“island under our skin”: tasks by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, translated by Katherine M. Hedeen

Reviewed by Kelsi Vanada

Tasks-Víctor Rodríguez NuñezI often find myself explaining my desire to translate by expressing that it is an inherently collaborative project, one in which my voice gets to support another’s. tasks, which was longlisted for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award, is the most recent, luminous product of years of collaboration between poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and translator Katherine M. Hedeen. Hedeen has translated several of Rodríguez Núñez’s books, and they’ve worked together on translations of English-language poets into Spanish (Mark Strand, John Kinsella), and vice versa (Juan Gelman, Ida Vitale). It’s clear that this foundation set Hedeen up well for taking on the task of tasks (couldn’t resist!) and bringing to an Anglophone audience this impressive book in which a “shift toward a new poetics solidifies” (x).

That shift, as Hedeen describes it in her translator’s note, is primarily formal, which then opens the book to new content. Rodríguez Núñez’s lack of punctuation or capitalization leads to “edgeless poetry,” a “radical rebellion against coherence” (x). And there is indeed a kind of beautiful openness to these lines, making this a poetry that’s wonderfully difficult to categorize. At times it relies on pure image: “the sparrow interrupts / the candle stub / penumbra let loose,” while other lines feel like a memoirist’s descriptions in the voice of the poet himself: “I had to go for the milk churn / before breakfast / get soaked in dew” (109, 16-17).

The book has a complicated relationship with memory. In the poem “[presents],” a line in the first stanza reads “this isn’t nostalgia it’s past,” and in the second stanza reprises it with “this isn’t past it’s nostalgia” (57). Though Rodríguez Núñez writes, “I don’t always write about Cuba or in Cuba, but always from Cuba,” the reader of tasks feels the back-and-forth tug of moving between places, of being suspended in flight, of carrying memories, of defining oneself in and away from a place of origin (x).

Hedeen is the kind of translator who trusts her readers with this in-between. She leaves in Spanish, without footnotes or with only the most unobtrusive of glosses, the many specific names of flora, fauna, and other culturally specific nouns which give these poems their grounding in Rodríguez Núñez’s Cuba. For example, in the poem “[filiations]”:

my mother mends her soul with palm fibers
her sight falls short

but she’s got being to spare

she lives to keep company
she’s yagua in the uproar

a truss of palmiche (81)

The reader is trusted to know or look up “yagua” and “palmiche,” while through these culturally specific words the poem is allowed to remain true to the poet’s experience, unmediated.

A few lines later, the speaker’s uncle is described as “southpaw cabinet maker uncle” (81). This is a good example of how Hedeen chooses to deploy English in her translations—she looks for fresh ways to say. I had to look up “southpaw,” and I love it when literature makes me do this. In this way, Hedeen is my favorite kind of translator—she lets English be its most capacious. Other good examples of this kind of translatorial work are in many phrases for which Hedeen finds colloquial options in English. One example: “an innocent void / turns out nouns like soot” is Hedeen’s rendering of the lines including the Spanish verb “produce”—no boring cognates allowed in this translation (29)! In addition to rich vocabulary and work with syntax, attention is also paid to sound: satisfying vowels and chewy consonants. Occasionally, these translations tip a bit too far into alliteration for my taste, when alliteration is not the technique used in the Spanish: “over the blue stumbling / shallow sky / shipwrecked sands” for the Spanish “que en el azul tropieza / cielo de bajo fondo / arenas naufragadas” (64-5).

In Hedeen’s translation, we get another take on the politics of the original text. There are quite a few lines that specifically refer to politics, such as:

my homeland isn’t anthologies
don’t forget I’m a tojosista
all that counts are the pages salvaged
from a bare-bones economy (7)

In aligning himself with the tojosistas (outsider poets writing in the periphery of urban areas, around the time of the Cuban Revolution), and critiquing the economy, Rodríguez Núñez lets the reader in on his political stance. Hedeen’s choice of the expression “bare-bones” for “subsistencia” in the Spanish further highlights the gravity of the Cuban economic environment. “The tropics are naturally socialist,” Rodríguez Núñez writes in another poem (113). In the poem “[indisciplines],” he remixes the Communist Manifesto slogan “¡Proletarios de todos los países, uníos!” (Workers of the world, unite!) thus: “workers of the world / only leisure unites us” (43). “Trabajan” (literally, “they work”) becomes the more forceful “they slave” for emphasis (43). In fact, the labor/leisure divide forms a major thematic aspect of tasks.

tasks, it must be said, has the best cover design of any book of poetry I’ve seen in a long time: it is yet another beautiful object created by co•im•press, a growing small press whose founder, Steve Halle, is incredibly devoted to publishing work in translation. It’s very striking, and captures much about the book. The warm colors suggest the tropics. A skeleton bird form overlays a live chicken, indicating the phantom self the speaker references in various poems. The skeleton is pecking at a shell, its morbid task, while the live chicken stands idle, at leisure. A chick skeleton lies unhatched inside another shell, suggesting either progeny or death and decay, two dark forces that are often beneath the surface of the poems in this book. The tasks presented in tasks are the human ones—remembering, forgetting, mourning, loving, recording.

Rodríguez Núñez, Víctor. tasks. Tr. Katherine M. Hedeen. Normal, Illinois: co•im•press, 2016.

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