Roque Raquel Salas Rivera on Translating The Book of Conjurations

Cover of the book of conjurations with a gradient background and headline text.

Poetry, like alchemy, can promise a material wealth it never quite delivers, transmutation through words, and the power to turn paupers into patrons, but most often promises an alchemy of the soul that strives toward a higher form. Irizelma Robles is best described as the second kind of alchemist. El libro de los conjuros/The Book of Conjurations, her fourth poetry collection, transforms poet, reader, and language. Among these pages we find all forms of material existence transmuted. Barbed wire, rain, soul, sugarcane, scream are all raw materials for alchemy, or poetry.

Drawing from the periodic table, precious and semiprecious stones, minerals, rocks, the elements, flora and fauna from the Caribbean and Latin America, and her memories, Robles creates an alternate cosmogony that neither rejects nor unquestioningly accepts Western medical discourse. According to the poet, this is a book born from her need to “transform the pain rooted in [her] hospitalizations and [her] experience with depression since [she] was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder.”[1] These poems conjure another life out of this one, a way forward despite and alongside her neurodivergence, depression, and anxiety. She imagines herself as the poet-alchemist to conjure another self in that poetic voice, one that survived and found metaphor, images, and poetic figures in the basest of elements. It is also a voice that found gold to be as useless as it was for all who once sought it, a tool of power that ultimately became dead weight in Robles’s quest.

What makes this alchemy spectacular in its difference is that the elements transform without the poet and before the transmutation. Each element is already living, moving, and changing, and so the poetry must work quickly with unstable elements and living matter. In the poem “Marble,” she describes this willingness to work with life as “Malleable, flexible, […] perfect for the alchemist’s foundry, / although neither gold nor clay.” The book’s title is itself malleable. “Un conjuro” can be translated as “a spell” or “a conjuration,” and this could just have easily been titled The Spell Book, but as is suggested in the opening epigraph by the Spanish poet Leopoldo María Panero, “los conjurados” has a different and equally important signification. To be conjured, to be invoked into a conspiracy and to be called from the spirit world into this one all overlap. Thus, though often used interchangeably with “spell,” a conjuration is a specific kind of spell that calls forth something from nothing. Because these are conjurations, they are also a specific kind of alchemy that deals with the spiritual, the crossing over of worlds, and bringing life into being through language.

In the poem “Sand,” Robles writes, “I come from the sea, / I have never abandoned / the white fish of the page.” The “white fish of the page” comes from that larger body of water; the poem comes from that liquid that knows no borders between self, poem, and reader. Still, other poems in the collection belie a struggle in which alchemy is ultimately failure, the inability to find the right formula or words to transform. “Coal,” for example, points to the forceful selection of the word “sadness” to describe the speaker’s experience, thus making something legible for which there are still no words. Robles writes, “I walked within the room’s four walls. / I forcefully wrote / sadness /and they let me go.” Here, I imagine a king, anxious for a remedy, and an alchemist who turns in incomplete formulas in order to buy more time. 

These poems challenge an alchemy that presents itself as science. In “Cobalt Blue,” medical discourse is associated with a long history of conquest, the erasure of previous forms of knowledge, and the possibility that the things designated as illnesses are often other modes of existence. The act of naming, with its long colonial history in the form of taxonomy, here becomes diagnosis. Robles expresses ambivalence when faced with the facile solution of the new name, the pill, and the institution. She questions these structures without outright rejecting all the experiences they encompass.

The book’s two final poems bring this idea home. They converse openly with Julia de Burgos’s late life experiences as a patient at Harlem Hospital and Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Welfare Island. “With You at Goldwater Hospital” refers to the way De Burgos became completely invisible as a patient in institutions that did not care about her poetry and saw her, status as a recently migrated Puerto Rican, as just another brown body subject to experimentation. Here, “the wind” is the element that transforms and joins both poets:

the wind carried us
to the shore of a world
without mirrors
where you could be seen,
but you were indelible,
pure ink.

The ending suggests that De Burgos became “pure ink” through her death and before she could be fully “seen,” but the word “shore” leaves us with an unresolved ambiguity. Does that shore belong to Puerto Rico or Welfare Island? If the latter, is visibility then a liability, a danger depending on who is observing?

The book’s final poem is more subtle in its allusion to De Burgos, or I should say, more coded. “176058” makes reference to the famous moment in which De Burgos wrote “poet” as her profession on a form and the staff crossed it out and wrote “patient suffers from delusions.” The impossibility of poetry as alchemy and poet as world maker finds its final form in this tragicomic moment, where De Burgos’s reality is read as a delusional impossibility.

Alchemy itself is popularly viewed as an outdated pseudoscience, surpassed by scientific reason.[2] It is no coincidence then that Robles finds common ground with De Burgos, the woman who wrote the poem “Nada” or “Nothingness” in response to early twentieth-century materialist existentialism and as a celebration of embodied pleasure. Outside the logics of institutions and the discourses of modernity, both seek in poetry the creative potential that makes something from nothing and that takes devalued lives and imbues them with supernatural qualities.

Translating Irizelma Robles’s El libro de los conjuros and transmuting it into The Book of Conjurations has been one of the most satisfying translation projects I have undertaken in the last few years. The resonances, cadences, allusions, images, and outright beauty in these poems are only surpassed by Irizelma herself, my friend and a poet I admire, who took the time to sit with me and discuss these translations. Time and time again, in our conversations since we became friends, we have come back to the subject of mental illness, its history, pathologies, neurodivergence, and poetry. Both of us seem to have found our languages in poems, whose counterspells and conjurations have helped us survive even our own minds. I can only hope to have done her words justice with these translations and spread her fire to new readers.

Roque Raquel Salas Rivera (he/they) is a Puerto Rican poet and translator of trans experience born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. He is the translator of The Book of Conjurations/El libro de los conjuros, by Irizelma Robles.

[1] From a personal interview with the poet in February 2022. I have translated it from her answer in Spanish.
[2] See P. G. Maxwell-Stuart, “Introduction,” The Chemical Choir: A History of Alchemy (London: Bloomsbury Plc, 2012), ix–xi.

Leave a Reply