Cold Fire/Fuego Frío by Verónica Zondek translated by Katherine Silver World Poetry Books 2022 $16.00 by Ken Walker
In nature there is a multiplicity of objects, and then there are a handful of foundational elements. One constant that may ladder up to those foundational elements being archetypal is that they seem to evade overt objectification. For instance, scientific understanding of the moon does not necessarily affect the ontology of the poetics of the moon nor its surroundings.
Verónica Zondek’s first poetry collection translated into English—Fuego Frío (World Poetry Books, 2022, translated by Katherine Silver)—proves this quite well by strategically tuning its lingual Canto strings to form a combinatory tapestry of one of nature’s foremost elements—the wind.
Zondek’s book begins with a wind that “swoops” only to leave behind a plain “Silence.” It is that swooping combined with that silence that so taciturnly demonstrates that archetypal juxtaposition all throughout elemental life—an unanswered question.
And after that, silence appears:
A silence falls and the opalines fly in vain. Caws a bird caws. It screeches it sings its howl and covers with a warm-blooded hand one breast of sky.
Zondek’s colossal tapestry begins to take its full formation in this settling.
In an interview with Pedro Tapia León via Escenario Cultural, Zondek says that “This book acquires its core experience and language from a tour of the province of Aysén with the photographer Abel Lagos, after awarding us a FONDART to carry out a project that we entitled La Raíz del Viento (The Root of The Wind). This consisted of following the wind and its footsteps, to leave a testimony of his subject with writing and photography. It is for this purpose that we set out to tour the area for two intense weeks.” The Aysén region is in southern Chile (or, northern Patagonia)—where the wind blows so hard there is no LTE. It is also home to the the Cuevas de Mármol—caves on the Chile/Argentina border that perfectly reflect the duality of the wind’s playfulness and potentially evil insistence. Zondek’s presence there is deeply reflected in the following part of Fuego Frío’s finale, from Canto 20:
To dwell in a blue forest. To dwell in a whitened time that fades desire. To dwell in a profound installation of oblivion. To dwell in a verb of personal responsibility. To dwell in a verb of generous embrace.
Throughout the book, Zondek’s speaker goes from claiming “I am but one of nothing” (13) that is “trapped” (14) acknowledging that we have “no future other than/ a new exodus/ neglect/ because the wind won’t stop/” (18). Then, we read:
The wind and the condor/ immensity. All so alone/ so orphaned/ so exposed... What is to be done?
And after so much narratively ornate witnessing, we arrive at this simultaneously open and closed question—“What is to be done?” (¿Qué hacer?). It yields to both a powerlessness and a new beginning, a confident lack. That apposition is persistently ubiquitous throughout the long-form poem, as in:
the pain of torsos/ the petty maiming/ and the naked boastful shout/ and the nobody listening/ because there is no ear anymore/ no eyelash/ no brow
It’s hard not to see something else embedded in some of Zondek’s turns of phrase—a world where some people lived through Chile’s September 11 and some people are born after it— those traumatized forever and those with no memory of Pinochet’s dictatorial rule at all—“the nobody listening/because there is no ear anymore.” Imagine the wind blowing while some henchmen are doing Pinochet’s terroristic dirty work and throwing bodies out of a hovering helicopter high above the foaming waves of the Pacific. That’s where the petty maiming meets the nobody listening—in the destruction that the wind allows and later sings about. In that sense, this text situates itself somewhere between the overt political torque of Raúl Zurita’s INRI and the scale and proportion of Neruda’s Alturas de Machu Picchu.
While the Cantos all take unique forms throughout, it’s difficult not to draw attention to the use of negative space—occasionally a single 4-word line appears centered on an entire page (like a cave) compared with a frequent use of blockade and backslash. Those blockades remind me of Etheridge Knight who was potentially reflecting both his technological and existential limitations while writing in an Indiana prison; whereas it is the symbolic nature of Zondek’s use of the backslash that more so matches the glory of the musical heights of Knight’s—not only in repetition but subject matter. The wind pauses. The wind breaks. The wind creates a wall within and without which our meager human movement can be stopped or pushed. As does the backslash. This hits hardest in Canto 14:
Wounded I go forth/ cutting branches/ kicking stones/ reading stones/ amassing stones/ and I observe/ observe that pink and placid huemul/ while the cold wolf/ the scythe that sits in the wait blows/ blows/ blows/ and I tremble/ tremble/ tremble in the silence of your cursed trawls/ and I sing/ sing/ sing quietly/ adrift/ solitary ship/ bird of mutilated wings/ quill that writes/ a word alone/ alone in the wind.
The stature of the backslash meets the shiftiness of the wind—the rind of a change of a pace as a formless mountain on the ground. This choice of implementing a foundational element’s real presence through the musicality and concrete typography of both negative space and backslashes also seems to yield to a respect of place—perhaps a nod to the Mapuche’s blended creation stories where life is viewed as a journey to conquer four types of knowledge while contrapuntally interwoven with four types of wind with which they communicate. In Canto 18, Zondek writes, “Do you think a skeleton sees?” and it’s impossible not to connect that with the murders and hardly surreptitious disappearances of Mapuche people that happen throughout the Biobío region of Chile. If a skeleton were to see, how might it sing into the present?
Repetition may be the best way of singing for a skeleton to gather and deliver its point. This is another of the formulaic methods in Zondek’s book that is striking, as in one example, here from Canto 13:
Tombs of silence, tombs of earth, tombs… Falls, falls, falls [ … ]
The repetition of a hard wind silences us. The repetition of a chant or a protest that goes unheard can only hope to become an echo. But, where does repetition begin? Ironically, Zondek’s original text—the LOM Ediciones (2016) begins in a way that this English translation does not, with a sound. It goes
This is, for me, an incredible way to begin a book—language-less, illegibly, and sonically. Is the sound of the wind specific to individual languages? Whoosh vs Tshhhh? That may be the necessity of asking things in repetition—it helps us forget the beginning. And that is the very series of dilemmas in which humanity finds itself today—lost in swirling repetitions with no way back to the song of the beginning.