In Their Own Words
Raquel Salas Rivera on Sotero Rivera Avilés
The Dark Town / El pueblo oscuro
The Dark Town
translated from Spanish by Raquel Salas Rivera
The town rises threatened,
raiding stores and dirty cafetines,
invading the post office and public cars—
open to the poor's small exchanges.
(Look at the market, the green greengrocer,
look at the broken charcoal burners.)
Schoolboys invade the air;
Start charging against the sun,
with tender hibiscus and rose apple faces,
discussing their loves and latest angsts.
. . . And the factory women
with their best gossip
and those who speak of schools
This is how the town put its darkness aside—
with its early dog pack of varied events
barking at the sick or jíbaros meek.
Still, the day rolls on
and the roads
start dying like pale children
bit by bit gnawed by a thick fever.
Afternoon arrives and night hangs
its yellow mosquito nets,
and all that had previously foretold
a town headed toward infinity,
dies in a difficult
smell of rowdy cinema
and bitten cafetines, with men
that only speak of fun times
with women open
to hotels or the ship -filled shore
or the shores of ships.
The youngest will give out kisses at the movies
or on unattended benches,
and not even those who are banned
will squeeze their hearts modestly
when meeting in corridors or halls.
* * *
The plaza with its same walkways,
with its same abandon,
with its same couples and repetitions.
The disorderly cinematheque
where couples flee to touch bodies
and loners get carried away
with what never happens.
The market, the hardware stores,
the melancholy hospital with its patients,
but doctorless in the drowsiness of mountains.
Heat, terrible poverty,
the slow passage of time,
prison as punishment for the man
who never befriended the police.
All this liquefies my soul,
covers me with scouring pads,
with viscous, fetid matter,
with nuisances, with serpents, with fatigue,
with a sad sadness like tombs,
my grief's handwritten inscription.
* * *
What deceit, my Town,
are your places of offering,
where only those
who disrespect or misuse
the word Culture
climb to the podium.
Where, where can they go,
those who cry in the rain?
Those who see that the rich only
know how to list debts for the poor,
or worry about cancer.
And the shrouded religious folk
try to escape some so-and-so called the Devil
offering mass and admonishing the weak.
Empty religious folk
that don't know the strong pleas of love
when the poor carry them on their clothes
torn, smelling of earth and tired pain.
Empty religious folk, dry, even bitter,
closed off to our town's true suffering.
Oh, my Dark Town—
guitar broken over my heart—
we've lost it all and we are left
with our absent eyes
full of shards,
like the poor eyes of the hanged poor.
I should cry for you, Town;
I should write your name every day,
drinking black coffee
and reading ancient news
in some abandoned garden.
Cry for you, for my rancor—
for my complaints anchored in your chest—;
for this forehead tied to your abandon,
and for this neglect of which I speak
only to make and do nothing.
El pueblo oscuro
Amenazado se levanta el pueblo,
asaltando tiendas y cafetines sucios,
invadiendo el correo y los choferes públicos—
abiertos al comercio pequeño de los pobres.
(Mira el mercado, los verduleros verdes,
mira los rotos carboneros.)
Los muchachos de escuela invaden el aire;
van embistiendo el sol,
con rostros de amapolas y pomarrosas tiernas,
hablando sus amores y nuevas ansiedades.
. . .Y las mujeres de las fábricas
con sus mejores chismes
y los que hablan de colegios
Así echó a un lado su obscuridad el pueblo—
con su jauría temprana de sucesos varios
ladrando a los enfermos o a los jíbaros mansos.
Sin embargo, el día rueda
y las calles
se van muriendo como niños pálidos
poco a poco roídos por una fiebre espesa.
Llega la tarde y la noche tiende
sus mosquiteros amarillos,
y todo aquello antes presagiando
un pueblo caminando a lo infinito,
se muere en un difícil
olor a cine alborotado
y cafetines mordidos, con hombres
que solo hablan de livianos ratos
con mujeres abiertas
a todos los hoteles o a la orilla de barcos.
Los más jóvenes repartirán sus besos en el cine
o en bancas descuidadas,
y ni aun los prohibidos
apretaran sus corazones con recato
al encontrarse por corredores o pasillos.
* * *
La plaza con sus mismos paseos,
con su mismo abandono,
con sus mismas parejas y repeticiones.
El desordenado cinematógrafo,
donde acuden los novios a tocarse los cuerpos
y la gente solitaria se ilusiona
con aquello que nunca les sucede.
El mercado, las tiendas de quincalla,
el melancólico hospital con sus pacientes,
pero sin un doctor en la modorra de los montes.
El calor, la terrible pobreza,
el lento paso de los días,
el castigo de cárcel para el hombre
que no es amigo de la policía.
Todo esto me liquida el alma,
me cubre de estropajos,
de materias viscosas, mal olientes,
de fastidios, de sierpes, de cansancio,
de una tristeza triste como tumbas
inscritas con la letra de mi llanto.
* * *
Que engaño, Pueblo mío,
son tus sitios para ofrecimientos,
donde solo esa gente
que nunca ha entendido ni respetan
la palabra Cultura
suben a las tribunas.
¿Dónde, dónde podrán marcharse
los que lloran bajo la lluvia?
Y entienden que los ricos solo saben
mostrar listas de deudas a los pobres,
o preocuparse por no morir de cáncer.
Y obscuros religiosos
que tratan de escapar de alguien llamado el Diablo
sirviendo misa y amonestando débiles.
que no conocen las fuertes súplicas del amor
cuando la llevan los pobres en sus ropas
rasgadas, olorosas a tierra y cansado dolor.
Religiosos vacíos, secos, hasta amargos,
cerrados al verdadero dolor de nuestro pueblo.
Ay, Pueblo Oscuro mío—
guitarra rota sobre mi corazón—
todo lo hemos perdido y nos hemos quedado
con los ojos ausentes
y llenos de cristales rotos
como los ojos de los pobres ahorcados.
Debo llorarte, Pueblo;
debo escribir tu nombre todos los días,
bebiendo café negro
y leyendo periódicos antiguos
en algún jardín abandonado.
Llorarte por mi encono–
por mis quejas ancladas en tu pecho—;
por esta frente atada a tu abandono,
y por este descuido del que hablo
pero que nada hago.
Reprinted from The Rust of History (Circumference Books, 2022) with permission.
An excerpt from "Following the Tracks in the Poetry of Sotero Rivera Avilés"
by Raquel Salas Rivera
The work of Sotero Rivera Avilés is key to understanding how previously excluded Black and impoverished Puerto Ricans gained access to written literature through educational reforms, such as the G.I. Bill, as well as how this inclusion was ultimately conditional, forcing these writers to offer themselves up as, what Paul B. Preciado calls, experimental sites for “the new dynamics of advanced technocapitalism.” Born on April 28, 1933, in Añasco, Puerto Rico, Sotero Rivera Avilés was also my grandfather, a man who produced work that was extraordinary in its scope, most often writing in the lyrical style that was characteristic of the Guajana Group, which included writers situated between the Generation of the Thirties and the Generation of the Sixties.
Unlike other writers of his generation, he also wrote about being a post-war veteran in a rural Puerto Rican town and the broken promises of Luis Muñoz Marín’s populist modernization projects. He demystified the jíbaro archetype of the naïve, but good-hearted field laborer saved by mass migration to urban centers, such as San Juan and New York. He wrote openly about his disabilities, delved into the seldom described experiences of post-war reverse migration, and left a record of regionalisms from a world that no longer exists. His is some of the only poetry written about Humatas, his childhood barrio in Añasco, and he always insisted that the breadth of his work could never overshadow the importance of the life he led before acquiring a formal education. He has received little if any recognition outside of Puerto Rico. The first selection of his work and the first full-length translation of his poems, The Rust of History: The Selected Poems of Sotero Rivera Avilés is a recovery project that pays homage to the man without whom I would never have forged my love of poetry.
A month after my father passed away and two weeks after I started taking testosterone, and thanks to a translation fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the first work I fully resumed were these translations. It felt obvious and prosaic to start here, with the figure whose tangles had defined our family, through defiance, disidentification, or partial acceptance. My hope, since I undertook this work, has been to lean into my obsession with my grandfather’s life, and accept my desire to see myself, my queerness, and my transness in his successful and failed attempts at upholding societal expectations.
Earlier, I described my grandfather’s return to Puerto Rico as a “return to a world transformed for the worse.” In some ways, my return to Puerto Rico after almost eight years in Philadelphia has felt similar. As I write this, the cost of rent in the San Juan area has significantly increased thanks to a new wave of settler colonialism that has brought many U.S. Americans here in search of gold, beaches, and paradise. Although my life and my grandfather’s life were different enough to feel foreign, in translating his poetry, I have experienced a shared sadness at coming back to a world that seems forever altered by outside forces. Unlike abuelito, I do not think of my childhood or my past, including him, with nostalgia. This project has been as much about demystifying my grandfather, through research and study, as it has been about honoring him.
I say I “resumed” this work because I had really begun these translations slightly before moving to pursue my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, many early versions became part of my doctoral dissertation and led me to conduct my first family interviews and look through some of the archival materials I used for this book. It was the guidance and encouragement of my dissertation committee—Emily Wilson, Kevin Platt, and especially Julio Ramos—that convinced me I had to pursue these translations and the accompanying research. The committee was kind and critical without being harsh, and saw the shimmer in my early work. I mention this tenderness because it taught me the kind of care I should take with a history of my grandfather’s life, not just because of familial expectations or obligations, but rather because the care we take with others, our living and our dead, makes the building blocks for a better world.
These translations are also an inventory of many Soteros. Here is Sotero, the Puerto Rican poet who died of hunger in a bakery. Here, the hemorrhaging boxer with his skull cracked open by war; Sotero, with his Puerto Rican syndrome; Sotero, the fisherman swallowed by the sea before returning to Mazatlán; Sotero, Añasco’s last hanged man; Sotero, who cried over onions, dead in cold Madrid; Sotero, the satisfied patriarch of old age. This selection includes his poems and my translations; his real lives and his missed deaths. These cling with the insolvency of memorials. I have tried to the best of my ability to become proximate through interviews, research, and patchwork. One of these dead men is real, a family legend. One of these was a great orator against finality, a self-mythologizer, a poet.
Given how little time we spent together (I was eight when he passed away), I can only describe my memories of Sotero Rivera Avilés as hauntings. It is through my uncles, my mother, my aunt, and especially my grandmother, Virginia, that I have patched together different versions of who he was. My grandmother describes a yellow house by a river in Humatas. My mother swears he slept on the floor. They argue, agree, then sit in the living room confused, neither one admitting they may have forgotten. This happens on one of many trips I took to Mayagüez during these past two years in order to interview my family about my grandfather and fact check some of the stories I had heard them tell over the years. Like his memories of Humatas, my family’s memories of Sotero are plagued by nostalgia, distance, desire, and inevitable decay.
Rather than lament all loss, I have taken this as a jumping off point for a book-length reflection on the potentialities and limits of recovery projects. Some things need to be left behind and forgotten. We can’t spend our lives living under the shadows of our elders. Other things must be remembered if we are to reimagine the futures we inherit. As I understand it, the best translations do both, they release and cling in the right places. These traces that resist oblivion, must be, in the words of the poet Jack Spicer, “led across time, not preserved against it.” And, like Spicer, I speak with dead men, or at least one dead man, in order to understand how I came to poetry, why I guard the idea that something incommensurable happens in the poem. For my grandfather, poetry was when his life began, but in order to become a poet, a past self had to die in that hospital in California. A self that nonetheless haunted almost all of his poems. This is essentially a kind of transition, a kind of translation.
These poems themselves feel haunted: by the war, by his childhood, by friendships, travels, and girlfriends. In translating “Domingo sin iglesia/ Churchless Sunday,” I retrace his steps, from his artificial arm on the couch, to his backyard, to the window facing the street, and finally to the church. I retrace his movements, his gestures. He “can laugh like an aimless shoe,/ destroyed,/ thrown to nights and rain” at the “the priest and old women/ that raise their rage and destroy pulpits/ if they see too few sinners.” But my favorite gesture is his shift from commonplace artifice, which he often describes as a sort of welcome failure, to a divinity he saw as hypocritical. His artificial arm laughs because it “understands” modernity’s obsession with usefulness and goodness is doomed to ruin. It is this exhausted refusal—that of a veteran’s artificial arm— that stays with me in my recent grief. It is also this arm that I played with as a child, that he handed to me, that led me to pull at my own arm in an effort to take it off. It planted the idea in my mind that bodies were not all the same, that some parts could be made different, even removed, something profoundly radical for a young trans person to come to understand.
If the poems are hauntings, then the translations are hauntings of hauntings. The Spanish filmmaker José Val del Omar, for Variaciones sobre una granada, would take innumerable photos of a pomegranate (in Spanish “granada,” like the city of his birth) with different lenses and filters. Sometimes he’d film and then take a photo. The effect was accumulative: a phenomenological pile-up. This was his way of looking for the unity he called God, the essence of the pomegranate. Perhaps, through my translations, I am driven by a similar impossibility: the desire to sense in other languages, through other filters, my grandfather’s poems, and layer them on top of each other until he feels present.