I think Chile in the 20th century produced more great poets per capita than any other country on earth. Jorge Teillier (1935-1996) grew up in the rainy south, and is best known for his poems of nostalgia and melancholy. But perhaps it takes a poet steeped in melancholy to write a convincing poem about happiness. Here’s my attempt to translate “Bajo el cielo nacido tras la lluvia,” the Spanish text of which may be found on his Wikipedia page.
Under the sky born after the rain,
I hear the quiet slap of oars against the water
and I’m thinking: happiness is nothing
but the quiet slap of oars against the water.
Or maybe it’s nothing but the light
on a small boat, appearing and disappearing
on the dark swell of years
slow as a funeral supper.
Or the light of a house discovered behind the hill
when we’d thought nothing remained but to walk and walk.
Or the gulf of silence
between my voice and the voice of someone
revealing to me the true names of things
simply by calling them up: poplars, roofs.
The distance between the clinking of a bell
on a sheep’s neck at dawn
and the thud of a door closing after a party.
The space between the cry of a wounded bird out on the marsh
and the folded wings of a butterfly
just over the crest of a wind-swept ridge.
That was happiness:
drawing random figures in the frost,
fully aware they’d hardly last at all,
breaking off a pine bough on the spur of the moment
to write our names in the damp ground,
catching a piece of thistledown
to try and stop the flight of a whole season.
That’s what happiness was like:
brief as the dream of a felled sweet acacia tree
or the dance of a crazy old woman in front of a broken mirror.
Happy days pass as quickly as the journey
of a star cut loose from the sky, but it doesn’t matter.
We can always reconstruct them from memory,
just as the boy sent out to the courtyard for punishment
collects pebbles to form resplendent armies.
We can always be in the day that’s neither yesterday nor tomorrow,
gazing up at a sky born after the rain
and listening from afar
to a quiet slap of oars against the water.
Thanks to everyone who helped out on Facebook with the line about the solterona loca. I’ll have to make a habit of “friend-sourcing” translation problems from now on. Further critiques are of course welcome, too. This was somewhat freer than my usual attempts at translation.