Roberto Sosa: “Poetry is pain”

Roberto SosaCasual readers of this series might think that focusing on poetry is a strange way to try and shed light on the ongoing political crisis in Honduras. But in fact, poets are held in very high esteem in that country, and especially since the 1960s, when a new wave of socially conscious poets emerged, Hondurans of all classes have tended to view poets as uncorruptible truth-tellers — a valuable and perilous profession in a country where political corruption is so deeply engrained.

To shed some light on the social context and on the profession of poetry in Honduras, I decided to translate a short interview with Robert Sosa that I found in the online archive of La Prensa Literaria, the books section of Nicaragua’s La Prensa newspaper. This originally appeared in March 2004 under the title “La Poesía es dolor.”

Interview by María Antonia Martínez de Fuentes

In his garage, an entire era has been preserved. A portrait of Che Guevara and an orange ’69 Pontiac prompt an inevitable trip back in time, to those years when rebellion gave him strength and anti-militarism was his obsession.

In every corner of his house — in the cramped living room, on the way up to his study, ensconsed in the middle of his impressive library — one finds small tributes recalling those charismatic bearded figures of four decades ago.

It’s all an homage to that tragic time in Latin American history. His head is never without a brimmed beret, and no one can remember ever seeing him without a beard.

In his exceptional literary production, poems always burst forth with abundant energy, often at the same pace as the atrocities commited by abusive dictatorships spawned by the shadow-side of capitalism. His works are a response to poverty, injustice, and the global inequalities that create divisions among us.

In his 70s, the poet Roberto Sosa still speaks passionately about the pain involved in writing poetry, about his unabashed pride at surviving the “gifts of age” without pain, and about managing to preserve his most valuable possession as a writer: his conscience.

Let’s sit down there, between the old Pontiac and the Che portrait, to begin our conversation with him.


How does a poet live in Honduras?

In my case, I’m devoted to social interaction, which is an important complement to my literary life — for one thing, making contacts simply helps keep me going. Engaging in chit-chat, giving interviews like this — it could be worse!

Has the situation with poverty improved at all?

No, quite the contrary. Today it seems as if we’re below the poverty line and we’ve become accessories to misery, and sometimes to what could only be called sub-misery. There’s a very clear social degradation in Honduras, one that can’t be hidden, and it diminishes us all in a truly terrible manner.

Your best-known works, without a doubt, have been the ones fired by denunciation, by social critique, by rebellion. How do you remember your first twenty years of literary work, that is to say, between the publication of Caligrama [1959] and Un Mundo Para Todos Dividido [1971]?

With Caligrama the dimensions of my poetry were taking shape, and they expanded further with the publication of Los Pobres in 1968. By 1971 I had published Un Mundo Para Todos Dividido, and from then on I’ve continued much futher along the path I embarked on then, which is to denounce without contributing to factionalism. I’ve never belonged to any political party, either national nor international, both out of class consciousness and, it must be said, my conscience as an artist, because I had and have a responsibility to my country, my society and my time.

Do you consider yourself a revolutionary? Do you feel that literature has been a favorite weapon in revolutions, especially in Central America?

No, literature doesn’t provoke revolutions, or if it does they’re restricted to literary circles, but it does assist in social reconstruction, both immediate and far-reaching. It’s an aesthetic reflection of the way things are, to the extent that it captures the critical elements of a society: corruption, for example, betrayal, treason, impunity, injustice.

There are critics who assert that your work is of watershed importance in the history of Honduran poetry, dividing it into two sections: pre-Sosa and post-Sosa. That your poems begin to confirm the definitive acclimization of the avant-garde. How do you explain this?

I can’t explain it — those are the views of critics and literature professors who share responsibility for such value-judgements in the first place.

Is today’s Roberto Sosa — aside from physical changes, of course — the same as the one who raised the flag of denunciation, a direct and ferocious denunciation of dictators and militarism? Have your point-of-view or your philosophy changed over the years?

I continue to defend the principles I put forth in that era. I cannot repent. I believe I’m making and will continue to make my own way; I could never change to the extent of making some ethical or aesthetic adjustment that would mean the renunciation of the values I’ve defended for so long.

What do you think about corruption? Do you feel it’s the most serious problem in Honduras right now, or are there worse problems?

Corruption has begun to take the shape of a professional calling. I’ve heard it said that in hotel registers, well-dressed people from the “high life” even write “corruption” down as their profession.

When you write, what audience do you have in mind? Which do you think is your most important audience?

When I’m writing, I’m absolutely not thinking about any addressee. I write concentrated within myself and I can’t think about the fate of what I’m writing, because that would become a huge obstacle in the creative process. But yes, my ambition is to write for a great number of readers. If a piece of writing is equal to the inspiration, it’s for the people — though “the people” is an abstraction in this country. The people, this multitude that translates as “people” in Honduras, is a fearsome reality, but can be made to seem manageable as an abstract noun in the mouths of demagogues, for example.

Why lamentation?

Because poetry itself is painful; poetry isn’t an easy thing. It’s a complex construction that entails plenty of sweat. Ninety-five percent is sweat.

In Honduras are there more poets, more novelists, or more short-story writers?

It’s practically a poetic country. There are more poets than anyone.

With all your experience, what advice would you give to young people who aspire to write serious poetry?

Who am I to give advice? But I can say that one does need to read voraciously, work hard and never let oneself be seduced by the imp of publicity. In reality, each writer is a special case and all writers have their own structure, their own worldview, and it’s impossible for any one writer to point out a road for the others. There’s only the general rule that one must be honest, just like with anything else.

What are the great loves of Roberto Sosa?

Poetry, my family, and my country, among other things.

For another, longer and more interesting Sosa interview in English, see this one, by his translator Jo Anne Englebert. He talks about his childhood in the province of Yoro — famous for occasional rains of fish — his largely self-directed education, and his search for a new aesthetic:

I was attracted by testimonial writing. I suspected that this type of writing came closest to the truth. And for me, truth, a specific truth, had to be the basis of poetry. Honduras was not a folkloric reality, it was a transcendent reality, and this transcendence had to find its aesthetic formula: we had to find an exact base and the form to express it — this had to be balanced, integrated, like two halves of the same thing. I started from the social reality, the life I lived, the city, reflected in mirrors and tried to find the form.

His remarks at the end of the interview about women and the feminine image in poetry are also very interesting.

Translations of Sosa’s poetry into English include The Return of the River and The Common Grief, both translated by Jo Anne Englebert for Curbstone Press, and The Difficult Days, translated by Jim Lindsey for Princeton University Press. All three are bilingual editions, and both translators are adequate, if not always inspired.

Streets and landscapes

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Honduran poetry


Tegucigalpa, Honduras by Fellowship of the Rich on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND licence)
Tegucigalpa, Honduras by Fellowship of the Rich on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND licence)

Herber Sorto

He cruzado esta calle
con la ilusión de llegar a otro mundo,
por lo que digo:
aquí no hay nada,
no existe nada.
El paisaje se hace camino en las alturas,
el horizonte regresa a su lejanía,
la fábula es lo que he vivido
y el lado roto de la vida, lo que crece.

tr. by Dave Bonta

I have crossed this street
under the illusion that I was arriving
in the other world, saying:
there is nothing here,
nothing exists.
The land becomes a road through the mountains,
the horizon recedes into the distance;
I’ve been living a fiction all the while
life’s broken side continues to grow.

Alejandro Barahona

la calle sola

Un perro, la piedra
que le persigue

tres caballos
ganan al automóvil
y su caudal de niños

El parque es una flor
en un pueblo ausente

Un policia y su vergaro,
dos abogados
y todo lo demás es bueno

tr. by Dave Bonta

only the street

A dog, the stone
that pursues it

three horses
overtake the car
and its wealth of children

The park is a flower
in a missing town

A cop and his bullwhip,
two lawyers
and everything else is fine


Nelson Merren

Miro el día lavado
en agua sucia.

En el aire mojado
el mar entrega su amenaza
de ruido y minerales.

Cae la lluvia.
La lejanía ensimismada
se pone un rebozo de sombra.

Aún las voces parecen
fantasmas viejos y convalecientes
en el aire colgados.

Pasa un ave. Parece
con su sotan mojada
la última ave del mundo.

Todo parece esfumarse
en el ruido del aire con sordina,
en el vientre del día acorralado.

tr. by Dave Bonta

I look out on the day, washed
in dirty water.

On the moist breeze,
the sea issues its noisy,
mineral threat.

It rains.
The preoccupied distance
dons a shawl of shadows.

Voices still seem as if
they’re suspended in mid-air,
agéd and convalescent apparitions.

A bird goes by.
With its wet cassock, it could be
the last bird on earth.

Everything seems to dissipate
in the air’s muted commotion,
in the belly of a cornered day.


Tulio Galeas

Este es un barrio triste. Los niños
al crecer vistieron de soledad las casas,
las risas devolvieron su manantial al sueño,
y el misterio reparte su pan con manos amplias.

Las madres estaán solas y la cena está fría.
El viento temoroso de romper el silencio
cierra con pesadez sus grandes párpados,
y hasta mi corazón late despacio para no despertarme.
Ruedo por escaleras de niebla gota a gota,
cubro mis dedos tibios con ceniza,
y un río negro y sucio me invade y me corona.

tr. by Dave Bonta

This is a sad neighborhood. Children cloaked
the houses in solitude when they grew up,
laughs reverted to their origin in dreams,
and mystery doles out bread with its broad hands.

The mothers are alone; supper has grown cold.
The wind, afraid to break the silence,
eases its great leaden eyelids shut
and even my heart beats slowly to avoid waking me.
I tumble down stairs of mist drop by drop,
coat my warm fingers with ash,
and a filthy black river invades me and fills me to the brim.

Roberto Sosa

Vivo en un paisaje
donde el tiempo no existe
y el oro es manso.

Aquí siempre se es triste sin saberlo.
Nadie conoce el mar
ni la amistad del ángel.

Sí, yo vivo aquí, o más bien muero.
Aquí donde la sombra purísima del niño
cae en el polvo de la angosta calle
El vuelo detenido y arriba un cielo que huye.

A veces la esperanza
(cada vez más distante)
abre sus largos ramos en el viento,
y coundo te pienso de colores, desteñida ciudad,
siento imposibles ritmos
que giran y giran
en el pequeñ ciculo de mi rosa segura.

Pero tú eres distinta:
el dolor hace signos desde todos los picos,
en cada puente pasa la gente hacia la nada
y el silbo del pino trae un eco de golpes.

duro nombre que fluye
dulce sólo en los labios.

tr. by Dave Bonta

I inhabit a landscape
where time doesn’t exist,
where gold’s been tamed.

Here, one is always sad without realizing it.
Nobody knows the sea
or an angel’s friendship.

Yes, this is where I live — or rather, die.
Here where a child’s purest shadow
falls in the dust of a narrow street.
The flight delayed beneath a fleeing sky.

At intervals, hope —
each time more distant —
opens its long branches to the wind,
and when I think of you in colors, faded city,
I feel impossible rhythms
circling and circling
in a tight orbit around my definite rose.

You are, however, distinct:
suffering signals from every peak,
on every bridge people cross over into nothingness
and the hiss of a pine tree carries an echo of blows.

Tegucigalpa —
hard name that flows
sweet only on the lips.

Rigoberto Paredes

Algo en pie quedará
de este reino de furia: seres, brasas, semillas
guardan fresca memoria de otro tiempo
que hoy se estanca entre ruinas.
Sangre fértil
en algún lugar de Centroamérica.
No tardará en llegar el verde de los días.

tr. by Dave Bonta

Something will remain standing
from this kingdom of rage: beings, embers, seeds
keep fresh the memory of another time
that today stagnates among ruins.
Fertile blood
bursts out
of almost any spot in Central America.
Green days won’t be long in coming.

For another, lighter poem by Rigoberto Paredes, see his “Elegy to Obesity” at Moving Poems.

Mothers and fathers

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Honduran poetry


Roberto Sosa’s “El llanto de las cosas” takes its title from the famous phrase in the Aeneid, lacrimae rerum. (There’s a fascinating discussion about the proper way to translate this into English here.) Llanto is the common word for weeping, so it didn’t seem appropriate to translate this as “The Pathos of Things.” But that’s the general sense.

Roberto Sosa

se pasó la mayor parte de sus existencia
parada en un ladrillo, hecha un nudo,
que entraba y salía
por la puerta blanca de una casita
por la fraternidad de los animales domésticos.
que sus hijos somos
lo que quisimos y no pudimos ser.
que su padre, el carnicero de los ojos goteados
y labios delgados de pies severo, no la golpeó
hasta sacarle sangre, y que su madre, en fin,
le puso con amor, alguna vez, la mano en la cabeza.
Y en su punto supremo, a contragolpe como
                                                    desde un espejo,
rogaba a Dios
para que nuestros enemigos cayeran como
                                                          gallos apestados.

De golpe, una por una, aquellas amadísimas
fueron barridas por hombres sin honor.

Viéndolo bien
todo eso lo entendió esa mujer apartada,
la heredera del viento, a una vela. La que adivinaba
el pensamiento, presentía la frialdad
de las culebras
y hablaba con las rosas, ella, delicado equilibrio
la humana dureza y el llanto de las cosas.

tr. by Dave Bonta

spent the greater part of her life
standing on one brick tile, knotted up inside,
that she was going in and out
through the white door of a cottage
watched over
by the brotherhood of domestic animals.
that her children were
what we wanted to be, not what we could be.
that her father, that butcher with the eyes of a cat
and the thin lips of a vindictive judge, didn’t beat her
until the blood flowed, and that in the end
her mother once laid a loving hand on her head.
When pushed to her utmost, she’d counter-attack as if
                                                        through a looking-glass
and pray to God
that her enemies would be stricken
                                            like sick fowl.

Suddenly, one by one, all of her most cherished
were swept away by detestable men.

As time went on
she understood all this, that woman apart,
of a candle from the wind. She who could read
thoughts, sense the coldbloodedness
of snakes
and converse with roses, she the delicate equilibrium
human hardness and the weeping of things.

Clementina Suarez

A horas apenas de partir
tu casa ya no era mi casa.
Sentada en la puerta
miraba para adentro,
donde la pena empezaba a mancharlo todo
y el miedo me hacía señas desde lo oscuro.
Anduve descalza, para no despertarte
y retrasar tu viaje.
Me vestí de infancia para recorrer
más rápidos todos tus pasos.
Eché para atrás los años
para comerme el pan desde tus manos,
como un animal herido tirité de frío.
¡Ay! me dije; dónde podré ahora
dejar caer mi cabeza pesada de sueños.

Cuando yo era una niña
buscaba siempre tu falda para gemir.
Y ahora la muerte me quiebra
mi mejor alondra, mi patria madre,
mi señora, mi madona.
No tengo aliento para comerme las manzanas,
ni tengo pájaros para que aniden en el pecho,
estoy huérfana y definitivamente sola,
podría desde ahora dormir en las calles
dando gritos de gritos
sin que nada me consolara.
Pero quizá es tu cara la que me mira
desde adentro, y no deja caer
a mi corazón en la noche.


tr. by Dave Bonta

Scarcely hours after you’d gone,
your house was no longer mine.
Sitting in the doorway,
I looked inside —
pain was beginning to stain everything
and fear signalled me from the darkness.
I walked barefoot, so as not to awaken you
and delay your journey.
I dressed like a child so I could retrace
your steps more quickly.
I threw the years aside
so I could eat bread from your hands,
shivering with cold like a wounded animal.
Ah! I cried — where now can I let my head drop
when it’s weighted down with dreams?

When I was a girl,
I’d seek out your skirt to howl in.
But now death has laid waste
to my greatest lark, my mother country,
my mistress, my madonna.
I don’t have the appetite to eat these apples,
nor do I have any birds to nest in my breast,
I’m an orphan, alone as I can be.
I could go sleep in the streets now
and cry all I want
and no one would come to comfort me.
But perhaps it’s your face that watches me
from within, and keeps my heart
from stopping in the night.

Oscar Acosta

Descanse en paz
les dicen a los muertos,
pero yo no deseo
que mi padre descanse
para siempre.

Quiero que viva,
que se levante
y ande.

Que no descanse,
que se ponga camisa
y pantalón,
sombrero ancho,
que fume su tabaco
que tome su tranquilo
que respire,
que lea.

Que no descanse.
Que no pudo sacar
aunque lo quiso
a los fariseos
del templo.

Mi padre fue hombre
honrado y pobre
y por tener
las manos limpias
en este suelo opaco
casi lo fusilan.

Que no descanse,
yo quiero verlo aquí
lleno de sangre
y carne,
diciendo sus palabra.

Que con su lengua
trate mal a la vida,
que camine en la luz,
que golpee
su puño diario.
Que levante las manos
y toque con sus dedos
la mañana.

Descanse en paz
les dicen a los muertos
para que se refugien
en su lápida.

Pero no quiero
que mi padre descanse
en sorda tierra.
Que no descanse.
Que su nombre tiemble.
Guerra a la muerte.

tr. by Dave Bonta

Rest in peace,
they say to the dead,
but I don’t wish
such repose on my father

I want him alive,
on his feet
and walking.

Not to rest,
but to put on shirt
and pants,
a broad-brimmed hat;
to smoke
his everyday tobacco,
to have his quiet
cup of coffee,
to breathe,
to read.

May he not rest,
he who was unable
to drive the Pharisees
from the temple,
as hard as he tried.

My father was a poor
and honest man
and for keeping
his hands clean
in this gloomy land
they almost shot him.

Far from being at rest,
I’d like to see him here,
full of blood
and flesh,
speaking his piece,

giving life
a tongue-lashing,
walking in the light,
getting in
his daily punch.
Raising his hands
to touch the morning
with his fingertips.

Rest in peace,
they say to the dead,
trying to takle refuge
in their tombs.

But I don’t want
my father ever to rest
in the stone-deaf earth.
May he not rest.
May his name reverberate.
War against death.


See today’s Moving Poems for a short documentary on the life of Clementina Suarez.

Mothers and heroes

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Honduran poetry


pueblo contra el ejercito, by kilo (Honduras Indymedia)
pueblo contra el ejercito, by kilo (Honduras Indymedia)

Clementina Suárez (1906-1991) is not only Honduras’ preeminent woman poet, but a central figure in the Mexican literary and artistic scene of the mid-20th century. She was profiled in a wonderful biography by Janet Gold, which includes a generous selection of her poems in translation, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of feminism in Honduras. I thought of Clementina on Sunday when I watched videos and photos of indominable women punching soldiers and facing down armored vehicles in the streets.

Clementina Suárez

Yo soy un poeta,
un ejército de poetas.
Y hoy quiero escribir un poema,
un poema silbatos,
un poema fusiles
para pegarlos en las puertas,
en las celdas de las prisiones,
en los muros de las escuelas.
Hoy quiero construir y destruir,
levantar en andamios la esperanza.
Despertar al niño,
arcángel de las espadas,
ser relámpago, trueno,
con estatura de héroe
para talar, arrasar,
las podridas raíces de mi pueblo.

tr. by Dave Bonta

I am a poet,
an army of poets.
And today I want to write a poem —
a whistles poem,
a rifles poem —
to strike them in doorways,
in prison cells,
within the walls of schools.
Today I want to build and destroy,
to give hope a lift onto the scaffold.
I want to rouse the child,
archangel of swords,
to be lightning-flash and thunderclap
with a statue of a hero
to topple, to obliterate
the rotted roots of my people.

Honduras’ most famous and influential poet of all, without a doubt, was Juan Ramón Molina (1875-1908), a friend and contemporary of the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Darío, who joined him in rousing Spanish-language poetry out of its two centuries of slumber. Which is very much how they would’ve described it in the late-Romantic style they pioneered, modernismo. (See “Metempsícosis” at Moving Poems for a much grander Molina poem about reincarnation.)

While the narrator of “Combate” wanted to do away with heroes, the narrator of the following poem pines for a vanished heroic age — the archetypal conservative.

Juan Ramón Molina

¡Viviese yo en los tiempos esforzados
de amores, de conquistas y de guerras,
en que frailes, bandidos y soldados
a través de los mares irritados
iban en busca de remotas tierras.

No en esta triste edad en que desmaya
todo anhelo — encumbrado como un monte —
y en que poniendo mi ambición a raya
herido y solo me quedé en la playa
viendo el límite azul del horizonte!

tr. by Dave Bonta

Ah, that I had lived in times tested
by love, by war and by conquest,
when friars, soldiers and desperadoes
went off across unquiet seas
in search of distant lands,

and not in this pathetic age when longing
has grown faint, inaccessible as a mountain peak,
and holding my ambition in check,
wounded and alone I linger on the shore,
gazing at the horizon’s blue limit!

Roberto Sosa, by contrast, turns his gaze toward those most wounded by military adventurism. This is from his 1995 volume El llanto de las cosas, and was also translated by Jo Anne Englebert as “The Common Grief” in her book of the same name.

Roberto Sosa

hijas del verbo: madres, los esparemos.

Escúchenos, “vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos.”
Recuérdenlo en el nombre del padre, del hijo y del hermano
detenidos y desaparecidos.

Esperamos con la frente en alto
punto por punto unidas como la cicatriz a sus costuras.

Nadie podrá destruir ni desarmar nuestros pesares juntos.

tr. by Dave Bonta

we wait for them, daughters of the word. Mothers.

Hear this: alive they were taken, alive we want them back.
Remember it in the name of the father and the son and the brother
detained and disappeared.

We wait with heads held high,
joined stitch by stitch like a scar to its sutures.

No one shall destroy or disband this union of sorrows.


Incidentally, in case anyone’s wondering why I’m signing my name to each one of these, I’ve noticed that translations are a popular item to copy and paste around the web, and I thought I’d make it easier for people to do so without having to worry about adding the attribution, which for some strange reason often seems to be neglected where translations are concerned.

Dogs and generals

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Honduran poetry


Roberto Sosa is Honduras’ most famous living poet. See Los Pobres, up today at Moving Poems, for another of his poems I’ve translated (as well as for an explanation of why I’m so upset by yesterday’s coup in Honduras).

Roberto Sosa

Los Generales compran, interpretan y reparten
la palabra y el silencio.

Son rígidos y firmes
como las negras alturas pavorosas. Sus mansiones
dos terceras partes de sangre y una de soledad,
y desde allí, sin hacer movimientos, gobiernan
los hilos
anudados a sensibilísimos mastines
con dentaduras de oro y humana apariencia, y combinan,
nadie lo ignora, las sales enigmáticas
de la orden superior, mientras se hinchan
sus inaudibles anillos poderosos.
Los Generales son dueños y señores
de códigos, vidas y haciendas, y miembros respetados
de la Santa Iglesia Católica, Apostólica y Romana.

tr. by Dave Bonta

The Generals purchase, interpret and allocate
words and silences.

They are as rigid and unyielding
as fearsome black crags. Their mansions
take up
two parts blood and one part solitude,
whence, without moving a muscle, they pull
the strings
tied to highly trained mastiffs
with gold teeth and a human likeness, and they combine —
as everyone knows — hidden charms
of the highest order, while their powerful
noiseless rings swell up.

The Generals are lords and masters
of the law, of lives and estates, and they’re members
in good standing of the Holy Catholic Church, Roman and Apostolic.

Here’s another Honduran poem expanding on the “mastiffs” theme, from Oscar Acosta’s 1957 volume Poesía Menor.

Oscar Acosta

Miran desde su lengua el silencio del amor.
Se quedan quietos en los rincones, huelen
el cariño en las ropas, en las lámparas, en la voz.
Caminan suaves sobre las alfombras verdes.
Los ojos son vivos y hablan por sí solos.
Cómo ausentarlos entonces al silencio,
cómo echarlos de las calles, cómo sepultarlos
si se levantan de los jardines floridos,
cómo envenenarlos por una disposición sanitaria
si sus amos cordiales están también rabiosos.

tr. by Dave Bonta

See how the silence of love drips from their tongues.
They keep quiet in corners, catching the scent
of affection on clothing, on lamps, in the voice.
They walk softly over green carpets. Their eyes
are so animated they speak all by themselves.
How then to silence them? How to kick them
off the streets? How to bury them when
they keep rising from flowerbeds?
How to poison and safely dispose of them
if their loving masters have also gone rabid?

I’ll be sharing translations of Honduran poetry here all this week.

Poems for a trip to the shore

Spanish-language poets never seem to tire of writing poems about the sea, and I never tire of reading them. Here are four favorites, freshly translated for the summer beach season. (Some of you may remember the first of these from a post back in March — The owl’s insomnia. I like my new version better.)


SONG (Canción)
by Rafael Alberti

If my voice should die on land,
carry it down to the sea
and leave it on the shore.

Carry it down to the sea
and make it captain of a white
ship of war.

Oh my voice, decorated
with the emblem of a sailor:
over the heart an anchor,
and over the anchor a star,
and over the star the wind,
and over the wind the sail!


THE SHORE (La orilla)
by Roberto Sosa

The great shore
gives shelter
to the smallest minnows.

Mother to boats and travelers,
she looks after that blue child the water.
She swallows hooks.

At night she sings, and the fishermen dream
of dragging the sea’s skeleton
back to their huts.

My little girl, my minnow,
this whole great shore’s for you.


THE LONGSHOREMEN (Los estibadores)
by Roberto Sosa

Yesterday’s courier and cross of rubble. From somewhere or other they came up with walls, docks and black ships. Boxcars that eclipsed the morning, the longshoremen already diminished by their bulky loads … even the ice was a form of outrage. Courier of yesterday — my father was one.

The breakers of late afternoon always subsiding, but still always rising up. To me, everything seemed to have grown dark — the tourist and the fisherman, the masts, the flotillas of gulls — all, all but the flying foam.

The workers on the docks went home to their cooking fires like failed angels. I was six, and dread was already dread.


Me at the Bottom of the Sea (Yo en el fondo del mar)
by Alfonsina Storni

There’s a house of glass
at the bottom of the sea.

It fronts on a street
of solid madrepore.

At five o’clock,
a fat golden fish
comes calling.

He brings me
a scarlet spray
of coral blossoms.

I sleep on a bed
just a bit bluer
than the sea.

An octopus
winks at me
from the other side of the glass.
In the green forest
all around —
ding-dong, ding-dang
the sea-green pearly
sirens sing
and sway.

And over my head
in the twilight, burning,
all the bristle-points
of the sea.


In October 1938, Storni drowned herself in the ocean at Mar del Plata.

Memento mori

The Brutal Lovers (Los Amantes Brutales)
translated from the Spanish of Roberto Sosa

strangers came
from other worlds
to this ground that saw our birth.
We are the light they said without mincing words.

They came calculating
body count times betrayal, saying our friends.
They came to eat, ate everything and wouldn’t leave
this ground that saw our birth, men
of metal, of straight edges, they
the brutal lovers of Death.

to that Death!

(El llanto de las cosas, Editorial Guaymantes, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 1995)


Prompted by an article in The New Yorker called The Casualty I take my cheap edition of The Works of Wilfred Owen off the shelf and begin to read. My god, what a poet! Contemporary of Rilke and Yeats and every bit their equal, killed in 1918 at the age of 25, one week before the Armistice.

The last poem in the book, “Strange Meeting,” describes a Ulysses-like journey to the underworld. No doubt the editors, by placing it there, had the same banal reaction as I did: this could have been a foreshadowing. It’s all here, the feyness of the poet who accepted his own death as the price for understanding “the pity of war.” Who knew his own poems to be beautiful, bearers of “truths that lie too deep for taint.” One does not dare to speak of sacrifice, but certainly Owen knew better than anyone what was at stake when he re-enlisted in August 1918, leaving the hospital where he had been recovering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Almost all his poems, including I presume “Strange Meeting,” had been written during his year-long convalescence. The slant rhymed AA’BB’ scheme is particularly effective in this context, like the shell and its aftershock, forcing a doubletake. Not quite the rhyme one had expected.

Strange Meeting
by Wilfred Owen

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now….’


Anon. 14th century

Erþe toc of erþe, erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh –
þo heuede ere of erþe erþe ynoh.

Earth took of earth, earth with woe,
Earth other earth to the earth drew;
Earth laid earth in earthen trough,
Then had earth of earth enough.

(Additional notes, including a possible interpretation, here.)