A Translator’s Note
A Translator’s Note
Translation is always an experience of radical dependency. Of course, the original depends on the translator to be known in a new language. But mostly it is the translator who occupies the position of the petitioner, checking unfamiliar phrasings with friends and lovers, cold-calling government institutes, and slipping handwritten notes under the door of a dead poet’s former home. In the process of my engagement with the poetry of Marigloria Palma, I have become acutely aware of myself as a node in diaspora, a channel through which certain messages might pass. In translation, what I usually experience as deficits in my cultural conditioning can become curious advantages. Where my fluency falters, there is room for alienation, strangeness, and wonder. Where I am Americanized, I can advocate. Most important, where I am weak or distant or split, I am charged with desire: for a poetry just beyond me and for a place and practice for my body. In melodramatic moments I tweak the translation from Frantz Fanon: “O my body, make of me a woman who always questions!”1
The summer of 2015, my first in Puerto Rico without family, I spent long afternoons at the bookstore and library of the Institute of Culture and long nights talking with young writers about the island poets that meant the most to them. I would not know Palma—or Olga Nolla, Angelamaría Dávila, José María Lima, Yvonne Ochart—without the trove of careful scans that Mara Pastor, Nicole Delgado, and Nemir Matos Cintrón shared with me a year ago in August and beyond. It was in a makeshift anthology that Mara Pastor assembled for her undergraduate course at the Río Piedras campus that I first read a Palma poem.
With my hard-won schoolgirl Spanish, I cannot quite tell, right away, whether I like something I am reading in my mother’s language. The suspension of aesthetic judgment, which snaps like a fresh trap for me in English, is one of the pleasures of translation. I have time to grapple with the architecture of the line, to learn a poem’s vocabulary, before I can discern something as lucid as a voice and place it in a literary discourse that tells me (too soon) how to hear it. But when I read, “La noche de San Juan / está llena de agentes políciacos. / Espárragos azules,” my judgment came quickly, as laughter. I knew I could love a poet who takes on the intensely criminalized atmosphere of her capital city in the first line and emerges with her sense of lyrical absurdity intact: “Night in San Juan / is full of police. / Spears of blue asparagus.”2
Living for that month in a green-shuttered room blown through with the smell of ylang-ylang, I worried that I was falling into an uncritical swoon over “the island of enchantment.” The near nightly dancing kept my nerves tuned to a low buzz. But in translating Palma, I have come to experience enchantment as a stimulant more than an opiate, and I no longer think of it as the delusion of the outsider. Though Palma is known and loved by many island poets, no focused scholarly treatments of her work exist in English or Spanish. There are no published English translations, and she is not included in Robert Márquez’s formidable volume Puerto Rican Poetry: An Anthology from Aboriginal to Contemporary Times, published in 2007. Why not?
I can only gesture toward an answer. In the United States, our sense of Puerto Rican poetry is not remarkably rich. The life and work of Julia de Burgos—and especially her tragic death on a Spanish Harlem street corner, from complications related to alcoholism—has been assimilated to a narrative that culminates in the wave of Nuyorican resistance usually represented by the creative production of performance poets and the activism of the Young Lords. Then—so the story goes—the Bronx does hip-hop. Making sure these moments get named in public discourse has already required tremendous cultural labor: anthologies, academic monographs, novels, films, museum exhibits, the Get Down. But as this fractured narrative gains traction, we are in danger of downplaying the long-standing and ongoing circuits of exchange between island and diaspora, page and performance, frontline political struggle and aesthetic innovation. Marigloria Palma is exactly the kind of figure our current narrative cannot quite accommodate: a reclusive woman poet whose own artistic timeline was out of step with her generation’s and whose politics are only legible on the page.
Palma was born Gloria María Pagán y Ferrer in 1915 to working-class parents in Canóvanas, a rural municipality gathered around a sugar mill just east of San Juan. Palma’s mother struggled to raise the children through the worst of the Great Depression after her husband abandoned the family, and Palma herself left school after the eighth grade to work as a maid, cashier, secretary, and seamstress until she found a position as a photographer’s assistant in the old city. It was there that she began to find a community for the poetry she had been writing throughout her teens, befriending Julia de Burgos and reading alongside Luis Llorens Torres, Narciso Doval, Carmelo Filardi, and Luisina Ordóñez. In 1942, Palma won the island’s premier literary prize for her debut collection, Agua suelta (Running Water), recognition that sent her to the United States in search of literary opportunities.
She reunited with Burgos in Washington, DC, where the older poet hosted “nights of wine and roses” in the house she shared with her musician husband, Armando Marín. In fact, it was Burgos who introduced Palma to the reading public beyond Puerto Rico in the Spanish-language American newspaper Pueblos Hispanos (1943–44), praising her poetry as “completely subjective[,] . . . rejecting objective forms of rebellion.”3 In the United States, Palma met and married an exiled Austrian philosopher, Alfred Stern, a match that both interrupted the creative autonomy of her youth and afforded her the financial security to return to it in middle age. Burgos lived a precarious life, cut short by her untimely death in 1953, but Palma was able to work for another thirty years. It is a disquieting divergence. Two Puerto Rican women poets. Friends. What would it mean to reject the choice history seems to offer, between a hypervisible death and an invisible life?
It is strange how little even those who read her poetry seem to know about Palma, beyond her beauty. In a blog post for the Puerto Rican Association for the Investigation of Women’s History, the scholar and journalist Norma Valle Ferrer writes, “We were almost neighbors and I used to see her walking the old city: tall, slim, almost always dressed in a black pencil skirt and bright patterned blouse, and shoes with very low heels. . . . It pains me that I never approached her, but she always seemed so ensimismada.”4 I am reluctant to translate the word Ferrer uses in Spanish to describe Palma’s affect—maybe “wrapped up in herself”?—because I do not want to lose its seductive sibilance. The way, sometimes, a woman’s attentiveness to her own imagination can inspire as much as it refuses. But Palma’s reclusiveness was often perceived as hauteur by the generation just below her, especially in an artistic culture characterized by communalism—always doubly demanded of women on the scene as de facto social chairs, secretaries, maids. “A question of class,” some say, which is a way of speaking not so much about pedigree (Palma had none) but about comportment—what we would call “respectability politics” in the United States. I wonder, though, about the riddle of temperament. This is how Palma saw herself in “97”:
I’m terribly serious
and when I see another person laugh,
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I think I’d laugh if it weren’t for
this tremendous NO
that bars our way,
an ironwork of scolding fingers.
If I really knew
what the sea is
what a fish is
what a man is.5
The selections included here in sx salon come from The Night and Other Electric Flowers, which Palma published in 1976 when she was sixty-one.6 How disco is that title? Though Palma is much older than the young poets at the core of the Nuyorican scene, it is nevertheless provocative to read her poems as exactly contemporary with the Nuyorican movement. After all, they are. The Nuyorican scene positioned the island as a ruined utopia and New York as the revolutionary vanguard of Puerto Rican culture. The limits of this paradigm become obvious in considering Palma: for her, the island’s tropical landscape—which is also always a cityscape—was never a utopia. In The Night and Other Electric Flowers, you can hear the sustained rage that animates A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid’s jeremiad against Caribbean tourism. Again like Kincaid, Palma’s chosen name as a writer—“Palma”—simultaneously courts and critiques the exotic vocabulary associated with the region where she was born. But unlike Kincaid, Palma does not keep her distance or her cool. She continues to make a life on the island despite her premonition of permanent chaos, and her poems indicate that she is just as drunk-in-love with the night’s “wayward hips” as the tourists themselves. In her characteristic mode of high lyricism and ironic erotics, she elaborates a sadomasochistic relationship to the island’s ecology. Her human figures are “whipped” by blue oxygen, “oppressed” by the sea; “we are the bit of straw clenched between the night’s furious gold teeth.”7
It is uncanny to read these poems against the backdrop of our contemporary Puerto Rican debt crisis, accompanied, last year, by a period of extreme drought. In “Confession of the Obscene,” the poet wonders over the “solvency” of her own sadness: do its assets exceed its liabilities? If her sadness is the “pestilent thing that breaks the rain back down,” is that a merciful rain, the end of a cultural and political drought, or is it a deadly, debilitating flood of pity?8 As we see contemporary artists such as Lin-Manuel Miranda lament the condition of the island in formal pleas for the benevolent intervention of the United States federal government—oops, too late—Palma’s poems pose difficult questions about the uses of public grief. In “Composition of a Tear,” published here, she burns through her own romantic tenderness in a moment of rageful protest: “I curse your tear.”9
The primary challenge associated with translating Palma—especially into English—is following her long, looping sentences. While Burgos describes Palma’s poetry as “completely subjective,” I find myself asking, from a grammatical perspective, who or what could possibly be the subject? The notion of “subjectivity” implies a personal, limited perspective, but Palma is often almost comically cosmic in her poetic gestures. Her “I” is rarely confessional, and while she sometimes addresses “you” as a lover, more often “you” are “never-nothing,” the abstract source of “damp, melancholy rain.” Practically speaking, translating Palma involves tracking wild personifications in which “the hour’s nerves roost” and the city is “a herd of feelings.”10 Her poetry is almost baroque in its appetite for adjectives, adverbs, and accumulation. Zora Neale Hurston wrote about “the will to adorn” in black vernacular language;11 Palma has that will and way. But her poetry also distorts our understanding of adornment, as when she imagines police “ornamenting the night with cordial grunts, with stamped files, with judges in heat.”12
There’s a rumor of seeds in man’s blood,
in the valleys between his heart and its beating.
His love is a shot in the dark.
Night’s navy of dark hands distributes
an artillery of clear flutes: coquí, coquí.13
When Palma’s night blooms, the smell is not always sweet. When her night sings, the sound can be shrill. In my mind’s ear I can hear the coquí, the tiny green frog named for its two-beat nocturnal song that lifts on the two. The coquí is a national celebrity, appearing in nostalgic works of art about the island and adorning keychains, hats, and t-shirts sold to tourists. The coquí was once exclusive to Puerto Rico, but American imperial adventures have now deposited it in Hawaii, where the creature and its cry are regarded as a terrible pest. Spanish, so often described as a “simple” language, can be difficult to translate: what sounds fluid and fugitive in a uniformly latinate vocabulary can sound elite and congested in English. Pride can become pestilent. Music can become noise. But how else can we hear the sound of the coquí? In Palma’s version, above, she redirects the question: How can we hear the instruments of our own hearing?
As I said, translation is always an experience of radical dependency. I would like to thank Aida del Valle (my mother), Mara Pastor, Raquel Salas-Rivera, Nicole Delgado, Nemir Matos Cintrón, Mariantonia Ordoñez, Urayoán Noel, Montana Ray, Kaiama Glover, and Brent Hayes Edwards for their diverse forms of support for this project.
Carina del Valle Schorske is a poet, translator, and essayist at large in New York City. She won first prize in Gulf Coast’s 2016 translation contest for her work on Marigloria Palma. Recent writing has appeared at Lit Hub, The Point, Berfrois, Boston Review, and Prodigal, among other venues. She is the happy recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, the Macdowell Colony, and Bread Loaf, as well as Columbia University, where she is a PhD student studying psychoanalysis and other forms of psychic inquiry in the Americas. Find her at carinadelvalleschorske.tumblr.com or follow @fluentmundo on Twitter.
1 “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!” Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove, 1968), 232.
2 Marigloria Palma, “La Noche: V,” La noche y otras flores eléctricas (San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1976), 18 (all Palma translations mine).
3 “Completamente subjetiva[,] . . . rehuye formas objetivas de rebelión”; Julia de Burgos, “Presentación de Marigloria Palma,” Pueblos Hispanos, 8 July 1944, 9.
4 “Éramos casi vecinas y la observaba caminando la antigua ciudad: alta, esbelta, casi siempre vestida con una falda tubo negra y una blusa colorida estampada, zapatos de tacones muy bajos. . . . Me duele no haberme acercado a ella, parecía siempre tan ensimismada”; Norma Valle Ferrer, “Autobiografía rimada de Marigloria Palma: El reto de desvelar la intimidad femenina en Puerto Rico,” Memories of Colloquium 4 (Part 8), Asociación Puertorriqueña de Investigación de Historia de las Mujeres (blog), senriquezseiders.blogspot.com/p/blog-page_54.html, para. 1.
5 “Yo soy terriblemente seria / y cuando veo que otra persona ríe, / me soprendo. / . . . // Creo que reiría si no existera / ese tremendo NO / que nos sale al camino / repujado de índices levantados / Si yo supiera qué realmente es el mar, / qué son los peces, / qué es el hombre”; Marigloria Palma, “97,” Versos de cada día: Estampas numeradas (San Juan: Editorial Universitaria, Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1980), 215.
6 Marigloria Palma, La noche y otras flores eléctricas (San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1976).
7 “Nalgas navegantes”; “jinteadas por un azul oxígeno”; “oprimido por las manos nerviosas del océano”; Palma, “La noche: I,” La noche, 13. “Somos entre sus dientes de oro enfurecido la denigrante paja”; Palma, “La noche: VIII,” La noche, 22.
8 “Tiene nueve caderas mi tristeza sin alas. / Su solvencia es de ajo: es humilde y es sobria”; “mi tristeza es la cosa pestilente / que disuelve la lluvia”; Palma, “Confesión de lo obscene,” La noche, 49.
9 “Yo maldigo tu lágrima”; Palma, “Composición de una lágrima,” La noche, 51.
10 “Amor, mi nada-nunca”; Palma, “San Juan y sus cotorras,” La noche, 30. “Llueve siempre tu lluvia de humedad melancólica”; Palma, “La noche: IV,” La noche, 16–17. “Se apaloman los nervios de la hora”; Palma, “La noche: II,” La noche, 14. “La ciudad es rebaño de emociones”; Palma, “San Juan de los turistas,” La noche, 37.
11 Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934), in “Sweat,” ed. Cheryl Wall (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 56.
12 “Decorando la noche con cordiales gruñidos, / con legajos timbrados y con jueces calientes”; Palma, “La noche: V,” La noche, 18.
13 “Hay rumor de semillas en la sangre del hombre, / entre los desniveles de su amor y su ritmo. / Es su amor un disparo que atraviesa la noche. // Noche armada de manos que dibujan la somra / y arman la faluta diáfana del coquí verspertino”; Palma, “La noche: II,” La noche, 14.