edited by Cecilia Vicuña
and Ernesto Livon-Grosman
Oxford University Press ($49.95)

by John Herbert Cunningham

Indebted to the pioneering work of Jerome Rothenberg in ethnopoetics, this anthology should usher in a new era of translation of Latin American poetry, one that is long overdue. Its uniqueness is evident from the Preface, in which editors Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon-Grosman state:

The continual clash of cultures and languages in Latin America, brought about by the European conquest, created a “verba criolla,” in José Lezama Lima’s words—a verbal mix, a mestizo poetics resplendent with contradictions and linguistic experimentation. To present this dynamic mestizaje, or hybridity, as well as the continuity of the experimental tradition, became our goal in selecting work. To this end, we included a great number of poets not yet well known in the English language


Following the Preface, each of the editors presents their own introduction. Vicuña’s “An Introduction to Mestizo Poetics” attributes the beginning of Latin American poetry to “Malintzin, the Nahua slave girl who became the ‘lengua’, the interpreter and concubine of Hernán Cortés. Forced to speak in the language of the conquerors, she invented a way of speaking Spanish with a native intonation that, within a few generations, became the matrix of mestizo poetics.” Livon-Grosman’s “A Historical Introduction to Latin American Poetry” informs us that the book seeks to present “a series of connected themes that make available to readers the many dialogues, past and present, that have engendered Latin American poetics as we know it today,” then proceeds to set out and explicate the various philosophies and movements that have shaped this discourse.

We are prepared now for the anthology itself, which opens unlike any other anthology of Latin American poetry. The first thing we encounter are images of Mayan hieroglyphs as they appear on preserved pre-Columbian vases. The first poem is an English translation from a Spanish translation of the original Nahuatl poem describing the indigenous response to Cortes and his band of Conquistadors:

We saw it, we marvelled at them.
We saw ourselves anguished with a mournful fate.
Broken arrows lie upon the roads,
hair is scattered everywhere.
The houses are roofless,
their walls run red.
Maggots swarm along the streets and plazas,
and on the walls brains are splattered.

From there we move to excerpts from Mayan painted books, to a “khipu” (an Andean notation system using knots and colored threads), to the Comentarios reales de los incas from 1609 by Garcilaso de la Vega, “the first author who called himself a mestizo,” and finally to an excerpt from the Popul Vuh:

Wait now! Bless this day,
thou Hurricane, thou heart of sky and earth,
thou giver of ripeness and freshness,
giver, too, of daughters and sons,
spread thy stain, spill thy drops
of green and yellow . . .

It is only then that we arrive at Spanish New World writings, beginning with The Arauncaniad by Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga. We are provided with the first two cantos. In the first, he writes of the “customs and methods of warfare that the natives observe”:

Not of ladies, love, or graces
Do I sing, nor knights enamored,
Nor of gifts and shows of feeling,
Cares of love, or love’s affections;
But the valiant acts and prowess
Of those never-daunted Spaniards
Who with swords placed yokes of bondage
On the necks of untamed Indians.

The contrast between the indigenous and the Spanish perspective of the Conquest is stark, and yet each views it as fate, as preordained—one seeing it as delivering the infidel to God, the other as having been abandoned by their gods.

Vicuña and Livon-Grosman move us quickly through the early period, uncovering some surprises along the way. For example, there is the 17th-century Mexican writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose life recalls that of Hildegard von Bingen; she became a nun in order to pursue her intellectual development, advocating for women’s entitlement to education, only to be censored by the Catholic Church. In “This Coloured Counterfeit That Thou Beholdest,” translated by Samuel Beckett, she appears to characterize the Church: “is an empty artifice of care / is a fragile flower in the wind / is a paltry sanctuary from fate.” We also discover several translations of the Cholam Balam, “a series of books written in alphabetic script in Yucatec Mayan by native priests in defense of their culture,” and early 18th-century visual poetry.

The poetry of the 19th century is dealt with just as quickly. Beginning with Francisco Acuña de Figueroa (1790-1862, Uruguay) whose “visual poetry and his Mosaico poético were ignored until later critics saw their theoretical and aesthetic value,” we soon arrive at Rubén Darío (1867-1916, Nicaragua), one of the founders of modernismo. In between, we discover poets such as José Martí (1853-1895), who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain. A couple of his poems are translated, including “Love in the City”:

Love happens in the street, standing in the dust
of saloons and public squares; the flower
dies the day it’s born. The trembling
virgin who would rather death
have her than some unknown youth . . .

Darío, and several others presented, are transition figures between the 19th and the 20th centuries. Entering the 20th century, we encounter many names with which the English-speaking world is already familiar—Gabriela Mistral, César Vallejo, Vicente Huidobro, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, etc. What is impressive, however, is that these names do not dominate the selection of the poetry. They may be given a little more space than, say, the obscure Olga Orozco (1920-1999, Argentina), but it is the inclusion of these more obscure poets that makes this anthology superlative. Take Orozco’s “Variations on Time”:

you’ve dressed in the moth-eaten skin
of the last prophet
you’ve worn down your face to its last pallor;
you’ve put on a crown of shattered mirrors
and tatters of rain;
and now you chant babble about the future
with melodies dug up from the past,
while you wander in the shadows through your starving rubbish,
like a mad king.

Even more exciting to encounter are the concrete poetic works of Décio Pignatari and Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, who together founded the Brazilian group Noigandres. Other South and Latin American poets who applied their creativity to visual poetry are also represented, and the book is replete with photographs and drawings to illustrate the physicality of this work.

What finally sets this anthology of Latin American poetry above any other is the inclusion of transliterations of oral poetry; the volume ends with such works by contemporary Tzoltzil Mayan oral poets such as Xunka Utz’utz’ Ni’, Loxa Jiménes Lópes, and Maria Ernándes Kokov. The latter’s “The Talking Box Speaks” is a transcript, “a commercialized version of an ancient Mayan oracle from which a saint speaks to her”:

“Are you there?”
I’m from the Universe.
I want bread
and half a crate of soda pop.

Certainly, this book is not perfect. For example, although it is hailed as a bilingual edition, the Spanish and Portuguese originals are not set out in lines. One could also wish for more examples of individual poets’ writings; often, only one poem is included, hardly a fair representation of that poet’s range of work. Of course, these choices reflect the need to keep the anthology a manageable size, and these flaws are minor. If one were forced to choose only one volume of Latin American poetry to take to a desert island, this would be the one.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009