This chapbook documents a trip from Utah to Argentina in three brief chapters, each with a poem, an essay, a photograph, and epigraphs taken from the work of poet Pablo Neruda. The first section, “Punta Norte,” describes a wildlife preserve on the Península Valdés in Argentina which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site established for the conservation of marine mammals and also a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site of International Importance. Hoffmann calls it a “pre-erotic landscape,” although the sea contains the fecundity of evolution. “There is no consummation in these winds,” he writes, “no sense of fruition, no feeling of relief.” The place reminds him of the wide sage plains of Utah’s Great Basin.
In 2009, Argentine tango was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In chapter two, Hoffman encounters “Tango” in a Buenos Aires café as a “tourist thing” that his two colleagues disdainfully ignore. But Hoffmann is drawn in: “I was attracted to the moves, to the line of the man’s shoulders and the bare muscles of his partner’s back,” he writes. As a non-dancer, he is not entirely sure what he’s seeing, “the dancers were fluid enough, but the dance is so much about form and tradition that it’s easy to space out.”
Is it? My own first encounter with tango was more like an electric shock. I couldn’t decipher how they were doing it, but I burned to know the secret. Hoffmann speculates, “could it be that, rather than her replying in kind to his lead, she resists?” And yes, resistance is part of the dance. The leader opens or closes off space; the follower agrees or resists the invitation and so exerts control over the pace and mood of the dance. Ultimately, the tango works its magic on Hoffman, awakening a post-erotic landscape of memory, “an unfathomable flicker within a cavern of dream.”
Great Salt Lake in Utah is a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site of Hemispheric Importance. The photo illustrating the third chapter, At the Edge and End of Water, shows empty boat slips at the Great Salt Lake Marina where, due to persistent drought, water levels have sunk too low for boats to float. The accompanying essay speaks of an ache, “vast stretches of drought,” “dry creeks of the heart,” and el dolor infinito, “confirmed in the shrinking of glaciers, seasons without rain.”
This brief work as a whole, then, speaks to the incredible richness of human and natural heritage, responding with a kind of grief for the world as these precious places and intangibles reveal their vulnerability. The salty lakes seem barren despite the life they support; tenuous human connections break when, “people leave our lives with little warning.”
For Hoffmann, the trip to Argentina seems to have opened up a kind of deep-felt sadness that became this book.
Amy Brunvand is an award-winning poet and an associate librarian at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah.