Let’s Go Down to the Beach: Poems and Translations.

Let’s Go Down to the Beach: Poems and Translations. – book reviews

William Lawlor

Readers craving those rare publications comprising both Spanish- and English-language poetry may appreciate two recent bilingual arrivals which, in practically all other respects, could scarcely be more dissimilar.

William Lawlor’s Let’s Go Down to the Beach is a delightfully crafted volume of original verse counterbalanced by an intervening section of his own translations of four influential Caribbean poets: the Cubans Belkis Cuza Male and Nicolas Guillen, and Dominicans Pedro Mir and Carlos Dobal. The heart of Lawlor’s lively and engaging book is, of course, his own exuberant pieces, all grouped together at volume’s end, except for the three works that so adeptly set the tone for the poetry to come. “Ay, Dios Mio!,” “They Are at First Amazed,” and the poem that shares the volume’s title introduce more than the celebration of cultural-linguistic difference that permeates the collection — they slyly announce the diverse styles, methods, and themes of both the translations and poetry that follow. In some cases, the correspondence between the two sets of verse is so uncanny that the reader may wonder which came first, Lawlor’s discovery of his four poetic counterparts or the conceptualization of his own seemingly pendant pieces.

For instance, if the first poem in Let’s Go Down to the Beach sings the praises of Candido, the speaker’s “big Dominican friend,” as he falls off to sleep having devoured an outsize tropical meal, it finds a suitable companion piece in Guillen’s “Sonnet, to a friend, proposing reconciliation,” which begins:

Because I know that you like a very big lunch

and a Spanish lunch is very heavy

I come (with a sonnet as a shield)

to put an end by eating lunch to a duel unto death.

Admittedly, Lawlor is at best only an earnest and game translator, although enough of the flavor of Guillen’s original survives here to convey the spirit of his verse. This is generally the case with the other Caribbean pieces Lawlor has so carefully chosen to highlight his own poetic interests, and which are presented en face in Spanish. So, as with the example cited above, if Guillen’s “Little Rock” lyrically decries American racial prejudice of the 1950s, Lawlor’s prose poem “A Question for High Physics” craftily explores the chemistry between an interracial couple and a pesky homeless commentator in New York City.

This pattern of matching selection is also strikingly in evidence with Dobal’s “The Crime” and Lawlor’s “A Crack to Crawl Into.” While the speaker of the former somewhat metaphysically declares it a crime to crush the “minimal life” out of an ant he has been watching creep into a crack, Lawlor’s more comic narrative counterpart sets up a parallel scenario as follows:

After the failure of politics, ecology, sociology,

literature, human faith, and personal interaction,

After nuclear confrontation, devastation, destruction,

radiation, slow death, chaos, and the yellow fog of

doom,

two cockroaches meet

in what was once Wyoming.

The passage is vintage Lawlor — colloquial, lighthearted, and humorous without forsaking a final, non-preachy word to the wise: the same hatred of vermin these two insects once so vividly witnessed in the eyes of human beings ends up turned against their own species. What one might call Lawlor’s “riff” poems (“Crow,” “Running Joke,” “Blown But Not,” “Swimming for Berries,” and “The Way You’re Going”) all rely on patterns of intense repetition characteristic of jazz performances, and thus find their soulmate in Dobal’s “On Hearing `Rhapsody in Blue.'”While many of these poems are among Lawlor’s most pleasing, in some the wordplay tips toward tedium.

Lawlor’s occasional pieces featuring strange ontological happenings recall Male’s artful shading of the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Her “Mannequin,” in which a well-dressed window dummy melds into a fashionable woman on the street, or “A Game Among Women,” which involves a blending of playing-card queens with females players, either inspired or serendipitously echo Lawlor’s “Where the City Meets the Wood” in which the speaker’s lover, left behind in the city with only a written product of his imagination, “climbs to that place made possible in the poem.” “Mural of My World,” in which a speaker sees his love’s face appear in the travel posters on the wall, and “She Tells Me Her Dream as We Walk Along the Beach” evoke similar resonances of Male’s ocuvre, or vice versa. Perhaps, Lawlor’s original efforts find so few matches with Pedro Mir’s because of the profundity of nationalistic fervor found in this National Poet of the Dominican Republic, who spent some fifteen years in exile under the Trujillo dictatorship.

In the end, Lawlor’s tendency toward the light and humorous propels his best poems, such as “All Right OK All Right” and “Mr. Muse Is on His Way,” which reveal their respective speakers’ half-hearted devotion to serious writing, and the paronomastic “Food Feelings,” in which celery is associated with “stalking”! A few pieces dedicated to popular culture display Lawlor’s constant engagement with the contemporary, the best of these being “The Death of Bob Dylan,” which intersperses the singer’s lyrics amid a discussion of what, for him, might constitute proper burial. The fact that every poem containing the word “moon” seems to rank among Lawlor’s weaker efforts only points up his strength as a seriocomic voice most at home when grounded in the subtle complexities of the quotidian–the tangible pleasures of the beach, not the transcendental guesswork of the stratosphere.

While Lawlor’s volume entices one to read on from the very start, Ana Castillo’s self-congratulatory “Introduction” to My Father Was a Toltec, the first collection of her selected verse in Spanish and English, so much as dares the reader to proceed. Sounding at times as if she were the only alienated or marginalized artist who ever lived, Castillo’s tough-talking Latina persona recounts how she was discouraged from painting in college and became convinced she had no talent (a challenge to the reader if ever there was one!); proudly asserts she never took a writing workshop and was drawn to performance art (another dare?); and recalls suffering from “burnout” in male-dominated Latino artist groups, which “may have been due in part to being overexposed to dangerously high doses of testosterone on a daily basis for a few years.” In her sometimes choppy English, Castillo declares that she had “no models that spoke to [her] experience and in [her] languages’ leaving one to wonder whether a Chicago-style Chicana Spanglish could ever be a desirable departure from more internationally recognized idioms.

Where Lawlor’s Let’s Go Down to the Beach begins with a veritable burst of joy (the big Dominican and mangoes), the very first lines of “The Toltec,” the opening poem in Castillo’s collection, blurt out:

My father was a Toltec.

Everyone knew he was bad.

Kicked the Irish-boys-from-Bridgeport’s

ass …

Granted, it is unfair to judge a poet by her juvenilia (c. 1955), but the inclusion of this poem at the start of the volume hardly invites one to delve further for poetic nuggets. Castillo’s poem “For Jean Rhys, 1890-1979,” which merits special mention in the “Introduction” due to this writer’s relative obscurity during her lifetime, would seem a promising ground for the poet to develop some of the themes of marginalization she rather stridently professes. Yet, this piece, too, dares one to read on, beginning

Well, hell, shit

sometimes it gets

pretty damn difficult

trying to understand

the human race, don’t it?

Exercising language

the species’ claim to fame,

instead of just humping

the first being that

goes by.

Poems such as these may lead the reader to ask exactly which language Castillo feels most comfortable using. Although she elsewhere acknowledges the services of a “grammar guard” not all her works in Spanish escape error, another discouraging impediment that gives the reader little incentive to continue.

The volume does have occasional highlights, such as the Spanish-language “Encuentros” and “Entre primavera y otono,” which nicely employ the assonance commonly found in Latin American poetic traditions. Selections from “In My Country” clearly constitute the best written and most engaging section in My Father Was a Toltec, while other dispersed works provide a framework for the collection by loosely clustering around the familiar themes of female identity, erotic and homoerotic love, cultural alienation and the artist’s struggle for recognition. As the reader proceeds through Castillo’s poetry, though, s/he may ultimately be overwhelmed by one too many instances of exchanged ethnic slurs, old-world wifely devotion, macho philandering and plain old male-bashing to feel that the works included here offer any new insights or apt poetic reconceptualizations of these issues. Of course, poetry need not be pretty to have merit — Baudelaire and thousands of his heritors have attested to this verity for nearly a century and a half now. Ana Castillo’s work, though, simply displays too relentless a victim mentality, while raising perplexing questions about why she chooses to compose verse in the first place.

Surely, poetry like hers must serve some cathartic end, which helps explain why considerable portions come off sounding whiny and oppressed. It is difficult to fathom, though, given the collection’s drubbing tone, how Castillo can claim in her self-serving “Introduction” that for her “writing has always been done in a state of ecstasy”! Equally confounding is her paradoxical assertion that the use of a lower-case “i” in her earlier works was meant to acknowledge her inclusion in a larger communal whole, when in the preceding paragraph she states: “I had to carve out for myself the definition of `good’.” If anything, one puts down My Father Was a Toltec with the nagging sense that Castillo ultimately harbors a working-class distrust of language to convey meaning or serve any useful purpose, for the individual or the collective. Poems such as “Cherry Stained Lips and Thick Thighs” and “A Christmas Gift for the President of the United States, Chicano Poets, and a Marxist or Two I’ve Known in My Time,” for example, contain images of the writer as both abandoned lover and failed communicator. So what is it that drives Ana Castillo to write?

A disclaimer near the close of her ill-advised “Introduction” unwisely announces: “In the end, interpretation is not only the privilege of the reader, but a responsibility that belongs to the reader.” Like so much else in My Father Was a Toltec, one wishes, for her sake, she had not said that.

William Lawlor, Let’s Go Down to the Beach: Poems and Translations Duluth: Poetry Harbor, 1996.

Ana Castillo, My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1995.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Fairleigh Dickinson University

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group