Sunday, March 10, 2013

Reflections on Two AWP Writers: Adonis and Joy Castro

Olga García Echeverría

When I picked Adonis from the AWP author’s line up, I had no idea he was a renowned poet in the Arabic literary world. I originally selected him because I liked his slightly disheveled strands of grey-white hair, and I thought his bright tangerine scarf gave him a poetic flare.

Adonis: Selected Poems, translated from the Arabic to English by Khaled Mattawa, includes poems spanning the years from 1957 to 2008. It's a tremendous translation feat, but Mattawa does a great job of capturing the Syrian poet's six decades of prolific writing. The collection helps highlight Adonis’ life work and its major poetic arcs, shifts, and evolutions. 

The best I can do to encapsulate  Adonis: Selected Poems is to equate Adonis' poetic energy with a current. At times, the waters are tranquil and somber. Other times they pick up speed and topple trees and civilizations. Sometimes they are swamps you sink into. Sometimes the current is electricity. Regardless of what they're doing, Adonis' poems are always moving, weaving through image and emotion, the mind's eye and the heart. 

I can’t say I understood all of the Adonis’ poems I read. At times I felt quite lost. I am so new to Arabic poetry, that I'm certain I missed a lot of the cultural context. Also, when reading translated poetry I always wonder how many delicate words, verses and images are distorted or muted in translation. Yet, despite these things, I found myself taken by Adonis’ verses. I liked the ebb and flow of his poetic voice and there were times when his simple words and images transcended all boundaries and moved me. Like in his poem for his father, "Eulogies":

I love him, a difficult buried secret,
a forehead covered with dirt.

The language is simple, yet the emotion runs deep, like “a difficult buried secret.” Adonis is a master at braiding the gentle and the harsh, the love and the "decaying bones and mud." He juxtaposes these opposites to create the yin and the yang of his images, the lovely and the ugly, the large scale and the minute.

I love him, his decaying bones and mud…
and when my father fell to death
a field dried out, a sparrow fled.

Or take his poem “Bullet,” where a single image moves through time and space. Adonis wrote the poem in the 60’s, but its power and message reverberate today.

A bullet spins
oiled with the eloquence of civilization.
It tears the face of dawn…

Adonis’ poems are also rich in images that lure but don’t necessarily explain or completely reveal. The poet, says Adonis, “sets his words as traps or nets to catch an unknown world.” For instance, in "Two Poets"

Between echo and sound two poets stand.

The first speaks a broken
and the other is silent like a child
who sleeps every night cradled in
a volcano’s hands.

What does it mean for a poet to speak a broken moon? I'm not sure, but I am fine not grasping the literal meaning. The poem, even in its abstractness, asks the reader to hear a broken moon, see a silent child sleeping, feel the volcano's cradling hands. It grounds us in the senses. 

I foresee reading Adonis like I read Hafiz and Eduardo Galeano. Repeatedly. Over a long period of time. In pieces. Chewing slowly on a simple verse or on alluring image. Contemplating meaning. Getting lost in his poetic nets.

The truth is I racially profiled Joy Castro from the AWP line up. Like with Adonis, I was unfamiliar with her work. But when I saw her name, I cheered. A Latina!

You can’t racial profile Castro without being thrown for a loop and having to seriously think about and question your own identity politics.

Brown haired, brown eyed, and light skinned, Castro was adopted as an infant by a Cuban American Jehovah’s Witness family. She and her Cuban family always thought she was Latina by blood, as the adoption agency had assured, but at 26 Castro meets her real mother, “a nice Midwestern lady of Irish, French, and Swedish descent,” who also claimed part Cherokee.

Castro’s Island of Bones is a collection of personal essays on identity, gender, class, and survival. Her working-class consciousness is keen throughout her pieces, as is her ability to excavate pivotal moments of her life and examine them critically. These are not essays bogged down by academic jargon or critical theories. They are genre mestizajes--part memoir, part essay, part poetry. Each piece is a brief journey and the writing is consistently refreshing, lyrical, honest, and inviting, even when it is addressing painful yet prevalent issues such as violence and sexual abuse.

What I learned from the Island of Bones is that you can’t put Castro into a neat identity box or generalize her. She says in her book, “I don’t fit, and that’s okay, and that’s where I write from: that jagged, smashed place of edges and fragments and grief, of feeling lost, of perilous freedom. I extract small fragile bones from the sand, dust them off with my brush, and build strange, urgent new structures, knowing too well how small my island is, how vast and rising the sea."

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