Language Duel/Duelo del Lenguaje by Rosario Ferré – Book Review


by Kitty Jospé


When we encounter a natural style, we are surprised and delighted, because we expect to find an author, and instead, find a man.”—Pascal


As a writer and teacher of poetry appreciation, I know the best way to become a good writer, is to be a good reader.  Poems comes in varieties of styles and tones, but I find the ones that bring out the best discussions are those that touch a deep universal chord couched in a surprising and personal manner.  Rosario Ferré is such a poet.


As soon as I read the first poem in this book, I knew I was encountering an unusual bilingual lady who understands the fire and power of language.  In Language Current (Corriente Alterna) already the title suggests how two languages braid different ideas: one focuses on language used like “direct current” to understand “current events”; the other (alternating current) is much complex as it uses the energy of contained paradox of first this, then that.  English as a nuclear reactor? Yes… a blasting of molecules around you: “Whole sentences gush forth/and slam themselves against the page/condensing rapid sprays of pellets/into separate words.”

The side-by-side versions of English and Spanish, allow a back and forth, for eye and ear.  Compare for example: Spanish: Tampoco el decorado barroco (English: no excess baggage) The Spanish sounds indeed like you’re “navigating the uterus” in deeper, darker more sensual twists and turns.  But the surprise and delight of llegamos al mundo (how we enter the world) is to see how language carries us in our travels through life with the metaphor of the English Channel – which divides England from Europe.  The sound of “ch” of channel… emphasizes the divide between England and the rest of Europe, In French and Spanish, the Channel is called the sleeve.  In Spanish, la mancha echoes with the region in Spain where Cervantes placed his “Ingenius Nobleman” Don Quixote which imparts a sense of quest after impossible dreams.  She deftly defines the difference between two cultures:  “you have to know where you’re going: towards the splitting of the self” as opposed to the sensual, natural birthing into the world and beyond.  The next poem examines this “crack in the I”, what separates the Island of Puerto Rico from the Mainland.

 Rosario Ferré offers a “dual” lens with which to consider places, such as San Juan, Miami, New York, but also events and time periods ranging from pre-colonial/pre-conquistadores America to the description of the attack on the Twin Towers  9/11/01. Have you ever thought of the Americas before any Europeans “discovered” them?In Coming Up the Archipelago we learn that Carib and cannibal have the same root.She plays with the metaphor of tongue and traces the history of Spanish and English from the first landings in the Carribean islands to modern Coral Gables. It is playful, yet fierce in tone, addressing the issue of erasing a language to assimilate immigrants.  In Juan de Oñate we learn a little Southwest history happening about the same time as the Pilgrims, which, by the way, includes the Pueblo, who unlike the Wampanoag, are still around.

Her inventiveness shows up in words she has made up such as Carribeat, (dances) the harp of the toes, (fitting feet into shoes).  In Miami we step over the “bones of the Conquistadors” with an echo of veni, vidi, vici… and a sudden twist of whose bones pave what.

Second Millenium Santa takes  a look at modern life and why “Santa” would hand in a resignation. The  Saguaros provide more reasons, speak Hopi, Navajo and Spanish, and are on the march.  A slipped curse (in Spanish), use of Brillo, Ajax for monolingual, monotone, sparkling clean citizens, a return to look at language where Beso and kiss produce mysteries of the tongue.



Un beso non es un Kiss

La palabre, beso es como una joven
comiéndose una pomarrosa
en la cima de una montaña.
Kiss trae consigo,
el silbido del áspid
que Cleopatra acercó a su pecho
cuando rehusó entrar a Roma
La lengua admite misterios


A Beso Is Not a Kiss by Rosario Ferré

A beso is like
eating leeches on a mountain top.
In a kiss Cleopatra
draws the asp to her breast
so as not to enter Rome
in chains.
There are mysteries of the tongue
that cannot be explained.


I return to quote Pascal: Words differently arranged have a different meaning and meanings differently arranged have a different effect.  In the Spanish, the first line has no break between the kiss and the young girl.  The kiss lingers and flows in sensual language for three lines.  Instead of the image of eating a delicious rose-apple, the English leech is not particularly seductive.

It is clear un beso has nothing to do with a kiss. Even the capitalization of the titleindicates a statement in Spanish, that only capitalizes the first word and Kiss.The capitals in the English title peck at the eyes, providing little stake posts for each word.

The Spanish, if translated literally in the lines that follow, is different from the English.
Kiss brings with it
the hissing of the asp
that Cleopatra draws to her chest
when she refuses to enter Rome

There is no hissing, and the Spanish is clear about “refusing to enter” which is different than”so as not to enter”.  Finally, the concluding two lines contrast an active voice in Spanish (La lengua (tongue/language) admits inexplicable mysteries) to the passive voice of the English.

Even if you are not bilingual in English-Spanish, the “duel” of side-by-side pagesgive a rich dual experience of the poems.

The second part of the book has poems about Venice from The Two Venices. I particularly love how she brings in music, calling on Mahler and Hoffmann,and how everything shifts and passes.


 Death in Venice

Like Mahler,
escorted by his beloved and deceitful wife, Alma,
he traveled to Venice.
He left his body behind,
and saw the skeleton of his soul
set sail.


Muerte en Venecia

Como Mahler,
con su Alma, enamoranda y traicionear,
desembarcó en Venecia
y navegó pour sus canales.*
Dejó atras su cuerpo,
y vio zarpar el esqueleto de su alma.**


*In the Spanish she elaborates “to navigate the canals”
**no line break between soul and sail (“saw the skeleton of his soul sail”).


The poems call on references to art, familiar architecture of Venice, but also address war, racism, with settings in Washington DC.  The note for the last two sections taken from two of her books, originally in Spanish, names Alan West as translator who worked with her.

It is special to be able to have a dual versions of these poems, rather like a looking at a portrait of a person looking in a mirror.  It is an invitation to contemplate our multiple selves.  I think of  Whitman exclaiming “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”  This volume  brings not only fine work, but the extra benefit of understanding better Latino literature in America.


We are fortunate to have two copies of this book available!  861 F382L


by Kitty Jospé, Moderator, Poetry Oasis