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La musa lunática/The Lunatic Muse, by Rafael Jesús González

Pandemonium Press, 2009, 54 pgs. ISBN: 978-1-934379-56-1

Available through Amazon.com $10.00

A Review by Yvette Neisser Moreno

As a poet and translator of Spanish poetry, I am a rapt audience for a book of bilingual poetry, such as Rafael Jesús González’s recent collection La musa lunática/The Lunatic Muse. With this particular book, I was also attracted by the clever double meaning of the title—the word “lunatic” refers to the book’s theme, the moon, as well as the literal meaning of craziness. (Personally, however, I might have translated the title as something like “Crazy-for-the-Moon Muse” in order to make the double meaning jump out more for the English reader.)

To my knowledge, the book is fairly unique: it is not often that one comes across a book of poems dedicated entirely to the moon. The Lunatic Muse also includes several dreamy prose vignettes interspersed with the poems.

If you are fascinated by the moon, especially full moons, you may enjoy González’s meditations on gazing at the moon in different seasons and locations. Some of the pieces that I particularly liked were the poems “Full Moon on the Old Feast of St. Rafael Archangel,” “Full Moon & Nest Tanka,” and “To the Moon,” as well as the prose pieces, “Lunar Prayer-Wheel” and “Moon in Space.” For example, “Full Moon & Nest Tanka” is a lovely example of this Japanese form (a tanka is slightly longer than a haiku, following the syllable count 5-7-5-7-7):

In the gray night mist,
the early flowering branch
of an old plum tree
offers the cup of a nest
to catch the light of the moon.

Before continuing, I must comment on the bilingual format of the book. The poems (and prose pieces) are printed in both languages, Spanish followed by English. However, while reading the book, it was not clear to me in which language the poems were written originally, and the book includes no introduction to shed light on this. While in most cases the Spanish poem appeared to be the original, in other cases the opposite seemed to be true. For example, in the tanka quoted above, the English version follows the traditional syllable count perfectly, while the Spanish does not, which gave me the impression that the Spanish was a translation from the English.

I felt baffled about this until I came across an illuminating article about González in the San Francisco Poetry Examiner that explains his writing process:

He writes poems simultaneously in Spanish and in English. . . . He has never described what he does as translation. “I think of a line in Spanish, then in English or in English, then in Spanish.” The poem comes about through an effortless move back and forth between the two vocabularies. Now, when he sends work for publication, he insists that both the Spanish and English version[s] be printed as he has no interest in publishing what he considers to be a truncated poem.

Ah. I wish I had known this before reading the book. I think the publisher really owes it to the reader to provide this essential information about what they are about to read. It is rare for poems to be written bilingually; when one opens a book of bilingual poetry, the assumption is that it has been written in one language and translated into another. As such, I was a bit disappointed to find that the English versions (which I had assumed were translations) were quite literal renderings of the Spanish. For me, as a bilingual reader, one of the joys of reading a bilingual poetry collection is to see how the translator has reinvented the poem in the second language, which often involves pleasant linguistic surprises.

Nonetheless, it is still a pleasure to read good writing in either language, especially when it presents surprising images or a new perspective on something familiar. One such highlight in The Lunatic Muse is the prose piece “Moon in Space,” in which González describes his reactions to a set of photographs of the moon taken from space. We humans are accustomed to standing on Earth and viewing the moon in the sky. But in the following passage, the poet vividly shows us a vision of the Earth from the vantage-point of the moon: . . .

I am astonished by an image of an Earth-rise over the curved horizon of the Moon, a great gem of turquoise and jade, lapis lazuli, pearl, carnelian, rounded in its tumbling in the currents of space. The Himalayas, the Andes flattened, the continents blurred by the delicate veil of the terrestrial atmosphere, there are no borders. It is a whole and it is very small, very fragile against the total velvet-black.

However, despite some nice writing, overall the poems in this book did not grab my attention and draw me in. Based on the book’s cover (an image of the moon against a black backdrop) and the author’s prefatory piece (“Obsesión lunática/Lunatic Obsession”), I was hoping the book would provide a fuller exploration of the moon in all its phases—new moon, crescent moon, half-moon, etc.—or perhaps some deeper insights that would make me look at the moon in a new way or deepen my appreciation of the moon. In this sense, I was a bit disappointed. I found The Lunatic Muse to be a pleasant, light read. It is the kind of poetry that is accessible to all readers and, for the most part, the poems do not demand a second reading.

Yvette Neisser Moreno is a poet, translator, and teacher at The Writer’s Center (Bethesda, MD). Her translation of Luis Alberto Ambroggio’s Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems was published in 2009; one of the poems was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
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