Odi Gonzales’s Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2014, 2Leaf Press), with both the author’s Spanish originals and English translations by poet Lynn Levin, presents to the Anglophone reader vivid documentary poetry of the painted world of colonial-era Quechua artists. Birds on the Kiswar Tree would be a welcome addition to a book shelf of those with an interest in Peruvian Andean cultural identity, ekphrastic poetry, and the literature of resistance.

Born in Cusco, Peru himself, Gonzales explores the subversive art of Quechua painters, who later became known as the School of Cusco painters, as many of them resided in or near Cusco. During Peru’s colonial era, the Spanish attempted to evangelize the Quechua people by teaching them how to paint fine art while enforcing the European artistic styles and restricting the subject matter to the Christian religion. However, the Quechua painters rebelled against this artistic colonization by adding Andean details--such as native flora and fauna--in their paintings. The painters’ legacy lives on, but many of them were illiterate, and, therefore, their names are unknown. Gonzales lends his voice to these painters and brings light to the art of resilience in the time of oppression; Levin acts as his partner to unveil his rendition of their art to the English-speaking world.

Even if the reader does not enter the poetry collection with knowledge of Peruvian art history, the poems create a hospitable space in which the reader can learn and understand their specific heritage. The titles of the poems are, in fact, the titles and locations of the actual paintings, and many poems include explanatory notes at the end. The poems inform us without the impulse to educate overwhelming the pages. “Adoration of the Shepherds” clearly portrays the scene in the painting:

A thicket of cloud covers
the constellations of the hummingbird

and the flock of llamas
    in heat

In the manger…the cave of Rayampata?


             The Virgin
the Child and the angels glow
with a sweet and simple beauty:

one of the delights
of Cusqueñan  art

Lamb of God
Son of Man
the newborn has
two whorls in his hair:
                                 the mark
of one who will be stubborn

In this poem, one can see how the popular Christian theme was refashioned by the painter (Francisco Chiwantito) to place the figures in a specifically Andean location. According to the translator’s note, the Quechuas also believed that two whorls in hair meant stubbornness--one can imagine Chiwantito adding that belief as a means of rebelling against not only the colonizers’ artistic style but also religion. The italicized parts of this poem function as explicatory comments, like those one would hear from an audio guide in a museum, which heighten the effect of seeing Birds on the Kiswar Tree as a poetic gallery. Italics appear in other poems throughout the book, and sometimes, they act as another voice, an outsider’s voice, removed from the life of the painting. For instance, in “The Expulsion from Paradise,” the italicized portion exclaims: “we hereby command you may paint / only what the Scriptures say.” In spite of the pellucid nature of the narrative, the poetry still retains exciting mystery that allows the reader to fill in the gaps (the indentations in the poems seem to invite this effect as well). “Apprentice Painters” tugs the reader into a haze of birds:

The signature of the artist lies
on the back of the canvas
in a ribbon that hangs
from the beak of a bird:

a wanchaco?
                  a zorzal?
a calandria?

The reader may not know what a wanchaco or a zorzal is, but understands that they are birds native to Peru. The bright birds that occupy many of the poems in the collection seem to be anchors, agents that keep the poetic space in Peru while the linguistic landscape shifts.

Close poet-translator collaboration and painstaking research of the original language and culture, make Birds on the Kiswar Tree a truly animated documentary of painters who found escape from foreign domination through art.