In 1814 Pierre-Simon Laplace wrote the first published statement of what is known as causal determinism. This is the idea, in general terms, that every event is necessarily caused by previous events and conditions in accordance with established laws. Though this deterministic view has its precedents in Ancient Greek philosophy, Laplace’s formulation places it in the context of the modern scientific revolution. Today, the idea that all human activity can be explained by natural science is often taken for granted. Nevertheless, despite all our knowledge of the laws of physics, the workings of our brain, our genes, do we really know what it means to be human? This framework of enquiry lies behind many of Mori Ponsowy’s poems in Enemies Outside. Ponsowy’s first collection shows her skill in merging complicated, and evocative thoughts with everyday reality, scientific axioms with the paradoxes of life, all in an unblemished narrative voice.
Ponsowy is a Buenos Aires-based poet, translator, novelist and columnist, and Enemies Outside has already been awarded two major Argentinean prizes. She is also one of the four Argentine women poets published by Waterloo Press, under the “Sur Translation Program.” This collection’s twenty-two poems display a wide variety of themes, ranging from melancholy meditations to laudatory exultations; from observations of childhood and maternity, to penetrating explorations on memory, history, and existential estrangement. For all that variety however, in Enemies Outside, Ponsowy’s main voice is a searching one, posing questions, or – more often – trying to figure ways of negotiating the lack of explanations.
Although born and now resident in Argentina, Ponsowy spent many years in Peru and most of her life in Venezuela. This may account for the lack of Argentinean verbal idiosyncrasies in her poetry, which sets her apart from other Argentinean poets such as Tamara Kamenszain (also published by Waterloo). Her Spanish has a neutral and general flavour, decanted of superfluous embellishments, resulting in a clear syntax. This style is mirrored in the translation, by the author herself in conjunction with the English writer Naomi Foyle – a novelist and poet herself with two published collections to her name, including The Night Pavilion. She accurately conveys the texture of Ponsowy’s verse, its apparent easeful tone, layered over paradox and hidden meanings. Often, this is accomplished using the image of something ordinary and meagre to probe the depths of ideas, as in “No Peeking”:
Unaided by words, perhaps slugs know more
about leaves than all our Darwins.…
This characteristic restraint is absent, however, in the first poem of the collection, “Paradise”, which describes the predeterminated and instinctual actions of a bird. This image is then abruptly contrasted with human doubt and frailty:
Dumb bird, unable to err!
You will never race through this garden
in the cold day, feeding your doubt,
fleeting the presence of God.
Perhaps the speaker’s verdict in the final lines may seem an emphatic conclusion that, for all the well-wrought imagery, can distance one from the poignancy of the ideas – but let the reader decide! This poem is unique for Ponsowy: its condensed form and imperious tone emphatically set it apart from the rest. In contrast, her most compelling poems keep that subtle sense of unresolved enquiry, grazing on moral paradoxes rather than reducing them to definitive pronouncements. As the speaker in “It Would Have Been Easier” says:
Instead of knowledge
I keep on stumbling on questions.
As a whole, this collection conveys a very human fragility, suggested by the continuous allusion to specific philosophical problems, including Laplace’s determinism. Yet her poems bring such questions down from the Olympian heights of conceptual reasoning to everyday reality and quotidian preoccupations. Ponsowy’s achievement resides in her skill in embedding these enquiries with unmistakable human warmth, making Enemies Outside both approachable and compelling, and Ponsowy herself a poet to keep in sight.