garcia Lorca International Poetry Prize. How is it that Rough Song is her first book to be translated into English?

Despite the lateness of its recognition by the English-reading world, or perhaps because of it, Rough Song is a most welcome discovery. It offers twenty-six of her poems, ranging in length from two lines to six parts, in a bilingual format showcasing the carefully crafted translation by Carlos Lara. Given her relative obscurity, however, an introduction to Varela and her work would have been most helpful. While there is a biographical note on the back cover, more is needed, especially when introducing a poet as elliptical as Varela.

Not many poets dare to write a poem of just two lines; Varela was unafraid of the challenge. Here is “Railing,” which opens the book: “which is the light / which the shadow.” Without any end punctuation, the poem offers only the starkness of its minimal text, the very words feeling like shadows. Varela enjoys paradoxes, mysteries, unstated presences, and uncertainties. This can be seen in “Game,” another two-line poem: “within my grasp / the angel burned.” Just what “game” is this? What is our speaker going to do with the angel? Could the poem be a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling the angel? Could the speaker in the poem, like Jacob, desire a blessing before letting the angel go?

Varela’s longer poems are just as mysterious. In “Flowers for the Ear,” she creates a spring scene in an unnamed city:

walking toward the street
being jackhammered apart
I felt the horror of spring
of many flowers
blooming in the air

What is “the horror of spring”? Is it the uncontrolled fecundity seen in the flowers? Is it the loud human activity? The last stanza of the poem offers no answers: “I know one of these days / I will end in the mouth of some flower.” This presents another mystery. It could be read as another “horror,” or a merging with the beauty of spring.

In his “Translator’s Note,” Carlos Lara describes the difficulty in translating Varela’s poems. Even the title of the book, a translation of Canto villano, proves challenging. Lara explains that for him “rough” “expresses the undecidability within which Varela seems most comfortable.” “Rough,” though, might imply these are unfinished or unpolished poems, when they are anything but.

May Rough Song be the first of many more translations of Blanca Varela, a poet with the nerve to tell us “annihilate the light / or create it.”

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