WHAT’S IN A NAME BY ANA LUÍSA AMARAL, TRANSLATED BY MARGARET JULL COSTA
“Despite all, I speak of names: / because I cannot find / a better way:” writes Ana Luísa Amaral in her brilliant new collection, What’s in a Name, forthcoming from New Directions. The poems here are translated from the Portuguese into understated, lyrical English by Margaret Jull Costa—poems that are concerned with the power and limitations of naming the world. They read as intimate conversations between the poet and reader, in either the early hours of morning or the late hours of night, where small, everyday moments quickly spiral into great cultural, historical, and even cosmic significance. In the poem “Definitions,” a friend of the speaker must choose between buying a blue or white jacket. Soon, the color white becomes the moon, a "moss-free wall," "the way a cats walks." Amaral connects these images, by the color white, to Emily Dickinson’s "the White Sustenance-- Despair." For Amaral, this white sustenance is "the innermost part, or the part imagining / the unimaginable." It is the blank page.
Like Dickinson, these poems inhabit a lush inner life, one that “does not pass / quietly—”. In “Casualties of War,” the speaker shakes “a tiny speck / from this sheet of paper” which in a matter of stanzas becomes “a flamethrower of inflammable fluids / with a past waiting to attack.” After meditating on her own cosmic insignificance in “Differences (or minor glimmerings),” Amaral writes across “this sheet of paper. Which is what will remain. / As a book: interstellar ring, / like an onion awaiting a moonlight / other eyes cannot see.” In these pages, the inner life becomes external and the external world becomes internal. Words, which always “grow shorter / when said,” slip away from the things they name. And yet, the poems always land somewhere deeply human, with compassion for friends, for daughters, for refugees and the victims of war. These poems challenge us, asking: “Is it the light that’s late, or our / configuring gaze? / And the years translated / into our language, the millions of light years / made space-devouring / waves, do they cause space to collapse or to soar?”
—Review by David Brunson