Symbol in the Syllables

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Sin preámbulos/Without Preamble

by Xánath Caraza
(Translated by Sandra Kingery)
Spartan Press: 62 pages

Xánath Caraza’s latest collection of poetry, Sin preámbulos/Without Preamble, begins ironically with a preamble of a sort:

Aquí enterré mi corazón.
Ulula, viento, espárceme.

Here I buried my heart.
Howl, wind, scatter me.

The year now coming to a close has felt utterly bereft of the poetical, and with the social and political winds howling more fiercely than at any time in recent memory, the public may be feeling a bit scattered itself and not in the mood for idylls. Now may seem too bleak a moment for poetry, and a review of poetry more so.

Perhaps it is for such reason that I received my copy of Sin preámbulos with the caveat that the verses contained within were written before those in Lágrima roja, the collection published in May, whose poems I described in my review as “poetry of angry desperation in the face of systemic violence and hatred.” Lágrima roja felt very much of its time, with talk of “clandestine cadavers” and “burned lives.”

The poems in Sin preámbulos, on the other hand, sound as though they were composed somewhere outside of time — outside of any place too, unlike the firmly located lyrics of Caraza’s earlier work, rooted as they were in Italy, Spain, Mexico and Kansas City. Reading her verses you would think the poet experienced a series of out-of-body flights which carried her away to Eden or some other celestial paradise of shattering beauty, where she took a stroll amidst the trees and flowers and hummingbirds, and arrived at the shore of some sublime sea and sat there to take in a sunset so divine, falling asleep in the sand to the shush of waves, beneath a ceiling of blazing white stars, to awake in the morning and catch the first rays of sunlight split the darkness like newfound hope.

La sombra lunar me recordó
de qué estoy hecha. …

El ritmo me envuelve
llena de flores las manos.

Sombra lunar traza mi silueta
en la piel del tiempo.

The lunar shadow reminded me
what I am made of. …

Rhythm envelops me
fills my hands with flowers.

Lunar shadow traces my silhouette
on the flesh of time.

Having read much of her preceding works, I could discuss these latest creations in the context of Caraza’s development as a poet, but of course the chronology of its composition might steer me into the teleological, with me highlighting certain features in Sin preámbulos as precursors to what we find in Lágrima roja. A writer more versed in poetics would talk about the formal qualities and might offer a thorough comparison with some of Caraza’s literary ancestors. But I am not equal to such a task, and I may never be if only for the simple fact that such analyses tend to bore me.

What I am most interested in, as a humble reader of poetry, is if and how the poet succeeds in forcing me to feel at least a little of what she herself feels or wants the reader to feel. It is in this sense, and fortunately so for me, that in a way Caraza and I are both Symbolists, the 19th-century movement whose ultimate goal was, as Mallarmé explained, “to depict not the thing but the effect it produces.” Unlike with the more recently composed Lágrima roja, which saw a drift away from the numinous and toward the material (political), Caraza’s earlier Symbolist roots still spread their fibers throughout these more recently published pages. There are no rivers or trees of fire, as Caraza’s words portray; no “Island of words sown with light/ where syllables sprout.” Such depictions are, as the name suggests, only symbols: of the fire that burns through all of existence and the light that illuminates all that usually goes unseen; symbols, in sum, of what Caraza frequently refers to as simply “poetry.”

Frágil pensamiento de luz
montaña de poemas y sílabas. …

Hoy me siento tierra negra
fértil, lista para dar a luz. …

Ni el tiempo ni la distancia
existen en la mirada.

Fragile thought of light
mountain of poems and syllables. …

Today I feel like fertile black dirt
ready to give birth. …

Neither time nor distance
exist in my gaze.

For Caraza, poetry, like the Greek and Roman gods of antiquity, is half-deity and half-force of nature. She communes with it–or, rather, it chooses to commune with her, and she wholeheartedly surrenders to its voice. The depiction of poetry as a metaphysical creature, a living breathing Muse, is itself another symbol, and a romantic one at that. Yet, just as there are no trees of fire, neither are there any Muses. And so this begs another question: what is poetry as daemon supposed to symbolize?

Poetry isn’t some kind of floating spirit; I don’t even believe the world to be essentially poetical in any way. If anyone sees poetry in a tree, a waterfall, or the beating of a hummingbird’s wings, it is because human beings are themselves poetical. Poetry is one of the few things which separate human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom. The soft tapping of rain or the colorful arc of a rainbow, as far as we know, doesn’t strike even our closet cousin, the chimpanzee, as poetical. Rain is just rain, and it falls, however uniquely, on countless other planets across the universe. If a rainy day seems to us like poetry, it must be because we humans are the origin of all poetry.

Los pies tatuados de estrellas
las palabras enterradas en el mar.

No hay fogatas en el alma
el viento las ha extinguido.

Feet tattooed with stars
words buried in the sea.

There are no campfires in the soul
the wind extinguished them.

The assertion I have just made will likely put me at odds with Caraza, and that’s okay. Whether the fire of poetry burning inside the poet is sparked and fanned by an unseen something, or whether it blazes there of its own accord, Caraza and I both agree nonetheless that the fire is there, in all of us, flickering. When hers glows hotter, she writes a poem, in hopes that the reader might feel the heat of his own inner flame. She shows us how she feeds her fire in order that we may learn to feed our own. And given that, even at a time as gloomy and dank as today, reading Sin preámbulos still managed to stoke my own beautifying fire — an effect common to all of Caraza’s work — I’d call her most recent collection a glowing success.

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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