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Dark Ages

31 Oct

A new poem by Pedro Serrano, translated from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn.

Bill, Pedro, Me @ Pen & Wig

Pedro Serrano (in mirror), with Blanco (left) and Bill Herbert.


The tiger leaps

from a cloud of smoke into transience.

Falls on the devastating corral with an idleness

corresponding to the haste of his victims,

not to his elasticity.

He brushes past the bars of his cage

swinging his tail, rattling, tac, tac, tac, tac.

Crackling, he licks the circus sands

and raises ripples of dust,

traces of an approaching wake.

The motive for his observation

journeys in the smooth rhythm of his stomach,

velvety, gluttonous, elastic.

He turns circles before the spectators,

ears cocked, instincts fixed

on the excitement in the air.

He walks by the tables, propitious,

exudes substance and style.

The head sinks between the shoulders,

swells in the rail that encircles him.

The claws are extended

in the animal body that awaits him.

In the mirror of midday

the night’s end was taking shape,

beatific, inscrutable.


El tigre salta

de la humareda a la fugacidad.

Cae en el aplastante corral con una pereza

que alude a la prisa de sus victimas,

no a su elasticidad.

Pasa rozando las rejas de su jaula

meneando la cola, golpeteando, taq’, taq’, taq’, taq’.

Restallante lame las arenas del circo

y levanta espejuelas de polvo,

huellas de una estela aproximándose.

La razón de su observación

viaja en el suave ritmo de su vientre,

afelpado, glotón, elástico.

Da vueltas a los espectadores,

las orejas prestas, su olfato

en la agitación que se respira.

Pasa propicio por las mesas,

se enjundia, se estiliza.

Sume la cabeza entre los hombros,

crece en el riel que lo circunda.

Deja las uñas puestas

en el cuerpo animal que lo acecha.

Desde el espejo del mediodía

se apuntaba el final de la noche,

beatífica, hierática.


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)

Information overload on the beach

3 Sep

Grifeu 1

There was a time when a beach was simply a beach. You took your clothes off, and if you were so inclined donned a bathing costume (or swimming suit) and splashed around in the sea. Upon exiting the waters, you might want to dry off – always bearing in mind the well-advertised health hazards – by basking in the sun. Even fifteen years ago that was all there was to it. Not now. Over the past few years, going to our nearest beach has turned into an educational and communicative experience in which we are alerted to:

  • a map of all the beaches in the Llança municipality, and how to find them;

Grifeu 1a

Grifeu 2

  • a map of Grifeu beach, with accompanying symbology of all the activities encouraged, facilitated or prohibited thereon;

Grifeu 3

  • the history of the beach, and fishing methods carried out historically in the zone;

Grifeu 4

  • the etymology of its name: this is disappointing. Grifeu, we learn, is an old Catalan surname, but doesn’t tell us what the surname means. I want it to mean ‘Griffin’ but have found no evidence that it might.

Grifeu 4a

  • swimming routes encouraged by the municipal authorities, including an evening group swim at 7 pm each day following the buoys along the coast to Llança harbour, the so-called vies braves, or ‘brave routes’, not for the faint-hearted;

Grifeu 5

Grifeu 5a

  • a description of the tamariu (tamarix) tree that lies in the middle of the beach and under which cool shade may be sought; also informing us that the tamarix (or tamarisk) was the favourite tree of the Greek god Apollo;

Grifeu 6

Grifeu 6a

  • a monument to the Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre (1917-2008), and a sample of his verse concerning the beach itself, in recognition of the fact that the poet used to come here. (I once read alongside Palau i Fabre, already in his 90th year, at the Rabós poetry festival, and was struck by his noble visage and penetrating gaze).

Grifeu 7

Grifeu 7a

But does one need all of this on a visit to the beach? Information overload afflicts us everywhere we go, and quite frankly I don’t need it at the seaside. All this labelling, signalling, categorisation and the all-embracing bureaucratisation of everything, even so-called ‘leisure time’. Even poetry. Fortunately, however, one can just turn one’s back on it all and swim out to those buoys. At least out at sea there are fewer distractions.

Neruda’s Timekeeper Revisited

4 May

Valparaiso 2

To Don Asterio Alarcón, timekeeper of Valparaíso

by Pablo Neruda


Valparaíso has the smell

of a crazy port,

the smell of a shadow, of a star,

of moon-scale

and fish-tail.

The heart shudders

on the harrowing stairways

of the bristling hills:

grave poverty and black eyes

dance there in the fog

and the flags of the kingdom

hang from windows:

patched sheets,

old shirts,

long undershorts

and the sea sun salutes the banners

while the white clothes wave

the sailors a poor farewell.

Sea streets, windy streets

of the hard day wrapped in air and waves,

alleys that sing upward

in a spiral like snails:

the commercial afternoon is transparent,

the sun visits the merchandise

in order to sell the warehouse smiles,

showing windows and sets of teeth,

shoes and thermometers, bottles

that hold a green night,

unreachable suits, golden clothes,

awful socks, mild cheeses,

and so I come to the point

of this ode.

There is a shop window

with its glass

and inside,

between timepieces,

the clockmaker don Asterio Alarcón.

The street boils and turns

burns and batters,

but behind the glass

the clockmaker,

the old curator of timepieces

stands immobile,

with a protruding eye,

an extravagant eye

which guesses the enigma,

the cardiac arrest of the clocks

and scrutinizes with one eye

until the obscure butterfly

of timekeeping

alights on his brow

and the hands of the clock move.

Don Asterio Alarcón is the ancient

hero of minutes

and the boat sails on the wave

measured by his hands

that add

responsibility to the minute hand,

neatness to the beat:

Don Asterio in his aquarium

watched over the sea clocks,

oiled with patience

the blue heart of the seascape.

For fifty years,

or eighteen thousand days,

the river of children and men and women

flowed by

up the shabby hills or down to the sea,

while the clockmaker,

amidst clocks,

stopped in time,

softened like a pure vessel

against the eternity of the current,

his timbers appeased,

and little by little the wise man

emerged from the artisan


with magnifying glass and oil

cleansed of envy, fear discarded,

fulfilled his job and destiny,

until time itself

in its fearsome passage

made a pact with him, with don Asterio,

and he awaits his hour.

So when I pass by

the frantic street,

the black river of Valparaíso,

I only hear one sound

among the sounds,

among so many clocks one only:

the exhausted, gentle, murmuring

and ancient movement

of a great pure heart:

the distinguished and humble

tick-tock of Don Asterio.



Translation by Richard Gwyn


 Val BBC



A Don Asterio Alarcón, cronometrista de Valparaíso

Olor a puerto loco

tiene Valparaíso,

olor a sombra, a estrella,

a escama de la luna

y a cola de pescado.

El corazón recibe escalofríos

en las desgarradoras escaleras

de los hirsutos cerros:

allí grave miseria y negros ojos

bailan en la neblina

y cuelgan las banderas

del reino en las ventanas:

las sábanas zurcidas,

las viejas camisetas,

los largos calzoncillos,

y el sol del mar saluda los emblemas

mientras la ropa blanca balancea

un pobre adiós a la marinería.

Calles del mar, del viento,

del día duro envuelto en aire y ola,

callejones que cantan hacia arriba

en espiral como las caracolas:

la tarde comercial es transparente,

el sol visita las mercaderías,

para vender sonríe el almacén

abriendo escaparate y dentadura,

zapatos y termómetros, botellas

que encierran noche verde,

trajes inalcanzables, ropa de oro,

funestos calcetines, suaves quesos,

y entonces llego al tema

de esta oda.

Hay un escaparate

con su vidrio

y adentro,

entre cronómetros,

don Asterio Alarcón, cronometrista.

La calle hierve y sigue,

arde y golpea,

pero detrás del vidrio

el relojero,

el viejo ordenador de los relojes,

está inmovilizado

con un ojo hacia afuera,

un ojo extravagante

que adivina el enigma,

el cardíaco fin de los relojes,

y escruta con un ojo

hasta que la impalpable mariposa

de la cronometría

se detiene en su frente

y se mueven las alas del reloj.

Don Asterio Alarcón es el antiguo

héroe de los minutos

y el barco va en la ola

medido por sus manos

que agregaron

responsabilidad al minutero,

pulcritud al latido:

Don Asterio en su acuario

vigiló los cronómetros del mar,

aceitó con paciencia

el corazón azul de la marina.

Durante cincuenta años,

o dieciocho mil días,

allí pasaba el río

de niños y varones y mujeres

hacia harapientos cerros o hacia el mar,

mientras el relojero,

entre relojes,

detenido en el tiempo,

se suavizó como la nave pura

contra la eternidad de la corriente,

serenó su madera,

y poco a poco el sabio

salió del artesano,


con lupa y con aceite

limpió la envidia, descartó el temor,

cumplió su ocupación y su destino,

hasta que ahora el tiempo,

el transcurrir temible,

hizo pacto con él, con don Asterio,

y él espera su hora de reloj.

Por eso cuando paso

la trepidante calle,

el río negro de Valparaíso,

sólo escucho un sonido entre sonidos,

entre tantos relojes uno solo:

el fatigado, suave, susurrante

y antiguo movimiento

de un gran corazón puro:

el insigne y humilde

tic tac de don Asterio.

From Plenos Poderes, first published by Losada, Buenos Aires.

At the bottom of all this sleeps a horse

9 Jan

horse Rojas


At the bottom of all this sleeps a horse

by Gonzalo Rojas (1917-2011)


At the bottom of all this sleeps

a white horse, an old horse

long in the ear, lacking in

brainpower, worried

by the situation, the pulse

running through him is speed: the children

mount him as if here were a ghost, mock him, and he sleeps

sleeping as he stands there in the rain, hears

everything while I sketch out these eleven

lines. He has the look of a thing crazed,

he knows that he is king.



Al fondo de esto duerme un caballo


Al fondo de todo esto duerme un caballo

blanco, un viejo caballo

largo de oído, estrecho de

entendederas, preocupado

por la situación, el pulso

de la velocidad es la madre que lo habita: lo montan

los niños como a un fantasma, lo escarnecen, y él duerme

durmiendo parado ahí en la lluvia, lo

oye todo mientras pinto estas once

líneas. Facha de loco, sabe

que es el rey.



From El alumbrado.



‘Story’, by Rómulo Bustos Aguirre

14 Sep


I ask myself: why write poetry?

And from some place in the mysterious forest

(in that other story that I am trying in vain

to write with this poem)

the wolf replies

moving his bushy tail Socratically:

– The better to know you.




Me pregunto: ¿Por qué escribo poesía?

Y desde algún lugar del misterioso bosque

(de ese otro cuento que en vano estoy tratando

de escribir en este poema)

responde el lobo

moviendo socrático la peluda cola:

– Para conocerte mejor




Copyright with the author

The Cure, ‘Killing an Arab’, and The Others

4 Sep


Sometimes the past just won’t leave you alone.

When I lived in London – a long, long time ago – I went to a lot of gigs and occasionally had walk-on roles as a ‘poet’ with bands at insalubrious venues in the punk and immediate post-punk era. My most stellar performance took place alongside The Cure at a gig in Walthamstow. I don’t have a clear memory of the circumstances – in those days most social interactions took place in a frantic haze of amphetamines and alcohol – and so I am unclear now whether the things that I remember are the things that actually took place, or whether some other version of events has taken their place, perhaps a version enacted or modified by the person I refer to as my Other, who has been responsible for many of the things I would rather not remember over the years.

Because I foolishly mentioned it in a blurb when I was short of ideas, the ‘Cure gig’ has become a recurrent incident about which I am required to give an account at various events in different places in the world where, for reasons quite beyond my understanding, I happen to be interviewed by a Cure fan. This morning was possibly the worst example yet.

I was introduced to the sound of ‘Killing an Arab’ pounding over the speakers, in front of over a hundred Colombian schoolchildren, who, I was almost certain, would have no idea who The Cure were, and a few jaded poets of my own generation, who probably did. I was then asked to give an account of what happened that fateful night in 1980 when somebody introduced me to Robert Smith, and I ended up on stage spouting all kinds of drivel dressed up as performance poetry (and was, I seem to recall, asked back by Mr Smith to do another set).

I then have to talk to the kids about How to Be a Writer. I am in the process of delivering my usual reply, of reading a lot and learning to lie with impunity, when it occurs to me that the whole Cure story might just as well be a lie. Did I in fact make this story up? Perhaps it would be easier to claim that I have, and then I wouldn’t need to recount what happened when I can’t really remember. I could just say Sorry guys, that was just a lie. I made it up. Or else I could recount it anyway, on the understanding that what I was saying was not necessarily the truth; that these things happened, but happened to my Other.

However, after the event, these beautifully turned out and well-behaved Colombian school kids, to whom I assumed I was talking of matters as remote as The Magna Carta, turned out to know as much about the British punk scene of the late 1970s as I do (or can remember). Did I know the Sex Pistols? How about The Clash? Was I friends with Johnny Rotten? Johnny, I tell them, makes commercials for a popular brand of butter these days. They seem a little bewildered by this reply.

Which brings me to the post of two days ago: ¿Donde están los otros? ‘Where are the others?’ I have a feeling this graffiti is going to pursue me for the duration of my Colombian trip. And I wonder if there is another wall, in a parallel Bogotá, in which the others have written an identical message, referring of course to the ones who put the graffiti there in the first place, making them the others’ others.

And as I watch the TV after the reading, with its footage of mass shootings in Iraq, I begin to imagine how this question, ‘Where are the others?’ could keep recurring in an infinite series of parallel Bogotás, to the soundtrack of The Cure playing a song with a horribly contemporary title.







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