Untranslatable Voices: Vickie Vértiz Writes Los Ángeles in “Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut”

by Isabel Gómez

From: LARB

41CpYKt5dSL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“IT’S THE BROKEN PARTS that matter” claims Vickie Vértiz, in a note to her poem “Nahuatl — A Revenge,” which features what she calls “imperfect” translations from the indigenous Nahuatl language into English. Vértiz’s imperfect translations recall what theorists Emily Apter and Jacques Lezra, following Walter Benjamin, call “untranslatables”: philosophical concepts that both invite and prevent transfer between languages, words that call out to be reinvented in their new language context precisely by resisting translation. In Vértiz’s poems, Latinxs living in California share “untranslatable” experiences that take place between English and Spanish. Her poems transform displacement and a polluted cityscape into sources of resistance and aesthetic restructuring. The visually and sonically rich setting of these poems may be polluted — by toxic air, water, and soil; toxic masculinity and white supremacy — but Vértiz celebrates what her community grows in this toxic ground and voices their untranslatable experiences.

Divided into three sections — “What You See, What You Take With You,” “Los Ángeles — A Palm Frond With Its Throat Cut,” and “Portrait as a Deer Hunter” — Palm Frond’s 32 poems challenge readers to follow complex shifts between voices that jump over lines broken and spaced across the page, code-switching between myriad registers of English and Spanish. Unlike an earlier generation of Chicana/Latina poets who placed Spanish sparsely within English poems (Sandra Cisneros, Lorna Dee Cervantes), Vértiz is not interested in being translatable. For a non-Spanish speaker, her poetry may be productively alienating, centering the reader who can follow her code-switching. Along with other transnational contemporary poets like Don Mee Choi and Bhanu Kapil, Vértiz’s poems make meaning by breaking up the page and breaking down language to reflect the resistance involved in living as a queer person of color in the white-supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative United States. The speakers in Vértiz’s poems are not Sandra Cisneros’s powerful high-femme Chicanas claiming their heterosexual desires, nor are they Cherríe Moraga’s Chicana lesbians healing one another from their complicity with Latino misogyny. Instead, they shape-shift, question, cajole, and interrupt in all the voices of Vértiz’s Los Angeles.

The poem “Lover’s Letter,” for example, dedicated “For Morrissey fans,” speaks through a Greek choir of ’90s emo Chicanx teens.

Because we craved permission to be despondent in English
Desperate to hide erections for boys
Behind Trapper Keepers
To document Kotex leaks in our journals
We needed
To be maudlin, to be untranslatable
To do this in private, in the company
Of someone with rank

The speaker expresses a desire to be “untranslatable”: paradoxically to be wholly singular but also to be seen as part of a collective. The affective space of Latinx Morrissey fandom is expressed here as both private and shared, performed in English as an act of resistance to Spanish-speaking parents. Later in the poem, this shared voice speaks through air pollution to topologically connect urban spaces that have developed and expanded at the expense of their most vulnerable citizens. Referring to Morrissey’s birthplace and the carbon-burning center of the Industrial Revolution, fans claim solidarity with the worst parts of both their hometowns. “In the carcinogenic heart of this Manchester / Our black lungs sing with you.” The black lung of a diverse Latinx population affectively identified across language and background is the wounded speech organ of the untranslatable voices coursing through Vértiz’s poetry. Read The Rest of Article Here

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