The Identity of “Ahora”: Hi-Density Politics by Urayoán Noel
Urayoán Noel is part high-octane performance poet and part formalist. Here’s a sample of a rant squeezed into the terza rima that opens his new collection, Hi-Density Politics:
Zapping off the statesman — Statements snowball —
Spurred by lo que nunca se traduce —
Take note: this revolution’s temporal-lobal —
I traffic tics then trade up for a loosy —
Altering the chemistry —(no brainer!)
Seizuring the state —“O, say, can juicy?”
— p. 15
Threaded through this barrage of bilingual fragments and clipped phrases is a skilled use of sonic elements that include consonance, rhyme, and even meter (in the trochaic line endings: “se traduce,” “for a loosy”, and “say can juicy”).
But what stands out most, and is one of the major sources of delight in Noel’s work, is his playfulness. There is a sense that he will draw upon and combine any resource available to create a dizzying array of puns and wordplay. Here he pairs the colloquial “no brainer” with an anatomical term of the brain, “temporal-lobal,”; inserts the Spanish phrase “lo que nunca se traduce” (“what is never translated”); and creates the wonderful rhyme-pun of “loosy” and “O, say can juicy” which mimics the sound of someone with a Spanglish accent saying the first line of the U.S. national anthem.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Noel divides his time between upstate New York (where he teaches at the University at Albany, SUNY) and the South Bronx. He has strong ties to the Nuyorican spoken word scene. Those ties are evidenced in the intricate rhyme, wordplay and cadence that typify much of spoken word poetry.
Noel also has a very strong modernist aesthetic that pushes him to levels of experimentation far beyond what is found on the typical performance poetry stage. His energetic commitment to the new and disruptive is what makes this work so interesting.
In the bilingual poem “sitibodis” Noel uses the familiar format of showing the English poem with its Spanish equivalent next to it. He uses that format as a launching pad to violate expectations. Here is a selection:
ten cuidado, sitanido be careful, siti dweller
estate quieto be still and chill
no digas nada y dilo bien say nothing and say it well
no shoutouts for the wall st. crew tírale al corillo milla de oro
no bailouts no more me late que no hay rescate ya
la siti owns those bancos these benches are siti-owned
(sin “©”, tu sabes) (no “©,” you know)
siéntate en ellos sit down on them
son tuyos they’re yours
— p. 54
The translation from Spanish to English in the first three lines is colloquial but accurate. Interestingly, Noel has injected sonic elements into both the English (assonance and consonance in siti, it, chill, still, well) and the Spanish (assonance in cuidado, situando, quieto and dilo).
In the fourth and fifth lines, the poem becomes more strident and begins to rail against the government bailout of large financial institutions. As if to underscore the shift in tone, the columns switch: the English column gives the Spanish version and the Spanish column shows a rough English translation.
While the languages then return to their appropriate columns in the lines that follow, the blurring of languages continues. In the next lines Noel pulls off a very clever word play using the Spanish word “bancos.” The word translates in English to either benches or banks. In the English column Noel translates it as benches: “these benches are siti-owned.” However, following his complaint about financial bailouts, he is really talking about banks. Embedded in the line is a clear reference to one of the major bailout recipients, Citibank. Without saying it, the line surreptitiously and very cleverly communicates that “these benches are Citibank owned.”
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