Reviewed by Daniel A. Olivas
Francisco Aragon’s verse has graced the pages of several chapbooks and innumerable literary journals not to mention anthologies published by W.W. Norton, Heyday Books and Soft Skull Press. Aragon is also the founding editor and publisher of Momotombo Press which promotes emerging Latino writers and is housed at the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame where Aragon is a Visiting Fellow. His talents at translation have been utilized for a half dozen books including those by the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Aragon’s honors include an Academy of American Poets Prize and an AWP Intro Journals Project Award. With Puerta del Sol, Aragon offers us his first full-length book of poetry. And it is about time.
Each poem in this collection appears in English on the left page with its Spanish translation on the right. Aragon, who rendered the Spanish translations, offers what can only be called an apologia at the beginning of the book. As a Latino of Nicaraguan descent, he thanks his late mother for teaching him Spanish yet “as someone born and educated in the United States, English inevitably became my principal language. I spoke Spanish but was illiterate-I couldn’t read or write it-until I graduated from college.” He honed much of his Spanish while living, traveling and working in Spain for ten years. Thus, Aragon asserts that his Spanish is “hybrid, in both accent and vocabulary.” He also notes that in rendering his own words into Spanish, he felt free to make “linguistic choices” that veered from strict translation, based on “the pleasure of sound,” which “may have involved rewriting, reordering, or re-creating specific lines.”
As a native of San Francisco and long-time resident of Spain, many of Aragon’s poems derive from “place” and all that this concept brings: weather, language, history, friendships, loves, and family. In “Alaska,” the poem begins with the narrator lamenting a former lover’s painful absence and puzzling silence:
I never heard from you again.
Was it something I said, the paunch (though
a friend from Bilbao that spring didn’t
mind it at all)? . . .
Nunca supe mas de ti.
Acaso fue algo que dije, mi barriga (aunque
a un amigo de Bilbao esa primavera no
le importaba nada)? . . .
In his notes to some of the poems, Aragon tells us that Bilbao is a city in the Basque County in the north of Spain. But then the narrator brings us to Alaska where his former lover appears in a dream shoveling snow, “clearing a drive to back out a truck,” which triggers an early morning memory of “the heft of you, recalling how the rich / timbre of your voice was a well / I drank from that summer afternoon / at Kearny and California in the shade / of the bank, how we strolled down Sutter / into the Arcade.” And then back to the dream: “…you’re shifting / gears, the tires gripping, and Alaskan days / stretch getting longer, lengthening to the point / that when our limbs and lids / grow heavy with sleep, we bring / on the dark by pulling / it down- / those black / window shades; / wrapped in your arms.”
Thus, memory and place glide back and forth, from Spain to San Francisco and even to a dream-version of Alaska, offering shading and alternative feeling to the same subject. Aragon uses this place-shifting as a recurring motif. For example, in “Bridge Over Strawberry Creek,” the narrator is on the UC Berkeley campus “when I chose my place that morning / at the open window-redwoods / framed against June’s day blue….” Yet, even in choosing something as tangible as a place to sit, the narrator knows that if he closes his eyes, he would be transported to “a balcony / in Sitges those summer nights / listening to the Mediterranean breathe. . . .”
Bilingualism also becomes “place”-or rather, two places. Aragon’s deceptively simple “Mi Corazon is a Bilingual Mirror” explains:
So right for me to draw it
like this, in these times:
It gathers lint in your pocket
For him, these rhymes.
Un acierto para mi dibujarlo
asa, en este clima:
Recoge pelusa en tu bolsillo
Para el, esta rima.
Remarkably, this bilingual “mirror” rhymes in both languages. Yet the sounds are startlingly different, each version offering the ear singular experiences.
In “All Saints’ Day,” we begin in Southern California as “Laguna Beach smolders” and the “Santa Ana winds / head north now / for Malibu….” But “on the other / side of the globe” Federico Fellini’s soon-to-be-widow, Giulietta Masina, “feels a warmth / on her cheek: her husband’s gaze / awakened from sleep / speechless, saying / with his eyes, This / is all there is….” Fellini’s deathbed seeps into the image of another husband who is kidnapped but released, “his limbs and organs / intact, free / after a hundred / and seventeen days / his captors paid….” And then another shift to a husband not so lucky, a victim of a terrorist assassination in Madrid. Three husbands-one dying, one saved, one murdered-woven into a seamless fabric of fate at the hands of nature, avarice and political fanaticism.
Whether confronting terrorism on Spanish soil, memories of his late mother, or lamenting love lost, Aragon allows his images to travel from one continent to another, between English and Spanish, from hard, present tense reality to amorphous, malleable memory. Aragon’s poems are stunning little mirrors that reveal the shimmering complexity of our lives and dreams. This is an eloquent collection that deserves attention.