Mothers and heroes

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Honduran poetry


pueblo contra el ejercito, by kilo (Honduras Indymedia)
pueblo contra el ejercito, by kilo (Honduras Indymedia)

Clementina Suárez (1906-1991) is not only Honduras’ preeminent woman poet, but a central figure in the Mexican literary and artistic scene of the mid-20th century. She was profiled in a wonderful biography by Janet Gold, which includes a generous selection of her poems in translation, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of feminism in Honduras. I thought of Clementina on Sunday when I watched videos and photos of indominable women punching soldiers and facing down armored vehicles in the streets.

Clementina Suárez

Yo soy un poeta,
un ejército de poetas.
Y hoy quiero escribir un poema,
un poema silbatos,
un poema fusiles
para pegarlos en las puertas,
en las celdas de las prisiones,
en los muros de las escuelas.
Hoy quiero construir y destruir,
levantar en andamios la esperanza.
Despertar al niño,
arcángel de las espadas,
ser relámpago, trueno,
con estatura de héroe
para talar, arrasar,
las podridas raíces de mi pueblo.

tr. by Dave Bonta

I am a poet,
an army of poets.
And today I want to write a poem —
a whistles poem,
a rifles poem —
to strike them in doorways,
in prison cells,
within the walls of schools.
Today I want to build and destroy,
to give hope a lift onto the scaffold.
I want to rouse the child,
archangel of swords,
to be lightning-flash and thunderclap
with a statue of a hero
to topple, to obliterate
the rotted roots of my people.

Honduras’ most famous and influential poet of all, without a doubt, was Juan Ramón Molina (1875-1908), a friend and contemporary of the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Darío, who joined him in rousing Spanish-language poetry out of its two centuries of slumber. Which is very much how they would’ve described it in the late-Romantic style they pioneered, modernismo. (See “Metempsícosis” at Moving Poems for a much grander Molina poem about reincarnation.)

While the narrator of “Combate” wanted to do away with heroes, the narrator of the following poem pines for a vanished heroic age — the archetypal conservative.

Juan Ramón Molina

¡Viviese yo en los tiempos esforzados
de amores, de conquistas y de guerras,
en que frailes, bandidos y soldados
a través de los mares irritados
iban en busca de remotas tierras.

No en esta triste edad en que desmaya
todo anhelo — encumbrado como un monte —
y en que poniendo mi ambición a raya
herido y solo me quedé en la playa
viendo el límite azul del horizonte!

tr. by Dave Bonta

Ah, that I had lived in times tested
by love, by war and by conquest,
when friars, soldiers and desperadoes
went off across unquiet seas
in search of distant lands,

and not in this pathetic age when longing
has grown faint, inaccessible as a mountain peak,
and holding my ambition in check,
wounded and alone I linger on the shore,
gazing at the horizon’s blue limit!

Roberto Sosa, by contrast, turns his gaze toward those most wounded by military adventurism. This is from his 1995 volume El llanto de las cosas, and was also translated by Jo Anne Englebert as “The Common Grief” in her book of the same name.

Roberto Sosa

hijas del verbo: madres, los esparemos.

Escúchenos, “vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos.”
Recuérdenlo en el nombre del padre, del hijo y del hermano
detenidos y desaparecidos.

Esperamos con la frente en alto
punto por punto unidas como la cicatriz a sus costuras.

Nadie podrá destruir ni desarmar nuestros pesares juntos.

tr. by Dave Bonta

we wait for them, daughters of the word. Mothers.

Hear this: alive they were taken, alive we want them back.
Remember it in the name of the father and the son and the brother
detained and disappeared.

We wait with heads held high,
joined stitch by stitch like a scar to its sutures.

No one shall destroy or disband this union of sorrows.


Incidentally, in case anyone’s wondering why I’m signing my name to each one of these, I’ve noticed that translations are a popular item to copy and paste around the web, and I thought I’d make it easier for people to do so without having to worry about adding the attribution, which for some strange reason often seems to be neglected where translations are concerned.

Our Forgetting

This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems


Dear Dave,

June light lengthens, pulled like string
from a ball of twine, or like days
in the far north, strands of hair so thin

night doesn’t come for months at a time.
With light that long, the eyes and the soul
must grow tired, as must the grasses

and flowers that emerge all at once.
We are made for motion and rest.
To be awake for days on end and then

to sleep, to sleep: it must be like climbing
down a shaft in the earth, dark crumbling,
then collapsing, until you find the edge

of the river that runs far beneath the ground:
waters undetectable to the eye, felt more
through the sound they carry than the caress

they finger over the soft skin on the inside
of the wrist. It is this kind of sleep
none can resist: why we disrobe, slide leg-first

into its current, blackness bearing more
than our bodies, our forgetting
of what continues well above our heads.

—Todd Davis

Dogs and generals

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Honduran poetry


Roberto Sosa is Honduras’ most famous living poet. See Los Pobres, up today at Moving Poems, for another of his poems I’ve translated (as well as for an explanation of why I’m so upset by yesterday’s coup in Honduras).

Roberto Sosa

Los Generales compran, interpretan y reparten
la palabra y el silencio.

Son rígidos y firmes
como las negras alturas pavorosas. Sus mansiones
dos terceras partes de sangre y una de soledad,
y desde allí, sin hacer movimientos, gobiernan
los hilos
anudados a sensibilísimos mastines
con dentaduras de oro y humana apariencia, y combinan,
nadie lo ignora, las sales enigmáticas
de la orden superior, mientras se hinchan
sus inaudibles anillos poderosos.
Los Generales son dueños y señores
de códigos, vidas y haciendas, y miembros respetados
de la Santa Iglesia Católica, Apostólica y Romana.

tr. by Dave Bonta

The Generals purchase, interpret and allocate
words and silences.

They are as rigid and unyielding
as fearsome black crags. Their mansions
take up
two parts blood and one part solitude,
whence, without moving a muscle, they pull
the strings
tied to highly trained mastiffs
with gold teeth and a human likeness, and they combine —
as everyone knows — hidden charms
of the highest order, while their powerful
noiseless rings swell up.

The Generals are lords and masters
of the law, of lives and estates, and they’re members
in good standing of the Holy Catholic Church, Roman and Apostolic.

Here’s another Honduran poem expanding on the “mastiffs” theme, from Oscar Acosta’s 1957 volume Poesía Menor.

Oscar Acosta

Miran desde su lengua el silencio del amor.
Se quedan quietos en los rincones, huelen
el cariño en las ropas, en las lámparas, en la voz.
Caminan suaves sobre las alfombras verdes.
Los ojos son vivos y hablan por sí solos.
Cómo ausentarlos entonces al silencio,
cómo echarlos de las calles, cómo sepultarlos
si se levantan de los jardines floridos,
cómo envenenarlos por una disposición sanitaria
si sus amos cordiales están también rabiosos.

tr. by Dave Bonta

See how the silence of love drips from their tongues.
They keep quiet in corners, catching the scent
of affection on clothing, on lamps, in the voice.
They walk softly over green carpets. Their eyes
are so animated they speak all by themselves.
How then to silence them? How to kick them
off the streets? How to bury them when
they keep rising from flowerbeds?
How to poison and safely dispose of them
if their loving masters have also gone rabid?

I’ll be sharing translations of Honduran poetry here all this week.

W.S. Merwin on poetry and the via negativa

Yesterday’s episode of Bill Moyers’ Journal featured W.S. Merwin, in a wide-ranging discussion that kept coming back to what I gather is the apophatic premise of his new, Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Shadow of Sirius. PBS won’t let me embed the video, but it does provide a full transcript I can quote from.

BILL MOYERS: You titled this new book, the one that just one the Pulitzer Prize, “In The Shadow of Sirius”. Now, Sirius is the dog star. The most luminous star in the sky. Twenty-five times more luminous than the sun. And yet, you write about its shadow. Something that no one has never seen. Something that’s invisible to us. Help me to understand that.

W.S. MERWIN: That’s the point. The shadow of Sirius is pure metaphor, pure imagination. But we live in it all the time.


W.S. MERWIN: We are the shadow of Sirius. There is the other side of– as we talk to each other, we see the light, and we see these faces, but we know that behind that, there’s the other side, which we never know. And that — it’s the dark, the unknown side that guides us, and that is part of our lives all the time. It’s the mystery. That’s always with us, too. And it gives the depth and dimension to the rest of it.

BILL MOYERS: But this is the first poem in the book. Would you read this for us?

W.S. MERWIN: That must be “The Nomad Flute.”

You that sang to me once sing to me now
let me hear your long lifted note
survive with me
the star is fading
I can think farther than that but I forget
do you hear me

do you still hear me
does your air
remember you
o breath of morning
night song morning song
I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it

but I know better now
than to ask you
where you learned that music
where any of it came from
once there were lions in China

I will listen until the flute stops
and the light is old again

BILL MOYERS: “I have with me all that I do not know. I have lost none of it.” What — how do you carry with you what you do not know?

W.S. MERWIN: We always do that. I think that poetry and the most valuable things in our lives, and in fact the next sentence, your next question to me, Bill, come out of what we don’t know. They don’t come out of what we do know. They come out of what we do know, but what we do know doesn’t make them. The real source of them is beyond that. It’s something we don’t know. They arise by themselves. And that’s a process that we never understand.

BILL MOYERS: And that’s true of poetry.

W.S. MERWIN: That’s true of poetry. All the — I think poetry always comes out of what you don’t know. And with students I say, knowledge is very important. Learn languages. Read history. Read, listen, above all, listen to everybody. Listen to everything that you hear. Every sound in the street. Every bird and every dog and everything that you hear. But know all of your knowledge is important, but your knowledge will never make anything. It will help you to form the things, but what makes something is something that you will never know. It comes out of you. It’s who you are. Who are you, Bill?


Poetry’s really about what can’t be said. And you address it when you can’t find words for something. And the idea is, is that the poet probably finds words for things. But if you ask the poet, the poet will tell you, you can’t find words for it. Nobody finds words for grief. Nobody finds words for love. Nobody finds words for lust. Nobody found — finds words for real anger. These are things that always escape words.


One of the great themes that runs through poetry, all poetry, and I think is one of the reasons for poetry, one of the sources of poetry, one of the sources of language, is the feeling of loss. The feeling of losing things. Not being able to hold, keep things. That’s what grief — I mean, grief is the feeling of having lost. Of having something being out of reach. Gone. Inaccessible. And I think that that’s a theme that runs through much of all poetry. But I think the language itself and poetry are born the same way.

As I said before, you know, I think poetry’s about what can’t be said. And I think that language emerges out of what could not be said. Out of this desperate desire to utter something, to express something inexpressible. Probably grief. Maybe something else. You know, you see a silent photograph of an Iraqi woman who’s husband or son or brother has just been killed by an explosion. And you know that if you could hear, you would be hearing one long vowel of grief. Just senseless, meaningless vowel of grief. And that’s the beginning of language right there.

Inexpressible sound. And it’s antisocial. It’s destructive. It’s utterly painful beyond expression. And the consonants are the attempts to break it, to control it, to do something with it. And I think that’s how language emerged.

If you can spare an hour, watch the show here. (This should remain up and accessible on the web indefinitely.) I find Merwin’s example enormously inspiring; it would be fair to say he’s been a bit of a role model for me.

Why do poets say “O”?

Why do poets say “O”? What’s wrong with the normal way of writing it? Isn’t O some kind of archaic holdover? I could swear it gives off a faint whiff of mildew.

Maybe it’s precisely its strangeness that that attracts poets, our task being mainly a making-strange. Since O is so seldom used outside poetry, it remains relatively untarnished by humdrummery. “O” exclaims; “Oh” expresses. The h, though unvoiced, brings connotations that the solitary O doesn’t carry. It’s like a little chair pulled up next to an otherwise unadulterated expression of pure emotion. And it’s a well-used chair, accommodating everything from sudden understanding to disappointment to orgasm.

Unlike O, Oh can be a question: Oh? It can be paired with its opposite — Oh ho! — or with its fraternal twin for an expression beloved of those who are just learning to talk: Uh-oh!

But a cursory survey suggests that O is far from obsolete among practitioners of contemporary poetry. In the latest Copper Canyon Reader, which is what Copper Canyon Press is now calling its paper catalog, Laura Kasischke’s “Miss Brevity” ends, “O, // you swear you’ll remember us forever, / but you won’t.” And Emily Warn has a poem titled “O My Soul.” In the latter case, the use might be semi-ironic, since the text of the brief poem reveals that the narrator doesn’t believe in the soul in a conventional sense. (“I forged you with my speech. / No longer bereft, you blaze.”) But Kasischke’s use seems completely unironic.*

I just happened across another instance of “O” in a blog post from a writer and photographer I admire, the author of Paula’s House of Toast:

O, who has set the water table ?
O, who has caused
these strange patties to rain down from the sky
into the nooks and crannies of our cravings ?

Here I think O serves as a signifier of the self-consciously poetic; nothing says “serious poetry” like “O.” Given that the next line following the part I quoted is “Selah,” I think it’s likely that Paula was being a bit tongue-in-cheek.

Aside from such ironic uses, though, I’m not sure what prompts contemporary poets to continue using what has always struck me as an affectation. I prefer “Oh” precisely because it is impure and vernacular. But it occurs to me also that since I’m kind of emotionally repressed, I may not be the best person to judge the appropriateness of using an expression of concentrated emotion, in a poem or otherwise.

Have you ever used “O” in a poem? If so, why?

UPDATE 6/27: Check out Kimberley Grey’s poem “The Difference Between Oh and O in the May issue of Boxcar Poetry Review. (Thanks to Sarah Jane Sloat, on Facebook, for the tip.)

*A Google search reveals that an earlier draft of the poem published on Poetry Daily in 2006 and reproduced in a couple of blogs did have “Oh.” That version is otherwise identical to the poem in the catalog. So at some point Kasischke decided that “O” was better suited to the task. I wonder why?

Letter from Midsummer

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems


Dear Todd,

I wonder what air
& daylight mean
to the boletes holding
their brown platters up,
or to Indian pipes
with their white
swan necks?
I guess it’s dissolution
that they’re after
here aboveground,
where you need
some kind of hide
or cuticle to hold
the darkness in.
They’re hoping for
a fetid breeze or
brush of insects—
whatever they can get.
Just now, sorting laundry
fresh from the line
in my warm bedroom,
I reached into
a black sweatshirt
to turn it rightside out
& found the evening
coolness hidden
in its sleeves.


Picking things up & putting
them down is different in
the presence of the dead.
Sound & echo part company.
An 8th day is added to the week.
Try pretending that no one has
a claim on you, like sunlight
resting on a meadow
agitated by wind. Try
going bump in the night.
The dead listen without hearing
& watch without having to see—
they’re ideal witnesses.
We’re making more of them
as quickly as we can.

Little night


All day, the firefly clings unmoving to the double-paned storm door as it swings open and shut. Fast-moving thunderstorms dump rain on the upturned faces of evening primroses; water gurgles in every ditch and draw. On the other side of the world, a young woman whose name means voice or call is shot dead in the middle of the street. Millions watch the cellphone video: rivers of blood spilling from her mouth and nostrils, her wide-open gaze fixed on infinity. Then night descends, the shortest of the northern year, full of cries and fires. I log off around 10:00 and step outside to listen to what seems at first like a restless multitude: the rushing wind and water. Fireflies blown sideways in mid-blink seem to be attempting some form of Morse code.

Seven hours later, as dawn breaks on the solstice, we find a juvenile screech owl perched on a small snag beside a trail, possibly just fledged and not quite ready to fly. Its mother shrieks and clacks her bill at us. I take two flash pictures and move quickly away, anxious not to attract the attention of crows.

screech owl fledgling 2

Farough (or Forugh) Farrokhzad was, by all accounts, one of the greatest Iranian poets of the 20th century. Here’s an English translation of one of her poems that seems appropriate to the moment. It’s from Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, translated by Sholeh Wolpe.

The Wind Will Take Us

by Forough Farrokhzad

Inside my little night, alas,
the wind has a rendezvous with the leaves;
inside my little night, there is fear
and dread of desolation.

Hear the darkness blow like wind?
I watch this prosperity through alien eyes.
I am addicted to my despair.
Hear the darkness blow?

This minute, inside this night,
something’s coming to pass. The moon
is troubled and red; clouds
are a procession of mourners waiting
to release tears upon this rooftop,
this rooftop about to crumble, to give way.

A moment,
then, nothing.

Beyond this window, the night quivers,
and the earth once again halts its spin.
From beyond this window, the eyes
of the unknown are on you and me.

May you be green, head to toe—
put your hands like a fevered memory in mine…
these hands that love you.

And cede your lips
like a life-warmed feeling
to the caress of my lovesick lips.

The wind will one day blow us away.
The wind will blow us away.


I am holding a small mammal against my chest. When it cries, I try my best to sway like a tree. When it speaks, the words come from a great distance & I can’t make them out. We are hiding in abandoned tunnels under the streets of a city that has engulfed the earth. Our skin has turned pale blue in the absence of sky & our minds are grim reapers: drift nets set to catch rare flashes of joy. A twitch travels from muscle to muscle before lodging permanently in my left eyelid. It’s a lucky thing I’ve still got sunglasses on. The motherless creature in my arms has imprinted on its own reflection & would wail if I ever took them off. With cars above & trains below, the ground never stops trembling, even in its sleep.

No contest

All at once, wholly and decisively, he shook with laughter. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been thanked so many times in one day just for doing his job and keeping the peace. The ring of protesters broke into smiles. God is great, someone murmured.

Such a useful slogan, he thought: impossible to disagree with in spite of, or perhaps because of, its utter meaninglessness. What was greatness apart from God? What do we know of God aside from the fact that he exceeds our comprehension? But to say “God is great” is to acknowledge our own powerlessness — and in that acknowledgement, to question the permanence and even the validity of all human institutions. Therein lay its power. This nonviolent army was no less militant than the holy warriors of Saladin.

God is great, they began to chant in unison, and at once felt the warm glow of kinship from their shared smallness. It felt good to relinquish authority to a higher power, and what’s more, their political opponents now risked becoming the opponents of God himself. The policeman had seen all this in a flash, looking into their fervent, self-righteous faces; that’s why he’d laughed. But after days of tension, it was a relief to lay the baton aside, take off his helmet, and tie a green ribbon around his wrist. God is great! said one houri-eyed young woman with a green headscarf. God is great, he agreed. Who could possibly quarrel with eyes like those?

This is the eighth post in an ongoing online game of Consequences. Each successive entry begins with the closing lines of its predecessor. Entries are 250 words long, and are linked thematically. The series started with Hydragenic and was followed by Patteran Pages, Porous Borders, The Middlewesterner, Feathers of Hope (Pica), Blaugustine, and Small Change. [Updated to add:] The series continues at the cassandra pages, 3rd House Journal, mole, Ivy is here, Feathers of Hope again (Numenius), and Velveteen Rabbi. The series concludes where it began, on Hydragenic.