Despite the chorus of aesthetes and specialists (“He’s absolutely butchered poor Marcel!”), the problem isn’t how bad translations are. Almost any, I suspect, is far better than an absence thereof. The drawback is that they intend to be so healthy. They’re meant to expand our horizons, like drugs but with the syntax regularized and the approval sealed; they are meant to increase our canon with, well, someone else’s canons. This all isn’t merely to improve one’s range of references. It is practically a humanitarian mission to have intimate encounters with the Other, from Iffucan to Baghdad—particularly for philistinate Americans, particularly at a historical moment when as a nation we seem incapable of conceiving of the humanity of non-English speakers. Reading international lit is supposed to help cure us of cultural unilateralism.
Doubtless. But the fallout from all this self-improvement is frequently unfortunate. Translation projects are often driven by the significant nature of the original authors—their status as masters. If that weight weren’t enough, it often comes bundled with a corpse: General agreement on mastery often solidifies only after a given author exits the shifting grounds of contemporaneity through that narrow door leading downward. Finally, as if this all weren’t exercise enough to build our cultural biceps, we must generally heft a healthy amount of representational naturalism: If I’m going to read an Egyptian writer, I’m going to learn about daily life in Cairo while I’m at it. Maybe get some history in there too. As a result, much literary translation, even purposed to bypass the White part, nonetheless manages to hand us Dead Important Guys, with ethnographic ballast. It’s heavy. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes we just keep doing our reps, hoping that whatever doesn’t thrill us makes us stronger.
The thorough defiance of this tradition is reason enough to be glad of Sin Puertas Visibles. Said unlikely anthology is, exactly as the subtitle has it, An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by Mexican Women. The 11 poets average an age around 37, printed in English for the first time: no masters, no heavy reputations wanting deference. And the tendering of National Geographic pictorialism (the collation of which is too often designated women’s work) is almost entirely absent. The urge toward direct and personal detail isn’t suppressed; what’s missing is that How Life Is gravity.
None of this is to suggest that Sin Puertas Visibles is light reading for the beach-bound intelligentsia, in the way of McSweeney’s or Bridget Jones. It’s more like a light-hearted encounter. In Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” the cosmopolite idly grabs a journal at some Manhattan newsstand just “to see what the poets in Ghana are doing these days.” It’s an offhand, generous desire—culturally complicated, but entirely lacking in the ponderous. This anthology’s curiosity is just as engaged, just as simple: What are the women poets in Mexico doing these days?
Lots, it turns out, from Silvia Eugenia Castillero’s symbolist prose poems to Carla Faesler’s neo-traditionalist sonnets. But these two styles scarcely bracket the aesthetics. If there’s a coherent movement south of the Rio Grande these days, this book doesn’t reveal it, or revel much in ideas of order (aside from its rigorous bilingualism, extended from the facing-page poems to sole editor-translator Jen Hofer’s “Pre-Texts” intro and all-too-brief poetics statements of each contributor). Instead, it suggests that writing among Mexican women is as open and unsettled a field as it is way up here, shooting off toward all points of the clock face other than midnight. If anything brackets the table of contents, it’s because Hofer has stacked the most entrancing work at the beginning and end. The first poet, Cristina Rivera-Garza, is represented by a section of a forthcoming manuscript (what could be less canonical?), “Third World.” Though the title threatens the bulky social topicality under which ever-precarious poetry topples, the poem quickly veers toward “the far edge of the far edge” and never comes back, dragging us (and our ideas about what the title might imply) into its dream. “The Third Word was a roofless house” it proclaims quickly—a kind of madhouse for “far-out, far-gone lunatics,” and “trippers and druggies.” But this bedlam is also a kind of post-market paradise: “There good-for-nothings were highly useful beings.” Wonder if she’s talking about poets.
Dolores Dorantes is the youngest incluse, next-to-last, loaded with labyrinthine sonic repetitions Hofer translates with considerable grace. Fragmentary and vernacularly intellectual, Dorantes also bears perhaps the greatest similarity to the U.S. avant-garde. In her statement, she writes “our poetry, therefore, must bear our fury, our critique, and the seeds of what we might use to construct what we lack.”
Had one the chance to debate, it would be interesting to argue whether fury and critique are the seeds from which the the next moments will grow. So might insist the last poet, Laura Solórzano, shifting fluidly between prose and enjambed lyric, fascinated with saliva, breath, speech: oral culture at its most written. Her “Early Poem” refers not to juvenilia but the morning, filled with a sense of long history in which one is, nonetheless, just starting out. “I untied the rope from the tangible brain,” she declares, unmooring herself from—what? Rational tradition, experience, “the hours’ insatiable return”? In keeping with the anthology’s variegation, the answer seems to be all of the above, flashing and receding: a pause in the moment before the next moment, in which she “received the seeds of the next voice.”