Julie Sophia Paegle’s work is a fitting celebration of travel and pilgrimage for a very international Latina poet
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
FOR THE uninitiated, the bandoneón is that concertina favouring the flat, drawn-out notes of fugues that drapes the music of the orquesta típica, and hence the Argentine tango itself, in haunting, melancholic shadows.
It has been an inspiration to Latina poet Julie Sophia Paegle, for it combines solid European (Germanic) origins with New World (Argentine and Uruguayan) sensuality as well as the religious and the popular.
For Paegle, whose torch song tango choir collection has been critically received for its inventive diversity, the instrument provides tones against which she can depict the meandering chords of her own lineage, the tune that took her family from Argentina and Latvia to the United States.
In this sense, it has to be said, torch song tango choir is predictable: the tango is offered as the basis for its architecture, and the idea of scuffling feet more generally dealt out in explanation for the mood like a deck of cards dealt out at a campfire surrounded by gauchos. Historical snapshots of Argentina are also spread across the mantle in trusty forms.
But how can we do anything but excuse poetry that imagines Argentina for recruiting the tango or Eva Perón: they are its great melodramatic classical forms, and their popularity only seems to grow with every lithe and curving leg that popularise them.
And Paegle’s work does it proud, fused as it is with the tempo and pitch of the music and dance – but neither obsessed nor dependent on them – as she plots her family history, striking memories, and a broader personal and collective cultural exchange.
There is a particularly Latina focus that evokes genuine empathy and a knowing sense of the spiritual. In “Little Break from Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Pilar”, she writes of two men with a task whom a narrator guides in Tierra del Fuego:
“The men went ahead/beyond the trees./Just as I finished uncinching,/I knew what their task was.
The last cinch dangled, dark and warm,/close to its shadows on the loam, and it hit me:/They are scattering ashes. I knew.
I stayed away. I watched the cinch sway./Since then, this has walked beside me,/even through the cemetery today:
A man’s body, his whole life,/has come to this end, here, in this pond,/with these men and the horses and me.”
“La Primera Nieve”, for her mother, conjures up heady images of migration and longing:
“… And home always a hemisphere away, though/in the same mountain range, the same rain-shadow/as your childhood summers sped from Buenos Aires/to join your father (for a while to disappear)/in Miraflores, where we passed each new year/in air not unlike this, near Salt Lake, but there, no snow/ever-here this winter is merely late,…/
There are also surprises: a paean to the world’s second-oldest, still-running wooden rollercoaster; the colour of darkness under a bush with a boy; cinematic sidelines.
The collection’s second section, tango liso, is a more historically informed panorama that jumps between Argentina, Spain and the US. The former is clearly a rich source of ideas and emotions plucked from historical moments lose nothing for being familiar. In “Argentina (Buenos Aires, Eva Proposes, 1945)”, the great lady speaks to her future spouse with the majestic confidence that sealed her role in the popular imagination:
“…A messy/coup this was, indeed. Have a gin. I tire/of quiet tidying. All people require/is some small controversy,/some token. Do me this courtesy./In fencing, you aim for the heart. Desire/what your people desire …”
tango liso celebrates travel and pilgrimage, a fitting direction for this very international Latina poet whose work displays a keen ability to transcend the constraints of geography and culture, and to appeal on its own terms to a new, non-national reader.