Peatlands by Pedro Serrano
Translated by Anna Crowe, Introduction by W.N. Herbert
Arc Visible Poets 37
Review by Pippa Little
Published in The Ofi Press issue 38.
What challenges and delights me about this book is its physicality. Images range from landscapes of peat, fossils, flesh and relics to the modern immediacy of the city in all its ‘shells and memories, sounds, splashes’:
the slow circular plankton of its ocean,
its frenzy of flour, its thick dough,
the density of curds and yolks (Leaves, Second Dwelling)
and what moves me more than anything is how the landscape of the body is explored, considered, sometimes celebrated. The human body is a world, or many worlds, in microcosm and many of the finest poems here strive to articulate consciousness of those worlds. ‘Inside The Chapel’ is remarkable in its evocation of the body as a place of worship, at once a most female interior (‘the pulpit a placenta’) and also fertile earth; ‘flood that swells, grows rich, /stone after stone,/wellspring in the darkness’. I love this poem for its delicacy and passion. Other poems celebrate sexual desire and union, humbler parts of the body such as the poem ‘Feet’ (described as ‘startled crayfish’), even humbler functions (in ‘The Liminating Art’), and the physical hurt of making poems:
The maligned goad roams the darkness,
makes for trouble, sharpens its point.
The word does not collide with its meaning.
I travel along words as though carving muscles on corners.
Serrano’s poetry has a dark, anguished undertow. The body is always in a state of flux, as life itself is always changing, whether in a rush as in storm and tide or slowly and inexorably as stone wearing down to sand. Powerless yet asserting sovereignty over itself, the body attempts to straddle these fractures, these points of fear and uncertainty. Yet as W.N. Herbert says, Serrano’s work is visionary, ‘compelling us to re-think, re-imagine and…break down our unconsidered assumptions about opposed categories like thought and feeling, by constantly returning us to the matrix of the body’. In its energy and beauty, its range of concerns and its fierce generosity, this volume of Serrano’s work is deeply satisfying to read.
‘The translation of poetry is a creative act’, asserts Jean Boase-Beier, series editor of this impressive ‘Visible Poets’ list. When two poets as fine and scrupulous as Pedro Serrano and Anna Crowe come together, there is a true meeting of minds across continents and cultures. Anna Crowe believes in ‘staying as close as possible to the voice and spirit of the original’ and in this bi-lingual edition the dialectics are thrilling. Serrano’s voice is ‘mysterious, rich and life-affirming’ to quote Crowe, and she responds subtly, bringing her own poetic sense to bear as much as her skills of translation. She writes illuminatingly on the processes involved, the pleasures and challenges of mapping, for example, Serrano’s linking of discrete objects/feelings/ideas through similar, subliminally-charged vowel sounds on to the English alternatives. This is the first full-length collection to be published in the UK by the Mexican poet Pedro Serrano and introduces a new audience at last to the powerful intensity of his work. Boase-Beier’s statement that ‘translations do not displace the originals; they shed new light on them’ rings true here: both Spanish and English readers will find much to surprise and delight them.