A first glance through the pages of Francisco Aragón’s Glow of Our Sweat may give the impression that the author simply pulled random works from old files, gave the manuscript a new title and sent it off to the printer. Of course, the reality is something very different. In this work, Aragón has combined poems with prose, and new translations with original work. The translations have been re-worked and a long piece of creative non-fiction, “Flyer, Closet, Poem,” concludes the collection. Aragón has also included what he calls “riffs” or liberal translations of works by well-known authors such as Rubén Darío and Rainer Maria Rilke. What brings all these disparate pieces together is the “arc” which the poet tries to project across the collection.
In order to be faithful to the author’s intent, poems are considered here in the order in which they appear in the book. The volume is dedicated to Aragón’s former mentor and teacher John K. Walsh (1939-1990), a faculty member at UC Berkeley. The collection begins with a poem titled “Love Poem” followed by “Torso” based on a poem by Rilke. “The Poet Speaks with his Beloved on the Telephone” is a new translation of Lorca’s sonnet:
Your voice watered the dune of my chest
in that sweet wooden booth.
South at my feet it was spring,
north near my face flowered a fern.
In that narrow space a radiant pine
sang, though with no seed nor dawn.
And my cry hung for the first time
a wreath of hope on that roof.
Sweet and faraway voice flowing for me.
Sweet and faraway tasted by me.
Faraway and sweet voice, muffled softly.
The trajectory of the arc is in place. In “The slide” the poet describes Seward Park and the writes:
And heading home one night
along a different path
I happened on those
companion slides, grassy slope
of that narrow
street park the base
of Kite Hill, secluded
between houses and pine – that space,
those years: adjusting
the sheets of wax paper
we’d tear off and slip
under us, perched and ready
at the top—then down
racing over the hump mid-way
and down again, spilling
over the lips of the chutes –
both of us in the end
sprawled in the sand.
“In Secret” tells of a 12-year old admiring another male, particularly the hair on the other’s arms. In these two poems, the poet describes his budding awareness and interest in men. He has happened “along a different path.”
One of Aragon’s “riffs” or creative, liberal translations is “Symphony in Gray” based on a poem by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío and Aragón includes the Spanish original – as he does all the creative translations – in the appendix for those who want to make the comparisons. This is followed by “Walt Whitman” another liberal translation of a sonnet also by Darío. The poem opens:
His country of iron where he lives: an older man, fatherly,
strong, wholesome, calm,
his appearance impressive – the furrow of his brow
persuades and charms, no end
to his soul that mimics a mirror, the tired curve of
his shoulders draped with a cloak;
and with his harp – carved from oak – he sins his songs
like a prophet. He’s a priest.
Nearly twenty years ago, Aragón translated a book of sonnets by Francisco X. Alarcón titled Of Dark Love, the title itself a take on Lorca’s collection Sonnets of Dark Love and the source of the Spanish poem “The Poet Speaks to his Beloved on the Telephone” included earlier in this volume. (It took me several years to realize that Francisco Alarcón and Francisco Aragón were two different people – one the poet the other the translator/poet.) One of the sonnets in Alarcón’s collection is re-translated in Glow of Our Sweat as “Asleep you become a continent.” A brief selection from the original will show how Aragón has tightened and improved the sonnet in his re-translation. The original opens:
asleep you become a continent –
long, mysterious, undiscovered,
the mountain ranges of your legs
encircle valleys and ravines
However, the revised sonnet begins as follows:
asleep you become a continent –
undiscovered, mysterious, long
your legs mountain ranges
encircling valleys, ravines
night slips past your eyelids,
your breath the swaying of the sea,
sprawled across the bed like
a dolphin washed ashore, your mouth
is the mouth of a sated volcano,
In subsequent poems the poet tells of “drifting to sleep / beside you / for the first time” and of a date and rendezvous
an hour or so
before your shirt
fell to the floor
later put it
And in “Your voice” the sonnet begins “Amazing the mood it’s put me in” and ends with “Re-lived this evening on the phone…” an echo back to Lorca’s conversation with his own beloved on the telephone. Clearly, the poet Aragón has now acknowledged and acted upon his sexual preference and claims Lorca as part of his new family tree.
“San Francisco, 1985” touchingly references the AIDS pandemic as Alarcón encounters friends on the bus:
The three of us
exchange phrases the short ride
together and I almost don’t say it
turning to him anyway:
How are you feeling?
Your grin touching my sleeve.
So it’s this. This is what stays,
what sticks to me. He left us
sooner than expected:
The politics of same-sex marriage is considered in “To Madrid” written shortly after the legal measures were passed in Spain in 2005 permitting not only marriage, but adoption by same-sex couples. The first part of the book, the poetry selections, ends with a new translation of Alarcón’s “The other day I ran into García Lorca” which first appeared in Body in Flames.” While Aragón’s original translation runs parallel to Alarcón’s Spanish poem line-for-line, the latest re-translation takes a bit more poetic license and, in the end, produces a more powerful work:
I spotted him
the slim bow tie
to my table
his mouth –
met my lips
Part II of the collection Glow of Our Sweat is a prose piece “Flyer, Closet, Poem” in which Aragón relates his experiences as a runner and his gradual process of coming out of the closet, a narrative whose trajectory traces the same arc laid forth for readers in Part I of the book. Here Aragón makes it absolutely clear that he is gay, Latino, and poet.
And gay-Latino-poet is what we find in the first part of the book. Rubén Darío reflects Aragón’s own Nicaraguan heritage. The poet also traces roots in Walt Whitman, gay American poet. He also identifies himself with Federico García Lorca, Spain’s most important poet of the 20th century and also gay. The poet also acknowledges his long friendship with poet Francisco X. Alarcón and their collaborations as poet/translator. The poems and the poets in translation play off of each other like reflections in a mirror. The careful editing and arrangement here make Glow of Our Sweat a coming out statement that is gentle, moving and irreversible. Welcome to the choir, Francisco.
Don Cellini is a poet, translator and photographer. He is the author of three books of poems: Approximations/Aproximaciones (2005) and Inkblots (2008) both from March Street Press and most recently Translate into English (2010) from Mayapple Press. His work Elías Nandino: Selected Poems in English and Spanish (2010) from McFarland is the first book-length translation of the Mexican poet. He teaches at Adrian (Michigan) College.