Erasure translation of a poem by Jacques Brault

This entry is part 31 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


Visitation, the long poem that begins Jacques Brault’s first collection, Mémoire (short extract with translation in this earlier post), is a complex evocation of cultural oppression and the poet’s sense of exile from self. It’s full of words and images that cannot but also evoke today’s physical exiles, the millions of refugees, and these suggested a much simpler and shorter erasure poem. French, with its changing word-endings, gives less scope for erasure than English, but the process was still an interesting way of engaging with language and emotions.

black-and-white photo of an Antony Gormley figure from his sculpture installation Another Place


Remember your nakedness, their exile
the man struggling to live

I find myself again at the appointed place
and thirsty for these words

I left my country with little pride
Exile is hard, my fear follows me

Silence is no longer possible – listen
some evening to what I shall say

Come closer and touch my voiceless misery
my faceless body, my silent hope

Poetry has no importance, but it speaks
Sweet violence rises up

My despair arrives with broken neck
no name, no past and harbouring no hatred

Some grey morning a comrade I cannot name
and a beloved country tremble

I shall live weighed down and bent over
my words still resounding from land to land

A shadow will trace the outline
of your pale face when I find it again.

(words and phrases culled from Jacques Brault’s nearly 900-word-long poem, Visitation)

Souvenez-vous / de / votre nudité / de leur exil /
de celui qui a mal de vivre /

Je me retrouve / au / rendez-vous /
J’ai soif / de / ces paroles /

J’ai quitté / le pays / peu fier /
L’exil est dur / ma peur / me suit /

Je ne sais plus / me taire /
Ecoute / ce que / je / dirai / un soir /

Approche et / touche / ma misère / sans voix /
mon corps / sans visage / ma silencieuse espérance /

La poésie / est / sans importance / mais elle / parle /
La violence / douce / se relève /

Ma détresse / arrive / le cou brisé /
sans nom / sans passé / et sans haine /

Un matin gris / une /compagne / innommable /
et / un pays aimé tremblent /

Je vivrai / lourd et penché /
Mes mots / vibrent encore / entre terre et terre /

Une ombre / tracera /
ta figure blanche / retrouvée.

Image: Another Place — photo by Jean Morris, 2007

A glimpse from the gutter: three poems by Alejandra Pizarnik

This entry is part 33 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


por un minuto de vida breve
única de ojos abiertos
por un minuto de ver
en el cerebro flores pequeñas
danzando como palabras en la boca de un mudo

for one minute of fleeting life
the only one in which eyes are open
for one minute of seeing
small flowers dance in the brain
like words in a mute person’s mouth


has construido tu casa
has emplumado tus pájaros
has golpeado al viento
con tus propios huesos

has terminado sola
lo que nadie comenzó

you’ve built your house
you’ve put feathers on your birds
you’ve struck the wind
with your own bones

alone you’ve finished
what no one began


una mirada desde la alcantarilla
puede ser una visión del mundo

la rebelión consiste en mirar una rosa
hasta pulverizarse los ojos

a glimpse from the gutter
can become a complete worldview

rebellion consists of gazing at a rose
until your eyes are reduced to dust

Árbol de Diana (Tree of Diana), nos. 5, 16 and 23

One of the great advantages to being here in London is the super-fast internet. Without it, I doubt I would’ve seriously entertained the idea of making a bilingual videopoem with both the original poetry and the translation alternating in the soundtrack — it takes hours to upload a three-minute video file back home in Pennsylvania. Also, I was able to work closely with my co-conspirator here, Jean Morris, who came over to the house last week to record the the three Alejandra Pizarnik micropoems I’d chosen for the video (the first three from this post). In existing recordings of Pizarnik, the poet’s voice is slow, almost dreamy, and Jean tried with I think considerable success to imitate that quality without going so far as to actually mimic her Argentinian accent. I recorded my own reading later on, trying also to keep it slow and quiet. Jean also offered some valuable suggestions for improving my translations (she’s a professional translator; I’m a mere dilettante) and gave feedback on the imagery I’d had in mind to use.

The footage of the construction site at sunset had come first, shot out the back bedroom window. That made me think of these Pizarnik poems, which it seemed to me might form a unity with it. I shot the other footage purposefully for the project a few feet from the back door. (That rose had still been in bloom as late as December 15!) Finding the music was as usual a frustrating and time-consuming process, but at length I settled on a track at ccMixter which included some klezmer-like fiddle, a nod to Pizarnik’s Ashkenazi background. Enjoy!

High Treason by José Emilio Pacheco

This entry is part 34 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


I don’t love my country. Her abstract glory
eludes me.
But (this may sound bad) I would give my life
for ten of her places, for certain people,
ports, pine forests, fortresses,
for a ruined city, gray and monstrous,
for several of her historical figures,
for mountains
(and three or four rivers).

Alta traición

No amo mi Patria. Su fulgor abstracto
es inasible.
Pero (aunque suene mal) daría la vida
por diez lugares suyos, cierta gente,
puertos, bosques de pinos, fortalezas,
una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa,
varias figuras de su historia,
(y tres o cuatro ríos).

* * *

José Emilio Pacheco is one of Mexico’s leading contemporary poets. I had posted the Spanish original of this poem, along with somebody else’s translation, to Facebook back in 2009. I forgot all about it until I switched to Facebook’s new Timeline view a couple days ago, which for the first time gave me access to older posts and updates there. After re-acquainting myself with the poem and the substantive comments it elicited from Alison Kent, Miguel Arboleda and Ray Templeton, I decided to post this new translation — in part because I’m fascinated by what the process of translation does to a poem like this.

Already on Facebook there was disagreement over how best to translate “una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa.” The English translation I’d posted put it as “a run-down city, gray, grotesque,” but Alison objected that, in the poet’s native Mexico, this most likely referred to a pre-Columbian ruin. Ray, by contrast, felt it might equally apply to a run-down industrial city in his native U.K. To me, as a country dweller, most cities seem gray, monstrous and dilapidated, though I’m not sure I’d give my life for any of them. At any rate, the point is that our reception of the poem depends very much on whether we read it as a specifically Mexican poem or a more general statement about love of country.

And even the general proposition will strike people differently depending on where they’re from. Here in the U.S., where it’s quite common for ordinary citizens to display the national flag year-round, saying that you don’t love your country is guaranteed to shock and dismay people from across the political spectrum, with the exception of segments of the far left. Even strongly libertarian types will say things like, “I love my country, but I hate my government.” (It’s nearly always O.K. to express contempt for the government here, despite the reverence paid to the Constitution, which famously equates the government with the people.) In many other countries, I gather, displays of the national flag by private citizens are extremely rare.

To me, love of an abstraction is a dangerous thing, and I react to it with I think much the same loathing which the ancient Hebrews reserved for idol-worship. A worshipped fatherland demands blood sacrifice and gives little in return but the sort of “protection” one purchases from gangsters at gunpoint. I find it telling that the kind of super-patriots who treat any questioning of the war machine or the surveillance state as tantamount to treason all too often do not hesitate to condone the despoiling of their country’s land, air and water. “Drill, baby, drill!” they chant at political rallies, and without irony advocate the construction of a massive pipeline across the country’s midsection, to bring Canadian tar sands to Texan refineries, as necessary to reduce our dependence on “foreign oil.” Here in Pennsylvania, we’re in the early stages of a hydrofracturing shale-gas boom that threatens to poison groundwater across the state and destroy some of our last remaining wild places, but those who object on environmental grounds are derided as effeminate tree-huggers at best and anti-American troublemakers at worst. I could go on. But the point is that in this case, as in so many others, destruction of the actual, literal country is licensed by lip-service to the abstract Country.

Translating Pacheco’s poem into English, I recall that there are in fact people who put their lives on the line for mountains and pine forests: the brave souls who chain themselves to cranes at mountaintop removal sites or sit in old-growth trees threatened by clearcutting. This makes me think of the Occupy movement, and then the far longer struggle of those whose country — or countries — my ancestors came to occupy. And having lived in one place for most of the past 40 years myself, I can tell you that becoming attached to any one mountain, river or forest is nearly always a recipe for heartbreak, as you witness the cumulative effects of ecological degradation. No doubt the residents of cities like Detroit or New Orleans feel much the same kind of helpless sorrow these days. The life of a drifter — that quintessential American individualist — becomes more attractive with each passing year.

Juarroz on waking up

This entry is part 35 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


I woke up this morning with a poem about waking up (how self-reflexive is that?!). I was struck by its argument that humans are basically crepuscular critters.

The Argentinean poet Roberto Juarroz (1925-1995) won international recognition as a master of the modern philosophical poem. He is often compared to Octavio Paz, but I find his work more reminiscent of Rilke and Juan Ramón Jiménez, with a dash of Laozi. Both W.S. Merwin and Mary Crow have authored book-length translations into English of selections from his multi-volume magnum opus, Poesí­a Vertical (Vertical Poetry). I was drawn to the following poem (found in Crow’s bilingual edition) not simply by the subject matter but by the fourth line of the third stanza, in which “huecos” reminded me of home: water gaps, hollows, coves. I chose “coves” over “hollows” simply because I think it might be more widely understood outside Appalachia, and I felt “intemperie” justified my addition of the modifier “mountain.” I also felt Crow mistranslated in two places, justifying my own, fairly free attempt.

Poesí­a Vertical

por Roberto Juarroz

Despertar es siempre
una difí­cil emergencia:
reencender la lucidez
como quien recomienza el mundo.

Por eso nos quedamos
en los estados intermedios.
El hombre no es una criatura despierta:
desconoce lo abierto.

Llamos que se consumen a medias,
párpados que se olvidan del ojo,
jardinez paralizados en la noche,
huecos de la intemperie acorralada.

Los caminos se aglomeran en vano:
despertar es borrar los caminos.

* * * *

Waking up is always
a difficult emergence:
a re-ignition of lucidity,
as if one were starting the world all over.

That’s why we abide
in the in-between states.
Man simply isn’t a wakeful creature:
he lacks familiarity with the open.

Flames that burn themselves out halfway through;
eyelids forgotten by the eye;
gardens paralyzed in the night;
mountain coves socked in by bad weather.

In vain the roads multiply and converge:
to wake up is to wipe the map clean.


Those who read Spanish might be interested in Juarroz’ reflections on his craft, Un rigor para la intensidad, which begins with a somewhat different take on “lo abierto” than the above poem:

Yo me he sentido atraí­do en primer lugar por los elementos de la naturaleza. Nací­ en un pueblo al borde del campo. Mi padre era jefe de la estación de ferrocarril y tení­amos enfrente el horizonte abierto. En esa pequeña ciudad de Coronel Dorrego me acostumbré desde muy chico a los silencios. Esas noches abiertas en donde se veí­an las estrellas, la luna ní­tida, los vientos, el agua, el árbol que para mí­ es un protagonista de la vida.

(I have felt an attraction from the first for all the elements of nature. I was born in a town on the edge of the country. My father was a railroad stationmaster and we had the open horizon always in front of us. In that small city, Coronel Dorrego, from a very young age I grew accustomed to silences. Those open nights in which one could discern the stars, the crystal-clear moon, the winds, the water, the tree that was for me an active protagonist in my life.)

Under the Sky Born After the Rain, by Jorge Teillier

This entry is part 36 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


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.

To a Child in a Tree, by Jorge Teillier

This entry is part 37 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


You’re the sole inhabitant of an island
known only to you, encircled
by a surf of wind
and a silence barely touched
by a barn owl’s wingbeats.

You can see a broken plough
and a threshing machine whose skeleton houses
one last gleam of sun.
You see summer shrunk into a scarecrow
whose nightmares disturb the wheat.
You see the irrigation ditch in whose depths your missing friend
grabs hold of the paper boat you launched.
You see the town and fields spread out
like pages in a spelling book
where one day you’ll realize you’ve read
the true history of happiness.

The storekeeper goes out to close the shutters.
The farmer’s daughters herd the chickens in.
In the sky, the eyes of strange fish
begin a menacing vigil.
Better return to earth now.
Your dog comes bounding up to meet you.
Your island sinks in the sea of night.


A un niño en un árbol
de Jorge Teillier

Eres el único habitante
de una isla que sólo tú conoces,
rodeada del oleaje del viento
y del silencio rozado apenas
por las alas de una lechuza.

Ves un arado roto
y una trilladora cuyo esqueleto
permite un último relumbre del sol.
Ves al verano convertido en un espantapájaros
cuyas pesadillas angustian los sembrados.
Ves la acequia en cuyo fondo tu amigo desaparecido
toma el barco de papel que echaste a navegar.
Ves al pueblo y los campos extendidos
como las páginas del silabario
donde un día sabrás que leíste
la historia de la felicidad.

El almacenero sale a cerrar los postigos.
Las hijas del granjero encierran las gallinas.
Ojos de extraños peces
miran amenazantes desde el cielo.
Hay que volver a tierra.
Tu perro viene a saltos a encontrarte.
Tu isla se hunde en el mar de la noche.


I came across this poem just this morning, and decided to try translating it for the 50th edition of the Festival of the Trees (submissions due by midnight!). The host this time is Growing with Science Blog, and the theme: Trees through a child’s eyes.

Climbing trees was a regular activity for my brothers and me when we were kids. Mom warned us to be careful and look out for each other, but other than that, she and Dad encouraged us to explore, for which I am eternally grateful. We stayed away from fruit trees and other species we knew to have brittle banches, but we certainly didn’t shy away from tackling the tallest trees we could get up into. Usually, these were woods’-edge trees with a convenient ladder of limbs on the field side.

Needless to see, this was free-hand climbing, usually with bare feet for added traction. We tried building tree forts a couple of times, but none of us really had the carpentry skills to make it happen, and besides, if you climb high enough, the leafy branches close in and it’s just as easy to pretend you’re surrounded by walls. Tellier’s poem resonated with me, even though we don’t live in sight of town, because it really captures that shipwrecked experience of being alone in the top of a tree, and seeing how things below seem to grow distant in time as well as in space.

In some way that I can’t quite put into words, climbing trees strikes me as an essential experience — one that teaches you things you can’t learn any other way. Our physiognomy still reflects the arboreal habitat of our not-so-distant ancestors; watching the tree elves in Lord of the Rings or the Na’vi in Avatar, we’re struck by a powerful nostalgia. Trees are almost like godparents, nurturing, teaching us both how to aspire and how to respect our limits. It saddens me to think how many kids these days never get to learn such things.

El hombre imaginario / The Imaginary Man by Nicanor Parra

This entry is part 38 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


Nicanor Parra in 2014 (photo by Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, visiting the poet for the celebration of his 100th birthday)

Nicanor Parra, far from imaginary, was all too real, according to David Unger in the Paris Review blog — though Alejandro Zambra, writing in the New Yorker, did call the Chilean poet, who died on January 23 at the age of 103, “almost immortal.” The English-language Wikipedia refers to him as

a Chilean poet, mathematician, and physicist. He was considered an influential poet in Chile and throughout Latin America. Parra described himself as an “anti-poet,” due to his distaste for standard poetic pomp and function; after recitations he would exclaim “Me retracto de todo lo dicho” (“I take back everything I said”).

I’ve always admired his work as a useful corrective for extreme lyricism and romanticism, but as the following demonstrates, his poems could still pack quite a punch. This appears in a 1985 collection with a punning title, Hojas de Parra (Grape Leaves or Pages from Parra).

The Imaginary Man

The imaginary man
lives in an imaginary mansion
surrounded by imaginary trees
on the banks of an imaginary river

On the imaginary walls
imaginary old paintings hang
imaginary irreparable cracks
that represent imaginary events
occuring in imaginary worlds
in imaginary times and places

Every afternoon an imaginary afternoon
he climbs the imaginary stairs
and leans out the imaginary balcony
to gaze at the imaginary view
which consists of an imaginary valley
encircled by imaginary hills

Imaginary shadows
advance down the imaginary road
singing imaginary songs
for the death of the imaginary sun

And on imaginary moonlit nights
he dreams of the imaginary woman
who gave him his imaginary love
once again feeling that same pain
that same imaginary pleasure
and that imaginary man’s heart
once again throbs

El hombre imaginario

El hombre imaginario
vive en una mansión imaginaria
rodeada de árboles imaginarios
a la orilla de un río imaginario

De los muros que son imaginarios
penden antiguos cuadros imaginarios
irreparables grietas imaginarias
que representan hechos imaginarios
ocurridos en mundos imaginarios
en lugares y tiempos imaginarios

Todas las tardes tardes imaginarias
sube las escaleras imaginarias
y se asoma al balcón imaginario
a mirar el paisaje imaginario
que consiste en un valle imaginario
circundado de cerros imaginarios

Sombras imaginarias
vienen por el camino imaginario
entonando canciones imaginarias
a la muerte del sol imaginario

Y en las noches de luna imaginaria
sueña con la mujer imaginaria
que le brindó su amor imaginario
vuelve a sentir ese mismo dolor
ese mismo placer imaginario
y vuelve a palpitar
el corazón del hombre imaginario

I made a video for the poem; see Moving Poems for the process notes.