by David Huerta, translation Mark Schafer
Copper Canyon Press 2009
Reviewed by Jason Bredle
“– or of memories, such gasping for breath, no one arrives, I am alone…”
Before Saying Any of the Great Words marks the first comprehensive translation of Mexican poet David Huerta into English. Divided into three sections, it presents an overview of Huerta’s early work – El jardín de la luz, Cuaderno de Noviembre, and Versión, winner of the Xavier Villarrutia Prize – alongside selections from his 1986 book-length poem Incurable, the longest poem in Mexican history, and a generous amount of new work written in the time since. The result is a substantial look into the work of one of Mexico’s most renowned poets and his stylistic and thematic evolution from the time of his first publication at age 22 to today.
In his introduction to Connecting Lines: New Poetry from Mexico, Luis Cortés Bargalló cites Vicente Quirarte in defining Mexican poets born in the 40′s as a generation
“of solitudes…[an isolation that should] be emphasized in order to understand the intensity, the pursuit of a distinct voice and the authenticity of the generation’s best work. Without manifestos and group statements, these poets channel their respective individualities toward that space where solitary rebelliousness can be shared: the poem.”
This synopsis may be beneficial if approaching Huerta’s work with little knowledge of Mexico’s political and cultural history. Huerta’s poems consistently—throughout the decades of writing represented in this collection—approach the world of thought through a very solitary I, yet his world of thought is not at all solitary. It’s a world of intensely violent, baroque imagery blurring the lines between the real and unreal and the dream and the nightmare, in which the speaker engages himself in a high level of self-examination in an attempt understand himself, understand writing, and perhaps find the true meaning of words and the language they create.
In “Index,” Huerta states, “‘Writing’ is poking one’s nose now and then into the fragile image / of a place where living might be worthwhile.” In the “Simulacrum” selection of “Incurable,” he writes, “the storehouse of words is a strange, damp place, a discrete gallery, a hospital asleep.” While perhaps not their intention, these lines illuminate the exploratory nature of Huerta’s writing quite well. Much of the book is a constant exploration, a poking of one’s nose around a storehouse of words. In the “Someone May Arrive” selection from “Incurable,” Huerta writes:
A writing trickles from my body, everything is somewhat
with semen, the notebooks, the pages, the shirts, this
mouth, the heavenly bodies above, this silence while
my hands rummage in my pocket, pull out, leave my body on
such violence slowly growing quiet, rocks crumbling, flowers
emitting their perverse perfume, gardens where jade, jasmine,
my own body yield, such madness. Now I can feel the breeze,
deliberate habits, the caress it lavishes like a person.
It’s here, as throughout the book, that we see the journey of the mind and the blurring between what is a dream and what is real and how putting these thoughts together might work their way toward a meaning of language. Here, too, we witness Huerta’s distinct flair for musical progression. There’s a rhythm to all of the poems, aptly rendered in translation, that is unique to the poet – it’s one in which the beautiful, the ugly, the serene and the violent sing together.
In Huerta’s later poems, he experiments with divergent forms a bit more, and much of the feverish dreamlike qualities that highlight his earlier work are subdued. The imagery still explodes, but the voice is more tranquil. Still, the importance of words is ever-present; in “Words,” he writes that “one word lasts a century, another word vanishes/ In intercourse and its searing flame.”
In the “Lines” portion of “Incurable,” Huerta states:
The world is a radiant stain that I am swallowing.
Day is dawning, but I don’t believe it. I get up, doubt every-
I offer myself to the light, get up again. The world
is a stain on the mirror. The light is giving me a name; I don’t
The world tells me what must be. There is a bright flame.
I must say what I must say – or be silent.
In short, this is an important translation by one of Mexico’s most important poets. It’s a collection spanning over thirty years of writing and the first of its kind in English. We’ll have to wait to see if Huerta one day actually says the great words, but until then what we have is a terrific representation of his work, one that I highly recommend, one representing man’s struggle with himself, his thoughts, his dreams and his realities.