Translation muddles the idea of emergence, especially in the isolated realms of the American poetry scene where other languages can seem as far away as lights in other galaxies. We tend to circulate in our own cosmos, happy with the bits of translation that come our way. Consequently, we are often latecomers to work in other languages; sometimes we miss it altogether. Translation is a stay against such belatedness.
Catalan poet Melcion Mateu’s emergence here and now is simply the time when his ship comes to our port. His first book, Vida Evident (“Evident Life”), won the Premio Poesia de Octavio Paz in 1999. His fourth and most recent book, Illes Lligades (“Bound Islands,” from which these selection appear) won the highly coveted Premi Jocs Florals de Barcelona in 2014. His work has been translated into Spanish, Russian, Slovenian, and Portuguese.
Mateu was born in Barcelona to Majorcan parents and his poems have the “here and elsewhere” feel of a tongue divided between the cosmopolitan barbarisms of the city and the more hermetic phrasings and wisdom of island culture. His move to New York City (to earn a PhD in Spanish and Portuguese Literature) further accentuated the multiple options for voice and tone, the vibrant possibilities of doing everything (and absolutely nothing) in a place that doesn’t stop for you. Instead of trying to slow the city down, he took to capturing its pulses with an estranged lens: Catalan, but spoken by one already displaced from the island of his family’s cultural origins. The result is a stunning double exposure of culture, full of brilliance, shadow, and at times an intriguing emotional complexity that states itself with deceptively crystalline simplicity. He is an impossible mix of O’Hara and Pound.
The disconnect between the contemporary world and the world of the troubadours—who wrote in a language so close to his own—resonate deeply (and darkly) in his lines. Mateu has mastered the art of ruthless self-examination in miniature. Neither confessional nor post-confessional, Mateu’s poetry feels like something that has arrived to us from both the dark side of the moon and The Dark Side of the Moon. American poetry hasn’t quite felt the same to me since I started to read the poetry of Mateu.
—Rowan Ricardo Phillips (trans.)
It’s exhausting the whole going-out-to-run-with-boxing-gloves-on-
smoking a pipe with an interesting air.
I’d rather not have to work as a diver on Sundays and holidays
(all the docks in Manhattan are disgusting!).
Hey, if you stop by my place sometime before midnight can you do me a solid and go
back down to buy some hamburgers (please…and only if you stop by)?
I’m tired of being a bird, of being a woman and a bird or an eagle and a mermaid;
of tourists who want to take a picture with me;
of hauling around packages that aren’t mine that I end up forgetting in some taxi;
of close-reading the ads on the subway;
of plastering the streets with my cv: I’ve been man, I’ve been machine, I’ve been beast.
What will I have to turn into today in order to survive?
Down in the subway rots a man who’s been living there for several years. Freezing to death, he ended up there one February night (this was before the terrorist attacks). His coat reeks of cauliflower. He has a gum wrapper, flecks of vomit and bird feathers in his beard. He pisses in a bottle. He empties it when the doors open. He shits between the cars. The subways run through the night, so he stretches out over some seats until the next morning when the rush hour crowds come and wake him.
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I stepped out of the house completely asleep without realizing I’d left without any clothes on.
CORNELIA ST. CAFÉ
I thought you were looking at me, but then you turned to kiss your 90-something-year old lover. You, who’d lifted up your arms and shook your hips as the rest of the crowd cheered you on. Now everyone’s into their drinks, the music, the broken conversations. The stage and the lonely candle on every table are the only places where there’s light. He lets his hand pass down your back. I’m too young to see certain things.
WHAT A ROSE IS
A rose is a mushroom is a violin is a piece of cod is a bowl of melted ice cream is a rock is a nipple is a whirlpool of blood swirling down the drain.
LONG ISLAND CITY
On my island you’ll find palm trees, divers, towers twinning each other; you’ll find trucks selling ice cream, you’ll find action. You’ll also find lobsters and furry crabs (believe it) scurrying under the rocks. You’ll find a Greek fish shop, a Brazilian supermarket and an Ecuadorian watch store. The subway passes on elevated tracks above two Indian clothing stores and a place selling live poultry: the bridge enters a tunnel and makes its way to Manhattan, and after that the United States and those not yet united.
I always see her at the front door of the strip club in her Pamela hat and dressed in white. She never looks at me. Sometimes the bouncer chats her up until her taxi arrives. Other times, she puts on her sunglasses, talks for a little while on her phone, then slips it back into her bag, lights a long, thin cigarette and stands around spaced out on the street. Those are the days when a limo picks her up.
She has a magnificent ass. One day I’ll tell her something. And then not her lisp, not even her foul breath, will make me turn back.
I’ve seen him over in the park: beside the river, flying a kite until the wind dies down and the sky turns the color of smoke; he snaps his fingers so the falcons come but only seagulls, eager plastic bags and fast food wrappers show up; he makes it look like he has something to do.
You can’t take anything from this experience: the floating containers and these clouds so close. You can’t do a thing there. You wouldn’t know how to do it. Here is the paradigm of most steadfast patience. You will say nothing, you will learn all about it: now you have to close your eyes, close your eyes and do nothing.