Pedro Serrano - gutsy, bodily poetry. Verbiage is associated with the genitals – writing is a kind of fucking or, at the very least, a process that engages the physical over the intellectual – the head remains “a heavy slab”.
Pedro Serrano, Peatlands, Trans. by Anna Crowe, Arc Publications, 2014.
The poems in the first full-length collection to be published in the UK by the acclaimed Mexican poet Pedro Serrano are taken from Desplazamientos, a volume of selected poems which draws on all his collections since 1986. Chosen by both the poet and his accomplished translator, Anna Crowe, these poems are wide-ranging, passionate and linguistically thrilling, together forming a beautifully-balanced introduction to Serrano’s work.
These poems are wide ranging and passionate. Linguistically thrilling, they explore the world of snakes, swallows, valleys and skyscrapers, weariness and love. Reading through the eclectic subjects, provokes a sense of searching, a sense of chaos from which ultimately grows a unification of all things, so the dung beetle, scribe and mermaid are all part of one entity. Just as he enjoys presenting both image and concept in his poems, he gives the reader the space in these slowly unraveling poems to immerse fully in his particularly intense worldview.
Pedro Serrano is an exquisite poet, and this is a collection that sings with virtuosic touches – Serrano’s verse itself, the work of the translator and the scope of the Arc Visible Poets series, which profiles both poet and translator. Parallel text editions are such a pleasure, even if one does not read the original language – to gain a sense of the interplay between Anna Crowe’s sensitive translations and Serrano’s Spanish originals adds a vitality and intellectual excitement to the reading of the collection. Arc are to be congratulated.
In “Dry Rain/ La LLuvia Seca” Serrano refigures the creative act of writing poetry into a destructive, unpleasant act, an act that depletes:
At times the poem is a collapse
a slow and painful landslide
a dark and scandalous rockfall.
Throughout the collection, Serrano is interested in uttering what should not be uttered, looking at the unseeable, communicating what is painful. Here, poetry is the natural disaster that reveals something underneath – landslides both eviscerate what exists and reveal new layers. If poetry is “the scab/ the image finally broken in pieces” then it can release the blood beneath, and can reach behind the image.
As the title of the collection suggests, Serrano is a keen observer of natural phenomena. In this area, his tastes err toward the Romantic and sublime: he favours the storm, the gale, the wind in the trees. In “The Wind’s Trust/ Confianza Del Viento”, love and death are figures as movements equivalent to seasons, which are represented by extreme weather. The four part poem begins:
I heard her afar off, like a blue sword of midnight
like an edge that grew from the frozen point of her lips
like a knife made of water that in its stridency could not be heard.
Is this the wind or a lover? The coldness of the wind and the fear of the tempestuous female form approaching meld, as do the senses – hearing swords and hearing the water. Serrano’s poetry is not ordered and logical, and it does on occasional run the risk of throwing off lucid imagery in favour of atmospherics and the accretion of feeling. As a poetic technique this tends to be divisive, but in Serrano’s hands it is wielded masterfully and unforced.
If it is lucidity and clear-cut images that the reader is after, however, Serrano is more than capable of delivering. In “Peat”, there is no reliance on Romantic imagery: the poetry is pared back and striking.
There is no
of this world
The beech loses
from the crown down.
The beech tree decays like an old man balds, the world unravels like a ball of yarn: Serrano has an uncomfortable ability to link to domestic to the vast, undifferentiated spheres of time and being, to make small things seem suddenly lonely. “The world/denies itself/and falls apart” – there is a Lear-esque feel to Serrano’s poetic voice, as if the world is a blasted heath and he its sole and final resident.
Some lightness and relief come in his love poetry, however. He is a Nerudian love poet, moving from the metaphysical to the physical with simplicity and grace. In “Rosary”, Serrano draws on small images and bodily sensations, but pans out, giving these images the potential for global resonance:
In the shoulder the creeper and the root.
On the head a heavy slab
In the sex the dense crowd, thick thirst, speech.
Verbiage is associated with the genitals – writing is a kind of fucking or, at the very least, a process that engages the physical over the intellectual – the head remains “a heavy slab”.
Serrano’s gutsy, bodily poetry is a dark joy, and Crowe’s translation is the polish that makes it shine. This is a fascinating collection and an excellent advert for the broader series. - Alice Tarbuck
To turn to Pedro Serrano's Peatland is to experience an uplift; it's a joyful book, simple in mode, complex in imagery and its poems' pleasures. By mode I mean the poems' free-flowing forms at ease with their purpose. It is one of those books I feel talks to me, this log of Pedro Serrano's experience, his being alive with language.
It is also and no less a book of the translator's pleasure. Anna Crowe's Preface starts from when she hears the poet read in Scotland, having provided translations for the reading, and finds herself hooked. She relates the task then of finding English equivalents for the very different flow of the Spanish, and it is surely her pleasure in working the detail while staying with the emotional flow that makes this such an enjoyable collection.
The poet gave the translator a book of his selected poems, this book now of five sections translated. And while I have spoken here of pleasure, of the job well done, the book is not easy entertainment. Here is a section from a sequence, 'de Turba'/'from Peat',
Everything coagulates like curdled milk,
like sour vomit that throws up
bits of intestine, seeds, bile,
what could be swallowed and what could not.
On the sheet of glass lie the remains,
on the aluminium tray the detailed account,
on the skin, ash and dead static.
The entire past now moves like cloudy water,
like a dead donkey rotting upstream
and which others drink further down, unaware.
The whole of the past remains here, regurgitating.
The book goes with the physical, the being-a-body,
Shitting is a pleasure, to bawl
along the feverish pipe and then abate
without the haste that might lead us to hatred.
and so on for eight more stanzas ('The limiting art'). A a poem sometimes takes off into a longer flow (The wind's trust'),
I heard her afar off, like a blue sword of midnight,
like an edge that grew from the frozen point of her lips,
like a knife made of water that in its stridency could not be heard.
leading by walk and sense to many lovely lines,
like a dress striped with black and pearl that could fall off her back,
for they were touching every edge and the sea was green now,
as if such an experience and such a poem should never end. Yes, this book I recommend for a joyful or an uneasy day. - David Hart
Pedro Serrano has published five collections of poems. He has co-edited and co-translated the groundbreaking anthology 'The Lamb Generation' which brought together translations of 30 contemporary British poets in 2000. His libretto for the opera 'Marimbas de l'Exile/El Norte en Veracruz' was first staged in Besancon France in January 2000, then travelled to Paris and Mexico. He has also translated Shakespeare's King John into Spanish. Many of his poems have been translated into English and have been published in widely in the UK and abroad. He teaches in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, and is editor of UNAM's highly-regarded poetry website, 'Periodico de Poesia'