Poetry Review, Urayoán Noel’s “Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisferico”

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Urayoán Noel (born 1976 in San Juan, Puerto Rico) is a poet and NYU professor currently residing in the Bronx. The author of several books and recipient of numerous fellowships, this self-described post-punk parodist brings a new wealth of cultural exploration through his many works both on and off the page. Through these creative experiments, along with thorough scholarship (Invisible Movement, 2014), Urayoán continues to explore  new avenues of Nuyorican poetry. In his latest book of poems Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisferico (2015), this exploration directs itself toward the very essence of translation.

There is an experimental quality to much of the collection.Throughout its 105 pages, the poems bombard the reader with several languages, stylized formats, mistranslations, images, and wordplay. It’s a jarring effect, one that can initially seem uninviting. For example, take this short excerpt from the first poem of the collection, “Alphabet City/Ciudad Alfabeto”:

anteayer barullos                                                          abefore

cumulonimbos decapitando estas facetas                   cloudbursts draping every feature

graciosos huyendo inmigrando juntos                         grimy heaven’s immigrant joy

kilométrico largo maratón natimuerto                          knotted long metal nooses

ñoco ojo podrido quizás                                               outcast posses quickly rivaled

resuelva su tálamo                                                       streaming traitors

útil violencia                                                                 useful violence

weekend xenófobo                                                      weekend xenophobia

yanquilandia zigzagueando                                         Yankees zigzagging

However, unlike the drab, ironic verse of contemporary Language poets, Urayoán explores something beyond complex wordplay. His poems attempt to create a space where experimental language can intersect with the established space, tradition, and history of the Puerto Rican culture.

And this experimental collaboration only intensifies as one reads through the collection. With the inclusion of languages like Lucumí and Portuguese, the early piece “Décimas Del Otro Mundo/Otherworldly Décimas” stands out as a key to comprehending what Urayoán is attempting to convey to the reader:

[3.0]

Canto desde la otra vida                                             I sing from that other life

como lo hacía Lavoe                                                   like the great Hector Lavoe

hasta vaciar el yo                                                       slowly letting the self go

como un hermoso suicida                                           like a suicide’s jackknife

que resucite y anida                                                               that paints its lovely red still life

en eter de colibri;                                                                    in the hummingbird’s decree;

las trizas que descibri                                                             the stay spirits I set free

escombran y dan asilo;                                               shatter us as they restore us;

si sabes el resto dilo:                                                              join me if you know this chorus:

aguoro tente omi ki’.                                                    aguoro tente omi ki’.

Translation can be a violent act, the words and meanings of the original text often becoming distorted or worse, lost entirely. The use of translation in this collection is no different, yet Urayoán is deliberate in his search for these imperfections.Throughout the book there are many self-translations, or even those generated by Google Translate. Perhaps it would be better to call this process “mapping.” Urayoán is mapping out the Puerto Rican culture through the experimental architecture of language. It is poetry that alludes to the current advent of the technological age while reaching back to the very origins of the Puerto Rican culture. It’s poetry that suggests what social forces enact upon us, but also how we respond to those forces. It’s a lot, but that’s the fascination behind Urayoán’s approach.

Much of the playfulness, the simplicity of language, and the rhythm of the poems works to motivate you to push forward when reading the book. It is a poetics that reflects on identity and belonging, while providing a constant feeling of discovery. This was the integral point during my reading of the collection. 

There is also another discussion about belonging among the pages of this collection. Where does Nuyorican Poetry belong among the canons? Where is its place in American Poetry? Where is its place in Puerto Rican Poetry? Throughout some of the poems in this book, there are references to great writers the United States and Latin America, and these references are on equal footing. One such poem that speaks to this, and my favorite of the collection, is “Heaves of Storm/Embates de Tormenta.” Incorporating the famous Emily Dickinson poem, “I heard a Fly buzz,” throughout each section, Urayoán creates a beautiful “obituary” (as he labels it) of the University of Puerto Rico protests of 2009-10.

“1.                                                                    1.

The street is occupied –                                 La calle esta ocupada –

            who’ll itemize the broken skies?                     ¿quien enumerara los cielos rotos?

Sorrow of flags the day you died                   Tristeza de banderas el diae que mortise

            in leased home theaters                                  en home theaters arrendados

only to be reborn in struggle                           solo para renacer en la contienda

            like a boldface cry.                                          como un grito en negrita.

Yours is the blue warble of chant                  Tuyo es el gorjeo azul del canto

            after the dialectics.                                         despues la dialectica.

Once the clouds have parted                         Una vez clarea el cielo

            you step into the din.                                       te arrimas al estruendo.

The day you died –                                         El dia en que moriste –

            I heard a Fly buzz.                                          Oi el zumbido de una Mosca.”

This adds an extra context to the original Dickinson work, but also lends a deeper emotional context to the event. There becomes a link between the poetics of the island with the mainland. In turn there becomes an intertwining of culture, history, and politics.

Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisferico is a spectacular display of a difficult, but always welcoming poetics. It is a collection that requires multiple readings to tease out the workings of Urayoán’s poetics, a wild exploration into the heart of what makes up the Puerto Rican people. 

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.