The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century
Latin American Poetry

An Anthology
Ilan Stavans, Editor
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
It has over 700 pages, 84 poets, and 159 poems, face-à-face Spanish and English. It includes some of the best-known translators in the biz: Alastair Reid, Galway Kinnell, Forrest Gander, Elizabeth Bishop, W. S. Merwin ... and even Samuel Beckett.

It's a big pot, bubbling with poems from "Latin America," wherever that may be. From what we find here, it's presumably every place to the south of here where they speak and write Spanish and Portuguese, but not, apparently --- and somewhat arbitrarily --- Dutch or French (which leaves out Haiti, even though it has its own rich poetic culture) along with Creole. There are a few poems in Nahuatl.

It's a plump harvest weighing in with enough kilos to ravage my hernia when I lift the book up to leaf through it. Nicely laid out, though.

Speaking of heavy, all the heavies are here: Neruda, Vallejo, Borges, Paz, de Andrade, Melo Neto and Roberto Bolaño. Although I am not so sure of the poems chosen for inclusion. Take Bolaño. He gets six pages for just one poem, "The Last Love Song of Pedro J. Lastarria," which is OK, contains enough word-trick paradoxes that he specialized in, "The clashing of / Lastarria's teeth, that light up / This black night of the soul" --- along with his odd juxtapositions, "South America is no one's / Land, I'm getting ready / To slip into the lake, / Still as my eye..."

But when we compare this with some other Bolaño poems, it seems that this one doesn't have the edge of, say, " Visit to the Convalescent" which instead of drifting around Lastarria,

    It's the year 1976 and they've trepanned Darío Galicia's skull.
    He's alive, the Revolution's been defeated, it's a nice day
    in spite of storm clouds advancing slowly from the north, crossing the valley.

There is a certain pith to opening a long poem with a trepanning, and I even think Bolaño's prose could have been included, as it resonates with some of the powerful elements of poetry: repetition, rhythm, parallelisms. Take this from his wonderful novel, " The Prophet of Literature:"

    James Joyce shall be reincarnated as a Chinese boy in the year 2124.

    Thomas Mann shall become an Ecuadorian pharmacist in the year 2101.

    For Marcel Proust, a desperate and prolonged period of oblivion shall begin in the year 2033.

    Ezra Pound shall disappear from certain libraries in the year 2089.

    Vachel Lindsay shall appeal to the masses in the year 2101.

He is pure poetry, no matter what he's up to, but it seems to me that the single poem that Stavans picked is a tad pale in comparison to what Bolaño was able to bring off in his other prose and poetry.

In truth most of this volume has a certain air, not of the Wasteland but of the wasted. All the right poets are here: who can complain about a volume that gives us Martí and Neruda and Paz --- but the selection has an air of dryness to it, as if the editor is aiming the book to a specific market. Such as --- dare we say it? --- high-school or college literary types, those who take courses in English Lit and maybe decide to branch out for a semester or two for a lark, an overview of Latin American writings. A very profitable market indeed.

§   §   §

There's something definitely missing. When I pick up an anthology, I expect to leaf through and get a feeling of being rattled by at least one or two of the pieces I come across. I think particularly of a book of poetry that came to us several years ago, one about Brooklyn Brooklyn! --- Broken Land. There were poems that stood out, some like Enid Dame's "Soup" --- poems that creep up on you, won't leave you alone, and, after all these years, for me, still won't.

The wan nature of Latin American Poetry comes not only from what is present but from what is absent. I found a couple of mildly interesting poems --- some by José Martí, Rosario Castellanos and Cecilia Meireles stand out --- but in general, most of the rest left me wondering what the fuss was all about.

This doesn't mean that Latin-American poetry has to be seen as wilted, or witless. Some twentieth century poets that I've come across in the last few years resonate ... writing with pith and a certain elegant bitterness. For instance,

  1. Manuel del Cabral (Dominican Republic, 1907 - 1999) "Song to Onan's Complaining Hand" (great prison literature);
  2. Lionel Rugama (Nicaragua, 1949 - 1970) "The Earth Is a Satellite of the Moon" (political writing from an activist who was to die so soon after he wrote it);
  3. Javier Heraud (Peru, 1942 - 1963) "The Flies" (more politics); and
  4. Aquiles Nazoa (Venezuela, 1920 - 1976) "Credo" and "The Ballad of Hans and Jenny"(romantic writing at its best).

Now these poems (in contrast to what we find crowded into this anthology) I would characterize as showing a fierce literary spirit, a mix of hope and despair melded with enough romanticism to make it like life itself: a semi-sweet combination that is also to be found in the work of Marvell, Byron, and Keats ... and even T. S. Eliot, Wilfred Owen, Joseph Brodsky.

--- Carlos Amantea
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