Reviewed by Kelsi Vanada
It feels as though the pages of Chilean poet Carmen Berenguer’s My Lai, translated into English by Liz Henry, originated in a scrapbook or journal kept over many years—picked up, loose pages shaken out, and gathered up again quickly and out of order. This sensation is augmented by the inclusion of map fragments, like memorabilia from a road trip. Dates, locations, cultural and political references, quotes, and even poetic styles get jumbled in this personal archival document. As frustrating as this may be from a chronological or narrative-building point of view, it feels very true to the circuitous route memory takes.
As such, My Lai is a good example of documentary poetics. Poet Eleni Sikelianos discussed the documentary approach to poetry in a 2017 Massive Open Online Course hosted by the International Writing Program, explaining that while some documentary poets, such as Muriel Rukeyser (who is quoted in My Lai, in fact) and M. NourbeSe Philip, use the language of existing documents to craft poems, “there is also documentation the poet herself might do.” In the same course Sikelianos calls documentary poetics “a transformative approach,” arguing that “the writer might be seeking a transformation in understanding, and it also is something that might be instructive to a reader.”
I feel keenly Berenguer’s own transformation in these poems. Born in Chile in 1946, Berenguer is a poet, visual artist, and reporter who has always been known for resisting forms of political and social repression. In 2008, she became the first Chilean writer to receive the Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Award. My Lai documents her various stays in the United States in three different decades, in 1969, in 1979 (allowing her to escape the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship), and again in 1999-2000. She speaks candidly of the “new youthful awakening” of her own political consciousness in the United States of the 60s and 70s: “i was young and i loved the movement i observed it with the same rebelliousness and with a certain romanticism without losing my taste for yerba mate” (11). She is also awakening to her own use of language—for Berenguer, writing seems always to have provided a kind of freedom and a source of great interest, especially as she learned English, amplifying her ability to communicate: “my restlessness in the new words i was beginning to use brought me to read poetry and to the erosion of a way of telling my tongue in another language another way in which my tongue traveled it mutated” (13).
The book was first published as a collection in 2015—and in some ways it seems a bold move to publish her juvenilia (Berenguer was just 23 in 1969) along with poems written as a seasoned writer. And yet it’s delightful to imagine the young Berenguer encountering writers like Diane di Prima and Allen Ginsberg and trying out their postmodern poetic techniques, being enthralled and inspired by the performances of Ntozake Shange, Amiri Baraka, and Janis Joplin. Just as the poems in My Lai are chronologically haphazard, sometimes the many quotes included in the text don’t seem to match directly the poems that follow them. They vary widely, and their influence may not be immediately felt in Berenguer’s poems, in either form or content. But it’s wonderful to read lines such as Marianne Moore’s “I, too, dislike it” as if for the first time, through the eyes of a Latina woman coming into her own as a writer and revolutionary. Above all, Berenguer is attentive to women artists and feminist issues, focusing on them in the quotes she selects and the scenes she depicts in her poems.
Though a connection to the Mỹ Lai massacre is never made explicit, there are many references to the Vietnam War in the book, observed with the acuity of someone from another place who is nevertheless no stranger to military violence: “The cemetery in IOWA filling with crosses for the dead in the war / in Viet-Nam” (82). The Mỹ Lai massacre took place 50 years ago this March, so the timing of the publication of this translation feels quite intentional. In Spanish, the book’s title is Mi Lai, “mi” being the possessive “mine.” In one sense, it’s clear Berenguer references the massacre as a way to process her own country’s murders during the dictatorship. In another sense, perhaps it is a way of claiming the periods of US American history she lived through: “on this Trip I feel persecuted by history” (70). And a final reading, as Francine Masiello puts it in her introduction, acknowledges that “Lai” in Spanish sounds like English “lie,” an untruth:
And here in the title, the confusion of tongues opens a double fiction: My Lai as allusion to the most infamous massacre of the Vietnam War, the truth of which was covered up by the state, and also of the (bilingual) idea of a lie: My Lai is a homonym in English of “my lie,” the lie that is fiction. (6)
But I also read these poems as sincere and akin to nonfiction—to documents. Spanish-language Wikipedia even calls Mi Lai a book of “poems with autobiographical prose poems” (translation mine).
Berenguer is at her best in long-form poems spanning multiple pages and eschewing grammatical convention altogether, running on associatively as she tells of her journeys from Chile to the United States and her experiences and feelings in the latter. These poems allow Liz Henry, in her translation, to pull from the most delightful sonic resources of the English language: “my loose-stitched tumbling acrobats the telling escaped from my lips according to the new groups of friends imitated the howl of bitches the language of the babbling of towns” (9). My favorite poem is “American Air” (the edgy sarcasm of Berenguer’s titles comes through compellingly in Henry’s translations), a critique of US capitalism and racist xenophobia:
if my body emits any sign of
if only for a second
that you’re a bandit
a drug trafficker
a pariah a fugitive from the law
and I feel the persecutions (63)
Some of the formal characteristics of these poems contribute to their distinctly diaristic, in-the-moment cast—for example, Berenguer employs occasional unconventional capitalization. But while some choices, such as not italicizing book titles throughout, appear deliberate, upon comparison with the Spanish—presented in full as the second half of the book—many of the mechanical infelicities in the translation (missing hyphens in compound words, accents lacking on Spanish names, the word “It” capitalized in the middle of a sentence, two spellings of rattlesnakes / rattle snakes for the Spanish “serpientes cascabeles,” same spelling in both occurrences) read as copyediting errors. The downside of bilingual editions and bilingual readers, I suppose.
Henry’s decision to place footnotes in the text also gave me much to think about. They interrupt, with an encyclopedic voice, the diaristic intimacy of Berenguer’s writerly voice, so well conveyed in Henry’s English. The choice to separate the English and Spanish texts, rather than to present them on facing pages, is usually made (to my mind, at least) in order to keep the reading experience of either language unimpeded by the back-and-forth motion of an en face presentation. So I find the footnotes an odd choice, as they do the very thing to the flow of my reading that the two-halves book format tries to avoid. My Lai is full of allusions and name-dropping that must have made choosing what to footnote difficult. In general—though some US American references are footnoted, such as Ma Rainey’s “Sweet Rough Man”—it seems Henry opted to footnote Latin American artistic, cultural, and historical references, assuming readers in an Anglophone context would catch Berenguer’s many US-based references.
My Lai was recently longlisted for the 2018 National Translation Award in Poetry, so congratulations to Liz Henry are in order! Carmen Berenguer’s documentary approach, now accessible to English-language readers, is intensely felt:
Don’t think that I harbor nostalgia
of some notes
or memorial clipping
where we fleetingly look back (35)
Berenguer, Carmen. My Lai. Tr. Liz Henry. Phoenix, AZ: Cardboard House Press, 2018.