“a place where silence and wind abound”: On Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s islas adyacentes


Nicole Cecila Delgado, trans. Urayoán Noel. islas adyacentes. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, DoubleCross, and La Impresora, 2022. 106 pages.

Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s islas adyacentes / adjacent islands is, I believe, a nonsite[1] Rather than scenic representation, or a translation of Puerto Rico’s islotes onto the page, islas adyacentes is a textual fragment of these islands in the form of a book.

The nonsite is a concept first elaborated by conceptual artist Robert Smithson in 1968. For him, the nonsite [2] is a “three-dimensional logical picture,” like a pile of dirt in a museum, that is a sample or piece of the site, which, through its removal from the site, becomes abstract. Through this abstraction the nonsite represents the site: the site and its representation are inseparable, a mirror and its reflection.

But the nonsite/site isn’t necessarily just a relationship between art and nature—the art historian Johannes Stückelberger argues that this opposition can also be imposed within nature. [3] The island can be the nonsite and the mainland the site. Abstraction—the situation of being nowhere in particular—is then not just an artistic phenomenon, but one also produced by geography, history, climate. In his essay “Islote Poetics,” Delgado’s translator, Urayoán Noel, argues that Joanne Kyger’s Desecheo Notebooks renders the Puerto Rican islote Desecheo as a nonsite via its “reporting of dream summoned forth by this inhospitable islote.” [4] Kyger’s transformation of Desecheo into nonsite is intensified by the prefatory map (“Plan of the Aguada Nueva de Puerto Rico”), which places Desecheo in the northwest corner of the map, on the periphery and dwarfed by the main island. [5] The “nonsite approach to Desecheo does not preclude a tourist gaze,” Noel writes. [6] I think the nonsite approach in fact constitutes the tourist gaze—it produces an island that is a wilderness, delimited and made into a place outside time and without history, a nowhere, a placeless place, or an outdoor museum. According to Noel, Desecheo has been a U.S. National Wildlife Refuge since the 1980s and a popular tourist destination. [7] A dreamland for elite consumption, to paraphrase the anthropologist Columba Gonzalez-Duarte[8]

In writing the two artist books that constitute islas adyacentes (amoná and subtropical dry), Delgado has produced a new inversion: a nonsite which in turn produces a site, rather than a representation that renders a site into a nonsite. islas adyacentes is a mirror reflecting Vieques and Amoná, but it is also a mirror diffracting another “Vieques” and another “Amoná”—the “official” versions crafted by neoliberalism and settler-colonialism.

In subtropical dry she writes, “The idea of a map. / The piercing words of our struggle / ongoing” (22). Delgado counterpoises a technique of the settler state with community resistance, yet in gesturing towards a map in the abstract allows for the possibility of struggle to infiltrate and hijack mapping towards its own ends. She continues later in that poem:

Coconut palms,
pillar of our dreams of open air.
A building taken over
and a library of documents
that someone would have preferred to forget
or destroy. (subtropical dry 22)

Community resistance, of which islas adyacentes is a part, unveils what the settler’s map conceals, while it casts interference patterns in representations of islotes as ideal eco-tourist destinations.

In an interview from 2009, Delgado quotes the Mexican poet Ulises Carrión’s essay “The New Art of Making Books”: “A book is a space-time sequence.” [9] Carrión elaborates books as “autonomous realities,” an imposition of a structure, a mode of being. They cease to be representations and become books. [10] This, for Carrión, is the new art. “New art’s language is radically different from daily language. It neglects intentions and utility, and it returns to itself, it investigates itself, looking for forms, for series of forms that give birth to, couple with, unfold into, space-time sequences,” he writes. [11]

Delgado calls these islote fragments camping books. They emerge from the embodied act of writing in a particular place (Amoná and Vieques) at a particular time. They emerge from writing during a camping trip or writing because of a camping trip. “This pleasure triggered by writing / with a lamp tied to one’s head / in a cave at the edge of the beach!” (amoná 23). In her letter to Urayoán Noel (which precedes amoná), she writes “I’m running out of light as night falls, I realize that writing is also about the muscles, there’s a movement of the hand contained on the space of the page, and there’s a physical pain in the joints” (amoná 7). The writing onto the page is the imposition of a structure onto the ineffability of lived reality. The result is just a fragment, an index, a counterarchive, as the book’s blurb asserts, but it is not a translation or distillation of life onto the page. “No epilogues or footnotes can communicate what / it feels like to swim naked with a mask and snorkel / or to see a perfect rainbow over the road on the / return trip.” (amoná 33)

In his letter to Delgado, Noel relates that she asked him not to translate certain words in subtropical dry, or to translate using words she had researched (amoná 3). These words include the names of community organizations as well as the names of plants and animals. In amoná, certain place names are untranslated, and the title itself retains the islands Taíno name rather than its Spanish name. These refusals of translation seem like gestures at the impossibility and the undesirability of translating Amoná and Vieques. Noel asks Delgado if she sees these refusals as a political wager. I think the wager (or conviction) entails this: comprehensive translation would render these sites legible, and in so doing engender their degradation, as if the translation were a cadastral map organizing the land’s destruction by the state. The refusal to translate marks islas adyacentes as non-scenic and a nonsite. It’s a blunt evasion of a colonial tourist gaze, and a refusal to enroll the islotes in a destructive neoliberal logic of profitable natural beauty.

In her reply to Noel, Delgado writes that the nature in Vieques “has been so tampered with that it’s almost impossible to reach that spiritual and psychedelic or natural state of trance, because the war machine of the united states is in its water air land and fire, polluting and wounding our experience all at once” (amoná 9). islas adyacentes seems like a record emerging from that trance. The possibility of that record, as Delgado asserts, is endangered by the exploitation of the land and its people by a colonial occupier. But, as Noel asserts in his essay Islote Poetics, it is a record shaped by colonial histories.

As nonsites, amoná and subtropical dry contain everything that constitutes the site: community, both human and nonhuman, geography, the spiritual ineffable emanating from the material world, history, settler-colonialism, neoliberalism (among many other things).

Both amoná and subtropical dry contain portions that are just lists of the names of friends and compatriots. Or lists of islands:

In the distance:

                                        Saint Croix
                                        El Yunque (subtropical dry 29)

Or the names of healing plants:

tropical medicine

wild malva and anamú.
aloe and ginger.
cilantro and oregano.
coconut water.
guava, lemon and honey. (subtropical dry 31)

subtropical dry is made up of poems written during a travelling seminar, Sonido Vieques, which focused on the effects of the U.S. Navy’s occupation and use of Vieques as a bombing range for 60 years. [12] The Navy closed the base in 2003 after decades of community resistance and civil disobedience. [13] Delgado’s camping book, then, as a record of Vieques, is a record of that occupation and how it ended. The poem “truncated history / nation-state” (subtropical dry 55) indexes the people, dates, and events of the community resistance against the U.S. Navy’s occupation of Vieques. The poet, and Delgado’s friend, Mara Pastor writes that Delgado composed the poem using notes from her interactions with other seminar participants, many of whom were active in the fight against the Navy. [14]

Delgado describes key sites of resistance, like Monte David [15] and Campamento Justicia y Paz[16]—both encampments that obstructed Naval activities—as “mystical spaces of struggle” (subtropical dry 61). Struggle itself is the recovery of the possibility of trance, as Delgado describes it, within and against the state, colonization, occupation. Or the trance itself is struggle, at least if done in a particular way. The Vieques activist Myrna Pagán tells Delgado,

if I really concentrate,
if I really concentrate and go into the sea,
I can hear the songs at the very bottom.

                                    Look, whales.

                                    The accident of time. (subtropical dry 66)

Accidents of time produce the conditions that enable trance, and opposition. Time itself seems to entail struggle: “The salt air turns art into ruins, oxidizing the island’s history. Only nature survives,” Delgado writes (amoná 20). And in subtropical dry:  “—There were slaves here,— / time covered them in bejuco” (subtropical dry 10). These camping books / nonsites, as embodiments emanating from these islotes also contain and archive this action of nature against the state, and the state’s struggle in turn against bejuco and salitre.

Encompassing all these archival materials is the spiritual experience. In her response to Noel’s letter, Delgado characterizes her camping books as a record of “the body in space” and of “experiences that always happen in community” (amoná 8). She goes on, “The spiritual experiences that I feel connected to in my life take place in camping spaces where reason is interrupted” (amoná 8). So, while these nonsites are a record, or a counterarchive, they are also a suspension of the intellectual—a record of the act of being somewhere whose pages invite you to occupy space like Delgado: “floating in the odd benevolence of the inclement elements.” (amoná 31)

Works Cited

Carrión, Ulises. “The New Art of Making Books.” In Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons, 31-43. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1987.

“Construccion Albergue Campamento Justicia y Paz de Vieques.” 2000 CPEO Military List Archive. Accessed March 28, 2023. http://www.cpeo.org/lists/military/2000/msg00433.html.

Gonzalez-Duarte, Columba. “Butterflies, organized crime, and “sad trees”: A critique of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve Program in a context of rural violence.” World Development 142 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2021.105420.

Noel, Urayoán. “Islote poetics: Notes from minor outlying islands.” In Geopoetics in Practice, edited by Eric Magrane, Linda Russo, Sarah de Leeuw, and Craig Santos Perez, 212-225. London: Routledge, 2019.

Pastor, Mara. “Cuatro autoras puertorriqueñas.” Eterna Cadencia (blog), September 1, 2017. https://www.eternacadencia.com.ar/blog/libreria/poesia/item/cuatro-autoras-puertorriquenas.html

Smithson, Robert. "A Provisional Theory of Nonsites." In Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam, 364. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Stückelberger, Johannes. “Mirror Reflections: Robert Smithson’s Dialectical Concept of Space.” RACAR: Revue d'art Canadienne 31, no. 1-2 (2006): 90-99.

“U.S. Navy Vieques Bombing Range.” Accessed March 28, 2023. https://people.goshen.edu/~johnrb/vieques/html/BombingRange.htm.


[1] Robert Smithson, "A Provisional Theory of Nonsites," in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed.  Jack Flam (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), 364

[2] Smithson, 364

[3] Johannes Stückelberger, “Mirror Reflections: Robert Smithson’s Dialectical Concept of Space,” RACAR: Revue d'art Canadienne 31, no. 1-2 (2006): 90.

[4] Urayoán Noel, “Islote poetics: Notes from minor outlying islands,” in Geopoetics in Practice, eds. Eric Magrane, Linda Russo, Sarah de Leeuw, and Craig Santos Perez (London: Routledge, 2019), 214.

[5] Noel, 215

[6] Noel, 216

[7] Noel, 216

[8] Columba Gonzalez-Duarte, “Butterflies, organized crime, and “sad trees”: A critique of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve Program in a context of rural violence,” World Development 142 (2021): 4.

[9] Mara Pastor, “Cuatro autoras puertorriqueñas,” Eterna Cadencia (blog), September 1, 2017, https://www.eternacadencia.com.ar/blog/libreria/poesia/item/cuatro-autoras-puertorriquenas.html

[10] Ulises Carrión, “The New Art of Making Books,” in Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, ed. Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1987), 32.

[11] Carrión, 37-38

[12] Pastor

[13] ibid

[14] ibid

[15] “U.S. Navy Vieques Bombing Range,” accessed March 28, 2023, https://people.goshen.edu/~johnrb/vieques/html/BombingRange.htm.

[16] “Construccion Albergue Campamento Justicia y Paz de Vieques,” 2000 CPEO Military List Archive, accessed March 28, 2023, http://www.cpeo.org/lists/military/2000/msg00433.html.

Austin Miles is from southeast Ohio. He is the author of the chapbook Perfect Garbage Forever (Bottlecap Press) and has poems published in Sip Cup, Tyger Quarterly, and elsewhere.