Tessa Cheek

Portable Words: A Chaotic Translation


Grete Stern, Dream #45, 1949


Alejandra Pizarnik publishes her first book of poems, La tierra más ajena, in Buenos Aires. The year is 1955, and she is 19 years old. Ajena, the -a denoting a feminine modifier, unfolds into several related meanings. The first is extraña as in “alien” or “foreign”— people can be extranjeros, just as countries can be other than our own—and that is the second meaning of ajena, regarding property, “not ours.” And here you are moving to Buenos Aires, into the neighborhood that belonged to Pizarnik. You live there from June until December. It’s 2010. You’re 20. By the time you settle into the little apartment on Ayacucho, with its tight checker floors and untouchably high ceilings, someone or other has been teaching you Spanish for exactly half your life.

A locution of ajena includes sentí vergüenza ajena, “I felt embarrassed for her.” Alejandra Pizarnik, it is still whispered, was only the alter ego, the performing pen name, of a girl named Flora. In Spanish you are called Teresa. Ajena names the space between self and other, that moment of alterity—a bathic river over which language builds tenuous bridges, sometimes in the name of empathy or aesthetics. Though you never much felt a need for poetry, you do write compulsively, and when you were little, you lied that way too. Now you call it storytelling.

Ajena also corresponds to the inability to control, as in beyond my control, and to ignorance or a lack of awareness. Cracking the word ajena open, we find a sense of the word “alien” that reaches out to touch everyone at once, which also implies alienation and alienated in whatever conjugation. Even so, in regards to all words, including ajena, the simple thing we mean to say is: words are the raw material for communication, stones in the bridge between landscapes of self and other.



The book’s first poem is called Días contra el ensueño. Not to sound quotidian, but días is plural for “days” and carries, like the English word, a sense of “daily” and “present day.” During the day, Pizarnik attends the University of Buenos Aires, where the Director of the National Library, Borges, is a professor. She reads the surrealists: Breton, Éluard, Duras. At the same university you take a class on political and aesthetic theory. It is also led by the Director of the National Library, a man named González who you can hardly understand, who all your 100 classmates find hilarious, who smokes and sits on a stripped-down operating table before the assemblage of desks.

Contra is a preposition meaning “against” or “in exchange for.” Some years and some distance north of Pizarnik’s writing, those two opposing meanings finally come together. Contra starts to stand for Contras, for resistance or a two-armed tight fist around Nicaragua. The arms reach from the United States and from Argentina, respectively. Contra has another, substantive meaning, a colloquial noun form: “antidote.” But by now Pizarnik has sent herself a long way ajena. She has swallowed the salts of a permanent dream.

Ensueño breaks down to in-dream. Predictably, it translates to “daydream” or “fantasy,” but also “otherworldly” and even “la-la-land.” Given the title of the book, La Tierra más Ajena, pressure exerts itself on ensueño to imply something like “land.” In November a little bookshop named after the Glyptodon—a sort of prehistoric car-sized armadillo whose bones are everywhere under the city–hosts your first show of photos, Soñando el mundo, “Dreaming the World.” Many of the photos are of your homeland, atmospheric snap-shots of a recent summer now doubling back on itself. At the opening you hear someone ask the bookseller if this is a group show. He says what the pictures apparently could no: “No, just the same girl in different places.”

Words are the raw material of communication because they are the raw material of the dynamic, relational self. Flora knew what Alejandra could only imagine, that to write is to name the self ajena, to set it apart by translation–across language, across time, across space. We keep our words, but not what they once meant to us.

Días contra el ensueño counts 16 lines, or eight couplets, each beginning with the repeated rhetorical imperative no querer (“not to want,” or “not wanting”) and each finishing with a punctuated end-stop. In their sheer weightlessness, the couplets read like the bones of a skeletal architecture, like Ilya Kaminsky’s “blind man/ who runs through rooms without/ touching the furniture.”


No querer blancos rodando/ en planta movible.

Not wanting to feel inferior to the city, you walk miles from one neighborhood to another and pretend not to feel the bones of your feet rolling against thin soles, grinding near and raw over the pavement, almost audible. In a copy shop across from the university, uncountable miles of paper hush down in flurries, issue indignant whispers from underfoot. The students, the only customers, are without lasting linoleum islands, sure places to stand. Here every theoretician from every thoughtful corner of the world is sent unabashedly to the photocopier. A hip-high stack of Heidegger will be your undoing. “I’ve never heard of your class,” says the attendant. “Don’t you know, can’t you even guess, which of the Heidegger you’ll want?”

Not to want whites rolling/ in a moving sole.

No querer voces robando/ semillosas arqueada aéreas.

How anyone talks on the bus, especially to the driver, with all the windows slotted open robbing voices in gusts and crashes. Following each lurch, a lean and then the soft ooewweee of wet forearms parting. “Che, listen to me, just this one little thing…” Your neighbor swings forward to catch a friend’s eye, and you forfeit the panting window. Let them come together. You wriggle for the door. “Is the music school coming up?” you call to the driver. Maybe he didn’t hear you. He cannot have replied, “It’s above, it’s passing overhead.”

Not to want robbed voices/ seeds arched overhead.

No querer vivir mil oxígenos/ nimias cruzadas al cielo.

In December, the rain has gone and the linden replaces it, very golden, filling out the air. The toma is over. The various branches of the University unlock their doors. The strikers who have slept six weeks on their classroom floors pick up for home. You want to ask, “Well then, did you get what you wanted?” But class resumes in the ex-hospital where exposed wires still dangle from suspect, hairy, tiles. You remember standing on Avenida Corrientes on a cold midnight, netted between a thousand or two other students blocking the street. The forum’s fifth open hour has grown tedious. Your Spanish is falling asleep. If you could go back to that hour now and understand what the militantes said as they crossed, one after the other, over an unlit and makeshift stage.

Not wanting to live a thousand breaths/ tedious crossings to the sky.

No querer trasladar mi cuerva/ sin encerar la hoja actual.

The napkins in Argentina are like waxed paper–translucent–they absorb next to nothing. In November, you trace the Rio de la Plata until it finds the outlines of Argentina and hang it over the black and white picture of an actress who reminds you of your grandmother. Years later, writing these words, you will tear through your papers at some late hour, terrified that she is lost to you, only to find her under her paper veil: Delia Garcés. The internet, dowser of coincidence, obligingly tells you that Delia Garcés concluded her film career in 1956 with the starring and title role in Alejandra. Through the blind contour, you can half make out the direction of Ms. Garcés’s gaze and almost imagine how the Rio de la Plata becomes the Paraná falling down from the Amazon through Paraguay.

Not wanting to translate my curve/ without waxing the actual page.

No querer vencer al imán/ al final la alpargata se deshilacha.

Though some city subtes are wood paneled, stately and reliable, others break down between stops and lines of passengers file out together through subterranean night. They whisper, “No one light a cigarette,” faces scrunched against the dark, against the invisible smell of natural gas. Buenos Aires was built around foot-traffic, with sidewalks six-shoulders wide and tree-lined avenidas panning north to south, center to suburb. In the spring the city runs on magnets, the subtes below drawing walkers along familiar paths. You bring seven pairs of shoes with you, but the city has an appetite, and only three survive.

Not wanting to vanquish the magnet/ at last the sandal frays.

No querer tocar abstractos/ llegar a mi ultimo pelo marrón.

In Buenos Aires all the very slender girls have waist-length brown hair and a faint curvature of the belly that comes from eating lots of bread called a pansita, a “little loaf.” The modern dancers at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes sometimes work with their hair down. That most abstract appendage follows like a tail, arrives to brush this shoulder and then the other, drawn by the neck, and then all at once, as if in flight, carries itself.

Not wanting to touch abstractions/ arriving at my ultimately brown hair.

No querer vencer colas blandas/ los árboles sitúan las hojas.

For six months the afternoons grow wider, not just longer, and like migrating birds, Spanish thoughts sometimes fly honking through your head. You are lifted up to catch the first rays of sun in the morning. Your essay on political and aesthetic theory is graded by someone nearly 30 who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the hot-pink profile of Christ. You are indulged, spending as many as two hours a day childishly plucking at harp strings in the National Conservatory. Everywhere you go, the others your age walk more wisely under the signs of long effort and firm choice. You know the word for “brave” is valeroso, but the idea of saying it to any one of them mortifies you.

Not wanting to vanquish delicate lines/ the trees place the leaves.

No querer traer sin caos/ portátiles vocablos.

Home again, and years later, you ask yourself what it means to be portable—is it the same as being light? Is it the same as forgetting? Or is it the heavy, sordid work of translating something increasingly chaotic, something like the self or its expression, from one place to another, from yesterday into tomorrow?

Not wanting to carry without chaos/ portable words.

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