REVIEW: Buzzing Hemisphere / Rumor Hemisférico by Urayoán Noel

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by José Angel Araguz

…poetry was there for me as a refuge and as a way to channel and redirect neural energies. In terms of the book, it is a personal struggle, but also a family and a social one. I come from damaged hemispheres, both biographically as someone with epilepsy, and politically as the child of a colonized island.

The personal and social worlds of the poet as well as the implied agency of seeking “refuge,” “channeling,” and “redirecting” all come together in Urayoán Noel’s latest collection Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico to present a vision of poetry as (inter)active narrative. Yet, these pieces are born not only of personal experiences and their social implications but also how both of these factors are translated from language to language, moment to moment, and even technology to technology. Many of the pieces in this book were written via various smartphone apps (including word and anagram generators, Google Translate, etc.). Also, as the poet notes: “Certain poems were composed in English and Spanish simultaneously, while others are performative, experimental, or nonequivalent self-translations. In some cases, the line between translation and original is deliberately blurry.” Along with such rigorous structural framework and play, the collection is pleasingly grounded at each turn in a sensibility able to alternate not only between languages but also between personal and social purpose.

An example of the alternating current (pun on a book title by Octavio Paz intended) running through the collection can be found in the sequence “Décimas del Otro Mundo/Otherworldly Décimas,” in which the poet presents a series of décimas, a traditional Spanish form, in both Spanish and English, along with an Afro-Taíno refrain:

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Revolución de las alas,              Revolution of the wings,

revolución de las noches,          revolution of the nights,

revolución sin derroches,          revolution that unites

eufemismos, ni antesalas,         with the clarity it brings,

revolución de las balas              revolution of all things

en la cuna en que morí,                         in the death cradle that claimed me,

un abikú y su cemí                    an abikú and his cemí

en selvas neoliberales               in neoliberal pastures

de retoños irreales:                   governed by unreal masters:

aguoro tente omi ki’.               aguoro tente omi ki’. …

This combination of three languages within a traditional Spanish form by itself subverts tradition in order to evoke the kind of confluence of cultures that make up Latin America. Beyond this subversion, however, there is the poet’s use of bold type to bring forward a third poem from the English. In this particular décima, the world “revolution” is chanted in bold, insisted upon, only to open up to “the clarity it brings.” Noel’s use of language and type face here parallel the literal movement implied by the word “revolution”; the eye of the reader falls on the page and reads one poem, then returns and reads another. This kind of engagement with the text is of great value to this collection’s vision.

Another mode of drafting poems employed in this collection is that of the improvised oral poem. One such poem here is “Voz Quebrada/Voice Creaks” which the poet recorded “on a smartphone while walking along Cripple Creek Road in Tallahassee, Florida.” This mode of writing is compelling as it presents the poet embracing technology with the same kind of spontaneity and attention as anyone at their desks with a writing prompt. Instead of a word bank, there is the bank of a creek on a given date; yet, there is the poet in their solitude, working out such insights as:

This accident of voice

these surroundings unmarked

except for the trademarks I carry

remarks without recharging

this gadget defines my song

but no battery in the world

can power the promise

of this brown orange green

of this hazelnut pine

this water’s

haze

While one can see the influence of the performative mode of writing on the subject matter in a line like “this gadget defines my song,” there is also an indirect musical influence; the internal rhyming of “unmarked,” “trademark,” and “remarks” here show how thought and music alternate while at the same time following each other toward the purpose of song.

The narrative of struggle and understanding of what the poet terms above as his biographically “damaged hemispheres” also alternates throughout the collection. Early on, the piece “My Burning Hemisphere” presents the following scene:

The July fourth I spent at the hospital I woke up staring at the smudge of waterfront across the East River. That night the fireworks would crawl like serpents up my skin, matching the wires tangled in my head.

My epileptologist would later tell me, you’re lucky (to be a poet, he meant, and work with the language part of the brain, in school, at my own pace—or at least that’s how I heard it).

Trying to seem smart, I nodded, mumbling something about neurons and dominant hemispheres, but soon the fog had dominated me. It wasn’t river fog, it was the fog of self as it slogs through way stations, looking out smudged windows at cities for once festive.

He might have simply said “the sky, it clears for no one,” and I might have started to agree, had I had the strength, had the serpents not returned.

One notes right away that the narrative of this particular piece is carried less in the actual details of what occurs between the speaker and the epileptologist than in the sensations through which the speaker understands and remembers. The speaker tries a number of times to listen and hold onto the moment, only to mishear and drift into a “fog” of what “might have simply [been] said.” What is significant here is how the struggle against “fog” and “serpents” leads the speaker to a silence that they quickly turn into an imaginative space. While not able to clearly see what’s happening, the speaker is able to evoke in a poem what happens when they see that they are not seeing.

One of the more compelling pieces, “Scene Apps/Synapse,” a piece that Noel notes is half comprised of “free-form and selective translations of passages from father of modern neurology, Jean-Martin Charcot’s book Les démoniaques dans l’art (Demoniacs in Art, 1887)” picks up the “damaged hemispheres” narrative, albeit indirectly. The poet’s translations of Charcot alternate between word lists “generated with a random-word generator app for smartphone and then (mis)translated using Google Translate.” This mix of objective meditation and technological randomness evokes again the “fog” of the earlier poem as well as the project’s overall variations of the word “hemisphere” as having both a global and neurological meaning. The “fog” of the earlier poem is the poet’s own condition; to have an echo of that struggle derive indirectly from an alternation of texts such as in this piece is moving on both an aesthetic and human level.

Furthermore, the nature of the project, with its engagement with code-switching as well as embrace of mistranslation and self-translation, moved me as I read this particular piece to return to the title “Scene Apps/Synapse” and translate it into Spanish (“Sin Apps,” which in English would mean “Without Apps”) which also evokes an English variation (“Sin Apps,” meaning the apps of sin). Far from being immaterial, this train of thought is indicative of the kind of readings this project lends itself to. In reading the alternating text, moving from the coherent, articulate prose of Charcot to the technologically generated randomness of the word lists, the descriptions of the epilepsy-like episodes take on a more intimate verisimilitude; such involuntary episodes do leave a person split between coherence and intrusive chance, in a state “Without Apps” to help distinguish, navigate, or ground reality. The mistranslation into English “Sin Apps” also feels connected to the piece in the way that it mirrors how the father of modern neurology’s analogies and interpretations of these episodes are put in terms of demoniacs.

The fight against being pinned down, whether politically or biologically, is an American struggle (America here meaning not just the U.S. but all of the Americas). Noel responds to the forces, large and small, around him with movement: the movement of wordplay as well as the movement of his own voice on the wind. Through performance and chance, (mis)translation and mashup, this collection presents a poet willing to push and reach out in much the same way the speaker’s mother does in “Rumoreos/Her Hemisphere in Me”:

pensé en como siempre te lamentabas I thought about how you always regretted being de ser la única en tu familia que cantaba feo the only one in your family who couldn’t sing y en como siempre encontré tu voz linda and how I always found your voice pretty por el esfuerzo in its exertion por como te empujabas para llegarle a la nota in how you would strain to reach a note

Again and again, this book presents the kind of poetry that if you were to only hear it you would miss what there is to see; yet, if you were only to see this work, you know it would be worth it to hear it aloud. These poems, more than any I’ve read in a while, ask you to consider and read them in the languages you know, and to suss them out in the languages you can barely guess at, for these poems speak the languages we’re made of.

Noel ends the collection with “Signs of the Hemisphere/Letreros del Hemisferio,” a poem that evokes Whitman in its scope, and in which, like a 21st century Whitman, he strikes a note of communion and continuity:

who hears what I’m reciting?   here’s what I’m reciting                       the echo and the wave’s crest   I leave the rest to resigning politicians and the bankers who are gasping for heirs    and so I leave the word in hopeful ruin I transcribe our reunion                        with your help I begin to transcribe          I transscrub      I transscrawl     I transcry         while holding ground over the missing tongue   with your help I begin    I’m reciting the cyst    I’m resisting the sigh    I’m restoring the song              with your help              I’m resetting the sky

Buy it from The University of Arizona Press: $16.95

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.

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