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10 Oct

tree near corral

Today’s post is a translation of the opening fragment of the poem ‘Tree’ by the Bolivian poet Jessica Freudenthal Ovando (born 1978).



my father has a girlfriend of my age

my father says he cheated on my mother with six women

of those he fell in love with

my father always cheated on my mother

“always” could be reduced to fifteen or twenty years

my father and my mother became engaged at fifteen years of age

and were married as soon as they were legal adults

my mother is the daughter of a military man

my mother is the daughter of a military man they say was involved

in the death of che guevara and the nationalization of the gulf oil company

my father is the son of the right hand man of the president who led the revolution of 1952

my father’s father was exiled by the father of my mother

i am the daughter of my mother and of my father

i have a sister and two brothers

my older brother has the same name as my father and the older brother of my mother

the older brother of my mother died in an airplane accident

they say that it wasn’t an accident

they say that the plane was sabotaged to bring about the fall of my military grandfather’s government that nationalized oil and tin

my younger brother has the name of sid campeador and of the younger brother of my mother which is also the name of her father

i have my name and the name of the older sister of my father who died during an epileptic attack in eastern bolivia

my father’s mother says that she was born in a place where the cemetery is bigger than the village, and the word love is not known

my sister has her name and the two names of my mother

my mother’s younger brother has his father’s name

– but never uses it –

my mother’s younger sister is adopted

– but this is an open secret –

i am the spouse of my spouse

i do not use the surname of my spouse

my spouse was the boyfriend of the second daughter of my mother’s younger brother

my mother and my spouse’s father had a fling

my father became somewhat jealous

my mother was sick with jealousy

she used to check my father’s pockets and phone him like a madwoman

i suffer from jealousy

my husband has cheated on me on several occasions

i have never been able to cheat on my husband

i haven’t dared


mother and father

mother fatherland

mama milk-bottle

the family tree doesn’t know its roots

it can’t see them

in the darkness and depth of the earth

there hidden underground

far from the crown

from the air

and from the branches

from the branches of this tree

hang the dead

the suicides

my father’s mother’s brother

shot himself on christmas night

my father’s younger brother snorted cocaine until his heart stopped

my mother’s first cousin threw himself off the niagara falls

poetic deaths


my mother’s father died of cancer of the pancreas

my father’s father died of pulmonary emphysema

it costs this tree to breathe

it doesn’t know its roots

surnames run all along its structure

they vanish

they become transparent

Translation from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn


Fragmento de “ÁRBOL”



mi padre tiene una novia de mi edad

mi padre dice engañó a mi madre con seis mujeres

de las que se enamoró

mi padre siempre engañó a mi madre

–siempre– puede reducirse a quince o veinte años

mi padre y mi madre se hicieron novios a los quince años

y se casaron al borde de la mayoría de edad

mi madre es hija de un militar

mi madre es hija de un militar que dicen estuvo involucrado

en la muerte del che guevara y la nacionalización de la gulf oil company

mi padre es hijo del hombre de confianza del presidente que hizo la revolución de 1952

el padre de mi padre fue exiliado por el padre de mi madre

yo soy hija de mi madre y de mi padre

tengo una hermana y dos hermanos

mi hermano mayor lleva el nombre de mi padre y el nombre del hermano mayor de mi madre

el hermano mayor de mi madre murió en un accidente de aviación

-dicen que no fue un accidente-

dicen que sabotearon el avión para que cayera el gobierno de mi abuelo militar que nacionalizó la gulf y el estaño

mi hermano menor lleva el nombre del sid campeador y el del hermano menor de mi madre que es también el de su padre

yo llevo mi nombre y el nombre de la hermana mayor de mi padre muerta por un ataque de epilepsia en el oriente boliviano

la madre de mi padre dice que nació en un lugar donde el cementerio es más grande que el pueblo, y que no conoció la palabra amor . . .

mi hermana lleva su nombre y los dos nombres de mi madre

el hermano menor de mi madre lleva el nombre de su padre

– pero no lo usa nunca –

la hermana menor de mi madre es adoptada

– pero ese es un secreto a voces –

yo soy esposa de mi esposo

yo no uso el apellido de mi esposo

mi esposo era el novio de la hija segunda del hermano menor de mi madre

mi madre y el padre de mi esposo tuvieron un romance

mi padre se puso algo celoso

mi madre era enferma de los celos

auscultaba los bolsillos de mi padre y lo llamaba como loca por teléfono

yo sufro de celos

mi marido me ha engañado varias veces

yo nunca he podido engañar a mi marido

no me he atrevido


madre y padre

madre patria

pacha mama

el árbol familiar no conoce sus raíces

no puede verlas

en la oscuridad y profundidad de la tierra

allí debajo escondidas

lejanas a la copa

al aire

y a las ramas

en las ramas de este árbol

cuelgan los muertos

los suicidios

el hermano de la madre de mi padre

se pegó un tiro la noche de navidad

el hermano menor de mi padre aspiró cocaína hasta detener su corazón

el primo hermano de mi madre se lanzó por las cataratas del niágara

muertes poéticas


el padre de mi madre murió de cáncer de páncreas

el padre de mi padre murió de enfisema pulmonar

a este árbol le cuesta respirar

no conoce sus raíces

los apellidos recorren toda la estructura

se desvanecen

se hacen transparentes

from Patria bastarda (2014)

Fiction Fiesta

29 Mar


We met up in Nick’s bar, The Promised Land, to discuss literature in translation with some friends, editors, writers and such luminaries from the field of literary translation as Christopher MacLehose and Boyd Tonkin, chaired by the erudite and perennially entertaining Charles Boyle. By the end of the day I had the impression that we had achieved what we set out to do: we had talked about interesting stuff in good company; we had provided a forum for our guests to listen to and discuss literature in translation, and we had introduced to a Cardiff audience – for the first time but definitely not for the last – the prodigiously talented Argentinian novelist and poet, Andrés Neuman. More than that, most of us seemed to have enjoyed ourselves.

The day began with a reading and discussion with Andrés, who led us on a merry dance through Russian Jewish migration of the early 20th century, German Romanticism, the music of Franz Schubert, European identity in the 21st Century, an hilarious impersonation of Jorge Luis Borges, and an account of a chess game with Roberto Bolaño, in which the Chilean author plied his young admirer with whisky while playing Mexican heavy metal at full volume as a way of gaining tactical advantage.

There followed a delightful reading by the poets Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson, their lines bouncing off the walls with a playful (and sometimes darker) exchange of ironies.

The Fiesta was made by its participants, especially our Argentinian guests, and the fine writers who made the afternoon come alive: Des Barry, Zoe Skoulding, Tristan Hughes and the superb Philip Gross.

In the end it all went swimmingly, although  afterwards I wondered – rather like a medieval adventurer returning from the Forest of Enchantments – whether it had all been a mysterious dream. But that was probably just the lack of sleep.


Andrés Neuman



. . . in conversation with Blanco



Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson



Tiffany Atkinson



Tess and Charles take a break



Jorge explains a crucial point



Los tres amigos



The whole sick crew? - Barry, Boyle, Neuman, Fondebrider, Blanco, Mulcahy, Hughes.






Ernesto Cardenal’s Prayer for Marilyn Monroe

16 Feb


Yesterday I was introduced to one of the great poets of the 20th century, Ernesto Cardenal, on the fragile grounds that I have translated some of his poems, two of which appeared in Poetry Wales last year. There follows a translation of one of his most well-known poems, along with the original Spanish.



Prayer for Marilyn Monroe

receive this young woman known around the world as Marilyn Monroe
although that wasn’t her real name
(but You know her real name, the name of the orphan raped at the age of 6
and the shopgirl who at 16 had tried to kill herself)
who now comes before You without any makeup
without her Press Agent
without photographers and without autograph hounds,
alone like an astronaut facing night in space.

She dreamed when she was little that she was naked in a church
(according to the Time account)
before a prostrated crowd of people, their heads on the floor
and she had to walk on tiptoe so as not to step on their heads.
You know our dreams better than the psychiatrists.
Church, home, cave, all represent the security of the womb
but something else too …
The heads are her fans, that’s clear
(the mass of heads in the dark under the beam of light).
But the temple isn’t the studios of 20th Century-Fox.
The temple—of marble and gold—is the temple of her body
in which the Son of Man stands whip in hand
driving out the studio bosses of 20th Century-Fox
who made Your house of prayer a den of thieves.

in this world polluted with sin and radioactivity
You won’t blame it all on a shopgirl
who, like any other shopgirl, dreamed of being a star.
Her dream just became a reality (but like Technicolor’s reality).
She only acted according to the script we gave her
—the story of our own lives. And it was an absurd script.
Forgive her, Lord, and forgive us
for our 20th Century
for this Colossal Super-Production on which we all have worked.
She hungered for love and we offered her tranquilizers.
For her despair, because we’re not saints
psychoanalysis was recommended to her.
Remember, Lord, her growing fear of the camera
and her hatred of makeup—insisting on fresh makeup for each scene—
and how the terror kept building up in her
and making her late to the studios.

Like any other shopgirl
she dreamed of being a star.
And her life was unreal like a dream that a psychiatrist interprets and files.

Her romances were a kiss with closed eyes
and when she opened them
she realized she had been under floodlights
as they killed the floodlights!
and they took down the two walls of the room (it was a movie set)
while the Director left with his scriptbook
because the scene had been shot.
Or like a cruise on a yacht, a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception at the mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
all viewed in a poor apartment’s tiny living room.

The film ended without the final kiss.
She was found dead in her bed with her hand on the phone.
And the detectives never learned who she was going to call.
She was
like someone who had dialed the number of the only friendly voice
and only heard the voice of a recording that says: WRONG NUMBER.
Or like someone who had been wounded by gangsters
reaching for a disconnected phone.

whoever it might have been that she was going to call
and didn’t call (and maybe it was no one
or Someone whose number isn’t in the Los Angeles phonebook)
You answer that telephone!

(Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Cohen)




recibe a esta muchacha conocida en toda la Tierra con el nombre de Marilyn Monroe,
aunque ése no era su verdadero nombre
(pero Tú conoces su verdadero nombre, el de la huerfanita violada a los 9 años
y la empleadita de tienda que a los 16 se había querido matar)
y que ahora se presenta ante Ti sin ningún maquillaje
sin su Agente de Prensa
sin fotógrafos y sin firmar autógrafos
sola como un astronauta frente a la noche espacial.
Ella soñó cuando niña que estaba desnuda en una iglesia (según cuenta el Times)
ante una multitud postrada, con las cabezas en el suelo
y tenía que caminar en puntillas para no pisar las cabezas.
Tú conoces nuestros sueños mejor que los psiquiatras.
Iglesia, casa, cueva, son la seguridad del seno materno
pero también algo más que eso…

Las cabezas son los admiradores, es claro
(la masa de cabezas en la oscuridad bajo el chorro de luz).
Pero el templo no son los estudios de la 20th Century-Fox.
El templo —de mármol y oro— es el templo de su cuerpo
en el que está el hijo de Hombre con un látigo en la mano
expulsando a los mercaderes de la 20th Century-Fox
que hicieron de Tu casa de oración una cueva de ladrones.
en este mundo contaminado de pecados y de radiactividad,
Tú no culparás tan sólo a una empleadita de tienda
que como toda empleadita de tienda soñó con ser estrella de cine.
Y su sueño fue realidad (pero como la realidad del tecnicolor).
Ella no hizo sino actuar según el script que le dimos,
el de nuestras propias vidas, y era un script absurdo.
Perdónala, Señor, y perdónanos a nosotros
por nuestra 20th Century
por esa Colosal Super-Producción en la que todos hemos trabajado.
Ella tenía hambre de amor y le ofrecimos tranquilizantes.
Para la tristeza de no ser santos
se le recomendó el Psicoanálisis.
Recuerda Señor su creciente pavor a la cámara
y el odio al maquillaje insistiendo en maquillarse en cada escena
y cómo se fue haciendo mayor el horror
y mayor la impuntualidad a los estudios.

Como toda empleadita de tienda
soñó ser estrella de cine.
Y su vida fue irreal como un sueño que un psiquiatra interpreta y archiva.

Sus romances fueron un beso con los ojos cerrados
que cuando se abren los ojos
se descubre que fue bajo reflectores
¡y se apagan los reflectores!
Y desmontan las dos paredes del aposento (era un set cinematográfico)
mientras el Director se aleja con su libreta
porque la escena ya fue tomada.
O como un viaje en yate, un beso en Singapur, un baile en Río
la recepción en la mansión del Duque y la Duquesa de Windsor
vistos en la salita del apartamento miserable.
La película terminó sin el beso final.
La hallaron muerta en su cama con la mano en el teléfono.
Y los detectives no supieron a quién iba a llamar.
como alguien que ha marcado el número de la única voz amiga
y oye tan solo la voz de un disco que le dice: WRONG NUMBER
O como alguien que herido por los gangsters
alarga la mano a un teléfono desconectado.

quienquiera que haya sido el que ella iba a llamar
y no llamó (y tal vez no era nadie
o era Alguien cuyo número no está en el Directorio de los Ángeles)
¡contesta Tú al teléfono!





Nicanor Parra at ninety-seven

17 Dec

Two weeks ago the Cervantes prize, Spain’s loftiest literary honour, was bestowed on the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.

Parra, at ninety-seven years of age, is without doubt the most influential of living South American poets. His career as an eminent physicist (he has been a visiting professor at Oxford and Yale) provided him with a livelihood and immunised him to some extent from the worst abuses of the Pinochet regime. A near-contemporary of Neruda, he considered his more famous compatriot’s poetry to be too flowery, too close for comfort to romantic egotism, and his own ‘antipoetry’ – a term that requires some unpacking – presents a “bleaker vision, prosier rhythms, and starker, surrealist deadpan humor”.  By the 1930s Parra was already asserting that what was needed was a vernacular poetry that related to ordinary life and which was accessible to the general public. These ideas, as manifested in Poesia y antipoesia (1954) had a huge impact on poets of a younger generation, especially those who were caught up in the politics of resistance. Parra began writing ‘antipoetry’ because, in his words “poetry wasn’t really working”; there was “a distance between poetry and life”. In a gracious twist, Neruda himself confessed to Parra’s influence on his own later work. It has been claimed, not unreasonably, that Parra’s method derived from his mathematical, relativist background, where he used minimal language and avoided metaphors and tropes in order to address his readers directly. However such assertions almost always sound reductive or cockeyed to me.

Parra’s later work is often a mesh of word association games, intentional cliché and spectacularly straightforward rants about the environment, inequality and corporate corruption. He is a ludic poet, while remaining a poet of intense seriousness. It may well be that his influence will be more lasting than either Neruda or his fellow Nobel laureate, the Mexican Octavio Paz.

Here are a few translations of his work:






Our father who art in heaven

Laden with problems of every kind

Your brow knotted

Like any common ordinary man

Don’t worry about us any more.

We understand that you suffer

Because you cannot set your house in order.

We know the Evil One doesn’t leave you in peace

Unmaking everything you make.

He laughs at you

But we weep with you:

Don’t be troubled by his diabolical laughter.

Our father who art where thou art

Surrounded by treacherous angels

Truly: do not suffer any more on our account

You must recognize

That the gods are not infallible.

And that we forgive everything.


(From ‘Bío Bío’)





Nineteenth-century economicrapology

Years before the Principle of Finitude

Neither capitalist nor socialist

But quite the contrary Mr Director:

Intransigent ecologist

We understand by ecology

A socioeconomic movement

Based on the idea of harmony

Of the human species with its environment

Which fights for a ludic life




free of exploitation

And based on communication

And collaboration

Between the big guys & the little guys





What’s certain is that I kept going to and fro,

Sometimes bumping into trees,

Bumping into beggars,

I found my way through a forest of chairs and tables,

With my soul on a thread I watched big leaves fall.

But it was all in vain,

I gradually sank deeper into a kind of jelly;

People laughed at my rages,

They started in their armchairs like seaweed carried by the waves

And women looked at me with loathing

Dragging me up, dragging me down,

Making me cry and laugh against my will.

All this provoked in me a feeling of disgust,

Provoked a tempest of incoherent sentences,

Threats, insults, inconsequential curses,

Provoked some exhausting hip movements,

Those funereal dances

That left me breathless

And unable to raise my head for days

For nights.

I was going to and fro, it’s true,

My soul drifted through the streets

Begging for help, begging for a little tenderness;

With a sheet of paper and a pencil I went into cemeteries

Determined not to be tricked.

I kept on at the same matter, around and around

I observed everything close up

Or in an attack of fury I tore out my hair.

In this fashion I began my career as a teacher.

Like a man with a bullet wound I dragged myself around literary events.

I crossed the threshold of private houses,

With my razor tongue I tried to communicate with the audience;

They went on reading their newspapers

Or disappeared behind a taxi.

Where was I to go?

At that hour the shops were shut;

I thought of a slice of onion I had seen during dinner

And of the abyss that separates us from the other abysses.





The bosses don’t have a clue

they want us all to work for nothing

they never put themselves in the shoes of a worker

chop me some wood kiddo

when are you going to kill those rats?

last night I couldn’t sleep again

make water gush from that rock for me

the wife has to go to the gala dance

go find me a handful of pearls

from the bottom of the sea

if you please

then there are others who are

even bigger wankers

iron me this shirt shitface

go find me a tree from the forest fuckwit

on your knees asshole

. . . go check those fuses

and what if I get electrocuted?

and what if a stone lands on my head?

and what if I meet a lion in the forest?

aw hell!

that is of no concern to us

that doesn’t matter in the least

the really important thing

is that the gentleman can read his newspaper in peace

can yawn just when he pleases

can listen to his classical music to his heart’s content

who gives a shit if the worker cracks his skull

if he takes a tumble

while soldering a steel girder

nothing to get worked up about

these half-breeds are a waste of space

let him go fuck himself

and afterwards it’s

I don’t know what happened

you can’t imagine how bad I feel Señora

give her a couple of pats on the back

and the life of a widow and her seven chicks ruined







Those who are my friends

the sick

the weak

the dispirited

those who don’t have a place to lie down and die

the old

the children

the single mothers

– the students, not because they are troublemakers –

the peasants because they are humble

the fishermen

because they remind me

of the holy apostles of Christ

those who did not know their father

those who, like me, lost their mother

those condemned to a perpetual queue

in so-called public offices

those humiliated by their own children

those abused by their own spouses

the Araucanian Indians

those who have been overlooked at some time or other

those who can’t even sign their names

the bakers

the gravediggers

my friends are

the dreamers, the idealists who

like Him

surrendered their lives

to the holocaust

for a better world




For half a century

Poetry was the paradise

Of the solemn fool.

Until I came along

And set up my roller coaster.

Go on up, if you want.

It’s not my fault if you come down

Bleeding from your mouth and nose.



Translations by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol 46, No 3 Winter 2010-11.





25 Oct

I am listening to a Chopin nocturne here in my attic, as the rain falls on the city. It is evening and it is autumn. Tomorrow I am going into hospital where someone will poke around in my liver with a sharp instrument. This combination of factors could make for quite a melancholy mood, but instead I am reasonably jolly because I have just confirmed a longstanding suspicion: according to my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the word ‘cretin’ is derived from the French Alpine dialect crétin meaning a ‘kind of dwarfed and deformed idiot  . . . from Latin christianus CHRISTIAN.’ It goes on to inform me that ‘In many Romance languages the equivalents of Christian have the general meaning of human being, but as a euphemism carry the sense of poor fellow. A parallel sense of development is found in French benêt simpleton, from Old French benoit blessed . . .’

Well, well.

I was also interested to discover there is a French video game called Les Lapins Crétins (the cretinous rabbits), surely one of the more outstanding Gallic contributions to world culture.

The Argentinian poet Jorge Fondebrider, playing with the familiar writerly notion that worldly success is almost entirely a matter of luck, has a poem on the subject, which I reproduce below, as a spin-off from my reflections on cretinism, followed by another of Jorge’s pensées on literary matters.




While translating a biography of Gershwin

and reading again of his successes,

the many testimonies of his contemporaries,

I realise that I too know illustrious people

and a few who are genuinely talented,

who bear the load of the world’s debts and bitterness.

But later I go back to work.

What I really want to say is that talent is not enough,

is never sufficient

that you have to be born in the right place, at the right time,

you have to be lucky and be noticed.

And whoever claims otherwise is a cretin.





Like Plato, chuck them out,

send them packing with a kick in the arse.

Worse still are novelists who don’t read poetry.




Translations from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol 47 No 1, Summer 2011.




Two poems by Wendy Guerra

12 Oct

David Hockney, Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool, 1964

Wendy Guerra (b. 1970, Cienfuegos, Cuba) is part of a younger generation of Cuban writers and artists who express themselves in a mix of genres and across media. She came to fame with the publication of a non-fiction novel based on her diaries, Todo se van (Everyone’s leaving) in 2006. The poems below are both from her poetry collection Ropa Interior (2008), many of them centring on what she describes as the ‘circular coherence’ of life in contemporary Cuba, and reflecting the influence on her writing of the visual arts. In this highly entertaining video, she explains a little about her work and ideas.




I pack and unpack my bag

I pack and unpack everything with the intention of leaving

I call my friends     tell them I’m escaping

and later descend surreptitiously to the pool

to absorb the sorcery of the sun in peace

A wedding ring lost in the stomach of a fish

And again the luggage for my long overdue journey

I keep seeing that unmoving piece of marble

that are the boots of my personal memorial

Look how my tears course down the suitcase

you track them with your index finger

and you will arrive at the centre of my doubts

I fish in the same sea into which flows the water from my eyes

I see how my half-packed suitcase reveals

my tormented compass

and the child’s drawing of a map of Cuba

I trace the thousand forms of an exploratory circumnavigation

Dip a foot in     to test the exact temperature of the waters

withdraw a little    and then leave

for the interminable and conclusive regatta

Someone pushes me for a laugh and I almost fall and drown

but I sustain an amazing state of equilibrium

make the journey to the interior

realizing that what I announce

illuminates the borderline of my ideas





My parents got it right one time

They met in a packed square singing in a choir

They loved each other in a sea of ten bunks silenced by

the command to “be silent”

They brought me into the world in a room of beds tidied

into shared emotions

We swam at beaches packed with bathers confused

by their identical swimsuits and communal trucks

Saturday nights we watched the same films

crying in the same way as a subtitled country cries

in black and white

Sundays we said our goodbyes

hazy in the uniform     blue that separated us

My parents   when at last they were left alone

Lost their minds.



Translations by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales Vol 47, No 1, Summer 2011





The Empty House

11 Oct




The Empty House


Invite no one

into our house,

for they will repair

the doors, windows, staircase

and windows,

they will see the moths

in the corners,

the rusty locks,

the blind, ruined lamps.


Don’t bring anyone to our house

for they would only anguish

on account of your table,

your bed, the tablecloth,

the furniture, laugh pitifully

at the cups, pretend to

endure nostalgia for my name,

make fun, what is more, of our hammock.


Don’t bring people to our house any more

for they would write you songs,

enervate your soul,

whisper mischievously,

plant a flower at your window.


That’s why – I beg you – you must

not bring people to our house,

for they would turn pink,

greenish, reddish, blueish,

on discovering broken walls

and withered plants.


They would want to sweep out the corners

open our blinds,

and find, tucked away among my books

the perverse excuses they are searching for.


Don’t bring anyone to our house any more,

for they would discover our ridiculous things

carry you off to faraway beaches

tell you tales of shipwrecks

drag you from our house.



Siomara España (b. 1976 Guayaquil, Ecuador)


English translation by Richard Gwyn, of ‘La casa vacia’, first published in Poetry Wales Vol 47 No 1, Summer 2011.





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