Book Review

The poems in Chus Pato’s The Face of the Quartzes, as translated from Galician into English by Erín Moure, strain against each other by putting pressure on images and language to constitute a form dense with structure and yet open to the mind’s acoustic thinking—a thinking that explores multiplicity, identity, language, and transformation.

The book’s plurality of voices (voices that sound from the human, the geologic, the natural, and the act of translation itself) initiates the reader into a space of participation in which the poems’ many actants are not spoken about by a poetic speaker, but are a singing part of the whole in an orphic fugue that does not overwhelm but upholds—as exampled and expressed by the architectural choir of stones in the poem “Seriously”: “there’s just us / we who can’t be seen or heard // the ogives uphold us.”

These strange and beautiful orphic overlaps, where stones and structures speak, reveal within the book a primary inquiry into the relationship between the speaking voice and the lived-in world. My use of “and” there is already a disservice to the thinking in The Face of Quartzes; materiality is not treated as distinct from language, but is instead the ground that creates the capacity for speech, sound, and singing. For example, the poem “You stones, bring me words” catalogues the bodily overlaps with the world and “the voice” is juxtaposed with to both “a train passing” and “a horse.” Another poem, “In the silence,” rings out with “the literate voices of machines / the cries of animals / the vibration of the spheres.” Those energies that cause lichen to grow and volcanoes to erupt also cause the voice to cry out and the ear to hear, so that to learn to speak within the world is first to try and learn to listen to the world, as in “Nothing closer than the mosses”:

Nothing closer than the mosses
than bare trees
the singing of waters
but you, moss
you, you don’t speak to me
or am I just not listening?
I’d have to stretch out beside you on the stone
look at the sky and look only at sky
let the frost open a path . . .

A repeated rediscovery of language in the world and the world in language undergirds these poems—finding the stone beneath moss, speech beneath the stone, and the sky beneath speech—and involves the reader in an active process of building that is rife with risks and uncertainty: “The hand assembles words / my hand / that misjudges the size of the letters and width of the wall”; the hand must misjudge for the poetics present, for that misjudgment reveals the hand’s own role in making, and creates a mark of the maker in the product—leaving remnants of the poetic process wherever possible.

This process takes place as an active silence—an unending intake of breath for a “Eureka” that cannot be uttered because the revelation is suspended in the attention to breath itself. The poems operate by folding in on themselves to listen to their own origins—an event laid out perhaps most poignantly in “What to call this life”; as Pato’s symbolism grows to incorporate the druidic and the sylvan, “language goes mute” and “the ideal” speaks:

if the poet is whoever is lost
and in loss went back to the indigence of the natal
whoever reads must return to their nativity
mute as a trout
illiterate as stones and Thracian warriors
and learn all over again in the poem
in the syllabary of the poem

“The syllabary of the poem” is thus the place wherein language is continually rediscovered to be something more than pure semantic, system-abstraction and which extends to involve the melody of voice, the speaking body. Note, though, that it is ideality speaking here. For the paradox ideality can see past is the very paradox that the mortal voice cannot speak through: to be silent the poem must speak in the way that the stones of an ogive create the open air beneath them. Pato elsewhere phrases the crux this way: “In the voice, in its sacrifice, in its annulation, lies the very possibility of articulated language and, in consequence, of the dichotomies of nature and culture, of what can be said and what not” (At the Limit). By offering abstractable and communicable understanding, including those abstractions and understandings at play in poetry, language serves to obscure and disguise the vocal impetus and origin of language.

Moure’s brilliant act of translation extends this paradox of the silent poem into the strange silence of translation by calling attention to the dehiscence between voice and self—an ongoing theme in Moure’s impressive translation oeuvre. In Face of the Quartzes, this attention serves as an active and important disruption—in which authority is granted not exclusively the page but is extended to include the vocal reading. Moure admits in one footnote, “The order of these lines in the original Galician book is ‘improper / and intimate’ but I heard Chus read it the other way on November 14, 2019 in Oxford, so I read it that way too and kept it.” The “I” of translation hovers in a received space—here so defiantly Moure’s reception of Pato’s voice in a singular moment so that the poem is left to hover in multiple received spaces: Pato’s reading, Moure’s hearing and translating, and the reader’s experience.

By continuing to translate Pato’s work, Moure offers English readers a generous experience of poetry’s potential to suspend the senses into new awareness. Even in its spareness, The Face of the Quartzes places the reader directly in a state of careful bewilderment by allowing images and sounds to sit paratactically and to fold back on themselves in an invitation to the reader to become “lost” and return to “the indigence of the natal.”

About the Reviewer

Adam Ray Wagner, a poet from rural Nebraska, is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Boise State University.