The Sealey Challenge: (Selections from) Liberamerica

a white hand holds a small green book with orante swirls that might be snakes or gnarled trees: MONCHOACHI'S LIBERAMERICA, translated by Patricia Hartland for Ugly Duckling Presse. in the background are yellow flowers, seed pods, and green foliage almost the same shade as the book.

Monchoachi’s Liberamerica, translated by Patricia Hartland for Ugly Duckling Presse’s Señal series, is a beautiful book, and a difficult book, and a book that demands to be read far more than once. It’s also a pretty incredible book with which to end this year’s Sealey Challenge.

First, a bit of a disclaimer. I don’t have the facility with French that I have with Spanish—mine is mostly nursery-room French, the Québécois my mother spoke (and sang) to me in my childhood, mixed with French classes I blew off (and still came away with A+, because I guess that childhood French sunk deeper than I thought).

I have even less experience with Kreyol. So, while I’ve read through some of the originals, I can’t speak much to Hartland’s translation in its technicalities as I could to Clare Sullivan’s translation of Enriqueta Lunez’s New Moon and her translation of Mario Montalbetti’s Language is a Revolver for Two, or Rachel Galvin’s translation of Alejandro Albarrán Polanco’s Cowboy & Other Poems. (I did read what I could of Monchoachi’s original, and Hartland’s feels pretty close, but, again, I’m no speaker of Kreyol, and my French is pretty limited too. So take of that what you will.

In their translator’s note, Hartland refers to Monchoachi’s Kreyol Liberamerica as “polyglossic chant-songs,” and their translation brings the propulsive musicality of Monchoachi’s texts to the fore. There were times when I felt like I should be listening to a song cycle, or an oratorio, rather than simply reading printed words on a page. Monchoachi’s words surge forward, strange and beautiful, looking to the past and the future without ever ignoring the present.

The first poem in this selection, “W’men a’straddle,” moves from dream-like image to dream-like image, exploring the beginnings of humanity in the Americas, making the crossing of the Bering Straits into an act of gods and of myth, “W’men a’straddle in the depths of the earth.” (Worth noting that people apparently lived on the land bridge for a LONG time, as discussed here—so Monchoachi’s magical world is based in realities.)

The second, “Ha Lézangels!,” is a powerful mix of emotions, as Monchoachi moves from the heaviness of death to the vitality of life, all of it sprinkled with magic. In Part III, “The regent-harbingers of dreams,” Monchoachi plays with one image to move it from something joyful to something frightening, as the poet moves from “Maskless, I wait for the star” to, at the end of the section, “I dread to see the star grow dim.” Throughout “Ha Lézangels” Monchoachi weaves wonder, so that when he leaves us with “Dignified daughters of gods th’body adorned with cowries white,” it makes complete sense that he honors them: “Honor! Honor to the vié mèss / To th’ol mores / To them my piety, undying.”

Each poem—or selection of a longer poem—brings with it moments of sorrow and of joy, grief and elation. Each one moves propulsively forward, Hartland’s translation playing with Monchoachi’s magic, creating pieces that feel as if they should be sung. I know I didn’t get everything I could, from this one reading, and I’ll read Liberamerica many times again and not yet have found all its meanings. (And who knows! Maybe one of these times some composer will finally set it to music.)

I’m also glad, in this strange, hard year, in this difficult summer, to end with a book like Liberamerica, where a poet dares to look grief in the face and still write words that sing and texts that come together to make magic.

One response to “The Sealey Challenge: (Selections from) Liberamerica”

%d bloggers like this: