140 pages, paperback
Reviewed by Grace Cornell Gonzales
“The Apu Pachatusan is angry.” That was the first sentence I was taught to say when I studied Quechua in Cusco, Peru– and not quite what I expected from an introductory language lesson. The Apus are the mountain gods of the indigenous peoples of the Andes. They are the Andes, personified; honored by the Inca, they are still very much alive in modern Andean tradition. In Cusco, I found, you always live in their literal and metaphorical shadow, so fundamental to culture and language that they make their way into a level one Quechua class and into day-to-day conversation. People leave them offerings just as they pay homage to Christ and to the Virgin. This is the sort of powerful syncretism that lies at the heart of Odi Gonzales’ Birds on the Kiswar Tree, a luminous collection of poems based on subversive and syncretistic church art. It comes to us in an outstanding translation by poet Lynn Levin.
I very vividly remember my introduction to the paintings of the Cusco School, the art that inspired the poems of Birds on the Kiswar Tree (originally titled La Escuela de Cusco). In a museum in Cusco, I wondered over the colorful, vibrant portraits of Mary and the Archangels. I remarked on their unusual shape; garbed in flowing robes, they look triangular, almost like mountains themselves. My tour guide gave me a crooked smile and said, “You don’t really think that’s a coincidence?”
This style of art, which allowed the saints and angels of the Christian tradition to be reimagined as mountain gods, comes from a particular historical context. We don’t often think of artists as evangelizers, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, prominent painters from Europe arrived to teach painting to the indigenous people of Peru, and, by doing so, indoctrinate them into Catholicism. These indigenous painters were given the tools that they needed to create gorgeous, enduring works of art, but were not allowed much freedom of expression. They were only permitted to paint religious subject matter, as we see in Gonzales’ “Expulsion from Paradise”:
But, as you would expect, artists are often adept at subverting such rules. These indigenous painters found cunning ways to covertly resist this overt repression:
Restricted to religious imagery, these painters found ways to insert their Andean reality into the paintings; they filled the Garden of Eden with Peruvian birds and flowers, placed a cuy (guinea pig) front and center on the table of the Last Supper (“The Last Supper”), and brought llama herders to the manger in adoration of the Baby Jesus (“Adoration of the Shepherds”). By remaking the biblical world in their image, they placed their own world secretly at its center.
I first encountered Odi Gonzales’ poetry when I read Almas en pena, a collection of poetry that submerges the reader in the rich, syncretic world of the Andes. Born in Cusco and bilingual in Spanish and Quechua, Gonzales is a poet who walks in two worlds and speaks the language of each. In Almas en pena, he maps out for us the terrain of the Andean underworld and speaks in a multiplicity of voices–shamans, priests, wandering souls, animals, demons, angels, and apus. In Birds on the Kiswar Tree, we hear from the angel Baradiel, from the salt miners and llama herders who stare at the Baby Jesus, from the repressive Council of Lima, from the European artists who came to Peru to spread Catholicism, from modern day art critics, from Saint Joseph, and, most importantly, from the indigenous painters themselves. This ability to create a sort of polyphonous poetry, where many voices are represented and coexist, makes him the perfect poet to give voice to the anonymous artists of the Cusco School.
In “The Painter/His Early Works,” one of these poets speaks to us,
In giving words to these silent (and silenced) artists, Gonzales creates what translator Lynn Levin calls a “living and talking museum.” And, in some ways, this work is doubly translated. Gonzales translates from the visual language of these stunning paintings into a rich and textured Spanish, adding history, context, and imagination, and Levin renders that Spanish, carefully and respectfully, into English. This is no easy task, and one that clearly required a great deal of research, but Levin’s endnotes are an immeasurable help to English speaking readers who are not familiar with Andean culture, history or geography. In the end, these poems are both deeply seated in a specific historical and cultural context, and surprisingly universal. As Levin reminds us in her introduction, they “speak to anyone who lives or, historically or imaginatively, has lived under a repressive regime and who seeks a means of artistic resistance.” And while these paintings were indeed repressed, their inappropriate or heretical elements sometimes literally painted or plastered over, Gonzales’ poetry allows us to see them clearly again, and in a new light. In Birds on the Kiswar Tree, art inspires poetry and poetry resurrects art, and, in so doing, gives us back a valuable piece of history.
Grace Cornell Gonzales holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Brown University, with a focus on Literary Translation. Her honors thesis analyzed the diglossic poetry of indigenous Peruvian poets who combine Spanish and Quechua in their work. She has lived in Perú, Brazil, and Guatemala, and her interest in indigenous languages has lead her to study Quechua and K’iche’. She previously worked as a bilingual teacher in Spanish immersion programs in California, and currently teaches at a bilingual international school in Guatemala City. She is an Editorial Associate at Rethinking Schools Magazine, and is currently working on Rethinking Bilingual Education, an anthology scheduled for publication in 2016.