Naming the Apophatic: The Poetics of Not Knowing

Diego Báez

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 191.

A tricky thing about writing multilingual lyric poetry is striking the right balance between proficiency and appreciation, especially when the languages in question arrive partial or incomplete, passed down in fragments from the ancestors. I write in three languages: English, Spanish, and Guaraní. I’ve spoken English my entire life, while Spanish and Guaraní, an Indigenous language that is one of the two official languages of Paraguay, are native among extended family on my father’s side. I grew up with certain Guaraní words and phrases embedded into memory (mba'éichapa = what’s up?), but others I’ll always need to look up. I’ve long wrestled with the question of how best to navigate this uncertainty about my own linguistic limitations and the question of whether I have the right to write in a language that lives in my people but which I do not know very well. I haven’t always had an answer.

My Spanish is conversationally passable—if often out of practice—and I can pronounce words in the language fairly well, even if I can’t always translate them exactly. So when I write in Spanish, I usually incorporate individual words or phrases that are familiar to me from my own family, from my father’s brothers and sisters and primos and sobrinos, people with enough patience to tolerate my slow slog through Castellano. They have paved my path into the language, a foundation I try to honor by working Spanish into the vernacular of my verse when fitting and possible. Other times I may want to explore the language through etymological excavation, including a Spanish-speaking character in a poem, such as a tío or neighbor, or interjecting exclamatory Spanish to interrupt a train of thought in English, should the Spanish capture that emotional outburst in a way that feels more authentic.

One way I deal with my fear of appropriating the language is to directly express it in my poems, signaling discomfort, inexperience, or tentativeness. In my poem “Inheritance,” for example, the speaker refers to Spanish as a “rickety gift,” one that is nonetheless his to share with his child. At one point the speaker considers the early days and months of the newborn’s life:

That first long year, when we moved

so seldom, estacionados en la mecedora.

The Spanish phrase doesn’t—or rather, didn’t—belong to my lexicon before I used Google to translate “parked in the rocking chair.” To acknowledge that gap in my knowledge, I tried to suggest what feels like artificiality by inducing an error: These lines are grammatically incorrect in both English and Spanish. Of course, poetry doesn’t need to be grammatically correct (some would argue ardently that it certainly should not be!). But I was intentionally botching the grammar in this poem to indicate the speaker’s insecurities with language as he struggles to raise a child, another domain in which he feels insufficient or incapable. The rest of the poem employs fairly standard English, diverging only at a few crucial intervals. Not only does the intermittent Spanish begin to seed the speaker’s newborn with the same broken exposure to the language the speaker himself experienced as a child, but it enhances the poem’s sonic resonance. The “s” sound tracks across the second line, adding an acoustic quality impossible to achieve with the English phrase “parked in the rocking chair.” Finally, “estacionados” evokes the parking of a vehicle, a prominent image in the poem, as much as it slips a hint of the cognate “stationary” into the English-speaking reader’s mind. Incorporating the language in ways that take care to gesture toward my own personal limitations and artistic liberties feels important for aligning this speaker with my actual self.

The question of appropriation becomes more difficult by an order of magnitude when applied to my use of Guaraní, since it is the only Indigenous language to be constitutionally enshrined by the state of Paraguay; while my family is likely descended from the Guaraní people, we don’t identify as such today. The Guaraní I know by heart appears only in a handful of words and phrases in my poems. These I’ve received from my father and family, and I consider them mine to impart. Though I’m not sure to whom I’d be imparting them: Beyond my actual kin, my imagined readers are (let’s face it) unlikely to know any Guaraní words or Paraguayans. So when I use “rohiwho” to mean “I love you,” instead of “rohayhu,” the spelling more commonly employed on the internet, it’s because my father sent me the former via text message, and he’s the authority on that, as far as I or my poems are concerned. But for words I need to look up, I try to employ language that dramatizes my own process of learning them. In “Chestnut People,” for example, I offer simple, clarifying definitions similar to those I encounter in my linguistic research:

cousins                                                                         (in English)

primos                                                  (in Spanish)

tutyra’y                        (in Guaraní)

Aligning each word with its language in three rows hopefully conveys a straightforward translation that is designed to be elementary and didactic without insulting anyone. Dictionaries are hardly neutral zones of objective information, but the above lines hopefully provide definitions that are as impartial as possible (even as the consistent capitalization prioritizes English by default).

Other times I’ve found it necessary—and invigorating—to bask in the overwhelming wealth of sound and meaning afforded to speakers (and readers!) of multiple languages. In “English Eventually,” I want to accentuate a confounding sense of stumbling over languages as they crisscross and intersect in ways that seem meaningful but may only be coincidental:

But in Spanish y is “and” so

why is Guaraní for “water”

the same as “and” in Spanish?

On the one hand, it seems like a strange twist of linguistic fate that “y” can be used in Spanish and Guaraní to denote totally different ideas. What are the odds? And how interesting that “y” is used in Spanish for such a frequent conjunction, and in Guaraní it signifies a substance vital for life and crucial for survival! On the other hand, the explanation is easy: Imperial colonizers imposed Latin transcription on the Guaraní people and their language. Wasn’t overlap inevitable? Is this one instance even notable?

Across these examples, across a wide range of experiences and utterances, I’m left with far more questions than answers. Indeed, my own inability to summon sufficient explanatory information or background context for readers about whatever predicament the speaker finds himself in is a defining feature of so many of the poems I write. Here are a few lines that profess the speaker’s ignorance or negation:

“there are no jaguars / here”

“We have no idea what they called themselves”

“Why not speak Guaraní?”

“The skin / of a peach / is no longer / Flesh colored”

“My oddest Paraguayan uncle speaks no English and has done very well for himself”

Another poem, “Regalito,” concludes with the speaker recalling his father’s unenlightening response when asked to give the Spanish translation for something silly, like “toaster” or “roller coaster.”

From the driver’s seat of that minivan, I’m sure of it, he answered:

“There’s not a word for that.”

I’d feel self-conscious about this seemingly excessive profession of ignorance if it didn’t describe my own experiences so accurately. So much of my life has been defined by contradiction, confusion, and a lack of clarity around identity, culture, people, and place. I’ve come to embrace this “poetry of not knowing,” as Daniel Borzutzky has put it. But it wasn’t until recently that I learned a new word to describe my relationship with language. In the months before handing over the final manuscript of my debut poetry collection—Yaguareté White, published by the University of Arizona Press last month—Canadian writer Geoff Martin, a dear friend and workshop confidante, used a word I’d never heard to describe it: apophatic.

Apophatic derives from the Greek for “other than” (apo-) and “to speak” (phanai). It has been employed widely in theology to describe a thing only in terms of what may not be said about it. Applied often to discuss conceptions of God, the term describes a verbal strategy that helps us to make sense of the ineffable, unapproachable, or unknowable. While I’ve not yet begun to reconcile this vocabulary with my own Catholic upbringing (that’s for the next book), it has been incredibly clarifying to embrace this new terminology, to come to understand my writing and, indeed, myself in a different way. It now feels empowering to admit that there will be aspects of my own heritage and parentage that I will not be able to express. That these great gaps in knowledge and the lingering questions of my experience are not deficits but new pathways rich with potential. In naming the apophatic I’ve found another way in, a new means for building on the foundation laid by my ancestors, that Guaraní and Spanish and English might intermingle and generate something new. It remains to be seen exactly what comes next, what these languages can bring into being. But they can, and they will, continue to combine in new ways unique to this poetics of not knowing.

That much, at least, I know.


Diego Báez is the author of the poetry collection Yaguareté White, published last month by the University of Arizona Press.

Art: Elena Kloppenburg