The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
A cornucopia of pleasures, some that come with a sapient sting, FSG’s new bilingual anthology of Latin American poetry provides something for everyone in its great variety and generous, ecumenical selection. Conceived by Ilan Stavans, a noted translator, scholar, and professor at Amherst, this collection invites readers to experience and savor a huge gamut of expressivity, from local pain and colonial resentment, to far-flung fantasy by turns erotic and nationalistic, to an intangible joy in the universe.
In chronological order, 84 poets from 13 Latin American countries are represented, as well as nine different languages, some related, but all fascinatingly distinct: Portuguese, Spanish, Nahuatl, Mapuche, Quechua, Mazatec, Apotec, Ladino, and Spanglish. The book also features Latin American poets who experiment in French and English, alongside others who write in Afrikaans, Cantonese, and Yiddish.
We expect and get the great poets: the cutting lucidity of the worldly Borges, and the unique expansiveness of Pablo Neruda. We also encounter a remarkable variety of attitudes and passions, from the austerity of Jose Martí’s politically engaged verse to Humberto Ak’abal’s concern with native traditions, from César Vallejo’s Catholic-tinged verse to secular revolutionary declarations. We find Ernesto Cardenal continuing the grand tradition of Ruben Darío, as a priest who becomes Minister of Culture during the Sandinista regime.
Discoveries lurk in between some of the bigger names, naturally more amply presented. Julia de Burgos (Puerto Rico), one of the lesser-known women poets to come to light, writes a poem to herself, invoking a kind of Frida Kahlo-like doubleness—made all the more intriguing by the fact that hers are words without images. Another gem is “Mirror,” by Cuba’s Dulce María Loynaz, a poet who hung out in silence during Castro’s reign. Indeed, the anthology includes many interesting female writers who might sometimes be overshadowed by the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, the 1945 Nobel Prize winner in Literature.
Many readers of this anthology may simply let themselves be carried away by the sweep and extravagance of mellifluous, unending lines that create a daring trance seldom indulged in by English-language writers. At times, I am sure that the book’s distinguished translators felt, as this writer does, a touch of envy. As we tend to rein in our feelings, at least via adjectives and metaphorical flights, ours is a different language and tradition. With their ambivalent quarrelsomeness toward the power to the north, modern anxiety, civil distress, and urban misery, many Latin American poets tend to rise to the occasion with dry wit or pathos, but just as often, an unashamed, sustained gorgeousness.
Speaking of contrasts, one of the anthology’s most interesting themes is how creative influences flow both North and South. From Martí onward to Pedro Mir (Dominican Republic) and so many others, Whitman’s broad hand and brush are evident. Contemporaries paid attention to U.S. poets from Frost to Ginsberg. At the same time, Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s peculiar, grim vision of poetry’s being more real than life fits comfortably into the work of Mark Strand, who translates him so well. (Elizabeth Bishop also has her turn.)
Sometimes, in anthologies like this, the varying styles of the translators collide and irritate. In this case, they ripple along pleasantly, as we enjoy the works that W.S. Merwin, Alastair Reid, Richard Wilbur, Stavans himself, and many others (a few already named) have produced over the years.