Valeria Luiselli
(Coffee House Press)
A few months ago, Coffee House Press sent us Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd. It's about this translator, see, who works in New York City with a small publishing house, and in the evenings she lives alone in her apartment. She --- let's call her Valeria --- has some fairly dotty friends with names like Pajarote ("Big Bird"), Dakota (who steals a desk for her and sometimes sings with a bucket on her head), Moby (who smells bad and fabricates first edition books), and Salvatore, who lives upstairs (and likes to stroke her legs while she's telling him lies).

One of Valeria's projects --- no, let's call it an obsession --- has to do with the Mexican poet Gilberto Owen who lived in New York from 1928 to 1930. He apparently knew Federico García-Lorca who lived nearby, writing A Poet in New York.

Like everyone else here, Owen is an odd duck. He was alcoholic, briefly worked for the Mexican consular offices in New York (and later in Philadelphia), and wrote some rather challenging poetry. Challenging? Those who try to read --- much less translate --- Owen ought to have their heads examined. I know. I tried. (See below.*)

Owen is in love with puns, nonsense, random images. Nothing is linear, the poems are quite a smudge, such that you don't know whether you --- or the poet --- are coming or going.

Anyway, Valeria's trying to talk her boss into producing a book of Owen's poetry. Wisely, the editor resists, and they go out to a bar to nip some whisky and argue some more about it. When they get ready to leave, she looks around, and

    I saw William Carlos Williams beside me, wearing enormous glasses, inspecting the vagina of a miniature woman lying on a napkin on the bar; there was the poet Zvorsky sitting at a table conducing an imaginary orchestra; Ezra Pound hanging in a cage at the corner of the counter and García-Lorca tossing him peanuts, which he accepted gleefully.

It is later decided that she's been drugged.

She has fallen in love with Owen, or at least the Owen who lived in the city so many years ago. Valeria is determined to make sure that the publishing house brings out the book.

But Owen --- not unlike his poetry --- gets more and more mixed up in Faces in the Crowd. At one point he even seems to become her. It's all quite dada.

Somewhere around here Valeria gets married, has two children. Meanwhile, her husband goes off to Philadelphia, presumably to construct a house, but, more likely, to shack up with another lady. He seems to become Owen too. I think. One can never be sure what's going to pop out of the closet or climb down from the roof in Faces in the Crowd. It is, as I say, dada.

Meanwhile, Owen is going blind from his alcoholism, and writes,

    If eyes can be compared with reflective pools of water, then the punishment of terminal blindness falls on them like a cataract. Blindness, like castigation and cataracts, comes from above, with no obvious purpose or meaning; and it's accepted with the humble resignation of a body of water trapped in a pool, perpetually fed by more of itself. My blindness is black and white and I have a veritable Niagara on my brow.

§   §   §

So we, like Valeria, get to live in New York City and become more and more like a poet who lived there a half-century before. There, too, is a friend who dons a bucket whenever she sings and her husband who comes and goes, reading her novel, and complaining about his role in it (he doesn't want her to write that he is obsessed with vampires) and her son who wants to know who Moby-Dick is, and hovering over all this mess poet Gilberto Owen who takes a bigger and bigger role in the novel she is writing --- Owen and his friend Homer, a blind man with one small eye and

    the larger one rolled in its violet socket like a demented white bird --- it was like one of those doves trapped inside a church or railway station, beating its wings against a high, closed window.

"I enjoyed watching that erratic eye, which didn't see me." Turns out Homer is one of the Collyer brothers, the blind one, who became famous for living in a house in the city with junk piled up to the ceilings. Maybe it's not dada: maybe what we have here is a huge literary basket where Luiselli tosses these scraps of ideas and writers and loonies, the women who exchange panties and paint their breasts cobalt blue and men who forge collectors volumes of rare books and men who run off from their wivesw to Philadelphia so they can turn into an obscure Mexican poet.

§   §   §

It's fitting that after I finished the book I spent some time going through it again marking it up not at my desk but in my second favorite place to work outside my bed, that is in a big tub filled with bubbles and hot water and here I was marking a passage like the one about blindness above (the book is filled with them) and I guess I got so addled --- Luiselli can do that you --- that I dropped Faces in the Crowd in the water including my Pilot pen which bled black all over me before I could rescue it but the book was inconsolable. You know what happens when you try to take a bath with a book with your carefully inked notes in it.

I set it in the sun to try to resuscitate it with solar heat, a compassionate light as it were, but the pages got gummily stuck together --- still are --- and I thought how in hell am I going to work on a review if page 12 where friend Pajarote is doing philosophy at Columbia studying "temporary coincidence and a cat, now with a tail, now without a tail" --- Schrödinger's cat, we assume --- jampacked up against page 13: her boss tells her he is thinking of cutting down a tree just outside his house where he keeps seeing his dead wife floating there amid the branches. How can I write a decent goddamn review where all my book notes are jumbled into a big smear.

Then out of the blue last week Coffee House Press sends me the same author's new book, Sidewalks, which is just fine with me, because I can now tell you (trust me!) to nip out and get the wet one because despite my spaghetti summary it's a corker although now for me, a very haggard one, a rather wrinkled old book-friend. Get it, a preferably a dry copy.


Get that one too. Why? It's a doozer. Listen to this take on Venice:

    When the trip was over and I reread my notes, I swore I'd never write anything about Venice, simply because there's nothing more vulgar and futile than encouraging the production of even one more page about the city, perhaps the most frequently cited place in the world of books. Writing about Venice is like emptying a glass of water into the sea.

--- Richard Saturday

*This is my translation of Gilberto Owen's "Lost Hell."

El infierno perdido

    Por el amor de una nube
    De blanda piel me perdí
    Duermo encadenado al cielo
    Sin voz sin nombre sin ser
    Sin ser voz suena mi nombre
    Mas donde sueña no sé
    Que se me enredó la oreja
    Descifrando un caracol
    Tras una reja de olas
    Lo hará burbujas un pez
    Mas mi boca ya no sabe
    La sílaba sal del mar
    Sílaba de sal que salta
    Del mar a mis ojos sin
    Lágrimas que la desposen
    Y el frío mal traductor
    Mal traidor ángel del frío
    Roba mi nombre de ayer
    Y me lo vuelve sin fiebre
    Sin tacto sin paladar
    Contacto bobo del cero
    Grados que era su inicial
    Con su tardes de ceniza
    En mi lengua de alcohol
    En su verde voz de llama
    De menta ahoga en mi voz
    Con su blando amor de nube
    Que el orden me encadenó.

For the love of a cloud
Of soft skin I lost my self
I sleep chained to the sky
Without a voice without a name without being
Without a voice to sound my name
But where in dreams I don't know
Dreams that caught me by the ear
Dreams deciphered by a snail
Under a web of waves
A fish making bubbles
That my mouth still doesn't know
Syllables that left the salt sea
Waves of salt that leap
From the sea to my eyes without
Tears to ensnare her
The cold poor translator
A vile traitor a cold angel
Steals yesterday's name and
Gives it back without without heat
Without feeling without taste
I reach the fool's point of zero
Degrees that was the first
In your afternoons of ashes
On my alcoholic tongue
Your green voice that calls from
The mint that drowned in my voice
With your soft cloud of love
That left me in chains.

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