Poetry in Translation: Jorge Fondebrider
Review: Jorge Fondebrider’s The Spaces Between
Obstinate memory finds in the ordinary extraordinary material to dream with.
Afterwards? Afterwards I don’t know, but now it’s raining and I want to make a note of it in case anyone needs the rain as I do.
Late in 2020, either during or in the interludes of one of the many lockdowns, I wrote on this blog about how I had began a retrospective reading of all of the poetry books by Cinnamon Press I own and did a two part review of two of the poets: Gail Ashton and Susan Richardson. (Part one and two are still available to read.) That was in part inspired by an anthology they wrote together, and the feeling that between that anthology and four collections (two by each) there was a substantive amount of material to cover in several essay reviews. My urge to review Jorge Fondebrider has no such justification, but as with Ashton's and Richardson's work I was so struck by it I felt that foundational desire to share it, and to encourage others to read it too. This will be a shorter essay than usual, but it's one I wrote with a real and immediate (at the time of scheduling it, I have only just finished the book) passion.
Most of the poems in Jorge Fondebrider’s The Spaces Between (translated by Richard Gwyn) are short and deceptively simple. Even the longer poems (and even they are not so long) have this quality. ‘Ugly Beauty’, for example, takes an uncharacteristically stretched seventeen lines (in both English and Spanish, each rendering is provided on opposing pages) because it picks at a single idea without any pretence or muddle and that takes time. The idea is framed as a challenge the poet cannot accept: ‘I remembered a very famous blind man/ who said once that beauty overwhelms.’ This provocation is followed by disconcerted wonderings, utilising the first person , ‘I don’t know’, ‘nor do I know’ ‘I thought’ before a more certain (or at least less subjectively uncertain) conclusion ‘Beauty is always elusive./ It lacks any foundation.’ That pattern, from an initial confusion and hesitancy to an aphoristic-like concentration of insight, is common in this collection. Although the moment of certainty does not necessarily always arrive at the very end. In ‘After a Journey’, for instance, it is much earlier that ‘everything seems sad and provincial/ except the sky.’ Here, the poet’s return to Argentina is made manageable by the openness of the Argentinian skies. And that openness is then reflected on. As with many ideas that come up in one poem, this notion of return after travel is itself returned to, expanded on.
Many of the poems, such as ‘Summertime’, have two short stanzas with the latter serving to answer the former. This one begins: ‘Outside, on the edge of summer/ with all its perfumes/ the night is scented with peach/ and I light a cigarette.’ The scene is then unpacked and teased apart (commented on), but without drawing attention to that process; it is rearticulated in a way that gives the moment meaning:
Let’s say that the night can go where it will. Let’s say that smoking doesn’t suit me. The heart is redundant. Logic is useless.
Both the Spanish original and Gwyn’s English translation have this same precise structure, where every line is also a full sentence. In contrast, the first part of the poem is a single flowing sentence, and the second is in staccato of clearly not-hypotheticals framed if they were , followed by two even more definite declarations. There’s a heavy authority to the syntax in the second stanza, a certainty that helps it pull out what’s initially described with a lighter touch. The weight of insight and the lightness of observation is what makes so much of The Spaces Between impactful.
Fondebrider plays with the distortions of art itself too, the book is wonderfully self-aware of artifice and makes that clear with a humorous grace. In ‘Epics’ he writes of the brutality 'of vulgar kings/ whom repetition transforms into epic heroes.’ These are then compared to sport celebrities, who a friend, ‘also a poet’, praises: 'The bards,' we are warned, 'they exaggerate.’ A four line piece entitled ‘Poets’, from later in the book, picks this idea up again, albeit with a delightful twist:
Like Plato, chuck them out, send them packing with a kick in the arse. Worst still are novelists who don’t read poetry. Illiterates.
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