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Gerald Schwartz reviews

Engravings Torn From Insomnia by Olga Orozco

Translated by Mary Crow. Rochester: Boa Editions, 2002. 104 pp. US $13.95

Reading Engravings Torn From Insomnia, a new translation of Olga Orozco’s poems by Mary Crow, moves and frightens us, flinging us through a vortex of delight and wonder. And, by the book’s end, we feel we’ve come to an unfamiliar place, that these poems had vigorously taken us there. Engravings Torn From Insomnia represents all of Orozco’s work, who was born in 1920 in Toay, near Buenos Aires and died in 1999, and it is striking among the recent crop of translations because the resulting power of the lyrics hits us with cumulative force. The collection successively throws us against the difficult spectacle of aestheticized pain, beautiful, wrenching texts representing rituals, fairy tales, chaos, a mingling that’s above with all that’s below — and the overheard consciousness of a poet mindful of her difference from them, her precarious position as a poet writing from her own contemporary world of floating dreams. As well as the shards and tags of prime reminiscences. We’re anchored, yet left vertiginous, as from ‘Personal Stamp’:

...two radiant prodigals gnawing my future in the present’s bones.
scattering as they press the signs of the promised land
that changes place, slipping beneath the grass, as I advance. (15)

This is how Orozco invades the darkness, seeking to perfect a communion, while taking inventory of the impossible — yes, seizing the abyss. And, as she advances in her occupation to fix vertigoes, we’re reminded of her association with the Argentine Surrealists Enrique Molina and Alejandra Pizarnik, as well as of Rimbaud and Nerval. But, as in the closing lines of ‘Some Feathers For My Wings’:

Like what majority god was I uprooted and wrapped in this skin
nostalgia exhales?
A mutilation of clouds and feathers toward the skin of heaven. (23)

This is travel beyond surrealism in metaphysical search, indeed a yearning, as found in the writings of Teresa D’Avila and Saint John of the Cross. And, as with the writings of these and other vatic voices, Orozco’s enraptures as word and body commingle. These are as canticles, clear as dreams, sharp-edged in the ways dream are sharp, the simple words and images almost transparent as glass, with dream-jumps and unexplained castings, which, as in a dream, seem to require no explanation. It’s then that a relation between imagination and experience is so intense that it creates another memory, in which the dream of the reality recovers as dream of the writing:

Who were you, woman lost among foliage like earlier springtimes,
like someone who returns from time to repeat her cries,
desires, slow gestures with which yesterday she half-opened her days?
My soul, only you.’ (‘Far Away, From My Hill’[19])

The hunger paired with human voice is not, in these poems, the person, but that force which has invaded and subjugated the person. Obsession with themes of magic, discord, secrets, and words — animals, talismans, heaven — becomes possession, a channeling at a seance, where the vision is in Orozco lived experience. And it’s one seen better with closed eyes. Choice and agency are represented as mysterious forces outside and before the mulling mind reigned in by heart.

In the middle of the book, beginning with ‘A Face In Autumn’, we see Orozco turning to affirm that the opposite of the life is not the death, it is the nothing. She knows that death is a black package full of the splendor of the misled goods. It is the ground of lost love, tear and nakedness that shakes. Here’s a new, luxurious version of death:

...beyond, beneath winters’ cold funeral wreaths
she returned to her wake like a wing, warm earthy refuge for her solitude, an omen. (51)

From this resurrection, we go to those poems placing Orozco as a solitary observer of natural phenomena — grapevines, territories of shadows, vegetal shoulders. She is detached, introspective, whimsically anthropomorphic, studying in great detail the lives around her as if they alone could explain the meaning of her own life and death. As she accounts in ‘Animal Cathechism’, in lines which are an ars poetica:

Though there’s no rest, no permanence, no wisdom,
I defend my place:
This humble home where my fathomless soul is folded,
where it sacrifices its shadows
and leaves. (63)

Awed by our impenetrable secrets surrounding us like stones, Orozco is alone while all of the shade is disturbed by wolves and lightning. Full of call and response, of dreams, isolation, fate, devotion and that silence, this is a world exposed by turns of language. And these poems that sing physically — those smells, colors and sounds (‘perfumes of legends’, ‘mouths final shine’, ‘waves closing a dream’) are crossroads where we recognize the fragments of the world’s instant. Here associations can rise by their own places, changing over fast into composed wave play from projections, mysteries and exhilarated features. From ‘Ballad of Forgotten Places’:

My places would look like broken mirages,
clippings of photographs torn from an album to orient. Nostalgia,
but they have roots deeper than this sinking ground,
these fleeting doors, these vanishing walls. (87)

And it’s right here in our reading of Engravings Torn From Insomnia, near the end, we come to a new sense of the power of how Orozco’s mature long verses, with their sweeping lines, can stretch time, making internal depths of the present at one with eternity. Embedding her poems with a dense imagery based in the phenomena of the corporeal world, she gives rise to the visionary, representing the ongoing struggle and plunge into that perdition where contest takes place and where poems begin:

I kept watch encrusted in burning ice, in frosted fire,
translating lighting, unthreading dynasties of words,
in a code as indecipherable as that of stars
of ants.
I looked at words against the light
I saw their dark offspring parade by till the end of the world.
I wanted to discover God in transparency. (93)

In the end Orozco cannot explain her poems in words other than the poem, and it is the same failure of words that affects mystics — toda sciencia trascendiendo. Refusing ultimately to answer the desires so movingly raised, the poet parses her speech word by word with meticulous attention to their induction into constellations, enacting the eternal. This IS the way spelled out. This idea of ‘the eternal’ is difficult, if not impossible, to lay sure hold of. The very word ‘eternal’ escapes us, or suggests unendurable boredom. Orozco shows us that liturgical Christianity has wholly misplaced an emphasis, offering ‘eternal life’ as a reward. Burning desire — and the wants and needs propelling it — are the eternal. This is the experience, one within our grasp. Even the image of perfection between one’s self, perfected, and the perfect desire, consuming and for ever, can reach us from time to time. This is Olga Orozco’s subject and sighting.

In folding the poems into this bilingual edition, Mary Crow, who worked with Orozco, working with her in her Buenos Aires apartment until the time of the poet’s death, has brought out a generous selection, giving us a gripping flash into her chimeras and mercurial borderlands.

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