Rose Hunter reviews Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez & Alí Calderón translated by Mario Licón Cabrera

Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez & Alí Calderón

translated by Mario Licón Cabrera

Vagabond Press
Reviewed by ROSE HUNTER

The Poems of Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez & Alí Calderón presents the work of three contemporary Mexican poets, one born in 1968 (Bojórquez), one in 1979 (Lamas), and one in 1982 (Calderón), translated by the Mexican-born, Sydney-residing poet and translator Mario Licón Cabrera. The book begins with the work of Lamas, a good choice since his is in many ways the most immediately personable voice of the three, at least in terms of the selection represented here.

Here are the opening lines of the book:

  1. Refusing to Return

While you refuse to return,
memories reach you as if from a blind well,
and that sun is a copper coin without shine.
In silence you polish its sharp edges
till the memory of the landscape hits you.
You know the sun didn’t feed its pack of dogs,
so you repeat to yourself it’s always summer there
and those are the words that bring you back. (15)

With this beginning we are drawn into a situation of receptivity despite resistance, a mood that continues throughout the selection of Lamas’ poems (which also form a self-contained sequence). One of the many enjoyable things about this anthology is how most of the poems are presented with at least a few others from the same series, providing a useful orientation for the reader as well as the potential for a deeper reading experience. Additionally, themes overlap between poets, for example, both Lamas and Bojórquez make use of the elements of desert and shadow, and both Lamas and Calderón are concerned with religion and death – to name just a couple of the many rich echoes that reverberate over the course of the book.

Smaller correspondences (also the title of Calderón’s book from which the poems in this book are taken) can be noticed as well, for example a coin opens Bojórquez’ section also:

The coin of time burns in my hand
a metal circle without a face
it burns all that I ignore of myself
all that no one suspects of me (57)

These two openings encapsulate many of the differences between the first two poets: the more conversational and inclusive tone of Lamas, and the more distant, compressed tone of Bojórquez.

Lamas’ section reads like a chapbook with a discernible situation and resolution. Throughout it, the elements of heat – including summer, the sun, dust, fire, and ashes – are prominent. The hot climate takes on the character of an oppressive person, who “chases” the narrator (28), and who will “search the cities one by one / until it finds you” (30).

Heat/fire and memory are also inextricable; here is the opening of poem V:

  1. Like Something Extinguished By Fire

I remember my first childhood home
and the second
and the third.
They all are one,
ablaze. (32)

The next poem starts on the next page but is part of number V (no separate title – I like this formatting, present in Calderón as well) – and imagines all the photographs burnt, and wonders if this may have destroyed the memories as well (33). But the narrator pushes on, to find them. The narrator is recalling a literally hot climate (the state of Sinaloa I think, where the poet was born), and as well as that I think about how my older, and not necessarily totally joyful, memories feel like this – a heat in my body precedes the act of remembering, and, depending, impinges upon it or seeks to prevent it. This climate/condition/feeling is used to great (blistering) effect in the entire sequence.

Bojórquez presents us with shorter poems and more compressed imagery, and the spare quality of archetype, as well as revelation and myth. His section is divided into three parts. The one that appealed to me the most was the second, “Of Certain Deserts,” which presents the enticing scenarios of “desert birth,” “desert alive,” “desert exile,” “desert dream” – and so on. To show some of the stark and suggestive imagery on offer here, I’ll quote one of my favourite of the desert poems in full:

Desert Room

The grief of exhausted men
blazes in the desert

There is no horizon

Far beyond the view
lies the sand’s sadness

Where does the wind lift
its dress of thirst?

The dreams of shadow are born
in the heart of the desert

Everything is possible. (71)

In both Lamas and Bojórquez, the landscape (including elements such as sand and shadow) has great life, as a kind of given – “Only men are amazed by their own bodies” (“Desert Alive” 68). Truth is what is spoken in the shadows or by the shadows, which Cabrera’s useful note tells us is a reference to Paul Celan, “Wahr spricht, wer Schatten spricht” (a person who speaks shadows speaks truth) (77). “To speak from the shadow, be the shadow” could be an ars poetica of the Bojórquez poems translated here, even though the line does not appear in his poem titled “Ars Poetica” [rather in “To Say the Shadow” (78)].

After the terse quality of these poems, the poems of Calderón return us to a more open structure (although the voice is more fragmented than that of Lamas). Religion and death emerge as two themes, as the first poem, “Constantinople” brings us a scene in a Byzantine church, which leads later (this is another long poem, divided into sections marked only by page breaks, as in Lamas) to the description of the death of a fish, after the fisherman decides to throw it back:

Now the man has the fish
shakes the air with its body
Seagulls gather round
He throws the fish into the sky
the metallic gleam of its scales
The little eyes look at the sea the relief
just before of gaining great altitude but
suddenly a beak rips its fins
tears apart its body guzzles
in one second the remains

In secret someone was thinking of God
Cruel fisherman of men (90)

Calderón’s unpunctuated lines often allow for rich double readings. Here, for example, the unpunctuated “tears apart its body guzzles” suggests both the bird that swallows the fish, and the image of a fish writhing, taking in air/poison like a thirsty person might desperately guzzle too much water.

These poems are visceral, with frequent mention of blood and other body fluids, contagion, disease, and violence, as well as the human sacrifices of the last poem. The second last poem speaks most overtly about the political situation in present-day Mexico, a country in which 30,000 people are registered as having disappeared, and over 100,000 have died in drug trade related violence over the last decade.[1] Here is the ending of the ironically titled “Mexican Democracy:”

they open the black bag
the stench of rotten flesh:

a new born little girl (110)

I read the book engrossed in the distinct voices of these three very different poets, which is a great compliment to the translator. However, one observation about translation is worth making. Here are those same last lines of the poem “Mexican Democracy” in Spanish:

abren la bolsa negra
el hedor el moho en la carne:

una recién nacida[2]

In Spanish there is no need to do any extra work to specify the gender of the newborn; it is already communicated in the article and in the noun ending. In English, the extra word needed, “girl,” seems to weaken the ending of the poem a bit (seems to raise questions like, why a girl? Worse that it’s a girl? – questions that aren’t the point I don’t think). The gender of the newborn isn’t emphasised so much in the original Spanish, in which everything and everyone has to have a gender. This is not a criticism, just a reminder that grammatical gender is one of the issues that translation from Spanish to English must grapple with.

The pictorial and allegorical style of Calderón’s poems has prompted comparison between his work and the work of the muralist.[3] This is an appealing analogy – the “on-a-wall-like” appearance of the poems (which often run right down the page, unpunctuated and without stanza breaks until the very last, orphaned lines – a nice effect), as well as their grand themes combined with the ability to record those small details of everyday life (for example the fish lines quoted above), does remind me of the drama and scope of the revered tradition of Mexican muralism.

This is a valuable sampling of three contemporary Mexican poets. One quibble might be that there are no women represented here. Perhaps a translation of three contemporary Mexican women poets might be in the future for Vagabond’s growing international catalogue?

Here “Mexican Democracy” does not exist as a separate poem; it is the first part of the next (and last) poem featured in the book, “Piedra de Sacrificio” (“Stone of Sacrifice”).
[3] Javier Lorenzo Candel, “Las Correspondencias, de Alí Calderón.” la estantería, 5 July 2015.
ROSE HUNTER’s most recent collection, Glass is published by 5Islands Press. A Brisbane poet, she has lived in Canada and not resides in Mexico.