<Previous      Next>
Michelle Gil-Montero:
On Translating the “Touching” Poetry of Ignacio Uranga

There is something in the language of poetry that I would call “touching.” Not merely in the sense that it is, or can be, sentimentally affecting. Rather, I mean that, in poetry, words have a heighted physical desire—to “touch” what they signify. The problem is that, as science and philosophy tell us, touch is impossible; if you look close enough, there is always a gap. Some poems, more than others, are willing to go there, to that gap at the limits of language. Some poems, in particular, marked by the frustration and desire to say the unsayable, find their definition there. “Touching”: in the sense that when we try to touch something, we feel our own edges.

In this way, Ignacio Uranga (Bahía Blanca, 1982) writes “touching” poetry. His poems linger at the uncomfortable, electric outline of near-reach. Both the matter and method of his poetry express the frustration and desire of touch. These are poems of direct address, in the language of a voice stretching itself to reach the elusive ear of another. The imagery tends to be exceptionally tactile. And technically, they repeat and vary phrases, enact sonic and syntactic collisions, frictionizing speech. As if thinking were shaped by a rasp, and sound made cutaneous sense.

Aristotle says, On the Soul, that “living beings that have the faculty of touch also have the faculty of desire,” and in Uranga’s poetry, language possesses both faculties, hand in hand. Desire in these poems is an attempt, by gestures and reaches of speech, to touch (and by touching, connect, and possibly meld with) another, despite the awareness that touch never quite (whether on the atomic, compassionate, or intimate level) touches down. If many of Uranga’s poems are love poems—and I might call them that—they dramatize that asymptotic edge where love threatens to perfect itself by collapsing the lovers into unity, and inevitably fails.

Uranga’s poetics of touch reminds me of translation. When I translate a poem, I labor at the margin of my language, and the margin of myself as writer. What drives me to that edge, always, is some desire for the poem I am translating, which plays out in the process of translating as an impulse to get close to it, to approximate it as closely as possible. The desire lures me to a dangerous border where another writing threatens to infringe on, maybe even dissolve, my own. But luckily, two poems can never perfectly meet. Instead, something like friction happens, breaking loose the particles of a language, generating new energy, igniting a spark.

What I call “touching,” Uranga himself has called “contingency,” a word with several meanings relevant to his poetics: possibility, fortuity, accident, unforeseen expense, and not least, physical proximity. In a poem by that title, he alludes to Walter Benjamin’s notion of a “tiny spark of contingency” in the photograph—where, in the viewer’s gaze, the past grazes the present. Uranga’s short poem “Contingency”—which I interpret as an ars poetica—takes up this scenario. It describes, and addresses, a photograph of someone (and by extension, I believe, it describes and addresses the poem itself): “whether the aura of Walter Benjamin is/ liable to be contemplated in those your eyes that / maybe are almost in this photo / as it attempts to legitimize technically that laughing mouth.” As Benjamin said of photography, so poetry can only “legitimize technically” what is only “maybe almost” there.

In language, as in any technological means of production, there is no “machine precision,” no frictionless surface, no perfectly oiled part. Always, inefficiency, resistance, friction, or unnecessary work intervenes. Uranga’s poetry finds ways to enact, and employ, that resistance and inefficiency. For example, the poem “Campo de Mayo,” a repeated and varied set of phrases so that the poem enacts its own image of a sewer grate, words slipping through the cracks like blood draining into the sewer outside the torture center. The “grating” form, we hear the slippage, and we glimpse the disappeared, disappearing. In other poems, the softness of intimate address is haunted by a sharp presence lurking under the tender tonal surface—not visible, but palpable—just like the image of tumors, like hard pebbles, under the skin of a lover’s breast.

To a great extent, every poem that I translate teaches me how to translate it. Every poem comes with its own, unrepeatable instructions. These poems remind me that no translation, however precise, can make direct, perfect contact with the original. At best, it can “legitimize technically,” in the wild frustration of asymptotic translation-desire, what is “maybe almost” there. The unit of translation is the friction, its spark.