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Firefly Under the Tongue

Reviewed by Monica de La Torre in Lana Turner: a Journal of Poetry & Opinion

FIREFLY UNDER THE TONGUE. By Coral Bracho. Translation by Forrest Gander. (New Directions, 2008).

Coral Bracho burst into the Mexican literary scene in 1977 with Peces de piel fugaz, an unprecedented book bearing few traces of its immediate literary predecessors. The poems in this groundbreaking collection already featured what would become the hallmarks of Bracho’s oeuvre: rhizomatic word paintings of lush, eroticized landscapes, as well as of eroticized bodies transcending their contours and merging with the environment, paintings, by the way, in which perspective is utterly out of whack. They defied the paradigm of the time by not being bolstered by a grand narrative (read Octavio Paz) or being aimed at shattering one (read Gerardo Deniz or David Huerta, the other leading Mexican voices to emerge alongside Bracho), and by an opulent diction not in the least colloquial (read Jaime Sabines and the now, thanks to Bolaño, legendary Infrarrealista poets). Bracho’s forebears, who epitomize Baroque and Neo-Baroque Spanish-language poetry, are to be found elsewhere. Like the 17th-century Spanish poet Góngora, when describing the natural world, Bracho displays an acute neological imagination: she bends language and syntax to maximum phenomenological effect, insisting on the mind’s inextricable link with the body and on the fact that, when it comes to perception, beheld and beholder are communicating vessels. “They know themselves, define themselves at those borders / as at a mirror’s edge: / the thin feeling that sews space to solidity, / that severs and couples in a ceaseless drafting.” Fast-track to 20th-century Cuba and Lezama Lima (the force behind the rereading of Góngora in Latin America) to find a more immediate antecedent to Bracho' endeavor. Lezama's take on the Baroque tradition was so extreme that he jokingly was said to write in Lezaman, not Spanish: in his parallel textual universe words don’t mean what they ordinarily mean, but, rather, what his poetic system dictates. If Bracho shares the same de-familiarizing impulse, her focus is on both animate and inanimate matter as matter, not as repository of cultural references. Her poetics do not metamorphose the natural world, instead they voice a prevailing desire for her subjectivity to diffuse and merge with it: “In your fathomless waters, / in its jade / quietude, welcome me, spectral earth,” she writes in “Give Me, Earth, Your Night.” Forrest Gander’s confident English renderings of a selection of poems from all of Bracho’s collections, as well as a few as yet unpublished in book form, partake of a similar ethos: his voice is submerged in hers, yet he manages to dissolve the hierarchy between original and translation by choosing to recreate the poems’ environments rather than deliver accurate word-for-word fragments that wouldn’t add up to a whole. Some think of work like Bracho’s, deploying de-centering strategies, as ecopoetry. If there were such a thing as ecotranslation, Gander would certainly be one of its pioneers.

—Mónica de la Torre