Rocío Ceron writes the kind of poetry that unfolds slowly, over several readings. It’s dense and demanding. It’s layered and difficult. And for that I love it. In the wonderful translator’s note, Anna Rosenwong writes, “So much of reading and translating poetry is training your ear to the text’s private language.” Here, Ceron’s text invents its own language as it goes, and so we must learn to trust it, to allow meaning and image and sound to rise up rather than to demand that the text, or the work, reveal itself immediately.
This book has a syntax. A grammar. A particular sound, perhaps even its own resonance. It is unmistakably its own, singular and yet in conversation with a family of other texts. Texts like Alejandra Pizarnik’s Diana’s Tree, out last year in a superb English translation by Yvette Siegert—a fortuitous coincidence. Ceron’s text resonates across language too. We can trace echoes of Paul Celan, especially his later work (also out in translation last year in a stunning, complete version of Breathturn into Lightstead). And we can find familiarity with contemporary feminist writers in the American tradition: Alice Notley, Susan Howe. Ceron’s Diorama reaches beyond this constellation of writers into music and art as well, relying on the training of the ear and the eye. In a private correspondence with her translator, Ceron says that Gustav Mahler and Goya are her “nuclear system.”
You can hear it, the musicality as the book develops its own private style of repetition, listing, and a heightened stasis resulting from a paucity of active verbs. There’s a sense, from the repetition and the stasis, of a kind of boring in, a focusing, like a drill or a lens, as though a moment were paused and explored from every angle. And in that sense, the meaning comes from a creation of atmosphere. A moment, separated from its context, is without meaning, but not without beauty. Not without substance. And so this book.
A point a particular point a point a point evading its own point a point that
reveals another point the point that annihilates its shadow a point the point
right on point: limit.
The repetition is perhaps more mode than syntax. So much of Ceron’s phrasing is curt, short, staccato. It becomes almost notational, especially in later places where three or more words that could all describe the same thing are used in succession (for instance, “crest peak vertex“), as though each one is needed to refine the language, as though acknowledging language’s imperfect ability to reference. The rhythm these short phrases create, emphasized by the modes of repetition and listing, is percussive. Sometimes at odds with the lyrical imagery, the fragments work through a kind of accretion, each building and bridging from the one to the next.
Bird maw. Hypodermic. Space bird. Aurora borealis. System. The most beautiful. Cellophane bird. Upright. Clump of marsh marigold. Ditch bird. Metal dishes. Opal bird. Ball of purple yarn. Net and plumage buried in blood.
Notice, too, that there are no active verbs in the stanza quoted above. That’s the case almost throughout the book—as though action were nearly impossible. The few verbs there are, though, are startling, and rarely used in the present indicative, almost always asking to be read as orders, or as description: “Polish the edges; each linguistic convergence a potential home.”
At this point, were I say teaching this book, I would remind my students that everything I’ve said above I’ve said of a book in English, which was written by …? Anna Rosenwong, based on the original by Rocío Ceron (is the correct answer that very few would give). One of the little cheats I’ve taught students about thinking about translation is the difference between language and content. Something happening at the level of language, in the translation, is the work of the translator (always, always, always based on/flowing from the original, or almost always). Something happening at the level of content (image, action, etc.) is the work of the original. Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, it’s not even really almost always the case. But it’s a starting point to consider what the work of the translator is in a translated text.
And in this translated text, where almost all the work is happening at the level of language—or at least in my estimation the language is the primary point of engagement with the text—then at the very least this text is a fully collaborative effort. Rosenwong, herself an accomplished poet, is constructing the new language of the text. And so in a way a new context for the text. Parts, especially parts that were densely concise, almost to the point of elision, reminded me of some of Pound’s translations.
No water can ever hope to save your tongue rib brow. Language that sounds like howling wind. Promise.
Lavender ember white of the eye bread of ground-up tomorrow: grinding.
Another demonstration of the translator’s virtuosity in re-constructing this difficult text comes from the shifts in voice and tone that happen throughout. In some poems, like those quoted above, there are several distinct voices speaking simultaneously (or as close to it as a time-based medium like poetry can get). In others, the tone shifts from lyric to academic to reference:
Lie down on the floor;
light the candle just to the side of
“name of an Amazonian plant.”
d Do you hear the pulse? Do you disagree?
By the end of the book I had the urge to begin again, because it took me that long to attune my ear to the particular language of Ceron’s poetry. And happily, there is just such a chance to do that built into the last poem, which is listed in the index as:
Leftovers (noodles with scallions)
2, 4 and 6
I didn’t pay particular attention to the numbers as I was reading it, in part because the list of poems follows the poems in the Spanish-language publishing tradition, and because it wasn’t immediately apparent to me beginning, as it did with “3” that there was a complete and coherent sequence. But upon reaching the final section, “2, 4 and 6” I realized that the sequence was out of order, and immediately returned to re-read the poems in order. Doing this didn’t necessarily create a brand new poem, but rather created two versions simultaneously, two paths to the same poem.
And in a way that’s what the real triumph of this translation is. It’s a new path to Ceron’s poetry, in a new language, which is English, but is equally its own language, a private language. These poems ask a lot of us, as good poetry does. They demand slow and careful attention, they demand and create their own time and space and language and world and context. It is a world that persists, haunting us long after the book is closed.
Erica Mena is a poet, translator, and book artist. She is the author of Featherbone (Ricochet Editions, 2015) and the translator of The Eternaut by H.G. Oetserheld & Solano Lopez. Her work has been published in [PANK], The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Vanitas, Words without Borders, PEN America, and elsewhere. She is the Executive Director of the American Literary Translators Association and the Editor-in-Chief of Drunken Boat. You can find her at www.alluringlyshort.com.