Ojo de agua by Verónica Zondek

Ojo de agua. Verónica Zondek. Santiago: Lumen, 2019. 212 pages.

The first book I read by Verónica Zondek was El hueso de la memoria [The bone of memory], a title that reminded me of a line of verse from Hahn, “El hueso es un héroe de la resistencia” [The bone is a hero of the resistance], from Apariciones profanas [Profane apparitions]. El hueso de la memoria does not appear in Ojo de agua [Eye of water] due to the selection criteria chosen by Vicente Undurraga, who states that the author conceives her books “como poemas largos, como entramados de partes interrelacionadas, suponiendo su desmembramiento una especial merma” [as long poems, as tapestries of interwoven parts, considering their unraveling a particular decay]—Verónica’s books as long swaths of land between one train station and the next. I return to a book published in Argentina in 1988. And, like many texts published in the eighties and nineties, the words within it maneuver to obliterate their referentiality, to transform the experience into something that eludes what is stated. The poem itself as an installation at the mercy of whomever can alter visible materials. That is what I will attempt to do now, and a bit later on: tap into the materiality of this language that, like many poetics of its time, seems to me to be made of vital elements, of human beings, of open spaces, of memory. This will allow me, then, the absurdity of beginning by talking about a book that is not in Ojo de agua but that, nevertheless, is important in order to understand this anthology.

In El hueso de la memoria what is essential is observing, even if it is a bit of a miserable act. The practice of being a sieve through which everything passes in order To Be: “RONDA LA CARNE MI HUESO / Persiste / La vigilia persiste. / El rebaño me pasta / me pasta las líneas / me pasta el cielo / TODO ME PASTAN” [FLESH BESIEGES MY BONE / Persists /  Sleeplessness persists / The flock grazes me / the lines graze me / the sky grazes me / THEY GRAZE ALL OF ME]. Skin is the mask, and bone is the true me. Masks populate a book full of masks, full of eyes that see. “Soy ojo” [I am an eye], says an excerpt. Metonymy of a country shattered and silenced, a tremendously political and loving work. That can serve as an introduction. The work is written “sobre el escenario de este país” [on the backdrop of this country], but without unmasking the dance, as if reality called for exhuming love as one exhumes a body. El hueso de la memoria knows that on the terrain’s backdrop where one writes, the word is wound: “En mi palabra / TU LLAGA” [In my word / YOUR STIGMATA]. Or in this beautiful verse “En la nube mi ala” [In the cloud my wing]. Wound and cloud: those extremes. Visual and material, the poems evoke Instalaciones de la memoria [Installations of memory], which is also the title of a book that Verónica created with Patricio Luco, where photography and poetry journey to the saltpeter mining camps in search of the light that seeps through the ruin and the silence. “Pezuñas de amnesia / INSISTEN / EN ARAR / LA TIERRA /” [Amnesic hooves / INSIST / ON PLOWING / THE EARTH /]. Verónica Zondek’s poetry will travel in defiance of this idea. And, with that, Ojo de agua, published by Lumen in 2019, can be read in its entirety.

Ojo de agua, at times, becomes choral, on occasion displaying the sorrow of the valleys, giving voice to silenced writers like Mistral, Plath, Tsvetaeva, di Giorgio, or Pizarnik, recalling the speech of a nature exhausted from interpreting evil, the city, or one’s very body or that of another. Life in its entirety is creation and birth, and writing is just one more of the essential pillars of this reality. I think a history flows through the pages of this anthology that has taught us that ignominy is the natural state. Poeticizing it is done from asphyxiation, almost. Among the script of the land, the kitchen, and a reluctant gesture to the barren. The freedom required for writing is marked also by criticism of the tradition, its “Poetics” is of “maña y antojo” [pickiness and cravings], an aversion to the preassigned seats at the banquet (“Yo / en la pecera. / Ellos / en el mar” [I / in the fishbowl. / They / in the sea]), a dialogue of voices raised, never on mute.

In Fuego frío [Cold fire] it is said that “hay una tierra que nos sustenta a pesar de nosotros” [there is a land that sustains us in spite of us], “un viento que habla por nosotros” [a wind that speaks for us]. I think again about the materiality of these words: “calo un habla / zurzo ideas / movimientos / empujes más allá del glamour” [I needlepoint a speech / I darn ideas / movements / you push beyond the glamour], as stated in La ciudad que habito [The city I inhabit], diary of life and travel around Valdivia. Writing beyond the trends. Dense as bone. The craft is not sacred but rather elemental and of the elements, a writing of the urgent, of everyday acts such as the secretion of symbols and emotions. Writing here seems to be the logical consequence of breathing, one writes because one observes. Also from Fuego frío: “escucha lo que la materia habla / no te distraigas / estate quieto / conversa con ella. / No cejes. / Piensa. / Piensa que sólo eres una parada del tren. / Una. / Una estación pasajera” [listen to what matter says / do not be distracted / be still / speak with it. / Do not give up. / Imagine. / Imagine that you are only a stop for the train. / One. / One fleeting station]. We are invited to this: to listen to matter and understand that in this gusting wind we are only a wisp of smoke that disperses. There is no vanity here, only an aversion to ego, usury, power. I felt, reading Vagido [Cry of a newborn], that Verónica chose language consistent with her experience, the word that smothers itself in order to tell the story of pleasure and pain. But I am not sure. This is one way that I have chosen to be closer to this poetics, or that this poetry has obliged me to choose. The way in which the senses arrive like bursts that illuminate spaces to then snuff out others. Or leave them dimly lit. At some points in Ojo de agua, that becomes clearer. This is how I proceed, as if I were turning a flashlight on and off. Or the poem, like a flare.

On the back cover of Fuego frío, there are three questions posed about Verónica Zondek’s poetry that I will try to answer by drawing from this anthology.

The first question: What ethical-political battle does the poet fight from the renowned south of the world? Some poems from Fuego frío itself can answer: “Que no se diga que el hombre no anduvo” [May it not be said that man did not walk] it says, in dialogue with the Alturas [Heights] of Neruda. “Habitar un verso de responsabilidad personal” [To dwell in a verse of personal responsibility]. It says to us, “habitar un verbo de abrazo generoso” [to dwell in a word of generous embrace]. To me this seems essential to this language: restoring to the writer their responsibility when faced with what is happening. For a long time now, quite a long time, writers have holed up in the darkness of their white rooms. And even if the markets and trends report a bleak outlook and our word is the least heeded, that appeal exists here, that vitality which speaks on behalf of itself and of others.

Yo escribo, anoto la historia del momento, la historia en el transcurso del tiempo. Las voces vivas, las vidas. Antes de pasar a ser historia, todavía son el dolor de alguien, el grito, el sacrificio o el crímen. Incontables veces me he hecho la pregunta: ‘¿Cómo pasar entre el mal sin aumentarlo, sobre todo hoy en día, cuando el mal adopta unas dimensiones cósmicas?’ Antes de comenzar cada libro me lo pregunto. Esto ya es mi carga. Y mi destino.

[I write, I take down the history of the moment, the history over the course of time. The vivid voices, the lives. Before becoming history, they are still someone’s pain, cry, sacrifice, or crime. I’ve asked myself this question countless times: ‘How does one pass through evil without amplifying it, especially today, when evil takes on cosmic dimensions?’ Before starting each book, I ask myself that. This is now my burden. And my destiny.]

These words by Svetlana Alexievich were pronounced during the trial against her in Russia, due to the publication of Zinky Boys, which describes in the voices of its protagonists and their family members the horrors of the war in Afghanistan, the genocide to which the Soviet youth and Afghan population were exposed. I think that these words by the Russian Nobel laureate could aptly give an account of the ethical-political battle that takes place in the books collected in Ojo de agua, in which everything is history. Verónica assumes this commitment of sharing her biography and the biography of the world, her own first cry and the birth of pain and beauty. That is also her destiny and that is how she expresses it in “Marina T,” from Por gracia de hombre [For the grace of man]:

Cada horror una chispa que hiere el ojo
un lamento
un verso con sangre en la pluma
por si acaso
por si alguien no cree en tu delicado trazo
como si feliz no pudiese ser la desgracia
como si escrito no estuviese que el camino no se elige
aunque se vea
ya sabes
con hueso y mano
y abisal en suspiro y temblor

[Each horror a spark that strikes the eye
a lament
a line of verse with blood on the quill
in case
in case someone does not believe in your delicate stroke
as if tragedy could not be joyful
as if it were not written that the path is not chosen
even if it is seen
as you know
with bone and hand
and abysmal in sigh and tremor]

A dialogue with the Russian author and her unhappy life. She says to her: “Recojo tu misterio y voy por la lectura de tus páginas / porque en ellas veo tu cuerpo amortajado en vida  / y al muñón de tu aire en pena agazapado en los rincones” [I gather your mystery and read through your pages / because in them I see your body shrouded in life / and the vestige of your lost soul crouched in the corners]. Por gracia de hombre is the vindication of the feminine poetic imaginary, yes, and the vindication of what the others could be, that poetry exists to make the pain of the other less wide and less deep: the poem as a bandage, a pill, a hospital room, a pharmacy.

What is the path to redemption that poetry makes apparent? This is another one of the questions. And I was thinking it’s been years since I looked at the heavens, neither in search of epiphanies, hierophanies, the mysticism of bars, nor satori. If criticism is the new autobiography, according to Piglia, I should say that when I was young, I discovered that boredom was made more bearable by reading. It seems reading was fun for me and to me the pleasure of it wasn’t unknown. A book in my hands was like having a planet, a naked body, a small frightened bird, a clover with four or five leaves. With each book I must answer new questions or invent answers that are foreign to common sense. When I read, I don’t seek to judge but rather to be judged by the text that imposes criteria on me and not the other way around, that disarms me and establishes a model of dissolution. I read because I am tired of myself and the book restores possible faith, the possibility of being someone else. Inverting, at times, the natural order of its publications, the texts collected in Ojo de agua are not a manifesto of salvation, nor a path to return home, nor a religion or “un vaso de agua donde todos los ángulos de la luz se congregan hasta el infinito” [a glass of water where all of the angles of light converge into infinity], nor a psalm written by wine on dry lips, nor a blouse on a clothesline drying in the wind, nor a beast who sadly observes the clouds as the knife approaches or one of those flowers they call azaleas and whose name I don’t need to know and whose fragrance I don’t need to smell because I invent the name of the flowers and I imagine their perfume. Is that our work? I don’t know, it’s not clear to me. In Ojo de agua I seem to see, smell, touch, and feel all the aforementioned possibilities.

What is the argument that softens the wind before human misery? That is the last question from the back cover of Fuego frío. And without intending to exclude or avoid the responsibility for an answer, it seems to me that the wind and all of nature (of which, we now know, we are but a few leaves), are perhaps the true words of this anthology. Let us, then, leave the wind and Verónica Zondek to speak.

Ricardo Herrera Alarcón

Translated by Michelle Mirabella


Ricardo Herrera Alarcón studied Spanish-Language Pedagogy at the Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia. He is an editor at Valparaíso press Ediciones Bogavantes. He has published Delirium Tremens (Ediciones Casa de Barro, San Felipe, 2001), Bar: Antología poética chilena (Ediciones Casa de Barro, San Felipe, 2005), coauthored by the poet Cristian Cruz, Sendas perdidas y encontradas (Editorial Kultrún, Valdivia, 2007), El cielo ideal (Editorial Lom, Santiago, 2013), Carahue es China (Ediciones Bogavantes, Valparaíso, 2015), and Santa Victoria (Ediciones Inubicalistas, Valparaíso, 2017). In 2008, he was awarded the Premio Mejores Obras Publicadas for his book Sendas perdidas y encontradas.

Michelle Mirabella is studying Translation and Interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. Her translation of the short story, “Seed,” by Iliana Vargas, recently appeared in Exchanges. She is a co-translator of the forthcoming book Lengua entre dos fuegos by Jesús Baigorri Jalón. She holds a B.A. in Professional Writing from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.A. from New York University. Michelle has roots in Pittsburgh, Chile, and New York.

Other Reviews in this Issue

Diario en ruinas
Cuentos de ida y vuelta
La casa de Moravia


LALT No. 14
Number 14

The fourteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today features dossiers dedicated to the dislocated writing of Latin American authors based in the United States and the gothic fiction of Mariana Enriquez, plus reflections on writing in a second language by Fabio Morábito, an interview with 2019 Alfaguara Prize winner Patricio Pron, and exclusive translation previews from Guadalupe Nettel, Gabriela Wiener, and Luis Alejandro Ordóñez.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Mariana Enriquez

Dislocating Writing: Latin America Rewrites Estados Unidos





Brazilian Literature

Indigenous Literature

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Nota Bene