This dual-language book selects from Mercedes Cebrián’s four collections published in Spain back to the mid-2000s. They’re poems about her nation and its changes since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Healthcare, consumerism, globalisation, the EU, the hollowing of city centres, the Church, data access, relations with other countries… There’s even a poem called ‘Brexit’:
[…] no era
un ir y venir, era la diferencia
entre mutuo y recíproco. […]
(It wasn’t a to-and-fro-ing,/ it was the difference/ between mutual
Such big social subjects are treated with a surface cuteness that dissimulates a deeper (and darker) nexus. A poem about immigration links the arrival of kiwi-fruit to Spain with the arrival of Pakistani immigrants, and does so in a way that its phrase especies de otros mundos (‘otherworld species’) and its excursus about chimpanzee smiles indicating hostility can be read as deniable, provocative or seriously unsavoury. Poems about regret for the loss of colonies, complaints about paying tax, and irritation with people blaming Franco for everything can similarly sound whimsical, ironic or quietly nasty. Ambiguity is often the strategy of the politically timorous writer, but the malestar (‘discomfort/ malaise’, rather than ‘angst’) of the Spanish title seems to be the aim here. The few poems about relationships likewise have their emotions camouflaged under elaborate, comic but disturbing fantasies:
En esta cantimplora que acarro
llevo un marido líquido […]
(I have a flask I carry round with me/ with a liquid husband in)
To these ends, the book’s most frequent stylistic devices are abrupt non-sequiturs in the manner of Ashbery, and ostensibly nonsensical declarations that match an abstract noun with a highly particular image in a way familiar from surrealism:
Los temas escabrosas están en el azucarillo
de este descafeinado.
(All the unsavoury gossip is in the saccharine-packet/ for this decaf.)
Its favourite joke-tone, meanwhile, is a faux naiveté
[…] Panamá. ¿A quién se le ocurrió partirlo en dos?
(Panama […] Who on earth split it down the middle?)
shored up with plentiful references to childhood and its soft toys, dolls and felt-tip pens:
¿Sirve el gesto de devolver el edding y a cambio no pagar
los euros que Hacienda me demanda?
(What if I handed in the Edding as a gesture,/ would that mean
I didn’t have to pay the Revenue all those euros?)
Even so, this is an adroit poet, and the grim prophecies of ‘Población Flotante’ (‘Floating Population’)
El futuro ya está blanco
y está hervido, en eso se parece
a nuestra cena
(The future is white now/ and processed, like our supper)
with its imageries of desertification (‘hervido’ above is strictly ‘boiled’) and missile attack seemed to me among several poems whose power to unsettle reached beyond the habitual gripes.
The bold translation makes many unexpected choices: ‘recycling centre’ for vertedero (landfill site); ‘to google’ for saber más (to know more). It embellishes (‘re-tweeted’ for decía (said)), advertises (agendas negras (black notebooks) become ‘Moleskine’ ones), tones down (‘continents’ and even ‘photos’ for the thrice-repeated razas (‘races’)) and plays freely with line lengths and syntax, always valuing stylishness before strict precision. Nonetheless it works well: for the intermediate hispanophone less obvious meanings are sometimes illuminated and the exuberance is entertaining, while the genetically-modified Cebrián served up to the monoglot can be read as entirely apt for the ironies elsewhere.
Guy Russell 29th January 2023