Tinta Negra/Black Ink

Tinta Negra/Black Ink by Xánath Caraza
Translated by Sandra Kingery.
Review by Octavio Quintanilla

Tinta Negra/Black Ink 2016
Paperback: 80 pages
Language: English/Spanish
Translated by Sandra Kingery.Publisher: Pandora lobo estepario Productions.
ISBN: 1940856272


Written in Spanish and translated into English by Sandra Kingery, Xánath Caraza’s new poetry collection, Tinta Negra, or Black Ink, is comprised of thirty short poems that meditate on subjects such as nature, poetry, and love. Because subject matter often dictates language, Caraza heavily relies on tropes evoking nature and the nature of poetry, a strategy that helps create cohesion in the collection. Words such as “poetry,” “water,” “wind,” and “trees” are essential in keeping these poems in dialogue.

The pages of the book are unnumbered, and because the poems are also untitled, Caraza uses Roman numerals to indicate each new poem. These characteristics point to the ways in which the poems can be read: they can be read as individual entities, or as parts of a long poem.

The recurring motifs, one of which is that of poetry itself, facilitate reading Caraza’s work as a long poem broken into parts. In poem “V,” for instance, Caraza writes about her desire for poetry to arrive: “Every day I’ve thought you / invoked you…everyday your lips / drank my water.” Personified, poetry arrives to Caraza, not to give her a bowl of cool inspiration for her to sip, but rather, to take back the last drop she might have had. Inspiration. This, ultimately, is the idea that the poem rejects—it is not always inspiration that get us to write poetry, Caraza suggests, but a poetic regimen: “every day with discipline / the final word and the first / precious poetry.”

Because the ars poetica is at the core of these poems, in poem “VIII,” Caraza summons Federico García Lorca’s duende: “Fill the words with magic / let them flow onto the paper / there are no fears or shadows that / can contain them.” After the invocation, “Black ink runs through my veins,” Caraza writes. Allusions to poetry, to the act of writing, and to the relationship between poet and poem emerge throughout Caraza’s collection. These concerns create unity and allow the reader to think harder about how the collection can work: not just as a gathering of thirty short poems, but also as a long poem with a more ambitious reach.

Individually, Caraza’s poems gain their power from repetition and ellipsis. Caraza’s language is abstract and, overall, rejects narrative. Other than naming the Hudson River in numerous poems, Caraza relies on the reader’s ability to make personal, social, and historical connections within the poem and between the poems. This is what I liked about Caraza’s writing: she has faith that as readers we will find points of emotional complexity in her work. Take for example, the first poem in the collection. The poem opens with rain, and then, without preamble, we enter the speaker’s political consciousness: “What is a border,” the speaker asks, and the question is not rhetorical. For the speaker, a border is more than a theoretical “limit”; for the speaker, a border is a concrete thing: it is the “nameless / men and women who barely / leave a trace of their existence in / the deserts.” These “anonymous beings” are the evidence that borders exist and that they can be defined by the brutality they engender. Although we often tend to argue for poems that locate us in specifics, by resisting this impulse and exploring universality instead, not just in this poem, but throughout the collection, Caraza further comments on the invisibility our individual experience may undergo. A risky move, but it pays off for the attentive reader.

For those of us who can read Spanish, the poems will take on a new spirit when read in their original language—an emotional intensity that I didn’t quite encounter in their English versions, although I must point out that Kingery’s translations are skillful. But this is the nature of translation—something always gets lost.

Caraza’s first point of contact with poetry is the blank page, and in turn, what she leaves of herself on it is her gift to us. In poem “XVIII,” Caraza writes: “Love is stronger / distance is shortened / skin burns on the pages.” Indeed, with these poems, Caraza shortens the distance between herself and others the only way she knows how: with every line-break, with every syllable, with every drop of her black ink.

Octavio Quintanilla

Author of If I Go Missing