Where Words Like Monarchs Fly

by George McWhirter,
150 pages,
ISBN: 1895636183

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Mexican Verse in Free Trade
by Martha Nandorfy

Where Words Like Monarchs Fly is a timely English translation of Mexican poetry spanning three generations of poets whose work has not been readily available to North American readers. What makes this anthology especially significant to Canadian readers is the fact that this interesting sampling of work by ten Mexicans was translated by Canadian poets. The title of the book evokes this trajectory between Mexico and Canada together with the shared cultural experiences of "the mixed genes, the migrations, histories and languages of the old and new worlds."

The selection of poets reflects ethnic and gender difference, and a wealth of themes, attitudes, and imagery. Fans of Octavio Paz will detect resonances with the internationally acclaimed poet, but will also be surprised at the divergences from his predominantly metaphysical vision. This collection features other influential Mexican poets like José Emilio Pacheco, Gabriel Zaid, Homero Aridjis, and Elva Macías, as well as more recent writing by women like Carmen Boullosa, Myriam Moscona, and Verónica Volkow. The gender balance is a welcome change to a long tradition of exclusion in Hispanic anthologies, that often include only the Nobel Prize recipient, Gabriela Mistral.

George McWhirter observes in his too brief foreword: "This anthology picks poems whose meanings are ripe with the shared vocabulary of the senses"; but his insistence on the universal and translatable nature of poetry glosses over the practical and theoretical difficulties involved, thereby suggesting that the criteria is dictated more by fidelity than by creativity. Consequently his foreword undervalues both his own wonderful translations and those of his fellow Canadian writers, by limiting the monarch metaphor to that of flight from one distant location to another. Instead of promising to "provide direct sensory satisfaction for the general reader, who wishes to experience the full effects of the verses in English first hand", it would be more fruitful to acknowledge that while words do fly, they undergo an inevitable metamorphosis and arrive as different words with new echoes and associations. On the other hand, while this unilingual edition should leave "the reader to judge the merits of the English version as a poem in its own right", it is disappointing not to find the promised sample of Spanish poems at the website cited in the foreword.

While the diversity of this poetry resists any facile generalization about themes and poetics, it is fair to say that it also resists grandiose projects and metaphysical meditations in favour of more intimate, miniaturist visions and sensorial experiences. Homero Aridjis elaborates portraits of family members, combining this personal tone, also characteristic of Elva Macías's haiku-like portraits, with an historical vision of pre-Columbian Mexico, and the conquest seen through the eyes of the subjects who experienced the astonishing discoveries of self and other. In other instances, like Myriam Moscona's descriptions of Arabic women, the poet maintains a cultural distance reflective of the humility of not presuming to know the other.

Often the historical or trans-personal perspectives situate human concerns within the context of nature, seen not as a reflection of the human soul, nor as an adversary, but as the very source of life. Pacheco's poems, "The octopus" and "The immortality of the crab", are reminiscent of Neruda's Elemental Odes; but instead of dwelling on what value simple objects and animals hold for human beings, Pacheco inverts the hierarchy, thus highlighting the interdependent nature of life. In a similar vein, Aridjis represents the "Second exodus from paradise" as an ecological apocalypse created by humankind:

never able to fill the torn nets of our greed.


we will govern

our black garden alone.

While language continues to be an important theme, it is not represented as the self-referential obsession with poetic genius, but the material basis for self-expression and communication. In his whimsical tribute to vowels, Pacheco observes that without them

we're but dust and dumb crustacea, the

incomprehensible clack of pebbles.

toppling through a timeless abysm.

For his part, Aridjis pays tribute to the medieval grammarian, Elio Antonio de Nebrija:

He provoked and defied, declared-in

a war of blood

and fire-that the world is not just idle words;

if only we could speak the primordial tongue

we would recover Paradise.

In a very different appreciation of silence as non-human language, Victor Manuel Mendiola contemplates the secret lives of insects, fish, plants, and the dead. The emotional reactions to the manifestations of these forms of otherness mark a significant change of attitude in the dialectic of the self and wondrous other.

Many of the poems delight in playful, humorously bizarre representations of the banal. Zaid's rejection of stale poetic conventions is summed up in his verse, "Your hair smelt of hair" ("Gales"), while in "Ipanema" all similes and "anti-metaphors" exalt the automobile in imagery evocative of an hallucinatory television commercial. Carmen Boullosa's "Poems out of childhood" combine childishly surrealistic imagery with the rhythmic beat of "jump rope" ditties, while her long love poem, "Open", revels in the infinite sensations produced by desire and pleasure. Together with Elsa Cross's "Bacchae" and Verónica Volkow's "Beginning", these poems attest to a new genre of love poetry that blurs the boundaries between the "I" and the "you" by exploring surfaces, form, bodies, in ways that overcome the mental distancing of the other resulting from abstraction and idealization.

Throughout this collection, Paradise is represented as a material possibility in which we are situated when we are guided by the senses, those bodily insights we share with other life-forms. Depth is rejected as a sterile abstraction of the intellectual quest for superiority and domination over what is "known":

For you, love, I propose to be a surface,

I be a passing season,

return to a husbandry of paradise

with no high-tech trees of knowledge

("Floating Beings")

This earthly vision of potential and possibility spoken through a strongly committed social conscience makes Where Words Like Monarchs Fly a testament to the vitality of poetry and the poetic spirit needed to break free from the current global paradigm of domination and exploitation. While Canadians and Mexicans are pitted together and against each other in the economic battles provoked by NAFTA and free market trends in general, Canadians now have in this anthology another aperture on Mexican perspectives that will strike a resonant chord in many readers. 

Martha J. Nandorfy is a professor of Spanish at Concordia University and works on contemporary literature, film, and cultural studies.


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