By Reina María Rodríguez
Translated from the Spanish by Kristin Dykstra with Nancy Gates Madsen
Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019
176 pages. $18 (Paperback)
Reading translation is often like stumbling on a cache of treasure. Poets usually attain (and maintain) towering importance in their own countries and break out from their national literature into the wider audience of readers of their language before they attract the attention of translators and presses willing to take the financial risk (or loss) of publishing their work in the U.S. market. By the time a Caribbean poet like Reina María Rodríguez reaches English audiences, her status in her own country is unquestioned and her reputation in Hispanic literature established. Moreover, Reina María Rodríguez is a particularly prolific poet, so even a substantial volume like The Winter Garden Photograph represents a slender selection from a body of work that is generally considered by readers of Spanish to be astonishing. Kristin Dykstra’s choice to translate a volume that is so particular in its own right has been a risk that has paid off in a powerful book. The poems are ekphrastic, responding to photographs (not only the eponymous photograph), and the reader has no access to these images — they are not famous, nor specifically identified in a formal way. One particularly beautiful and strange image, torn and faded, envelops the cover of Ugly Duckling’s beautiful book, and that alone gives a sense to the reader of how irresistible this project of Rodríguez’s was: using images to which she doesn’t necessarily have any personal connection as points of departure to examine herself and the world around her.
Reina María Rodríguez’s name recalls that of Rilke, and I struggled to put aside the appetite this association whetted for me: I came to this book wanting to read poetry with the combustive-material-under pressure I love in the Duino Elegies, their terrible angels who don’t deign to destroy us because it’s beneath them. I wanted startling, denuding rhetorical epiphanies like that of “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Rodríguez in fact does capture what I most love about Rilke, although there is much about her poems that is her own, and, though we may associate Rilke with dinggedicht, the poetry of things, for me Rodríguez is more a poet of the world and its matter that the master she evokes.
Rodríguez’s shifts to the physical image when we believe her to be talking about something more ineffable entranced me regularly and constitute the most important strength in these poems. When, in “she would come back” she writes, “she would go down to the stones before that intensity / turned to blood; / all that love turned to blood / running down her thighs,” she manages to corral abstractions like love, intensity, and even blood, and, through a deft switch in the way we understand “blood,” first metaphysical, now physical, bring us into a striking, almost noir image that challenges how we understand love and who is capable of experiencing it. Love seems to be, all of a sudden, something only a young girl understands, an experience the reader might never have, or have again. Reina María Rodríguez’s assertiveness in imputing supposedly universal ideas into particular, even inaccessible, human (especially bodily) experience is an idiosyncrasy essential to her work.
Her turns to the personal and interpersonal can be startling in their suddenness, and they gain an intensity from their quick shifts away from landscape. In “strange waters (1981)” she writes, “I sit down on the strongest branch / of the sea grape. It’s thick, twisted, petrified, / without duality of shadow. Let me contemplate you.” Before we can recover from this shift, its sense, as in “Archaic Torso” that we have just been found out by something we didn’t think could watch us, she ends the poem, “maybe the branch will split.” The ability to locate the speaker in an image-rich landscape while establishing a theme like duality in multiple valences is also characteristic of her work across these poems.
Poets writing in Spanish tend to allow line breaks to stand alone where English-language poets would tend to use punctuation to indicate grammatical separation. Kristin Dykstra has, in some cases, added end stops where none existed in the original, and has in a few cases even gone so far as to add punctuation mid-line, as when she renders the last line of “something will be for me.” Dykstra renders the original, “la uña está partida y sangra” as “my nail is split. it bleeds.” This small gesture produces a significant effect on the tone of that line and of the poem as a whole. The insistence created by the pause, the enhanced dislocation of the speaker’s body from her observation, are significantly emphasized by the addition of a period and the reframing of a participle as an active verb. This gesture seems to me representative of Dykstra’s style across this book: she is confident in her choices, mainly faithful to the original, and willing to add what appear to be tweaks but are really forceful editorial choices. Especially given the many hands involved in this book, Dykstra’s alterations remind me of the fallacy of exclusive authorship of any piece of literature, the extent to which translated texts are collaborative, and the possibility that collaboration is a model of artistic production that better reflects the genius of women.
The Winter Garden Photograph is rich in front and back matter, including a prologue, translator’s note, and introduction to an interview with the author that provide abundant insight into the process and context for the book’s writing and translation; but it is the interview, conducted by Rosa Alcalá, in 2001, translated by her with Dykstra’s assistance, and reproduced at the end of the book, that is a truly unique, fascinating, and unexpected aspect of this volume. If readers sometimes bring the expectation (or hope) that writers, especially poets, will be eccentric geniuses of uncommon impressions, Rodríguez satisfies. Her discussion of motherhood is singular. In response to Alcalá’s observation that she had two children already when she began a writers’ salon in her own home (she had four at the time of the interview), Rodríguez reflects on motherhood at length, discloses medical procedures that affected her reproductive health, and says, “I like to give birth. Truthfully, I think it’s one of those moments — that very moment of having someone inside of you, and then seeing that person leave, come out of you … it has made such an impression on my that I would have continued having children. If I’m afraid of anything, it’s the inability to have more children.” Her remarks could be written off as another way of talking about mortality; even so it is a way of talking about mortality that deserves to be reflected upon. I would say this moment represents a woman talking about her experience of her creative and artistic power as being inextricably bound with the procreative power of her body. This constitutes a vision of power from which the male body, and its attending psychology, are categorically excluded. Moments like this, where women frankly envision their humanity in the fullness of their physical reality as women, even if this excludes men from sharing in that expression of humanity, seem to me too few and far between, and this book is worth reading even for the reflections and discomfort Rodríguez’s comments might occasion.
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