By Hélène Sanguinetti
Reviewed by Alice Maglio
After spending time with Hélène Sanguinetti's poetry collection The Hero, any attempt to classify, label, or contain the work feels counter-intuitive. Translated from the French by Ann Cefola, this collection vibrates, slithers, and undulates—the language itself echoing various natural elements with which it is so obsessed. By way of loose guidance, Sanguinetti divides the collection into eleven sections or poems, consisting of locations (The Expanse, The Town, The Canal, The Ditch), characters (The Son, The Women, A Poor Man), and experiences (The Battle, The Meal, Victory). This is where the guidance stops, and our task as readers is to observe and form connections, however tenuous, among the parts we are given.
A primary tendency of this collection is to dislocate rather than ground. Personhood itself is extremely slippery, and character continually shifts. Sanguinetti gives us the hero of the title (one of mythic proportions), and the collection chases after him—from his inception, through his adventures, and into his return. The hero himself begins as the son, and even before that, he has other selves: "When I was much smaller than small . . . I was king, fountain purveyor, / builder of African Pavilions, Imprisoned, shot despite his / tears. I was a cat." This once cat once king accepts his role as hero, starts fighting in battle, then looks at a "photo overexposed / outline of a man far away, bends." And the text displaces us again. Is the hero this man in a photograph, or is this representation just an echo of him? The text continues to introduce other male characters, some of whom are fighters, and we must ask ourselves if they all coalesce into the idea of the hero. The hero's is the only genesis we witness, so maybe we can assume that all maleness and valor spring from this one source.
Set against the hero is the she, the beloved, the concept of the feminine. Like the hero, she takes on many forms, beginning as the pure young girl walking alongside him. She is also the mother, the little sister, and Natalina. But she is not only a human, she is also the divine, Dawn as well as the she-ass, a bright white donkey who seems to survive multiple world endings. The woman is someone often consumed, eaten, punctured: "Another Hunchback behind the window comes in with caramel apple so round and red and sweet, eat the white / girl punctured white." She is at once red apple and white girl, ripe for the biting. And yet she perseveres to the end, returning to the young girl waiting for the hero upon his return.
The world Sanguinetti constructs around these characters and concepts is at once ancient and contemporary. We begin to feel safe in the setting of the old village, the far-away locus that can produce the hero of mythic proportions. Then Sanguinetti begins to insert other objects: the valise, a cigarette, a bus station. There is no safety here. The divine Dawn is not so far removed from mortals: "The beautiful exasperated Dawn / She does her hair (sitting) before the pane that the busses rattle / she guesses who will love and not come." This is a world where Dawn has to contend with busses and the inner workings of mortal love.
In yet another act of removal and displacement, the text itself exists in translation. But I am not conscious of the translation as I read it. The writing feels immediate, free. The language misbehaves, moves in and out of stanza, among speakers, and the translation keeps pace. In one section, the verse moves diagonally across the page in words that aren't even all words: "Comfort / Desireness / Unpleasantnness / Disspleasure / Destiny / Oroomny / Oroom / Hope." Though I don't know the words in French, I know the "disspleasure" is not quite displeasure—it's something more drawn out, more felt, something that hisses. And maybe "oroom" is something hollow, roomy, filled with the sensation of a round "o." All of these language experiments delight.
When I think I have a foothold at the end of one section, the collection wrenches it away from me in the next. It evades me on a stanza by stanza level. But I think it wants to do this. The Hero does not want to be over-intellectualized—it wants to be felt, smelled, heard. It's a work without edges, pushing outwards.