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Analfabeto / An Alphabet

By (May 5, 2008) No Comment

Analfabeto / An Alphabet
Ellen Baxt
Shearsman, 2007

Dictionary lists intersperse the fragmentary text of Analfabeto / An Alphabet, but they are always incomplete. We have the English, but we don’t have all the Portuguese. So, for the letter J, we learn that “judia” means “jewess,” and “judiaria” means “ghetto,” but we do not know how to say “It was a good play,” or “boa constrictor (feminine).” The untranslated English pops up here and there throughout the text (along with some of the Portuguese we’ve learned and can now, partially, apply). Later, when presented with a landscape: “tarp / thatch / bags // jagged bottle halves against the pigeons,” we’ll only know what to call it (“judiaria”) if we’ve been paying close attention. That is, if a ghetto in Brazil is also a ghetto here.

Ellen Baxt’s Analfabeto is one of those books that teach the reader how to read them, and so it correlates with Baxt’s own life in Brazil, where she had to learn to read more than just the language (“the buildings have two addresses, one above the other so you are always at the wrong building”). Eventually, the idea of translation becomes the glass through which we read the text and everything seems related to it: handwriting, culture, religion, gestures:

Both hands
means very.

Come by
the house
means we’ll
see each
other again,
but is not
an invitation
to come by
the house.

Along with the dictionary entries, lists, and fragments, Baxt gives us what look like short entries in a journal or traveler’s notebook. In this, a short, sharp book, Baxt creates poetic language out of mistranslation (“Sit next to me, blacklist flatterer. Slow my lion”) and poetic encounters out of the enchanting and frustrating confusion of a foreign place:

She spreads her blanket over my geography, pushes the latch. At dawn she asks if my family knows. In the van she covered our legs and held my hand underneath. Você tem vontade? But I don’t know vontade.

Life, in fact, moves too swiftly for even the best translations, and it is the moments in which Baxt captures that alluring and maddening mix that are the reason to pick up a copy of Analfabeto:

The wind is picking up. A plane lands over the water as the ferry departs. Christine is at her desk in the Palisades plotting Grimano, Italy. The kids stand up and pump their swings. Intermittently, a bell rings. Across the water they’re trying to get read of the winter clothes. The mannequins’ shirts say “Liquidçāo” across their torpedoed breasts.

John Cotter
‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010 and his short fiction is forthcoming from Redivider and New Genre. He’s a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly and lives in Denver, Colorado.