Hothouse Flower: Olvido García Valdés’s And We Were All Alive, translated by Catherine Hammond

Reviewed by Jessica Sequeira

Olvido García Valdés- And We Were All Alive“There were those who compared her to Santa Teresa, others who said she was too serious, even sullen, and people who swore her pride was chilling to those who met her,” wrote Roberto Bolaño of Olvido García Valdés. When he read her work, however, it “dazzled [him] the way that only true poetry can.” A modernist Spanish poet, García Valdés (Asturias, 1950) writes in a style that is dense, imagistic, and cyclical. Her words are deliberately combined in an attempt to emulate the weird furrows and flections of existence. Harsh humdrum reality and the world of the imagination are eternal bedfellows, constantly puckering in odd ways as the poet attempts to make sense of them — “life between two / times, two folds of the mind. / Between cabbage and calla lilies” (39).

The delicate theme recurs of finding balance, a punctum of sense neither too lush nor too austere. García Valdés explores movement in space, pulses of blood, distribution and redistribution. Animals circle in their caves; trains pass one another on opposing tracks; guttural voices approach and move away from one another in the night. Falcons take flight from the wrist and return with “sharpened tenderness”; a house fills with people and empties; green shoots disappear in autumn and emerge again in spring (147). People come inside from the cold; bodily fluids move from cool to warm. “The material nature of time is movement; it is found outside the soul, but the formal nature of time is the measure of movement; it comes from the soul,” García Valdés quotes Duns Scotus, at the start of a poem (25).

For all of its modernist entanglements, And We Were All Alive is in many respects a classical work. It references 18th-Century Spanish authors, and situates itself firmly in the natural world. Although García Valdés writes that “I live in the city that touches the sky,” her city is full of birds, trees, and her own musings (149). The urban is mentioned only to flee from it immediately. On the M-40 expressway, the poet notices an uncultivated strip in the middle. At another moment, she sees another woman, also stopped at a traffic light, but no connection takes place. “In the mirror, the tight bun, skirt / long and ample, tidy look, / hair pulled taut. She and I. We establish / contact, appear to be typical of what we call the human condition. / And a lack of a response, pure / animal condition” (145).

This failure to connect has a deeper meaning than the simple anonymity of city life. Death and its aftermath haunt these poems. The poet evokes “the animal alone with its wound” in a place “where life happens and is free and not benign” (131). For all that she observes it so closely, nature is not something to take refuge in or emulate. Seemingly warm, in reality it is indifferent to the humans who form part of it. In nature, green signifies health, yet as García Valdés acidly notes, “if you were green, love, / you would be dead” (21). No help comes from the outside. These grapplings of a conscience with its own self require a great deal of self-reliance. “I pull myself / back on track” (13).

The skillfully rendered English versions are accompanied by a translator’s note, lovely in its own right. “A Day with Olvido García Valdés” discusses the author’s take on her own work, her taste for “la extrañeza of strangeness, wonder, and mystery” and the way she plays with the ambiguous relationship between natural and supernatural (152). Catherine Hammond notes how the poet looks for what is under the surface: “toward the cows we went / without knowing they were there, slow, ruminating / at midday, golden, all but buried” (17). The language is not visual, nor the logic necessarily rational. Rather, elements are connected through touch. “Wanting nothing / but to say: you are coming with me now, / from far, yet near, the touch / of your fingers while touching things with mine” (19).

One possible contention with the translation is that it attempts to replicate the way gendered verbs take on multiple interpretations in Spanish, which results in an unnatural English. The first line “oye batir la sangre en el oído,” for instance, is rendered as “hears blood beat in the ear” (11). The Spanish phrase is ambiguous but clear; the English is an artificial hothouse flower of language. This was a deliberate choice by the translator, as she explains at length in her endnote. Still, in a work already held together by such fragile knots of sense, to further obscure readability seems an unnecessary complication. Omitting the subject (“one” or “he/she”) may have been the correct academic choice, but it has the result of exaggerating the distancing effect of the original work.

Taken as a whole, however, the soul of the original poems flows through the careful sieve of Hammond’s translation, which is as much about choosing what not to say as it is about selecting the right words. García Valdés does not directly describe what she sees in the world — rather, she writes what would seem to be its inverse, in the same way the pages of the book are illustrated with spiky branches in black and white, images and their negatives. In the sensuousness of the García Valdés’s enigmas, one is reminded of “Un mundo,” a painting the poet likes by the Catalán artist Ángeles Santos Torroella. In it, the world is a cube with multiple sides, all of them facing up.

García Valdés, Olvido. And We Were All Alive. Tr. Catherine Hammond. Bloomington, IN: Cardboard House Press, 2017.

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