BOOK REVIEW: AND WE WERE ALL ALIVE BY OLVIDO GARCÍA VALDÉS, Translated by Catherine Hammond
Olvido García Valdés once said of her poetry: “Poems for me arise from a unique form of intense perception, that is to say, in something that we see, that we hear, in something that remains in our head, in a state of mind, an action, an event. Many times, a few loose words. The poem arises in direct relation to that – with that echo. Only through that intensity comes the writing. Without it, it does not arrive.” (Ciclo de Encuentros Literarios, IES Violant de Casalduch, 2011. Translated by the reviewer.)
Catherine Hammond’s translation from the Spanish of Olvido García Valdés’ collection And We Were All Alive / Y todos estábamos vivos, 2007 winner of Spain’s National Poetry Prize, encapsulates the echo, the hypnotic strangeness and intensity with which García Valdés transcribes what remains of her perceptions into her poetry. In other words, Hammond arrives at the poem. In translating each section, “Lugares,” “Not for Self,” and “Shadow to Shadow,” Catherine inhabits the Spanish experience created by her poet and transplants its rhythm, compressed mystery, linguistic condensation, and extrañeza (strangeness) into English. Line by line she captures the remembrance of the natural world juxtaposed with the human and dream worlds, a feat distinctive of García Valdés’ own practice. Particularly, I am drawn to the manner in which Hammond, with her own poetic eye, translates the obscurity of quotidian observations and descriptions: remnants of birds, of great gusts of wind in August, of deaf mothers and blind daughters, of the frailty of old age, and of the flowering of death, to name a few.
A poem in the second section “Not for Self” begins, “Between the literal meaning of what you see / and hear and another less obvious place, / inquietude opens its eye. / On the side, the pale hand of whoever lives with death, hairy skull. We pay attention / to the hollow, masks a mouth / makes, distant and carnal….” Returning to the idea of the limitations of language and of the writing of the quotidian, because what is death but everyday, this poem is not only a concrete example of how eloquently able García Valdés is at writing only the essential, but also of how the laconic nature of her craft invites the reader to embrace their disconcertedness. Her poems, though at times slippery and difficult to dismantle, are sincere in their complexity, and Hammond recognizes this through her translation.
Among the plethora of critics and readers who have enjoyed García Valdés' poetry, Roberto Bolaño said of her first collection, “that night I read ella, los pájaros / she, the birds in one sitting, a collection that dazzled in the way only true poetry can.”
Of this work in translation I can say nothing more but, “It’s about time.” Having spent several weeks reading and revisiting this collection, I can attest that Catherine honored García Valdés' mystic and unpredictable craft. It is a translation worthy of being read side by side with its original.
And We Were All Alive is published by Cardboard House Press.
Catherine Hammond has a BA in Spanish from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and an MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University. Poems translated from Olvido García Valdés' collection And We Were All Alive / Y todos estábamos vivos appear as a chapbook, House Surrounded by Scaffold, from Mid-American Review. Her volume of selected poems by Mexican poet, Carmen Boullosa, was a finalist in Drunken Boat’s book contest in 2015. She also has translations in American Poetry Review, Field, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Drunken Boat, and many other national magazines. Hammond’s own poetry has been anthologized in Fever Dreams: Contemporary Arizona Poetry from University of Arizona Press, in MARGIN: Exploring Modern Magical Realism, and in Yellow Silk from Warner Books. She has three Pushcart nominations.
Poet, essayist and translator, Olvido García Valdés was born on December 2, 1950 in Asturias, Spain. She holds degrees in Philosophy from the University of Valladolid and Romance Philology from the University of Oviedo. She resides in Toledo, Spain. Her poetry collections, except for her most recent Lo solo del animal (2012), have been published together in one volume, Esa polilla que delante de mí revolotea (Poesía reunida 1982-2008). Her poetry has been translated into many languages.
Reviewed by Maritsa Leyva Martinez, international editor, Hayden's Ferry Review