Poetry Review – The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America

Book - The Other TigerIt is strange to hear someone reading a poem in another language (a language which you don’t understand at all) and then to hear that same poem read again in your own language. There is a sense of building anticipation, as you hear the emotion behind the words, with particular intonations that seem to stand out… Yet the meaning must come later, inevitably with a sense of both satisfaction and loss, as no translation will ever convey the strength of the original…   

I attended the launch of The Other Tiger (translated and edited by Richard Gwyn) back in October. It was one of Cardiff University’s ‘Fiction Fiesta’ events, which was held in conjunction with Wales PEN Cymru. I must admit that the word ‘fiesta’ made me expect something exciting, but it was a fairly typical academic literary discussion, though with slightly more exotic guests (coming all the way from Argentina and Mexico). But the book itself (and the work it contains) is about as exciting as you can get when it comes to poetry – work which is controversial and intense, yet also intimate and personal.

The Other Tiger poetry book launch

Richard Gwyn speaking at the launch event. He was joined by Jorge Fondebrider and Marina Serrano from Argentina, and Mexicans Carlos López Beltrán and Alicia García Bergua, as well as clare e. potter who assisted by reading some of the English translations.

The book has an eye-catching cover, and the title brings to mind William Blake, and the notion of animals as spirits, but that’s not why it was chosen. It was taken from a poem by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges: ‘El otro tigre’, translated by Alastair Reid. A passage from this poem is printed in the front of the book. These are the final lines:

The Other Tiger“… yet still I keep on looking
throughout the evening for the other tiger,
the other tiger, the one not in this poem.”

This anthology, it seems, is tied up with a search for the legacies of Borges (1899-1986), and Reid (1926-2014), but it is also a celebration of what is currently taking place within the world of Latin American poetry. Gwyn talked about the fact that many of these poems were first heard by himself at literary festivals or book fairs as he travelled across Latin America. He then tracked down the poets whose work he liked, and tried, wherever possible, to liaise with them throughout the translation process.

I like the fact that Gwyn has chosen a thematic approach for this anthology – the section titles (e.g. ‘Where we come from’) draw you in, wanting to discover the stories and the people behind the poems. “In some mad way,” Gwyn explained at the event, “I thought of it as a kind of novel, that you could sit down and read through in one go. But I wouldn’t recommend that.”

One of the sections, ‘The World We Share’, does focus on animals and nature. I particularly like the unearthly poem ‘Gatos’ (translated ‘Cats’) which appears to examine the impenetrable border between reality and metaphor, between humanity and the natural world, whilst also embracing it:

“There are no words for speaking about cats.
Words do not encompass cats.
Cats are indifferent
to beings who speak…”

The most moving poem which was read at the event, comes from the final section in the book, entitled ‘What becomes of us’. In his introduction to this section, Gwyn explains that “Violent death has become a terrifyingly familiar feature of everyday life for countless Mexicans”. ‘Los Muertos’ (translated as ‘The Dead’) by Maria Rivera, gives us a haunting, never-ending list of victims. I will quote from it, but listening to the words read aloud (words that seemed to go on for ever, rhythmically repeating names and tragedies) was more powerful than any quote can be:

“Here they come,
the dead so alone, so mute, so much ours
set beneath the enormous sky of Anáhuac,
they walk,
they drag themselves,
with their bowl of horror in their hands,
their terrifying tenderness…”

So, there’s a taster of just two incredible poems from this immense anthology, reflecting the poetry of an entire region. Richard Gwyn does admit, in his introduction to the book, that this was an ambitious project, and that there may well be a bias towards Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Colombia, simply because these were the countries he visited more often.

It is also true that the book focuses on the Spanish language and, inevitably, the project was a subjective one. But it has produced a complex, beautiful and comprehensive collection which gives a tantalising glimpse (as of a tiger prowling through the undergrowth) of poetry from the other side of the world.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

3 thoughts on “Poetry Review – The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America

  1. Thanks for the review, Rachel. I tend to agree with Bryan Marshall, though. I didn’t realise my name name was going to be on the cover as though I were the ‘author’. I had always assumed it would be ‘Selected and translated by . . .’

  2. I know to a large extent that translations can indeed be understood as works in their own right, but if I’m going to pick up on one thing that annoys me about the cover of this book, and indeed every website that is flogging it, is that it appears to be ‘by’ Richard Gwyn. Discuss.

    • Interesting thought – I suppose adding the words ‘translated by’ would have eliminated that interpretation. If you translated a poem, would you consider the resulting piece of text your own?

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