“Fulvio. On the road to Chiquitos, Bolivia, 1935” by Paula Abramo, translated from the Spanish by Dick Cluster

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David Yu

Foreword

I discovered Paula Abramo’s poetry collection “Fiat Lux” when Paula and I were both at a gathering of translators, in an evening we devoted to reading our original work. The cycle of nineteen poems evokes the poet’s ancestors, political refugees first from Italy and Eastern Europe, to South America at the turn of the twentieth century, and then finally to Mexico, where Abramo was born.

At the same time, the book is a meditation on the act of writing poetry and bringing characters to life. In each poem, the image of striking a match forms the hinge between the two themes of the cycle. Abramo’s grandmother Anna Stefania Lauff worked in a match factory in Brazil, producing the brand called Fiat Lux, “let there be light,” which provides the title of the book.

In this poem, Abramo’s grandfather Fulvio, released or escaped from political prison in Brazil, is beginning his Bolivian exile under an assumed name — and writing to Anna Stefania, “my Emilia of the alias, my/match factory girl.”

Fulvio. On the road to Chiquitos, Bolivia, 1935

and the sources say
        “perishable instrument”
they say:
rough surface required
they identify
two types of matches
strike-anywhere and safety
according to the degree to which they
ignite
their own body,
gaunt and doomed.

the classification does not say but it does silently
imply
the harsh effects of phosphorus
on the matchworkers’ bones
and the fingers of the company’s
cashiers
the small accidents of ignition
in pockets
that brush up against another body
whether that’s a human one
or the counter
of a bar
or a porch railing
a key ring
a bridge 

but there are never enough
categories
to express the broad spectrum of uses
of things that are ignited
things that come to an end
or a beginning
with the lighting
of the match 

or the ways a match can fail
by absorbing a bit of the tropics
and swelling up
hoarding its small seed of fire
in the swamp

It was, he said, one step after another through a quagmire,
he said, of four hundred kilometers
or more, all told and with enjambment.
He said there were nymphs on the surface of the swamp,
clouds of nymphs emerging from their cocoons
and his three tubercular companions
in the oxcart
stuck in the mud.
Not much room for the flow of discourse
or adjectives beyond difficult
and tubercular,
augmented by the context that it was all about
flight, fleeing,
along the Camino de Chiquitos,
in the Bolivian Chaco, without
any news of what they left
behind.

And yet there were
in the flora of the Chaco
whether because of running out of dried meat
or because of the dubious roots they devoured
abundant
reminiscences of a different semantic.
So appear, among other things,
and between the memories of passages read and toys enjoyed,
Greek amphorae sprouting branches in the toboroches
and Dante’s whole paradise embodied in a dragon fruit,
including, with a lot of imagination,
the concentric circles,
and flowers springing from the puddles
with the force of fists.

And that’s not to speak of the gnats, the swarms
of horseflies, the rivers
teeming with piranhas, tapirs,
and those lizards
that gleamed with a green visible
only in the aurora borealis, Fulvio said,
though he had never seen
auroras like that.

But he could say truly: I killed two of them,
my Emilia of the alias, my
match factory girl,
to make you a purse,
but the green
died quickly, though I
think always of you.

And as a distraction from blisters, and from the worm
that took up residence in his elbow for a month,
why not go transitive,
into flowery phrases
that lead far from here,
flourishes to distract his mamma, his sister,
chromed adornments
like the day when he was eleven and asked
for a novel by Salgari, and pen nibs, and suspenders
for his trip.

And so, later, Fulvio
turned inside-out,
remembering,
would offer
instructions on how to observe herons, advice
on following their flight:
so lovely in their compact squadrons,
and better still if alone,
the herons,
mais lindas que a Isadora Duncan.

At least, that’s what the keystrokes say
keystrokes on his Mercedes Selecta
more than sixty years later,
imbued with paradoxographical purpose
and promises
of more mirabilia in the future.

And to get past the censor, the keystrokes
do not mention “exile,” but say
“I came into those lands to hunt with my friends.”

Fulvio. Camino de Chiquitos, Bolivia, 1935

y dicen las fuentes
        “instrumento fungible”
dicen:
se requiere superficie rugosa
señalan
dos tipos de fósforos
ya sea integrales o seguros
según el grado en que deflagren
su propio cuerpo enjuto
y condenado 

la clasificación no expresa pero implica
silenciosamente
los rudos efectos del fósforo
sobre el sistema óseo del trabajador
sobre el sistema
decimal de los cajeros
de la empresa
los pequeños accidentes de ignición
en los bolsillos
frotados por otro cuerpo
¿un cuerpo humano?
¿la barra del bar?
¿un balcón? ¿un llavero?
¿un puente? 

pero faltan siempre
categorías
que expresen la florida gama de sus usos
las cosas que se encienden
que con el fósforo terminan
o principian 

o sus modos de fallar
de absorber un poco el trópico
e hincharse avaros
de su propia semillita de fuego
en el pantano

Era, decía, paso tras paso un lodazal, decía, de cuatro
cientos kilómetros, o más, con todo y tmesis.
Decía que proninfas, que en la superficie del pantano,
nubes de proninfas salían de los capullos
y los tres compañeros tuberculosos en el carro
de bueyes
atascado.
Difícil el fluir del discurso en donde no caben muchos
adjetivos más que difícil,
tuberculosos,
y acrecentar que todo era huida
en el Camino de Chiquitos, en el Chaco
de Bolivia, mientras
ninguna noticia de lo que atrás
dejaban.

Y sin embargo, en la flora
del Chaco había,
no se sabe si por la poca carne seca
o por los bulbos de ingestión dudosa,
abundantes
reminiscencias de otra semántica.
Así, entre otras cosas, se contaban
entre recuerdos de lecturas y juguetes,
íktioi griegos que ramificaban en toboroche,
y el paraíso entero de Dante intruso en una pitahaya,
donde, imaginando mucho,
algunos círculos concéntricos\
y flores, entre charcos,
como golpes.

Y eso por no decir los jejenes, los enjambres
de tábanos, los ríos
llenos de pirañas, tapires,
y esas lagartijas verdes,
de un brillo,
sólo visible en las auroras boreales, decía Fulvio,
que auroras así
nunca habría visto.

Pero era válido contar: maté dos, te hice una bolsa
mi Emilia de nombre fingido, mi
fosforera, pero el verde
murió pronto, aunque yo
te pienso siempre.

Y para distraer ampollas, y el gusano
alojado en el codo un mes entero,
entonces volverse transitivo, verbalizar florituras
que aquí poco caben,
tintes para distraer a la mamma, a la hermana,
como de cromo con ricos ornamentos,
del tiempo en que pedía, a los once,
un libro de Salgari, plumines y breteles
para el viaje.

Y así, por eso, Fulvio,
vuelto todo afuera,
transmitía después, rememorando,
instructivos para ver garzas, consejos
para observar su vuelo:
hermosas en pequeñas escuadrillas,
mejores si solas, las garzas,
mais lindas que a Isadora Duncan. 

Eso al menos dicen los golpes
de la Mercedes Selecta
más de sesenta años después,
imbuídos de paradoxográfica misión y promesas
de más mirabilia en el futuro.

Y por evitar al censor,
los golpes
no dicen exilio, dicen:
“vine a estas tierras a cazar con mis amigos.”

✶✶✶✶

Abramo photo by Valentina SiniegoPaula Abramo was born in Mexico City. Her poetry collection, Fiat Lux (Tierra Adentro, 2012), won the Premio de Poesías Joaquín Xirau Icaza for the best book by a writer under forty. She has also had a prolific career as a translator from Portuguese to Spanish, and is co-author of Yo soy la otra: las mujeres y la cultura en México (2017) and the art installation Ropa Sucia (2017), both exposing the causes of the invisibility of Mexican female writers and artists.

Cluster photo by Nancy FalkDick Cluster has been translating Spanish-language fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for over twenty years, including Gabriela Alemán’s novel Poso Wells (City Lights, 2018), Pedro de Jesús’s Vital Signs (Diálogos, 2014), and his edited anthology Kill the Ámpaya!: Best Latin American Baseball Fiction (Mandel-Vilar Press, 2016). He also writes history and fiction, including The History of Havana(co-authored with Rafael Hernández) and a crime novel series.