Book Review

Rough Song represents the first English translation of Blanca Varela, a major figure in twentieth-century Peruvian poetry who died in 2009. Though Varela’s work has been widely admired by leading international intellectuals—contemporaries such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, André Breton, and especially Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz—her verse had never been translated into English until this faithful yet playful translation by Carlos Lara. The result is a terrifically modern, painterly collection obsessed with the borders of language and the liminality of perception.

The book is divided into two sections: “Eyes to See” (recalling perhaps the Mark gospel “Having eyes do you not see”), which highlights Varela’s concern with the difference between seeing and understanding. The second and much longer section is the eponymic “Rough ­­­Song.” All the contradictions suggested by this title (crude/finished, harsh/smooth, process/product) are present throughout the collection.

Each poem is presented in Spanish first, followed by the English translation. The poems themselves are short, most are one to two pages long, and many are just a few lines of Borgesian enigma and epigrammatic paradox. Take the opening poem, “Railing,” “which is the light / which the shadow.” This brief entry—a series of clauses or a question?—is an effective primer into Varela’s work. Throughout, she is concerned with boundaries—what gets foregrounded and how we choose to frame reality. The opening section ends with an ekphrastic poem called “Tàpies” after the Spanish painter, Antoni Tàpies. In Tàpies’s work Varela has found a kindred spirit whose paintings also invite us to question our perception. Varela writes of one piece that features “a door with night above / and below and inside.” It’s hard not to read this image as a door to perception and the scene recalls Magritte’s surreal painting “Empire of Light.” A later verse in “Tàpies” tantalizes with interpretation: “like the world / a door between shadow and light / between life and death.”

The second section, “Rough Song,” opens with a poem called “Justice” that delivers a sort of scorpion sting at the end:

along came the bird
and devoured the worm
along came the man
and devoured the bird
along came the worm
and devoured the man

This poem almost feels like a child’s verse, yet the lowercase letters and the absence of punctuation accentuate the lack of sentimentality with which Varela views the world and the endless, Escher-like loop of destruction and creation she observes.

At the end of the book, the translator, Carlos Lara offers a brilliant short essay on translation. There, Lara writes of his process in translating Varela’s subtle semantic shadings: “I tried to translate as wildly and stoically as [Varela] has written her poetry.” In doing so, he offers a rich and lucid translation, taking some liberties with language in order to duplicate the playful paradoxes in Varela’s Spanish.

For example, a poem called “Eve Leaves” features a similar title to the Spanish “Va Eva.” A literal translation might be “Eve goes,” but Lara wants to retain the playfulness of the original, and so we hear the rhyme and the idea of Eve inside the acting of leaving, which is also clear in the poem: “you will have a name / and the word / slithering / will be your footprint.” This is one of many biblical references in the book, unsurprising perhaps in the Catholic-dominated Peru of her homeland. Yet Varela is not a religious poet, though her work hovers at the border of the physical and the metaphysical. Eve, who transgresses in order to gain sight (“eyes to see”), leaves the reassuring confines of Eden behind in order to make her own way, make her own creations.

The final poem, “Road to Babel,” is by far the longest in the book. In the seventh and final section, the speaker offers up a secular prayer:

help me immaculate mantra
divinity of the esophagus and the pylorus
if you hit your head infinite times against the impossible
you become the impossible
the other side
the one who arrives
the one who departs
the one who understands the unspeakable
the saint of the desert swallowing language.

Varela invokes the divine here, yet for her the divinity is physical, bodily. In reconciling these contradictions, she seems to say: all we have is our sacred symbol system of language.

About the Reviewer

John S. O’Connor is a public school teacher and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. Recent essays and reviews of his have appeared in Colorado Review, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, Sport Literate and Schools. His essays have been named Notable in Best American Essays and Best American Sportswriting. He is the creator and host of Schooled: the Podcast.