BIRDS ON THE KISWAR TREE
by Odi Gonzalez, trans. Lynn Levin
2Leaf Press, 140 pages
reviewed by J.G. McClure
It’s the Last Supper. The apostles pray earnestly as Christ radiates a heavenly light, bread-loaf in hand. It’s a scene we know well, with a key difference: dead-center of the canvas, surrounded by corn and chilies, a roasted guinea pig splays its feet in the air.
This is a prime example of the Cusco School of painting, an artistic movement that developed during Peru’s colonial period and that forms the subject of Birds on the Kiswar Tree. As translator Lynn Levin explains in her notes:
Painting flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Peru when Spain sent highly-accomplished painters, some of them painter-priests, to the Andes in order to evangelize the people through art and art instruction. The Church, however, put severe restrictions on the native artists: they were permitted to paint only religious subjects. The artists responded by producing work that was pious, syncretistic, and subversive. In hidden nooks in churches, Quechua artists painted angels with harquebuses; they furnished the Garden of Eden with Andean birds, trees, and flowers…
The fascinating thing about the Cusco School is that it was genuinely pious and deeply subversive at once. Take the first poem in Birds, “The Last Supper.” A snippet from a modern-day museum guide explains the painted scene:
the cunning Indian painter – The Anonymous One of the Cathedral –
in a flight of ecstasy
added on his own initiative
his favorite foods
But Gonzalez gives a voice to the anonymous artist to show what’s really at stake:
in place of
the holy bread – flat and unleavened –
I set upon the paschal table
roasted cuy, stuffed peppers
Here the rich names and flavors of the artist’s foods stand in stark contrast to the dully “flat and unleavened” holy bread. Certainly, it’s subversive to replace the foods the Spanish would expect with indigenous favorites. But at the same time, Gonzalez shows us that the artist has also chosen to do so in order to make the religious scene richer, more appealing—a gesture of sincere piety. The poem continues, bringing that blend of piety and subversion to the foreground:
as if the Upper Room were not in the Holy Land
but more likely
in a cozy tavern in Cusco,
let’s say “La Chola.”
The artist subversively relocates Christ and his disciples to Cusco, insisting upon the importance of Peru and of the indigenous culture that the Church was attempting to suppress. At the same time, though, it’s in the service of devotion: he knows the taverns of Cusco well, and by placing the Last Supper there, he is able to identify with it more deeply, to feel it as “cozy” and familiar.
In other poems, Gozalez’s critique can be much more biting. Take “The Expulsion from Paradise,” in which the anger of the artist and the injustice of the Church are felt so bitterly that God himself is implicated. We get a snippet of the decree forbidding anything but religious subjects:
To the Guild of Painters
we hereby command you may paint
only what the Scriptures say
under the penalty of excommunication
The threat of expulsion from the Church mirrors the threat of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. This casts the Church in the role of the God of Genesis: don’t eat the apple, don’t paint secular material. The artist-speaker then shows us how,
Acolytes, deacons, tonsured monks,
priests, thurifers, and lectors
watch over me as one would watch a criminal
The proliferation of religious figures gives a sense of constant, suffocating scrutiny. He notes that he is watched like “a criminal” – a simile that implies he is not actually a criminal – in a quiet act of subversion. He then goes on to assert his rebellion much more forcefully:
they drum into me eighty times a day
the same passage from the Gospel
and the result?
Adam and Eve carry the weight of the composition
but this Eden abounds
in kiswar trees,
hordes of parrots and ñukchu flowers
Adam and Eve carry not the weight of sin but the “weight of the composition” – in other words, the Church’s control over what the indigenous painters are allowed to compose becomes equated with the Fall of Man. Eden, meanwhile, “abounds / in kiswar trees” – the natural world surrounding Cusco is cast as Paradise, and the Church is at fault for causing the expulsion from it. The critique is scathing.
Even more, when we then get another snippet of a powerful voice – “Begone ye impious ones / Depart ye from the kingdom” —it’s not entirely clear whether we’re getting the voice of the Church or the voice of God. It could be either. Since the banishment has been cast as an act of injustice, it thus suggested that God himself may be unjust. For all his anger, though, the speaker still wonders if he has seen “The apparition of the Virgin” in his canvas—a note of lingering faith that makes the poem all the more richly complex.
Gonzalez shows the same talent for navigating complex—even paradoxical—material in “The Painter / His Early Works.” The poem begins with a beautiful description of the artist’s accomplishments:
I was able to moisten
the slight bevel of the lips
of The Young Virgin at Her Spinning Wheel
to reveal the watery eyes
of The Penitent Magdalene
of Saint Christopher in the water
stamping on shoals of fish
For all this, though, the speaker could not “form / the letters of my own first / and last names,” and as a result his name has been lost. Paradoxically, though the painter remains anonymous, the poem ends with a powerful assertion of identity: “I am the Anonymous One of The Almudena Church, / of Santa Clara, The Nazarenes, / of the Chapel of Huarocondo…”
Rich and complex in its exploration of syncretism, subversion, history, art, what is recovered, and what is lost, Birds on the Kiswar Tree does too much to cover in one review. Levin’s translations (undertaken in collaboration with Gonzalez) combined with her incredibly helpful footnotes successfully open the poems to Anglophone readers, while the bilingual format ensures that readers of Spanish can enjoy Gonzalez’s subtly musical verse in its original language. These poems recover voices we may not have realized were lost – and they have much to tell.
J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California – Irvine, where he teaches writing and works on Faultline. His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including Fourteen Hills, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), Colorado Review, and Green Mountains Review. He is at work on his first book.