Migrant Words / Palabras Migrantes, by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, trans. Christina MacSweeney

Migrant Words / Palabras Migrantes
by Verónica Gerber Bicecci
translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

There are simply too many ways to start a discussion on this book. I’ll say first that I’ve never read a book like Migrant Words / Palabras Migrantes, and my bookshelf is better 67305970_2280448032062920_1451312665279332352_ofor having the book on it, which is also how I feel about Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s other book in Christina MacSweeney’s translation, Empty Set. (I also have a tattoo from that book.)

The book is a medley recounting the Migrant Words workshops Verónica Gerber Bicecci held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in elementary and high schools there. Jackson Hole, being “a financial paradise for the super-rich,” is an interesting place to hold these workshops. But perhaps all the better for it.

It’s hard to discuss the book without ruining the pleasure of reading it, the unfolding of form and bilingual (and the “what does that even mean?” the text evokes) words, the appreciated and never spoken-down-to opinions and ideas of the young people who took part in the workshops. Perhaps one of the most lovely things about this book is the seriousness with which the author, translator, and editor—in conversation with each other through the comments peppering the margins of the wide pages, beautiful to the touch—take each other’s and the students’ words. But not just the seriousness, the playfulness, too. Verónica Gerber Bicecci discusses her family’s migrant status, Italy-Argentina-Mexico; in the margin, Christina MacSweeney discusses her own mixed heritage, Irish, but she “[is] definitely English. Not feeling a fixed national identity can free up many areas of life.”

Today, the word “migrant” causes tension in conversation. It is refreshing to see it considered here so head-on, put into context against what most people might not expect—translation—to highlight its place in the world. When Verónica Gerber Bicecci asked students to discuss where they were “from,” “[t]he majority found themselves to be part of a genealogy of every variety of geographical movement: from one continent to another one country to another, one state to another. The Hispano-Americans are not, then, the only migrants to come to the United States, to that classroom.”

81ISreUQ2ILIf I’m allowed to butt into the margins here with my own commentary, post-author, post-translator, post-editor: I often have the good luck of GerberBicceci_EmptySet_9781566894944_1024x1024having the right book land in my hands at the right time. During a time of turbulent travel, I happened to pick up Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft’s Flights; during a time when I felt particularly lost and confused, I picked up Empty Set on a whim (that tattoo picture here). Now, at a time when I am facing another international move, I find this book in front of me, ready with its consideration of what it is to be a migrant. Migrant—immigrant—nomad. What is this spectrum? An immigrant is said to “move permanently to a new 29597726_10156367754727244_4407831563568310797_ncountry,” whereas the migrant is “a person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions.” My parents are immigrants, and I have the annoying half-accent and restlessness to show for it. Am I a migrant? A very, very privileged one? Does this help the discourse? Probably not. Existential crisis aside, this book begs to be read personally, to be related to. You can read it in an hour, but you should spend many more re-reading it.

We often see translators relegated to the sides, to the inside title pages, left off of covers and out of reviews, and if they’re in them they’re often paired with shudder-inducing words like “apt” and “skillful,” or, if they’re very unlucky, “choppy”. It’s rare, refreshing, and delightful to see the translator—and here, the editor!—invited into the text to comment, to converse. The border of the text is blurred, which is something I’m coming to expect from Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and I need more. Christina MacSweeney’s translation is playful (I don’t read Spanish at all, but comparing her translation into English of the English in Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s Spanish, I see a teenager saying “I think we both are?” rendered as “Maybe we both are?”, which is a beautiful shift into slightly-flippant-but-still-serious US teen vernacular), elegant, joyful and grounded, and—dare I say—smooth. It is also wonderful to see the issue of translation itself considered by young people and it being tied so explicitly to migration, a metaphor without making a metaphor: “Even though ‘migrant’ and ‘translation’ are two different words, the visual logic of these drawings is very similar: something that is split in two, but also apparently balanced.”

This book is excellent. It is one of a small edition limited to 450 numbered copies, and I’m the very proud owner of #0056. Snap it up and enjoy. Find out about elephants in rooms, white boards, and pages, about bridges and borders, and what the emoji for migration might be.

“Migration… is a movement from one place to another that makes you into an outsider.”

Birnam Wood, by José Manuel Cardona, trans. from the Spanish by Hélène Cardona

Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam
by José Manuel Cardona
translated from the Spanish by Hélène Cardona
(Salmon Poetry)

If you’ve ever seen one of those .gifs that is meant to help regulate your breathing when Taking_Time_Out_Cover.qxdyou feel an anxiety attack coming on, you’ll recognize the mood set in this collection of poetry. Birnam Wood is a collection you pick up when the cycle of life—creation, destruction, love, everything—gets to be too much. These poems are the kind that make you feel small in the world, but in a cottony kind of way: being small does not mean being insignificant. Being set into a myth, even as an observer, needn’t be frightening, and here is even grounding.

The book is divvied up into three sections: Poems to Circe, The Vintner, and Other Poems. For this reader at least, it is hardly an easily-perceived division as, while the subject matter itself varies, the feeling and movement of the collections rushes up and over itself overwhelmingly, like sitting in sucking and rushing waves on a stony black beach. The delineations in the book are buoys marking your progress as you’re swept further and further out.

In a world that needs more witches, this collection is a joy to read: the author gives the power to the reader to create the witch, our Circe, and carry her name and spells with us. It is this creation that is so much the crux of the work, but the reader is continually reminded that creation has a price. And when you’re creating an immortal witch, you’re playing with fire and crags, and love.

[…] love itself was making you.
I created you, Circe; humanly
I keep recreating me in your image,
I keep recreating you and living
My creation in you, until I don’t know
Or confuse, by dint of knowing,
Where you, reality, start
And where I, desire, end.

There is a cloying need in this creation, a desperation to be recognized as creator and loved in turn as much as the creator loves the creation. When there is no home on the horizon, the creator must create and so becomes in creation, and vice versa. The author created Circe to see her make magic, created her so that he can believe in magic. It is a beautiful selfishness, a living haunting.

I have the ageless power of volcanoes
And I feed my thirst for adventure.
You already recognize, Circe, my bones.
I’ve traded my peace for the knife.
I’m here to abolish Death.
Those who believe in me will not die.

These are the rules of Cardona’s poems: Creation is possession. Destruction is possession. Love is possession. Possession is destruction. Recognition is immortality.

Here, love is the space between the symbiosis of creation and destruction. It is the yin-yang symbol pushing itself around and within, endlessly and hypnotically.

A creature with no home is a living ghost. The stubbornness of living, of refusing to die, in creating so as to preserve one’s own bones when they no longer belong to us, is the anxiety-inducing and poignant linchpin of this collection of poems. The need to be seen and loved trumps all else, and makes a fool of the creator. But we love the fool, because the fool is us. Just as the creation is also us: in reader, we are created as reader by author. We are claimed and owned, just as we, like Circe, by turns shuck off and adore the eyes and hands of the creator.

Only man is capable of destroying
what he never created
and he alone believes belongs to him.
Seeing is not enough to live,
everything has to be his, owned.

I do not read Spanish at all, and am grateful to Hélène Cardona, translator and daughter of author and creator José Manuel Cardona, for rendering this collection in English. Because it is a rendering, as the words themselves seem rent from the Spanish and forged and recast into English, much like the “crown like a yoke / Macerated in irons and crystals.” The translation, the poems, glimmer and cast shadows, breaking over the cliffs the lines comprise of. The poems spill over themselves but then come to collect themselves in little pools: the anxiety breaks over the reader’s head but collects into the vintner’s glasses of heady wine that cozily overwhelms.

All is consumed, Circe, and I live.