24 June 2010

Alurista's "birth"

Here is an analysis of a poem by Alberto Baltazar Urista Heredia (Alurista), the Chicano poet laureate:

"The poem 'birth,' from 1981's Spik in Glyph?, is exemplary of the dual work borders perform in Alurista's poetry as tools of separation and unification. In 'birth' the mixing of Spanish and English in bilingual lines suggests that the division between the two languages is arbitrary, yet new meanings derive from their mixing; this renders their separateness a significant aspect of their ability to make meaning together, a paradox of language that is also a paradox of the nation. 

"The poem turns on several puns, ending with the lines, 'yang pango te su / taxa? / lice'l chinito / yo ya pange,' emphasizing the homophonic relation between 'pain' and 'paying': 

                think u nut good kill er off payn? pain pay in? tax es paying paying yang pang 'yang pango t4 su taxa?' lice'l chinito 'yo ya pange.' (Spik 18) 

"A Chinese man speaks the last line of the poem ('chinito'), saying, 'yo ya pange.' At first glance we might read this as an acknowledgment of having paid taxes and therefore being complicit with the actions of the state. We can also read this as an expression of the oppressed: 'I do not need to pay taxes, I have already paid quite enough with my body and soul.' Either way, it is significant that an ethnicity is specified for the speaker in a poem that has resisted ethnic specificity. One could argue, however, that the apparent specificity is actually a gesture towards non-specificity. The word is not capitalized, and 'chinito' is also a way to refer to Mexicans who appear more indigenous than others. The concluding pun functions as a gesture of the dispossessed paying and in pain, then, and is also a gesture towards non-specificity and the transnational connections between the dispossessed."

This is the sort of thing a multilingual literary critic can do to help readers get into a multilingual poem.  In this poem, the use of two languages is clearly functional.  If the poem were written in one language (the effect would be obvious in a monolingual translation into a language other than English or Spanish), the sound play would disappear, and the corresponding equation of meanings based on sound would no longer be there.  The pun on chinito to mean both a Chinese person and a Mexican person would also be lost.  (The theoretical question, which we need to answer eventually, is whether a multilingual poem can actually be translated.)

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