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  • Diego Báez

The Loose Pearl by Paula Ilabaca Núñez Translated by Daniel Borzutzky

$19.95 | co•im•press | December 2022 | 148 Pages |

ISBN: 978-1-947918-09-2


In 2007, Chilean author Paula Ilabaca Núñez began composing punchy, throaty prose-like passages that would eventually comprise her third collection of poetry, The Loose Pearl, and posted portions to a blog in the halcyon days of web-based self-publishing. Defined by the lyric speaker’s dueling identities of “the loose one” and “the pearl,” these poems defy sexual decorum and chafe against a societal matrix of heteronormative misogyny. In an introduction to the book, the poet explains:

If the pearl lingers between the two bodies that she chooses, that of the jeweler and the king, it’s because the patriarchy is like that: it manages our energies, forcing us to believe that we are destined to remain with one man.

In differentiating “the loose one” and “the pearl,” Ilbaca Núñez alludes to dichotomy through rich, rhythmic, pitch-perfect characterizations: “The loose one is like this. She thinks her flaws and disguises make her unique. I love this asymmetry she was saying one night while trimming her bangs in the bathroom.” But like so many binaries, the speaker’s distinct selves prove arbitrary, since “inside her is the jewel, the one that shines from the darkness of her chambers, from the porous carriage that others see as her body; but which for her is just the pearl or just herself, which doesn’t stop, which has the audacity to break into tears.” Each aspect of the speaker is not so much defined by what the other is not, but rather by the inevitability of reconciliation, by the unavoidable collapse of her selves into herself.

In articulating her speaker’s scarred sexuality, Ilbaca Núñez writes absorbing, pulsating lines that grow repetitive, even cyclical: “The same and the same. Drool. Pester. Come. Arrive. The bed. Filled with prayers.” But moments of beguiling revulsion punctuate the collection. One especially evocative consonantal sandwich stands out for its terminological precision: “pustules on her coccyx.” Other images tease saccharine sentimentality (“a gold heart with a missing half”), but a return to discomfiting physicality dominates, as when the speaker acknowledges “the scabies / that recently appeared on my writing hand.”

The speaker’s bold, polyvocal femininity simmers in lines that are traumatized, intense, vicious, and violent: “this is how they should hook up, this is how they should feel when they desire, when they coagulate, when they bleed from their lips, from their cracks, from the tightness of the opaque slot, supreme, violaceous, from the tightness.” At the time of her early blog posts, Ilbaca Núñez’s wild, outlandish depictions of femme sexuality lambasted contemporary Chilean expectations. And now, twelve years after its Spanish language publication, readers can experience the English translation, crafted with care by Daniel Borzutzky, an award-winning poet and child of Chilean immigrants. In a piece for Poetry Daily, Borzutzky comments on how “the real problem for the translator is the body [...] and the ways in which a translator must acknowledge and work with radical differences in physical and social presence.” About The Loose Pearl in particular, he continues:

The problem of translation here had to do with how to communicate both affect, absence and physicality; how to transmit desire as affirmation; how to translate the unknowable experience of abjection appearing as duality (two personas in one body); of abjection fluctuating between depression, anger and, ultimately, the refusal of subjugation and humiliation within “extremes of blankness” as the pearl constructs herself from “herself into herself.”

It’s a fascinating, additional facet of the book for English language readers, the way Spanish lyrics of a Chilean woman poet in 2007 translate through a poet of the opposite sex into the United States of today. It's the kind of question that presents as so obvious, it usually goes without mentioning. But given the inextricable corporeality of Ilbaca Núñez’s subject matter and Borzutzky's keen insights into the act of translation, perhaps it's worth noting how similar the speaker's experience seems to the act of producing the text per se: the way each writer must see "as if through a kaleidoscope" the emerging book's constituent elements, such as

Symmetry, tonality, brilliant geometry; shapes in different couplings, tightened or dispersed. The jewel shattered into many fragments, sometimes complete, sometimes hierarchically disarmed, putting itself together, contained. The jewel the loose one the pearl in movements, in nuances, in different poses. All of them loved, all of them warm, all of them stitched together: to form the necklace.


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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