William Carlos Williams
“Because We Come from Everything: Poetry & Migration” is the first public offering of the newly formed Poetry Coalition—twenty-two organizations dedicated to working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and communities, as well as the important contributions poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.
During the month of March, coalition members CantoMundo and Letras Latinas are partnering to present guest posts by CM fellows at Letras Latinas Blog that will include essays, creative non-fiction, micro reviews and dialogues between writers. This year’s theme borrows a line from U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, “Borderbus.” Please return to this space and enjoy all the pieces in the series, and leave comments to participate in the dialogue.
Barbara Curiel, CantoMundo
Francisco Aragón, Letras Latinas
William Carlos Williams, Littoral Poet
by Urayoán Noel
Here is the first stanza of “Preludio en Boricua,” the opening poem from Luis Palés Matos’s 1937 collection Tuntún de pasa y grifería: Poemas afroantillanos, (a cornerstone of modern Puerto Rican poetry) followed by the stanza as translated by Diasporican poet William Carlos Williams:
Tuntún de pasa y grifería
y otros parejeros tuntunes.
Bochinche de ñañiguería
donde sus cálidos betunes
funde la congada bravía.
Mixup of kinkhead and high yaller
And other big time mixups.
Messaround of voodoo chatter
Where their warm black bodies
Loosen the savage conga. (By Word of Mouth 54-55)
At its best, Williams’s translation reproduces the baroque orality of Palés Matos’s original in eccentric transcultural terms. More problematic, though no less imaginative, is Williams’s rendering of the first and titular line. (A more accurate translation would be something like Tom-Toms of Kinky Hair and All Things Black, the title of Jean Steeves-Franco’s 2010 translation of Palés Matos’s book.) The back-to-back trochees “mixup” and “kinkhead” serve as an effectively rhythmic inversion of the iambic music of English, and while the curious choice of “mixup” occludes the distinct musical charge of tuntún (tom-tom), it effectively conveys the aesthetic of mixture (creolization?) that links the two poets. Both pasa (nappy) and grifería (kink) are raced references to Afro-Caribbean hair, but in Williams’s version, one of them curiously gives way to “high yaller,” a dialectal variant of “high yellow,” which is a term for light-skinned Blacks common in the United States in the decades before Williams’s translation. I read this curious choice not necessarily as carelessness on Williams’s part—later on, he leaves the loaded term negrito (54), as if aware of its untranslatable charge, as in Pedro Pietri’s insistence that “to be called negrito / means to be called LOVE” at the end of his “Puerto Rican Obituary”—but rather as attempting, however fitfully, to convey the energy of Palés Matos’s distinctly Afro-Caribbean landscapes and language, not in English but in Williams’s own eccentric (Caribbean) American idiom.
Palés Matos is not really a city poet, and maybe not even an archipelago poet in the Glissantian sense, so much as a littoral poet, a poet of coasts and shores but also of the arid climes of his classic “Topografia” with its cacti and goats and “inalterable and mute sky.” (As a result of reading Williams’s translation of “Preludio en Boricua,” I can’t read Pales Matos’s “Topografia”—a poem that to my knowledge Williams didn’t translate—without thinking of the “Baaaing of the goats of Santo Domingo” in Williams’s Kora in Hell, which well predates it.) As messy (and messed up) as Williams’s translation of “Preludio en Boricua” is, its genius is its understanding Palés Matos as a fellow littoral poet, and as a poet of vernacular landscape in a transcultural context, even as Pales Matos’s poetry performs islandness as sterility or stasis and ventriloquizes and/or aestheticizes Blackness in famously problematic ways.
Litoral is in fact the title of Pales Matos’s only novel, which remained unfinished and was only posthumously published. Appropriately, Litoral’s subtitle is “reseña de una vida inútil” (profile of a useless life), as it extends Palés Matos’s poetics of suffocating islandness while fully displaying his dazzling musicality and careful yet vividly expressionistic depictions of natural landscapes. Notably, Litoral is, like Williams’s The Great American Novel (1923), a fragmentary and expressionistic poet’s novel where, as one character puts it, nothing happens: “¡Aquí no pasa nada; aquí no pasa nada!” (18). In seeking out a poetics in and against the littoral city, I’m thinking of the intersections between Pales Matos’s static island and Williams’s dynamic American grain (In the American Grain and “Topografía” both provide epigraphs for my latest book of poetry Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisferico), but also between littoral and city.
Shores recur throughout Williams’s poetry, and even in his masterpiece Paterson, presumably “about” the title city, Williams frames Paterson through nearby littorals: in one section of book IV (1951) pointedly titled “The Run to the Sea,” one character asks “You mentioned a city?” and the other answers “Paterson” of course, only for the exchange to give way to an apostrophe that introduces a cascading evocation of New York area littorals worthy of Whitman’s “Manahatta”:
You like it here? . Go
look out of that window .
That is the East River. The sun rises there.
And beyond, is Blackwell's Island. Welfare Island,
City Island . whatever they call it now .
where the city's petty criminals, the poor
the superannuated and the insane are housed .
Look at me when I talk to you (Paterson 151)
In this passage Paterson emerges as a littoral city (with its impassable rivers and islands) and a lit/oral city (the impossible baroque/vernacular command “Look at me when I talk to you” framed by the empty sentences of the modernist page: “ . ”).
In making sense of Williams’s Latinidad, much has understandably been made of the early and substantive use of Spanish in books such as 1917’s Al Que Quiere! (see, for instance, the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature). Still, my own recuperative reading of Williams, whose mother was Puerto Rican and whose parents met in the Dominican Republic, looks to his migrant form, the caribeño landscapes and littorals of his poems and translations. These littorals are also their diasporic cities (San Juan, greater New York, Santo Domingo) and all their language bodies, which remain untranslatable despite Williams’s necessary failure. We tend to think of literatures of migration principally in terms of content (as in stories of migrant experiences), but Williams’s littoral (lit/oral) poetics brings us back to the problematics of migration in the etymological sense, as shifts (in perception, in language), even (especially?) when we are what Jimmy Santiago Baca (himself a sensitive reader of Williams) calls immigrants in our own land.
Of course, there’s also the imperial Williams of uppercase “America” and white/Anglo modernist canonicity, but poets of Latinidad are all inevitably implicated in these canons and narratives, especially if we are to claim a “lit/oral” city and kick the lettered city in its American groin. I’m hostile to Williams’s hegemonic America, but I’m grateful for his littorals.
Urayoán Noel is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (Arizona), a Library Journal Top Fall Indie Poetry selection. His other books include the critical study In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (Iowa), winner of the LASA Latino Studies Book Prize, and the bilingual edition Architecture of Dispersed Life: Selected Poems by Pablo de Rokha, forthcoming from Shearsman. Noel has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Howard Foundation, and CantoMundo. Originally from Puerto Rico and based in the Bronx, he teaches at NYU and at the low-residency MFA of the Americas at Stetson University.