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Nonfiction

Four Puerto Rican Poets Sing of Dust

Cristina Pérez Díaz, editor of The Puerto Rico Review, writes about four Puerto Rican poets whose work operates "in the constructions of queer bodies and of the nation."
Dust storm and shadows
Photo by Artin Bakhan on Unsplash

1. 

I’m writing about Puerto Rican literature, but I won’t talk about catastrophe. I won’t talk about Hurricane Maria, nor about economic and political crises, blackouts that go on for days, unfathomable amounts of resources gone to waste and the careful neglect that enables such wreckage. And I’ll forgo the many millions of dollars stolen by our own government officials and their friends, with resulting forced migrations, and a coda of precarious life. Nor will I talk about that law, signed last minute by President Obama, which made good on its promise to make the crisis so much worse. I’m not mentioning this new economy of perpetual debt we now live under. Nor will I begin by orienting the (unaware) reader to the fact that Puerto Rico is (still) a colony of the United States. 

I won’t do any of that. 

Not that these things are unrelated to Puerto Rican literature. In fact, most recent writers and visual artists from the island engage with this inescapable context. Yet I want to go beyond the obvious observation that art and artists always somehow talk from and about their own economic, socio- and geopolitical situatedness. Literature summons the unexpected into existence. I’d rather talk about literature reinscribing imagination onto the surface of reality, thereby transforming the landscape of the real into a plethoric geography of desires and affects.

The point of departure for this contemplation was my translation of selected poems from Manuel Ramos Otero’s posthumous Invitación al polvo. The title offered me a translation riddle. A literal rendering would be “An Invitation to Dust”—but literality does not work here, for various reasons. In Spanish (as in English), the noun “polvo” (dust) carries over biblical connotations, from its resounding threat in the phrase “Unto dust shalt thou return.” Yet in Spanish idiom—and this holds true for variants in many countries— “un polvo” means “getting laid.” Thus, the title playfully fuses death with eroticism in the same invitation: to simultaneously cum and die—something that is completely lost in a literal translation. I’ve chosen to translate the title into English as “Onto dust we shall come,” changing “unto,” in the biblical phrase, for “onto” thus restating onto a new landscape of devastation what is essential to the original summons: let there be pleasure in the end, let us finish ourselves off with pleasure! 

And perhaps it is also in this key that we should read not only Ramos Otero, but the poets Raquel Salas Rivera, Claudia Becerra, and Xavier Valcárcel, all of whom will appear in Words Without Borders in the coming weeks. The work of these latter three comprises a sort of extended response to the riddle of Invitación al polvo, to take a walk along the edges of both death and desire, looking at how they operate in the constructions of queer bodies and of the nation.

 

2.

Manuel Ramos Otero began publishing in Puerto Rican magazines and cultural supplements in the sixties and contributed to the local literary scene, uninterrupted, even after moving to New York in 1969 and until his death in 1990 due to AIDS-related complications. He only published in Spanish, and although he wrote most of his books in New York, none have been translated (though an anthology in translation is finally forthcoming). Hence, his work remains unknown among anglophone New York literary schools. But he was also an outsider in his own country: the first Puerto Rican writer to have openly turned his gayness into a literary trope, he developed an anti-establishment and anti-colonial poetics of autobiographical indecorum that also “sexiled” him from the Puerto Rican republic of (straight) letters. This minor, marginal status contrasts with the fascination his work has exerted over younger readers and writers—including the poets in this selection—since the nineties.

Perhaps a common denominator between Ramos Otero’s experience of the islands and our own is that they are always “enticing, inviting us to wreck.” Yet, along with wreckage, the next verse in his poem “6” offers another enticement—or demand—on the opposite shore: “to arrive, arrive, arrive, to come up with a new verb.” And that’s precisely what Salas Rivera, Becerra, and Valcárcel—like Ramos Otero himself—are doing: taking on what to me is one of literature’s perpetual and most important invitations: to arrive at new verbs.

I would position Salas Rivera, Becerra, and Valcárcel as writers adjacent to Ramos Otero. With this horizontal adjacency, I mean to indicate that the matter of literary influence is not the sole criterion for their work to appear together in the coming weeks. In selecting these poets, I’m not claiming that Ramos Otero has exerted more influence over them than over other writers and whose connection to his work is perhaps more obvious. Rather, in the poetics of these three writers, I see something that can be thrown into relief by reading them adjacent to Ramos Otero and one another. And vice versa: their own takes on tropes that obsessed Ramos Otero cast his work under different shades, playing a game of mirrors he would have enjoyed. For perhaps, like a mirror, we are an instantiation of that “other island of Puerto Rico” that Ramos Otero speculatively created throughout his writings. We are those other shores of an island that repeats and multiplies its desires and its ruins; and from there, we, too, are singing.

 

3. 

Let’s not be like Dido!, seems to be one invitation that Xavier Valcárcel offers us in the title of his poem, “Nothing of pyres, nothing of Didos, nothing of Carthage.” Let’s not be like Dido!—the tragic queen whom Aeneas abandoned on the shore of Carthage to go conquer Italy. In Virgil’s account, the queen builds a pyre with Aeneas’s belongings, at the top of which she places her bed and herself, then drives a sword through her stomach, and burns with it all. But, Valcárcel’s anti-mythical poem seems to ask, why kill ourselves over a man when we can redirect our anger at the source? The house itself, for instance, that edifice of the patriarchy. The invitation also realigns our genealogies, from the father to the mother. For, whereas Aeneas carried his father out of the burning citadel of Troy, it is with his mother that the Caribbean-situated speaker of Valcárcel’s poem runs away. And while we’re at it, the poem summons us to reroute our destinations as well: for the speaker and the mother burn down the citadel of their house not to pursue the teleology of an imperialist dream, but rather in what seems like a flight in pursuit of pleasure, “in a taxi to a hotel in Punta Cana.”

This pyromaniac motif could be a way of arriving at the furiously anti-epic landscape of Invitación al polvo, where fire is as much a elemental as dust. There, the speaker says: “At dusk you’ll see the house fall . . . The house burns his/its gladdened heart . . . The house returns to the dust of his/its verses, library of his/its bones.” The house is confounded with the speaker in the opacity of the personal pronoun, and so both come to ashes at once. The speaker declares himself, as it were, homeless, a “dweller of the shore.” And I want to propose this shore-bound dweller of Ramos Otero’s book as the pyromaniac ghost that, already burning behind Valcárcel’s poem, also inflames the sails of Claudia Becerra’s and Raquel Salas Rivera’s verses.

At one point, Becerra’s speaker addresses the unnamed recipient of the poem, saying: “You, so suddenly taken by the shore like a resolution.” It’s unclear whether the voice mourns or celebrates this boundedness, which so suddenly finishes off the “you” when it has just arrived. But as the motif of the bounding-shore reverberates in yet another injunction, the menace of the ending shifts into a proliferating port in the imaginative gaze of this speaker: “Keep watch over your gaze, Recienvenido, see how it fills with improbable ports.” Thus, this improbable new noun, the Recienvenido (the Recentlyarrived) combines within itself both the joyous sense of the new and its menacing threat. And this new noun could be another metonym for the pyromaniac Puerto Rican poet, not only Ramos Otero, but Valcárcel and Becerra and Salas Rivera and myself. These voices have always just (joyously) come and are on the (terrifying) brink of departure. 

So suddenly, we’ve come full circle, as Becerra’s recent noun populates itself with the verb “to arrive,” echoing Ramos Otero’s proliferating invitation: “to arrive, arrive, arrive, to come up with a new verb.” 

But have we yet? Or do we need to burn a little bit more?

Echoing my point about Valcárcel’s poem, it’s not an anomaly in recent Puerto Rican letters to burn down the house and drive past old myths. Perhaps because, dwellers of improbable ports that we are, our poems are insistently written on sand. Like the speaker of Raquel Salas Rivera’s “poets per square foot,” we “write poetry unprinted.” These voices come, so to speak, from a lineage of limited editions (could that be another way of saying “islands”?). And this flaming negation inscribed in the “un” of “unprinted” is, in a sense, a source of celebration. Sometimes it is hard to understand why Puerto Ricans celebrate so much, when our colonial reality offers abundant fresh material for mourning. As the same poem asks: “What wild insistence has possessed us.” And though Salas Rivera’s speaker refuses punctuation and exclamation, I repeat the verse with (pyro)manic marks: “WHAT WILD INSISTENCE HAS POSSESSED US?!,” to somehow “sing again, leaving death behind, to take part in the horrible tenderness of love”—as another of Ramos Otero’s poems declares, and to close yet another circle.

Yes! These are poems of horrible tenderness. They insist on taking part in love as a subject, as landscape, as labor . . . the labor of insisting, precisely . . . desire is insistent, in its all-consuming fire. No, we don’t come from the lineage of either Dido or Aeneas, and that’s very good indeed. It’s rather queer Caeneus—a minor mythical figure—who, though they “[were] born dead, died in life, and live in death,” invokes our muses in Salas Rivera’s provokingly epic poem. From without the house of the family, they sing, “Oh Muse! / my tongue weighs.” (Is this also a tongue of fire?) The poem is precisely named “Algarabía.” Salas Rivera leaves the title untranslated . . . celebratorily insisting on the mark (and volume?) of our language. It means a “rejoicing,” a “commotion,” a “jubilation.” And it is from this improbably joyous affective landscape that we are proclaiming this queer parent: the pyromaniac ghost of Ramos Otero.

 

4.

I was five when Ramos Otero died, yet I’ve befriended his ghost through his writings. And I started translating the poems from Invitación al polvo out of this call that friends make upon us, to come even closer. It was also with friends that I shared my first versions of the translations years ago, with Jacqui Cornetta and Kira Josefsson. And so, it is not a coincidence that Jacqui ended up translator of the Claudia Becerra poems that will appear in these pages, for we have been accompanying each other in this task for a long time. Claudia and Jacqui, in turn, met at an event we organized a few years ago at Mil Mundos in New York, where, in what ended up being an intimate salon around recent Puerto Rican poetry, we read our own poems to each other and became closer. That Raquel Salas Rivera makes twin appearances here, not only as poet but also as translator of Xavier Valcárcel, is no coincidence either. The three of us have become friends through the labor of literature in Puerto Rico, and our friendship is stronger because of the admiration and respect we have for each other’s work. When national institutions are lacking and the reality of colonialism make ties difficult in the international arena, it is friendship that makes literature and translation possible. We have found ourselves growing closer in the labor of sustaining this task, not only as individual writers and translators, but as engaged agents within our own literary and national contexts.

English

1. 

I’m writing about Puerto Rican literature, but I won’t talk about catastrophe. I won’t talk about Hurricane Maria, nor about economic and political crises, blackouts that go on for days, unfathomable amounts of resources gone to waste and the careful neglect that enables such wreckage. And I’ll forgo the many millions of dollars stolen by our own government officials and their friends, with resulting forced migrations, and a coda of precarious life. Nor will I talk about that law, signed last minute by President Obama, which made good on its promise to make the crisis so much worse. I’m not mentioning this new economy of perpetual debt we now live under. Nor will I begin by orienting the (unaware) reader to the fact that Puerto Rico is (still) a colony of the United States. 

I won’t do any of that. 

Not that these things are unrelated to Puerto Rican literature. In fact, most recent writers and visual artists from the island engage with this inescapable context. Yet I want to go beyond the obvious observation that art and artists always somehow talk from and about their own economic, socio- and geopolitical situatedness. Literature summons the unexpected into existence. I’d rather talk about literature reinscribing imagination onto the surface of reality, thereby transforming the landscape of the real into a plethoric geography of desires and affects.

The point of departure for this contemplation was my translation of selected poems from Manuel Ramos Otero’s posthumous Invitación al polvo. The title offered me a translation riddle. A literal rendering would be “An Invitation to Dust”—but literality does not work here, for various reasons. In Spanish (as in English), the noun “polvo” (dust) carries over biblical connotations, from its resounding threat in the phrase “Unto dust shalt thou return.” Yet in Spanish idiom—and this holds true for variants in many countries— “un polvo” means “getting laid.” Thus, the title playfully fuses death with eroticism in the same invitation: to simultaneously cum and die—something that is completely lost in a literal translation. I’ve chosen to translate the title into English as “Onto dust we shall come,” changing “unto,” in the biblical phrase, for “onto” thus restating onto a new landscape of devastation what is essential to the original summons: let there be pleasure in the end, let us finish ourselves off with pleasure! 

And perhaps it is also in this key that we should read not only Ramos Otero, but the poets Raquel Salas Rivera, Claudia Becerra, and Xavier Valcárcel, all of whom will appear in Words Without Borders in the coming weeks. The work of these latter three comprises a sort of extended response to the riddle of Invitación al polvo, to take a walk along the edges of both death and desire, looking at how they operate in the constructions of queer bodies and of the nation.

 

2.

Manuel Ramos Otero began publishing in Puerto Rican magazines and cultural supplements in the sixties and contributed to the local literary scene, uninterrupted, even after moving to New York in 1969 and until his death in 1990 due to AIDS-related complications. He only published in Spanish, and although he wrote most of his books in New York, none have been translated (though an anthology in translation is finally forthcoming). Hence, his work remains unknown among anglophone New York literary schools. But he was also an outsider in his own country: the first Puerto Rican writer to have openly turned his gayness into a literary trope, he developed an anti-establishment and anti-colonial poetics of autobiographical indecorum that also “sexiled” him from the Puerto Rican republic of (straight) letters. This minor, marginal status contrasts with the fascination his work has exerted over younger readers and writers—including the poets in this selection—since the nineties.

Perhaps a common denominator between Ramos Otero’s experience of the islands and our own is that they are always “enticing, inviting us to wreck.” Yet, along with wreckage, the next verse in his poem “6” offers another enticement—or demand—on the opposite shore: “to arrive, arrive, arrive, to come up with a new verb.” And that’s precisely what Salas Rivera, Becerra, and Valcárcel—like Ramos Otero himself—are doing: taking on what to me is one of literature’s perpetual and most important invitations: to arrive at new verbs.

I would position Salas Rivera, Becerra, and Valcárcel as writers adjacent to Ramos Otero. With this horizontal adjacency, I mean to indicate that the matter of literary influence is not the sole criterion for their work to appear together in the coming weeks. In selecting these poets, I’m not claiming that Ramos Otero has exerted more influence over them than over other writers and whose connection to his work is perhaps more obvious. Rather, in the poetics of these three writers, I see something that can be thrown into relief by reading them adjacent to Ramos Otero and one another. And vice versa: their own takes on tropes that obsessed Ramos Otero cast his work under different shades, playing a game of mirrors he would have enjoyed. For perhaps, like a mirror, we are an instantiation of that “other island of Puerto Rico” that Ramos Otero speculatively created throughout his writings. We are those other shores of an island that repeats and multiplies its desires and its ruins; and from there, we, too, are singing.

 

3. 

Let’s not be like Dido!, seems to be one invitation that Xavier Valcárcel offers us in the title of his poem, “Nothing of pyres, nothing of Didos, nothing of Carthage.” Let’s not be like Dido!—the tragic queen whom Aeneas abandoned on the shore of Carthage to go conquer Italy. In Virgil’s account, the queen builds a pyre with Aeneas’s belongings, at the top of which she places her bed and herself, then drives a sword through her stomach, and burns with it all. But, Valcárcel’s anti-mythical poem seems to ask, why kill ourselves over a man when we can redirect our anger at the source? The house itself, for instance, that edifice of the patriarchy. The invitation also realigns our genealogies, from the father to the mother. For, whereas Aeneas carried his father out of the burning citadel of Troy, it is with his mother that the Caribbean-situated speaker of Valcárcel’s poem runs away. And while we’re at it, the poem summons us to reroute our destinations as well: for the speaker and the mother burn down the citadel of their house not to pursue the teleology of an imperialist dream, but rather in what seems like a flight in pursuit of pleasure, “in a taxi to a hotel in Punta Cana.”

This pyromaniac motif could be a way of arriving at the furiously anti-epic landscape of Invitación al polvo, where fire is as much a elemental as dust. There, the speaker says: “At dusk you’ll see the house fall . . . The house burns his/its gladdened heart . . . The house returns to the dust of his/its verses, library of his/its bones.” The house is confounded with the speaker in the opacity of the personal pronoun, and so both come to ashes at once. The speaker declares himself, as it were, homeless, a “dweller of the shore.” And I want to propose this shore-bound dweller of Ramos Otero’s book as the pyromaniac ghost that, already burning behind Valcárcel’s poem, also inflames the sails of Claudia Becerra’s and Raquel Salas Rivera’s verses.

At one point, Becerra’s speaker addresses the unnamed recipient of the poem, saying: “You, so suddenly taken by the shore like a resolution.” It’s unclear whether the voice mourns or celebrates this boundedness, which so suddenly finishes off the “you” when it has just arrived. But as the motif of the bounding-shore reverberates in yet another injunction, the menace of the ending shifts into a proliferating port in the imaginative gaze of this speaker: “Keep watch over your gaze, Recienvenido, see how it fills with improbable ports.” Thus, this improbable new noun, the Recienvenido (the Recentlyarrived) combines within itself both the joyous sense of the new and its menacing threat. And this new noun could be another metonym for the pyromaniac Puerto Rican poet, not only Ramos Otero, but Valcárcel and Becerra and Salas Rivera and myself. These voices have always just (joyously) come and are on the (terrifying) brink of departure. 

So suddenly, we’ve come full circle, as Becerra’s recent noun populates itself with the verb “to arrive,” echoing Ramos Otero’s proliferating invitation: “to arrive, arrive, arrive, to come up with a new verb.” 

But have we yet? Or do we need to burn a little bit more?

Echoing my point about Valcárcel’s poem, it’s not an anomaly in recent Puerto Rican letters to burn down the house and drive past old myths. Perhaps because, dwellers of improbable ports that we are, our poems are insistently written on sand. Like the speaker of Raquel Salas Rivera’s “poets per square foot,” we “write poetry unprinted.” These voices come, so to speak, from a lineage of limited editions (could that be another way of saying “islands”?). And this flaming negation inscribed in the “un” of “unprinted” is, in a sense, a source of celebration. Sometimes it is hard to understand why Puerto Ricans celebrate so much, when our colonial reality offers abundant fresh material for mourning. As the same poem asks: “What wild insistence has possessed us.” And though Salas Rivera’s speaker refuses punctuation and exclamation, I repeat the verse with (pyro)manic marks: “WHAT WILD INSISTENCE HAS POSSESSED US?!,” to somehow “sing again, leaving death behind, to take part in the horrible tenderness of love”—as another of Ramos Otero’s poems declares, and to close yet another circle.

Yes! These are poems of horrible tenderness. They insist on taking part in love as a subject, as landscape, as labor . . . the labor of insisting, precisely . . . desire is insistent, in its all-consuming fire. No, we don’t come from the lineage of either Dido or Aeneas, and that’s very good indeed. It’s rather queer Caeneus—a minor mythical figure—who, though they “[were] born dead, died in life, and live in death,” invokes our muses in Salas Rivera’s provokingly epic poem. From without the house of the family, they sing, “Oh Muse! / my tongue weighs.” (Is this also a tongue of fire?) The poem is precisely named “Algarabía.” Salas Rivera leaves the title untranslated . . . celebratorily insisting on the mark (and volume?) of our language. It means a “rejoicing,” a “commotion,” a “jubilation.” And it is from this improbably joyous affective landscape that we are proclaiming this queer parent: the pyromaniac ghost of Ramos Otero.

 

4.

I was five when Ramos Otero died, yet I’ve befriended his ghost through his writings. And I started translating the poems from Invitación al polvo out of this call that friends make upon us, to come even closer. It was also with friends that I shared my first versions of the translations years ago, with Jacqui Cornetta and Kira Josefsson. And so, it is not a coincidence that Jacqui ended up translator of the Claudia Becerra poems that will appear in these pages, for we have been accompanying each other in this task for a long time. Claudia and Jacqui, in turn, met at an event we organized a few years ago at Mil Mundos in New York, where, in what ended up being an intimate salon around recent Puerto Rican poetry, we read our own poems to each other and became closer. That Raquel Salas Rivera makes twin appearances here, not only as poet but also as translator of Xavier Valcárcel, is no coincidence either. The three of us have become friends through the labor of literature in Puerto Rico, and our friendship is stronger because of the admiration and respect we have for each other’s work. When national institutions are lacking and the reality of colonialism make ties difficult in the international arena, it is friendship that makes literature and translation possible. We have found ourselves growing closer in the labor of sustaining this task, not only as individual writers and translators, but as engaged agents within our own literary and national contexts.

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