An Invitation by Captivation: A review of Tilsa Otta’s And Suddenly I Was Just Dancing
by Greg Bem
And it dawns somewhere
And it’s impossible to be dead
(from “Final Reflection,” page 21)
Otta, Tilsa. And Suddenly I Was Just Dancing, translated from the Spanish by Honora Spicer. Cardboard House Press, February 2023, 56 pages (bilingual), $23.00. ISBN: 978-1-945720-27-7
Peruvian poet Tilsa Otta (Vildoso)’s new bilingual collection, And Suddenly I Was Just Dancing, emerges with energetic and beautiful English translations of the Spanish by Honora Spicer. This small and enveloping book includes works from two of Otta’s collections: La vida ya superó (Juan Malasuerte, México, 2018) and Antimateria (Ediciones Neutrinos, Argentina, 2014), as per Spicer’s translator’s note. While described as a chapbook, the publication feels holistic and representative of such great energy and experience that “chapbook” hardly covers the work itself. This is a bold new collection of resistance and liberation, barreling down new pathways of sexuality, gender, and love.
In this selection, Otta’s speakers are alive and aware and actively moving across the page, dancing, or sitting still marveling at the universe. But before we are introduced to them, we are introduced to time. The collection opens with a diagram of lines, much like penmanship books of the mid-1990s, with brief, handwritten phrases scrawled on each:
What just happened / What happens // What is written // What happened / What is going to happen (page 5)
The lines intersect blankly in the middle, leading gazes outward, pushing towards the future. We are invited to consider stability and fluidity, invited to question time, asked to enter the book with our heads on a swivel, knowledgeable, aware, and perhaps readying for surprise, or the opposite—submission and acceptance in lieu of things going any one particular way.
There is an uncanny sense of flow in the voices and experiences expressed throughout And Suddenly. Indeed, we need look no further than the poem featuring the book’s title, which explores the themes of activation and liveliness: “I learned pretty sweet nothings to say to you / but then I ran into a bunch of people / and suddenly I was just dancing” (page 7). There is a subtle fierceness behind these words, a recognition of the power of presence and a spontaneous joy that arrives as quickly as each line of poetry. Indeed, in the poem that follows the two opening untitled works, “Joy of Living,” the speaker embraces life and its abundance: “It’s so relaxing, this position / Staring at infinity in the eyes / Without blinking” (page 9). The tone established here introduces a cautious optimism, one that acknowledges abundance and potential.
Later, Otta writes: “Of you of me / I’m just flowing / Like the Flow / Like a dance supposedly obscene” (from “Final Reflection,” page 23), alluding to bonds, sexual liberation, and the club. The flow carries this short work in whirlwind and spiral, a Möbius strip looping in on itself. We are pushed forward from flow state to flow state, trance to trance, but gloriously there is control, there is method, there is a safety in this resounding intimacy.
How is the reader acknowledged? At times an invitation is all it takes for voice and power to emerge, calmly ushering the reader in. It is an invitation by captivation. “This poem is a heaven / so you can live here after dying / with all my heart” begins “Brand New Heaven” (page 25), and within this invitation is protection and promise. Otta continues the poem by exploring the meaning of refuge and breaking down barriers. She calls forth figures and characters and brings them together, diminishes foils. Marc Golan meets Mónica Santa María, who both meet “the girl from The Ring,” and nearby are Carl Sagan, Madame Blavatsky and Lord Byron. Otta’s worldbuilding provokes with harmony and satisfaction, stability and attention. It is hyper and fantastical and charming. And it works, slowly emerging from the confines of idealism and absurdity. Later in the poem, tension rises and reveals an aroused and ecstatic speaker who bursts with “Everything’s fine I’m fine I’m fine!” The breakdown of grammar pushes through the rhythmic and calm verse that precedes it (page 27).
Other times, we are connected and invited by proxy. “You were on me and night fell / On the haystack in the stable,” opens one poem (page 31). These lines exist as doors opening, as hands holding, as breaths intermingling, the poet and the reader sharing soft gazes and subtle marvels of bodies tangled in bodies, of shared energies, of trust, of a time and a place where we blend with one another. When the dance floor reverberates elsewhere, Otta’s awe and intimacies are quiet and touching, mellow passions descriptive of the texture of sensuality and the beauty of the commitment to shared space.
From the individual we move forward into broader invitations, those that are aligned with community, and community is aligned with energy. In “Hormone of Darkness,” Otta writes the incredible and relentless “A nightclub doesn’t make a summer / But I believe in perreo / Eternal recreation” (page 15). In the book’s afterword, translator Honora Spicer writes of “perreo” as “an anticolonial space of sensual and sexual liberation.” But what of the word? The word is complex. A literal translation yields “dogging,” and “perreo intense” is a form of twerking or club dancing that aligns with the poet’s embrace and emergence. There is a very physical urgency to be one, to be collective. In a later poem—perhaps the most powerful of the collection—which Spicer connects to the “perreo” that shows up in other poems, Otta speaks of the dog and the wolf directly: “Obligatory song in wild lyceums / In hairy after hours that you tipetoeingly entrail / Dog, Wolf / Devil Poor / Definitive Animal” (from “Definitive Animal,” page 35). The poem unleashes a call, literally and figuratively, that embraces an animalistic and utterly ferocious (while jubilant and connected) energy. This call, this beckoning, responds to systemic challenges, injustices, and the unnamed but ever-present ominous force that lingers on the periphery of Otta’s world, having stifled before and stifling into the future.
Otta challenges this ominous dampening of open gender, open sexuality, open openness. The sparsest words reflect the unwriteable, those moments of oneness that are bond and intimate connection. In “We each know where we need to be,” Otta writes: “we grow like the sea / which began / like a singular / person” (page 39). It is one proclamation of many in And Suddenly that reflect the progress of relationship and shared love, shared fight, shared commitment. This is a deeply personal exploration that culminates with (but is not exclusive to) the book’s final poem, where Otta opens into the future (and loops back into the collection):
Every time I devote myself to my astronomical observations
I sense that I love every one
(from “How is it possible that you have 53 moons Saturn,” page 49)
Otta’s challenges are exquisitely rooted in the personal and the brief, but their range and intention feel big, inclusive, holistic. The poet provides broad strokes that are fleeting and resonant, blurred images that cascade across time and space, lingering like warmth, or like echoes that urge sense through awareness of resonance. Otta’s instructional, if not choral, approach to poetry takes moments of the private, the intimate, and bridges them with intention and care. We are on the receiving end, invited into time and space, a snapshot of relationships and circumstances in 49 pages of Spanish and English, and inducted into spaces and structures where awe tears away at dominance and dominating forces:
I want to see
Who can open their mouth wider
Who has the longer tongue
More police disarmed and reassembled
Who put an orifice where there was a law
A cock where there was a whistle
Hysterical holding up traffic
The stoplights blush so red
The windows to the street aren’t working
Leak and we dance
(from “Hormone of Darkness,” page 15)
Greg Bem is a librarian, experimental poet, multimedia artist, and labor activist based on the unceded lands of the Duwamish and Coast Salish peoples (the Seattle metro). His book reviews and interviews can be found in Rain Taxi, North of Oxford, International Examiner, Poetry Northwest, and more. He has one full length book: Of Spray and Mist (Hand to Mouth Books, 2020), and is currently working on generative text projects using the latest AI platforms.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, March 14, 2023