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At Night the Cats by Antonio Cisneros; translations by Maureen Ahern, David Tipton and Will Rowe (Red Dust: $14.95; 199 pp.)

October 27, 1985|Jack Schmitt | Schmitt is a professor of Latin American literature at Cal State Long Beach whose latest work is a translation of Pablo Neruda's "Art of Birds" (University of Texas). and

Antonio Cisneros, the most distinguished poet now writing in Peru, is today one of the major poets of all Spanish America. The 76 poems collected in this generous bilingual edition represent the best of Cisneros' work, published in six volumes in the last 20 years.

In 1965 Cisneros won the Peruvian National Poetry Prize for his first book, "Royal Commentaries" (1964), published when he was a mere 22. The title is significantly the same as that used by the Incan Garcilaso de la Vega, the first American-born writer of distinction, who preserves the Inca version of his people's past. Cisneros' book, imbued with a remarkable sense of history, is an irreverent and revisionist interpretation of Peru's past. His early poems, characterized by their epigrammatic brevity, are lean and taut, precise in language and ironic in tone. The precocity evident in the "Commentaries" led critics to expect much of Cisneros, and their expectations were more than fulfilled when four years later he published his second book, "Ceremonial Song Against an Anteater" (1968), for which he was awarded the Casa de las Americas Poetry Prize for all Spanish America. By then he had become a master of the long verse line, which he uses to this day, and his sense of history, broadened by his years of residence and lecturing abroad, had come to embrace the entire Western world. But he did not forget his roots in the Third World, and his interpretation of Western history and culture remains critical.

In the last 14 years Cisneros has published four more books that show the development of an important poet and confirm his reputation. Other features of the poetry of Cisneros' maturity that cannot but impress the reader are his exquisite craftsmanship; his intensely poetic imagination; his stunning images and metaphors, often surreal; his incisive irony and droll humor, sometimes wistful, often self-mocking; his personal, confessional tone; his decorum and reserve, so typical of Peruvians, and also his passion and tenderness, reined in just enough to make his poems the more heart-rending.

A number of errors were made in the printing of the manuscript: On pp. 34-35, the Spanish and facing translation of the poem to Javier Heraud are different poems; on p. 78, the same two verses at the beginning of "Cronica de Lima" are repeated; on p. 158, the first three verses of the Spanish version of "The Porcupine" are missing, and the poems on pp. 24, 185 and 191 are each missing one verse.

It is much to the credit of translators Maureen Ahern, David Tipton and Will Rowe that they succeed in capturing the essence of Cisneros' style and voice in their fine translations of the Spanish originals. Tipton's afterword ("Translating Cisneros") is also a moving account of his meeting with Ahern in Peru more than 20 years ago; their friendship and subsequent collaboration on other translations and literary reviews; their mutual friendship with Clayton Eshleman in Peru; Ahern's helping hand in dealing with Cesar Vallejo's difficult wife, a harrowing story told by Eshleman in the introduction to his monumental translation of Vallejo's poetry (Eshleman/Barcia, "The Complete Posthumous Poetry," University of California), and their years of selfless devotion to Peruvian writers and letters. Their translation of Cisneros' "At Night the Cats" is a generous and altogether praiseworthy enrichment of Anglo-American letters.

Appendix to the Poem on

Jonah and the Disalienated

\o7 And finding myself in such difficult times I decided

to feed

the whale that was housing me: there were days when I worked for well over 12 hours and my dreams were strict assignments, my weariness grew fat like the whale's belly: what a job to hunt the toughest animals, strip off all their scales, open them and rip out the gall and the backbone

and my house grew fat

(That was the last time I was tough: I insulted

the whale, grabbed my few belongings to go and look for some home in other waters, and was just getting ready to build a periscope when there on the roof I saw swell up like 2 suns

its lungs --just like ours only spread out over the horizon--its shoulder blades were rowing against all the winds, and myself alone

with my sea-blue shirt in a big field where they could shoot at me from any window:

I the rabbit, and the swift dogs behind, and not one hole). And finding myself in such difficult times I settled into the softest and most pestilent

regions of the whale. \f7 --Antonio Cisneros, from

"Ceremonial Song Against an Anteater" (1968).

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