In Poetic Encounters in the Americas: Remarkable Bridge, poet and scholar Peter Ramos explores the tensions and affiliations between North, South, and Central American poets and their influence upon one another in the context of translation. The task requires an intellect of sufficient span and breadth to hold two continents together across geographical, cultural, and linguistic divides. Remarkable Bridge is a kind of monumental work of mind, for while there are many individual essays discussing affiliations between Hispanic and North American writers in translation, fewer tomes attempt making sense of the whole twentieth century picture and beyond in one fell swoop. Such is the intellectual bravery of Peter Ramos.
Nor could Ramos be better suited for the Herculean job. He is a U.S.-born, first-generation American derived from Venezuela. He is also a musician, professor, and poet. Ramos’s status as a poet may give him access to interpretation as deep as his bilingualism gives him access to the Spanish and American poems in their native originals. As a scholar, poet, and bilingual Hispanic-American; perhaps particularly as a poet, Ramos is well-positioned to take on this difficult terrain that includes not only that sublime fountain of the human mind—poetry—but poetry-in-translation, which holds obvious further complexities to the dogged interpreter.
The book is divided into five primary chapters exploring the legacies as well as contemporary relationships between eighteen South and North American poets. The South/Central American poets covered include Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Luis Pales Matos, Ocatavio Paz, Jose Lezama Lima, Heberto Padilla, and Cecilia Vicuna. The North Americans poets include Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, Robert Bly, Roberto Tejada, and Rosa Alcala. The long list of poets covered (some more thoroughly than others) reflects the ambition of the book and it is a testament to the strength of Ramos’s intellect that he is willing to wade into these difficult, thick-populated waters to make a case for the material influence and political effect, of one poet, and one culture, upon another.
Ramos’s most important and overarching theme is how one poet’s translation of another poet’s work creates a cultural dialogue that exists outside of, or resists, or flows beyond, the more rigid power structures of dominance that characterize the western geo-political world. As Ramos puts it, the act of translating poetry not only expands one’s own country’s language practices and opportunities, but promotes border-resisting cross-cultural fertilizations. By seeking out and translating each others’ work, poets of North and South America have created a new language of inclusion that resists such political injustices as “unfair divisions of manual labor and land grabbing by U.S. corporations” (10); or “paternalistic or condescending approach[es]” (15) to non-Western literature that have tended to erase the culture and people south of the border.
The book’s arguments are far more complicated than can be covered here, but a summary of the book’s primary chapters may at least give the reader a sense of the whole. In the first chapter, Ramos examines how James Wright’s translations of the mystical Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo facilitated his shift from traditional western formalist poetics (of which he had tired) to a wilder, more irrational symbolist poetry. In the second chapter, Ramos explores Walt Whitman as a “body electric”-singing progenitor of twentieth century socialist revolution and his influence through poetic innovations (complex subjectivities; long lines that flow almost to the page’s edge, freeing language of the “chains” of the traditional English line) on the socialist-tending poetics of Langston Hughes in America and Pablo Neruda in Chile. In Chapter Three, Ramos discusses the influence of William Carlos Williams’s Puerto Rican mother on his world view (she read to him from Spanish literature as a child) and his quest to mount, in his mature life, through translation, a competing Hispanic/New World tradition of Spanish-based literature against Eliot’s English-based “Great Tradition.”
In the fourth chapter, Ramos studies two twentieth century women poets—Muriel Rukeyser and Elizabeth Bishop—in relation to their translations of and friendship with the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. While her relationship with Paz helped Rukeyser forge the idea of a common humanity in defiance of the fascism Rukeyser had borne witness to in the Spanish Civil War (Paz’s blood of children flowing in the streets), Elizabeth Bishop emphasizes the co-equivalence of self and unknowable other that resists egotistical domination, the crushing of one civilization by another. In the final chapter, Ramos discusses two Cuban poets—Jose Lezama Lima (whose poem, “Remarkable Bridge,” provides the title for this book) and Heberto Padilla—in relation to three American poets, T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, and the contemporary Roberto Tejada. The book closes on a feminist note with a short piece on post avant-garde poet Rosa Alcala’s translations of Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuna.
The book is revelatory in seeds dropped along the way of political detail. We learn (if we didn’t already know) that Walt Whitman was a racist who stood alone among his literary peers in not condemning slavery. That Langston Hughes joined other Americans at the scene of the Spanish Civil War. That Muriel Rukeyser’s work is, in part, a protest against the McCarthy era. That Octavio Paz came as an “ambassador” to Washington. That in trying to manage the Cold War, American agencies promoted cultural interrelations between artist elites to mitigate North, Caribbean, Mexican, and South American tensions. That the western world, to infinite damage (bombs, genocide, deadly divisions) has dominated and oppressed and benefited economically from the beleaguered non-western world.
It can sometimes feel hard, among the book’s multitudinous abstractions, to grasp and hold the whole, but Ramos’s thesis is always clear. Remarkable Bridge’s main focus is literary criticism. It will be filed in the library under that heading. But the book’s political implications are inseparable from and in some ways rise above the literary. In the end Ramos’s largest and most important argument may be socio-political: that through translation twentieth century poets have criss-crossed each other’s disparate civilizations to forge a flexible, but strong “Remarkable Bridge” that all Americans can safely cross. Against indefensible and fatal hierarchies, this cross-cultural language-bridge provides a filtering resistance to western domination. Through exchanges, re-combinations, and importations; through border resisting inter-cultural engagements, Latin, Caribbean, and North American poets have found ways to defend against the more savage twentieth century cruelties roiling like a sea below; a tide directed, often enough, in Ramos’s clear-eyed view, from the western, onto the tortured body of the Hispanic, world.
Lisa Low’s poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Valparaiso Poetry Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, American Journal of Poetry, Evening Street Review, Free State Review, Neologism Poetry Journal, Straight Forward Poetry, The Virginia Normal, Spillway, Good Works Review, Phoebe, The Potomac Review, Crack the Spine, Delmarva Review, Broken Plate, Tusculum, BoomerLitMag, Litbreak Magazine, Streetlight, and Spillway among others. Her book review on Jeannine Ouellette’s The Part that Burns is forthcoming in Heavy Feather. She is co-editor with Anthony Harding of Milton, the Metaphysicals, and Romanticism (Cambridge University Press in 1994). She received her doctorate in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and spent twenty years as an English professor, teaching at Cornell College; Colby College; and Pace University. In addition to her work as an educator, Low has been a film and theatre critic for Christian Science Monitor. Visit her at lisalowwrites.com