A Hermetic Conversation: Watchword by Pura López-Colomé


BY Pura López-Colomé
BY Forrest Gander
(Wesleyan University Press, 2012)

The esteemed Mexican poet, translator, and editor Pura López-Colomé walks the border between perception and imagination in her Villarrutia Prize winning collection Santo y Seña, carried over into English by Forrest Gander as Watchword. Gander, a poet in his own right, attempts to ease us into our encounter with López-Colomé in his Translator’s Preface, where he points out that the literal meaning of Santo y Seña (“Saint and Sign”) presents a telling issue, for the phrase has idiomatic meanings: “shibboleth,” Gander says, or “watchword.” A shibboleth, of course, is “a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, esp. a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.” A watchword is “a word or phrase expressing a person’s or group’s core aim or belief.” It is clear why the translator chose Watchword for the English title, but shibboleth also haunts these poems, in which López-Colomé tests received ideas, impressions, and memories in a hermetic[1] quest for authenticity.

Watchword is organized into three sections. The first contains multilayered meditations on subjects as various as the abstract expressionist art of Barrie Cooke, a tibouchina flower, and the way looking deeply into the name of a thing can reveal a phantasmagoria of meanings and associations. The second and longest section gathers poems steeped in López-Colomé’s childhood. The third section contains three very different poems that nevertheless share the core archetypal image of the Tree. The overall arc of the collection is from abstraction and multiplicity to a kind of visionary unity, but every poem is colored by the poet’s hermetic sensibility. Any given poem may display, by turns, qualities we associate with Emily Dickinson, Eugenio Montale, César Vallejo, or Paul Celan.

Like other hermetic poets, López-Colomé views language less as personal expression than as a tool for unveiling the invisible. This produces a poetry replete with images that are often abstracted in various ways: unmoored from their apparent occasion or context; blurred, as in a palimpsest, by layers of allusion; made multidimensional through wordplay and gestures, sometimes incomplete, toward symbolism. In “Tormented,” for example, she writes:

Enormous solids were falling
from who knows what heights,
who knows what places.
I trembled,
And in my mouth
an inky taste. Ready.

Hail, maybe,
enormous kernels of ice;
coming down,
with a scandalous impact,
didn’t bury me, terrorized,
under the covers.
It didn’t happen, it wasn’t that.
A below-zero temperature
drove into the soft center of my bones.
A truly searing cold.

Nothing to do with monsters came to pass.
Nothing to do with endless distance.
Nothing to do with brutalities.
Only the agony of acorns.
Only a cycle that completes itself
every few years
and transforms into a tropical forest
a choiring oak grove.

Which is my terror.

— p. 103

The “solids,” in the end, are never specified, nor is the source of the “inky taste” or the “searing cold.” And the confused syntax of the penultimate sentence begs the question: What kind of transformation are we witnessing? And why does it occasion the speaker’s “terror”? The poet refuses to answer these questions, and in doing so she aligns herself with Susan Sontag, who argued in “Against Interpretation” that the impulse to interpret diminishes art, concluding: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” By frustrating the interpretative impulse, López-Colomé forces the reader to confront the language itself, its surfaces and its depths; she seeks a passionate response, not a reasoned one.

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  1. By “hermetic,” I refer to a poetry that involves recondite allusions and analogies, private symbolism, and complex wordplay. This approach — embraced by poets ranging from Eugenio Montale to Bei Dao — makes hermetic poetry complex and often difficult to interpret.

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