By Merrill Kaitz
In Maria Baranda’s poetry there is the constant oscillation between beauty and ugliness, elegance and terror, the empowering journey and the overwhelming nightmare.
The New World Written: Selected Poems of Maria Baranda. Translated from the Spanish; Edited by Paul Hoover. Yale University Press, 272 pages, $30.
About to turn 60, Maria Baranda, an honored poet of Mexico, has had several books translated into the American idiom. Still, The New World Written: Selected Poems is something of a literary event in the US, given that it contains extensive samplings from each of her 13 volumes of mostly longish poems.
Baranda’s poems do not make entry easy. They are psychological and surreal, often loaded with monsters. Her work provides a bestiary as fierce as those found in the Odyssey, Beowulf, or The Waste Land. There’s little in the way of traditional narration, and her verse leaps from first person to second person to third person. The poems no doubt challenge the volume’s 10 translators as they do its readers: what are these poems about, and what’s the point of all these idiosyncratic images?
Editor Paul Hoover, who is also one of the translators, has done a heroic job of pulling things together. The volume is arranged in an unconventional way; he presents the poet’s newest book, A Hive of Seabirds (2015), first, and then proceeds, in reverse chronological order, back to her earliest book, If We Have Lost Our Oldest Tales (1990), which concludes with a poem entitled “The Garden of Enchantments,” (1989). Thus, if we view the book as a kind of journey, we will discover that the poet’s ending has become her beginning. This works well enough, but the reader needs to be aware of it; there is a continual temptation to jump forward and then back again to aid understanding.
The selection labeled “From The Garden of Enchantments” comes in sections labeled with Roman numerals. We are given numbers I, III, VIII, IX, XI, and XIII. The episodes seem to describe mental states rather than events. It’s possible that the order represents stages in a drama: a woman is growing up, from childhood to maturity, becoming educated in the rough ways of a rough world. So in part I (or is it poem I?), we hear:
A lovely and lyrical description. But as is Baranda’s method throughout the volume, she quickly undercuts it with troubling images:
This embrace of juxtaposition is at the heart of Baranda’s vision, which develops considerable cumulative power over the course of The New World Written. The anatomical reference may startle, but the idea that femaleness demands penance is one of the most powerful statements in her earliest book. Sometimes the environmental dangers re almost gentle:
Even the evocations of death and tears don’t yet undercut completely the mood of innocence. But that will happen soon enough:
Again and again, dream flips into nightmare. Part I finishes:
It is a beautiful and troubling piece, worthy of being noted and remembered.
The next piece, III, again opens lyrically:
and then, as before, the feeling is transformed through the arrival of a terrible reality. The images come in fragments, though something like a narrative is suggested:
It seems that these are tales told by women to their daughters — compelling, but also awful, cautionary tales. Are they fiction or fact, dream or reality? This would be a false dichotomy — clearly they are both. There is always beauty, but the horrors always return:
Maybe the narrator is growing, and moving to the center of the story:
The ending of III is softer than the rawness of I, but its alarming portrait of the situation of women and men is clear enough:
In part IX, the narrator’s imagery, and possibly her own and her sisters’ fortunes, seem to be looking up:
Yet darker images, including harsh anatomical symbols, undercut intimations of the world’s beneficence:
By part XI, difficulty, sadness, and tragedy have taken over:
The section ends with a grim vision of destructive relations between men and women:
“The Garden of Enchantments” concludes with Section XIII, a harshly vernacular but sardonic drama of mourning:
So ends the poem, or cycle of poems, that makes up “The Garden of Enchantments.” In later books, Baranda follows the divergent paths and exercises of her surrealistic imagination in a variety of ways, but the boundaries of the journey have been set in this Garden. There is a great deal of enchantment, and much ugliness, in these pages. Baranda’s worlds may be brave and new, but they are populated by murderous birds, terrible storms, and treacherous men. I was reminded of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: “I think we are in rats’ alley/ where the dead men lost their bones.”
From Baranda’s early work in The New World Written, let’s jump to her latest, A Hive of Seabirds, which starts off this collection. Its opening poem, “The Beach,” is 17 pages long and is made up of 10 parts numbered with Roman numerals. The framework, in other words, looks pretty similar to the form Baranda had been using 25 years earlier.
If we can judge from the poem’s opening, the world hasn’t improved much:
Much of the poem is written in the second person, though sometimes it reverts to the first person. The “you” that is being addressed could be the reader, or it could be one of the selves that inhabit the psyche of the poet/narrator. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to take “the vertigo of all your dreams” as referring to either an individual psychic landscape or the actual landscape of our current wasteland. Some images are the stuff of nightmare, but they run alongside other images that evoke survival and tenderness:
Part II brings more of the same:
“Between the motion/ and the act/ falls the shadow,” T.S. Eliot wrote in The Hollow Men. Baranda continues her variation on this theme:
The nightmare keeps gathering force:
That is the penultimate line of Section II, but the final line, in italics, sounds a different note:
Part III is brief. The poetic voice takes on a prophetic air:
The section’s ending predicts a grim transformation:
And the first two lines of Part IV suggest that a superficial change may lead to a threatening transformation:
Images of death and the grave keep returning:
Section V consists of just four stanzas, its setting suggesting we are in the church of a dying faith:
And it ends with a striking and mysterious event. Departing from her usual approach, Baranda supplies more of a narrative line:
Section VI seems almost an aside; it summons figures of Greek culture and mythology, from the Fates to Homer. In Section VII, and for the final four sections of “The Beach,” the narrator speaks in the first person:
This opening line could be a description of the poet’s method and as well as the narrator’s psyche. And she (they?) continue in this dual mode:
It’s a moment of clarity and vulnerability. In Baranda’s poetry there is the constant oscillation between beauty and ugliness, elegance and terror, the empowering journey and the overwhelming nightmare:
It’s not completely clear what kind of battle is being fought, but the last three lines of Section VII sound almost like an attempt at self-definition:
The brevity of the middle line gives the personal pronoun a stark emphasis. The staccato continues as Part VIII opens:
There is powerful evocation of the nightmare environment:
What is it that our narrator fears?
Some might wonder who would be more delighted to psychoanalyze the poem, Freud or Jung? (Or maybe it’s better if the narrator is protected from either of these patriarchal grandees.) Part IX begins with the image of a parasite:
At least one explanation for the poem’s title is summoned:
Could the narrator simply be describing a mere hangover? No, the poem reaches much deeper than that, into psyche and spirit.
The narrator describes a self-protective isolation:
The men of this world are recognizable males of the 21st century, except that resemble Eliot’s straw men or Prufrock:
There is an ambiguity of reference in those last two lines. Is it the men, or the first person narrator, who is being described as servile and uncertain? If the translator is accurate, we are meant to grapple with this ambiguity. Only a few lines earlier, after all, the poetic persona had confessed that she shares some responsibility:
Part X is the last. The opening lines of many of the sections in this poem are especially strong:
Then, almost immediately, grace once again devolves into nightmare. First, the touching image:
Followed by the reversal:
The poem is back in the third person again, although the poetic persona is addressing her own heart. The only job that is left to the heart in this world is to raise up a vision of delicacy and then tear it down. The persona’s final instruction to herself makes this explicit:
It seems the world ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with the voices of vultures as they dine on death:
So “The Beach” ends, its vision of horror leavened by a paradoxical beauty made from a mixture of grace, hope, and regret.
As early as her third book (Impossible Dwellings, 1997), Baranda had already echoed — or extended– Tennyson’s lines from “In Memoriam A.H.H.” The sentiment is Tennyson’s, but it could almost be Baranda:
Baranda introduced Impossible Dwellings with the italicized lines below — their connection to “The Beach” is clear enough:
Merrill Kaitz published the poetry magazine Zeugma, studied with Anne Sexton, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Monroe Engel, and was once 12th-rated Scrabble player in North America.