Yesterday was the coldest morning so far this year; all the public schools were on a two-hour delay, and the streets were nearly deserted. I sat at a table in the bookstore window, waiting for one of the music stores to open so I could buy a new harmonica. Long strings of colorful paper cranes hung between me and the street — not quite a thousand of them, but nonetheless intended, I think, as a concrete expression of hope for peace.
I had just picked up a a bilingual selection of poems by the great 17th-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, translated by Alan S. Trueblood: A Sor Juana Anthology. As I’d remembered from his translation of Antonio Machado, Trueblood is a competent but not very imaginative translator, which is fine for my purposes: I’d prefer to have to struggle through the Spanish, referring to the English only for help with vocabulary.
I opened the book to this sonnet, an indictment of shallow faith:
Verde embeleso de la vida humana,
loca esperanza, frenesí dorado,
sueño de los despiertos intricado,
como de sueños, de tesoros vana;
alma del mundo, senectud lozana,
decrépito verdor imaginado;
el hoy de los dichosos esperado
y de los desdichados el mañana:
sigan tu sombra en busca de tu día
los que, con verdes vidrios por anteojos,
todo lo ven pintado a su deseo;
que yo, más cuerda en la fortuna mía,
tengo en entrambas manos ambos ojos
y solamente lo que toco veo.
After I bought the harmonica, I had a little bit of time to kill before lunch, so I went for a brisk walk. The temperature had risen to perhaps 10 degrees (F), but the sidewalks were still pretty empty. I walked around the west end of town, trying to remember all the front porches on which I had partied at one time or another. I counted twelve. I didn’t feel in the least bit nostalgic, though: that was fun while it lasted, but after a while I felt I had heard just about every conversation it was possible to have while drunk.
I slowed down to admire a line of large sycamore trees. On one of them, some artist had mounted a pair of green eyes — verdes vidrios, indeed! I resolved to attempt a translation, however inadequate, of Sister Juana’s poem.
Green enchantment of every human life,
mad hope, delerious gold fever,
convoluted sleep of the sleepless
where dream and treasure are equally elusive;
soul of this world, leafy senescence,
decrepit fantasy of green
that the happy call today
and the unhappy, tomorrow:
let those who wear green glasses
and see everything just as their desire paints it
chase your shadow in search of a new morning.
For my part, I’ll give fate the greater latitude,
keep eyes in both my hands
and look no farther than I can touch.