Despotic Words, Delirious Fragments: "Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk" by Rocío Ágreda Piérola
Updated: May 10
Translated by Jessica Sequeira.
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021, $9.60)
Reviewed by Daniel A. Rabuzzi
Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk, by Bolivian poet Rocío Ágreda Piérola as translated by Jessica Sequeira in a well-fashioned bilingual edition from Ugly Duckling Presse, challenges and frustrates for all the best reasons. Think philosophy—Wittgenstein, Derrida, or Merleau-Ponty—rendered via poetry, borne along by elements of surrealism, dream-journaling, and ecstatic communion. Ágreda Piérola uses language (“despotic words,”18) to subvert, interrogate and refute language itself—her work exhilarates in its daring. When language as a tool cannot define or defend itself, Ágreda Piérola reduces words to “delirious fragments” (3), finds language in silence and in illiteracy, attempts to make isometric the event experienced with the event recounted (or possibly foretold). Heady stuff, which she manages with aplomb. Sequeira's translation is more than up to the challenge (no easy feat!), and her notes are also very helpful.
Ágreda Piérola focuses on the temporality of language, on time's passage between the start and ending of any utterance or writing. In so doing, she erases the illusion of language's fixed points in time, of the seeming permanence of text through time. “Maybe if I could at least lend a hand to time,” she writes (1); “We'll always be late or too early never on time” (10); “Yet what matters isn't arrival but the journey, to weave, knit time or unknit it” (4). Hence the title image, that of horses drawn with blue chalk on the walls of her childhood street, gone when she returns in adulthood (6). The symbol existed once, and now does not. And language may not be enough to preserve meaning, it may be an “amnesiac goddess” (8). How then can we can resist its siren call (Ágreda Piérola refers to the Sirens several times)?
“Our religion has been silence” (10) is Ágreda Piérola's first response. She insists on the vital sanctity of “ precious solitude” (4): “I plow this desert. I cultivate the onions of silence” (2). She summons allies, with quotes from Maurice Blanchot, Franz Wright, and Héctor Viel Temperley. Like them, Ágreda Piérola offers a way forward—silence as a cure, not a calamity. She aims to “unwork” language to re-create time, to yield “a secret movement / an unknown music” (18), to “cultivate a form of speaking that isn't collapse” (13). She yearns for reconstruction: “...from the depth of language a certain intelligence speaks […] Somehow I must make even language arrive” (4).
Ultimately, the goal is to make a language as it might have been in the very beginning, completely limpid. “It's as if my language were a material that molded itself perfectly to my thought, with no tension, no need for agony” (1). Her effort reminds me of, among others, Duchamp's work, that of Ribemont-Dessaignes, Tzara and other Dadaists, of Ionescu and Robbe-Grillet—breaking into the internal workings of meaning to repair and transcend it. Joyceans are likely to enjoy Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk, perhaps aficionados of Anthony Braxton or The Art Ensemble of Chicago may as well.
Most impressive of all, Ágreda Piérola delves into paradox and phenomenology without being either glib or sententious. Indeed, she maintains a sense of play throughout, with sly, tantalizing references to (among others) Dante, E.T.A. Hoffmann, the Russian actress Margarita Terekhova, Spinoza, perhaps Ingeborg Bachmann. We should all be grateful that Ugly Duckling Presse published Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk, and hope that Ágreda Piérola continues to gain a wider audience among Anglophones (with Sequeiros as translator and guide). As the poet says in the translator's words (4):“the absence you've imposed on me is priceless, my love. How will I repay you?”
Daniel A. Rabuzzi has had two novels, five short stories and ten poems published (www.danielarabuzzi.com). He lived eight years in Norway, Germany and France, and earned degrees in the study of folklore and mythology, and European history. He lives in New York City with his artistic partner & spouse, the woodcarver Deborah A. Mills (www.deborahmillswoodcarving.com), and the requisite cat. Tweets @TheChoirBoats