$18 | Ugly Duckling Presse | December 2022 |
105 pp | ISBN: 978-1-946604-18-7
Puertorriqueña poet Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s adjacent islands has taught me a great deal. The first embarrassing, elementary new insight I have to admit: Puerto Rico is not a single island. (Indeed, 143 islands, islets, atolls, and cays comprise the commonwealth.) While it’s not the poet’s responsibility to educate ignorant mainlanders, it’s worth noting this basic elucidation as one starting place for anyone interested in Delgado’s provocative explorations of Puerto Rico’s national imaginaries, its constellation of land and sea, its archipelago.
Brought together in a bilingual edition of two conjoined artist’s books, amoná (2013) and subtropical dry (2016), the poems in adjacent islands draw from overnight camping trips on uninhabited Mona, to the west of the main island, and Vieques, to the east, respectively. Delgado often employs sparse, declarative lyrics, neatly evocative in their understatement, such as, “On the beach I remember the desert” and “Tonight it’s raining Perseids.” The resulting texts enact an “archipelagic experience of the book where author, translator, and reader meet in the vertiginous open sky of the page, even under the shadow of empire and its official language,” as Urayoán Noel says in a Translator’s Note.
The poems in amoná are brief, diaristic entries that connect, renga-like, into a sequence of documentation and reflection after each day of a weeklong hike:
Wednesday, July 3
I walk on countless cacti.
The island is this.
The trace of blood hunters leave behind
at season’s end,
the garbage spewing from our rivers
Later that day, the speaker’s tone shifts from cataclysmic to celebratory:
This pleasure triggered by writing
with a lamp tied to one’s head
in a cave at the edge of the beach!
By week’s end, the speaker finds herself gleefully alone: “holding on to a tree trunk, shipwrecked and happy, I’m floating in the odd benevolence of the inclement elements.” Delgado’s choice to elevate this moment, among a trek’s worth of otherwise mundane events, strikes me as the exact opposite of, say, Knausgaardian indulgence, which seeks to catalog every trifling detail of a protagonist’s existence. Here, one moment of rapturous liberation contrasts the speaker’s internal state against the shoreline’s stormy uncertainty.
I’m also intrigued by translator Noel’s decision to render the original Spanish line (“la rara bondad de la inclemencia de los elementos”) as, “the odd benevolence of the inclement elements.” The Spanish seems to suggest a beguiling, beneficent “inclemency,” whereas the English locates benevolence in the “elements” themselves. The difference may be negligible, but it can be enjoyable to shift and bounce between languages, thinking around the resonances and connotations of each.
In the Translator’s Note, Noel acknowledges that Delgado is “an ecofeminist poet/activist and a gifted translator…[who] does not need un traductor to frame her work.” Instead, correspondence exchanged between author and translator during the tempestuous summer of 2020 prefaces the book. Even when an author can translate their own work, collaborative translation can (should?) be undertaken primarily to extend artistic practice, to build community, and to create new art. This is the second lesson I take from adjacent islands.
Finally, adjacent islands has reminded me of the synchronicity that excellent art can engender. The weekend I finished reading subtropical dry, I happened to be in Northern Michigan, reclining outside under an aging willow, awaiting nightfall and the eventual bolides and fire balls that accompany the Perseids’ return. So when Delgado’s speaker names the same meteor shower, beneath a “ceiba tree that inaugurates the night” in “the hour of flying insects,” it felt more symbolic than coincidental. As if I were meant to read this particular book, in that place, at that time. I had forgotten how exciting these aleatory overlaps of life and literature can be.
Of course, Michigan is not Vieques, or Mona, or any island of Puerto Rico. Nowhere is this more clear than in the closing pages of subtropical dry, which draw attention to the bioluminescent algae that cast a blue glow on the beaches of Vieques:
The Esperanza pier glows at night, that’s why we dove off
Esperanza. All our bodies slathered in light, learning from
the maker of light. In the sea there are animals that carry
fire inside. Their name is unpronounceable. So we’re simply
moons, iridescent skin, melting in a sea of light.
As a book-object, the result of collaborative translation, an exploration of intranational and intraterritorial dynamics, and as a collection of poignant poems, the lyrical glimpses and affecting utterances of adjacent islands shimmer and illuminate, whether an electric blue of dinoflagellate surf underfoot or the fiery tails of meteors streaking the night sky overhead.
Diego Báez is a writer, educator, and abolitionist. He is the author of Yaguareté White (UAPress, 2024). Poems and book reviews have appeared online and in print, most recently at Freeman's, The Georgia Review, and Booklist. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.