Review | Xeixa: Fourteen Catalan Poets

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Xeixa: Fourteen Catalan Poets
Tupelo Press, 2018, edited by Marlon L. Fick and Francisca Esteve

The news in recent months has been splashed with images of ongoing protests for and against the Catalan Independence movement in Spain. Post the 2017 Catalan Independence referendum that erupted in violent clashes between the Spanish state and pro-Catalan citizens’ dissent, there has been a more focused global attention towards the essence and experience of this struggle. Our social media timelines are constantly punctuated by images of yellow jackets getting pellets shot into their stomachs, human chains locking arms, marchers waving the Estelada in full force against the Spanish police and ongoing debates about the future of an independent Catalunya. In the wake of this, there is an eminent curiosity about all things Catalan.

Catalunya, quite literally “the land of castles”, is an autonomous community in Northeastern Spain composed of four provinces —Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona. Geographically diverse and culturally abundant, this region has gifted the world quite a few formidable names in the multiverse of creative arts including Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Joan Maragall and Antoni Gaudí. Yet, there seems to a significant lack of awareness about the history of region and particularly that of its prominent language. Catalan in itself is a romance language in the same vein as French, Portuguese and Spanish however it has its own lexical particularities which render it divergent from its sister brogues. Apart from the structural particularities that find roots in Vulgar Latin, Catalan as a language has traveled a stirring itinerary whether it was a slow decline through French Revolution and Franco’s fascist oppression or the concerted efforts of the romantic revivalist momentum via 19th century’s “Renaixença”.

In Marlon Ficks’ & Francesca Esteve’s “Xeixa”; a translated volume containing works of 14 Cataln poets, the introductory note has a curious anecdote about how people speaking Catalan in Franco’s Spain would be asked to “Speak Christian!” (a colloquial reference to Castilian Spanish). Franco had banned the use of Catalan completely. This mention is a whetted hint of how circular history tends to be. As the preface details, Esteve came of age during this era and was actively involved in underground anti-fascist organizations as part of student politics that aimed at subverting the Spanish totalitarianism. Xeixa, therefore, is a hand-picked gathering of Catalan poetic voices that are colossal in their home country but are not as well known within current popular literary culture. In a world that is simultaneously being cut to the bone while getting more dogmatic in pockets, this collection is a promise for communing with the unexplored peregrine.

“Xeixa” (pronounced zhay-zha) is a kind of wheat native to Majorca. The grain itself is at the risk of extinction on account of being less favoured by industrial bread-making. Ironically, it runs this risk despite being a widely adaptive cereal that can take on any terrain with comparable ease. The same is true for vernacular poetry which is often cold-shouldered in literary spaces where “Best of” lists are usually only in service to writing in English. Fady Joudah in an essay for Asymptote delineates how translators bridge words– “[It] serves as yet another cornerstone of what translation work can perform: transforming telling into seeing.” In Xeixa, published by Massachusetts based Tupelo Press, Ficks & Esteve have walked the length of each poem in careful attempts to interpret the nuances without weakening its “anotherness”.

The book is dedicated to the prolific giant of Catalan poetics—Màrius Sampere.

Time was utterly
an embrace from inside.

Still A Prologue, pg. 3

Sampere was a renaissance man of sorts – a novelist, memoirist, songwriter, linguist, photographer and a painter. His translated works carry an aura similar to Ashberry’s in the way he merges a keen narrative eye with melancholic abstraction. There is a bittersweet accuracy that speaks to us both existentially and experientially. The sparseness of his poems is occasionally interrupted by an unexpected entrance that tries to balance itself against a line like a bird on a wire. These poems navigate their own curiosities with the reader instead of pretending to guide you with some hubristic authority. In “Three”, he triangulates the somatic plane between himself, God and a termite. In “Stoplights” he imagines himself as a rifle that never fires; “an uncertain front”. Sampere plumbs for depths that initiate themselves as tiny schisms on the surface of any ground. He does so with a kind of patience that isn’t in search of rewards.

If Sampere’s subtle movements open this dance, Antònia Vicens’ determined provocations help peak its sharpness.

(Where there were the ways of childhood with globeflowers
and asparagus …

now proudly
there blooms tar.)

The Ways, pg. 32

The translators note that the expression “Cotorreta cul cosit” refers to sexual restrictions placed on women, and is impossible to translate into English. Vicens is an exponent of confrontations and takes pleasure in making macabre out of pure grace. His poems are birthed into chiaroscuros; polarized beams stretching open trapdoors in the mind. The angels are “shadows of the dead” and the often-idolized tranquility of watching seagulls float above stoic waters is juxtaposed with an uncomfortable rummage for floating corpses.

Xeixa curates an asymmetrical, lavish yet defiant poetics which is as much an homage to the mastery of the Lyric which Catalan poets are renowned for, as it is dedicated to unpacking the psychological fluxes that come with willfully dark interrogations of divinity, fascist occupation and cultural subjugation as well as re-emergence. Ficks and Esteve are methodical in their approach which shows in the precision and clarity that contours each translated poem. That said, they haven’t over-analysed and have definitely staved any vain attempts to sanitize the underlying contentions wherever they may present themselves thereby saving the book from utterly simplistic interpretations that can mar the quality of translated work.

The result is a resonant bouquet of 14 Catalan poets in a wonderfully mapped book which is as much a luxury as it is a necessity in a world where vernacular writing is slowly being cast to the same fate as the grain which shares its name.

Words by Scherezade Siobhan.

For more information on Xeixa: Fourteen Catalan Poets, visit Tupelo Press.


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