Reading a Paco Layna poem is like having a rambling conversation with a brilliant, self-effacing friend. There are leaps and digressions; there are eclectic “you should read this!” author shout-outs; there are self-corrections. Nothing gets resolved, but that’s not the point — it’s about muddling through life’s mysteries alongside someone who, while just as lost as you are, crystallizes that very lostness into something a little transcendent.
Francisco Layna Ranz published his first poetry collection in 2016 at age fifty-five, followed quickly by a second in 2017 (a third is on its way). In Layna’s voice, I feel the restless energy of a newcomer, combined with a world-weariness that can be rare among new voices when touching on subjects such as aging and parenthood.
Layna gravitates toward extremely long lines that spill over the edge of the page to match his scattered, self-questioning labyrinths of thought. Line breaks tend to coincide with sentence breaks, applying a form suggestive of logic to content that favors discursiveness. While he enthusiastically samples global art and literature, even his most esoteric musings are grounded in the everyday: plants, food, street names, corner churches.
My approach to these poems has been to hold on to their more conversational, casual notes wherever possible. Translators can be tempted to make our work too perfect, ironing out quirks and idioms in the name of precision. Rich vocabulary is key to Layna’s style, but so is a certain friendly informality; little asides like “but no” and “me, I’d like ...” invite subjectivity and resist privileging the author’s viewpoint over the reader’s.
To conclude this note, I want to talk about failure. Layna loves it, embraces it, welcomes it. (In fact, he wrote a scholarly book called The Efficacy of Failure.) In “Orchard,” Layna’s speaker plants “productive” crops like corn and cabbages, only to be crestfallen when “unproductive” plants — flowers, willows, weeds — shoot up instead. He laments his failure with an intentionally over-the-top exhortation: “why, Almighty Lord, does the earth defend itself and decide for me?” The melodramatic tone invites us to wonder whether the speaker is taking himself too seriously, and the beauty and texture of the plant names themselves make the “failure” lovely. We long for completeness, for predictable results, and yet the failed attempt can be more beautiful than what we wanted to happen. “And that is the poem, what it will always be: an attempt.”
At their best, Layna’s poems are nerdy, friendly, tender, and grave. I’m humbled and honored to share my own attempts to carry them into English with you.
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