Echo of the Park by Romina Freschi
Echo of the Park. Romina Freschi. Translated by Jeannine Marie Pitas. Eulalia Press. 2019.
“There is no heaven on earth,” begins Romina Freschi’s book-length poem, Echo of the Park, a debut translation from the Spanish published by the emerging Eulalia Press in 2019. This line is the first of many doomed conclusions the Argentine poet makes throughout this philosophical treatise as poem. Nothing lasts, seems to be the problem. Or more specifically, nothing good or worth living for, like “peace and ecstasy.” Instead, these come from “the tempest/ —crisis of terms and conditions—/ most creative destroyer of worlds…” Anything truly alive is fleeting and must die. We know this. But, through its construction of a complex, landscape-based, and linguistically activated matrix of metaphor, allegory, and contradiction, Echo of the Park explodes the paradox of the predicament.
Freschi’s landscape in this work is the natural world and the urban world, the elements they are composed of—tree and bird and animal shit; cement and plastic and human shit—and the place where these two worlds intersect: the park. What is the park? Is it a place of grief, of transfiguration, or both? Does it represent an intermediary space where what is impermanent can somehow be contained? Or is it only ever a crude reminder of the fact that to contain or preserve what is impermanent is antithetical to life? Does the park taunt or ease the impermanence of our condition? These questions form the central tensions of Echo of the Park’s journey, and Freschi reveals them to be deep rabbit holes. In doing so, she sets the stage for one of this book’s most remarkable actions —its embrace of the paradox.
We begin with trees, “silver poplars/ facing the willow” but, among them “the avocado tree/ is a monster…” “…it catapults its creamy fruits/ that burst with my desire/ to escape this world.” We begin with birds, the caracara, whose “immense mahogany/ wings” may have murdered the sparrows. We begin, significantly, with contradiction, with the undeniable presence of death at the very center of life. As the sparrows’ “scattered remains/ make fragrant/ the human settlement,” a counterpoint is established between decomposition and flow, and the fixedness of the human “settlement”—a telling choice of word by translator Jeannine Marie Pitas for the Spanish “poblado,” referring to a peopled, populated, or inhabited place. From this sense of death within life in nature, we move to images of the inverse —life within death in the city, where pollen and feces “flesh out the cement,” but where again decomposition reigns as “all color ends/ in the earthiness of shit/ that makes these trees/ grow better.”
Freschi’s tone in describing the city is cynical. However, if there is an escape valve out from the failure of the human settlement, it comes, as we see increasingly throughout the book, from contradiction, from embracing the constant and paradoxical entanglements between death and life, growth and filth, memory and forgetting, change and stagnation. One is endlessly found within the other as though they were stacking dolls inhabiting each other into infinity. This embrace is born out through Freschi’s exploration of landscape but more specifically through the question of habitability: “…it might be that what we’ve built/ is not/ habitable,” the speaker supposes about halfway through the book, setting out the potentially doomed conclusion that the rest of the piece will continue to grapple with. It is this potential doom that brings us to the park:
“To inhabit then/ imperfect terrain, to parkify it/ constantly creating the patina/ that makes a life possible/ there/ constantly life means/ to seal that patina/ and there/ where we fail/ to die, to watch die.”
As an intermediary space of intermediate habitability, the park is posed as a potential solution to the problem of total inhabitability. Clearly, the park is a constructed space, and the definition of what it means to “parkify” brings us more deeply into Echo of the Park’s philosophical dilemma. To parkify is, apparently, to create “the patina” and to “seal that patina.” A poet with a tremendous attention to words and their many layers of resonance, Freschi’s choice of the word “patina,” which is the same in the Spanish, is one of deep precision. A patina is a type of rust brought on by great age. Interestingly, it is a desirable, ornamental sort of rust, and something that finishes an object, preserving and sealing it in time. Thus, a park becomes a place where we “fail to die” and instead watch all the non-park around us die. The irony inherent to the concept of a patina is also the irony at the heart of Echo of the Park’s spiraling logic. Here is a place that makes life possible and yet it is also where we fail to die. Again we are forced to ask, is the park a triumph or failure? But then:
“—Hey/ maybe the sibyl/ can’t be civilized.—// There’s no civilization/ that doesn’t spread its hypocritical cover/ over all the death that holds up/ the crumbling / fortress.// Oh Juana/ you and your dream/ on mine/ like a heart that beats/ sibilant/ in the fault lines of habit.”
The perhaps untameable wildness of the sibyl, a female prophet or witch, throws a wrench in the gears of parkification. A park is a place that can be inhabited. In other words, it can be made a place of habit. But, if the supposedly life-affirming force of this habitualness has been revealed as no more than a morose failing to die, then the notion that the sibyl can’t be civilized is, just maybe, a very good thing. It is perhaps the life our speaker has been seeking, the “heart that beats,” a “sibilant” hint, faint but sure whisper emerging from the in-between, from “the fault lines of habit.” Like Sor Juana’s dream in her poem First Dream offers the wings and the freedom the poet needs to alight amidst the constriction of her circumstance, so too Freschi counters constriction by, both conceptually and linguistically, leaning further into it. As the poem winds toward its conclusion, contradiction and anomaly are put forth ever more boldly:
“Neither moss/ nor stone/ escape/ the grief of the cultivated/ nor wild coexistence/ with the/ bewitching/ poison/ of humans.”
It is anomalous to attribute wildness to a coexistence with the inevitably cultivated reality of humans, and yet, there it is. It is wild because it is anomalous. And if it is wild, it is free. By leaning further into dilemma and contradiction, Freschi creates a space where the coin whose sides dictate what’s what never stops spinning. In this space, the question of habitability does not so much get answered but becomes encompassed by endless contradiction, which is perhaps a type of flow in itself. Vaguely, à la the mathematical and magical realist traditions of the Argentine short story, we might even say that the book performs a folding inward on itself, describing a park while also becoming a type of park, a laboratory for what is possible, or so we hope.
Echo of the Park is a difficult book. In addition to the use of wordplay, anomaly, contradiction, and allusion already discussed, there is also the constant confounding of the poem’s many declarative statements by lack of punctuation, dramatic enjambment, circular logic, lack of a distinctly subjective point of view, and heavily extended metaphor. Instead of being held in place by the innate stability of the declarative statement, the reader is constantly thrown off-kilter. But in the same way that the poem embraces its own contradictions, leaning further and further into its own layers, this book opens up to the reader who leans further and further into its difficulty.
In her blurb on the back of the book, author Jesse Lee Kercheval recommends reading the book in full in one sitting, then reading it again slowly, to savor each line. I would likewise encourage readers to read the book all the way through once to gain a sense of its landscape —as well as its soundscape recreated by Jeannine Marie Pitas’ careful and rhythmic translation— and to then go back and experiment with ways of approaching its deeper layers. Tracking the career paths of some of this book’s favorite words —habit/inhabit, feather, patina, seal— a process I have initiated above, is just one way to more deeply enter this text.
English language poetry, especially of the North American variety, emerges from a culture that favors directness and openness, a fact perhaps linked to our freedom from a history of totalitarian oppression. Therefore the difficulty of Echo of the Park, the sensation it creates of having to decode some secret idea the writer is expressing, is one the English language reader may not be entirely used to. The sparseness of an individual subjectivity and prevalence instead of the collective, impersonal “we,” is likewise one that may come with a bit of culture shock to a tradition more inclined toward individual than collective consciousness. What is difficult about this work for a North American, English language reader may in part be attributable to values we have yet to fully apprehend or absorb. A welcome addition to English language poetry, Echo of the Park may just be a different kind of strange.
Kelly Egan’s poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Laurel Review, RHINO, Denver Quarterly, Luna Luna, White Stag, and elsewhere. Her poetry manuscript was recently a finalist in the Midwest Chapbook Contest. She works as a copywriter and writing consultant, and also tutors ESL adults at City College of San Francisco. She has an MFA in Poetry from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga.