Nine Coins / Nueve monedas by Carlos Pintado
New York. Akashic Books. 2015. 88 pages.
The second title to win the Paz Prize for Poetry—presented by the National Poetry Series and The Center at Miami Dade College to a previously unpublished manuscript written in Spanish by a resident of the United States—Nine Coins / Nueve monedas is Cuban American poet Carlos Pintado’s third book of poetry and the first to appear in English translation. Pintado’s poetry employs a wide range of forms to, in the poet’s own words, “revisit old myths with a contemporary approach, a kind of fresh look at ancient temples.”
Beyond their variety of forms, the poems’ subject matter incorporates a vast range of influences from the worlds of literature, mythology, philosophy, and the visual arts, both classical and contemporary. His poems reference Bosch as well as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In the poem he wryly titled “Spring Break” in the original Spanish, the speaker “Like Anna Akhmatova / [awaits] the coming / of the tanks.” In an early prose poem, “Books & Books, Lincoln Road,” the speaker engages with Paul Auster’s Invisible to the point of becoming one of its characters, “like some absurd witness passing through.”
Translator Hilary Vaughn Dobel does an excellent job of reproducing Pintado’s tone and diction; her translation stands confidently on its own, without hewing any more closely than necessary to the original. While much of the poetry in Nueve monedas does rhyme in Spanish, Vaughn Dobel has not sought to reproduce that rhyme in English, the right decision in this case because of how Pintado uses rhyme in his own work, more often to end enjambed lines than not, a subtle use more suggestive of English-language New Formalists than the more baroque Spanish-language poets of midcentury. Unfortunately, while Vaughn Dobel’s name is listed on the cover, her biography is not included within the book, an oversight I hope can be corrected for the next volume in the series.
The last line of the book’s title poem, “Nine Coins,” a brief prose poem, relates life in a phrase that could equally well describe Pintado’s collection, in the best possible sense: “Someone was tossing coins into the water. Life was like that: a perception most strange, and nothing more.”