Ajedrez / Chess by Jorge Luis Borges

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 14 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


Jorge Luis Borges in 1951by Grete SternJorge Luis Borges probably needs no introduction to most readers. Though best known for his short stories, he also wrote poetry throughout his life.

Thanks to Luis Andrade for the challenge! Borges is so literary (I don’t mean that in a bad sense) that a very literal translation I think works quite well; that is, “homerico” translates perfectly directly to “homeric,” etc. I felt that something had to be done to slow the gallop of the quatrains, which in English have a distressing tendency to come out in four beats, like Hiawatha; hence the five-line stanzas in the place of quatrains.



In their serious corner the players
rule their slow pieces. The board
delays them till dawn
in their strict ambit,
where two colors hate each other.

Within, magical severities infuse
the figures: homeric tower, light
horse, armed queen,
last king, oblique
bishop and assailant pawns.

When the players have gone,
when time has eaten them,
the rite has certainly not stopped.

This war was lit in the East,
whose amphitheater today is all the world.
And as the other, this game is infinite.


Weak king, biased bishop, embittered
queen, straight tower and wily pawn,
over the black
and white of the road
they seek and wage armed battle.

They do not know that the appointed hand
of the player governs their fate,
they do not know
that an adamantine rigor
subjects their will and their journey.

The player too is prisoner
(the sentence is Omar’s) of that other board,
the black nights and the white days.

God moves the player and the player moves the piece
What God behind God began the weaving
of dust and time and dream and the throes of death?




En su grave rincón, los jugadores
rigen las lentas piezas. El tablero
los demora hasta el alba en su severo
ámbito en que se odian dos colores.

Adentro irradian mágicos rigores
las formas: torre homérica, ligero
caballo, armada reina, rey postrero,
oblicuo alfil y peones agresores.

Cuando los jugadores se hayan ido,
cuando el tiempo los haya consumido,
ciertamente no habrá cesado el rito.

En el Oriente se encendió esta guerra
cuyo anfiteatro es hoy toda la tierra.
Como el otro, este juego es infinito.


Tenue rey, sesgo alfil, encarnizada
reina, torre directa y peón ladino
sobre lo negro y blanco del camino
buscan y libran su batalla armada.

No saben que la mano señalada
del jugador gobierna su destino,
no saben que un rigor adamantino
sujeta su albedrío y su jornada.

También el jugador es prisionero
(la sentencia es de Omar) de otro tablero
de negras noches y blancos días.

Dios mueve al jugador, y éste, la pieza.
¿Qué Dios detrás de Dios la trama empieza
de polvo y tiempo y sueño y agonías?

Queen Anne’s Lace

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

No one told us they weren’t regal
as the name they came by, weren’t
connected in some way to pedigree—

And so mother planted stands of them
around the garden after plots of grass
were rolled out, and borders marked

with quarry stone— Wild carrot, tufted
bird’s nest, belled hoops of devil’s plague.
I cupped their flimsy skirts in my hands

and tugged them, loosening a rain
of tiny seed pearls from this common
weed, looking for the bud in the middle,

the one they said was tinted red
from when the lady pricked her finger
with a needle, making all this lace.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Up and took physique, but such as to go abroad with, only to loosen me, for I am bound. So to the office, and there all the morning sitting till noon, and then took Commissioner Pett home to dinner with me, where my stomach was turned when my sturgeon came to table, upon which I saw very many little worms creeping, which I suppose was through the staleness of the pickle.
He being gone, comes Mr. Nicholson, my old fellow-student at Magdalene, and we played three or four things upon the violin and basse, and so parted, and I to my office till night, and there came Mr. Shepley and Creed in order to settling some accounts of my Lord to-night, and so to bed.

A road is a table
upon which many
little worms creep
through stale,
gone things.

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 26 June 1662.

House without walls: two poems by Vinicius de Moraes

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 13 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


Vinicius De MoraesMarcus Vinicius da Cruz e Mello Moraes (October 19, 1913 – July 9, 1980), also known as Vinícius de Moraes and nicknamed O Poetinha (“The little poet”), was a Brazilian poet, lyricist, essayist and playwright who wrote the lyrics for many now-classic Brazilian songs and became a seminal figure in contemporary Brazilian music. He also wrote a number of plays, served as a national diplomat, composed his own bossa nova music and, as an interpreter of his own lyrics, recorded several significant albums. (Thanks, Wikipedia. Read the rest.)

These two poems appeal to me for their quirkiness. I took liberties with “The House” so that I might approximate the rhymes; I’ve added “Heroes” to the penultimate line so it could rhyme with “Zero” (actually makes sense in the context).


Virgin! Daughter of mine
Where have you been
You’re all dirty
You smell of jasmine
Your skirt’s stained carmine
And your earrings are clinking
Mother dear
I’ve been in the garden
I went to look at the sky
And I fell asleep.
When I awoke
I smelled of jasmine
An angel was scattering petals
Over me….

A Annunciaçāo
(Rio de Janeiro 1962)

Virgen! filha minha
De onde vens assim
Tão suja de terra
Cheirando a jasmim
A saia com mancha
De flor carmesim
E os brincos da orelha
Fazendo tlintlin?
Minha mãe querida
Venho do jardim
Onde a olhar o céu
Fui, adormeci.
Quando despertei
Cheirava a jasmin
Que um anjo esfolhava
Por cima de mim…


The House

There was a house
A very funny house
No roof
No nothing
No one
Could go in
Because there was no door
Because there was no floor
No one
Could sleep in the hammock
In the hall
Because there was no wall
No one
Could do pipi
Because a chamberpot
There was not
But the house was built
With great care
In the Street of Fools and Heroes
Number Zero.

A Casa
(Rio de Janeiro 1970)

Era uma casa
Muito engraçada
Não tinha telo
Nāo tinha nada
Ninguém podia
Entrar nela não
Porque na casa
Não tinha chão
Ninguém podia
Dormir na rede
Porque a casa
Não tinha parede
Ninguém podia
Fazer pipi
Porque penico
Não tinha ali
Mas era feita
Com muito esmero
Na Rua dos Bobos
Numero Zero.

Billionaire blues

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Up by four o’clock, and put my accounts with my Lord into a very good order, and so to my office, where having put many things in order I went to the Wardrobe, but found my Lord gone to Hampton Court. After discourse with Mr. Shepley we parted, and I into Thames Street, beyond the Bridge, and there enquired among the shops the price of tarre and oyle, and do find great content in it, and hope to save the King money by this practice. So home to dinner, and then to the Change, and so home again, and at the office preparing business against to-morrow all the afternoon. At night walked with my wife upon the leads, and so to supper and to bed. My wife having lately a great pain in her ear, for which this night she begins to take physique, and I have got cold and so have a great deal of my old pain.

lock into order in order to war
go after tar and oil
eat money
change into lead

O pain of my pain

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 25 June 1662.

La blanca soledad / Pale Solitude by Leopoldo Lugones

Leopoldo Lugones - photo by Eduardo Vargas Machuca
This entry is part 12 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


For background on the poet, see “Historia de mi muerte / Story of My Death.” To hear the poem read clearly and movingly (though by a Spaniard, not an Argentinian), listen to this recording on YouTube.

Pale Solitude

Beneath the calm of sleep
that moonlit shiny silky calm
the night
for all the world like
some pale corpse of silence
goes sweetly to its rest in this immensity
lets down its hair
as the summer leaves along the avenues

Nothing now lives except the eye
of the forbidding clock-tower
peering uselessly into infinity
like a tunnel opened in sand
Driven by the cogs
of clocks
like a carriage going nowhere

The moon carves out a pale abyss
of quietude a gaping gulf
where all is ghostly
shadows mere ideas
I shrink from the proximity
of death in that pale place
From the beauty of a world
possessed by the fullness of this ancient moon
And the sad sad yearning to be loved
trembles in my aching heart

There is a city in the air
a hanging city barely visible
the vague outlines
of polyhedral crystals
hovering in the clear night
like watermarks in paper
A city so distant so illogical
its presence fills me with unease

Is this a city or a ship
to carry us away from Earth
happy and stunned into
such purity
that only our souls
live on beneath the pale full moon?…

Then suddenly a subtle tremor
moves across the seamless glow
The outlines fade away
all that immensity is just pale stone
all that remains of an ill-omened night
this certain knowledge: you’re not here

La blanca soledad

Bajo la calma del sueño,
calma lunar de luminosa seda,
la noche
como si fuera
el blanco cuerpo del silencio,
dulcemente en la inmensidad se acuesta.
Y desata
su cabellera,
en prodigioso follaje de alamedas.

Nada vive sino el ojo
del reloj en la torre tétrica,
profundizando inútilmente el infinito
como un agujero abierto en la arena.
El infinito.
Rodado por las ruedas
de los relojes,
como un carro que nunca llega.

La luna cava un blanco abismo
de quietud, en cuya cuenca
las cosas son cadáveres
y las sombras viven como ideas.
Y uno se pasma de lo próxima
que está la muerte en la blancura aquella.
De lo bello que es el mundo
poseído por la antigüedad de la luna llena.
Y el ansia tristísima de ser amado,
en el corazón doloroso tiembla.

Hay una ciudad en el aire,
una ciudad casi invisible suspensa,
cuyos vagos perfiles
sobre la clara noche transparentan,
como las rayas de agua en un pliego,
su cristalización poliédrica.
Una ciudad tan lejana,
que angustia con su absurda presencia.

¿Es una ciudad o un buque
en el que fuésemos abandonando la tierra,
callados y felices,
y con tal pureza,
que sólo nuestras almas
en la blancura plenilunar vivieran?…

Y de pronto cruza un vago
estremecimiento por la luz serena.
Las líneas se desvanecen,
la inmensidad cámbiase en blanca piedra
y sólo permanece en la noche aciaga
la certidumbre de tu ausencia.

Arguments with destiny: 24

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

“…and each of your kisses lasted a day
and the time between two kisses
lasted a night.”

“…y cada beso tuyo
era un día;
y el tiempo que mediaba entre dos besos
una noche.”

from “Historia de mi muerte” / “Story of My Death”
by Leopoldo Lugones, trans. D. Bonta

What to pawn for a sweet,
a leftover gem, paper slipped
into folded circles of bread
as you move from one
darkness to the next?


What to feed to the dog
that guards the gates, the one
who angles hot, greedy breath;
ready paws prepared to seize
your face in its fangs?


What to feel in the interval
of flame after the phoenix
dissolves in a shroud of ash,
before feathers return
to adorn its breast?


In response to Via Negativa: Historia de mi muerte....


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

(Midsummer day). Up early and to my office, putting things in order against we sit. There came to me my cozen Harry Alcocke, whom I much respect, to desire (by a letter from my father to me, where he had been some days) my help for him to some place. I proposed the sea to him, and I think he will take it, and I hope do well.
Sat all the morning, and I bless God I find that by my diligence of late and still, I do get ground in the office every day.
At noon to the Change, where I begin to be known also, and so home to dinner, and then to the office all the afternoon dispatching business.
At night news is brought me that Field the rogue hath this day cast me at Guildhall in 30l. for his imprisonment, to which I signed his commitment with the rest of the officers; but they having been parliament-men, that he hath begun the law with me; and threatens more, but I hope the Duke of York will bear me out. At night home, and Mr. Spong came to me, and so he and I sat singing upon the leads till almost ten at night and so he went away (a pretty, harmless, and ingenious man), and I to bed, in a very great content of mind, which I hope by my care still in my business will continue to me.

We sit by the sea
to find still ground.
At the prison, men singing
till ten at night.

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 24 June 1662.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Up early, this morning, and my people are taking down the hangings and things in my house because of the great dust that is already made by the pulling down of Sir W. Batten’s house, and will be by my own when I come to it. To my office, and there hard at work all the morning. At noon to the Exchange to meet Dr. Williams, who sent me this morning notice of his going into the country tomorrow, but could not find him, but meeting with Frank Moore, my Lord Lambeth’s man formerly, we, and two or three friends of his did go to a tavern, and there they drank, but I nothing but small beer. In the next room one was playing very finely of the dulcimer, which well played I like well, but one of our own company, a talking fellow, did in discourse say much of this Act against Seamen,1 for their being brought to account; and that it was made on purpose for my Lord Sandwich, who was in debt 100,000l., and hath been forced to have pardon oftentimes from Oliver for the same: at which I was vexed at him, but thought it not worth my trouble to oppose what he said, but took leave and went home, and after a little dinner to my office again, and in the evening Sir W. Warren came to me about business, and that being done, discoursing of deals, I did offer to go along with him among his deal ships, which we did to half a score, where he showed me the difference between Dram, Swinsound, Christiania, and others, and told me many pleasant notions concerning their manner of cutting and sawing them by watermills, and the reason how deals become dearer and cheaper, among others, when the snow is not so great as to fill up the vallys that they may pass from hill to hill over the snow, then it is dear carriage. From on board he took me to his yard, where vast and many places of deals, sparrs, and bulks, &c., the difference between which I never knew before, and indeed am very proud of this evening’s work. He had me into his house, which is most pretty and neat and well furnished. After a glass, not of wine, for I would not be tempted to drink any, but a glass of mum, I well home by water, but it being late was forced to land at the Custom House, and so home and to bed, and after I was a-bed, letters came from the Duke for the fitting out of four ships forthwith from Portsmouth (I know not yet for what) so I was forced to make Will get them wrote, and signed them in bed and sent them away by express. And so to sleep.

this great dust is made
in the country

there is no cheaper
to fill up the house and urn

with I know not yet
what sleep

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 23 June 1662.