David Shook. Our Obsidian Tongues. London: Eyewear Publishing, 2013.
By Boris Dralyuk
For decades now, American poets have made a habit of buying “an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days.” A snatch of Akhmatova, a ream of Neruda, and one is suddenly “a habitant of Vienna, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Constantinople,” with intimate knowledge of “the Amazon and the Paraguay.” Nothing’s really the matter with this headlong embrace of an abstract “world literature,” aside from some of the poetry it has inspired. There is an entire school of American poets who craft verse to sound as if it had been translated from an exotic tradition, cloaking clichéd revelations in faux-translationese, as if this cassock – threadbare and transparent – could add weight or urgency to their lines. David Shook’s Our Obsidian Tongues is a true palette cleanser – a poetry of experience, responding to a foreign landscape in a bristly, living American idiom.
The fact that Shook is himself a master translator from the Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec, among other tongues, frees him from the dangerous impulse to imitate and masquerade as a “world poet” in his original verse. His Mexico City childhood, his extensive travels, and his work as a translator have afforded him a keen sense of the thrilling, maddening peculiarities of the world’s languages; it’s no surprise, then, that he has developed an infectious hedonistic appetite for the splendors of his own. Shook joyously adapts the forms he has encountered in his voracious reading to suit his material – a kaleidoscopic life of travel and deep immersion in other cultures – shaping poems that, for all their foreignness, are thoroughly in the American grain. Consider his “Mutt Ghazal,” which begins:
They loiter like teenagers with time to kill before curfew. Every chilango dog
the same, they inspect the sidewalk for dropped pork skin, lime rinds—here a slow dog
is a thin one. With corporate sponsorship and a haircut I could host The World’s Ugliest
Dog Pageant—two-to-one odds on the ochre pooch at the bus stop. A real show dog,
her lipstick nipples hanging from sucked-empty sacks. Runner-up might go to
the chihuahua mix with hail damage & no insurance. & so dog
after dog they parade the sidewalk. …
Shook’s speaker hovers between sympathy and scorn, between the desire to save and the desire to exploit. True to its form, Shook’s ghazal bemoans the unbridgeable, seemingly unbearable distance separating the speaker from his subject, but also revels in that distance. And what rich revelry it is – a dog-eat-dog world transformed into a grotesque but captivating Pageant, a true carnival. One can’t help but recall the concluding thought of Elizabeth Bishop’s tribute to a dilapidated “Pink Dog”: “Carnival is always wonderful!”
The vivid exuberance of Shook at his carnivalesque best is matched by the no less vivid clarity of his distilled, imagistic lyrics. A sequence of poems that envision a certain Silvestre Adán as carpenter, farmer, artist, and orchard keeper features this crystalline aubade:
as morning singer
Come chili. Come corn, come watercress.
Come plum and mango from your trees.
The unassuming formal elegance of these lines – the alliteration of “Come corn” matched by the full rhyme of “Come plum,” the echo of the dactylic “watercress” in the anapestic “from your trees” – reinforces their Orphic power. The morning singer is in full control of his voice. Yet Adán’s words are enriched by a poignant ambiguity; aubades are songs of parting, and the commanding “Come” can just as easily be read as a hopeless plea.
Shook’s poems are evocative in the truest sense of the word. They point to distances and absences, and overcome them by an effort of memory and art. His remarkable sonnet “Postcard from Los Angeles” describes this sustained work of evocation:
Sometimes I trick myself into thinking
that I’m back. In Echo Park it’s easy:
kids play in Spanish, a man in a coat
sells corn with butter, mayonnaise, & chili.
He’s always in his coat. Weekends he’ll bring
homemade popsicles sheathed in plastic; we
like mandarin the best, it makes your throat
Itch in a good way. You know the story
about the fake cigarettes I bought in
Chapultepec, with the powder smoke? Here
it’s like I’m in some corner of that park,
showing her around. We’re lost but fine. When
we walk back home I blow my nose to clear
the city’s debris. But my mucus isn’t dark
This recollection of a childhood in a city of sweet trifles and poisonous debris is capped by an envelope stanza with a full rhyme, as well as a “dark” with no end. “We’re lost but fine.” Here too one thinks of Bishop – “awful but cheerful.”
Shook’s Our Obsidian Tongues speaks to a breadth of experience and learning well beyond the author’s years. One hopes that his travels and translations will continue to feed his verse. This collection is a reminder that a master translator like Shook must, first and foremost, be a master of one tongue – his own.