Praises & Offenses

I finished reading this morning the anthology Praises & Offenses: Three Women Poets from the Dominican Republic. The poets are Aida Cartagena Portalatin, Angela Hernandez Nunez and Ylonka Nacidit-Perdomo (those names are all missing their accents, because my little cheap portable pc sucks and won’t accept key-commands for accents). The translator is Judith Kerman, the publisher is Boa Editions, it came out in 2009.

I started writing what I thought would be a brief summary of the book to put here, but ended up going on for an obscenely long time. I may put the whole thing up later, it may appear as a review somewhere, we’ll see. But let me leave you with these two selections.

But on the whole, the anthology falls short of what I had hoped for. My first real issue is the selection of the poets. I’m troubled by the fetishization of ‘women’s literature’ in a way that seems to prioritize gender over everything else, as though the mere fact of being a woman makes these poets worth reading. This is a problem I think with the abuse of the gender-theory discourse, that since historically non-heteromale writing and voices have been elided or eliminated, claiming a position outside of that hegemony automatically lends significance and interest to the work. This cheapens the position for those who are truly concerned with the substance of these positions. And while Aída Cartagena Portalatín has a genuine position of protest on political, gender and race issues, the introduction’s argument that “the personal is political” is clearly misused and perhaps misunderstood. Acknowledging that the personal, usually the domain of the feminine, can’t be quarantined from the public-political-masculine does not make love poems political missives in and of themselves. And the other two poets in the collection fall desperately short of occupying a position of critique, disobedience, experimentation or any other way of challenging the discourse of the heteromale.

Caribbean literature seemingly has to be framed politically in order for it to be considered in the U.S. If there’s no political approach, it’s irrelevant. Of course, this isn’t true just for the Caribbean. It’s true for Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, ect. ect. If the literature doesn’t easily fall within the aesthetic development of the ‘west,’ then what gets translated tends to be (or is presented as) politically engaged. This expectation that ghettoizes foreign literature into gratifying a cultural desire to see ourselves reproduced in the other. In large part political literature is more accessible. It doesn’t challenge our aesthetic values fundamentally, and it doesn’t force us to move further from a hegemonic definition of ‘good literature.’  And instead of confronting this attitude, Praises & Offenses plays right into it, attempting to fool the reader into believing the last two poets fall into some understanding of gender-political literature by merely being women. There was a real opportunity here to present a contextualized aesthetic that challenges the expectations of English readers. That would be a radical political use for poetry. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t even attempt to do that.

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