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.

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.