Watchword by Pura López Colomé

Reviewed By

Assuming Rumpus readership continues to grow, I’ll repeat myself from time to time: Exposure to other languages enriches the ear, even if one does not read or speak one of the languages in a book. In bi-lingual editions, when foreign tongues are read aloud, the sounds, even if awkward and inaccurate, add pleasurable heft to the English that faces them.

In Watchword, the poetry of Mexican Pura López Colomé, herself a translator, is lovingly brought to English by Forrest Gander, author of five books and a professor of comparative literature at Brown.

Colomé has given Seamus Heaney, Beckett, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams and H. D. to Spanish speakers, and the influences of those writers and their languages (it sometimes gets forgotten that most of Beckett’s published work was written in French) are glimpsed in her poetry, along with what Heaney said about Yeats : “His determination to establish the crystalline standards of poetic imagination as normative for that at which people might live.”

This isn’t easy, but Colome makes it bearable and welcome, and early poems in this book contain well placed, well earned tenderness :

A simple and common wildflower
I think of now and then
whose petals I opened out
like leaves of a door,
like my eyelids,
a flower I feel I met in person
lying on the grass one Sunday
when I was ten.
And it seems to me that flower
led me to the word.

These are the last lines in the “Tibuchina Flower”, and they are lyrically inevitable in both English and Spanish, the tone attentive to the task Colome treats as sacred. One half expects her to capitalize “Word,” the way Bible translators do.

Reading this book can be compared to prayer, and when any two tongues meet, in any degree of completeness, the long song of the enterprise of poetry becomes more generous. When Colomé writes in “Deep Wound,” the pain is both acknowledged and brought closer to healing :

Only proximity,
trees in a forest
with emptiness between them,
rouses us to recognize
that our wounds hunger
for sunlight,
these living lesions that
as they suppurate
console us with their purity,
the fetidness of their white
Like a mottled
its pulp
already rotten.

In Spanish, proximity means cercania, which clearly sounds like certainty, which upends the project in a way that is paradoxical. Cavafy famously wrote that poetry makes one “ unaware, for awhile, of the wound,” whereas Colome faces the wound and extracts healing from the suffering and rot that it contains. “Beauty.” “Wound.” Are they often not close to each other? Like hunger and sunlight and need for both, in sound as Colome places them, and in actuality.

Colome won the Villaumutica prize, as prestigious in Mexico as the Pulitzer, for Watchword. That was In 2007, when she suffered through her second battle with cancer. Is it any wonder that she calls beauty a traitor? In a poem called “Heart’s Core,” (Cor Cordis in Spanish, sounding like a knot emphasized to make sure we do not let go),she says:

In our poor, weak flesh,
multiplied and supplicant,
the memory of pain fades.
no reliable image
rendered to the last
anatomical detail
that can be remembered.

Toward the middle of this long piece she says:

a certain sentence
perfectly measured,
a sharp, black onyx dart,
keeps hitting the target inside me
with all its sinister, atomic
How curious that it feels less like prickling than throbbing.
That between words
we find the heart’s core,
not merely an account of it.

When she italicizes “heart’s core,” we know she is honoring in a deliberately less pretty but nonetheless essential way “the deep heart’s core” Yeats carved in his Innisfree. When she continues to the end, working with injury and memory she names the instrument just right :

The fragility
of an imprudent mind
carried invisibly
by two-edged arms,
razor-edged tongues,
aimed at expressive

The controlled travel here is transcending. Prayers always have the capacity to be simultaneously deeply inner and immensely communal, expressing and touching what can be
difficult, even impossible to communicate in any other way. There is spiritual alchemy at work here, making one wish this piece, and many others, could be chanted by choruses taking turns, in both languages, with an audience not responding audibly between poems.

Again and again the sounds of Spanish and English complement each other and the messages of the poems. “Dulzura,” is a piece called “Sweetness,” but the sound of the poem also has a waft of the word “deluge,” which sets up its beginning :

As it spreads itself out,
rumor vibrates,
with the flesh of otherness,
with languorous pastures
each with its own map,
its own zodiac.
And defenseless
confronting love and death.

These words raise the question–Who wouldn’t want to be defenseless? Defenseless not against, as in the more typical understanding, but utterly open to magnificent, multiple deluges in these pages. The sound shapes of Colome’s interests and ardor can be compared to Michael McClure and Ed Roberson at their most lovingly acute.

In “Latch,” “Cerradura” in Spanish, (the second part of “Tongue-and-Grooved”) she opens her mother’s suitcase, is “plastered with seals, stamps from distant latitudes,/ The Netherlands, Austria, Canada/ wooden shoes, white alpine flowers/ mallards in flight/your own wings spread/ all I could wish for.” She keeps her childhood clothes there and “those nylons I never knew how to wear,” and “a necklace that changed me into you.” The suitcase contains the whole of both women, the girl struggling with nylons, failing to dress for the adult world, and the woman whose necklace declares the change girls require to become adults connected to, yet also separate from their mothers.

Watchword makes those connections, and many more, in ways as necessary as the finest poetry in any language. The craft Pura Lopez Colome brings to words is explosive, tender and brilliantly encompassing.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →