Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Incurable Sensibility of David Huerta: Before Saying Any of the Great Words, David Huerta, Selected Poems, translated by Mark Schafer.

The Incurable Sensibility of David Huerta: Before Saying Any of the Great Words, David Huerta, Selected Poems, translated by Mark Schafer.

article by Michael Todd Steffen

Alive with play, bold, crazy, surprising yet lacking much correlation with common experience, smacking somewhat of the improbable, the language of David Huerta’s poetry as rendered by Mark Schafer makes you want to say, “amazing… incurable.” It is a poetry primarily interested in linguistic exposition, and it dazzles us with oxymoronic expressions like “intolerant composure” and juxtapositions of the concrete with the abstract—

But he knew how
to drag her into a swoon, into the grim
daybreaks of stupefaction.

These instances come from the poem “Pathological Beings,” the title itself betraying another characteristic of Huerta’s poetry, a defiance and boldness with deference and silence, which has a stunning, snappy effect. There is some (comic) relief in poking intelligent fun at people’s misery, if not for a lack of solemnity and sympathy. But then what poet makes herself entirely herself without defining lacks? It is what the poet gives us that is important, and Huerta has published nineteen books of poetry and won all of Mexico’s major literary awards. Shake a finger at that.
Huerta’s early poetry heralds him, the son of the acclaimed Mexican poet Efrain Huerta, as “a smart young poet whose work revealed a voracious reading of poetic traditions across many centuries and several languages” (Translator’s Note). That unresolved arpeggio of a vast reader’s culture is sounded in the first poem, “Fumbling through the heart of music,” with the embellished image of the drowned sailor:

I remembered Phlebas
—ears besieged by mounds of seaweed,
open eyes drifting weightless
toward the rock tattooed with reflections,
fish like rats around his body…

Shafer gives us eight samples of Huerta’s early poetry, leading to sections of the monumental poem bespeaking the impossibility of finality or definition inherent in Huerta’s sensibility, entitled Incurable, “the longest poem in Mexican history,” which the Translator’s Note goes on to describe as having “confounded many readers and astonished all. Some read it as a poem, others as a novel, and still others as a kind of fractured self-portrait.” The translator might have mentioned among the influences to this poem the most obvious one, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. While Huerta’s language sparks with post-modern fireworks, ideas and terminology, the main of it, its trunk of subject and syntax, the expressiveness in long lines, is essentially Whitmanesque.

The stuff of the self, an Orphic descent into desire,
a touch of what spills over, neither center nor handle,
a well bounded by the north of words and the hellish or Egyptian south
of the repressed, deferred, postponed, abandoned in the horrific
gardens of the past (from Chapter I).

And again,

The heavenly bodies
above and this body I know because it is my own, the drops
that trickle from me, the spilled virtues I mention to no one,
the evolutions of my body in an abandoned bed, my fingers
in the urgent darkness… (Chapter VII).

If with the shadows of anguish, irony, doubt and argument, Shafer’s selections of Incurable read as a celebration of Huerta’s self extended (transcended) to the cosmos about him, that is also himself, the mind merged or collided with all it has experienced.
Mark Shafer has done brilliant work in bringing this major Mexican poet into English. The organization of the book has a simple coherence for readers at their first encounter with what is, should you dig deeper, a dauntingly labyrinthine and copious body of writing. More than just the words, Shafer has translated the poetry of Huerta into smooth English—

But she knew what untoward
and tenacious manner would confound him (“Pathological Beings”).

Before Saying Any of the Great Words is well worth the feather in your hat and the read, a mind-hunt of zaniness and intelligence that makes you want to keep turning the pages.

Before Saying Any of the Great Words/David Huerta/Selected Poems
translated by Mark Schafer
Copper Canyon Press
P.O. Box 271
Port Townsend, WA 98368

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