Almost Obscene by Raúl Gómez Jattin, translated by Katherine M. Hedeen and Olivia Lott, reviewed by Jeannine Marie Pitas
Cleveland State University Press, 2022
On a recent trip to Toronto – my home from 2008 through 2015, and since then, a city I visit as often as I can afford – I was struck by the increased presence of people experiencing homelessness. A park where I used to jog in the mornings had become a tent village. All around the city I saw people sleeping on benches, in doorways, in subway cars. Clearly the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic inflation have done a number on many people’s lives.
But I also noticed an increase in a population that is arguably the most marginalized from mainstream society: people who experience homelessness while also suffering from schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis. As I walked through my old neighborhood, I encountered three different people who appeared to be in the grips of a psychotic delusion. One was walking barefoot on the hot pavement. Another was weeping. When I approached to ask if they needed support, I was unsurprisingly rebuffed. Paranoia is a central feature of psychosis, and given these people’s outcast status, what reasons do they have to trust a passing stranger?
It is telling that while only 1% of the Canadian population suffers from schizophrenia, at least 50% of people experiencing homelessness do. Such figures are similar in the US and many other countries. On that hot summer day, I watched as pedestrians rushed past these people – occasionally offering a pitying glance, often recoiling with a fearful one, most often offering no reaction at all. To me, these reactions are emblematic of our societal response to schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis: indifference, fear, and pity that does not lead to action.
The poems of Colombian writer Raúl Gómez Jattin explore an abundance of themes, from his Syrian heritage to his queer identity to the indifference with which society treats its artists. But for me, it is the theme of psychosis – and the social marginalization that accompanies it – that stands out most starkly:
The threat has been carried out:
He sleeps out in the open Sleeps on the street
Night his blanket Moon his lamp
Stars watch over him
When it gets dark he looks for a place to sleep
Never the same place twice
Since neighbors kick him out […]
Some nights they shoo him away and he goes back
to wandering the darkness like a sleepless comet (95).
The image of this figure – a prophet misunderstood and rejected by those around him, cast to the margins of society, offering a message and gift of beauty that the people around him reject – pervades Almost Obscene, which translators Katherine M. Hedeen and Olivia Lott have compiled from various chapbooks that Gómez Jattin published during the 1980s and 1990s. Drawing on mythology, world literature, and the constant, consoling presence of nature, these poems pulse with Whitmanesque intensity and pause in moments of mystical contemplation. “I’m a god in my town and my valley,” asserts Gómez Jattin, “Because I love anybody who loves / Because I know how to grow orange trees and vegetables […] Because when I was a lawyer I didn’t defend capital / Because I love birds and rain and its wide-open / washing my soul” (20).
On that recent trip to Toronto, I sat down for a cup of tea with an old friend from graduate school, a literary scholar who changed careers and now works as a full-time therapist. As he sees it, the tiny minority of the people who suffer from psychosis are victimized by the rest of us (who, according to his view, all suffer from neurosis – there is no demarcation between the mentally healthy and the mentally ill). We who see ourselves as healthy regard psychotics with pity and fear, eager to differentiate ourselves from them, to marginalize them as ill so that we can indulge in the delusion that we are well. “All of this,” he told me, gesturing to the bustle of the coffee shop patio where we were sitting, the immense skyscrapers towering above us, the pedestrians checking their mobile phones as they hurried by – “All of this wouldn’t exist were it not for the psychotics raving on the street corner.”
This unsettling truth lies at the center of Raúl Gómez Jattin’s writing and also its reception. According to Hedeen and Lott, his work is “rarely anthologized, virtually out of print, and rendered a literal footnote in a 600-page history of Colombian poetry” (128). It is rumored that even his premature death at age 52 – in which he was run over by a bus – may have been perpetrated by the state in an “orchestrated act of social cleansing” (125). Hedeen and Lott see the translation and publication of Almost Obscene in the twenty-first century as a necessary move toward justice: “To translate him into English is to continue his fight for recognition, for a place for the perpetually out-of-place. It is to begin to right and write his legacy,” they say (128).
For me, Hedeen and Lott’s dizzyingly beautiful translation of this text – as well as Cleveland State University Press’s commitment to publishing it – strikes a deeply personal chord. From my childhood best friend to my first serious romantic partner to a dear friend who lost her life in 2023 – presumably due to natural causes, arguably also due to social marginalization and neglect – people with psychosis have been a constant presence in my life, numbering among my dearest and most loyal friends. Their perspectives, though sometimes unsettling, serve as a prophetic reminder that the drastically inequitable, often oppressive world we view as normal is truly anything but.
When I first moved to Toronto in 2008, I signed up as a volunteer to lead a creative writing group at the city’s main psychiatric hospital. When I visited for my interview, I was told that the facility was considered the best mental health hospital in the world. As I looked at the stark walls, fluorescent lights, and patients slumped in chairs, my first thought was, if this is the best in the world, I don’t think I care to see the rest of the world. In a poem called “Bird 2,” Gómez Jattin offers a grim image of such a facility:
In the mental health clinic
I live a piece of my life
I get up with the sun there
and in the meantime I write
my pain and sorrow
without sorrows or pains
In my ataraxic spirit
my heart flashes
like a butterfly
in the light and then darkens
like a bird when it gets
that there are iron bars
locking him up (77).
Gómez Jattin’s writing is a splash of cold water on his readers’ faces, a wake-up call after a night of drunken sleep. It is a rebuke to those who “don’t hear him Don’t see him Don’t respond / They turn the corner and vanish at midday / like an illusion of love” (99). This book, so passionately translated by Hedeen and Lott, is a call to action on behalf of those whom we’ve cast out. Surely we can do better.
Raúl Gómez Jattin (Cartagena, 1945-1997) was one of Colombia’s most outstanding poets—and one of the country’s most controversial literary figures. He spent most of his adult life between psychiatric hospitals, jails, and living as a homeless person. Through it all, he never stopped writing poetry or reciting it on street corners; his instantly-famous public readings drew hundreds of listeners. As a queer man of Syrian descent writing in a way that broke with his country’s tradition, his rightful place at the forefront of Colombian poetry has long been denied. In 1997, he was tragically killed by a bus.
Katherine M. Hedeen is a prize-winning translator of poetry and an essayist. Her latest books include Almost Obscene by Raúl Gómez Jattin and Book of the Cold by Antonio Gamoneda. She is the co-editor, with Welsh poet Zoë Skoulding, of the groundbreaking transatlantic translation anthology, Poetry’s Geographies. Her co-translation of Venezuelan poet, Juan Calzadilla, was recently awarded the Wisconsin Poetry Series’ inaugural translation competition. She is Managing Editor of the transnational / translational indie press, Action Books. She resides in Ohio, where she is Professor of Spanish at Kenyon College, and Havana, Cuba. More information at: http://www.katherinemhedeen.com
Olivia Lott is a translator and literary scholar. Her book-length co-translations and translations include: The Dirty Text by Soleida Ríos (2018, Kenning Editions), Katabasis by Lucía Estrada (2020, Eulalia Books), Almost Obscene by Raúl Gómez Jattin (2022, CSU Poetry Center), and The Roof of the Whale Poems by Juan Calzadilla (2023, University of Wisconsin). She holds a Ph.D. in Hispanic Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, and she is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Program in Latin American Studies at Princeton University. More information at: www.oliviamlott.com
Jeannine Marie Pitas is a teacher, writer and translator. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections: Or/And (Paraclete Press 2023) and Things Seen and Unseen (Mosaic Press 2019). She is the translator or co-translator of twelve books by Latin American writers, most recently Uruguayan poet Silvia Guerra's A Sea At Dawn, co-translated by Jesse Lee Kercheval, forthcoming from Eulalia Books in Fall 2023. She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches at Saint Vincent College. More information at: www.jeanninemariepitas.com