Reviewed by Brian McLaughlin
As Arthur C. Clarke famously stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” a claim which has obviously assumed the status of proverb, not only in science fiction but also in any vein of cultural criticism. Yet, as early as 1924, Mexican poet Kyn Taniya was already demonstrating the truth of the statement that would later help to make Clarke famous. Taniya’s vision of technology as a source of mystical and almost religious inspiration is just as relevant today as nearly one hundred years ago. Because copies of the original edition have become so rare as to attain mythical status, the 2016 reissue of Taniya’s immortal Radio in a bilingual edition from Cardboard House Press is akin to a poetic miracle or magic trick. In Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems, translator David Shook offers such precise and faithful renditions of these poems that the work itself is something like a time-machine, a magical device for inspiring new audiences, as Taniya’s electrifying poetic voice transcends barriers of language as well as those of time itself.
Though the title conjures up a device now commonplace and neglected, Taniya’s “radio” is an imagined form of that technology, an otherworldly Platonic ideal with limitless capacity and ability. The relentless death of technologies like early radio receivers and transmitters is an affliction that cannot touch Radio. Though radio has changed and evolved, and ultimately lost its seemingly untouchable place as the medium to beat all media, in the 1920s, the radio was nothing if not an object of endless potential. Taniya’s adoption of this technological optimism gives rise to thirteen wireless messages which mirror that capacity for the infinite. Unconstrained by reality, Taniya’s text maintains an unthinkable vitality and seemingly inexhaustible contemporaneity.
In Radio, Taniya captures that chaotic and limitless energy which flows all around us but can only be perceived in unordinary ways because the realm of radio is invisible yet ubiquitous— and even greater than we can imagine. Shook’s careful attention to Taniya’s words, rather than some vague feeling or connotation demonstrates the utmost fidelity and respect for those famed thirteen poems, for in the brevity of expression there is an invisible depth, like a magnetic current that can only be sensed indirectly and whose presence borders on alien forces. Through this direct approach, Shook offers a surprisingly adept translation of something often thought too perfect, perhaps even sacred, to survive transit to another language. Yet this miraculous edition proves that translation is possible with a unique work like Radio, if it always remains firmly tied to the original text and never strays from the sacred word. And with this approach, Shook conjures up a translation that is nearly interchangeable with the original. The amazing wealth of artistic spirit condensed within Taniya’s poetry makes an impossible endeavor to translate the untranslatable electrified into being by the wellspring of energy suffused within every character on the page. Though the poems are short and the translations, at times, even shorter, an invisible world occupies the white spaces of Radio’s pages and imagines artistic freedom as a kaleidoscopic dreamscape.
And so we follow Radio as it glides through space and jumps between waves of thought and experiences, different places and feelings and worlds, so that everything is absorbed into the singularity. The world is contained as a whole, despite divisions and separations, so that even when there is incompatibility it is all still one. Though “There is an insupportable confusion of terrestrial voices / and of strange voices / faraway” that strangeness does not prevent the fusion of all voices into the oneness of that space, identified here as “radio,” for other words fail and any direct definition falls flat (13).
Very near to the heart of the experiences this book captures and transmits, the intensely striking and unclassifiable poem “…IU IIIUUU IU…” consolidates the transition from actual radio to the imagined, poetic vision of radio by beginning with a long run-on sentence listing various global news reports, as one would expect to hear on a typical radio broadcast. But this poem lumps all news together, regardless of weight, feeling, and reaction. Sports updates are jumbled with volcanic eruption with war reports with all areas of society in a gasp of abrasive noises and images familiar to everyday life: “LAST GASPS OF SLAUGHTERED PIGS […] THE ERUPTION OF POPOCATEPETL [. . .] THE ENTRANCE OF THE ENGLISH BATTLESHIPS TO THE DARDANELLES [. . .] SCREECH OF THE EGYPT SPHYNX [. . .] GANDHI IN BAGHDAD THE CACOPHONY OF THE BATTLEFIELDS OR OF THE SUNNY SANDS OF SEVILLE [. . .] WITH GUTS AND WITH BLOOD OF BEASTS AND OF MAN [. . .]” The nonchalant tone delivering such variously unpleasant and visceral reports suggests that the speaker is immune to the overwhelming assault his audience experiences. As the machine gun CACOPHONY reaches its most gory verse, the playful mocking of “THE FOOTBALL PLAYERS THAT KILL THEMSELVES ON TIPTOES FOR A BALL” interrupts the hideousness of reality to open up a portal to an Other reality, prompting the speaker to transform into a soothing voice intoning lullaby melodies that erase the cruelty from the reader’s mind with the calming whispers of a magical and peaceful dreamland: “All this now costs no more than a dollar / For a hundred cents you’ll have electric ears / and you’ll be able to fish for the sounds that sway / in the kilometric hammock of the waves // …IU IIIUUU IU…” The rapid succession of information precisely captures the strange experience of radio, of exploring the diverse sounds of the waves coming from “out there,” somewhere, where the invisible ocean makes itself visible, not through the eyes but through sensations and the indescribable abundance of wild energies generated in listeners by a strong reaction to some message or experience (29).
The aforementioned poem often features prominently in discussions of Radio, and it is significant that its remarkable characteristics hold true in translation, for the stimuli generated by particular connotations can be difficult to transfer into a new language. Relying on straightforward, roughly literal translations, Shook invokes a miraculous fidelity to Taniya’s language. With faith in fundamental translatability, Shook succeeds in tapping into Taniya’s energized work to ignite a new current of artistic spirit originating from the electric core of his writing and dependent on Taniya’s immortal ability to continue sparking new currents of inspiration as a testament to the otherworldliness of Radio.
Because radio is an important player in the expansion of globalization, it is inherently polyphonic, international, and multicultural. But this mysterious cultural exchange is carried out through invisible currents and elusive transmissions buried somewhere within the depths of static and encountered often by chance, as if by an act of god connecting the listener to a speaker somewhere else in the world. This miraculous connection is indeed magical and can only inspire in the listener’s mind something akin to a cosmic phenomenon, too ethereal and extraordinary for the generic routines absently pushing human life from one day to another day, a perpetual slowness devoid of change and resistant to new energies generated through the boundless growth of modernity.
Due to its mystery and infinite reach, the new medium of radio inspired Taniya’s poetic embrace of not just the cosmopolitanism that informed much of the poetry of his modernist contemporaries, but also of the cosmos. That is, Taniya effectively rejected the poetic modes of his day and went beyond them in scope, employing the concept of the radio to generate new currents of imagination and new ways of thinking about the experience of modernity. He tapped into that unseen realm, loaded with electrical energy waiting for a conductor to release its power: “1 poet conductor / is balancing on the cables / of the interplanetary 2336” (41). In this short stanza from “NUMBERS,” the rapid movement of the verses quickly establishes the poet as the conductor of untapped energy, presumably from the omnipresent radio waves, while also immediately transporting the poem to a cosmic space. The invisible energies propagated by radio waves are just one area of unlimited other worlds of magic, energy, creative inspiration, and experience. Radio seems to offer a premonition in regard to the contemporary technology of cellular radiation, that god-like singularity of the Cloud, the Wi-Fi signals moving invisibly in the world around us and effectively becoming part of us as we rely on such Internet connections in daily life.
In reaction to the slowness of mundane reality and daily routine symptomatic of history in motion, the medium of radio conjures up a poetic based on speed and constant change. Without the distinguishing marks of punctuation, the radio transmittals almost flow together as a mass of phenomena, a chaotic collection of energies derived from ordinary reality as well as from the dreamlike fantasies furthering the images of oceans and outer space to contribute to the conception of radio, in phenomenological as well as ontological terms.
In the afterlife of Taniya’s original composition, the poems spring out into the universe and take on their own living, breathing form. The language has a life of its own, and moves along its own logic, proceeding toward infinite destinations. According to Radio, “In Mexico / YOU HAVE TO STAND ON YOUR TOES AND KISS THE SUN ON THE MOUTH” (15). Indeed, the poem has untapped potential energy, capable of expressing almost anything, and generating new energies and new movement. This edition presents an expansion of Taniya’s masterful poetics, yet maintains their subtle taste of the infinite as something which is always uniquely contemporary—nature without check.
Taniya, Kyn. Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems. Tr. David Shook. Bloomington, IN: Cardboard House Press, 2016.