High Treason

translation of “Alta traición” by José Emilio Pacheco

I don’t love my country. Her abstract glory
eludes me.
But (this may sound bad) I would give my life
for ten of her places, for certain people,
ports, pine forests, fortresses,
for a ruined city, gray and monstrous,
for several of her historical figures,
for mountains
—and three or four rivers.

* * *

José Emilio Pacheco is one of Mexico’s leading contemporary poets. I had posted the Spanish original of this poem, along with somebody else’s translation, to Facebook back in 2009. I forgot all about it until I switched to Facebook’s new Timeline view a couple days ago, which for the first time gave me access to older posts and updates there. After re-acquainting myself with the poem and the substantive comments it elicited from Alison Kent, Miguel Arboleda and Ray Templeton, I decided to post this new translation — in part because I’m fascinated by what the process of translation does to a poem like this.

Already on Facebook there was disagreement over how best to translate “una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa.” The English translation I’d posted put it as “a run-down city, gray, grotesque,” but Alison objected that, in the poet’s native Mexico, this most likely referred to a pre-Columbian ruin. Ray, by contrast, felt it might equally apply to a run-down industrial city in his native U.K. To me, as a country dweller, most cities seem gray, monstrous and dilapidated, though I’m not sure I’d give my life for any of them. At any rate, the point is that our reception of the poem depends very much on whether we read it as a specifically Mexican poem or a more general statement about love of country.

And even the general proposition will strike people differently depending on where they’re from. Here in the U.S., where it’s quite common for ordinary citizens to display the national flag year-round, saying that you don’t love your country is guaranteed to shock and dismay people from across the political spectrum, with the exception of segments of the far left. Even strongly libertarian types will say things like, “I love my country, but I hate my government.” (It’s nearly always O.K. to express contempt for the government here, despite the reverence paid to the Constitution, which famously equates the government with the people.) In many other countries, I gather, displays of the national flag by private citizens are extremely rare.

To me, love of an abstraction is a dangerous thing, and I react to it with I think much the same loathing which the ancient Hebrews reserved for idol-worship. A worshipped fatherland demands blood sacrifice and gives little in return but the sort of “protection” one purchases from gangsters at gunpoint. I find it telling that the kind of super-patriots who treat any questioning of the war machine or the surveillance state as tantamount to treason all too often do not hesitate to condone the despoiling of their country’s land, air and water. “Drill, baby, drill!” they chant at political rallies, and without irony advocate the construction of a massive pipeline across the country’s midsection, to bring Canadian tar sands to Texan refineries, as necessary to reduce our dependence on “foreign oil.” Here in Pennsylvania, we’re in the early stages of a hydrofracturing shale-gas boom that threatens to poison groundwater across the state and destroy some of our last remaining wild places, but those who object on environmental grounds are derided as effeminate tree-huggers at best and anti-American troublemakers at worst. I could go on. But the point is that in this case, as in so many others, destruction of the actual, literal country is licensed by lip-service to the abstract Country.

Translating Pacheco’s poem into English, I recall that there are in fact people who put their lives on the line for mountains and pine forests: the brave souls who chain themselves to cranes at mountaintop removal sites or sit in old-growth trees threatened by clearcutting. This makes me think of the Occupy movement, and then the far longer struggle of those whose country — or countries — my ancestors came to occupy. And having lived in one place for most of the past 40 years myself, I can tell you that becoming attached to any one mountain, river or forest is nearly always a recipe for heartbreak, as you witness the cumulative effects of ecological degradation. No doubt the residents of cities like Detroit or New Orleans feel much the same kind of helpless sorrow these days. The life of a drifter — that quintessential American individualist — becomes more attractive with each passing year.

17 Comments


  1. Being a drifter doesn’t protect you from heartbreak. You end up with so many more places to mourn.

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  2. The life of a drifter — that quintessential American individualist — becomes more attractive with each passing year.

    As a drifter who has drifted through many isolated areas of North America over the past 40 months, I can tell you that it might actually be more painful than holding down the fort on a particular mountain or forest. As I gradually revisit so many of the places I have camped and hiked since 2000, I become increasingly disconsolate over the destruction – the leveling of forests in northern California, the springing-up of ocean-view condo units on the hillsides overlooking the beaches of Oregon, the hundreds of oil service industry trucks with their whip antennas and flags tearing all over northwestern New Mexico around Farmington, the fresh crops of massive wind turbines along the Columbia Gorge, and the crews working on solar installations in the Mojave. This drifting about can be quite a heartrending business.

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  3. I see Chris wrote what I was thinking before I had time to type my comment. Yes, Chris – so many more places to mourn.

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  4. O.K., point taken. But let’s say as you drift about, you are lucky enough to land in relatively intact natural areas such as Plummer’s Hollow. It will probably look pretty good to you. Sure, the mountain laurel may seem a bit sparse, and you’ll probably notice some of the invasive plants and wonder about all the brushy areas without canopy cover on the southwest slopes, but without any historical reference points, you’ll have no idea how things like acid rain, overbrowsing by deer, ever-more-frequent ice storms and alien tree pests and diseases are leading to a rather rapid degradation of the forest ecosystem.

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  5. All true as well, Dave, but for most naturalists who know their stuff, when you move into just about any *natural area* (becoming a suspect term in my book), you immediately notice those invasive European buckthorn, and the diseased Beech trees with great rents up the bark of their trunks, and ugly black knot growths all over the Black Cherry, and on and on. I guess what I am getting at is that both are painful – the wholesale human-inflicted destruction which can take out hundreds of acres in a season, or the death-by-a-thousand-cuts destruction of introduced pests and diseases, changing climate, soil contamination, etc… Maybe, as a former long-term landowner, and now a drifter, I’m just seeing this from both sides.

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      1. Don’t take my quibble for complaint about this post, which is marvelous and sadly resonant.

        I’m somehow put in mind of the stretch of country along route 101 in south-central California. I spent time there in the 1980s, and it was largely rural — by no means wild, but at least open and green with room for things other than humans. Then I didn’t visit after 1985. Went back in 2009 and it was essentially a strip mall from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo.

        At least in the devastated countryside surrounding Chernobyl the humans have left and allowed other species to try to make their way as best they can. The land along 101 strikes me as having sustained far worse damage.

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        1. No offense taken; it was an important quibble. And ouch — that’s a good comparison! When we were kids, my brothers and I used to like that series of teen mystery-adventure books, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators.” Even at the time we read them, the California they depict must’ve been gone forever. Ditto with Robinson Jeffers’ Point Sur, another literary landmark of mine back then. Hell, Silicon Valley was once the nearly paradisical Santa Clara Valley, renowned for its orchards, from what I read. Now it has the highest concentration of Superfund sites in the U.S. And that’s the shining example of American innovation and entrepreneurship.

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  6. Thanks for this, Dave. I had never seen the poem (it’s wonderful) and it as well as your thoughts about country (actual) and Country (abstract) really struck a chord.

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  7. “But the point is that in this case, as in so many others, destruction of the actual, literal country is licensed by lip-service to the abstract Country. ”

    ah, you’ve said what i’ve not been able to put into words as simple as this statement.

    it is as though our natural resources are only valuable if used for jobs and industry. in my state (montana) one of my favorite trails leads to a remote high-altitude valley in the mountains edging yellowstone park. but in getting there, we come across the toxic remains of mining once allowed in that area. for decades now there have been attempts to rehabilitate the area, but what has been most successful is the way this mess is kept from the front page news. the jobs that were gained while the mining went on are long, long gone.

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    1. Sounds familiar. For years, Western Pennsylvania has been strip-mined for coal by companies that simply declare bankruptcy when the coal is played out, leaving the taxpayers and local residents to try and clean up the mess with acid mine drainage remediation projects of varying rates of success. Ain’t capitalism great? Privatized profits, socialized costs.

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  8. This is so powerful, the poem and your translation and the commentary. I note that:

    1. Pacheco is wise not to let on which geographic features he might die for. Poets are good at sounding committed without making commitments that might actually be called upon. ;-)

    2. I have been a drifter for years, and as I grow older the grief of each departure becomes louder than the excitement of arrival. This is my personal signal to drift less.

    3. I’m not sure it matters whether “una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa” refers to Tenotihuacan or Detroit. Both are dead civilizations, surviving only to the extent that they’re repurposed as icons or reinhabited by a new culture. Dead and dying cities are rare places where the vast and fractal passions of the past aren’t drowned out by the energy of the new. I could imagine dying for one of those.

    4. The great irony of suburban sprawl, such as Chris found along 101 in the Central Coast of California, is that its genesis is the Jeffersonian agrarian dream that Dave is living. Everyone loves the thought of living in the country, but if everyone moves to the country, demanding a few acres for their idyll, there’s no country left.

    All of which is to say, brilliant post!!

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    1. Thanks, Jarrett — great comment, too. It’s good to get the perspective of an urban planner. In regard to point #4: absolutely. I think about this all the time, wondering if my writing from Plummer’s Hollow (e.g. The Morning Porch tweets) aren’t in fact doing more harm than good by making other people long for my lifestyle.

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    2. Oh, and I’m going to be thinking about this for a while: “Dead and dying cities are rare places where the vast and fractal passions of the past aren’t drowned out by the energy of the new.”

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  9. Fascinating poem, and fascinating conversation too. Not all destruction is man-made, though. I’ve spent the last year living in a city which, if not dead or dying, is certainly largely ruined, thanks to a natural event – a series of earthquakes. But I can imagine a poet being willing to die for the city – or at least for its inhabitants. As for flying flags – it’s rare to see a private citizen flying the New Zealand flag, except when it comes to sporting events – when the Rugby World Cup was held here this year, suddenly flags – both New Zealand, and other nations – erupted all over the place.

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    1. Hi Catherine. Good point about natural destruction, and I hadn’t thought about World Cup-triggered patriotic fervor. Fortunately, we’re spared most of that kind of thing here, except during the Olympics. Sports loyalties are mainly regionalistic rather than nationalistic.

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