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Review: Thaw, by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez

The interplay between this excellent book's two titles-thaw in English and deshielos in Spanish-gives a hint of its methods. The word 'thaw' covers a whole range of natural processes and carries potent associations, but does so with great economy. Meanwhile, 'deshielos' contains both 'ice' and its negation, and being plural, is a word of mediation between states, inherently fluid. This is a book of coexistences: of landscape with the interior life, of tradition with its subversion, of identities, of desire with decay. Its formidable length gives room for this core concern to develop in many forms.

In her Translator's Note, Kathleen M. Hedeen writes: 'thaw is a pastoral that challenges the genre... It is the essential experience of otherness: of fear and fascination with the Ohio landscape, so unlike that of the poet's native Cuba.' She adds that the poem's form is that of the 'décima', the 'quintessential stanza in Cuban popular poetry, used to build the nation', but that Rodriguez Nuñez has chosen to subvert the precepts of this verse form, and that the book as a whole is 'a radical dismantling of national identity, a quest for identification.'

These opening statements could be understood to set up oppositions, a defiance of one thing by another. But I think this would be a misreading of the note, and certainly of the poem itself. Each of the apparent oppositions seems instead to be a conversation between two elements: in thaw/deshielos, one can only exist if the other does, including the poet's 'national identity' in the midst of the Ohio landscape.

Once into the 100 ten-line strophes (to use Hedeen's word), the 'economy' of the English title is apparent in the near-absence of punctuation and capital letters, and the complete absence of titles. This pleasing visual sparseness is a reflection of the poem's wintry subject-reinforced by the white space where lines are offset:

like a muskrat in the torrent
embers of dusk
disfigured ice
you search for bottom grasses
burning sanity
a hook anguish
fastened to phosphorescent
cumuli
the sky is a pond
where the blood of fish warbles

[13]

In the opening strophes it is clear that for all the starkness of the scene described, the speaker is determined to persist with it:

snow lasts less than love
in the dead of winter...
I don't come or go

I stand there I echo the void

[1]

In these early parts of the poem the problems of coexistence are at their most externalised. The poem asks how to live in this place where 'los pajaros reniegan' ('birds bellyache') [2] and 'te abandona la luz' ('light forsakes you') [3]. But already the themes that develop as the poem progresses begin to appear. The question of the relationship between the speaker and the one addressed arises in that line from [3]. In the next strophe the opening lines wonder '¿que buscará el halcón / temprano en esta página?' ('what might the hawk be after / early on this page?') [4], alerting the reader to the coming exploration of the relationship between the poem and the external world described. And there is the continuous interaction between the Spanish 'original' and the English translation, published in bilingual parallel text by Arc in this edition.

The 'pastoral' element of the book shades subtly into its concerns with identity (just as pastoral has long been a means of presenting readers with something more challenging beneath a descriptive veneer). An encounter develops between a self that insists on speaking and a landscape that seems stripped of content:

if everything flows I
don't want to be the pond water
thickened by night
syrup
knotless bark
ground cinnamon
uprooted dream
but rather seven ripples
loosened by the frog as it croaks
in your green memory

[5]

The speaker plunges into the empty world, and seems at times to be aiming to fill it with desire: 'el único final es el placer' ('the only end is pleasure') [6]. As the book progresses the self and the landscape begin to absorb each other: 'ese dia en que nieve' ('the day I snow') [86]. Meanwhile, desire seeks out a physical expression within the limitations imposed by the cold world: 'unos pechos en sí / que nada tienen que ver con la miel' ('these breasts as such / have nothing to do with honey') [22]. The effect is of a negotiation towards an uncertain settlement between a being that refuses to be constrained and a world that imposes boundaries on an individual's powers.

The poet's discomfort in this cold place is clear from the opening lines. It is not until later that the juxtaposition with 'the tropics of the poet's native Cuba'-although implicit in the two languages facing each other across the book's central fold-becomes explicit. When it does, it is unexpected, and the two climates sit uncomfortably in the same strophe:

stranger
like shadow in the snow
from a dual homeland
that never turns its back
and smells of mignonette
the start of sugar harvest
fertile groin
that greenness won't leave you alone
something else I'm not
your savage decency

[21]

If national identity is a single group of experiences that can be recast in this way, the promise of the Translator's Note is borne out. However, for me this is just one example of thaw/deshielos' seeking out of new coexistences. As the poem progresses the material landscape of the opening strophes seems to etiolate even further, to images of mental states.

the ascent reveals
your unsounded traces
in snow with no past

[80]

At these points it might seem as though the poem has 'won'-it now controls the environment that seemed so alien, as if it were moving toward conclusions. But the outside world retains its autonomy and externality, and the poem again has to make treaty with it.

winter rainbow
like clothes hung out by my mother
aren't you decomposed light
don't you shuffle the way?

[93]

The interaction between the two languages is an important part of my enjoyment of thaw/deshielos (though it would be rewarding enough just to read it in one). As I understand it, deshielos has never appeared separately from thaw-although the latter title is the only one that appears on the book's cover. The two are inextricably intertwined. For me, able to read the Spanish but glad of the prop provided by the English, it is impossible not to dwell on the modulations between the two equally impressive parts of the work.

Sometimes the closeness of the versions is startling-a glance across the page gives a deliberate, uncanny direct echo: '¿por qué me imitas?' ('why do you mimic me?') [39]. Elsewhere, the inversion of phrases required by each language's distinct grammar slightly alters the tone: 'sobre el relente / fibras de confabulación' ('strands of conspiracy / on the evening dew') [45]. The ordering of the Spanish suggests a dawning realisation that the dew is not so innocent as it appears, whereas in the English the emphasis seems to fall on the conspiracy tainting the dew.

The relationship between the English and the Spanish versions is at its most persistently complex in their treatment of what in English is rendered as 'you'. In the example I gave earlier ('te abandona...'), the 'you' in English could be generic, the 'you' of many poems where it might stand for 'I' or 'us'. But in the Spanish the use of 'tu', the familiar, intimate singular form of the verb, immediately invites the question of who is being addressed. 'Tu' appears in many of the décima, but the addressee seems constantly to change. In strophe 33, 'no eres el guardabosque' ('you're no forest ranger') might be the speaker referring to himself. But in strophe 92, is he addressing himself, his reader, or his translator, each of whom rewrites?

you rewrite with the same
inconstancy as time
rewrite the horse
grazing on the smudge of the hill
rewrite exile
salty palimpsest

In strophe 74 'te doy me das con ganas / junto al bosque absolute' ('I give it to you breathless you give it to me / near the absolute forest') could be the speaker addressing the landscape, the poem, or another person. The erotic charge of these words infuses many addresses to 'tu'. All these issues are of course also present in the English, but are less obvious because the one form 'you' covers all cases.

At other times the grammatical structure of the Spanish is impersonal (although this kind of usage is quite usual), but the English brings in a personal pronoun: 'la pena en la costado / a espaldas la fortuna' ('pain in my side / fortune at my back') [74]. Sometimes, when the speaker could be most expected to use an 'I', the Spanish uses the impersonal 'se', while the English refers to 'you': 'se ve que moriría por hacerte la autopsia' ('you can see he's dying to do an autopsy') [78]. This seems to indicate an awkwardness with the frailty of the self, that coexisting with disease requires a step back from immediate experience. Elsewhere, who is being referred to when the Spanish uses a non-gender-specific third person, but the English speaks of 'she'?

she hasn't read Mallarmé
but she throws his die

[49]

The suggestions and counter-suggestions for each relationship populate the austere world of the opening strophes with a crowd of possible identities and relationships in which the reader is implicated. The reference to Mallarmé is one of the strongest indications that thaw/deshielos also consciously coexists with its influences and traditions. For example, although decomposed by each strophe, the décima is referenced repeatedly, as if a touchstone: 'la décima sin limites' ('limitless décima') [36], 'creciente de la décima' ('décima's rising') [66], 'la décima lunar' ('the lunar décima') [76]. The speaker seems close to taking on Mallarmé's persona in another poem: 'edad de Mallarmé / sin medallas ni amantes' ('the same age as Mallarmé / no medals or lovers'), while strophe 73 echoes Cavafy's 'Ithaka' and the rhythms of the folk verse of which the décima is part:

if you don't sit down to walk like a native
facing the blizzard
sceptical of spring
you'll mistake the road to Cayama
if you don't see yourself as a crag a bend
a cypress on the ridge
Cayama will be hypothesis delusion
if you seek nothing more than arrival
the journey's reverse
you'll never return to Cayama

In wearing its influence so openly and in so many ways, the poem makes explicit its coexistence with other works, neither fully assimilating nor resisting them. As with the shifting relationship with 'you', this unresolved inheritance underlines thaw/deshielos' negotiated status, its poise.

Another aspect of this literariness is that the book repeatedly draws attention to its textual nature, as if attempting to cope with the Ohio winter by asserting itself: 'me acuesto entre las notas / que pulsaste ayer al margen de mí' ('I lie down with the notes / you freehanded yesterday in my margin') [52]; 'conjura de eles' ('conspiracy of els') [31]. (The latter is an example of the dry humour that slips through the work-a Spanish speaker complaining of English's hard 'll' sound.)

One coexistence is only implicit at first, but gradually emerges as a central theme of the book. This is the accommodation between mortality and desire. The instability of 'you' is one of the main ways in which this develops. But it can be found everywhere in the poem. Desire is often approached openly:

body tasting of body
essential pleasure
soul shelled
all seed

[50]

Mortality, however, is often put off, deferred-perhaps the thawing of the world could be a release into death, even if the natural human expectation is the opposite. (Is there an environmental commentary here too?)

in the night nothingness copies itself
from a folio thrown to the fire
like a snowflake
fleeting and beautiful

[100]

Some of the most powerful strophes bring the two together in the associative context of winter and poetry:

I'll wait for you to the marrow
even if frost ends up tucking me in
subtle breasts
restless waist

[52]

It would be reductive to say that thaw/deshielos is a book that achieves a balance among all its parts. Instead, it is an exercise in striking balance, with continual leans, adjustments and swings. This is what for me makes it successful-it does not lead to a comfortable point of rest, but recognises that being in the world is always a negotiation:

two birds in one
perched on the bank
the real one pecks at night
flowing inconsolably in snowfall
its thirst is negative
light understands abandons us
reflection doesn't mimic
because it drinks a bird
with time two wings let them
be one in this willow

[35]