Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Patois,” by Lisa Allen Ortiz

By not specifying a source of sorrow, the final stanza—like the poem as a whole—allows for multiple possibilities. The sense of loss is wide-ranging enough to include the planet’s disappearing species and the country’s shrinking vocabulary as well as the death of a friend.

“We felt sorry then.” What a surprising line, implying not just that people hadn’t been sufficiently regretful before, but also a new awareness of that insensitivity. Sorry for her death? For the way they treated the woman while she was alive? Or should they have paid more attention when she railed at environmental devastation? By not specifying a source of sorrow, the final stanza—like the poem as a whole—allows for multiple possibilities. The sense of loss is wide-ranging enough to include the planet’s disappearing species and the country’s shrinking vocabulary as well as the death of a friend. Even before reading the author’s note, I began to contemplate how each person takes her unique knowledge and way of naming things into the grave, along with her concerns. Ortiz’s final lines contain all of that: “We wanted at least a flock of chimney swifts / to empty out her skull, rise mute and furious toward the moon.”

I call what Ortiz has done here semi-surreal because she presents enough concrete detail to ground us even as those flocks of words flit around dreamlike in their stunning aviary. I don’t think it’s coincidence she’s spent time in Peru and translates from Spanish, immersing herself in a radically different poetic tradition, one that had a major impact on North American poets in the twentieth century. Reading other traditions gave poets here permission to take risks. As Charles Simic and Mark Strand wrote in the 2007 introduction to the reissued Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers, an influential book of translations first published in 1976: “It is hard for us to imagine today what our own poems and the poems of many of our American contemporaries would have been without the example of these poets.”

Ortiz particularly admires the Peruvian Blanca Varela, a woman who embraced surrealism, and whose family has given Ortiz permission to translate her work. Here is Ortiz’s translation of one complete Varela poem:

Spinning without gain or loss, slow circles
of infinite islands in an interior sea.

Arrive here.  This strange balcony that hangs
over the silent and sleepless night.  To give into the light
is to move towards death.  The clock turns back
the lost hours.

Blanca Varela, from El Libro de Barro/The Book of Clay

“Translating Blanca Varela is like carrying a wildcat across a river. Not impossible work but you better protect your face.” That is how Ortiz describes the translation process. “Translating her may not change my own voice or obsessions, but it changes the way I feel inside. It gives me another key for reading and possibly for writing .  .  . Varela doesn’t give a damn if her readers are comfortable. She allows language.”

 

Guest Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson-Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered here. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize. www.susancohen-writer.com.

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