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Night Watch – Ronda de Noche

Night Watch – Ronda de Noche

By Ana Becciú

Translated by Cecilia Rossi

Waterloo Press, 86pp, paperback, ISBN 978-1906742-26-3
Series 3 Number 16 - The Dialect of the Tribe

These three poets address universal secular concerns, perhaps also offering insight into the current course of the rich and lively literature of South America

Review by Christopher North

Three Argentinian Poets

Also a review of:

Tamara Kamenszain
Men and Women Alone – Solos y solas
Translated by Cecilia Rossi
Waterloo Press
57pp, paperback ISBN 978-190674227-0

Mori Ponsowy
Enemies Outside – Enimigos Afuera
Translated by Mori Ponsowy and Naomi Foyle
Waterloo Press
72pp, paperback, ISBN 978-1-906742-25-6

Recently published in attractive bi-lingual volumes by Waterloo Press within the ‘Sur’ translation support programme, these three poets address universal secular concerns, perhaps also offering insight into the current course of the rich and lively literature of South America. Primarily they demonstrate a strong North American influence, leavened with an international consciousness. All are well travelled, although their voices vary considerably in texture and style. They range from the cool narrative tone of Mori Ponsonwy with its wide range of techniques and subject matter, to the dense, multi- layered and complex prose poetry of Ana Becciú.

Tamara Kamenszain’s work lies between the two. Men and Women Alone, her eighth collection, is concerned with the inner trajectories of love affairs – their initiation, progress and dissimulation. Her free verse is spare and tightly controlled. There is some suggestion of an overall narrative and the boundaries of the poetry are very well-defined. The intention is always clear and the collection has a clarity of voice – a forceful exploration of a single, very urban woman, seeking the solace of new relationships through the rather clinical processes of the internet or agency dating. The most striking section of the collection is a sequence that opens each poem with the refrain line: ‘When I see you for the first time’. The exploration of these coolly controlled untitled pieces is wholly international – they could just as easily have been written in London, Chicago or Sydney. This is partly the product of the translator’s approach – she is unafraid to use the colloquialisms of a multi-national voice. The narrator of these forceful pieces is anticipating a first date. She clearly carries some baggage from her past and anticipates seeking to explore the same in her prospective partner. They are knowing, worldly poems that speak directly and with great precision:

When I see you for the first time
I plan to be aware
of the password of your hands
but above all the tone of your voice
a deaf sound that will let me know
if it’s your organism that’s saying what you say

Mori Ponsowy is best known as an award-winning novelist and journalist. This first collection of her poetry has clear echoes of North American exposure. It is no surprise to learn that she has translated the very American voices of Sharon Olds and Marie Howe. Admittedly the title of her collection Enemies Outside suggests there might be some interesting examination of South American angst about the insularity of her country – but this is not so. Her concerns are the familiar and universal ones of failed relationships, the intensity of the mother/son bond and philosophical explorations that move away from the personal. Overall her work has a largely free verse style that is both energetic and accessible. 

A key poem ‘DNA’ explores that familiar flash of recognition when an inherited mannerism is observed in a child. It is a particularly poignant experience when the mannerism is that of a departed partner:

The boy has never seen his father asleep
but sleeps himself in the same strange position,
on his side arms stretched behind him,
hands interlaced, at ease in his dreams.

This is a poem that touches a familiar nerve with sureness and restraint. Her poetry moves towards the confessional in the autobiographical embittered sequence ‘Unfit for Life’ which opens with a quotation from Wisława Szymborska that is central to her overall concerns ‘Reality demands/ that we also mentions this:/ Life goes on.’

These two collections have the conventional recto verso arrangement of the poems so that the translations can be paired with the originals, always, to me, an enriching element of bi-lingual collections. With Becciú’s Night Watch, however the English version forms the front half of the book and the translation the back. This makes comparison difficult. As the narrative thread is not sequential, and each untitled part to some extent stands alone, I am not sure why this decision was taken. 

Night Watch takes the form of a single extended prose poem and it is a good deal more challenging than the other collections reviewed here. Ana Becciú is a prolific, award-winning translator of a wide variety of American and European writers including Artaud, Manguel, Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, so again her background is essentially international.The trajectory of this extended sequence is a profound exploration of the vicissitudes and confusions of the experience of love. It uses language that requires a careful teasing apart of tenses and rational order that some might consider an excessive imposition on the patience of the reader. 

Only after several close readings, particularly readings aloud, did this series of ‘cris de coeur’ begin to resonate with me. I recall a brief article by Don Paterson on the subject of the general public’s reluctance to engage with difficult contemporary poetry. He suggests that such poets, in effect, offer a contract to their readers. On the poet’s side, text must be created to give enlightenment, enrichment, emotional recognition or plain enjoyment. On the reader’s side, reading the poem should involve the same concentration and effort as the poet’s in creating it – i.e. the pact between them suggests a 50/50 input. Where the contract, as far as the reader is concerned, ascends above a moiety then the reader’s difficulties begin, difficulties that the vast majority of readers are simply not prepared to accept. The poetry of Ana Becciú, in this collection, demands a great deal from the reader– perhaps as much as 60% reader, 40% poet - a contract perilously close to breaking. 

The velocity of the verse reminds me of a film I saw of Samuel Beckett’s extraordinary one act play Not I in which a stream of language pours from a woman’s mouth, the only part of the actor’s anatomy visible. Utterances fly in an unstoppable, barely punctuated, stream which moves from the declamatory, to occasional and deliberate incoherence. In Night Watch the poet moves from first to second to third person singular and plural with bewildering frequency and moves from continuous present to various forms of the past and subjunctive and, whilst this hinders interpretation and narrative flow, it also in places creates startling effects.In addition to this volatility, the poet employs a menagerie of strangely mixed metaphors which on occasion border on the risible. What can we make of these passages, for example, cited at random?

Dismally the heart won’t be a story, nor will there be a cloak on her lips
covering the spaces of ice that surround her, like piranhas, the others.

They are bags full of words she’ll have fallen into in a few years where she’ll
try at all costs to find one that speaks. The edges of her adolescence, suddenly clear, are flashes of magnetic duration….

Many references are clearly personal, others literary. Sylvia Plath and Cesar Vallejo make an appearance and there’s a ‘black puddle’ in a stated reference to Canto VII of Dante’s Inferno. A black puddle incidentally seems a curiously suburban image for landscape within the inner circles of hell – perhaps the result of being a translation of a translation of a translation. I don’t think irony is intended.

Although I occasionally crash-landed in the more self-indulgent and over-heated passages, in the end I trusted this poet and the separate translation – which incidentally must have presented enormous technical difficulties for the translator. There are many passages where the rush of language is persuasively penetrating, where the flicker of changing tenses and points of view actually involve and inform:

Owner of two voices, with one I enter the other like a stranger, in the verbal house, the father’s house, my tongue is foreign, and those who in it get worked
up don’t understand. I says love and they recall the prey inside the burrow.
I says her and they rhyme hysteria, I is a music and they turn her paralytic.

Christopher North

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