Birds On The Kiswar Tree


by Odi Gonzales
A Bilingual Spanish/English Edition Translated by Lynn Levin
DEC. 2014 | ISBN-13: 978-1-940939-25-4 (eBook)



BIRDS ON THE KISWAR TREE by Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales presents poems that sing in the voices of native birds and speak through the devout, but subversive, Quechua artists of Peru’s colonial era. Their religious art provides the imagery for these astounding poems. In the Eden painted by one anonymous artist, Andean kiswar trees grow, native ñukchu flowers bloom, llamas graze, and parrots perch in the trees, and in out-of-the-way nooks of Andean churches, rebel angels hide, armed with harquebuses. Canvas by canvas, poem by poem, Gonzales gives us a poetry collection as a living and talking museum in which the Quechua artists of Peru’s past demonstrate both their sincere Christian faith and their opposition to the Spanish destruction of the Inca empire. Originally published in Peru in 2005 as La Escuela de Cusco (The School of Cusco), BIRDS ON THE KISWAR TREE stands as an elegant and richly imagined tribute to these indigenous and mestizo artists. By extension, it shows how artists may put forth their views when prevailing circumstances make outward protest a perilous option. Spanish to English translations by Lynn Levin.

What People Are Saying

A haunting gallery of indigenous painters from colonial Peru, most anonymous, is finally mapped out by Quechua poet Odi Gonzales in this admirable collection. I was reminded of W.G. Sebald’s exploration of the Nazi ghosts sprinkled all over the German landscape. Through Lynn Levin’s lucid renditions, the painters’ eyes become ours, and so does Cusco, the heart of the Inca Empire, which, under the Spaniards, became one of Dante’s circles of hell. Among these artists, dignity and resistance were synonymous. And, from misery, they drew the contours of a new civilization. Poetry, Gonzales persuades us, is a tool to unveil the past, to come face to face with history.

—Ilan Stavans
editor of The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry

Powerful, stunningly beautiful, teeming with indigenous life like the paintings of the seventeenth-century Quechua artists who appropriated and transformed the art and religion of their colonizers, Odi Gonzales’ poetry celebrates the culture of his native Peru. This bilingual edition offers readers an eye-opening, rich and transformative experience. Lynn Levin’s translation captures the power and nuanced registers of Odi Gonzales’ tour de force: a gift to Anglophone readers!

—Thalia Pandiri
Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature, Smith College
Editor-in-Chief, Metamorphoses

With the publication of Birds on the Kiswar Tree, translator Lynn Levin has faithfully introduced an important world poet into the English language. In the nativist spirit of César Vallejo and the Cusqueño School of resistance painting, Odi Gonzales’ poems articulate and negotiate the harrowing terrain of Peruvian cultural identity. Woven of Spanish Catholic and indigenous Quechua colors, these pages shimmer like angels in an Andean Eden! As necessary acts of recovery, revelation, and love, Gonzales’ poems build a multidimensional temple in honor of the cunning and resilience of a people who whispered their very souls into their art.

—Chad Sweeney, author of Parable of Hide and Seek

Birds on the Kiswar Tree is a powerful, poignant and compelling series of poems, truly a verbal museum or gallery of works by underappreciated artists quietly defying their oppressors. “I am the apocryphal archangel…the bastard bereft of my heritage,” exclaims one illiterate Quechua painter who speaks in these pages—one of the indigenous artists of the Cusqeñan School of the late 16th and early 17th centuries in the subjugated Inca kingdom of the Andean highlands. “I am the Anonymous One of The Almudena Church,” declares another of these “artisans / [who] did not know / how to sign their own names or read or write” and yet filled the colonial churches of their conquerors with glorious visions, taking the Christian myths imposed by Spanish force upon the Quechua people and transposing their signs and scenes into indigenous natural historical and devotional terms. Peruvian-Quechua poet Odi Gonzales has dramatized the voices of these quiet but persistently subversive painter-personae, their colonial overlords, and the depicted biblical figures themselves; and translator Lynn Levin has faithfully rendered these voices into English. That a Peruvian poet can resurrect such voices now bespeaks the ultimate survival of Quechua culture which, though it may seem exotic to some readers, speaks through these poems to anyone who has lived—historically or imaginatively—under a repressive regime and who seeks a means of artistic resistance.

—Carolyne Wright
American Book Award, Blue Lynx Prize, National Translation Award

Odi Gonzales’s tableaux and retablos are as rooted as the kiswar tree and as eccentric as its birds in flight. Indigenous (originating there) but also syncretic (animated by difference), these poems take us beyond the exotic Cusco of the tourist-poet and towards the double (or multiple)-voiced space of the auto-ethnographic writer/archivist/witness. The Cusco School here refers not just to Andean artists’ subversive remixing of Roman Catholic iconography during the colonial era, but also to a poetics that (like Vallejo’s) values the local, the vernacular, the untranslatable, and the complexly sited, both as an aesthetic opportunity and as a political necessity. Gonzales’s incursion into art history becomes a means of mapping and interrogating social space, of unfolding the lyric poem in all its postcolonial weight and communal energy (synkretizein = to combine against a common enemy). Like the legendary 17th-century Quechua chronicler and artist Guamán Poma, whose drafts are among those recovered and glossed in these pages, Gonzales understands the writer as a double agent, working both inside and outside official culture. Writing here is an act of witness and revision, inasmuch as words (in Spanish, in Quechua, in thought) can complicate existing ideologies and beliefs, teasing out a paradoxically unadorned baroque: “this canvas / is profane […] there are no embellishments.” In Lynn Levin’s precise yet sinuous translations, which read like an organic extension of the book’s unorthodox documentary poetics, Gonzales is revealed to us as a poet of subtle music and radical imaginings, tracing an alternative hemispheric history in, but also against, the American grain.

—Urayoán Noel, poet and scholar, SUNY Albany


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