Echoes of Echoes: On ‘Dialogues’ by Isaac Goldemberg

Dialogues with Myself and My Others
Isaac Goldemberg, translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Tittler
Cardboard House Press, 2016

The “My Others” in the title isn’t a typo. Every poem in this book begins with a quote from some other person. Isaac Goldemberg’s poems respond to these epigraphs, either by extending their ideas, arguing against them, turning them on their heads, or crafting them into witticisms. The juxtaposition of different authors can be jarring or random, but this is as much a chronicle of Goldemberg’s own reading tastes as anything else. Goldemberg, born in Chepén, Peru in 1945, is currently a professor at City University in New York, where he has lived since 1964. He is Jewish, and this is a theme that runs obsessively throughout his work. For him the Jew is a wanderer, and so is the poet. The preface quotes Adorno: “He who has no fatherland finds in writing a place to live.”

“In writing” — what he really means is “in quoting”. As a counterpoint to the majority of writers, trying to find their own identities and voices, Goldemberg has chosen to live through the citations of others. Brecht: “I resemble the one who carried around with him / the brick to show the world what his house was like.” These short phrases, parts of larger works that have been removed from context, are like bricks taken from a wall, reminding him of a home, possibly imaginary. A photograph printed on the opening pages functions as a mirror image, earth, cloud, and sky face one another. The borders of all dissolve into all; this is not a real place, but a photograph of a mind.

Words are printed in Spanish on the left, English on the right. What is reality, what is reflection? Identity can transform, be put on and taken off in “rhythms of reciprocity”. Being Jewish is a mask, a posture to assume to face the world. “I look at your face buried in the half-light / and to be true to myself I put on your mask.” The art of the epigraph becomes another way of putting on masks: “Your mask seems to be laughing at me. / Or is it telling me something?” One closes the book unsure which side of the photo is real and which is the mask, unsure whether this is even a helpful question.

Goldemberg is evidently obsessed with the mortality of humans and immortality of time, with chance and intention, with the unity of the visible and invisible. There is a poem about Auschwitz, and the Holocaust haunts several others. He alludes to alternate histories with their intriguing possibilities, such as what might have happened if Roman emperor Constantine declared Judaism, not Christianity, the official religion of the empire. Many poems read as somewhat cryptic fables, told in a clear narrative voice but lacking a meaning that can be immediately comprehended. Extreme abstraction of this sort is like finding yourself in an infinite echo chamber, in which one speaks and a voice rebounds, coming back to you as another voice or epigraph.

This is what epigraph and citations are here: acknowledgement of a given collective, which permits for individual fluidity within its boundaries. God is around somewhere, but he’s no omnipotent being, pushing around the world’s players like chess pieces. The reverse, rather. The collective and “we” are in charge. “We have to modernize God… crazy to imagine / the next Holocaust / with the same old God,” writes Goldemberg. No ideas are offered on how to go about this “modernization”, however. Jesus is of no help, as he is no saint either. “Jesus, you have forgotten my America, / come be born one day in these crazy lands,” writes the Mexican poet Carlos Pellicer. Goldemberg copies down this epigraph, then writes a poem against the idea. “For God’s sake, Jesus, not even in dreams should it occur to you / to be born in my other promised land,” comes his plea.

The Jews have suffered throughout their history. So have the Peruvians. But would Goldemberg go so far as to equate these sufferings? Yes, he would. Goldemberg points out that Jews and Peruvians have historically both been given the short end of the stick, in both the political and metaphysical sense. “At what moment did Peru fuck itself up?” he quotes Mario Vargas Llosa. Somehow, however, all this suffering has a purpose. It brings a community together, sharpens its understanding. Peruvian poet Luis Hernández: “I am a man wounded / in the back / and since I am wounded / I know where I’m going”. This may sound contradictory, but even contradiction can be an illusion. Goldemberg loves these seeming incongruities, such as a sign in a Warsaw bus that says “Move forward toward the back”.

Poetry too is exiled, “expelled from one nation after another”. Humans have a profound aversion to poetry and see it as a threat, Goldemberg writes. Far more likely, it seems, is that in our day poetry is just ignored, seen as insignificant rather than menacing. But Goldemberg takes his work seriously. For him, writers are melancholic, alcoholic and overly introspective creatures, and poetry is an intellectual enterprise that takes a position. People are what they say and write, the position they stand for, the community they belong to. The self is caught between reflections, or perhaps does not exist independently at all.

The book was translated by Jonathan Tittler, Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University. His flowing translation generally mimics the structure of the original, which works well with an easy, colloquial voice like Goldemberg’s, even if on a few occasions it seems to mirror the original too closely. One might quibble with the word order in places, i.e. “Huge was the leap / from the Spanish burning stake / to the gas chamber”. Minor issues like this aren’t worth losing sleep over, though. Cardboard House Press, named for the prose poem by Martín Adán, is run with creativity and energy, and it will be interesting to see where it goes in the future.

This collection is one of the most somber on its list. But one comes away from Goldemberg’s poems pleased to have read them, especially those that take on the most prosaic activities, which for him contain a spark of the divine. There are lines dedicated to a football match: “The ball flew the entire length of the / field and managed to embed itself / in the opposing team’s goal.” The striker is a rabbi, who after scoring expresses his gratitude to a smiling Almighty. A few of the quotes he chooses are cheeky, such as one by Nicanor Parra: “Poetic Art / 1% inspiration / 2% perspiration / & the rest luck”. Luck or not, this book finds the readers it needs. For a poem, writes Paul Celan, quoted by Goldemberg several times with approval, is “a message in a bottle launched in the belief — not always hopeful — that at some time and in some place it may reach some land, the land of the heart, perhaps.”

— Jessica Sequeira