On the home page of jorgenriqueadoum.com, there is a rotating carousel of pictures. Jorgenrique Adoum lighting a cigar, Jorgenrique Adoum smiling. Printed across these pictures are three quotes: one of Adoum’s shorter poems in its entirety and excerpts from two others. Which strikes me now as ironic. Since, as I made my way through Katherine M. Hedeen & Victor Rodríguez Núñez’s translations of Adoum in prepoems in postspanish and other poems (which came out in March), my lingering impression was that of a winding traffic jam: that these poems, despite my wishes as a prospective reviewer, persistently refused to present themselves for bite-sized extraction.
I might as well illustrate with example:
I won’t trade your molasses velvet
gallows for annoyance and we can’t do anything but watch
our rigorous hearts like a taximeter,
paying every hundred meters
vallejo knows the sunday sepulcher is bigmouthed too
lizardly greedyguts of what then is us
what’s left of the ragdoll jostled all week
the dream we postpone or diminish ourselves with
this disactivity of postliving used to
the who knows the hows the what a shames
I like these lines for different reasons. And I hope that within them one can gleam some characteristic traits of Adoum’s poems: his personal, conversational tone; his semantic pile-ups; his frequent neologizing; his unabashed themes of intimacy and suffering in modernity. But I don’t think they have the same effect on their own. And in in reality they don’t exist in a vacuum. For, simply put, Adoum is not a fan of closure, and any cross-section I present for this review will most likely have morphed in the poem beyond the boundaries I set.
Such is the problem with quoting in general. But its failure feels especially stark in Adoum’s case. In an interview, Hedeen mentions her partner and co-translator Rodríguez Núñez’s use of the term “dialogical” to describe the writing of Adoum and several of his Latin American peers. Which is to say that their work requires an active reader, and that the impact of the poems lies in their accumulation of hermeneutic struggle. There are rarely lines that capital-h Hit because we need to read them several times to even approach a sense of what is going on. So unsurprisingly, the assumption of contextless one-to-one communication inherent in the act of quoting comes short.
I dwell on my hesitancy to dissect this text, but I think it highlights a point. prepoems is a translation that takes its project seriously; focusing on a few powerful lines does not capture the entirety of what this book is doing. In that same interview, Hedeen outlines two reasons for translating Adoum: First, he is largely unknown in both the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking world outside of his home country of Ecuador—meaning that the choice of dual-language publication quite literally manifests Walter Benjamin’s notion of translation as an extension of “literary afterlife”; and second, his poetics, experimental, dense, and averse to over-abstraction, challenges the usual assumption in the U.S. “that Latin Americans have a more intimate (‘primitive’) relationship with nature, sexuality, violence, poverty.” An assumption that, as Hedeen points out, is rooted in a neo-colonialist view of the West as civilized and cerebral and the global south as feeling and primal.
To accomplish this, Hedeen & Rodríguez Núñez must be willing to test the English language, or as Hedeen calls it, “tergiversate” (if you were wondering what a prepoem or postspanish or even postenglish was, there might be your answer). It is in this sense that the decision to include the Spanish source poems next to their English versions also becomes a study in the art of translation. Hedeen & Rodríguez Núñez unapologetically display the many balancing acts they walk. Lines such as:
but even so there’s no case even us
aluminum wetsuit clowns clowns
pero aun así no hay caso aun nosotros
payasos de aluminio y escafandra payasos)
we are redone i disform you i conform
miltuplied you me mildivided
nos rehacemos te desformo me conformo
miltuplicada tú yo mildividido)
boldly show the creativity required to maintain Adoum’s wordplay and highlight those moments when the source poem inspires something more in the target language (clowns clowns?!). In the poem titled “Y/o” in Spanish, Hedeen & Rodríguez Núñez must come up with a way to reconstruct the three meanings created by that deftly-placed slash. What they settle on—“E/go”—is not a direct translation, but what is?
Adoum’s poems, constantly straining against the bounds of discourse, present a ripe opportunity for the rethinking of language. In the moments when his speaker’s voice morphs from the impersonality of a newsreel or medical report to a stripped-down longing for a more human existence, one can sense how language is always one step removed from intent:
getmeupearly tomorrow so we can relove
and redo my body pairedup
before the day splits us in two
For all his compound words and grammatical aversions, Adoum is still circling a language of wholeness. This search for a completing half is perhaps why his most personal voice always comes through in what are more or less love poems. Societal structures have failed to see us in our entirety, but maybe, Adoum seems to suggest, our closest relationships can.
Hedeen notes this when she says, “For Adoum, love itself and how we love (romantically and beyond) has the potential to be deeply subversive.” This is most apparent in the final and longest poem of this collection, “Love Disinterred,” which springboards off the archeological discovery of an embracing Paleo-Indian couple to contemplate a love outside of social definitions (whether it be modern society or “the tribe”):
or was tenderness already subversive? was it already now
since always like always,
the tribe against love
(and we belong to the tribe)
because a couple is always the minority?
I am reminded now (because I can never seem to escape it) of the concept of translative intimacy, introduced by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her essay “The Politics of Translation.” On some level, love and intimacy are attempts to be reflected back to yourself as you want to be seen. They are a chance for all the aimless strands to coalesce just so in the eyes of another. This is true of Adoum’s continual recourse to romance, and it is true of the best translations. For in many ways it is through the lens of another that we come to exist, meaning that it is through the lens of a loving other that we can solidify into who we really want to be.
But whether love can ever fully escape the forces around it is another matter. About two-thirds of the way through “Love Disinterred,” the speaker’s strand of thought is interrupted by an excerpt from an archeological report. In it, the archeologist suggests that the Paleo-Indian lovers, instead of dying in each other’s arms, were likely placed in their embrace posthumously. They were sculpted into their love by a third. So what then to make of this possibility? Adoum’s speaker is hesitant, but the other option is submission: “In other words, tomorrow we’ll be ourselves again: / once more citizens, / taxpayers, / pornographic, / pragmatic, / skeptic. / Dead.” And clearly, Adoum is still writing.
In all of literature, Adoum is not the first nor will he be the last to ask: Can writing and the communication it attempts ever be more than an approximation with borrowed tools? I am still unsure what Adoum really believes. But I like this idea of love; I like this idea of translation’s triangulation. In an interview between Rodríguez Núñez and Adoum, conducted in the 1980’s and reprinted at the end of Prepoems, Adoum sheds light on some of his influences, from Neruda to Vallejo. And in her own interview, Hedeen discusses drawing from Pierre Joris’s translations of Paul Celan and Jonathan Larson’s translations of Friederike Mayröcker (to name the ones with which I am familiar). So while Adoum brought his own unique background to his work, Hedeen & Rodríguez Núñez brought theirs as well, drawing from literatures that Adoum may never have heard of to push him even farther. Which in the end, and in the prism of intimacy, may be the most we can ask for.
prepoems in postspanish and other poems, by Jorgenrique Adoum (translated by Katherine M. Hedeen & Victor Rodríguez Núñez). South Bend, Indiana: Action Books, March 2021. 204 pages. $20.00, paper.
Justin Sun is from San Jose, CA. He lives in Chicago.