Poetry from the Other Americas

The sheer size and vitality of the North American, Anglophone poetry scene(s) keeps all too many of us from exploring farther afield. Which is a shame, because this hemisphere has had so many other great poets. This on-going series represents our best effort to spread awareness of them and their work—as well as to educate ourselves through the unparalleled deep reading that translation entails. Contact Dave if you’d like to contribute. Translations from Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, French, or any of the indigenous languages of the Americas are welcome. There’s also a Facebook group.

This entry is part 1 of 37 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

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
convulsing, murdered.
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)

cover of "Poesía no eres tú: obra poética, 1948-1971"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.”

This entry is part 2 of 37 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

Watch on Vimeo.

Green enchantment of every human life,
mad hope, delirious golden 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.

My translation of the sonnet “Verde embeleso de la vida humana” (1688) by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I first shared it in a blog post back in 2007: “Through green glasses.” Rather than simply re-posting it, I decided to add value by making a videopoem, and roped in my Via Negativa co-author Luisa Igloria to contribute a reading for the soundtrack. The norm for videopoems of translated texts is to put the original language in the soundtrack and the translation in subtitles, but I decided to reverse that here, just as an experiment. I wanted to make the poem feel less foreign to an English-language audience.

I thought of the poem only after I filmed the meadow footage featured in the video. (That’s my parents’ front lawn. Dad always waits to mow until after the dandelions and ajuga are done blooming; they share my general preference for weeds over boring grass.) I love films with long, stationary or slowly panning shots in which the world is simply going about its business, and the original plan for this videopoem was to have that, the titling, and nothing else. But mid-way through the editing process, I woke up early one morning with the idea of adding crowds of people as an overlay. One thing led to another, I found some crazy-ass 1960s TV ads in the Prelinger Archives, and by last night I finally had something I was happy with. For the music, I used a public-domain guitar interpretation of Albéniz from Wikimedia, reasoning that something from the 19th century would help bridge the gap between the 17th and 21st centuries. For the same reason, I used a contemporary-looking font with serifs.

To my mind, a videopoem that doesn’t reinterpret the text in a manner different from what its author intended isn’t a real videopoem. But as Lorca much later showed, verde (green) is one of those words with an almost unlimited number of connotations. So this is more than a translation; it’s a complete re-imagining. Then again, human nature hasn’t changed in the last 400 years, and deciding to live in the moment rather than living in hope is, if anything, wiser than ever.

This entry is part 3 of 37 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

My long-time friend and fellow blogger Natalie d’Arbeloff volunteered to help out with this Poetry from the Other Americas series, and I jumped at the chance to add some Brazilian poems to the mix. Here are five by Oswald de Andrade that Natalie selected and translated in an admirably straight-forward way, demonstrating that one doesn’t necessarily have to be a professional poet to be a good translator. —Dave


Portuguese error

When the Portuguese arrived
In pouring rain
They clothed the Indian
What a shame!
Had it been a sunny morning
The Indian would have stripped
The Portuguese.

Erro de português

Quando o português chegou
Debaixo duma bruta chuva
Vestiu o índio
Que pena!
Fosse uma manhã de sol
O índio tinha despido
O português.

*

The discovery

We followed our course on that long sea
Until the eighth day of Easter
Sailing alongside birds
We sighted land
the savages
We showed them a chicken
Almost frightening them
They didn’t want to touch it
Then they took it, stupefied
it was fun
After a dance
Diogo Dias
Did a somersault
the young whores
Three or four girls really fit very nice
With long jet-black hair
And shameless tits so high so shapely
We all had a good look at them
We were not in the least ashamed.

A descoberta

Seguimos nosso caminho por este mar de longo
Até a oitava da Páscoa
Topamos aves
E houvemos vista de terra
os selvagens
Mostraram-lhes uma galinha
Quase haviam medo dela
E não queriam por a mão
E depois a tomaram como espantados
primeiro chá
Depois de dançarem
Diogo Dias
Fez o salto real
as meninas da gare
Eram três ou quatro moças bem moças e bem gentis
Com cabelos mui pretos pelas espáduas
E suas vergonhas tão altas e tão saradinhas
Que de nós as muito bem olharmos
Não tínhamos nenhuma vergonha.

*

Song of going home

My land has palm trees
Where the sea twitters
The little birds over here
Don’t sing like those over there
My land has more roses
And almost more lovers
My land has more gold
My land has more land
Gold land love and roses
I want everything my land has
God don’t let me die
Before going back home
God don’t let me die
Without seeing 15th Street again
And the progress of Sao Paulo.

Canto de regresso à pátria

Minha terra tem palmares
Onde gorjeia o mar
Os passarinhos daqui
Não cantam como os de lá
Minha terra tem mais rosas
E quase que mais amores
Minha terra tem mais ouro
Minha terra tem mais terra
Ouro terra amor e rosas
Eu quero tudo de lá
Não permita Deus que eu morra
Sem que volte para lá
Não permita Deus que eu morra
Sem que volte pra São Paulo
Sem que veja a Rua 15
E o progresso de São Paulo.

*

Lord
May I never be
Like the old Englishman
Over there
Asleep in an armchair
Waiting for visitors who do not come.

Senhor
Que eu não fique nunca
Como esse velho inglês
Aí do lado
Que dorme numa cadeira
À espera de visitas que não vêm

*

3rd of May

I learned from my ten-year old son
That poetry is the discovery
Of things I’ve never seen.

3 de maio

Aprendi com meu filho de dez anos
Que a poesia é a descoberta
Das coisas que eu nunca vi

This entry is part 4 of 37 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

Rubén DaríoThe great Rubén Darío (1867-1916), native of Nicaragua, drunk on Parnassianism and symbolism, who almost single-handedly dragged Spanish-language poetry into the modern era, awakening it from three centuries of near-lethargy: when he was good he was very, very good, and when he was bad he was horrid. And by horrid, I mean full of overblown, precious imagery and devoid of any sense of physical reality, as for example in his most famous poem. I admit however that my ear isn’t good enough to distinguish great from merely good Spanish prosody. And in going through some of his regularly anthologized poems, I was surprised to find several that I really liked. The first one below, I think, will speak to any writer or artist who’s ever tried to grope her way toward a new form of expression without any clear idea of what that might be. The second is a good example of how well Darío’s poetry can work when it stops just short of bathos, and I liked the parallel images in the last stanza. The final poem is the third of three nocturnos Darío wrote in the course of his career. Insomnia may have been a bit of a Romantic trope, but for those of us who suffer from it, it’s a very real and baffling phenomenon. I choose to interpret the final phrase as a reference to the angel of death, mostly because I feel that almost any Darío poem could be set to music by Slayer to the benefit of both. Please feel free to critique my translations in the comments. (I’m trying to move away from reliance on Facebook.)

I Pursue a Form… (Yo persigo una forma…)

I pursue a form that my usual style doesn’t encounter,
a bud of thought seeking to be a rose.
It’s betokened by a kiss planted on my lips
in the Venus de Milo’s impossible embrace.

Verdant palms adorn the white-columned courtyard,
the stars have foretold a vision of the Goddess,
and the light settles in my soul the way the moon,
that great bird, settles on a calm lake.

And I find only the word that escapes,
the opening melody that flows from the flute,
the dream ship sailing through space,

and under the window of my Sleeping Beauty,
the never-ending sob of the fountain
and the question posed by that white swan’s neck.

(1896)

*

(Updated 2 July 2015) Thanks to Marc Neys A.K.A. Swoon for this video version of the poem below. There’s also a version in Spanish, and he blogged some process notes.


Mortal
(Lo fatal)

For René Pérez

Happy the tree that is barely capable of feeling
and happier still the rock—so hard it feels nothing,
for there’s no greater pain than the pain of being alive,
no affliction more severe than consciousness.

To be, knowing nothing and lacking a sure path,
with the fear of having been and dread for the future…
And the reliable terror of being dead tomorrow,
and suffering through life and through shadow

and through everything we don’t know and can hardly guess,
the flesh so tempting with its fresh clusters
and the waiting tomb with its funeral bouquets—
and not to know where we’re headed
or whence we came!

(1904)

*

Nocturne (Nocturno)

The still of the night—a distressing, nightly stillness…
Why does my soul quake like this?
I listen to the humming of my blood
and a soft storm passes through my skull.
Insomnia! Not to be able to sleep, and yet
to dream. I am the specimen
in a spiritual self-dissection: the auto-Hamlet!
Diluting my sadness
with the wine of night
in darkness’s marvelous glass…
And I mutter to myself: When will the dawn come?
A door has just been shut…
Someone has walked past…
The clock has struck three… If it were She!

(1907)

This entry is part 5 of 37 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

Amado NervoAmado Nervo (1870-1919), Mexican journalist, fiction writer and diplomat, remains one of the better loved poets of the Spanish-speaking world. Like a latter-day Hafez, his great subject was love, be it secular or religious. I find his focus on Asian religions especially interesting, in part because of what it suggests about the ecumenical nature of his Catholicism (he originally intended to become a priest), and also because it helps me better contextualize the Eastern influences on other early 20th-century poets such as Rilke and Jiménez. I like his simplicity and directness, but I’m a little haunted by his life story: how the love of his life, Ana Daillez, died after just 11 years of marriage, and how he himself died at 48, shortly after accepting the post of ambassador to Argentina and Uruguay.

To connect Nervo to two poets already included in this series: he became a close friend of Darío while living in Paris in 1901, and he wrote a pioneering biography of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. If I got a little carried away with the length of this selection, do recall that the name of this blog is Via Negativa. Once in a while, it’s good to post some content that actually sort of lives up to that.


She Kissed Me Often
(Me besaba mucho)

She kissed me often, as if she feared
an imminent departure… Her affections
were restless, nervous.

I didn’t understand
such feverish haste. My coarse intention
never saw very far…
She foresaw!

She foresaw that our time would be short,
that the sail battered by the wind’s lash
was already waiting… and in her anxiety
she tried to leave me her soul with every embrace,
to put all eternity into her kisses.

(1912)

*

And the Basalt Buddha Smiled (Y el Buda de basalto sonreía)

That evening in the poplar grove, mad
with love, the sweet one I idolized
offered me the wild rose of her mouth.

And the basalt Buddha smiled…

Later there was another whose charms
captured me; we made a date, and in the shade
exchanged letters and lockets.

And the basalt Buddha smiled…

It’s been a year today since I lost her love.
I return to our trysting spot and, exhausted
from the long walk, creep up to the top
of the pedestal where the image rests.
The day dies, squandered and bloody,
and in the arms of the basalt Buddha
I’m astonished to see the mysterious moon.

And the basalt Buddha smiled…

(1902)

*

Kalpa (Kalpa)

“Do you want all this to begin again?”
“Yes!” the chorus replied.
THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA

In all the eternities
that preceded our world,
how can we refuse to believe that there have already
been other planets with human beings,

whose Homers have declaimed
their first heroic deeds
and whose Shakespeares have shared wisdom gleaned
from delving into the depths of the soul?

Serpent biting your tail,
uncompromising circle, black
ball that turns without ceasing,
monotonous refrain of the same song,
abysmal tide—
is this story of yours ever to have an end?

(1914)

*

Identity (Identidad)

Tat Tvam Asi
(You are this: that is to say, you are one
and the same as everything around you;
you are the thing in itself)

Anyone who knows they are one with God achieves nirvana:
a nirvana in which all darkness is illuminated,
a dizzying expansion of human consciousness
that is merely the projection of the divine idea
on the screen of time…

The phenomenon—the external, useless fruit
of illusion—is extinguished: now there is no plurality,
and the self, ecstatic, is at last absorbed in the absolute,
and has all eternity for an inheritance!

(1919)

*

The Wing’s Shadow (La sombra del ala)

You who assume I don’t believe
whenever we two debate:
you can’t imagine how I long,
I thirst, I hunger for God.

You’ve never heard
my desperate cries filling
the heart of darkness
with invocations of the Infinite.

You’ve never seen how my thought,
in its dedication to bearing
the ideal, regularly endures
the tortures of childbirth.

If my barren spirit
had your fertility,
it would’ve already forged a heaven
to make its world whole.

But I say: who knows
what effort would suffice
in a soul with no flag
to lead your torturer about,

a soul that lives by abstinence from faith,
and with heroic tenacity,
interrogates each abyss
and each night, asking why?

At all events, I take refuge
in my thirst for investigation,
my craving for God, deep and silent;
and there is more love in my doubt
than in your heated contention.

(1914)

*

Deity (Deidad)

As a spark sleeps in the pebble
and a statue in the clay,
so in you, divinity sleeps.
Just a press of intense pain
till the shock—the lightning of deity
bursting from the inert stone.

Therefore don’t complain and blame fate,
since what is divine within you
can only emerge in such a manner.
Grin and bear it if you can,
this life the creator is sculpting,
the hard blow of the chisel.

What matter, then, the evil hours,
if every hour he adds a lovelier
plume to your nascent wings?
You shall see the condor at full altitude,
you shall see the completed sculpture,
you shall see, my soul, you shall see…

(1917)

*

A film by Eduardo Yagüe. Read his process notes at Moving Poems.

Offertory (Ofertorio)

Deus dedit, Deus abstulit
[God has given, God has taken away]

God, I offer you my pain—
that’s all I can offer you!
You gave me a love, only one love,
a great love!
Death stole it from me,
and I have nothing else now but my pain.
Accept it, Lord—
it’s all that I can offer you!

*

At Peace (En paz)

Very near to my sunset now, I bless you, life,
because you never gave me any false hope
or unjust labor or unwarranted punishment;

because at the end of my rough road, I see
that I was the architect of my own fate,

that if I extracted honey or gall from things
it was because I instilled them with a gall or honey flavor:
when I planted rosebushes, I always harvested roses.

True, after all my blossoms, winter must come—
but you never said that May would last forever!

Certainly I had my long nights with the blues,
but you never promised only good nights,
and to make up for it, I had some that were holy and serene.

I loved, I was loved, the sun caressed my face.
Life, you owe me nothing! Life, we are at peace!

(1915)

This entry is part 6 of 37 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

José Santos Chocano and his amazing mustacheThe Peruvian poet José Santos Chocano (1875-1934) is of some considerable historical importance, I gather, as the first Latin American modernist poet to turn away from French models and embrace native and mestizo themes. A badass who spent time in prison for killing another poet and died in a knife fight in Chile, he wrote poetry of place long before it was fashionable, and played a huge role in starting the tradition of Latin American writers embracing anti-imperialist politics. Today, however, he is mostly remembered for a poem about a caiman. A 2001 Mexican gangster film even took its title from the poem, El sueño del caimán.

Written in 1906, the poem conjures up an almost steam-punk leviathan, with language as lush and grandiloquent as anything of Darío’s—but there are enough true-to-life details to make me think that the poet had actually observed caimans in the wild, which is a lot more than I’d say about Darío and swans. The poem is difficult for someone with intermediate-level Spanish like me, using some fairly obscure vocabulary and being deliberately vague on a couple of points (such as: Whose dream is it, the poet’s or the caiman’s? And what exactly do the adjectives in line 11 modify?) so yesterday morning I turned to my friends for help, posting a tentative translation to Facebook along with the original. The resulting discussion was lively, with too many participants to name, but Luis Andrade was especially helpful, along with the poets who, much to my surprise and pleasure, each tried their hand at a translation and gave me permission to share them all here. It turned into a really fun exercise, and the results go to show — in case anyone needs convincing — that there’s no such thing as a definitive translation.

Since we all read and were influenced by each others’ translations and comments, I’ve decided to post these in the order of their last posted edit. This means that my own effort will bring up the rear, because this morning I had to have just one more go. I’m not going to post bios, but simply link names to blogs, websites, or Facebook pages. But first, the original poem:


El sueño del caimán

Enorme tronco que arrastró la ola,
yace el caimán varado en la ribera;
espinazo de abrupta cordillera,
fauces de abismo y formidable cola.

El sol lo envuelve en fúlgida aureola;
y parece lucir cota y cimera,
cual monstruo de metal que reverbera
y que al reverberar se tornasola.

Inmóvil como un ídolo sagrado,
ceñido en mallas de compacto acero,
está ante el agua estático y sombrío,

a manera de un príncipe encantado
que vive eternamente prisionero
en el palacio de cristal de un río.

(1906)

*

Dream of the Caiman
translated by Dale Favier

Enormous log dragged by the wave—
caiman beached on the river shore:
backbone a broken cordillera,
formidable tail, jaws an abyss.

The sun wraps him in a dazzling aureole—
a seeming mail-coat and heraldry,
a metal monster who shimmers
and whose shimmering lays a sheen.

Unmoving as a sacred idol
girt in a mesh of compact steel,
he lies against the still, dark water

like an enchanted prince
who lives an eternal prisoner
of the river’s palace of glass.

*

Caiman Dream
translated by Caitlin Gildrien

A great log, hurled by waves
ashore, the caiman lies stranded:
spine of jagged mountains,
an abyss in its jaws, the fearful tail.

The sun drapes it in brilliance,
shining like an armored knight,
this plated beast whose thrum
and glare shimmer the air.

Steady as a sacred idol,
girded tight in mail and chain,
he waits by the water, still and grim,

a prince, enchanted,
imprisoned now forever
in the limpid palace of the tide.

*

Cayman Dream
translated by Luisa A. Igloria

Trunk felled by an enormous wave,
the alligator lies stranded on the shore;
jagged cordillera for backbone and spoor,
jaws an abyss, formidable tail.

Bronzed by the sun’s resplendent aura;
and it is knighted, superior,
leviathan plated in metal that,
trembled, turns iridescent.

Unmoving as a sacred idol,
cinctured in a mesh of steel
against the water’s static umber,

enchanted prince disguised,
prisoner who dwells forever
in the river’s glass palace.

*

Dream of a Caiman
translated by Jean Morris

A great trunk dragged here by the current
The caiman lies beached on the river bank
Backbone like a rugged mountain range
Cavernous jaws and formidable tail

Haloed by the dazzling sun
How resplendently crested and armoured he seems
A reflective metal monster
Whose reflection casts an iridescent sheen

Unmoving as a venerated idol
Encased in dense links of steel
Outlined against the water, sombre and transfixed

Like some enchanted prince
Held prisoner for ever
In the river’s crystal palace

*

Dream of the Caiman
translated by Dave Bonta

Huge tree trunk dragged by a wave
and washed up on the bank, the caiman lies:
sudden spine of mountains,
chasm of a maw and formidable tail.

The sun envelops it in a replendent aura
until it seems to don armor and visor—
a beast of metal whose reflective glare
shimmers to a glossy sheen.

Motionless as a sacred idol,
swaddled in mesh of strong steel,
it faces the dark, unchanging waters

like an enchanted prince
who lives eternally captive
to the river’s palace of glass.

This entry is part 7 of 37 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

Cecília MeirelesCecília Benevides de Carvalho Meireles (Rio de Janeiro, 1901–1964) was a Brazilian writer and educator, known principally as a poet. She is a canonical name of Brazilian Modernism, one of the great female poets in the Portuguese language, and is widely considered the best female poet from Brazil, though she combated the word poetess because of gender discrimination. Her style was mostly neo-symbolist and her themes included ephemeral time and the contemplative life. (Thanks, Wikipedia. Read the rest.)


Motive

I sing because the moment exists
and my life is complete.
I’m not happy and I’m not sad:
I’m a poet.

Fraternal to fleeting things
I feel neither pleasure or torment.
During all the nights and days
in the wind.

Whether I build or I destroy,
whether I continue or am undone,
— I don’t know, I don’t know. Don’t know if I’m staying
or passing through.

I know that I sing. And the song is everything.
It has eternal blood and rhythmic wings.
And one day I know that I’ll be mute:
— that’s all.

Motivo

Eu canto porque o instante existe
e a minha vida está completa.
Não sou alegre nem sou triste:
sou poeta.

Irmão das coisas fugidias,
não sinto gozo nem tormento.
Atravesso noites e dias
no vento.

Se desmorono ou se edifico,
se permaneço ou me desfaço,
— não sei, não sei. Não sei se fico
ou passo.

Sei que canto. E a canção é tudo.
Tem sangue eterno a asa ritmada.
E um dia sei que estarei mudo:
— mais nada.

*

Portrait

I didn’t have this face then,
so calm, so sad, so thin,
nor these eyes so empty
or these lips so bitter.

I didn’t have these hands so weak,
so still so cold so dead:
I didn’t have this heart
so hidden.

I didn’t expect this transformation,
so simple, so sure, so easy:
— In which mirror did I lose
my face?

Retrato

Eu não tinha este rosto de hoje,
assim calmo, assim triste, assim magro,
nem estes olhos tão vazios,
nem o lábio amargo.

Eu não tinha estas mãos sem força,
tão paradas e frias e mortas;
eu não tinha este coração
que nem se mostra.

Eu não dei por esta mudança,
tão simples, tão certa, tão fácil:
– Em que espelho ficou perdida
a minha face?

*

Contrary Moon

I have phases, like the moon.
Phases to hide myself,
phases to walk the street…
Perdition!
Perdition!
I have phases of being yours,
and others of being solitary.

Phases which come and go,
in the secret calendar
invented for me
by an arbitrary astrologer.
And melancholy goes round and round
its interminable time-table!

I don’t connect with anyone
(I have phases like the moon…)
A day that someone is mine
is not the day that I am theirs…
And, when that day does arrive,
the other has disappeared.

Lua Adversa

Tenho fases, como a lua.
Fases de andar escondida,
fases de vir para a rua…
Perdição da minha vida!
Perdição da vida minha!
Tenho fases de ser tua,
tenho outras de ser sozinha.

Fases que vão e vêm,
no secreto calendário
que um astrólogo arbitrário
inventou para meu uso.

E roda a melancolia
seu interminável fuso!

Não me encontro com ninguém
(tenho fases como a lua…)
No dia de alguém ser meu
não é dia de eu ser sua…
E, quando chega esse dia,
o outro desapareceu…

This entry is part 8 of 37 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

Teresa CalderónBorn in 1955 in Chile to a family of writers and of the Left, Teresa Calderón produced nine collections of poetry between 1979 and 2009, as well as editing — with her poet husband Tomás Harris and poet sister Lila Calderón — several significant anthologies of Chilean poetry. She’s also the author of many novels. She writes often and powerfully of female experience, but refuses identification with feminism. In recent years she’s expressed disillusion with the Centre-Left coalition governments that returned Chile to democracy after the coup and dictatorship that overshadowed her early adulthood, in particular with their policies — or lack of policies — for arts and culture.


My Private Genesis

There in the watery vault
each half of my genetic code was reaching out
A tiny ovum having yielded to insistent sperm
was waiting for the darkest night
the silence right before the miracle
The cell now fertile opened like a flower
and I began becoming hair and nails and skin
A feeling blinking
floating mass
thumb-sucking through the sleepless nights
of journeying to human form
What flash of fear shot through my brain
as the expulsion from my paradise began?
Who gave me breath to undertake the crossing
from the wide-open tunnel
between my mother’s bloody legs?
How did I get to be this jellied substance
moaning between two worlds?
Naked and crying where I skidded to a halt
my skin all bruised the rope around my neck
and this dark mark upon my brow
Naked and crying
my first dawn with sightless eyes
the lighthouse beam the moon still in the sky
Like a flower decomposing underground
I shall return to the beloved city I was forced to leave
naked and crying tumbling foetus-like in fateful waters
growing long roots towards rebirth

Génesis doméstico

En la bóveda acuosa
se buscaban las mitades de mi información genética
Un óvulo pequeño rendido al apremio del espermio
esperaba la noche más oscura
el silencio que precede al milagro
Fecundada la célula se abrió como una flor
y empecé a volverme pelo uñas piel
sensaciones y pestañas
Una masa flotante
se mordía el pulgar en las noches de insomnio
acercándose a la apariencia humana
¿Qué ráfaga de miedo me atravesó el cerebro
cuando empezó la expulsión del paraíso?
¿Quién me dio el aliento para iniciar la travesía
desde el túnel abierto
entre las piernas sangrantes de mi madre?
¿Cómo me hice gelatina y sustancia
gemido entre este mundo y el otro?
Desnuda y llorando dónde vine a parar
con la piel amoratada la soga al cuello
y esta marca oscura sobre la frente
Desnuda y llorando
mi primera madrugada los ojos ciegos
el faro y una luna abierta en el cielo
Regresaré como esa flor que se deshace bajo tierra
a la ciudad amada que me obligó a partir
desnuda y llorando dando tumbos fetales en el agua fatal
alargada en raíces para volver a nacer

This entry is part 9 of 37 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

[untitled]

A small gesture would be enough,
made lightly and from a distance
for you to come with me
and for me to hold you forever…

Basta-me um pequeno gesto
feito de longe e de leve
para que venhas comigo
e eu para sempre te leve…

*

Farewell

For me, and for you, and for the others
wherever the others are,
I’m leaving the raging sea and the quiet sky:
I want solitude.

My road is without a sign and without a landscape.
So how do you recognise it? — they ask.
— By the absence of words, the absence of images.
Not a single enemy and not a single friend.

What do you need? — Everything. What do you want? — Nothing.
I travel alone with my heart.
I’m not wandering lost, merely un-met.
I carry my course in my hand.

Memory has flown from my head.
Flown my love, my imagination…
Maybe I’ll fade before the horizon.
Memory, love and all the rest, where are they?

Here I leave my body, between earth and sky.
(I kiss you, my body, all disillusioned!
Sad flag of a strange war…)

I want solitude.

Despedida

Por mim, e por vós, e por mais aquilo
que está onde as outras coisas nunca estão,
deixo o mar bravo e o céu tranqüilo:
quero solidão.
Meu caminho é sem marcos nem paisagens.
E como o conheces? — me perguntarão.
— Por não ter palavras, por não ter imagens.
Nenhum inimigo e nenhum irmão.

Que procuras? — Tudo. Que desejas? — Nada.
Viajo sozinha com o meu coração.
Não ando perdida, mas desencontrada.
Levo o meu rumo na minha mão.

A memória voou da minha fronte.
Voou meu amor, minha imaginação…
Talvez eu morra antes do horizonte.
Memória, amor e o resto onde estarão?

Deixo aqui meu corpo, entre o sol e a terra.
(Beijo-te, corpo meu, todo desilusão!
Estandarte triste de uma estranha guerra…)

Quero solidão.


Film by Swoon (Marc Neys) in memory of his mother, using the above translation and reading. Read Marc’s process notes on his blog.

*

Serenade

Allow me to close my eyes,
I’m so far away and it’s so late!
I thought you were merely delayed,
and I began to wait for you, singing.
Allow me to change now:
adapt myself to being alone.
There’s a soft light in the silence, and the pain is of divine origin.
Allow me to turn my face towards a sky bigger than this world,
and let me learn to be as docile in dreams as the stars in their wandering.

Serenata

Permita que eu feche os meus olhos,
pois é muito longe e tão tarde!
Pensei que era apenas demora,
e cantando pus-me a esperar-te.
Permita que agora emudeça:
que me conforme em ser sozinha.
Há uma doce luz no silencio, e a dor é de origem divina.
Permita que eu volte o meu rosto para um céu maior que este mundo,
e aprenda a ser dócil no sonho como as estrelas no seu rumo.

*

Read the earlier post: “Contrary Moon: three poems by Cecília Meireles

This entry is part 10 of 37 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

José María Eguren's self-portrait
Eguren’s self-portrait

These translations are the result of a Facebook-enabled collaboration between Jean Morris and me, with assistance from Luis E. Andrade. Having posted multiple translations of “El sueño del caimán” by José Santos Chocano, I wanted to include something by Chocano’s fellow Peruvian and contemporary, José María Eguren (1874-1942), to show the breadth of early 20th-century Peruvian poetry as well as the literary roots of César Vallejo, who was supported and influenced by Eguren. According to the Spanish-language Wikipedia article on him,

Eguren is credited with a central role in founding the tradition of modern Peruvian poetry, which would then be consolidated with the worldwide circulation and influence of César Vallejo’s deep, intense poetry. [Peruvian critic José Carlos] Mariátegui said of Eguren that “in our literary history, he is a representative of pure poetry.” […] Simbólicas (1911), his first book, inaugurated contemporary poetry in Peru: “Leave behind the honeyed, Romantic verses, the singsong clarinetesque of Modernism.” He favored a precise and evocative vocabulary, deep lyricism, musical language, dreams, and child-like, hallucinatory visions.

Despite their minimalism, which is part of what attracted us to them, these two poems were a challenge to translate with their difficult language and strange but fascinating imagery. Enjoy.


Ashes

translated by Dave Bonta and Jean Morris

Shadows bathing
in the sand
one, two
phantom dragonflies

Birds of smoke
head for the twilight
forest

My half-century
and in the white borderlands
we wait for night

The porch
fragrant with algae
the last sea

In the shadows
giggling triangles lurk

Favila

En la arena
se ha bañado la sombra
una, dos
libélulas fantasmas…

Aves de humo
van a la penumbra
del bosque.

Medio siglo
y en el límite blanco
esperamos la noche.

El pórtico
con perfume de algas,
el último mar.

En la sombra
ríen los triángulos.

*

Cubist Song
translated by Jean Morris and Dave Bonta

Boulevard of blue rectangles

The hipster’s
convivial high-rise

Photos, butterflies
take flight

Atop the skyscraper
a black paper cockerel
crows for night

Beyond Hollywood
in distant darkness
the shining city
of pearly obelisks

Somewhere in the fog
the waitress
strangles a ghost

Canción cubista

Alameda de rectángulos azules.

La torre alegre
del dandy.

Vuelan
mariposas fotos.

En el rascacielos
un gallo negro de papel
saluda la noche.

Más allá de Hollywood,
en tiniebla distante
la ciudad luminosa,
de los obeliscos
de nácar.

En la niebla
la garzona
estrangula un fantasma.