Elizabeth Whittlesey


In April 2012, Rafael Barrios’s sculptures descended on Park Avenue in all of their cartoonish, outlandish exuberance. I had no choice but to consider Triphasique each morning as it loomed over me during my daily traverse across 57th and Park to the office. I was happy to be greeted by this uncanny visitor from a seemingly virtual world: each time it gave me the impression that it had just been pasted onto—photoshopped into—my ‘real’ world of air and daylight. I’ve seen most of the sculptures that have appeared over the years (thanks to the city’s Parks & Recreation Public Art Program and the Sculpture Committee of the Fund for Park Avenue) garner plenty of photograph-worthy attention from tourists and passers-by, but I noticed a much more delighted, giggly, wondered kind of energy around the Barrios sculptures.

Immediately after I scribbled the first draft of this poem during my lunch break one day, I knew I wanted to attempt a translation of it. Acutely aware of the limitations of my own non-native Spanish skills as enhanced by Google, I later enlisted the help of friends and expert-translators Ricardo Maldonado and Yvette Siegert, which process I enjoyed immensely, and for whose help I am very grateful. (Incidentally, Ricardo and Yvette both have beautiful new books of translations out which you should all go purchase immediately!) Contemplating the translation possibilities felt like doing a jigsaw puzzle whose colors and shapes were sometimes up to me. The game is how to carry sound, rhythm, tone, meaning—the experience that is a poem—from one language into another; how to birth a thing, faithful, from one body but that must become wholly its own.  Translate – past participle of the Latin transferre, from trans- ‘across’ + ferre ‘to bear.’  To bear across. To convert or be converted into another form or medium.  To convey someone (typically alive) to heaven.

At only about ½ inch in thickness but inferring far-greater depth and form through line and shading only, Triphasique seems to me a gleeful play on representation and translation itself. I got to thinking about art as an act of (always-doomed) translation—an attempt to “bear across” some internal experience, emotion, idea into the various modes of representation and mediums given. Traditionally, much art has attempted to transfer the experience of seeing, living, thinking onto canvas, cave wall, or page. All art is a record of the experience of the artist who made it, and all results of art-making create a new experience for the viewer, listener, reader, consumer, as the traffic continues its rushing past on Park, and the tulips continue bright yellow their bloomings at the base.



Startle and purple.
Attack of sharp edge
and shallow depths that shift
as you circle the perimeter.

If there is sunlight upon,
then it will be as though
generated from within
this furnace of color.

Brace as you pass.
Brace because it pierces
the air and wants too
to lacerate you.

What straight. What flat.
Acrylic-lacquer-on-steel sermon
on the two-dimensional
as portal to a third

and beyond. What
do we really know
of geometry
and how can it help us.



Susto y púrpura.
Asalto de filo brusco y pocas
profundidades que se desplazan
al circundar el perímetro.

Si hay luz sobre tal,
entonces será como si
fuera generada dentro
de esta caldera de color.

Ojo al pasar.
Ojo porque perfora
el aire y también
te quiere lacerar.

Cuán recto. Cuán liso.
Sermón laca-acrílica-sobre-acero
en la bidimensional que sirve
de portal hacia la tercera

y más allá. Qué
de veras sabemos
de la geometría
y cómo nos puede ayudar.


Elizabeth Whittlesey’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Gulf Coast, jubilat, Western Humanities Review, POOL: A Journal of Poetry, JERRY, Two Serious Ladies, Explosion Proof, Phantom Limb, and Noncanon Press. Elizabeth grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and lives in Manhattan.

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