Odi Gonzales
Birds on the Kiswar Tree
Translated from the Spanish by Lynn Levin
2Leaf Press

Reviewer: Maria Rouphail

          The sheer joy of a bilingual edition of poetry is that readers are treated to two collections in one. In the bilingual text, two worlds are simultaneously present, one offering a true representation of the original other. And yet, a successful translation will stand on its own as particularly well-wrought, embodying not only the intent of the original work, but also the expressiveness of the receiving language. Readers familiar with English translations of Neruda, for example, might point to Merwin’s capture of Neruda’s restrained outrage in “Vienen Por Las Islas (1493)”: “Glowing Cuba, Columbus’s jewel,/ received the standard and the knees/ in its wet sand.”

          Or, in section VI from “The Heights of Macchu Picchu [sic],” Nathaniel Tarn’s exquisite rendering of Neruda’s romanticism: “High reef of the human dawn.”

          Or, Anthony Kerrigan’s perfect meter suggesting the lapping motion of the sea in “The Ships”: “The silk ships over the light waves carried,/ erect in the violet dawn […].”

          Though they are versions, these translations from the original Spanish of Neruda’s magisterial Canto General (1950) are accomplishments in their own right. Their sonority and luminosity move the reader to hear and see what Neruda intended. Much the same can be claimed for Lynn Levin’s translation of Odi Gonzales’ Birds on a Kiswar Tree.

          It is worth noting that Neruda’s Canto General and Odi Gonzales’ collection share the aim to recount particular chapters of western hemispheric history from the vantage point of the vanquished, the marginalized, and the forgotten. But while the Chilean poet’s voice is vatic, heroic, and therefore general, Gonzales gives voice to the individual and personal. They are different poets engaged, ultimately, in different projects.

          Written in Spanish, the poems in Birds on the Kiswar Tree thematize the indigenous and mestizo Andean painters from the sixteenth through the late eighteenth centuries. The works they produced, known collectively as the School of Cusco (la Escuela de Cusco), can be viewed today in the cathedrals of Cusco and other Andean cities, as well is in museums worldwide. Gonzales’ evocative poems about these works and their creators receive equal treatment in Levin’s English versions. Whether or not a reader has seen the works which are the subjects of the poems, Birds on the Kiswar Tree brings them to life.

          The cultural history conveyed both in Gonzales’ introductory note and in the ekphrastic poems included in the collection may be unfamiliar to many Anglophone readers. Gonzales’ intention is to foreground the painters’ individualities, and what he suggests are the artists’ extraordinary inventiveness and syncretism, especially in light of what the Council of Trent (1545-63) had promulgated to all Catholic European and colonial painters of sacred themes. The Jesuit-trained, indigenous—and mostly illiterate—painters of the Cusco School, while following the aesthetic requirement to stimulate the religious emotions of the faithful, nevertheless exceeded its bounds when they skillfully imported the faunal and floral exotica of the Andes into traditional Catholic iconography. This special feature of the School of Cusco is, according to Gonzales, central in appreciating the achievement of the artists as well as in understanding the poet’s recovery of the artists and the works. Levin’s translations and her notes aid the Anglophone reader encountering these artists for the first time. In Gonzales and Levin, the reader “sees” the paintings and “hears” each artist in his own voice.  

          Born in Cusco in 1962, Gonzales is a renowned poet, Quechua scholar, and translator. He is internationally acclaimed for his original compositions and translations of works in Quechua, Peru’s first language before the Spanish conquest in 1532. In 2005, Gonzales published La Escuela de Cusco, his fifth book of poetry. A poet in her own right, Levin came to collaborate with Gonzales in the 2011 translation of La Escuela de Cusco, giving the collection of twenty-five poems its first English rendition and the title, Birds on the Kiswar Tree. The title suggests a variant of the Quechua name for buddleia incana, a flowering shrub native to Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, and known generically in North America as the butterfly bush, attractive to bees, butterflies, and humming birds. Kiswar is also the name of a mountain in the environs of Cusco. The first mention of the Kiswar tree occurs in the eighth poem, “La expulsión del paraíso” (“The Expulsion from Paradise”), in which the Master of Acomayo, the anonymous painter of the scene and the poem’s speaker, avers that Eden “abounds/ in kiswar trees/ [and] hordes of parrots and ñukcho flowers.”

          And not only these, but lúcumo, cherimoya, llamas, and the ganso de los Andes also flourish. No sedate European garden, the Master’s Eden is a riotous Andean landscape of colorful trees, luxuriant llamas, and graceful, if not also raucous, birds. Indeed, birds (loros/parrots, gansos/geese) are special signs of divine and human ebullience in the living space of these bravura pintureros, these bad boys of painting in the Americas. Inhabited by angels, theirs is a “paradise of chattering birds.” In short, it is Cusco, the magical and sacred city which gives inspiration and life to art.

          Divided into three sections (“Pintureros,” “Museo de Indias,” and “La Sixtina de América”), Birds on the Kiswar Tree speaks from a variety of imagined points of view that include the artists themselves, their ecclesiastical patrons and teachers, and the characters portrayed in the paintings. Also frequently heard is an introjected voice that comprises some combination of informational material of the kind found on exhibition wall plaques and catalog entries. And then there is the poet-viewer himself, stating the case of the art and the artist. This composite voice, what I am calling the intercalated authorial voice, repeats, augments, or certifies the words of the painter or character. The appearance of this voice is often signaled by a font change to italics.

          Two poems exemplify this visual and logical strategy.  In “The Last Supper,” the painter claims authorship of the work in question, insisting on being seen in relief against anonymity:

                                 one thing
I have to say:
                    this painting
came from my own hands: I alone
painted, gilded, glazed the Sacred Meal

          This statement is followed by the intercalated authorial voice (note the italics):

the cunning Indian painter—the Anonymous One of the Cathedral—
in a flight of ecstasy
added on his own initiative
his favorite foods:

          The painter then resumes his speech, telling of having relished bending the rules of sacred representation. In his version of la Última Cena, the ordinary sacramental elements of (unleavened) bread and wine, characterized in the official language of the Mass as “what earth has given and human hands have made,” are replaced by the succulent repast of a cusqueña pub: roasted cuy, stuffed and spicy peppers, and presumably many pints of chicha. His is a quietly triumphant victory on behalf of the indigenous world.

          In the poignant, “The Painter/His Early Works,” the obviously gifted painter declares,

I was able to moisten
the slight bevel of the lips
of The Young Virgin at Her Spinning Wheel

to reveal the watery eyes
of The Penitent Magdalene

                                 but I could not
the letters of my own first
and last names

          The painter’s material condition of anonymity and illiteracy are immediately echoed by the intercalated authorial voice that says, factually and without editorial overlay,

                      These artisans
                                            did not know
                      how to sign their own names or read or write
                      For that reason they had to plead
                               with scribes,
                      those skilled in the use 
                      of the writer’s quill

The result is not the naming of the artist, but rather the suppression of his name: “I am the Anonymous One of The Almudena Church.”

          Birds on the Kiswar Tree
is Gonzales’ tour de force of inventive stanza patterns, line breaks, and characterization, in addition to the merger of art history with stunning polyvocality in virtually every poem. And Levin shows that she is quite up to the task of bringing all of this into beautiful English. In view of this performance, the English title makes perfect sense. Like the kiswar, the collection is a veritable “tree” on which sing los pajaros parlantes of Cusco’s fabled past.

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