A book that can be turned upside down and read from back to front in another language can be a wonderful thing. Formats like that came through our door in my childhood home, but they were mostly bilingual Welsh-English leaflets from the council about things like rubbish collection.
This one is far, far more beautiful to read.
Natalia Toledo is the first person to write poetry in (isthmus) Zapotec, although the language has been written down for two millennia. Her translator into English, Clare Sullivan, had to rely on the Spanish translation by her friend Irma Pineda, and conversation with both poets. The result is a trilingual volume Black Flower/ Guie’ yaase / Olivo negro which is bursting with colour, scent and flavour. Each poem is like a seed that grows fast in fertile soil: the images stay with you and keep growing.
Toledo is also known as a cook and a jewellery designer, and it shows. I wasn’t able to choose just one, so here are three of my favourites from her collection:
They sleep in a row
like Egyptian mummies
rolled up in corn husks,
I squeeze a green tomato on their heads.
The moon makes their scales shine
spines split open
their eyes cry inside the smoke.
Clay pot oven: sarcophagus for the sea’s harvest.
It drills in, leaving its milk
in the back of your hand.
Children are a gourd full of bees
pinching the hand of Eros
like a Giacometti crustacean in metal.
A stick lashes our sculpture and scatters its poison,
our scream takes off running
a gourd tree packed with honey blooms.
To hit the mark
you have only to flee it.
We were scales sluffed from God,
Flower, deer and monkey.
We were the trunk split by a lightning bolt
and the sermon told by our grandparents.
We fell to the green earth
and the sun ran through us with his arrow,
we were the jug, Auoo!
we were the water, Auoo!
Now we are ashes
beneath the cauldron of the world.
You can hear Toledo’s reading of this last one, and others, in all three languages here.
In her final poem, For T.S. Eliot, Toledo wonders:
Perhaps I am the final branch who will speak Zapotec.
My children, homeless birds in the jungle of forgetfulness,
Will have to whistle their language…
Let’s hope not. If you think it’s time to read more native American literature, you’re not alone. The Ploughshares literary journal is one easy place to start.