An Uneasy Revelry: a review of Before Saying Any of the Great Words

An Uneasy Revelry

by Okla Elliott

“Unease in the ochre-filled skies, unease in the silky /labyrinth of the gut, unease / in the artist’s double, triple nibs”

—David Huerta, “Song of Unease”

Since many American readers may not be familiar with David Huerta, let me introduce you to the poet, before I go on to discuss this career-ranging selection of his poetry and Mark Schafer’s excellent translation of it. Huerta has written nineteen books of poetry and has received nearly every literary award a poet can win in his native Mexico. He is associated with the Neobaroque movement in Latin American literature and with postmodern language poetry. In 2005, he received the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for lifelong contribution to Mexican literature. Suffice to say, he is one Mexico’s (and the Spanish language’s) major poets. He is also well known as a political columnist, translator, and activist. But fame and recognition are not enough to convince a discerning reader, and one ought not to be impressed by awards but rather by the work itself.

The first poem I’d like to look at, “Machinery,” is a good example of both Huerta’s strength as a poet and the difficulties Schafer had to overcome in translating him. It is a longish poem (65 lines), so let’s only look at the opening movement:

What’s the use of all this I ask you your fever your sobbing
What’s the use of yelling or butting your head against the fog
Why crash in the branches scratch those nickels
What’s the point of jinxing yourself staining yourself

The odd syntax and the overflow of poetic energy are well represented in the English. My only complaint is that in the first line, the English allows for a double reading such that the speaker asks the “you” his question and perhaps asks “your fever” and “your sobbing,” while also allowing “your fever” and “your sobbing” to still be the “all this” of his question—all of which is a really pleasant possible double reading, but which is unfortunately not in the Spanish. The Spanish reads “Para qué sirve todo eso te digo tu fiebre tu sollozo.” The verb is decir (“to tell, to say”), thus allowing for the more literal “What’s the use of all this I tell you your fever your sobbing” but which does not eliminate the possibility of a double reading, since the issue isn’t really so much the verb as the indirect object “te” in Spanish that is placed before the verb instead of after it in English, thus eliminating the possible double-meaning in Spanish and creating it in English. Basically, what we have here is an example of why Umberto Eco calls translation “the art of failure.” Spanish grammar clarifies what the English cannot without major alteration to either the sense or syntax. And so my complaint is not with Schafer’s translation but rather with the onerous task of translation itself. Schafer meets with dozens of these sorts of impasses throughout the book and generally finds innovative ways around them, and when no way around exists, he limits the loss in joy from the original, as he has here. (My complaint, I trust most will agree, is rather nitpicky and perhaps entirely unimportant in some readers’ minds.)

Let’s now look at “Sick Man” in its entirety, which exemplifies the productive strangeness of many of Huerta’s poems. Here, illness disrupts reality and language, making technically nonsensical language carry an emotional resonance that a more direct psychological realism could not:

The nighttime dog eats
two rings of blood
but the twilight dog chases him away.
The diamonds in his chest
burn and scatter.
The daytime dog licks
the entrance to his chest
but the nighttime dog
knows the way out.
All the dogs
want a backbone of diamonds.
Two rings of fresh blood spin around.
His chest finds itself increasingly alone
with the scent of barking.

That threatening bark is perhaps the threat of debilitation at illness’s hand, the fear of death, the crushing loneliness of serious illness. And the synergistic confusion is (and isn’t) the impenetrable meaningless of death/illness. I don’t mean to shrink Huerta’s poetic language to prosaic interpretations, since he could just as easily have written a straightforward thought-piece on illness and animal imagery, had that been what he intended to communicate, but I think the above-mentioned notions are some of the things he is after. Also, notice the perfect use of the title to force our understanding of the poem. I likely would have thought the poem was only mediocre if it were, for example, titled “Dogs.” His title (“Hombre enfermo” in the original) adds an emotional valence to all the words of the poem that would otherwise be mere pretty language without emotional import. This technique of title-as-lens is one Huerta uses to great effect throughout the book.

Schafer tells us in his introduction that he has two goals in mind with this book. “On the one hand, I want to offer English-speaking readers an overview of Huerta’s poetry since he published his first book, El jardín de la luz, in 1972. On the other hand, given that Huerta is alive and well, writing and publishing prolifically, I want to give readers ample opportunity to revel in his more recent work.” And revel is exactly what the reader does.
The publication of Before Saying Any of the Great Words is another in a long line of great contributions Copper Canyon Press has made to American poetry. In a post-monolingual world, and especially in the USA, which is quickly becoming officially and unofficially bilingual, I hope Huerta’s work will be read widely. Works in translation have a long tradition of influencing English-language poetry—from the Earl of Surrey, who invented blank verse in order to translate Virgil’s Ænead (which was metered but not rhymed)—thus allowing for Shakespeare’s plays to exist as we know them—to the importing of such forms as the sonnet from its Italian progenitors or the couplet from the French, and so on. What better time than now, in the age of globalization, for us to learn from our literary compatriots who live in other countries and write in other languages? I would therefore suggest Before Saying Any of the Great Words not only for classes on Latin American literature but also for poetry workshops, working poets everywhere, and anyone interested in the marvelously rich culture of Mexico.


[The above review was originally published in Florida State University’s The Southeast Review in a slightly different form.]

2 thoughts on “An Uneasy Revelry: a review of Before Saying Any of the Great Words

    1. It’s great all the way through. Huerta is one of those unique poets who gets both the deeply personal and the cultural-political, and he does it all with such aesthetic grace. You’ll love the book, I predict.


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