Litane. Alejandro Tarrab. Cardboard House Press. 2017. 214 pages.
The Mexican poet Alejandro Tarrab demonstrates with his third book, Litane, the range and heterogeneity of Latin American poetry through an ambitious and diverse collection of poems. The book is published by Cardboard House Press, an independent publisher that in its short history has already become a referent for publishing some of the most innovative poetry coming from Latin America. This bilingual edition contains a prologue by Jacobo Serafí, an illuminating piece that offers a formidable introduction to Tarrab’s poetry as well as interpretive keys to understanding Litane. Finally, the English translation by Clare Sullivan is careful and remarkable, loyal to the original and a pleasure to read by itself.
Often labeled as neo-baroque, Tarrab’s poetry resists, however, an easy or stable categorization and this book is a good example. Litane is an impressive tour de force that takes the reader from the Middle East to Mexico in an exploration of identity, family, and spirituality through an amalgam of stylistic and discursive choices that one can only describe as interdisciplinary with its unique fusion of philosophy, popular culture, science, and religion. Tarrab is interested in understanding the limits and possibilities of poetry, in how we make sense of the world and intervene in it through the use of words. It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the recurring references in the collection is Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose philosophical examination of the phenomenology of colors inspire Tarrab to develop a rather personal and aesthetic consideration of colors. Thus, the color blue and its different shades, which dominate the first part of the book, are turned into all kinds of yellows by the end of it. Tarrab’s interest in transformation is also present in the structure of the collection. The book is comprised of six sections, whose titles and sequence reflect the idea that actual knowledge –be it about one’s past or about the world in general- appears as a dynamic and ever-changing process.
The title word, Litane, a made-up neologism that echoes litany (“litanía” in Spanish), reveals the author’s fondness for word-plays and it is in itself a good overture to the collection; it encompasses overarching elements developed throughout the poems such as the Judeo-Christian undertones of this type of prayer, which are definitely a constant in the book. In addition, the fact that litanies are usually supplications uttered by the spiritual leader and repeated by the congregation point to what Jacobo Sefamí in his excellent prologue to the book describes as the main impetus behind Litane: the exploration of a “poetics of the dispossession.” In this sense, one can understand each poem that makes up the collection as a distinct plea, a reckoning with one’s past in order to ask questions about the present. Not surprisingly, several of the poems include in their title words such as “preguntas” (questions) or “denuncias” (accusations), which read as an ongoing inquiry into the author’s own personal history. For example, the hidden Jewish origins of the author’s family, which are traced in the first part of the book through the journey of his ancestors from Damascus to Mexico, are revisited later in tension with his Catholic upbringing and his own doubts: “i take communion christ in silence / i take communion christ without having confessed my sins / because i am a jew / i say jew like saying atheist like saying nothing in confession / on the playground of this school.”
Ironically, here, as in most poems in Litane, language both reveals and hides the truth: while the performance of the communion is done without confession (“in silence”) to avoid saying the truth, it is language that reveals the reason (“I am jew”) only to hide it again in a rhetoric climax that makes the truth seem irrelevant at the end (“nothing”). Similarly, in a different poem, “Marcas,” the poet considers again his spirituality confessing that he was waiting for God and he did arrive, yet: “i didn’t see his torso or the marks/ i don’t know his face nor his pair of huge orbs/ everything i’m telling you is intuition/ the feminine side i’ve developed/ in other words he told me to keep going with the lines/ even if they were mediocre/ that in the end something was opening/ –and to open is good–.”
In the absence of God, poetry acts as a substitute, perhaps a consolation. Like the language of prayers, the poems in Litane address a great unknown, in a process that can be both self-conscious and cathartic.
While the author uses elements of his life in the poems and actively relies on the reader’s complicity to find clues about it (as in with the use of photographs from his family archive), it would be wrong to read the book just as an autobiography, a voyage of self-discovery and restitution. The ultimate goal of the collection seems to make sense of a shared loss that goes beyond the personal, “a work that would survive its author/ beyond men” says the poetic voice in the exquisite poem “Intervene this destroyed dialogue,” perhaps Litane’s most metaliterary poem and a sort of summa poetica, too, as it reconciles the personal with the collective: “what i breathe is in me a projection of others/ an idea of infection so shabby and worn.” This notion of speaking up for a collective is not only displayed thematically, but also in form. Blending references and quotes from a number of authors –sometimes in italics, sometimes indistinguishable in the main text-, the book effectively builds a polyphony that pays homage to the poetic tradition (Baudelaire, Celan, Brossa, Huidobro, among many others) while dialoging with fields such as those of philosophy and science (Wittgenstein, Einstein, Sloterdijk, etc).
In sum, Litane is a profound yet playful collection of poems that explores identity and family while testing the ways in which language shapes us and the world around us. Any lover of poetry will enjoy this intelligent book of poems, full of references and winks to the history of ideas and the literary tradition.
Arkansas State University