By yon bonnie banks…

for my mum, with lines from the traditional song “Loch Lomond”

If we swim to shore,
escape the frame,
we shall not meet again.
Jean Morris, “Sea Dream

When Scottish blood gives up its ghost, that ghost goes home first, mother,
before it journeys beyond — the Highland Gate’s at Perth, mother.

Potato blight caused famine, there were only oatmeal rations.
Did Scots become thrifty gleaning history of dearth, mother?

Wool roving (sheep shucking) dyed and woven into clan tartans.
For identity, check the kilt strapped about the girth, mother.

Ye’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, / And I’ll be in
Scotland afore ye…
but Loch Lomond is not Tay’s Firth, mother.

Baa black sheep, dark rumor, our ancestor immigrated to
this continent from prison, came in a convict’s berth, mother.

Scots have the reputation of pinching every penny twice.
For haggis and bagpipes, sheep belly’s pennyworthy, mother.

Grandfather was fond of puns, lowest form of humor. Double
entendre is a frugal fun, it’s not spendthrift mirth, mother.

Below Perth the River Tay is tidal. If Perth is Heaven’s
Gate, do all Scots reincarnate, come back in re-birth, mother?

When I was small you read me poems and taught me to recite them.
I wrote this to thank you for teaching me a Word’s worth, mother.

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!

In which we raise a pint to Via Negativa for surviving its 12th year

Three Via Negativa bloggers in a London pub, 14 December 2015
Three Via Negativa bloggers in a London pub, 14 December 2015 (photo: Ruben Igloria)

My pun of the week: I have been basking in the reflected Igloria of Luisa winning the Resurgence Poetry Prize.* But better even than that was the chance to hang out with two Via Negativa bloggers at the same time when Jean Morris came up from South London to meet Luisa and me and other friends and family for few hours on Tuesday night. It felt like a mini-reunion even thought it was in fact the first time all three of us had gotten together. But that’s the way literary blogger meet-ups always feel, in my experience: we already know each other so well from sharing our truest words online that when we finally meet IRL, it’s possible to bypass the awkward small-talk stage altogether and jump right into the deeper stuff (water, BS, whatever).

Via Negativa is twelve years old today. Thanks to everyone who reads, whether on the site itself, on Feedly or other RSS readers, or via Mailchimp. It’s been a fun ride, and with a little more help from my blogging friends I hope to keep it going for many more years.

*Did you know that BIRGing is a thing? Me neither. Thanks, Wikipedia!

Birds of smoke: two poems by José María Eguren

This entry is part 10 of 38 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.


translated by Dave Bonta and Jean Morris

Shadows bathing
in the sand
one, two
phantom dragonflies

Birds of smoke
head for the twilight

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


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.

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.

Five translators, one poem: dreaming about caimans with José Santos Chocano

This entry is part 6 of 38 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.



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.


tasting rhubarb:

We’re unused to this. There are no cars moving on the street, and very few pedestrians. Into the silence, the radio announces that the Pope will tweet in Latin.

“The ephemerality of every hard moment”

Tasting Rhubarb:

So now I know it’s not really going to get easier. But perhaps it can keep becoming more fluid. Perhaps I can feel my way into the ephemerality of every hard moment.

Somehow the ephemerality of the happy moments, the strong ones, the softly joyful ones, is always to the fore. But it’s not just the good bits, it’s all of it: here, blink, gone. Hard, but not fixed; never lengthy; a flickering, ever-changing string of moments.

I increasingly wonder if the enormity of confronting this is what lies behind so much of human madness, cruelty, masochism; behind our obsessive need to build boxes, lock our own cell doors as well as other people’s.

Life imitates Munch

tasting rhubarb:

After a while, the shapes and colours that spring so strongly from the work seem to invade the spaces in between. The people looking at the paintings, their shapes and angles and outlines, appear more and more as if they’d stepped out of them. A painted shock of red hair, a purple dress, a pale, drooping, interesting face, take the eye straight to another that is not painted.