Hospital Británico: A Reflection on The Last Books of Héctor Viel Temperley, Translated by Stuart Krimko (Sand Paper Press, 2011)

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Stuart Krimko’s translation of Argentine poet Héctor Viel Temperley’s last books, Crawl and Hospital Británico came out almost a year ago, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be talking about it. For the reader interested in surrealism and the intersection between formal invention and conventional religion, the work of Héctor Viel Temperley is a charging, changing force. And, for those skeptical of incantation or ecstasy, it is sure to be difficult to leave the reading feeling unconvinced. Though I relate more closely to the former audience, I find joy in empathizing with the latter’s response: I imagine this class of reader experiencing the text in a state of near-shock, as if absorbing the scene of a tragic accident they can’t help but ingest.

The books, on the one hand, are made-up of Krimko’s full, inhabited translations and on the other hand of Viel Temperley’s soulful, sonic, and displacing music. Although Stuart Krimko states that he prefers translations that “tend toward the literal”(source 1), his devotion to maintaining the work’s mystery can be equally attributed to his creativity as a poet as it can be to his familiarity with Viel Temperley’s work (Krimko worked on the project for ten years.)  The mystique of the book should also be attributed to the editors of Sand Paper Press. With the original Spanish poems and their English versions facing each other on each page, the book works on the reader like a shocking, non-symmetrical butterfly would on the eyes—two wings suggesting symmetry, but still evading it, evoking the beauty as well as the impossibility of translation’s task. This is not to say that the translation is not true to the original text, but that it is as true as it can be, given the constraints of language and our inability to break through the barriers between ours and another’s mind. But still, despite these obstacles, Stuart Krimko is able to locate the essence of Viel Temperley’s voice as well as it’s rhythm, and in so doing brings to the attention of non-Spanish language speakers one of the most surprising and delightful poets of the latter half of the 20th century.

Because The Last Books was released last year and a fair number of solid reviews of the work have been published since then—Ian Dreiblatt’s review for Sink being one of the most well-known (source 2), I am going to focus this reflection on the latter of the two ‘last books’, Héctor Viel Temperley’s Hospital Británico, a serial dissolution & resolution of the poet’s body as he recovers from brain surgery at the work’s namesake.  The structure of the series is enough to marvel at, as the speaker moves through a paradoxically formulated unraveling. The series begins with an eight-line poem, titled by that same Hospital. This eight-line piece—which is also the series’ most conventional part—functions in the book as the sun does for the human race, both as a source of light & life for the series’ subsequent sections and also as its Benefactor of Fracture, its Agent of Scatter & Growth.  The opening poem works to set the reader at the center of the forthcoming conflict, functioning too as a prologue for the epic to come.

The poem begins almost lazily, as Viel Temperley eases us into his “kaleidoscopic opus” with the familiar figure of a visitor, who is also a surreal, inverse muse:

“Rosetto Pavilion, long corner of summer, armor of butterflies: My

mother came to heaven to visit me.”

(59)

Although the passage floats off the tongue—gratitude to Krimko here for allowing this to be as true in its English incarnation as it is in the Spanish—the imagery is unusual, gorgeous even, but somehow backwardly turned. The muse is not coming down from the heavens to visit the Earth, but rather, is moving upward, visiting the speaker Above. So, we have a speaker who is un-grounded, a speaker on the brink of deadness, who is submitting to some freeing force of sound, to his maker’s ability to enact a Light he can believe in. “My head is bandaged,” the speaker informs us, “…I am happy. They have taken me from this world”. Although the ecstatic spirituality of this statement is shocking at first, reminiscent of Neruda at his most mystical, its other-worldliness is quickly undercut by the Earthly muse, by the memory of the mother who is the speaker’s, “laughter, freedom, summer,” and who, “twenty blocks from here,” also “lies dying ”. Suddenly, Heaven crashes back into the Hospital, and the curtain closes on the muse, the mother, who is “preparing herself” in recognition of her son’s decomposing, “to start all over again” (59).

And then, we turn the page and are encountered once more with the Prologue, as if we are the mother returning for another round. But this time, we’re presented with a version of Hospital Británico that contains “splinters, and Christus Pantokratur” (61). The ensuing ‘splinters’ are a number of delineated poems whose titles mainly take inspiration from the series’ source text. The exceptions to this loose rule are the four pieces entitled “Christus Pantokratur,” which are named after a depiction of an omnipotent, book-wielding Christ often found in Byzantine churches (Source 1).

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While the entrance of Christus Pantokratur could easily provoke a non-Christian reader to shut the book, Héctor Viel Temperley’s shocking imagery and nontraditional crafting allows the image of Christ to become a figure of textual magic rather than an imposing religious presence, or in Stuart Krimko’s insightful words, Temperley’s idol becomes “a single moment of ecstatic revelation repeated in the framework of poetry” (Source 1).

The figure’s matter of arrival into the work also undercuts Christus Pantokratur’s existence in the text as a literal Jesus. Rather than appear to our speaker as a resurrected, magnanimous physical presence, he arrives as a mere piece of language, as nothing more than a caption on a postcard: “Christus Pantokratur, 13th Century” (65). He then goes through a series of abstract, strange, hallucinogenic transformations, first becoming the postcard itself, and then morphing into the postcard’s sender who asks the speaker, while the speaker is alone and in a private dark, to “film His/ Silence in a bottle washed up on an endless shoal” (65). Thus, the message that the speaker receives from the figure of Christus Pantokratur is a kind of tragic, negative request. The speaker is being asked, through the device of the postcard, to film—and perhaps, to witness and record—the eternity of a message never received, and the paradoxical delivery of silence.  This passage is an important example of the spiritual conflict that drives Hospital Británico, because it stands to represent the complexities of belief for that which is beyond us, for that which is silent, made imaginable only through a human lens.

Our time with Christus Pantokrator ends when the figure transforms into a mirror for the speaker, a porthole of sorts for the bandaged orator to access Redemption, the figure thus also appearing to return to his traditional role as ‘Christ Savior’. And the image of Christus Pantokratur would end traditionally, most likely blandly, if not for Héctor Viel Temperley’s unique vision, his ability to morph conventional spirituality into its torn, doubting, human complement:

“only in the eyes of Christus Pantokrator can I dig in the

perspiration of all my summers until I arrive from my sternum,

from noon, at that lighthouse shaded by the limbs of orange trees

that I want for the half-mute boy I bore for many months upon my

soul.”

(67)

Here, the figure of Christus Pantokratur serves to bring the speaker toward his own soul, via memory and contemplation, but rather than deliver the speaker to Justice or Forgiveness, he is led only to desire for citrus, to break his silence and his guilt through the first indignant act—to find redemption not in being saved but in falling, in the dream of the picking of the fruit—

The remainder of Hospital Británico, though it is still invoking and manipulative of religious tropes, is less focused on a singular, Godly figure, and lines title its parts that are either directly taken from the opening text, or by lines which are closely inspired by it. Here is a quick overview of Hospital Británico’s sequence, which, although it is definitely unintended by Viel Temperley, bears a strange resemblance to a seasonal tune his North American audience may be familiar with—“The Twelve Days of Christmas”:

4 “Hospital Británico”

4 “Rosetta Pavilion”

4 “Christus Pantokratur”

5 “Long Corners of Summer”

1 “Your Face”

6 “My head is bandaged”

4 “They have taken me from the world”

1 “Freedom, Summer (For my mother, reminding her of the fire)”

4 “She lies dying”

1 “Asleep upon her lips”

2 “To start all over again”

The splinters, although containing dates in parentheticals after each section, are not ordered chronologically. Instead, they are grouped by title, yet despite the titles’ repetition, the poems do not promise a consistency of content. Thanks to this inventive framework, the reader encounters and experiences an infectious, spreading imagery that works to loosen the mind by constantly realigning it and then surprising it immediately thereafter. The violence and concurrent delight of these surprises are comparable to those I’ve experienced while reading the passionate, gruesome out-cries of celebrated surrealist Aimé Césaire, in that they incite the reader intellectually and politically, while simultaneously moving her emotionally. Religion, Martyrdom, Sacrifice, Justice—these ideological entities are all changed by Héctor Viel Temperley’s hungry, inquisitive passion for a new body of belief, a new space to hold the spirit. Here, again, we encounter it in citrus:

“ I need to smell lemon, I need to smell lemon. The tiniest blood vessels

in my nose could burst from breathing in so much of this blue air,

this sky so viciously blue.”

(81)

The series is wrought with passages like this one, in which a sheer terror and a sheer delight—caused by a blend of the foreign and the familiar—trump the conventional narrative and create a new Being. The ecstatic feeling of the language stands in for the traditional awe-inspiring idol, and intoxicates both the speaker and the reader of Viel Temperley’s verse:

“The pleasure of words comes back to my flesh in the tops of some

eucalyptus trees (or in the heights of “B,” where once—just once—I

looked out and saw a heavenly beach leaning against the shore).”

(79)

After a number of departures and flights of the imagination into wild territory, the series ends as the source text does, with two pieces entitled “To start all over again,” and the last piece is followed by the date 1969, marking it as among the series’ earliest compositions. That said, we do not arrive back at the beginning, for how could we? Instead, we are left mystified, wondering if we ever started at all.

by Casey McAlduff

Source 1: Krimko, S & Arlo Haskell. Interview by P. Scott Cunningham. “ZOLAND IN CONVERSATION: The Last Books of Héctor Viel Temperley.” Zoland Poetry. Zoland Poetry, 2011. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.

Source 2: http://sinkreview.org/reviews/the-last-books-of-hctor-viel-temperley-translated-by-stuart-krimko/

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