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Difficult Beauty:  Selected Poems (1987-2006) by Luis Alberto Ambroggio
Edited by Yvette Neisser Moreno
Cross-Cultural Communications, ©2009, 167 pp. $20.00 Paper
ISBN 978-0-89304-185-4

Reviewed by Cherie Walsh

Editor and translator Yvette Niesser Moreno, in her introduction, and Oscar Hijuelos, in his foreword, place this collection as a strong introduction of American readers to Ambroggio’s work and Ambroggio himself as a poet who stands among writers better known to American audiences, writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Martín Espada.  Spanning twenty years of writing, the collection’s task is to show the scope of the poet’s work while emphasizing more recent poems.  Many different translators have contributed, with Moreno editing the full collection, changing some pieces substantially, in consultation with Ambroggio, who is bilingual.  The poems appear in Spanish and English, on facing pages.

The careful, largely line-by-line translations allow the reader to follow the pacing of the free-verse poems and their building emotional energy.  Especially in the early poems, line endings mainly follow syntax, as in the collection’s opening poem, where the breaks also supplant punctuation:  “Life/to understand me/you have to know Spanish/feel it in the blood of your soul.”  The effect is that of an accretion of ideas and images as the reader moves through the poem.

As in Espada’s work, Ambroggio’s poems, especially the earlier ones, sometimes announce their metaphors, for example, in the poem “Hotel,” which ends “‘Check in, check out’/in the precarious hotel of life.”  But—and to the American reader, this is almost certainly a “but”—the poems take us to fresh and interesting places, ideas, and language.  In “Hotel,” on the way to that “hotel of life,” we find “a numbered silence,” paid-for open shadows,” and, on the second read, since we know the metaphor with certainty, the more usual details and images take on a new emotional weight.  Here, as elsewhere, the poet is concerned with the transitory nature of life.

In “The Inhabitants of the Poet,” beginning with a statue of Aphrodite’s missing arm, the diction points to absence:  “unknown,” “oblivion,” “conquered,” “dead,” “silence,” “impossible,” “never.”  The play with presence and absence, idea and reversal, comes up frequently in the collection, especially in the poems from the pre-2000 books, always in surprising ways, and often reinforcing the poet’s role as someone who looks differently at the world both to give voice to neglected ideas and images and to call for or find its redemption, as in the poem “Narcoprayer.”  The section from The Inhabitants of the Poet addresses the idea of silence through white space and strategic line endings.  The later poem “Things the Prophet Did Not Say” also uses reversal as its governing trope.

The later poems—wider poems—are more complex and closer to their mythological sources, with longer sentences and ideas less fully announced.  “The Album,” from the 2002 collection The Witness Bares His Soul, for example, relates more directly the story of the poem but is also more open about the meaning of the speaker’s musings.  Rather than reversal, we see complication—”the confused beauty of my ruins”—and the last line has the speaker’s “ideals,/like the winds, changed forever.”  Along these lines, the diction, especially in poems such as “The Fallen,” mix the higher registers with the language of brand names:  “Righteous Lord of the Universe/do not forget ValuJet.”  Here, in a poem about plane crashes, Ambroggio manages a small, wry joke.

The poems from the 2005 collection Labyrinths of Smoke feature the poet at the top of his powers, the line varied according to the need of the poem at hand, the language making use of antithesis and metaphor as well as association and metonymy.  Many of these poems read as fragments, and their fragmentary nature serves to leave meaning open.  Here we encounter the blueness Hijuelos praises in his foreword as well as a development in the poet’s handling of his preoccupations, silence and the role of the poet.

The transparency of the translations, insofar as translations are ever transparent, makes the text as much Ambroggio’s work as possible.  Most of the poems are free verse, with Ambroggio’s consultations leading Moreno away from recapitulations in English of formal effects in Spanish.  In places, Moreno tells us in her introduction, Ambroggio encouraged her to deviate from literal translation in order to strengthen the English poem.  Moreno is careful, close to the text and the author’s developing ideas, with the result that the poems are confident and consistent.

In “The Witness Bares His Soul,” Ambroggio says, “I write to sow colored ashes into the vast solitude and great silence.”  This collection, through its poems’ images and pacing as well as their reversals, complications and overall originality and power, enacts Ambroggio’s intent.

Cherie Walsh, after 13 years of teaching English and Spanish in independent schools, is an MFA student at the University of Maryland.

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