The Rust of History
The Rust of History by Sotero Rivera Avilés
Translated from Spanish by Raquel Salas Rivera
Publication date: December 2022
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Lyrical, close, and resistant to the ease of closure, these poems cut across time to create a potent poetry of place. Rooted and exploratory, bound to anti-imperialism, the poems unfold and keep unfolding how to live for and against home.
This work is massive in its scope. Sotero Rivera Avilés writes about being a post-war veteran, he demystifies archetypes, he speaks openly about his disabilities, he complicates narratives of education, and leaves a record of regionalisms from a world that no longer exists. Raquel Salas Rivera’s familial ties to the work illuminate how revisiting loss can be an essential means of remembering.
About translating the work, Raquel Salas Rivera writes: “My hope . . . has been to lean into my obsession with Sotero Rivera Avilés’ life and accept my desire to see myself, my queerness, and my transness in his successful and failed attempts at upholding societal expectations. . . . We can’t spend our lives living under the shadows of our elders. Other things must be remembered if we are to reimagine the futures we inherit.”
Proceeds from book sales go to a grassroots organization in Puerto Rico rebuilding after recent hurricanes.
This moving intergenerational translation of a poet whose life and work can teach us so much about history and Black Puerto Rico by a poet making history right now is a study in the stakes of transformation. In these poems and in Salas Rivera’s return to his grandfather’s context, we get a felt sense of change, loss, and longing on the scale of the body, the barrio, the country, the revolution, and the soul.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
If you could take off your arm, give it to your grandchild to play with, would its hand be open or clenched? “Te sería muy fácil seguir viviendo,” the poet writes, which the grandchild translates as “To go on living will come easy.” Poets sometimes make a great deal of the power of the particular, and that’s not wrong. But it’s also right, for this book, for this translation, to sometimes drop a singular reflexive pronoun like “te” and hand over a verse, specially one with the promise of access to life, to all of us. Yes, the poet is keenly aware that the biological arm was taken by imperial war, that colonial poverty sentenced him to years in diaspora, that colonial poverty was there to welcome him back. But the poems of Rivera Avilés—in their original forms as much as in Salas Rivera’s translations—know what Audre Lorde knew in “The Uses of the Erotic”—that we can continually handle and hand over the particulars of the everyday as portals to a life force that is a collective birthright: all earth without a nation state, all love without fear, all freedom without selfishness, all joy without shame.
Raquel Salas Rivera translates the poems of his late grandfather Sotero Rivera Avilés—a disabled veteran of the Korean War and descendent of enslaved sugarcane workers—with mastery and care, as well as an ear attuned to the lyric labor of giving voice to trauma's infinite aftermath, the dangers of forgetting, and the quest for belonging.
The experience that Raquel Salas Rivera offers us is enriching in the most diverse ways—the poetic, the political, the psychological. Having the courage to translate his grandfather and fellow poet Sotero Rivera Avilés, Raquel manages to transform the childish position in which we are so often placed as children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces. He proposes, through irresistible translations, a reinvention of relationships, in the family and in literature and in language itself, so that they can turn from being infantilizing or hierarchical—to emancipatory and enthralling.
December 2, 2022: “December’s Most Anticipated LGBTQIA+ Literature” in Lambda Literary
The Rust of History features in Lambda Literary's roundup of new LGBTQIA+ books