Reading tasks begins at its edges: a seven-part epigraph-turned-poem that brings together seven writers across different times, traditions, and languages, finding their union within the poetic I of Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and translator Katherine M. Hedeen. What follows are twenty-one poems — or perhaps sections of just one poem — each with seven stanzas of seven lines, evoking the sensation of task after task written over one another. Hedeen writes in her translator’s note that the book marks a radical shift in Rodríguez Núñez’s poetics, a move towards what he calls “edgeless poetry” (x). Here, edges give way to palimpsest: mergings, pluralings, enjambed identities, layering of worlds, and constant writing-over. What emerges is poetry where no strict divisions can be drawn. In fact, it becomes clear that the most crucial task for tasks is translation itself, a task that can only truly be completed in the act of translation, the sharing of Spanish and English on the page, and the melding of the author’s and translator’s poetic voices.
Short-listed for the National Translation Award in Poetry and long-listed for the Best Translated Book Award, it certainly comes as a surprise that tasks was rejected by over twenty different publishers before being picked up by Steve Halle and co-im-press for its 2016 debut. In a recent interview, Hedeen notes that tasks — which invokes the use of “tareas” in Spanish as the title of a “to do” list — underwent years of post-rejection re-writings, building new translations over top one another. In this way, a listing of quotidian experiences forms a type of palimpsest of both Spanish and English: not only in the sense of notes written over and over but also in the coming together of pasts, presents, and futures, different iterations of the poetic subject. The published English translation reflects this layering. In the poem “[filiations],” for example, the image of the palimpsest can be made out in the very aesthetics of the page:
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 trust of palmiche
with February it snows doubt
Note the interplay between English and Spanish: snow in February points to the poet’s English-speaking home infiltrating his Spanish and “yagua” and “palmiche” stand out as inerasable traces of Cuban Spanish within the English. The page, then, becomes a space where limits of language and experience are blurred.
These constant layers are central to Rodríguez Núñez’s “edgeless poetry,” which becomes “a radical rebellion against coherence” (x). Through an elimination of upper-case letters and all punctuation save question marks, what is achieved, Hedeen notes, is a poetics wherein “it’s not just verses, stanzas, or poems that are enjambed, it is meaning itself” (x). There are no defined beginnings and ends but instead a plurality of ways to read each poem. This multiplicity might even reach its fullest expression in translation, given that questions are marked twice in Spanish, but only once in English. For example, in the poem “[protections],” the question — “¿para qué separarse de esta oscura / sudada multitud / con sueños asediados por mosquitos?” — takes on a different cadence in English, opening itself up to more abstract interpretations: “why leave behind this dark / sweaty multitude / with dreams besieged by mosquitoes?” (86-87).
Here the everyday is a mark of realism, but decidedly not socialist realism. Instead, it’s a dialogic expression of reality, full of disjointed images. The poem “[banishments]” alludes to this idea of a reality that is difficult to decipher:
dust of hearts now parted
oil tankers en route
between deep muck and market
the air I first breathed in
is left behind with your asphyxia
reality has bad handwriting
These decisions represent a desire on the part of the lyrical subject to put himself in dialogue with the reader and to locate his writing in the Cuban tradition of what Rodríguez Núñez himself has termed “dialogic poetry.” As the author has written about elsewhere, political commitment in this tradition manifests itself through an embracing of colloquialism and a denouncing of solipsism, at once rejecting both ends of the dualism foreign markets use to categorize Cuban writing: supporter of officialist revolutionary culture, or dissident. Rodríguez Núñez’s rebellion against coherence, then, is also a rebellion against the narrow parameters of both Cuban poetry and exclusionary ideologies of nationalism. In rendering it all in English, Hedeen’s translation contributes to this rebellion by defying culturally imperialist notions of how Cubans are expected to write.
An edgeless Cubanness expressed here, then, is neither fully Cuban nor American, and not even Cuban-American, but, as Hedeen puts it, “a synthesis that leaves behind these conditions” (ix). While no strict divisions are drawn and liminality is embraced, there is the impression of risk taken by writing-over conventional limits. We first see this in the titles of the poems, all single words made plural and jammed together between brackets, often not naturally but through the use of unconventional grammar or neologisms, an effort to translate something that has no ready-made equivalent: “[bucólicas]” becomes “[bucolics]” and “[citadinas]” becomes “[urbians].” However, the move toward plurality is most often observed in the juxtaposing of images. We find worlds merging — “these aren’t Braque’s birds / they sing on Campanario Street on Mallard Pointe” (41) —, new assignations of the quotidian — “dream dismembered / cascade of sewer water / an innocent void / turns out nouns like soot” (29) —, and visceral expressions of identity — “this native land / where I have no home / still it sours in my gut / the sand of my bones” (87). The merging of images isn’t a search for something whole, but a mode of identification on the part of the lyrical subject with a layering of dissimilar images.
Hedeen’s translation carries the ethos of this layering into the meeting of Spanish and English and allows it to multiply. For example, the idea of “blue” is constant across the collection, and becomes something like a metonym for Cuba, the tropics, the joining of sea and sky. “[protections]” offers a prolonged meditation:
a true blue protects the borders
of this rigged island
a quotidian blue of water and sugar
three drops of lemon
a transcendent blue
tamed by brooks
a blue where the yellow canary
and your dark eyes cross
an inclusive blue that might alter
any expired essence
For the Spanish-language reader, these constant references to “azul” can’t help but evoke a series of blues: Rubén Darío’s synesthetic experience of blue, or Nicolás Guillén’s “democratic” blue of the sea (“an inclusive blue”), or Fina García Marruz’s contemplation of blue as the entirety of homeland, to name just a few possibilities. While this intertextuality might be less explicit for the English reader of Hedeen’s translation, the use of blue in English lends a tone of sadness or nostalgia that not only adds to the experience described in the original but also allows for a series of new associations. In this way, the Spanish and the English stand in service to one another.
There is a similar interaction within the many instances in which Hedeen opts to leave “untranslatable” words in the original Spanish. For example, earlier on in the poem “[protections]” we read:
sidewalks cut short make forgetting impossible
rubble like photos in the New Yorker
the cashier’s little girl is sick
and not just the rain
the entire being is stagnant
a vacuum-packed camello
In a dialogic move herself, the translator puts the responsibility on the reader to look up the meaning of the word “camello” (a form of public transportation used during Cuba’s Special Period, a moment of extreme economic crisis brought about by the fall of the Soviet Union, whose shape resembles a camel). Such a word has no direct equivalent in English and the use of “camel” here, or even the glossed “camello bus,” would create a strange, almost surrealist image that risks exoticizing the often exoticized “Cuban experience.” Instead, Hedeen leaves traces of the Spanish, of things not translating perfectly, and ironically marks it by decidedly not marking it in italics or providing any footnotes. In doing so, Spanish become inextricable from the new layering of English.
The refusal to smooth over the Spanish or even suggest its foreignness is part of a larger translational poetics which not only avoids any semblance of exoticization but also aims to subvert the conventional limits of English. Ideas thought in Spanish manifest themselves in new uses of English, like “the caracoling virgin,” “southpaw cabinetmaker uncle,” and “water fallen on hard times” (89, 81, 21). There is a clear avoidance of direct cognates and what stands out is a precision of word choice where the edges of both languages come together. One of the best examples is in “[origins],” quoted here bilingually:
después de todo soy
un aparecido en esta barbería
espejos carcomidos por la sombra
sillones sin entrañas
ventanas con las cruces del último ciclón
barberos que preguntan demasiado
mientras cortan con óxidoafter all I’m
a phantom in this barbershop
mirrors eaten away by shadow
windows x-ed from the last hurricane
barbers asking too many questions
while they rustily cut
What most stands out in the translation is the transformation of nouns into adjectives: “chairs gutted,” “windows x-ed,” and “rustily cut.” Notably, Hedeen avoids any simple equivalence and focuses on poetic creation. In fact, the rhythm of “eaten away,” “gutted,” and “x-ed” might even surpass the original Spanish. Ultimately, these examples show that the rich betweenness of languages, the space of translation, is one of creation, capable of both rendering Rodríguez Núñez’s Spanish into English as well as widening the limits of what English can be.
In short, there are two poets at work here. As Hedeen states in her translator’s note, the experience of translating these poems paralleled the process of finding her own poetic voice. This newfound voice becomes the writing-over, the melding of experiences and beings that tasks truly requires, the next iteration of lists. In other words, the real task of tasks is completed in the act of translation. A place where palimpsest is process and English becomes edgeless. A place where barriers are broken by defying them. A place where traditional hierarchies between original and translation are dismantled. A place where poet meets poet.
An earlier version of this text was published in Mantis, Issue 16 (2018). I would like to thank managing editor Luis Rodríguez Rincón for his support of the project and review editor Luke Barnhart for his helpful edits.