Erin Moure on Andrés Ajens

from Andrés Ajens, Most Intimates Mélange

      iii. zu den Stimmen

      von Estremadura

      at this rate, inti-

      midated in cochabamba?

      at this rate

      a lean day away from santa cruz

      saint ignatius & co.,

      face to face

      at this rate, igneo- (chiñihue),

      my date in concepción, more or same?

      no pasarán.

      p.12 Más íntimas mistura (Santiago de Chile: Intemperie, 1998),

      tr. E. Mouré

Translating poets is a task of absolute listening, and has taught me endlessly about mystery and paradox in poems. Poetry is able to sustain dense layers of reference, and that it never gives up its references fully is part of what lets us touch mystery, the “incommensurate.” We just have to let ourselves wonder, instead of feeling we must “get” everything. If that were the case, we’d have to reject even Shakespeare and the Bible! (Not to mention politics and our tax returns.)

This poem, from a full-length collection by Chilean poet and essayist Andrés Ajens, brings us a southern view, one that our northern-hemisphere cultural biases often can’t help us “solve.” The poem works by using multiple echoes – to other poets, events current and ancient, aboriginal cultures (“inti” is ayamara for “sun,” “cochabamba” quechua for “land of marshy lakes”) – in two colonial languages: Castilian and German.

Geographically, Chile is South America’s western spine, its Extremadura. Yet many of the poem’s places – Santa Cruz, San Ignacio, Cochabamba – are in Bolivia, as if to face Chile, one has to leave it. Concepción is in Chile; it’s not so easy to leave one’s conception! Non-geographic meanings are here too: santa cruz is “holy cross,” the crusading catholic religion; St Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits who so permeated life in the Americas during early colonization. Concepción echoes the immaculate C but also one’s own.

Also crucial are echoes in words: witness “intimidated” and “mydated,” “ignatius” and “igneo.” And the original “no pasarán” is translated (A’s idea!) by “no pasarán.” The words unaltered, for the cry of Spanish republicans defending Madrid, “they will not pass,” has not passed. Ajens cites it, however, not from Spain but from the great German-language poet Paul Celan’s “Shibboleth,” the last lines of which form Ajens’ title: “to the voices/ of Extremadura.” Ajens’ poem addresses, then, the voices of his own country, his Extremadura. And “Extremadura” also echoes, in Spanish as “extreme duress.” Hard voices.

There’s another echo of exile and war in Ajens’ original Spanish: “allende santa cruz / san ignacio & cia.” “Allende” means “beyond,” but this English word-choice loses the name of Chile’s president killed in Pinochet’s 1973 coup. “A lean day away from”… keeps the sound of “allende” and still leans beyond the holy cross (whose religion has traced such bitter paths, just ask native peoples… and now it’s beatifying Pius IX, whose limitations are known!) and from St. Ignatius’ company.

At this rate, the poem asks, in this way, given the world’s odiousness, is one’s own conception just “more or less” or “more of same”? And the poem answers: No pasarán. Its resistance is clear. Even when barred, “under erasure,” the poem’s powerful password and rallying cry can’t vanish.

Erín Moure’s most recent book of poetry is O Cadoiro (Anansi, 2007)… her translation of Chus Pato’s m-Talá will appear from Shearsman (UK) and BuschekBooks (Can) in April of this year, and in the fall two books, essays from NeWest, My Beloved Wager, and a collaborative book of authorial impossibilities written with Oana Avasilichioaei, Expeditions of a Chimæra (BookThug). This is one of five pieces to be reprinted here. They originally appeared in the Globe and Mail in 2000.

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