J.W. Bonner

With Feeling

Firefly Under the Tongue by Coral Bracho. Translated by Forrest
Gander. New York: New Directions, 2008. 144 pp. $16.95 pbk.

The Night by Jaime Saenz. Translated by Forrest Gander and Kent
Johnson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. 139 pp.
$19.95 cloth.

Those who do and say things without feeling them,
I condemn them a million times.
                                                                      —Jaime Saenz

The “Boom” of Latin American literature in the 1960s brought a
renewed interest in the literature south of the Rio Grande: the fiction
of Borges, Fuentes, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Rulfo,
Donoso, and Cortázar, as well as the poetry of Neruda. The aftermath
of this “Boom” has expanded the universe of writers available
in English translation. Forrest Gander, a remarkable poet, with
the assistance of Kent Johnson on Saenz, has brought into English
for the first time a significant long poem by the Bolivian poet Jaime
Saenz and a selection of poems from the Mexican poet Coral
Bracho. Idiosyncratic and philosophical, these poets nonetheless
conjure powerful visions.

The Night is the second work of Saenz to be translated by Gander
and Johnson. An earlier collection, Immanent Visitor, was a selection
of Saenz’s oeuvre from the 1950s to 1970s. The themes of
these poems—“self and other, mind and world, … the living and
the dead”—are also present in The Night, Saenz’s last major poem
before his death in 1986. The Night is composed of four sections
or movements, and themes of alcoholic addiction (Saenz, based on
the biographical matter provided by Gander and Johnson, was an
addictive personality, abusing cocaine and alcohol at various times
in his life), death, identity, and otherness are at play. In addition,
the Bolivian capital of La Paz serves a central role in the poem (as
in other poems by Saenz), in a manner, as Luis H. Antezana states
in his insightful Afterword, akin to Joyce’s creative use of Dublin.

The poem opens with night depicted as an insect or creature with
“feelers”—of the shadows and damp places, scuttling from light.
Then, night is locked in a box that has been swallowed by night (as
Cronos swallows his children), which is located in a dresser (more
darkness) “in the nook” (shadowed area) of a room. Thus, the
poem begins with night to the fourth or fifth degree of darkness: a
night whose darkness is magnified or deepened exponentially. (This
stylistic extension of darkness is not unlike Twain’s description of
Pap’s sickly white skin in Huck Finn.) Saenz pushes the image of
darkness beyond easy convention; the image unsettles or uproots
norms of description to take the reader into a world where everything
is heightened.

Alcohol comes into play early in the poem. The night’s source is “the
dead who have died for / the sake of alcohol.” This source, coupled
with the opening image, suggests that the alcoholic is only allowed
the “nooks” of society; the alcoholic is kept in a dresser, out of sight
of society’s room—marginalized, outcast. Yet, Saenz extols these
outcasts, those given to excess, those members of the night.

Whereas the day life is for conventional routines—“for hellos, …
// the day of offices, of tell-me’s and tell you’s … // … and full-tilt
races to see who / arrives first”—at night “things go back to being
what they are” (genuine being), and alcohol provides “an authentic
path to knowledge, perhaps the most / human of all” (at the price,
of course, of society’s rejection). Thus, to be fully human is to be
fully outside society—an Emersonian notion.

Saenz condemns the technological world in The Night (as well as in
poems in Immanent Visitor); technology and “human progress”
seek to eradicate night, to banish “myth and the imaginary.”
Technological progress wishes to devise methods “so that people
work harder and sleep less.” Night is the time of mystery, of creativity
and imagination, of art.

The theme of knowledge threads through the poem, a refrain.
Drink provides knowledge and serves as a conduit to another
(night) world. Drink takes one to the abyss, to the edge of life and
death, though as Saenz writes, “learning to die is learning to live.”
Night, as Antezana suggests in his commentary on the poem, is the
space for which death provides the knowledge.

Antezana compares The Night to Crane’s The Bridge or Eliot’s Waste
Land: long, “serial [poems], organized around a dominant spiritual
or philosophical theme.” Sections of Rimbaud’s Illuminations also
come to mind, at least in terms of tone. Saenz’s poetic “search for
something concealed and beyond” is surely universal.


Bracho’s poetry is both more sensuous and abstract than Saenz’s. A
generation younger than Saenz, she shares, nonetheless, similar surrealistic
elements, especially how she plays with elements of space
and time. Though death does figure in Bracho’s work as well (in
one poem, a “blink” separates death and sleep), there is an overflowing
abundance of nature—gardens, waters—and the tactile
eruptions of human desire. The magical realism of the “Boom”
finds an extension in Bracho’s poetic imagery.

Much of Bracho’s early work, from the collection Being Toward
Death, is filled with parenthetical asides. (Although a parenthesis
seems to suggest to a reader that one need only read if one so
wishes, Bracho’s parenthetical asides mandate special notice.) These
poems avoid closure; many lack ending punctuation. Images of
moisture, mosses, algae, mud, and “ooze” abound; this liquid or
tidal power suggests urges, longings, movements toward and away:
the intimate personal abstracted into something more cosmic, some
state larger or more universal than the individual. Perhaps these
images are the primeval ooze for life’s fecundity (fecund is a talismanic
word Bracho uses as D. H. Lawrence invokes lambent in his
early novels).

A poem like “In Time’s Care” exemplifies Bracho’s tendency to
marry the concrete and abstract. There are several concrete images
of time: an “autumn / of logs and leaf piles,” colors of gold and
fire, ending with “and a delicate moss, incandescent”—the decay
or composting work of moss to fertilize the soil for the next round
of life and decay. Time’s core holds both (in a poem from a later
collection titled That Space, That Garden, death and life are
“rooted” in each other).

The poems from the collection titled The Disposition of Amber are
filled with images of light and sun, stone and water. The section’s
opening poem, “The Room’s Penumbra,” begins with language
itself: “Language enters.” Into what space? What consciousness?
Does this opening suggest the beginning of things, as in some kind
of Eden? The poem continues: “The two approach the same
objects.” Shadow and light? Adam and Eve? God and Adam?
Lovers? Understanding and mystery? Word and thing? Language
and object? The meaning itself is elusive.

The next poem, “From this Light,” has imagery that echoes off
penumbra. There are some marvelous images in this poem: “their
very orchard / of sensation. Like discrete stones in a garden. Like
pauses parsed / inside a temple.” Hence, silences themselves (and
perhaps the parenthetical pauses in Bracho’s poems) need parsing.
Things dominate this poem, yet an attraction tugs at them: “the
things of the world / are magnetized.” This notion of a magnetic
quality repeats in many other poems: objects, humans—the pull
(or repulsion) of things and desire, unwilled.

As cosmic as these poems may be, Bracho also grounds them: a
butterfly’s flight is depicted as “a spinning coin / threaded to the
sun.” The very form of the poem “Stone in the Pellucid Water”
sends out ripples—long lines in each centered stanza. The formal,
logical, objective language shifts suddenly at the poem’s conclusion:
“and find yourself reeling”—reeling from a sudden motion or
emotion, a result of certainties shattered, pledges betrayed, balance
lost by the gush of feeling.

The poems from the most recent collection included in this volume,
titled Hotel Room, play again with space and time, labyrinths and
plots. Hotel rooms are transient spaces: for lovers, travelers. The
poem “It Was Merely a Sound” suggests any number of possible
causes for the poem’s “sound”: pain, childbirth, orgasm. The image
at the poem’s end, of sound as something that “writhed inside” the
poem’s speaker, implies possession, an inhabitation, something outside
(or inside) the (willed) self. “The Rooms Aren’t What They
Appear to Be” suggests the impermanence or constant alteration of
rooms (space): a “drafting” that implies revision, tenuousness.
(Hence, Bracho’s use of water imagery: fluidity, liquid and permeable

Saenz and Bracho explore essential mysteries in their poems. Their
poetry disdains convention, easy understandings. Whether the mysteries
are inherent in drink or gardens or skin, these poets examine
the shadowy margins and less defined boundaries in search for wisdom
or beauty—and to evoke feeling.