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  • Diego Báez

Material Exercises by Blanca Varela trans. Carlos Lara

Material Exercises by Blanca Varela trans. Carlos Lara | Black Sun Lit |  Pub date: 4/4/2023 |

ISBN: 979-8-9863664-1-8 | pp. 97


It may be tempting to interpret Peruvian poet Blanca Varela’s Material Exercises as a collection of contrasting opposites: pain and pleasure, illumination and blindness, even “adam and eve.” But Varela collapses the distance between extremes, entangling elements from opposing poles in surreal imagery and stunning turns of phrase. Like chiaroscuro paintings, the combined effect of juxtaposed antipodes is greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the speaker of “Chiaroscuro” reflects on her past lives, “enthroned between the sun and the moon,” and on a future self yet to be:

the flesh that I sustain and feed

to the last worm

that will search the deepest waters

for a place to sow

the yolk of its ice

like in old paintings

how the world stops

and ends

where the frame rots

Varela’s worms and deep water, “the yolk of ice” (what perfect, strange phrasing!), and the disintegrating frame all conjure a decomposition that disrupts the flow of the poem, forcing readers to continue their gaze beyond the page and to imagine those next steps even after death. 

While Material Exercises is best appreciated read in one sitting, this posthumous edition is defined by lyrics of dizzying brilliance, many of which succeed even robbed of context. A small handful of exemplary examples:

autumn is a clumsy caress that mutilates a most beloved face

The beautiful, / violent flower of ridicule

the garlicky stigma of the capricious and / flamboyant kiss

here and there bloom / flowers of dubious spume

Of course, the poet herself, a progenitor of Peru’s Generación del 50, deserves praise for her inventive, tirelessly eye-catching lines. Likewise, Carlos Lara must be credited with bringing new life to this translation. Oftentimes, Lara decides to preserve the sound effects of the original Spanish, as with the line, “Eres la esfinge que finge,” which Lara translates as, “You are the sphinx that feigns,” the “f” sound running through the line like soft static. In other instances, Lara makes bold choices with impactful results, transforming, for example, a rather slippery, multisyllabic line (“ah la voz gangosa entrecortada dulcísima del / amor”) into punchy, almost staccato English: “ah the sweet hoarse labored voice of / love,” which still retains “o” sounds throughout.

Ultimately, Material Exercises is but a single resplendent entry in Varela’s rich oeuvre, albeit one that delineates especially enticing plateaus between opposing entities for her speakers to inhabit, like the one that emerges in the title poem of the book:

absence is a crowd

loneliness and silence

surprise those who avoid eye contact

the soul-blind

the trembling

those who prod with a petty heel

the smooth heroic rump of love

The book is both riddle and key, portal and obstacle. It’s an invitation to readers, a challenge and reward, one that beckons and beguiles all the while.


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.


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