Tag Archives: Patrick James Dunagan

Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle and One Impossible Step

Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle
Historias y poemas de una lucha de clases
Roque Dalton
Translated by Jack Hirschman and Barbara Paschke
Seven Stories Press ($18.95)

One Impossible Step: Selected Poems
Orides Fontela
Translated by Chris Daniels

Nightboat Books ($17.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

At first glance, not much connects the work of poets Roque Dalton (1935–1975) from El Salvador and Orides Fontela (1940–1998) from Brazil. Dalton, a committed revolutionary in the armed struggle leading up to his country’s civil war, writes poems in the direct, colloquial expression of everyday people—they are not didactic, yet they do wear their political and social concerns on their sleeves. Fontela’s poems, on the other hand, are far more hermetic; elusive, abstract, and philosophical. And of course, Fontela writes in Portuguese, Dalton in Spanish. Yet the two are contemporaries whose work responds to social conditions during turbulent times. 

Looking at these two disparate poets together—that is, reading them through each other’s lenses—enhances the parameters with which the work of each might be framed. Dalton becomes more philosophical, while Fontela gains in political gravity. Take a short poem by each. Here is one of Fontela’s “Seven Bird Poems”:

We’ll never know
such purity:
bird devouring us
while we sing it.

And this is Dalton’s “Poetic Art 1974”:

Forgive me for having helped you understand
you’re not made of words alone.

In each case, the poet addresses their art, Dalton directly and Fontela through the archetypal image of a bird. While Fontela uses the universal “we”—as translator Chris Daniels notes, “Fontela almost never wrote the word ‘eu,’ the subjective form of the Portuguese first-person singular pronoun”—Dalton maintains an intimate “I-Thou” relationship, asking forgiveness for expanding poetry’s knowledge of itself. In both cases, the power of poetry to reach beyond language’s supposed meaning is stressed, albeit from opposing perspectives. Dalton implies the revolutionary context of his poem by including the year in the title, suggesting that poetry has a role to play in a time of cultural unrest and armed struggle, but Fontela also rejects the supposed rarification of poetry—“such purity”—in favor of the more active, even violent, “devouring us” that is within the art form’s transformative power. And while different in tone, both poems extol how poetry can elevate our ability to conceive the world anew.     

Drawing from all of Fontela’s collections of poetry, One Impossible Step represents not only the broadest translation of her corpus into English, but, at only 130 pages, it also operates as a compact overview of her biography and poetics. Daniels (who has also translated Pessoa among other Lusophone authors) ingeniously includes some twenty pages of excerpts from three interviews with Fontela, and Brazilian poet Ricardo Domeneck contributes a succinct afterword that assesses the trajectory of her life and work. Domeneck describes Fontela as

A person who owned no property, who felt neither the need nor the desire for a love relationship, perhaps [she] was uninterested in praising anything but oxygen. Perhaps her poverty led her to abandon adornment and poetic beautification. . . . demonstrat[ing] the linguistic attention of a post-war poet living a historical moment that demanded, in the use of symbols, an awareness of their being signs.

Dalton is much better known to U.S. readers; an earlier edition of this very book, published in the early 1980s under the title Poemas Clandestinos/Clandestine Poems, went through multiple printings. Now released as Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle as the first of a several Dalton translations to be issued over the coming years, it is actually the last, likely unfinished, work of Dalton’s; it comprises five sets of poems by distinct “authors” invented by the poet (though these pseudo-pseudonymous characters are nothing on the scale of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms). It’s unclear quite what Dalton had in mind by casting his voice into different personas, yet perhaps it is more important to draw attention to what these figures have in common: a belief in the necessity of cultural revolution and the use of poetry as a means towards that end. An opening “Declaration of Principles” signed by “the authors” closes by stating that the “enemy poet” (as opposed to the “servant poet” or “clown poet”) must have “a lucid and invincible confidence in the working class” and engage in “direct participation in its struggle.”

Fontela came from the working class, went to school to study philosophy on a scholarship, scraped by as a teacher, then “died in a public hospital in 1998, without a close family, destitute as a poet.” Dalton’s father was an American who financially provided for his education; he traveled internationally, spent time in Cuba honing his belief in communism and guerilla skills, and was tragically murdered in 1975 at the hands of his fellow revolutionaries in El Salvador , a victim of political infighting. Despite the vast differences in their lives, however, both poets created a body of literature hinged upon life—and because of this, these new translations of their work into English are vital.

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Fire-Rimmed Eden

Selected Poems

Lynn Lonidier
Edited by Julie R. Enszer
Sinister Wisdom ($25.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

A prolific poet of the San Francisco small press scene from the 1960s onwards, Lynn Lonidier (1937-1993) is virtually unknown today. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that she didn’t belong to any particular coterie. Even among lesbian poets, the crowd with whom she might most generally be associated, she always went her own way. As Fire-Rimmed Eden: Selected Poems testifies, her work is invariably unique, and all the more valuable for it, as it realizes an idiosyncratic sensibility.

Take the opening of “Sailorjig to Seapatchwoman” from A Lesbian Estate (Manroot Press, 1979):   

            Down the briny paths of rime,
            I join hands with an encrusted lion.

   Transpose a lion on a whale and have upheaval to the last
   tumescence of seadrop (water-holding speck of life) I am

Mid-Forty Woman    Deep tonnage tensor of wisdom    Weedpatch woman
with brio-bulge crop       mat       carpet island       Thicket       fishhooks
monster bites      Slew of parasites hang loose in the gold lion’s
mane      Hoar nest     Primeval catch    SeaROAR cRest sWell Woeforth
/PROMISE:       Green land grows on your bullback    wending invisible
harpoons R     uddy mantle of rush in Green Sea Contest

The jamming together of words here, along with the erratic spacing, spelling, and capitalization, achieve a dizzying yet effective presentation. There’s a clear sense that Lonidier writes the lines as she feels them arising within her, inflecting them with distinct emotive force; indeed, it reads irresistably like a performance script. While she may have had precursors from Dada to punk influencing her, her experimentation feels rooted in her own impulses.

Lonidier’s initial artistic inclination was musical in nature; she studied the cello before breaking away to poetry. Upon moving to the Bay Area, she became an early romantic partner of the experimental composer Pauline Oliveros, and the pair moved to San Diego in the ’60s before splitting up. They were immersed in the local arts scene, collaborating on several musical and art projects both together and with friends. Lonidier’s brother, the feted photographic artist Fred Lonidier, lived locally as well at the time (there are several terrific photos included in Fire-Rimmed Eden).

Lonidier lived elsewhere for periods of time, but she always returned to San Francisco. She was a founding member of the Women’s Building in the Mission District, where she also lived and worked as a public-school teacher, and the city’s environs continually triggered her imagination, as they have countless others over the years—as can be seen in this passage from “Bernal Hill,” originally contained in The Rhyme of the Ag-ed Mariness (Station Hill Press, 2001):

A tree-laced road leads to radar
screens overlying the Mission,
Morning sun timbres the bay—
Oakland— Berkeley— Mt. Tam—
in by breathtaking eye.

Fire-Rimmed Eden contains the vast majority of Lonidier’s poetry. There are selections from her earliest collections, Po Tree and The Female Freeway, and the substantial A Lesbian Estate is presented in full—as is the last collection she assembled in her lifetime, Clitoris Lost, along with excerpts from her Mayan travelogue Woman Explorer. Selections from the posthumous The Rhyme Of The Ag-Ed Mariness, assembled by her friend Janine Canan, round out the rest.

Lonidier’s earliest work features an insistence upon freely, and often wildly, wielding language in an unexpected, eyebrow raising manner. Her first collection, Po Tree (Berkeley Free Press, 1967), is more artist-zine than poetry book; between saddle-stapled covers, Lonider’s poems appear intermixed and superimposed among collages and drawings by sisters Betty and Shirley Wong (while the artwork is not reproduced here, notes at the bottom of relevant pages offer descriptions); the poems themselves are Dada-like in their playful stridency. Several are list-poems of unusual word-matches given in full capitals: “CONFETTI NIPPLE / HISHERS / MIND BLINDER / VENETIAN TUBE ROOM / GONDOLA GONADS / AUTOBLOMB / POOM /MOM HARASS HEROOT / GERMAN VICTROLA HOAR CAUSE / CHARTREUSE COMB JUICE.”

Among the central concerns of Lonidier’s poetry are gender, sexuality, and power. She avoids being overtly political or banner waving, however, keeping the focus on her direct experience. She writes what she knows:

In drive-ins movie foyers men’s magazines    they comment on my body
as though they owned me    are as familiar with my buttbreastthighs
as they are with    rings on their fingers    It’s not rape that they
heighten their bodies by removing mind earsmindfeelings    tossing
away the body they’ve mass-raped Because    I’m their perogrative
to imagine their penises are    rolled-up dollar bills in my
penny vagina

(from “The Boys At The Beach”)   

In short, Lonidier doesn’t hold back. Her work has rough edges and non sequitur ruptures, which can leave readers hanging as to where she was headed; nevertheless, with every poem the impression remains that she has managed somehow to achieve her exact desired result. These are the poems as she would have them—no regrets and nothing vital left unsaid.

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