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Translator's Note: Tormented

by Forrest Gander


How to write about the intimate, the deeply personal, the body, without resorting to confession or to the kind of detail that can seem almost pornographic? In her newest book, Santo y Seña, Mexican poet Pura López-Colomé writes her best poetry in a style which is less a refinement of how she wrote previously than a condensation of it. The title of her collection gives us a clue to reading the poems. While santo means "saint" and seña means "sign," the phrase santo y seña means "pass" or "watchword." So something important is hidden, but key words will give us access. What comes clear to the reader quickly enough is that this isn't a literary game, not even a means of self-protection for the author, so much as it is a mode of perceiving and experiencing trauma.

"Tormented" reminds me of that unforgettable fresco of St. Dominic by Fra Angelico. In it, St. Dominic concentrates on reading the open Bible in front of him while all around Hell's winged demons whirl through the air. López-Colomé's poem begins with objects falling through the air. Not demons, but "solids." It is a more abstract nightmare that nevertheless provokes trembling and "an inky taste" in the mouth. The next phrase is hardest for me to translate. En su punto. On its point, literally. But the phrase is used to mean something like at ready or just right. When something is all set, you might say, Está en su punto. Is the inky taste an indication that the speaker is ready to write? Other "watchwords" in the poem lead me to think the inky taste could be the bitter aftertaste of chemotherapy. In which case the "En su punto," just perfect, is ironic.

Like King Lear, "Tormented" is absorbed with what doesn't come to pass, with nothing. Hail doesn't bury the speaker. Monsters don't show up. Distances, brutalities, those sorts of things are notable only by their absence. So what is so agonizing about acorns? Acorns, like little cells. Cells that transform one kind of forest into another. The force of the poem remains implicit. Its very lack of certainty, emphasized by the stop-and-go phrasing, rhymes with the psychological state of the speaker. And the last isolated line turns an ordinary stanza break into an act of metastasis.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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