Featured review



By José Kozer

Translated by Peter Boyle

Shearsman Books Paperback 268pp £12.95 ISBN-13: 978-1848611467
Series 3 Number 18 - Transitions

There are moments when Boyle does not translate at all, or does so as an afterthought: ‘Beautiful word the word bellota (uneatable) (acorn).’ This is a technique of Kozer’s as well. He also interprets parenthetically for his readers – ‘daturas (campánulas)’, ‘datura (harebells)’.

Review by Annie McDermott

I write poetry like I breathe; I write poetry like I’m talking to you now; I write poetry without being aware of what I’m doing […]. I wrote a poem, very complex, and twenty-four hours later, if you asked me about it, I wouldn’t tell you anything; I forget the poem completely; it becomes obliterated in my mind one hundred per cent. 

(José Kozer in an interview in Jacket magazine, 2008)

Translating Kozer is about translating spontaneity. This does not mean that his poems are not difficult, because they are, but their difficulty is of a very specific sort. Kozer likens poetry to health, and he likens writing it every day to the daily practice sessions of a musician. It is less a product, for him, than a process, leading to what he calls a ‘lucidity that depends on persistence’. His translator’s task, then, is to allow his work to feel as comfortably and intimately lived in English as it does in Spanish, and this is precisely what Peter Boyle achieves.

‘A sixty-year-old man writes a poem and entitles it “Anima”,’ Kozer writes in the prologue to this volume. ‘Days later he writes another poem with a tone similar to the first, entitles it “Anima”, then realises he has just begun a series which must all bear the same title.’ As well as tone, the poems share vocabulary, landscapes and imagery. They are permeated by water, ash and sunlight; by Bible verses, string quartets, corduroy trousers and eating lunch. Less separate poems than sixty variations of the same one, they are all called ‘Anima’ in the same way as the present is always called ‘now’.

These poems are at once everyday and transcendental. They inhabit the present, but it is a present moment that expands and contracts to encompass both immediate sensual experience and the infinity that surrounds it:

Guadeloupe and I have just had lunch and God registers
the event.

There is no interval between digestion love and death.

This is part of the ordained pattern God has also registered
it in the Book of Events.

A certain frugality including the rough texture of stone
and sand.

A certain frugality, and on the turntable Beethoven’s
string quartet no. 5 opus 18

Three in the afternoon Sunday year’s end I am sixty[.]

This expansion and contraction of the present moment is perfectly performed by lines like these:

At two in the afternoon give or take a few minutes for weeks I’ve heard
a hammer banging on the rooftop

The precision of ‘two in the afternoon’ is further sharpened by the apologetic ‘give or take a few minutes’, which focuses our attention on one specific point, only for this single instant to be multiplied into a habit by the two words that follow: ‘for weeks’. The present can also fragment into various things that all happen at once, and Kozer uses parentheses to make holes in his sentences that let this simultaneity seep in:

The horse will be drenched in sweat on the plains of Elis, funeral
rites (I adjust my glasses) […]

The plurality of experience in Kozer’s work is matched by the plurality of his language. A Cuban-American with Jewish parents and a Spanish wife, Kozer is less interested in defining his identity than in exploring the contradictions to which it gives him access. He describes the Spanish of his poetry as an ‘absorbent’ language, and Anima is scattered with fragments of Beatles lyrics, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, biblical verses, Havana street slang, Latin phrases and Italian musical terms. ‘I am all in favour of this mestizaje,’ he says in an interview, his choice of this politically-charged word bringing to mind not only the ‘mixing’ of Spanish conquistadores with indigenous peoples in Latin America, but also the contemporary mingling of Latin-American cultures with their neighbours in the North.

Boyle welcomes this spirit of mestizaje into his translation, using an English that is as absorbent as Kozer’s Spanish. He makes bold choices, translating Cuban slang into equally localised English, knowing that with a writer like Kozer, adding new geographical associations enriches rather than disorientates the work. When he opts for ‘old geezer’ to replace ‘ocambo’, a Cuban colloquialism of African origin, but leaves us with ‘a couple/ of pesos’ a few lines later, it works perfectly. ‘I confuse/ country/ with country’, Kozer writes in the same poem, and we are invited to do the same.

There are moments when Boyle does not translate at all, or does so as an afterthought: ‘Beautiful word the word bellota (uneatable) (acorn).’ This is a technique of Kozer’s as well. He also interprets parenthetically for his readers – ‘daturas (campánulas)’, ‘datura (harebells)’. His interest in language is in its sound as much as its meaning, this is a means of allowing the reader to experience the musicality of a word without immediately passing through it to the meaning. Elsewhere, the use of repetition does the opposite, emphasising the sound of a word after we have already absorbed its significance:

[…] soon the carpenter’s brace sawdust vice
plane will thoroughly
(golgotha golgotha) thin down
the surface.

The repetition of Golgotha makes us think more of its texture as a word, its rhythm echoing the sound and back-and-forth motion of the carpenter’s sanding. Kozer’s readers are always aware that on either side of the signifier lies the sound from which it is made, just as on either side of the immediate present of his poetry there stretches an infinity of time.

In his essay on the Neobaroque, a name given to the strand of highly difficult, modernist-influenced Latin American poetry with which he identifies himself, Kozer says that these poets belong to a time attuned not only to the classical but also to its detritus; to Order, but also to Chaos. This is one reason why his poetry seems so at home in Boyle’s extraordinary English translation. Anima is polyphonic and many-tongued, although, depending on where you begin, different things are recognisable and different things are new: where in the original the Beatles lyrics were in the foreign language, here they are familiar and it is words like bellota that are foreign. The words from other languages often remain untranslated by either Kozer or Boyle, and are woven into the fabric untouched. To read Anima in translation is merely to take a step sideways and approach it from a different starting point. This poetry already belongs everywhere.

Annie McDermott

Interested in sending a short review to MPT?

Pencil icon

Find out how to send a Poetry Postcard.» Read the guidelines

Browse reviews

By issue of MPT »

Contributor and student discounts

If you are a student, or if you contribute to MPT you are eligible for a great discount deal when you subscribe…» Subscribe now

Next issue…

Spring 2017

Spring 2017

No 4 / 2014

Submissions related to the open call are accepted at submissions@mptm... » Read more » Submit to MPT

Back to top
Supported by Arts Council England

Copyright © Modern Poetry in Translation and contributors
Website design ashbydesign
Developed by Code Frontiers
Powered by Storemill