Slipknots: Jorge Eduardo Eielson’s “Room in Rome,” translated from Spanish by David Shook

By Olivia Lott

RoomInRomeRoom in Rome introduces English-language readers to the work of essential Peruvian poet Jorge Eduardo Eielson (Lima, 1924––Milan, 2006) through David Shook’s translation. A member of Peru’s “Generation of 1950,” Eielson is best known for his borderless aesthetic practice, which includes poetry, narrative, theater, visual arts, performances or “actions,” and syntheses that leave behind genre boundaries. The poet even drew a distinction between his poesía escrita, or written poetry, and poetry generated by alternative mediums. Eielson’s border crossings find their double in Shook’s translation oeuvre, which includes translations from Isthmus Zapotec, Portuguese, and Spanish generated across the Americas. More fitting still is the pairing of Eielson and Shook with Cardboard House Press. Led by editors Charlotte Whittle and Giancarlo Huapaya, the press publishes radical voices from Latin America and Spain, aiming to break the mold–both literally, through the Cartonera Collective, and aesthetically, through the curation of works that push boundaries. (I’m especially excited to see Room in Rome alongside Luis Cardoza y Aragón’s Luna Park, translated by Anthony Seidman). Marking inspired collaborations in more ways than one, it’s easy to see why Room in Rome was recently longlisted for the 2020 PEN America Literary Award for Poetry in Translation.

From its title, Room in Rome counterposes the temporal and spatial expansiveness of Rome with a transient, walled-in room. It is from this knotted perspective that Eielson and Shook re-arrange coordinates of time, space, and language, blurring the dividing lines between the Roman/the Peruvian, the ancient/the contemporary, the national/the personal, the awe-inspiring/the agonizing. Indeed, the metaphor of the knot permeates readings of Eielson’s written poetry, drawing a parallel to the poet’s quipus of the late 1950s–installations of knotted fabrics that re-imagined the ancient Andean knot-based information system. Photographs of the quipus open and close this bilingual edition, marking close lineage with the written poems that precede them. Not horizontal. Not vertical. No clear-cut separations. I wonder, though, if the knots we encounter in Room in Rome are more akin to slipknots: the speaker pulls at them and they vanish.

Written in 1952 in the midst of the chaos and confusion of post-WWII Europe, Room in Rome is a reflection on Eielson’s self-imposed exile across the Atlantic. In this context, both poetic subject and surroundings simultaneously undergo re-articulation: voice and body, room and Rome. If, as Mari Paz Balibrea imagines it, “exile is a vanishing point on the national map” (6), then, from the perspective of the national (both native and adopted) border crossings render the exile untranslatable, unfixed, maybe even unnoticed. Such a condition certainly applies to Eielson’s speaker who exists on the periphery of Rome’s grandeur, longing for someone to answer him as he restlessly runs runs runs:

and a thousand doors of flesh and bone fall
and i who run run run
keep running still
and a thousand more doors fall
i stumble over a chair
i run through the sewer
i come out of the mirrors
i fall before impalpable columns
and headaches (41)

The question most pertinent for Eielson’s and Shook’s poems, however, is what vanishes for the exile? What knots fall apart when tensed? What attempts to tie something together, to re-articulate slip away, drop out of reach?

The tension between materialization (the knot) and dematerialization (the slip) underlie the lyrical speaker’s weaving together of Roman past and present, pristine center and neglected periphery, Eternal City and space overrun by death and decay. Whether the room represents the speaker’s perception, a perch or maybe a prism, or whether it serves as a vessel to compress what lies beyond it, it is from or within the room that Rome becomes rearranged. (The affinity of the two perspectives is all the more striking in the English title.) The book’s epigraph first evidences this gesture, evoking a scene from Virgil’s Eclogue I in which Meliboeus asks Tityrus, Et quae tanta fuit Romam tibi causa videndi? Or, in Paul Alper’s translation: And what so made you want to visit Rome? Unquoted in Eielson’s epigraph is Tityrus’s answer: libertas, freedom. Here, markers of the kind of tradition embodied in this quotation become both distanced from any notion of refuge as well as wholly defamiliarized. Poverty and hunger characterize the neighborhood around St. Peter’s Basilica, the Tiber twinkles in putrefaction, “toothless cannibals” frequent the Sistine Chapel (91), a plaza transforms into an empty lot where “greenish children with no arms […] play dragging / a blood-drenched blanket / a sparkling toy / that scorches them / to their deaths” (95).

The room offers no safe haven from these threats. It’s dark, windowless, door-less, “nailed shut from the inside / sealed from the outside,” draped in “chrysanthemums nards and other like flowers”: “a type of sarcophagus in short” (25). Unnoticed, unfixed, vanished from the national map, such circumstances apply to both speaker and surroundings. The material instantaneously crumbles, falls out of reach: “a silent column collapses in my arms / turned into ash” (53). Both realities throw the poetic speaker into existential crisis, inner turmoil, and heartbreak brought on by alienation. Shook’s translation is perhaps at its most adept when conveying these deep emotions. It does so without becoming melodramatic, expressing feeling and experimentation equal-handedly. A personal favorite is from “Overseas Blue”: “where is my double / throbbing and hidden / my shrunken heart /and its moan?” (43).

A similar process extends to the personal and the proximate. Like his surroundings, the speaker identifies with the passageway from antiquity to present: “how much time has passed since then / how many hours / how many centuries have i slept without contemplating you? / but no one answers me” (55). If time as an organizer of existence unearths nothing permanent or tangible, the speaker identifies comparable transience in clothing and furniture as markers of human space. In “Via della Croce,” the subject grasps at these anchor points of existence:

tied to my clothing
and to my chair
and of softly dying
caressing my clothing
and my chair
i have the sensation
of falling into an abyss
and unexpectedly attending
a faraway party
in the depths of a star
and of dancing at it
with my chair (21)

In fragments like these, the sense is of the poetic subject rearranging or re-perceiving his environment, with the hope that alternative forms of personhood, space, and time will emerge. Yet each effort to turn knots into anchors slips away. Signifiers of human presence become entirely interchangeable, triggering inner turmoil. There is no stability. No permanency in this environment of monuments, ruins, and marble.

The anguish of infinite interchangeability perhaps most emerges in relation to the materiality of language. In his study of Eielson’s written poetry, José Ignacio Padilla asserts that the work “revolves incessantly around two poles in tension: language/signification and matter” (115, my translation). Just like poesía escrita materializes poetry, turning its medium (written language) into an object, this same motion drains language of meaning, dematerializing signification. Here, Eielson’s verse undergoes simultaneous shaping and emptying, a process which intimately evokes César Vallejo’s vanguard re-assembly of Spanish in Trilce (1922) and Poemas humanos (1939). There is a heightened presence of negation, un-multiplication, and nothingness, wherein what is absent and missing most comes to the fore: “nothing in my gaze / nothing in my throat / nothing between my arms / nothing in my pockets” (35). In other instances, the speaker repositions word segments in search of something whole and lacking:

where is it
where is it
my heart                  my heart
runs beneath the tiber
rumpets in the forum
my heart                  my heart
my heart                  my saxophone
my saxophone          my heart
my heartophone       my saxoheart (43)

This existential distress perhaps reaches its climax in the collection’s final poem, “Sculpture of Words for a Plaza in Rome.” Here, the poetic voice repeats phrases over and over. A kinetic impulse to mold language outside language, to make it permanent, static. The speaker seems to arrive at the impossibility of this task as the poem ends:

do you perhaps know that in my hands
the letters of your name that contain
the secret of the stars
are the same
miserable ball of paper
that i now toss in the trashcan? (97)

Pulled from both ends, the sculpture of words dissolves before the speaker. The overarching emotion we are left with, then, is of witnessing what vanishes for the exile, how each attempt to grasp, to knot something together, yields nothingness.

Just as exile implies an ambiguous, or vanished, point on a national map, so too does translation, displacing fixed origins of both giving and receiving languages. It is in the placelessness of exile that Edward Said locates the intellectual potential for subversion: if nationalism and exile are mutually exclusive, the latter becomes uniquely disruptive to the exclusionary ideologies of the former. In rendering Eielson’s work into English, the subversion of exile and of translation stand in service to one another. Contrapuntal, nationless, perpetually dual, neither allow for clear-cut divisions or firm labels. In this sense, the simple choice to translate a work like Eielson’s is a deeply political one. This poetry is complex, ambiguous, that perfect combination of heart and avant-garde. It’s colloquial and direct, but far from easy, and certainly not easy to translate. Shook’s translation matches these elements, maintaining ambiguities and densities alike. At times, this balance leads to an approach that tends towards the literal and, while I would have been excited to see Shook take more creative risks in these moments, their strategy undoubtedly highlights a rawness of Eielson’s expression that is powerful. In this same vein, I am particularly sold on the decision to make Eielson’s “i” a lowercase one (the first-person singular pronoun is not capitalized in Spanish). The locus of enunciation is not integral, but fractured. Shook’s choices throughout make this condition come to life in English.

In the years following the publication of Habitación en Roma, Mario Vargas Llosa notes in the book’s introduction that Eielson began to intensely study the indigenous cultures of his native Andes, inspiring the quipus. Vargas Llosa continues, “but the ‘knots’ that traverse his canvases, drawings, and objects are not mere archeological reconstructions or pastiches, but variations employing forms from an ancestral culture as a point of departure” (6). While slipknots instead of anchors characterize Room in Rome, the quipus might just mark the turning of vanishing points into departure points that lay down roots, rather than fall apart. Maybe, just maybe, the longing initiated years earlier in these poems finds its wholeness in the quipus. Libertas, freedom.

Eielson, Jorge Eduardo. Room in RomeTranslated by David Shook. Cardboard House Press, 2019.

Olivia Lott is the translator of Lucía Estrada’s Katabasis (forthcoming from Eulalia Books) and the co-translator of Soleida Ríos’s The Dirty Text (Kenning Editions, 2018). She is a Ph.D. Candidate and Olin Fellow in Hispanic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Works Cited

Balibrea, Mari Paz. “Rethinking Spanish Republican Exile: An Introduction.” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2005, pp. 3-24.
Eielson, Jorge Eduardo. Room in Rome. Translated by David Shook. Cardboard House Press, 2019.
Said, Edward. “Reflections on Exile.” Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Granta, 2013, pp. 173-186.
Padilla, José Ignacio. El terreno en disputa es el lenguaje: ensayos sobre poesía latinoamericana. Iberoamericana / Vervuert, 2014.

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