Untranslatable Voices: Vickie Vértiz Writes Los Ángeles in “Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut”

By Isabel GómezJanuary 31, 2018

Untranslatable Voices: Vickie Vértiz Writes Los Ángeles in “Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut”

Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut by Vickie Vértiz

“IT’S THE BROKEN PARTS that matter” claims Vickie Vértiz, in a note to her poem “Nahuatl — A Revenge,” which features what she calls “imperfect” translations from the indigenous Nahuatl language into English. Vértiz’s imperfect translations recall what theorists Emily Apter and Jacques Lezra, following Walter Benjamin, call “untranslatables”: philosophical concepts that both invite and prevent transfer between languages, words that call out to be reinvented in their new language context precisely by resisting translation. In Vértiz’s poems, Latinxs living in California share “untranslatable” experiences that take place between English and Spanish. Her poems transform displacement and a polluted cityscape into sources of resistance and aesthetic restructuring. The visually and sonically rich setting of these poems may be polluted — by toxic air, water, and soil; toxic masculinity and white supremacy — but Vértiz celebrates what her community grows in this toxic ground and voices their untranslatable experiences.

Divided into three sections — “What You See, What You Take With You,” “Los Ángeles — A Palm Frond With Its Throat Cut,” and “Portrait as a Deer Hunter” — Palm Frond’s 32 poems challenge readers to follow complex shifts between voices that jump over lines broken and spaced across the page, code-switching between myriad registers of English and Spanish. Unlike an earlier generation of Chicana/Latina poets who placed Spanish sparsely within English poems (Sandra Cisneros, Lorna Dee Cervantes), Vértiz is not interested in being translatable. For a non-Spanish speaker, her poetry may be productively alienating, centering the reader who can follow her code-switching. Along with other transnational contemporary poets like Don Mee Choi and Bhanu Kapil, Vértiz’s poems make meaning by breaking up the page and breaking down language to reflect the resistance involved in living as a queer person of color in the white-supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative United States. The speakers in Vértiz’s poems are not Sandra Cisneros’s powerful high-femme Chicanas claiming their heterosexual desires, nor are they Cherríe Moraga’s Chicana lesbians healing one another from their complicity with Latino misogyny. Instead, they shape-shift, question, cajole, and interrupt in all the voices of Vértiz’s Los Angeles.

The poem “Lover’s Letter,” for example, dedicated “For Morrissey fans,” speaks through a Greek choir of ’90s emo Chicanx teens.

Because we craved permission to be despondent in English
Desperate to hide erections for boys
Behind Trapper Keepers
To document Kotex leaks in our journals
We needed
To be maudlin, to be untranslatable
To do this in private, in the company
Of someone with rank

The speaker expresses a desire to be “untranslatable”: paradoxically to be wholly singular but also to be seen as part of a collective. The affective space of Latinx Morrissey fandom is expressed here as both private and shared, performed in English as an act of resistance to Spanish-speaking parents. Later in the poem, this shared voice speaks through air pollution to topologically connect urban spaces that have developed and expanded at the expense of their most vulnerable citizens. Referring to Morrissey’s birthplace and the carbon-burning center of the Industrial Revolution, fans claim solidarity with the worst parts of both their hometowns. “In the carcinogenic heart of this Manchester / Our black lungs sing with you.” The black lung of a diverse Latinx population affectively identified across language and background is the wounded speech organ of the untranslatable voices coursing through Vértiz’s poetry.

The poem “Fábrica,” dedicated to Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, rejects gentrification as a misreading of the space. In “Fábrica,” anger erupts at the institutionalized discrimination and white privilege that allows developers armed with cultural capital and a savior complex to frame cultural erasure as generosity. The poem includes a series of lines in Spanish expressing the community’s varied experiences interacting with state authorities:

And if people don’t like it
Que se vayan mucho a la
Fábrica del interior
A procesar
Papeles, submit requests in writing for hearings
Where you won’t show up

Because you don’t have to
You go wherever the fuck you want
Like water, the lowest road

The “people” who “don’t like it” are Spanish-speakers who understand that the next line is cut off: if continued logically, it would read “que se vayan mucho a la mierda” or “a la chingada” — they can go to hell. They may be given the false opportunity for oversight in which the “Fábrica del interior” — perhaps a play on the Department of the Interior, a government body responsible for land management — invites them to “procesar / Papeles.” But pursuing the legal channels suggested by “procesar / Papeles” to block development will prove fruitless, given the structural imbalance that places moneyed gentrifiers over the people. The term “papeles” also refers to immigration documents, those all-important papers that police Latinx life in the United States along the axis of un/documented. Those living in Spanish need to be concerned with “papeles” — but even when the right papers are produced, in this poem, they won’t matter. A Spanish-speaking community may participate in the development process, but the deck is stacked against it.

The power imbalance between community members and developers depicted in “Fábrica” is also reflected in Vértiz’s journalism. In an article for the KCET series City Rising, she asked community leaders in Southeast Los Angeles if they fear their fight to decontaminate the neighborhood could attract developers and ultimately price out current residents. “Fábrica” could refer to any number of specific conflicts (closing the PSSST art gallery after protests, the more recent Weird Wave coffee brewers controversy) between community organizers and gentrifiers in Boyle Heights — and it bears mention that the latter are not always white nor newcomers. However, the poem remains unspecific, inviting readers to imagine what it might feel like to have a place you’ve called home transformed according to another person’s vision.

Gentrification is personified as a “codo,” literally meaning “elbow” in Spanish, but also a selfish, stingy person. The gentrifier is all elbows, but also noodle-soft, gently elbowing out the community with art galleries and hipster lighting.

There’s a plush pink monster sitting next to me
He means well, the macaroni elbow. ¿Codo? Yes
With no thumbs how much harm will he do                        can he do            has
he done?
He wants to bring art where none exists, philanthropic condos
His square head is soft, and he’s smiling. I know he won’t eat me
How many more times will he tangle my understanding?
How does it feel, you myopic spectacle,
To be my throbbing fluorescence?

This “plush pink monster” of white privilege is too “myopic” to see what is already there. Art galleries often pave the way for gentrification: like a “philanthropic condo” this selfish “codo” displaces the art community already present. As though in response to the assumptions of this “myopic spectacle,” Vértiz’s epigraphs throughout the collection index many Los Angeles Latinx art makers, pointing outside her writing to the visual artists who depict the same spaces. In “Laundromat” she invites you to “look through the tagging” and evokes Lavandería by Christina Fernández, whose photographs lend a sacred aspect to these local businesses. “Not a Movie,” an ekphrastic poem on the photograph Gores by the performance and conceptual art collective Asco, depicts a scene of punk street violence against a Chicano. “Downey Carne Asada” sketches a family barbeque like the collage “Downey Happy Birthday” by Shizu Saldamando. The collection’s title references sculptor Danny Jauregui’s dried palm frond on a red backdrop described as an “altered found object.” If Los Ángeles is a palm tree, Spanish-speaking L.A. is palm frond with its throat cut. With an accent mark, “Los Ángeles” becomes Spanish, not the Anglophone calque pronounced “Loss Anne-dja-less.” In Vértiz, this palm frond speaks through injury; the city is the “altered found object” made aesthetic material.

Found objects may be broken or toxic, but they can be altered, made beautiful, made to grow. The poem “This Is My Home” turns lead-polluted soil into a writing tool:

I don’t want to start off broken             But my pencil is running out
That’s OK            We have more lead in the yard

My home is            I can’t breathe                        Surrounded by sound walls
you            can’t            hear
In that quiet, a child finishes their homework,             closing a good thing

The LA River ends in Vernon                        After Slauson, the friends of the river run
out, too

The death stench is in our water            In our jobs            In the classroom
‎        Everywhere a gas leak

This is my home

The “lead in the yard” that refuels the broken pencil is one such found object. It becomes the lead of bullets and police violence when the next lines incorporate Eric Garner’s dying words: “I can’t breathe,” which became a protest chant, a call to rectify a political, environmental, and generational situation. Although circumscribed by the dried-up L.A. river, “gas leak” air, and soil planted with lead, the “home” described in phrases spread across the page gets woven together into an organic but strong sense of place and shared identity: “this is our bougainvillea triplex.” In the end, a student intervenes into the toxic situation, “boiling our water                        to get rid of your poison.” While sustainable solutions may not be apparent yet, claiming the space is the condition for its remaking in Vértiz’s collection.

While the “student” here serves to purify the toxic, the relative privilege of the Latinx student’s position is problematized in “How Can You Live.” Dedicated to “Iguala and Ferguson,” this poem connects Los Angeles with other sites of resistance while asking who has the privilege to protest. In Iguala, México, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were “disappeared” — kidnapped and murdered with the complicity of the state — while on their way to participate in a commemoration of the 1968 student protests; in Ferguson, Missouri, unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson, both events in 2014. Black people in the United States and student protesters in Mexico are vulnerable to state-sanctioned violence — more vulnerable than the poetic speaker, although that speaker might identify with their causes. The poem rejects the consumerism of some activists who may easily dress up in romanticized images of Che Guevara and Frida Kahlo but can also discard these identities and assimilate into whiteness — whereas other bodies cannot. The poem ends with a warning about the growing creep of privilege that dilutes solidarity.

The shine of black leather boots. The sky that great safety — and not guilt —
that injures
What injuries does education breathe?
And in the middle of a punctured lung,
is resistance

These lines challenge light-skinned Latinxs who enjoy the relative safety of US citizenship and education to not allow that privilege to mean collaborating with the anti-immigrant, anti-black police state. The “black lungs” of Latinx Morrissey fans are now punctured, neutralized. This poem expresses Vertiz’s apparent concern that untranslatable voices may be assimilated through education. The speaker asks: “How can you live? Citizen and for what,” a searing critique of those who do nothing with the privilege of US citizenship.

Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut insists that one thing an educated Latinx with citizenship privilege can do is write and live from a translingual, transnational place. In an epigraph, Vértiz cites Fred Moten on the “cause for celebration” from “Blackness as Nothingness” in which he supplements Afro-Pessimism with Black Optimism. This cause is not the existential violence of displacement, or the social death of blackness, but its results: the creativity, empathy, and necessity to build on the space that one is in, or as he puts it, the “black operations that will produce the absolute overturning, the absolute turning of this motherfucker out.” From the start, Vértiz aligns her Latinx poetics with Moten’s “black operations.” Her dancing between English and Spanish, refusing to be fully translatable, represents a key tactic. Vértiz aims not for celebration but for its very cause through poems that center the realities of Los Ángeles Latinx communities and their multilingual operations. Vértiz requires a change in the reader to actively listen to her untranslatable voices — the change to not speak over what may not be immediately apprehended, to not impose understanding or one version of order onto a space that is in the process of its own becoming.


Isabel Gómez is an assistant professor of Latin American & Iberian Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is currently at work on her book project, Cannibal Translation Zones: Literary Reciprocity in Brazil and Mexico.

LARB Contributor

Isabel Gómez is an assistant professor of Latin American & Iberian Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is working on her book Cannibal Translation Zones: Literary Reciprocity in Brazil and Mexico, and her recent publications include the articles “The Sor Juana Striptease by Jesusa Rodríguez: Gestural Translation and Embodied Protest,” “Brazilian Transcreation and World Literature,” and the book chapter “Translations of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Ideology and Interpretation.” Isabel translates from Spanish and Portuguese into English and has published translations in the Norton Critical Edition of Sor Juana’s works and in Jacket2.


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