And We Were All Alive. Olvido García Valdés. Trans. Catherine Hammond. Phoenix: Cardboard House Press. 2016. 164 pages.
In 2007 Olvido García Valdés (b. 1950) received the National Poetry Prize of Spain for her collection Y todos estábamos vivos. And We Are All Alive is the long-awaited translation into English of the prize-winning tome. The well-wrought translation is by Catherine Hammond. The bilingual edition is divided into three sections, “Lugares/Places,” “No Para Sí/Not for Self,” and “Sombra a sombra/Shadow to Shadow,” and includes a brief piece by the translator entitled “A Day with Olvido García Valdés.”
The poetic discourse of the collection highlights the provisional nature language, how language can function exempt from predetermination, evolving with usage, and how absolute meaning cannot be captured and pinned down like a butterfly specimen. The fragmentary discourse entices readers to slow their pace, contemplate each word, and puzzle over the reliability of what is said. Distinct temporal moments, spaces, objects, subjects and linguistic registers bump against each other. Fragments coalesce without narrative logic, and poems flow towards significance but disparate elements and ellipsis deny access to definite truths. Memories commingle with observations in the present, the warmth of the lost worlds and awe of nature collide with the cold shadow of mortality. There are no boundaries, only the unresolved ambiguity of conflicting emotional states. The poet’s penetrating gaze is located precariously between the real and the ineffable: “Between the literal meaning of what you see / and hear and another less obvious place, / inquietude opens its eye” (97).
The astonishment of being alive and the bewilderment of dying come into focus in the measured contemplation of details, in nature, in everyday practices and in memory. Fixating visual, and at times auditory and tactile, attentiveness on small details, the poet peers into mortality and occasionally glimpses the amazement of being alive. García Valdés’s poetic language transforms the wonder of the real into tangible forms, colors and sounds. The poem “came, lay eyes, a thousand eyes” illustrates the characteristic process of observation and the possibility of an encounter with the exhilarating gifts of life: “flowering stalks of lilies, rose bushes, / old, fragrant mock orange, mulberry tree” (15).
The dark mystery of hopelessness and death acquires a haunting expression that lingers near silence, reminiscent of the dark shadow found in the poetry of Rosalía de Castro (1837-1885). When deciphering the mystery of death, or its preliminary states: fleeting time, illness, pain, misfortune and solitude, the impossibility of even naming is apparent. Death presents itself as a disorienting enigma, as if speaking another language. Insistently, the poet explores the impenetrable riddle of mortality, honing expressive strategies to break the silence, a palate of dark tones, allusions to the cycles of nature, an infirm body and the sound of silence. The poem “Face to face, almost stopped, two trains;” captures the unresolved tension found in And We Were All Alive:
The heat that begins
fear of the tunnel
that swallows us. And the year,
brief spaces, clumps
of springtime inside the machine. (65)
Highly skilled artistry on the labyrinthine paths of the language exempt from predetermination accommodates a poignant expression of the wonders of existence and the unsavory mystery of death. It’s a matter of seeing (to) the irresolvable tensions that exist in language and life.
There is a dearth of translations of contemporary poetry of Spain into English and for that reason this volume is especially noteworthy, but its greater value lies in the surprising originality of García Valdés’s poetic voice. Her poems allow readers to explore the deep crevices of being alive, offering unforgettable images of awe—an acacia tree, transformed into a “pianist of the breeze” —and the goose bumps of mortality made palpable— “whoever lives with death / hairy skull.”
Sharon Keefe Ugalde
Texas State University