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.

There is a risk to poetry, though, in taking this hermetic tack. Words have both denotative and connotative aspects, and by weakening the connection between the two, hermetic poets can end up creating a poetry of marginal effects. It is only the layering we find in the best hermetic poetry, along with thematic seriousness that saves it from marginality. López-Colomé accomplishes both.

Consider the layering that takes place in the following passages:

The angel-hair
of the clouds
dissolves and
from behind
them, a howl
quick, hide yourself, here’s your home
seems to echo from,
pertain to,
some neighboring cordillera,
a valley rivered like the nerve system
of leaves when, without shame,
they bare their undersides
or when the undersides shamefully suggest
the schemata of a body
marked by muscles and dendrites…

— “Three Lacustrine Scenes,” p. 17

Here I come, the new Cinderella, minus the cinders,
and while all those S sounds hang in the air, let me say
I’ve been seared stirring up a fire
between two urns
that weigh almost nothing,
scorched, pricked,
stretched to the point of snapping, of blowing out
ligaments between the chancel cross
and an angel pinned
to the concrete wall….

— “Dialogue of the Ashes,” p. 63

Oh the fabulous
instead of stoking the beat,
it stimulates the stroke
in the sacred temple
of this, thine, the unnameable.

— “Heart’s Core,” p. 83

In addition to her methods, these examples constellate several of the poet’s themes, which seem essentially dialectical: perception and imagination, mortality and transcendence, health and disease, expression and reticence, memory and present experience. Each of these binaries acts like a magnet, creating a force field that interacts with the force fields of the other themes, all of which are colored by by the poet’s interest in the nature of language. It is López-Colomé’s rejection of received ideas about all this that forces her to abandon the linear aspects of poetry — narrative and argument of the sort we find in sonnets. Instead, she presents us with poems that are both fluid and exacting — the ultimate fruit of a process that, as she tells us in her Poet’s Afterword, began in adolescence, during a period of “regular reclusiveness” during which she “started … a dialogue with my personal penumbra” and read almost obsessively. Interestingly enough, her list of early influential authors consists mostly of English language writers: Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Whitman, Yeats, and most significantly, Emily Dickinson.

In the end, she says, “I began to write in order to speak back to those to whom I’d listened.” A telling remark — one that explains the sense one has as a reader that the poet is always addressing someone else, not us; we are merely overhearing the conversation. If the conversation is sometimes puzzling, even cryptic, we never lose the sense that important things are being said. That sense of ultimate value is the ground on which the hermetic poet’s works stands or falls, and it is what makes Pura López-Colomé such a rewarding poet to read — and to read again.

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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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