Praises & Offenses: Three Women Poets from the Dominican Republic: Aída Cartagena Portalatín, Ángela Hernández Núñez, Ylonka Nacidit-Perdomo, tr. Judith Kerman. (BOA Editions LTD) $16
Praises & Offenses introduces three women poets from the Dominican Republic. Though the poets contained within were born from 1918 to 1965 and their poetry varies widely, “all three have understood their own writing as politically engaged, reflecting social, economic, cultural and gender dilemmas of Dominican culture and history.” To my immediate memory it is difficult to recall a Caribbean or Latin American poet that explicitly denies their work’s political engagement, and because the anthology is not (nor does it claim to be) an authoritative anthology of Dominican women poets or Dominican women poets engaged in politics, the grouping seems somewhat arbitrary. Still, the poets collected within are wholly worthy of translation into English, and BOA’s edition serves as an excellent introduction to their work, recalling the occasional Bloodaxe introductory volumes to specific demographics (e.g. American women poets, contemporary European greats, etc;). The volume’s introduction is too academic for the general reader—even the regular poetry reader—not because of an excess of jargon but because its approach is too formal for an introductory volume. It would serve better as an appendix to the collection.
Kerman’s translation is good, and BOA’s en-face presentation works well. Cartagena Portalatín (1918 – 1994) is the most recognizably Latin American poet of the bunch, she combines a high Modernist diction with occasional lapses into colloquial Dominican Spanish:
LET US GO DEEPER. Let’s explore the details
of two naïve kids
who seemed to neither suffer nor enjoy
and lacked all dignity. This state of nearer to here,
of more or less there, faded away the day when the less idiotic
discovered that death had reached his mother
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX through a diabetic wound.
The poor virgin lived in a smothering atmosphere.
After eating what he found on the plate
and a little of his fingernails, he belched, then asked:
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX —What is an American?
He laughed, his hair, his eyes, his arms
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX and his legs
jumping like a broken bird.
He was a comfortable idiot. He gave himself the answer:
—An American is half a million dead in Nagasaki or Hiroshima.
Hernández Núñez (b. 1954) is more consistently abstract, most often writing love lyrics punctuated with social commentary. From her poem “Fever”:
The cup of coffee breaks in my hands.
My mind catches fire.
Seeds detach from the night
and delinquent hands.
Sometimes I see a white shirt,
young beggars stab it.
Among the fixed things, he goes lightly.
He goes far.
The trunk, the paraffin, the cough.
Something of the old in bed.
Nacidit-Perdomo (b. 1965) is the most experimental of the three, all of her included poems are written in prose. Her imagery is sensual, recurring themes include water, day and night, and birds. Her poem “going south,” in its entirety:
the sea. eternal manuscript. goes back to sleep with its face toward the sun. drinks from the afternoon those hours when life rolls up a Friday in the color of time.
the south is a bird resting in perfect stillness. an alphabet of gazes. rosy symbols. delectable pause that spins out of the dream. infinite unions of reunion. centuries of intuitive reality. murmurs in the sluggishness of the sky. verbs. nouns. language of love.
it happens that going south the sea is a city navigable by returning to the rain. amazed silences. rumor of the day in boats that age the windows of the wind.
Praises & Offenses is proof positive that going South is a worthwhile journey. I hope that rather than defining the Dominican poets available in English it will lead to an even greater range of Dominican poetry available in English.