Why say the names of gods, stars,
spray from an invisible ocean
or pollen from the farthest gardens?
If life hurts us, if every day comes
tearing at our innards, if every night falls
If someone else’s pain hurts us—a man
we don’t know, but who is
here at all hours, is victim
and enemy and love and everything
that’s missing if we want to be whole.
Never say that darkness is your lot;
don’t swallow joy in one gulp.
Look around you: there’s the other, always there’s the other.
He breathes what suffocates you,
eats your hunger.
He dies with the purer portion of your death.
translation of “El Otro” (1959)
This poem by the Mexican poet and fiction writer Rosario Castellanos (whom you can hear reading it at PalabraVirtual.com) seemed a fitting way to inaugurate a new, weekly series here at Via Negativa, “Poetry from the Other Americas.” I’ve always been irritated by the provincial focus of the poetry establishment in the United States, where most prizes are for U.S. residents only and where poetry in translation gets scant notice from reviewers, critics, and readers of poetry—to say nothing of the arrogance of continuing to refer to the U.S. as “America.” There is much more to American poetry than what’s written in the United States… but even the great Puerto Rican poets such as José Martí, Luis Palés Matos and Julia de Burgos don’t get included in the standard anthologies of “American” verse, to say nothing of Chicano poets who may write in both English and Spanish. Are we to suppose that the editors of these anthologies are “English-only” bigots? And we’re missing out on so much great poetry!
So I’m launching this series to help expand readers’ horizons—and my own. I don’t know this literature nearly as well as I should, and my translation muscles need a work-out, too, so this is very much a learn-by-doing kind of exercise. I welcome criticism from friends with a better command of Spanish (mine is quite shaky). I don’t know Portuguese, French, or any of the indigenous languages of the Americas, but perhaps I’ll be able to convince a few other translators to contribute to the series, or simply share bilingual videopoems if I can find them. Do get in touch if you’d like to help out. I’m grateful to Jean Morris and Christine Swint for their help with this one on Facebook.
For more on Rosario Castellanos, her struggles as a woman writer and the darkness of her poetry, I recommend this essay by Lucina Kathmann in Cordite Poetry Review: “The Woman Who Knows Latin.”