American Book Review: On Poets, Philosophers, Lovers
by Peter Hitchcock
Volume 42, Number 6, September/October 2021, pp. 21-22
“This is a welcome and well-conceived volume on the extraordinary work of Giannina Braschi, a Puerto Rican writer and consummate New Yorker whose creative decolonizing of aesthetics and culture deserves sustained critical engagement.”
Braschi is best known for three works in particular. El imperio de los sueños (1988 — re-translated into English by Tess O’Dwyer as Empire of Dreams ), is a feast of experimentation, a genre-defying exploration of a poetic dream world connected, sometimes, by New York City as well as by Braschi’s capacious reading of poetry in history. Spanish, like New York, is stretched and remade in Braschi’s poetry as she animates every character, jumping in and out of identities in a crazy whirl highly evocative of the kinesis of the Big Apple (including little bits of Macy’s, Shakespeare, and the Beatles). A second path-breaking work is Braschi’s Spanglish novel, Yo-Yo Boing! (1998), which understands the Latinx experience of the city as hybrid, contested, and bi-linguistically explosive (variations on the two “I”s of the title, and the clash between them). The third work in this informal trilogy of tribulation is a novel written primarily in English. United States of Banana (2011) is not all over the place for the sake of accumulation (as seen in capitalism, imperialism, and colonization) but seeks to articulate a counter narrative, a calling to account of US adventures (in Puerto Rico, most obviously) that wonders aloud whether the rhetoric of freedom symbolized by Lady Liberty might best be freely refigured by imagined characters, including Braschi in the novel, who sense that the unstable state of language does not automatically secure a united state in its name. By turns playful and polemical, Braschi’s writing troubles genres not least to question the formulations of identity meant to fill them.
In his introduction to the volume, Frederick Luis Aldama comments on the range of Braschi’s artistic expression, in performance, poetry, and fiction, as well as her critical works that span the genuflections of modernity and its afterlives. Aldama usefully links Braschi’s work to a number of pertinent cultural genealogies, including the Nuyorican scene of the Eighties, contemporary Latinx “canon benders” like Machado, Acevedo, and Ayala, queer and feminist matrices that include Peri Rossi, Hélène Cixous, Clarice Lispector, Gertrude Stein, and Marguerite Duras, and, most importantly, a Puerto Rican anti-colonial culture, a “symbolic aspiration” as Acosta Cruz terms it, that casts doubt on the baleful benevolence of the United States towards its putative “territory” to the south. Aldama also raises the issue of “translanguaging,” a translation problematic that undoes the either/or code-switching of Spanish and English in favor of a kind of hybrid heuristics. All languages are sites of rearticulation (that is what makes them languages) but their combined and uneven relations with one another are historically concrete, and Braschi channels and lives that vibrant specificity.
It is a testimony to the editors and contributors of Poets, Philosophers, Lovers that they are able to convey the energy, wit, and aesthetic nuance of Braschi’s timely interventions.AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW
The book is divided into three parts, with the first five essays addressing Braschi’s challenging approach to cultural forms through Latinx identity. One of the difficulties of reading Braschi is that she insistently sanctions peripeteia and the discursive reverie of peripatetics, so critics are tempted to “yo-yo boing!” their approaches as a mark of acknowledgement and solidarity. This is not necessarily a bad reflex, of course, (in criticism, as in art and translation, one must take on the “mystery of things”) but generally the artist is better at it and this is another reason to appreciate the current volume, since its contributors do not allow the “liquidity” of Braschi’s work, as Moreno-Fernandez puts it, to drown their own, and thus they illuminate the event of writing in both. There is much discussion of language on edge in this section, which goes to the heart of Braschi’s bold linguistic interventions. While sometimes it may be difficult to distinguish translanguaging, translingualism, interlingualism, bilingualism, and multilingualism, the profusion of terms points both to the linguistic experimentation at stake and to the complexity of Braschi’s identifications.
Individual essays underline the difficult positioning of Braschi’s writing. Maritza Stanchich, for instance, carefully unpacks the significance of Braschi’s major works (a veritable “this trilogy that is not one”) and links them to a global poetics of dissent in Latinx writing. Yet, as Stanchich acknowledges, this is not a standard disruption of cultural hegemony from below, since Braschi’s inspirations are also drawn from European avant gardes, traditions not simply outside a logic of Enlightenment in the West, just as she does not shy from Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, or Plutarch (her decolonial modes do not sanction gestural separatism). The “big bang” that Stanchich ascribes to Braschi is not about the purity of origin so much as it is the realization of agonistic hybridity, the creativity in translingual crosstalk. True, individual languages are themselves dialogic, and Jacques Derrida reminds us having two languages does not in itself sublate monolingualism, but as Part One of this volume attests, Braschi is a brilliant exponent of Latinx defamiliarization, both of normative identity and of the states they are deemed to inhabit. For Braschi, decolonization is not a laundry list of attributes, or a display of knowing citation.
It is a scene of cultural and political struggle where the capacity to imagine is the truth of change.
The second section of the book focuses on Braschi’s consummate abilities in voicing, both in the Bakhtinian sense of polyphony as a complex authorial braid of subjective speech, and in a sometimes unnerving, and deliberately so, ability to occupy different characters in a concatenation of vetriloquizing selves. These dimensions of voicing are highlighted in Cristina Garragos’s essay “Giannina and Braschi”, where the division in names is not a sign of split personality but is instead a ground of hybridization as such. Much of Braschi’s stylistic verve is termed postmodern and, in true postmodern style, Braschi distances herself from the association (such disavowal is, by the way, also to be found in postcolonial canons). Of polyphonic voicing, Elizabeth Lowry asks in her essay, “How can Braschi account for such conflicting identifications?” and in general, Braschi plays the contradictions rather than attempt to overcome them. States can also perform polyphony (cf. directives and policies on multiculturalism and “inclusion”) so Braschi’s slippery subjectivity (whether in Spanish, Spanglish, or English) imaginatively engages the subject of change, say, Puerto Rican identity, as a material challenge of history.
In her essay, Daniela Daniele usefully points out that Braschi often meets this challenge through riotous invocations of great literature (James Joyce, Antonin Artaud, William Shakespeare, etc.) and, while I am less sure this makes of “gamification” a concept, Braschi’s playfulness certainly includes an internal polemic regarding the terms of canonicity. The third part of the volume includes discussions of intermediality and radicalism in Braschi’s work and further accentuates the multi- dimensionality of her aesthetic interventions (including adaptations by others of her writing). Dorian Lugo Bertran details how Braschi extends generic imbrication through a kind of intermedial and intertextual referentiality. This is another way in which playfulness becomes a carnivalizing practice of excess and critique. Braschi is indefatigable in showing how the edges of genre and form can thematize the politics of affiliation and expression. Much of this comes down to the chaotic surfaces and multi-modal aesthetics of United States of Banana, the novel that is the subject of over half of the essays in the collection. The emphasis is well-deserved because in this text Braschi boldly takes the position that the “fictions” of US territoriality necessitate a counter-discourse of decoloniality, one which, rather than assume struggle is a professional parade of virtue validation, dreams of Puerto Rican island identity as unassimilable, as radically inconsistent with the logic of a US-derived plebiscito.
In the interview with Rolando Perez that ends the volume, Braschi affirms the nature of this poetic license, and indeed the power of poetry itself, novelized. That kind of enigmatic flourish is typical of Braschi and makes her Latinx poetics difficult, both as hard to understand and as uncontrollable. It is a tribute to the editors and contributors to Poets, Philosophers, Lovers that they maintain the contradictory tenor of Braschi’s oeuvre because in those contradictions she yet offers a belief in being without borders (“ninguno tenga una frontera”) which is reason enough to take this work and hers more seriously.
Peter Hitchcock is Professor of English at the Graduate Center and Baruch College of the City University of New York. His books include Dialogics of the Oppressed (1992), Oscillate Wildly (1999), Imaginary States (2003), The Long Space (2009), and Labor in Culture (2017). His next book is on seriality and social change.