Ruth Behar is an anthropologist who has always reached out beyond her discipline. She was one of the first U-M professors—and the first Latina of any scholarly or artistic endeavor—to win one of the MacArthur “genius” grants. In the early 1990s she published Translated Woman, a book where she, the observer, was an intimate part of the narrative, which recounted the life of Esperanza, a Mexican street peddler. It was a major step in Behar’s exploration of the nature of storytelling and how it can change both the teller and the listener.
Now Behar has published a collection of prose poems she has worked on for several decades. Everything I Kept/Todo Lo Que Guardé was written in English then translated by Behar into her native Spanish. The poems in the two languages appear en face throughout the collection. Behar’s family emigrated from Cuba when she was a child, and she grew up speaking Spanish at home. That sense of displacement, and her reconnection with Cuba, are themes that animate this collection. The poems are urgent; they often feel as if they have to be written: “This is why I must rush. I write with a gun to my temple. I write like a prisoner.”
Poems in Spanish are much more comfortable with explicit metaphors than some American poetry. Behar relishes that tradition, and her poems are often shaped by the pleasure of metaphors, even if the meaning approaches the reader obliquely. The very short prose poem “Balcony” allows Behar to bring the heat of Andalusia into an Ann Arbor winter:
Federico Garcia Lorca wrote “If I die, leave the balcony open.”
I don’t have a balcony, only a window shut against the bitter gray skies and
biting winds of winter.
If I die, leave the window closed!
A longer poem, “Errand,” begins, “I watch you from my window setting off with a monk’s devotion on another errand—to buy our bread, to put my poems in the mail.” The poet watches her partner move out on the snow-covered street, clearly in Ann Arbor,
“As I am watching, you step down from the curb. There’s a patch of ice frozen hard to the ground where you are about to slide your foot. I don’t know why, but I fear you will slip. And you do. You slip, and then you catch yourself.
And as I watch, something wants to come from me. No words. Not even a gasp. Nothing banal like tears. More like the crackle of memory.
A memory of desire.
A memory of the dry, dusty, sun-parched roads we’ve traveled.”
Ruth Behar reads from Everything I Kept/Todo Lo Que Guardé at Literati Bookstore on Friday, September 7, and discusses her work at the Kerrytown BookFest on Sunday, September 9.