By James Wagner | Review by Rachel Galvin
Calamari Press | $12.00 | 106 pages | paper | ISBN 0977072320

According to early drafts, a number of the Trilce poems were originally sonnets composed after the models of Golden Age poets such as Góngora, Quevedo, and Lope de Vega. In one poem that draws from San Juan de la Cruz’s La noche oscura, Vallejo substitutes “piano” for “night” and writes of a “piano oscuro” that cavorts along its interior voyage until it is halted in a kind of crucifixion: “Este piano viaja para adentro, / viaja a saltas alegres / Luego medita en ferrado reposo, / clavado con diez horizontes” (XLIV). Throughout Trilce Vallejo juxtaposes radically unlikely images, employs parataxis, and uses the Incaic principle of complementarity as a structuring principle, in which each element of nature coexists with and summons its opposite (up/down, male/female). The volume signals language’s resistance to fixity and its socially determined nature, which was of particular import to Vallejo, a Peruvian living with the legacy of Spanish conquest, and more personally, as the grandson of two Jesuit priests and two Chimú women growing up in a polylingual environment.

“Quíen hace tanta bulla, y ni deja /testar las islas que van quedando,” Trilce famously opens. The first poem in James Wagner’s recent book of the same name (Calamari Press, 2006) begins “Ken has a taunted bell a, you know day should / test our lost eyelids cuban kids and dough.” Wagner has composed homophonic translations or “auralgraphs,” as he calls them, of all seventy-seven poems of Vallejo’s breakthrough book. Appropriately enough, Wagner coined this term: it suggests that he records the sound of Vallejo’s poems as he hears them, and unlike a traditional translation, makes no claim to presenting a one-to-one equivalence of Vallejo’s language in English. This is a continuation of an earlier project: Wagner’s first book of poems, The False Sun Recordings, includes a section of homophonic translations into English of poems by Paul Reverdy, Paul Celan, and Vallejo’s Trilce.

The reader might well be mystified upon first picking up Wagner’s book. It stands as a curious object in the way that it presents its relation to Vallejo and his work. Neither Vallejo’s nor Wagner’s biography is given, nor is the fact that the title belongs to a 1922 volume by a Peruvian poet mentioned—apart from in the praise on the back of the book. Instead, on the last page, where a biography or explanatory note might usually reside, there is a photograph of Wagner laying sheets of paper, presumably his poems, on Vallejo’s grave in Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris. Wagner’s book also features a series of multi-media collages by Derek White, which—according to White’s blog—offer a parallel instantiation of Wagner’s effort. Taken in sum, the book is an homage that challenges the uninitiated reader to decode its stakes.

The major risk of such an undertaking is to reduce Trilce, one of the Spanish language’s most difficult books of poetry, to a mass of unintelligible sound and strip it of its complexities. But taking a larger view, the fact that Trilce has inspired this kind of sustained engagement with its sound points to its status as a cornerstone of contemporary poetry.

There is, in fact, a long-standing practice of homophonic translation among experimental poets. Raymond Queneau includes a “Homophonique” text in his 1947 Exercices de style, which opens, “Ange ouvert m’y dit sur la pelle à deux formes d’un haut obus (est-ce?), j’à peine sus un je nomme (o Coulomb!) avec de l’adresse autour du chat beau.” (Hint: there is an “autobus S” in the middle of that sentence.) In English, the practice extends from Louis Zukovsky’s Catullus to David Melnick’s inimitable translation of Homer, Men in Aïda (“Men in Aïda, they appeal, eh? A day, O Achilles!”), Charles Bernstein’s homophonic translations from the Basque and the Portuguese, and the enjoyable ongoing series of homophonic translations featured in the journal Circumference. It is a practice “at least as demanding as rhyme,” as Rosemarie Waldrop points out in her comments on Wagner’s Trilce, and may certainly be considered a form of constraint. The end product of Wagner’s experiment often evokes the fragmented rhythm of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems, and it would not be inappropriate to hear those echoes. Wagner writes in a note accompanying his poems in DIAGRAM, “I believe my initial interest came via writing experiments mentioned by Bernadette Mayer on the web somewhere. Charles Bernstein’s interests in these things, and a phonetic translation of a Henri Michaux poem in Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, were also components.”

Eliot Weinberger writes in the introduction to his translation of Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor, the other book of Latin American avant-garde poetry vying for the title of most difficult to translate, “It is quite possible that another English version would be utterly dissimilar to this one, particularly in those passages where no two Spanish readers would agree on the exact components of invented words. The game of Altazor has an infinite number of moves, and I’ve played it differently each time I’ve published a version.” The final lines of Canto IV, for example, read “El pájaro tralalí canta en las ramas de mi cerebro / Porque encontró la clave del eterfinifrete / Rotundo como el unipacio y el espaverso / Uiu uiui /Tralalí tralalá / Aia ai ai aaia i i.” Huidobro and Vallejo are renowned for being difficult to read in Spanish, never mind the translator’s challenge of rendering all of their texts’ aspects, beyond their phonetic matrices. Insofar as the essential but impossible task of translation is concerned, multiple translations are an ethical good. And particularly so in the case of such complex poetry. But Wagner is certainly not setting out to render Trilce the way that translators Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi have in their supple and witty versions. (I highly recommend their recent translation of Vallejo’s complete works brought out by Shearsman Books.) But as a project, Wagner’s version draws attention to the aporia of translating sound and sense at once.

Decipherment is at center stage in this book. Wagner’s technique opens the door to humor—“el dulce” in XXVII becomes “elder ulcer”—and to a consideration of sound and what makes it expressive. In one study on cognitive poetics, Reuven Tsur argues convincingly that in different contexts, different potentialities of the acoustic, phonetic, and phonological properties of sounds may be manifest—the sounds [s] and [š] may be noisy in Poe and soothing in Shakespeare, for example. Wagner’s experiments highlight this principle. The bare components of language, as he writes in LXXI, may be doubled and doubled again, to the point of excess: “Surplus suns and too many faces, / you see they are making telling sewing two curiosities.”

Encountering Wagner’s poems is the auditory equivalent of squinting while wearing stereoscopic goggles: it recalls the experience of listening to a foreign language and trying to parse a word or a phrase out of an ongoing stream, while hearing the buzz of one’s own language in the background. For the reader who knows the Spanish, there is a powerful urge to decode Wagner’s English fragments and find Vallejo waiting somewhere between the phonemes. “You can close your eyes & almost hear it in either language,” Ron Silliman notes of Melnick’s Men in Aïda. This is true only at intervals, however, in Wagner’s Trilce. The collection’s closing line, “Canta, lluvia, en la costa aún sin mar!” does become a fairly recognizable “Count a, love via, in the cost of answering more!” in Wagner’s poem. But rarely does Wagner repeat the Spanish closely, such as in XLVII when “ciliado archipiélago” becomes “See I adore archipelagoes”; or exactly, such as in XLVI, when “no hay / valor” appears as “no hay / valor,” creating an entertaining bilingual pun and underscoring the gap between orthography and language-specific pronunciation. But by and large, Wagner makes startling suggestions that are hard to hear with both ears at once: such that “A que no me atrevo” resembles “Water gnome” (LVII). Water gnome? Elsewhere, for “Aguedita, Nativa, Miguel? / Llamo, busco al tanteo en la oscuridad” he offers “I killed a native am-muscle? / Llambos, you coat and enlouse I died.” Does “Miguel” really resemble “muscle”? In these instances the reader must, as Nick Bredie writes in his Tarpaulin Sky review, “work through a glut of desultory images.” From early on, Wagner shows his hand and establishes the intense level of variation he will work with throughout the book. “I do take liberties along the way,” Wagner writes in DIAGRAM, “by deliberately mispronouncing words, or splitting an ending phoneme in one word to conjoin with the beginning phoneme of the next, to form one word, the word I would use in the English.” In poem II, “Nombre Nombre” becomes “No breath. Number,” showcasing divergent ways in which a particular set of acoustic effects may be interpreted.

Noticeably, Vallejo’s typographical alterations, an unmistakable characteristic of his Trilce, is erased in Wagner’s, and the final word of the poem, “nombrE” becomes the ordinary “number,” with no final capital letter. Similarly, the typography of LX’s famous last line, “El placer que nos destieRRa” becomes “you help a circus-smelling EARth,” tipping the reader off to the fact that Wagner is, on occasion, carrying the Spanish over into English, despite the announced constraint of the auralgraph. There is no way to reach “smelling earth” without actually translating “tierra” the old-fashioned way, as “earth.”

Other obvious transpositions are sometimes deliberately avoided, however, such as in II, where “Era” becomes “Error,” as if recording a hypercorrection of a Brooklyn accent. Most noticeably, the dental fricative that characterizes English, [θ] and [δ], runs rampant through the auralgraphs, although the sound doesn’t exist in the Latin American Spanish. Wagner hears it nevertheless. Vallejo’s orthography in IV (“qué la bamos a hhazer”) is unorthodox, likely indicating semi-literate spelling errors, but he remains faithful to the oral pronunciation of “vamos” and “hacer.” Wagner doesn’t hear this, however, and with “—quell lab hazer—“transforms the [s] of “hazer” into an English [z], which does not exist in Spanish.

When thinking of how one might perform such an auralgraph from Spanish, one imagines a set of recurrent challenges: articles and pronouns, for example. Wagner’s method leads him make alcoholic compounds of the article “el,” so that “el café” becomes “alco-face” (XXVII), “el calor” becomes “alco-lare” (XXX) and even “algodones” becomes “alco-dawns” (XXXI). A narrative of tippling surfaces in the poems. Occasionally Wagner resorts to proper names to avoid difficult sound patterns, such as “Stan Cado” for “estancado” (II). Ella, names, dandy, yammer, queer, queasy, Ken, and sober recur most frequently, but most conspicuously, Wagner’s book is permeated with loss. Everywhere one looks, someone has “lost” something or is going to “lose” to something. Loss, Wagner’s solution for both basic articles “los” and “las,” instills a theme in the book that leads to intriguing reflections such as “can loss fondle loss,” and phrases such as “loss hums the loss,” “lost points / tell love,” and “lost wrinkles.” (“Por los” becomes, of course, “poor loss.”) There is also major shift in lexical field from Vallejo’s Peruvian landscape to one that is American, European, and bourgeois (“Naturally Hugh bored her”). Austria, Vienna, and England are mentioned; names like Ken and Brenda pervade the poems; and the poems feature one-off colloquialisms such as “honky mama” and “he’ll probably hog her.” There is always the sense of a narrative happening off-stage, a conversation in the room adjacent that you can’t quite hear although you try your darndest to eavesdrop, as one feels when reading Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath or some of Apollinaire’s poèmes-conversations.

Peruvian elements are also peppered throughout the auralgraphs: yuccas, pesos, and many llamas make an appearance. But Wagner’s aural imagination is apparently pan-Latin American—he also hears “tango,” “Mazatlan,” and “Cuban kids” in the Peruvian Spanish. One rendering mystifies me. Why, if “púnicas” becomes “puny kiss” in XLVIII, does “soles peruanos” become “souls for your anus”? Where did the plosiveness of “Peru” go, and where did the extra “r” come from? It stands out as a particularly strange choice given that the Spanish term indicates Vallejo’s nationality.

Wagner’s Trilce stakes out its ludic freedom somewhat in the spirit of Vallejo and emphasizes above all its indifference to questions of “fidelity” in translation. Wagner coins neologisms in the same vein as Vallejo’s “tesórea,” “enjirafada,” and “galoneándome”: such as “enlilied,” llamobs” (mobs of llamas?), “enlouse,” “en-nothings” (a verb), and my favorite, “sartriculation.” Wagner alters punctuation and spacing with abandon, so that “Y sólo yo me voy quedando” is rendered as “It’s so low you/me/void ask then though” (XVIII) and “Me da miedo ese chorro” becomes “My damned (eyes) (is she true)” (XXVII). Wagner sees no reason to rhyme his versions of “trinidad” and “heterogeneidad” in V, so that the rhyme pair falls flat in “no more dad” and “heterogenecide.” Taking a look at a set of Vallejo’s end-rhymes from the same poem highlights Wagner’s evasion of rhyme: “escuchado/visto/colapso/infinito/tánto/bicardiaco” is transformed into “excuse me / visión / collapse/infinite/ Tonto/ago.” Vallejo’s mise-en-page of the famous last lines of LXVIII is respected, but I am puzzled by how Wagner morphs the vowels of the vertically strung-out final phrase, which means “a toda asta” (roughly, “at full mast”) into “a death to.” Here is Vallejo:

Y era negro, colgado en un rincón,
sin proferir ni jota, mi paletó

And here is Wagner:

You’re not growing, cold god in one weekend,
since prophesying not jotting, my palatal,

Vallejo’s poem XXXII stands out as an exploration of sound, but it is also a tongue-in-cheek send-up of contemporary avant-garde poetry. It possesses a kindred impulse to that of Vicente Huidobro, Xavier Bóveda, and Guillaume Apollinaire’s experimentation, in its elements that self-consciously signal modernity, and in its parataxis, onomatopoeia, preponderance of numbers, and playful enjambment, capitalization, and orthography. Here is an excerpt:

999 calorías
Rumbbb...Trrrapprrr rrach...chaz
Serpentínica u del dizcochero
engirafada al tímpano
. . . . .
Remeda al cuco: Roooooooeeeis...
tierno autocarril, móvil de sed,
que corre hasta la playa.

Aire, aire! Hielo!
Si al menos el calor (__________ Mejor
                                 no digo nada.

Y hasta la misma pluma
con que escribo por último se troncha.

Treinta y tres trillones trescientos treinta
y tres calorías.

And here are the corresponding sections from Wagner’s book.

               Nonono colors.
Roombeebeebee…..Try a purr ranch….jazz
it’s open to any car            you tell me        Scotch hero
in a year of fading                      ulTimmly.

Remedy all cuckoos: Rooooooooise…..
turn auto care ill, move over here they said,
can Cora     has the       lap layers.

               Error, error! Hello!
Sentimental I’ll call her     (--Me sure of
                        Nodding or nothing.

                He has to tell him where’s my smoke
can he describe for old Timm I see trenches.

               Tree-entry trust trilling trust she enters               tree-entry
you trace colors.

Wagner’s poem playfully replicates “Roooooooeeeis” as “Rooooooooise,” but oddly, the poem’s opening phrase is rendered as “Nonono colores,” whereas elsewhere in the book he repeats numerals as such, and the unintelligible string of sounds “Trrrapprrr rrach...chaz” becomes meaningful in “Try a purr ranch….jazz.” Wagner breaks the rules of sense-making to the point of not only reducing sense to sound, but also injecting meaning where it doesn’t reside. Wagner’s version of this self-reflective poem offers some gems: “Me sure of / nodding or nothing” is a wonderfully evocative alternate for “Mejor / no digo nada.”

A handful of auralgraphs do become poems in their own right. Here is a passage from XXV:

Often all fields add heresies
at last junctures, I’ll find her, a lost test to share,
all sober let go the lost numbered doors open.
All fields you can’t lose the wolf parts.
Tell us excuse a latent parody probed
Tell all they envy tell us Rhondas. Tell all they rode on
we are lost planes futures,
you end though in an animal grief older relatively solo
fallible calendared accusative.
             When entering all fields of heresy
ask enlist point out to us falsely the endless buried doors.

Ultimately, there is a kind of complicity that emerges between Wagner and the poet he spent so much time listening to and “sewing two curiosities with.” In LV, the only poem of Trilce in which Vallejo himself makes an appearance, Wagner turns Vallejo’s declarative, “Vallejo dice hoy la Muerte está soldando cada lindero a /cada hebra de cabello perdido, desde la cubeta de un frontal, /donde hay algas” into an address to the dead poet: “Vallejo this whole lame earth is the sold and backward lender of a backward /Hybrid ten bells presiding, this day the cupboard’s in front, don’t they /They all guess.” There is a lot of guesswork involved in reading Wagner’s backward hybrids, but in the end, there are a few bells too.

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