Talking Drum

inspired by “Sweet exiled words: two poems by José Luis Appleyard” translated by Natalie d’Arbeloff

when we were gathering the bitter-
leaf and stopped to play, throw rocks
to coax the spirit of the old baobab
into generosity, beg it to drop one

of its itchy-covered pods down from
the heights that we might break it
open, feast upon sweet-sour powder-
coating on its seeds, when hot breeze

carried first phrase from the drum in
our direction, we would freeze, tilt
our heads to listen for the repeat,
dama gazelles we were, catching scent

upon the wind, waiting for the repeat,
confirmation and instruction, goatskin
rhythm telling us which way to run

goatskin scraped free of hair, scraped
to translucence, soft thick parchment
stretched upon a narrow-waisted body,
hollow carved of wood and secrets,

stretched and threaded with leather
laces waiting for the compression of
the drummer’s upper arm, vocal cords
to tighten, loosen, flex the speaking

surface so the striking mallet could
write words in the language of the drum
each phrase held a message, repeated
and repeated, tonal speech encoded

into total speech, decoded by the body
of each hearer, heads tilted to receive
and suddenly we are stotting, feet
inscribing jubilation in hot sands:

the chieftain’s daughter, she is to
be married, there will be a wedding,
there will be a feast, there will be
rice with black-eyed peas and chicken,

and we all are welcome, welcome, we
are all invited to come and offer
blessings, come and dance in circles
for their union, come and dance our

thanks to those who’ve gone before,
thanks for continuity, dance for them
a prayer for peace beneath their roof,

a welcome for the children yet to come

Note: The talking drum was still an active means of communication between and within villages when I was a child; Natalie’s translations brought back a sense of loss and longing, memories of listening to their messages, knowing their meanings as a child without remembering learning them. I chose the dama gazelle for this poem because it has become critically endangered in the Sahel due to modernization and loss of habitat.

Sweet exiled words: two poems by José Luis Appleyard

This entry is part 18 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


José Luis AppleyardThe deep emotional connection I have with Paraguay began when I was about six years old and landed, with my family and all our Parisian furniture including a grand piano, in a wild place which was to be our home while my father supervised his dream of building a road linking this small landlocked country to Brazil and beyond. (I’ve written about some of this in an ongoing online autobiography, which starts here.) The Paraguay I knew then, and much later as an adult, is shaped by my personal recollections and bears little resemblance to the harsh realities which its people have endured throughout their history. My affection for the Paraguayans, their joyous, sad, beautiful country, their Guarani-infused Spanish, their music and their voices continues unabated to this day. But it’s thanks to Via Negativa’s Other Americas project that I’ve just started to discover some of their poets, strangely and unfairly omitted from the major anthologies of Latin American poetry. José Luis Appleyard (1927–1998) was part of the so-called 50s generation of Paraguayan poets, along with such other luminaries as José María Gómez Sanjurjo, Ricardo Mazó and Ramiro Domínguez.


Some words die
and no dictionary can revive them;
simple words, clear words, words which formed
on our lips the language of childhood.
In vain we search, trying to give them back life
a life the years have taken away.
Sweet exiled words
forsaken sounds
once the milestones
of our personal vocabulary.
No use looking for them, they’ve already crumbled
under the dictionary’s brutal weight.

Las palabras

A veces hay palabras que se mueren
y no las resucita el diccionario;
palabras simples, claras, que acrecieron
el verbo de la infancia en nuestros labios.
En balde las buscamos para darles
una vida que ha muerto con los años.
Dulces palabras nuestras exiliadas
solo sonido ya desamparado,
que por un tiempo fueron los mojones
de nuestro personal vocabulario.
Es inútil buscarlas, ya se han muerto
bajo el peso brutal del diccionario.

How Little I Understand Things

How little I understand things
The years have not succeeded in anchoring experience
in my memory
I’m always astonished that a pair of eyes exist
which see me in close-up, so very close.
I’m astonished at the dark power of their gaze
recalling the innocence of childhood
while simultaneously conjuring up the blackest night
born of secrets.
Like an old alchemist
I want to transmute the dreams in those eyes
I want to create with those eyes
looking at me so intently
a kind of oblivion taking me to their core.
And when their language becomes wordless
when it becomes the soft expression of something which is mine,
then I see what I don’t understand about things,
their reflections are shimmering in the air,
looking at me, timelessly,
speaking of me, of themselves, of everything.

Qué poco entiendo las cosas

Qué poco entiendo las cosas.
Los años no han logrado fijar en mi memoria
la experiencia
y siempre me sorprendo que existen unos ojos
que me miran de pronto tan cerca de mí mismo.
Me sorprende el oscuro poder de su mirada
que guarda ingenuidades de infancias manifiestas
y tiene, sin embargo, una profunda noche
nacida de secretas experiencias.
Como un viejo alquimista
yo quiero interpretarla trasmutando sus sueños,
quiero hacer con sus ojos
que me miran de cerca
una forma de olvido que me lleve a su centro.
Y así, cuando sus manos son lenguaje sin cifras,
cuando son la suave expresión de algo mío,
comprendo que no entiendo de las cosas,
y quedan en el aire sus reflejos,
mirándome, sin tiempo,
y hablándome de mí, de sí, de todo.