Cowboy & Other Poems, or Cowboy & otros poemas, written by Alejandro Alberrán Polanco and selected and translated by Rachel Galvin for Ugly Duckling Presse, caught my eye for the word on the cover, cowboy calling to mind all the gaucho literature I’ve ever read. (Borges’ “El Sur” made a big impression, okay? And so did “El guacho insufrible.”) I did not find any gauchos here, nor any of the cowboys I know from the mythos of Americana. I found, instead, a heartbreak I know far too well, communicated with beauty and brutality.
Alberrán Polanco dips into a variety of meters and rhyming schemes and prose poetry and makes use of wordplay that ranges from clever to hilarious as he moves through poems almost universally about the brutality of humanity. It can be striking to read an elegant line about a shooting, or a gun, or a mask carved to look like death, but that, I guess, is Alberrán Polanco’s gift.
This is also a good place to note that Alberrán Polanco’s wordplay had to be awfully hard to translate. “Cowboy,” the first poem of this selection, begins with something that almost echoes José Martí: “Si ves un monte de espumas / Es mi verso lo que ves,” Martí writes in the fifth of the Versos sensillos. Alberrán Polanco starts off “Cowboy” with an almost echo: “El mundo ya no alcanza / para un montón de poemas. / La gloria ya no alcanza / para un montón de poemas.” But it doesn’t last: we’re reminded, as soon as we trip off the final montón de poemas, that we’re living in a new age here, and it’s not José Martí’s world anymore.
Galvin really shines as the poem moves on, as she tackles difficult to translate words and manages to balance Alberrán Polanco’s incredible wordplay with the need to move into a new language. “Hay galápagos y golpes: galopes” becomes “There are galápagos and wallops: gallops.” Does it pack quite the same punch as galápagos y golopes: galopes? Probably not. But it’s a damn good bit of wordplay, and a damn good translation.
Alberrán Polanco takes the daily violence of life in Mexico—or, hell, in many places here in the U.S.—and transforms it into a kind of horror-poetry, a stark, beautiful reminder of how remarkably awful we can all be, and how strange and precious human lives really are. Death haunts these pages, from “Cowboy” to “Multitasking,” and it is strange and awful and sometimes almost beautiful. It also has a long tradition: “The Head of a Dead Man” is built around a sculpture of a dead man’s head made by an artist of the Mexica people, sometime in the late postclassic period. Death, Alberrán Polanco reminds us, has always been there.
The poems of Cowboy & Other Poems are strange and difficult and often painful, a reminder of the beauty and horror and violence of our species. They are translated with love and wordplay by Rachel Galvin, no mean feat at all. For those of us who’ve read historical Latin American poetry, there are nods and waves and winks, making those selected here even more rich—but one does not need to know Martí to know that this is difficult, brilliant work.
And, for what it’s worth, I’ll likely be searching out more of Alberrán Polanco’s work.