Although from a red barn by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and translated by Katherine M. Hedeen (co•im•press, 2020) was originally published in Spanish in 2014, it comes to an Anglophone public at an opportune time. Consisting of 77 sonnets, it immediately invites itself to the table that Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Once and Future Assassin and Diane Seuss’s frank have recently set. They’re all book-long cycles of sonnets that put the form through its paces so that it emerges on the other side not so much exhausted as breathless at realizing how much it can do. But where Hayes and Seuss tend (very broadly speaking) to employ the sonnet as a limiting factor to keep their poems, freighted with delirious loads of texture and detail, from taking too many switchbacks, Núñez and Hedeen double down on the sonnet’s connective powers: between speaker and audience, octet and sestet, point and counterpoint.
These sonnets—in lines that range in Spanish from “the heptasyllable, the hendecasyllable, and the alexandrine” (xii) and in English that hover around four beats apiece—are quick-footed and cerebral. In their lightness of form and nimble motility, they seem like abstract sculptures whittled from hardwood. And, in a way, they have been—out of Spanish and English, two colonial impositions on the Americas that have given rise to these poems, which are both haunted and gifted by the richness and trauma of those legacies. Though to say that this is the source material of these poems would be reductive. It is more accurate to say that it is Núñez’s restless exilic lyric sensibility these poems record. Subjects as disparate as Saturday morning cartoons, the death of a Monacan royal, a tumbledown barn, and a stubborn dandelion float to the surface of the poems like fish to the rain-dimpled skin of a pond, checking to see if the disturbance is nourishing and finding it’s the same material meeting itself in different form: one consciousness being subsumed into the larger, seething yet oddly calm consciousness of Núñez via Hedeen. In this way, the sonnet is a wonderful vessel, lending a momentarily standard shape to a mind that, through its peregrinations and inclinations, can take many.
Crosses and crossroads, knots and spirals, the parallel lines of train tracks meeting on the horizon. Convergence, divergence, intersection. These, conceptually and symbolically, shape the book. (It should be said that the book also asserts that “form turning to content / is deathwork” (101) in Hedeen’s nod to Pierre Joris’s translations of Paul Celan, as well as perhaps a caution on focusing too much on the form itself). But this focus on the node instead of say, the edge, is important, as Hedeen notes in “translation = spiral,” her smart (but too brief!) opening to the translation. She connects the “fluid[ity of the] poetic subject” with “the poet’s unique migratory experience…proposing movement, edgelessness, “no at-home-ness” (xi). This repudiation of borders is as national and geopolitical as is it is temporal: Hedeen also notes in an interview about her and Núñez’s recent translation of Jorgenrique Adoum’s prepoems in postspanish the degree to which Núñez is indebted to the Latin American neo-avant-garde, which “insisted that their poetry be both revolutionary in terms of what they wrote and HOW they wrote it. They believed that poetry must be “dialogical” (as [Núñez] has called it on numerous occasions), requiring an active reader, one who is a co-creator of the work” (Poesía en acción). Which brings us back to the sonnet: an invitation, a commitment to interaction, a form that proposes dialogue within itself as well as with someone outside itself. You can see how the spiral as well as the crossroads is an apt set of polestars for this book.
But what do the poems themselves do? They remind us, among other things, that “life would be a dream // if it weren’t for class struggle” (131). The first poem of the book puts us in “the american dream meadow” where “today you earn a living looking after / the death of a cow” which “no creature / [is allowed to] eat […] but death herself” (5). As an allegory for capitalism, which prefers profit so wholly that it burns goods rather than donates or discounts them, it’s a stark one. As an opener to the book, it serves well: a good third of the poems approach the pastoral only to find above them or just below them the industrial (“the weeds thick between sugar mill drums,” “the toadstool atop the heap of filings,” 29). Both, together and by themselves, are polluted, rank yet rotting. Early on, Núñez suggests this is due to the not-so-distant genocides upon which the agrarian-industrial economies of the New World were erected. “you’re playing on their bones old man Núñez would say” to ‘you,’ a childhood analogue of the poet Núñez but also us, the readers, reading this book in Havana or Chicago or central Ohio, we who are reading and playing and working and more. “the Indians didn’t come they festered / like thorns in your imagination / don’t dig there I mean it old man Núñez would say” (35)–even in the midst of innocent childhood play, scratch a patch of land and you’ll find some grave injustice unrepented for. One of the legacies of settler-colonialism is that every subsequent generation is complicit to some degree in erasing the legacy of First Peoples.
It is interesting to talk about the erasure of an original (aboriginal?) people when talking about translation, which itself has for so long been assumed to take the place of the original work. This, however, is not something Hedeen believes in. She cops to a desire to reconfigure this old, staid, imperialistic dynamic, “propos[ing] a countermapping where the original loses its power” (xiii) and instead placing the translation and the original side-by-side as versions of one another that do not erase one another but propagate the possibilities inherent within and between them (which, as a facing translation, the book invites). This, coupled with her assertion that instead of anxiety, the translator should “embrace the influenza of influence” (xiii), nods to Johannes Göransson’s spectacular and incendiary collection of essays, Transgressive Circulation, wherein he proposes as similar reconceptualization of translation: a method of proliferating, propagating, metastasizing texts beyond the restrictive Western model that prizes copyright law and legibility, favoring instead excess and, more importantly here, a more pluralistic approach to being and meaning.
Göransson is admittedly more provocative and visceral in his methods and diction, but he and Hedeen and Núñez share an important goal: shatter the “the illusion of economic stability perpetuated by nation-based models of translation” and literature (Göransson 14). On top of this, Núñez’s attention to the putrefactions inside nature that nature hides puts his poems into conversation with the Necropastoral, Joyelle McSweeney’s rejoinder to “the fraudulence of the pastoral” (“Necropastoral, or, Normal Love”). The Necropastoral is “a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of ‘nature’ which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects” (“What is the Necropastoral?”). Once the cow in the first poem (which only death is allowed to eat) dies, “the veterinarian will come / to certify the expiration // the beast and its music will set off / for the dog food factory” (7). In these sonnets, the rattle of a morgue-van is music, and the end of all things is to be consumed, not just for the thermodynamic necessity of energy redistribution, but also to recoup any investment.
This is not to say the book is grim, though—far from it! In fact, though the sonnets draw much of their water from these particular deep, sometimes dispiriting wells, they are witty, lithe, gnomic, and even playful. Núñez is keenly attuned to not only the ways that poetry has served as cover for depredation and moral decay, but also how its mystery, when wielded responsibly, is a source of pleasure: “imagination undresses / when you turn your back / and hugs you with its legs” (93). These poems, made from “fourteen spasms […] with more urgency than image” provide a place where something—meaning? Hope? Love? They are sonnets after all—“soaks up from the root and makes us tremble” (79).
The attention to craft as a process, poetically but also in terms of artisanship more broadly, runs parallel to the moldering braid of pastoral and industrial. It offers an opportunity to revel in the diction of it—“you know by name / every tool […] clamp brace brush set square // […] rasp box of miter joints socket chisel” (31)—but also a glimpse of, if not hope, then opportunity. The titular red barn turns out to house “principles that can be sharpened” and though it “lean[s] toward the left / seems to collapse […] still it shelters / from snow and soot” (145). These broken things—our hearts and tongues and poems and presences—are still useful. They can even be mended. But we need to do it, Núñez and Hedeen remind us, together.
Rodríguez Núñez, Victor, from a red barn. Translated by Katherine Hedeen, co•im•press, 2020.
Conor Bracken is the author of The Enemy of My Enemy is Me (Diode Editions, 2021), winner of the 2020 Diode Editions Book Prize, and Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press, 2017), winner of the 2017 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. He is also the translator of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center, 2019). His poems and translations have earned fellowships from Bread Loaf, the Community of Writers, the Frost Place, Inprint, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and have appeared in places like BOMB, Colorado Review, jubilat, New England Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Sixth Finch. He lives in Ohio.
Göransson, Johannes. Transgressive Circulation, Noemi Press, 2018.
Hedeen, Katherine. Interviewed by Olivia Lott. “Poesía en acción Special Feature | An Interview with Katherine M. Hedeen on translating Jorgenrique Adoum’s prepoems in postspanish and other poems by Olivia Lott.” Action Books, 25 Jan. 2021.