The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry

BOOK REVIEW

Edited by Cecilia Vicuña, Ernesto Livon Grosman
Oxford University Press, 2009
www.oup.com/us
$49.95; 608 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0195124545
Gabrielle David, phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4

IN RECENT YEARS, ANTHOLOGIES have become the bedrock of the literary industry. They are used as teaching tools and as historical touchstones. But as we peruse these comprehensive anthologies, one cannot help but become aware of the highly subjective forces standing behind the contributions of individual scholars, and editors that each bring to the table their own point of view, including the collective will of an editorial board and publisher. Thus, a comprehensive anthology of a specific genre of literature is always more than the sum of its literary works and, therefore, always more difficult to calculate than anyone might imagine.

Oxford’s latest entry into a crowded field of specialized anthologies, The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, presents a largely rich and complex tradition of literature that is an ambitious collection of works drawn from three major sources: the world of Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the Aztecs prior to Cortez; the Spanish heritage of the national homelands of the writers; and the intersection of these two with Anglo and African culture. These influences create persistent themes, the most common of which are social protest and exploitation; the migratory experience; self-exploration or self-definition, including the exploration of myths and legends; and life in the countryside as well as the barrio (the traditional Latino district of the city).

The editors, Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon-Grosman present a fresh and expansive selection of Latin American poetry. This 608 page anthology is organized in chapters for each poet in chronological order and begins with a brief biography of the poet. In addition to “Acknowledgements” and “Preface,” each editor provides separate introductions. A “List of Translators” and “Source Acknowledgements” appear at the end of the book.

Beginning with obscure oral and visual works that date back many centures to twentieth century writers as diverse as Rubén Darío, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz and Mario Vargas Llosa, The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry presents more than 120 poets with many new translations commissioned for this volume. Of the pre-twentieth century poets represented in this anthology, more than a third are anonymous, and write in non-European languages and/or in combined drawing and writing systems. These earlier selections prepare readers for the visual poetics, oral poetry and indigenous forms that later appear in the twentieth-century selections, showing readers that poetry is more than just words on a page.

The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry represents the geographical regions of Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, the Caribbean and South America, where Romance languages (i.e., those derived from Latin) — particularly Spanish and Portuguese, and indigenous languages of the Americas and variably French — are primarily spoken. This is more than a bilingual anthology, the works presented herein have been translated from Quechua, Guarani, Mapundungun, Nahualt and several Mayan languages, including Yucatec, K’iche’, and Tzotzil, in addition to Spanish and Portuguese. In that regard, it is probably one of the most inclusive anthologies published today.

As more works of this scope publish in the U.S., questions have arisen as to how best present translations and remain mindful of the ever-swelling page count that comes with it. In the case of The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, the editors chose to run the original works under the English translation as run-on prose using slashes for line breaks. Some critics object to this because they believe it marginalizes the original text. As the editors reiterated in their introduction, the purpose of this volume is to present these works to an English audience. Coming in a little over 600 pages, if the editors had chosen to publish the translations using the traditional side-by-side presentation, it would come at significant cost, reducing the number of contributors considerably. While ideally the works should be presented equally, when one reviews the table of contents, you can see why the editors came up with this less-than-ideal solution.

Of course, the argument of who was included and not included in this volume challenges the subjectivity of the editors. But there will never be an anthology that will completely satisfies scholars, teachers and students alike. In the case of The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, it is such a huge undertaking and really the first of its kind. It will be interesting to see what improvements editors Vicuña and Livon-Grosman will address in future volumes to come.

As we move away from the study of an isolated American poetry and toward the teaching of as more inclusive poetry of the Americas, The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry provides a unique look at Latin American literature as an academic discipline and a recognized category in the world book market, offering new ways to look at a poetry as diverse and complex as Latin America itself.

CECILIA VICUÑA is a poet, artist and political activist born in Chile. The author of 16 books, her poetry has been translated into several languages. Templo e’Saliva / Spit Temple, a collection of her oral performances, edited by Rosa Alcalá is forthcoming by Factory School Press. She performs and exhibits her work widely in Europe, Latin America and the US, and currently lives in both New York and Chile.

ERNESTO LIVON-GROSMAN, born and raised in Buenos Aires, has edited and translated several anthologies and poetry collections in both English and Spanish, and produced and directed his first documentary, Cartoneros (2006), a sobering record of Argentina’s economic crisis of 2001. He is Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies in the Department of Romance Languages & Cultures at Boston College.

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Source: Gabrielle David

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