on Maria Negroni

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Island Reading

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[On Islandia by Maria Negroni, translated by Anne Twitty (Station Hill Press, 2001),
delivered on the occasion of the 2002 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation]

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When I read a new poet — meaning one I’m not already responding to before beginning to read — I sometimes receive a jolt, like waking up from a nap to a strange sound, then for a moment not knowing where I am.  Something’s got me without having fully identified itself.  Then I might remember how poetry is a wake-up call, and that such a call is not always welcome.  Or I might stop reading and rub my eyes, preferring the comfort of self-irritation.  Or — if I accept the call to wake up — I take this as a moment one gradually learns to love — recognition of the unfamiliar, embracing the strange.  I find myself in a place the poet has reached in her being and in language, and has somehow built a functioning bridge to.  Feeling insecure, I sidle up to the strangeness, hoping to be rescued by meaning.  It takes some getting used to — a real first encounter can be quite unpleasant in its vivid alienness — why here? why this? In this space of prenuptiality there is an opportunity for self-awareness peculiar to the poetic — a reflective moment that in certain hands becomes reflexive in that it acts upon itself and learns the deeper message of its own process.  The poet who embraces this difficulty of encounter with the unknown teaches us something fundamental about poetry — that it teaches us something fundamental about being — that being is ever adrift from itself, or as Heraclitus says, “We are estranged from what is most familiar.”

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Islandia takes this on.  Whoever would want to be adrift in troubled waters with a Nordic mentality? One who knows to the point of genetic transmission that the strangeness may never yield.  As a graduate student I had a near-Viking experience while studying Anglo-Saxon — I felt alternately called and cold but never finally at home. Yet one keeps coming back for more — one boards the ship — ever returning to strange mind, voyaging in the mind wilds, on account of the poet’s resolve to open the life-altering gates.  Islandia takes this on, hangs in at this level of commitment.  The island no man is supposed to be is nevertheless where we find ourselves, reaching across troubled waters to a supposed mainland.  History is unexpectedly on the side of this kind — this degree — of poetry which teaches us travel wisdom, the journey in how to be, how to endure the journey so as to let loose being wisdom in ourselves.  Or, to quote from Islandia: “A certain wild containment in the feet, like a permanent desire to be off.”

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The richness of this line in English carries over an urgent longing that drives a poem of this quality, this magnitude — like the electric arc of a Jacob’s Ladder leaping to its opposing pole.  Translation sometimes performs this, when the self-true connection is there.  Islandia, the book, is bilingual — it speaks two languages with the continuous arcing energy of a true dialogue.  Not facing pages, the easy arc; separate but equal texts, two separate experiences protective of each other’s integrity.  Each text has its reality — not first of all comparative, but integral, each in itself, utterly — that is uttered — individuality.  Anne Twitty’s translation deserves it all the way — it makes the poem belong in English.  So this poem of profoundly separate and opposing voices in itself — something like madly driven distinctive male (prose) and female (verse) writing realities — comes to us here in four voices, Spanish doubles and English doubles with their clear voices bespeaking multiple worlds.

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The publication of this book is a celebration of its unique event, what publishing is supposed to be — the necessary complement to life-altering creative action in language, and between languages.

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© 2002 George Quasha

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