Microgramas, by Jorge Carrera Andrade. Translated by Alejandro de Acosta and Joshua Beckman (Seattle: Wave Books, 2011). 85 pages; 5 x 7. Matte gray card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-933517- 55-1. Price: $16.00 from the publisher at <email@example.com>.
Ecuadoran poet Jorge Carrera Andrade (1902–1978), a diplomat who served in many countries, was a major figure in Latin American literature. A portion of his work has been considered by critics to be related to the avant-garde literary movements of the pre–World War II period. (He also translated the poetry of French Surrealist Pierre Reverdy into Spanish.) However, he never quite reached the heights of literary quality and fame of Neruda, Vallejo, Huidobro, Paz, Parra, or Borges, although he was a talented writer. Carrera Andrade’s term "micrograms" seems to indicate something like "small telegrams" but whatever he meant, whatever you call them, they are not haiku. This book under review is a translation of Carrera Andrade’s original work.
As I said of Carrera Andrade's term "micrograms" many years ago in The Haiku in Spanish American Poetry, "His own definition of this new short poetic form did not include a direct comparison with haiku." Actually, now I don't think it's a "new poetic form" at all, as it really doesn't go beyond the invention of the new term itself. Innovation, however, was very important to these nontraditional poets of that time. Carrera Andrade divided his original book in three parts, the first an essay on short poems in Western literatures, especially Spanish, but including mention and allusions to haiku. The other two parts of the book are the section of micrograms and then a segment of Japanese haiku in translation—as if the Ecuadoran poet were saying that his micrograms were a Western poetic form equivalent to haiku.
The Ecuadoran poet uses natural flora and fauna as focal images of his micrograms, and all other words and elements are adjunct to the central image. A few of the animals and plants he used include hummingbirds, oysters, macaw, tortoise, nut, toad, spider, flamingo, earthworm, corn and corn kernel, blowfly, swallow (bird), pear, cactus, butterfly, poplar, seagull, birds (general), crickets, palm tree, mouse, fish, lizard, caterpillar, cicada, and seashell. While in classical Japanese haiku nature is the focus, and humans are a part of nature, in Western societies, human culture is dominant over nature when rationalism (which goes back to Greek philosophy) forces a subjective-objective split and man is raised above the natural. Western rhetorical devices in literature proceed from this premise and therefore are in some ways antithetical to the aesthetic of classical Japan. So, when Carrera Andrade brings Western metaphor (or other Western rhetorical devices) to Japanese haiku, the result is cleverness rather than Zen philosophical appreciation of the relationship between humans and nature. It is a superficial surface comparison rather than the mind diving into the water of the pond after the frog jumps in, swimming through ripples of consciousness.
Some examples of "micrograms":
The tropics patch together
golds and fires to make for him
a coat of flags
Tiny measuring tape
with which God measures
Carrera Andrade and other Latin American poets have linked micrograms to shorter Spanish poetic forms, such as the epigram or the saeta, neither of which is correct in my opinion. Again, this seems to be Western poets looking superficially at poetic forms in terms of only brevity and cleverness. (Cleverness is often what they see as a link between these poetic forms and haiku.) Or a view that haiku is a sort of "bonsai poem."
Since the micrograms of Carrera Andrade have been translated before, I'm not sure why those involved decided to publish this book, although there is nothing wrong with another translation if it betters the previous ones or includes other qualities that go beyond earlier efforts. In this case, though I cannot say I've seen all of the others, it is clear there is nothing in the manner of improvement over other versions. There cannot be, because the translations appear to have been done by untested translators, or inexperienced poets, or a combination. The easily translatable, of course, are fine in the book, but when there are words with multiple meanings or nuances, there are problems. This is also true of the translations of Japanese haiku (from the Spanish). Two examples: their translation of Nuez ("Nut"), a four-line microgram which at one point turns on the words cerebro de duende ("elf brain")—that is, the nutmeat looks like an "elf brain"—but they call it a "magic brain," a phrase which doesn't really have an exact linguistic basis, nor is it a good poetic version since it eliminates the whole point of Carrera Andrade's image. And here is a famous haiku from Basho (that most readers will recognize) in their translation: "Pepper of my soil/Give it wings/and it is a red dragonfly." Of course, in the original the equivalency is between a pepper pod and a dragonfly, but that is lost here.
Microgramas was originally published in 1940 in Tokyo by Editorial Asia America. Some other translations of the work of Jorge Carrera Andrade include: Micrograms, trans. Steven Ford Brown and E. Ojeda (Quito: 2007); Selected Poems of Jorge Carrera Andrade (Albany: SUNY Press, 1972), ed./trans. H.R. Hayes; and Century of the Death of the Rose: Selected Poems of Jorge Carrera Andrade, 1926–76, ed./trans. Steven Ford Brown (Louisville, Ky.: NewSouth Press, 2002).