YR #51: Letters So That Happiness by Arnaldo Calveyra, Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Zuba
Letters So That Happiness by Arnaldo Calveyra, Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Zuba (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Lost Literature Series #22
Everything rising came up from the eucalyptus, showering clean ash autumn from the burn. (41)
A skinny volume filled with squat, postcard-sized prose poems, Letters So That Happiness is as much about the worlds within each of its cartas as it is about the act of letter-writing itself. Arnaldo Calveyra’s first volume is also, coincidentally, contributing to the “lost literature” series of Ugly Duckling Presse. Curiously, Letters feels as lost (and searching) through its language as it may be lost in the English-language literary canon. Each poem fades in, mesmerizing cascades of scene-setting and environment-growing established within breaths, only to fade out toward the next blank space. The effect is an uncanny, paralyzing sense of grounded representation, flourished with pastoral roots and yet delivered with a bold and casual sense of realism.
Calveyra, raised in a rural, agrarian setting, son and grandson to cowboy culture, relays in this first book the setting for growth and cultivation. A surrealist farming of the mind, Letters explores and satisfies that essence of acknowledgment before and during the presented story, the periods of wakefulness and sharing. As such, the fleeting feeling of these works also feels staunchly intentional and directed, under the control of the poet. To think that the famous writer who lived through conflict and exile found flashing moments of grace and stability in an aroused, ethereal world of memory, wonder, and persistence envelopes the book in an aura of revelation and epiphany. The paradox of this eruptive sense is that the book never rings out with sensationalism, extremity, or even, more positively, ecstasy. The book seems ironically positioned in a relatively humble space for its young author; where the youthful energy would typically reign with arrogance and posturing, we instead find a book that is gentle, sorted, and withdrawn. And again, curiously, stable.
Suddenly, how wonderful! I came looking through loose autumn and slowed to a thistle beside the slide piled high with dead leaves. Wild! recently bloomed and gone into the raw milk. (29)
The searching, the seeking, the hum of a daily spirit finds anonymity in both voice and recipient of the letter form. The letters are not dated and do not contain anything but the messages themselves Though many of the scenes and characters within Calveyra’s poems in this book feel specific, feel explicitly known and thoroughly explored, the results of Calveyra’s poetics crafts more exuberant openness. A muffled beg of invitation, a soft plea for the transformed and transited, this is a book that further surprises with its direction of tone and messaging. The flutter feels surreal in its interpretable beginning, and it also feels drastically contextual in its leading qualities, its trims, its finer and more resplendent details. The reader may get what they give, as in the subtle splashes of our more intimately shared memories and dreams and interpretations, that sense of the vulnerable and the sealed shut coming together as an edge.
A smell that slipped early through the wooden slats, the wind’s latch: in the highest branches of all; the bustle of coming from water, that is, the change from wave to wind when it just can’t much more those few meters of beach. (9)
Poet and translator Elizabeth Zuba has admiringly carried this work into its full fruition, with direct help from both Arnaldo Calveyra and his son, Beltran. Zuba has demonstrated an inspiring diligence in working intensively through the original works, not just the cartas, to know Calveyra and to know him thoroughly. Her passage through Calveyra’s world by way of the poetry has been supplemented by his biography (included in this book), which is additionally mesmerizing and awestriking.
As Zuba’s lengthy exploration reveals, knowing the poet’s miraculous life and the process to the creation of this English translation are nearly as momentous as the poems themselves. Much like Calveyra spent many of his early years befriending and learning from Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Mastronardi, Zuba found a mirrored experience in getting to know and understand Calveyra through friendship and storytelling. Calveyra’s agreement to commit to the English translation is one of the reasons for the translation existing to begin with, says Zuba in the book’s conclusive remarks. Following his father’s 2015 death, Beltran Calveyra provided similarly significant information and influence as well, indicating additional, contextual qualities of legacy, respect, and the captivation of filial connection found through Letters. Details of the translation process, which explore Calveyra’s unique grammatical methods, complement the book’s inclusion of the original Spanish text.
I remember the kitchen in the boil of cold pockets and the mouth in the steam singing good morning. (13)
As with its achievement as a spellbinding set of poems that would go on to influence individual mid-20th Century writers and an Argentinian subculture of leftist political rebellion, the new achievement of this English translation has the potential to provide levels of influence and curiosity. From the canon of South American literature as a whole, to the =milieu of political poetry of the 20th Century, particularly in a complex Latin America infused with violence and expulsion, this book is a valuable addition. The whispered, beautiful testaments within Letters explores the juxtaposition that is reality for Calveyra and so many other poets: at the core of difficulty, challenge, and migration there are entrancing and rescuing moments of calm, joy, and illustrative movements toward a grounded, intact center.
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All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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