Every now and then I encounter a book that I can’t quite get a handle on, and this month’s Stanza Break selection, Upper Volta by Yanko González, translated by Stephen Rosenshein, is one of those books. González is a Chilean poet and anthropologist, and Upper Volta takes its title (Alto Volta in Spanish) from the colonial name (French: République de Haute-Volta) of the country now known as Burkina Faso in West Africa. The Republic of Upper Volta was named for the Volta River, itself named by Portuguese traders. Black Volta, one of the main parts of the river (the others are White Volta and Red Volta), forms the border between three African countries, including Burkina Faso, and this connection of history and international borders is perhaps a place to start understanding the poems in Upper Volta.
Voices in these poems speak over one another, sometimes because those speaking are doing so intentionally, and sometimes as if we as readers are hearing multiple conversations simultaneously. This is enacted literally on the page with text, often quotes with attribution, printed in gray literally overlapping the black text of the poems themselves.
The gray text varies in size, from large characters of short passages, to text smaller than the text of the poems when the passages are longer. Some of these passages are attributed to known figures, such as W. H. Auden and Gabriela Mistral, but others are attributed to figures I haven’t been able to track down (including Aedo, above). Sometimes, it’s not even clear whether the quotes are real and searching direct quotes yields nothing online. The effect of these visual overlaps and the lack of sources for the quotes is to distract or destabilize the reader. We literally have to read between the lines, filtering out certain portions of text to parse the poems.
In addition to the distraction of these overlapping passages, it’s not always clear in González’s poems who is speaking, to whom, and in what context. Information is withheld or parceled out in bits and pieces, often necessitating rereading. The opening poem, “Example,” begins with the line, “They want me to leave as if I did not want to,” but it’s not until several lines later that we understand that, perhaps, the speaker is an au pair:
Yesterday was the same I understood clearly they want me to leave this is what they discussed as I cared for their children
The phrase “as I cared for their children” is nearly halfway through the poem and is the first time a relationship between speaker and subject, “they,” is established. This relationship re-contextualizes the opening line’s “as if I did not want to,” retroactively imbuing the slightly off-kilter line with homesickness. Alternatively, the speaker could be an immigrant or refugee working as a caregiver, giving the homesickness that much more weight. Still, at the end of the poem the speaker is still anonymous, and their relationship to González the writer is unclear.
History and international cultural exchange are central themes, and a section titled “teophrastus” brings them to the fore. “teophrastus” features a sequence of prose poems that remind me of Marco Polo’s descriptions of fictional cities in Italo Calvino’s wonderful Invisible Cities. Like Calvino, González is doing a similar sort of anthropology in Upper Volta, albeit with mostly real places and people. In the “teophrastus” poems, he is more interested in individuals than Calvino’s Marco Polo, who describes mainly architecture and landscapes, but both González and Calvino are attempting to understand how culture is exchanged. The section is, I assume, named for Theophrastus, an ancient Greek scientist and philosopher who was a student of Plato and succeeded Aristotle as the head of the Lyceum. It’s unclear to me how many of the poems are about ancient Greece, but at least one, “palacios navarro,” references ancient Greek currency, obol and dracma:
there is nothing among the pillars of humanity more nefarious than the ambulant metic. passing for a stranger and recognized because of the "authentic" merchandise he carries at a lower price and if it's all just an obol tries everything to swap it for a dracma.
However, the poem itself is named after Nicolás Palacios Navarro, whose work The Chilean Race is a central text to Chilean Nazi groups. The poem is an invective against foreigners in the persona of, perhaps, Palacios Navarro himself, though the ancient Greek references make the actual speaker harder to locate. “Metic” indicates a resident of Athens who is not from the city-state, though a pejorative version of the term is still used in France—that same colonizing force of Upper Volta.
In no way does González’s poem feel like an endorsement of Palacios Navarro’s positions, though of course there is the danger, in multiple layers of translation—Ancient Greek, Palacio’s 19th Century Chilean Spanish, González’s contemporary Chilean Spanish, Rosenshein’s contemporary English—that the poems or the poet’s views could be skewed. Perhaps that’s part of González’s point: language and culture shift and change through use and exchange. Additionally, the pairing of a 19th Century Chilean bigot with an ancient word meant to separate the immigrant “other” from the native is a way of showing how long humanity has feared “outsiders.”
None of this is obvious from reading González’s poems or Stephen Rosenshein’s translator’s note (which mostly traces Rosenshein’s relationship with González and his work). No glossary or notes are present in the text and all of the information I’ve included here was found by looking up definitions to unfamiliar terms. This kind of reading, with a dictionary or Google easy to hand, can be frustrating. It’s the kind of poetry reading we’re often taught in school—that poems have a “true” or “right” meaning that the reader has to puzzle out. However, in Upper Volta the puzzles were part of the joy of reading, letting me experience the anthropological work along with González. Given an overload of information in the poems—sounds, terms, forms, and visual elements—I had to find my own way through, as every reader must. Which means that my understanding of the poems and my interpretation of how these various voices, histories, and locations are related may differ from another reader’s understanding—or, indeed, every other reader.