Today’s poem is another of my favourites from The Other Tiger, an extraordinary journey through family memory, in which the unsayable is said, and the tree of family is revealed to not know its roots. ‘Tree’ is by the Bolivian poet Jessica Freudenthal Ovando.
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
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
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
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 become transparent
(Translated 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
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
y a las ramas
en las ramas de este árbol
cuelgan los muertos
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
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 hacen transparentes
from Patria bastarda (2014)
Jessica Freudenthal Ovando, born in Madrid in 1978, is a Bolivian writer who lives in La Paz. She promotes children’s reading with the Colectivo Lee and teaches Spanish on the International Baccalaureate Programme. She received an honorary mention in the Premio nacional de poesíá Yolanda Bedregal for her book Hardware (2009) and since then her work has appeared in various anthologies throughout America and Europe. Her second collection, Demo, was published in 2010, Patria bastarda in 2014, and El filo de las hojas in 2015.
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.
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.
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)
ORACIÓN POR MARILYN MONROE
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!
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’)
CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM
Years before the Principle of Finitude
Neither capitalist nor socialist
But quite the contrary Mr Director:
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
Between the big guys & the little guys
MEMORIES OF YOUTH
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
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 CHRIST OF ELQUI RANTS AT SHAMELESS BOSSES
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?
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
FROM ‘NEW SERMONS AND TEACHINGS OF THE CHRIST OF ELQUI’
Those who are my friends
those who don’t have a place to lie down and die
the single mothers
– the students, not because they are troublemakers –
the peasants because they are humble
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
my friends are
the dreamers, the idealists who
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.
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 . . .’
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.
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
A FACE IN THE CROWD (GRAFFITI)
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
Invite no one
into our house,
for they will repair
the doors, windows, staircase
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,
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.
Claribel Alegría, who was born in Nicaragua in 1924, but raised in El Salvador, beginning a life of exile that included Chile, Mexico, Paris and the island of Mallorca, is a poet heavily influenced by the revolutionary struggles of the Central American peoples against the dictatorships of the middle and later parts of the twentieth century. She was closely associated with the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua, and after the overthrow of the Somoza regime, she returned to that country in 1985 to help in the reconstruction process (which has since gone so badly wrong under successive, corrupt regimes, including that of Daniel Ortega). In her assessment of the poet, Marjorie Agosín has written of the ‘multifaceted work of Alegría, from her testimony to her verse . . . In this woman’s furious, fiery, tender and lovesick words, the marginalized, the indigenous recuperate spaces, resuscitate their dead, and celebrate life by defying death.’ While many of the early poems focus on the revolutionary conflict, Alegría has also written numerous love poems, as well as novels and children’s stories. As a feminist, writing of the marginalized lives of Central American women, her work has emphasized the restorative power of collectivity and continuity.
Towards the Jurassic Age
Someone brought them to Palma
they were the size of an iguana
and they lived off insects
The climate suited them
and they began to grow
they moved on from rats
and kept growing
they ate dogs
more than an occasional donkey
children left to roam the streets.
All the drains were blocked
and they turned to the open country
they ate cows, sheep
and kept growing
they knocked down walls
chewed up olive trees
rubbed their flanks
against protruding rocks
that blocked the roads
but they jumped over the landslides
and now they are in Valldemossa
they killed the village doctor
everyone was terrified
and ran away to hide.
Some are herbivore
and others carnivore
the latter have a kind of uniform
military caps that perch on their crests
but both sorts are dangerous
they wolf down plantations
and have fleas the size
of dinner plates
they scratch themselves against the walls
and houses fall down.
Now they are in Valldemossa
and they can only be stopped
by aerial bombardment
but no one can stand the stink
when one of them dies
and the people complain
and there’s no way
of burying them.
Letter to Time
I am writing this letter on my birthday.
I received your present. I don’t like it.
Always it’s the same old story.
When I was a little girl,
I would wait for it impatiently
I would get dressed up in my best
and go on the street to tell the world.
Don’t be stubborn.
I can still see it,
you playing chess with Grandfather.
At first your visits were infrequent;
very soon they became a daily occurrence
and Grandfather’s voice
began to lose its timbre.
And you would insist
and didn’t respect the humility
of his sweet nature
and of his shoes.
Afterwards you courted me.
I was just a teenager
and you with that face that doesn’t change.
You befriended my father
in order to get to me.
You were there
at his deathbed
waiting for the end.
An unforeseen mood
drifted around the furniture
the walls seemed more white.
And there was someone else,
you were signalling to him.
He closed Grandfather’s eyes
and paused for a moment to study me
I forbid you to return.
Every time I see you
my blood runs cold.
Stop persecuting me,
I beseech you.
I have loved another for years now
and your offerings don’t interest me.
Why do you always wait for me
in shop windows
in the mouth of sleep
under Sunday’s indecisive sky?
Your greeting is a locked room.
I saw you the other day with the children
I recognised the suit:
the same tweed as back then
when I was a student
and you were a friend of my father’s.
Your ridiculous lightweight suit.
Don’t come back,
I tell you again.
Don’t hang around any more
in my garden.
You will frighten the children
and the leaves will fall:
I have seen them.
What is this all about?
You are having a quick laugh
with that everlasting laughter
and you will keep on
trying to force a meeting with me.
all lost in your pupils.
Nothing will stop you winning.
I knew it at the start of my letter.
Translations from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn, first appeared in Poetry Wales, Vol. 46 No. 3 Winter 2010/11.
To schoolchildren of my generation, Sir Francis Drake was a hero, the epitome of English sangfroid, insisting on finishing his game of bowls before dealing with the Spanish Armada as it sailed up the Channel. It didn’t happen quite like that, of course, but who cares. The sea captains who forged the first imprint of Empire under Elizabeth the First have gone down here as great patriots, but are known to children in schools throughout Iberia and Latin America simply as pirates. In fact I remember looking through the history homework of my friend Nelson Pereira’s younger sister Elsa, while staying at their house outside Lisbon in 1983 and being shocked to see Drake being vilified in categorical terms. I imagine he doesn’t get much of a press in Irish school history books either, as he was involved in a massacre of 600 people during the English enforced plantation of Ulster in 1575. But that is how it goes: history is an imprecise art, dependent entirely on the perspective of the historian. Rather like fiction, in fact.
While in Argentina last month, I got into a lengthy discussion about the pirate Drake, and buccaneers of his ilk, on discovering that Drake entered the River Plate on his travels, and, I was told, sailed up the Paraná. I said to my companions that in Britain we did not speak of Drake as a pirate at all, not by any means, and that the first time I had heard him referred to in those terms was reading Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“When the pirate Sir Francis Drake attacked Riohacha in the sixteenth century, Úrsula Iguarán’s great-great-grandmother became so frightened with the ringing of alarm bells and the firing of cannons that she lost control of her nerves and sat down on a lighted stove. The burns changed her into a useless wife for the rest of her days. She could only sit on one side, cushioned by pillows, and something strange must have happened to her way of walking, for she never walked again in public. She gave up all kinds of social activity, obsessed with the notion that her body gave off a singed odor. Dawn would find her in the courtyard, for she did not dare fall asleep lest she dream of the English and their ferocious attack dogs as they came through the windows of her bedroom to submit her to shameful tortures with their red-hot irons.”
The BBC history entry on Drake gives the bare outlines:
Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon in around 1540 and went to sea at an early age. In 1567, Drake made one of the first English slaving voyages as part of a fleet led by his cousin John Hawkins, bringing African slaves to work in the ‘New World’. All but two ships of the expedition were lost when attacked by a Spanish squadron. The Spanish became a lifelong enemy for Drake and they in turn considered him a pirate.
In 1570 and 1571, Drake made two profitable trading voyages to the West Indies. In 1572, he commanded two vessels in a marauding expedition against Spanish ports in the Caribbean. He saw the Pacific Ocean and captured the port of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama. He returned to England with a cargo of Spanish treasure and a reputation as a brilliant privateer. In 1577, Drake was secretly commissioned by Elizabeth I to set off on an expedition against the Spanish colonies on the American Pacific coast. He sailed with five ships, but by the time he reached the Pacific Ocean in October 1578 only one was left, Drake’s flagship the Pelican, renamed the Golden Hind. To reach the Pacific, Drake became the first Englishman to navigate the Straits of Magellan.
He travelled up the west coast of South America, plundering Spanish ports. He continued north, hoping to find a route across to the Atlantic, and sailed further up the west coast of America than any European. Unable to find a passage, he turned south and then in July 1579, west across the Pacific. His travels took him to the Moluccas, Celebes, Java and then round the Cape of Good Hope. He arrived back in England in September 1580 with a rich cargo of spices and Spanish treasure and the distinction of being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. Seven months later, Elizabeth knighted him aboard the Golden Hind, to the annoyance of the king of Spain.
In 1585, Drake sailed to the West Indies and the coast of Florida where he sacked and plundered Spanish cities. On his return voyage, he picked up the unsuccessful colonists of Roanoke Island off the coast of the Carolinas, which was the first English colony in the New World. In 1587, war with Spain was imminent and Drake entered the port of Cadiz and destroyed 30 of the ships the Spanish were assembling against the British. In 1588, he was a vice admiral in the fleet that defeated the Armada. Drake’s last expedition, with John Hawkins, was to the West Indies. The Spanish were prepared for him this time, and the venture was a disaster.
Drake died on 28 January 1596 of dysentery off the coast of Portobelo, Panama.
Apparently, before dying, he asked to be dressed in his full armour, which reminds me of the death by suicide of Captain Hans Langsdorff of the Graf Spee (see post of 22 September).
He was buried at sea in a lead coffin. Divers continue to search for the coffin.
Last year I was looking at some of the lesser-known historical poems of the great Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal (born 1925), Sandinista, theologian, rebel priest, and translator of Ezra Pound into Spanish. I was struck by the rather Poundian flavour of some of these, and particularly taken by the following poem, written in the voice of a Spanish sea captain and based on a true account, in which Drake comes across as quite an honourable fellow, in spite of his terrible reputation.
DRAKE IN THE SOUTH SEA
Realejo, 16th April 1579
For Rafael Heliodoro Valle
I set out from the port of Acapulco on the twenty-third of March
and steered a steady course until the fourth of April, a Saturday,
and half an hour before daybreak
we saw a ship draw alongside us
its sails and prow silver in the moonlight
and our helmsman shouted at them to make way
and they might as well have been sleeping, for they did not reply.
Another voice shouted over: FROM WHERE DOES YOUR SHIP SAIL?
and they answered, from Peru, and that it was the Miguel Angel
and then we heard trumpets and the firing of muskets
and they ordered me to board their boat
and I was taken to the Captain.
I found him pacing on the bridge
and I approached him and kissed his hands, and he said to me:
What gold or silver does your ship carry?
And I told him: None at all.
None, my lord, only my plates and cups.
After which he asked me if I knew the Viceroy,
and I told him that I did. And I asked the Captain
if he was truly Captain Drake,
and he said he was, the very same.
We stayed talking a long while, until it was time to eat
and he ordered me to sit at his side.
His plates and cups are silver, with golden borders,
adorned with his coat of arms.
He has many bottled perfumes and scented waters
which he says were given him by the Queen.
He always eats and drinks to the accompaniment of violins,
and takes with him painters who make pictures all along the coast.
He is a man of some twenty-four years, small, with a blonde beard,
He is a nephew of the pirate Juan Aquinas,
and he is one of the greatest sailors on the seas.
The following day, which was a Sunday, he dressed in great style,
And ordered his men to hoist banners
and pennants of many colours at the mastheads.
The bronze rings and chains and embellished handrails
and the lights of the quarterdeck
shone like gold.
The ship was a golden dragon among the dolphins.
And we went, with his page, to my ship, to see the coffers,
and he spent the whole day, until nightfall, inspecting my cargo.
What he took from me was not much,
a few baubles I owned,
and he gave me a cutlass and a small silver brazier for them
asking my forgiveness,
but that it was for his lady he had taken them,
and I was free to leave in the morning as soon as there was a breeze
and I thanked him for that,
and kissed his hands.
He carries in his galleon three thousand bars of silver
and three coffers filled with gold
and twelve great coffers of pieces of eight,
and he says they are heading for China
with navigation charts and a Chinese pilot they captured . . .
(Translation by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol. 46 No. 3, Winter 2010/11)
Having written about illness in various media over recent years – principally as a so-called academic and the writer of a memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I am alert to the ways that other writers approach the subject, and am usually interested in what they have to say (so long as their writing does not launch into tedious new-age rage at the incompetence of ‘Western’ medicine, or degrade itself by spurious claims to the kind of quackery familiar to devotees of certain ‘wellness’ manuals).
For Some Reason
I bought coffee, cigarettes, matches.
I smoked, I drank
and faithful to my personal rhetoric
put my feet on the table.
Fifty years old with the certainty of the damned.
Like almost everyone I messed up
without making too much noise;
yawning at nightfall I muttered my disappointment,
and spat on my shadow before going to bed.
This was all the response that I could offer to a world
that claimed from me a character that possibly
didn’t suit me.
Or maybe something else is at stake. Perhaps
there was a different plan for me
in some potential lottery
and my number was lost.
Perhaps no one settles on a strictly private destiny.
Perhaps the tide of history settles it for one and all.
This much remains to me:
a fragment of life that tired me out in advance,
a poem paralyzed halfway towards
an unknown resolution;
dregs of coffee in the cup
that for some reason
I never dared drain to the last drop.
On the Other Side
Someone has died on the other side of the wall.
At intervals there is a voice, hemmed in by sobbing.
I am the nearest neighbour and I feel
slightly responsible: blame
always finds an outlet.
In the rest of the building
no one seems to have noticed. They talk,
they laugh, they switch on televisions, they devour
every last scrap of meat and every song. If they knew
what had happened so close by, the thought
of death wouldn’t be sufficient
to alter the cardiac rhythm of the
They would push the deceased into the future
and their indifference would have its logic:
after all, no one dies any more than anyone else.
In the bed opposite
the man woke up snoring
his open mouth set
in desperate conviction.
The serum was dripping
into his veins. From my belly
sprouted two plastic tubes
in which a pink foam bubbled
as if it were the definitive language
of my entrails. To one side
someone coughed up
the last of his viscera.
A springtime branch swayed
behind the window’s glass
flaunting the life owed us
in exchange for the disorders
that laid waste to our pale bones.
Everything seemed suspended
between universal infirmity
and the opportunities offered to death.
In the corridor a nurse fluttered by
and we followed her with eyes intent on
laying bare the fermented secret
of our clinical notes:
but we didn’t manage to reach
her distant and weary heart.
All your stories are about yourself, she said, even when they seem to be about other people. I was not going to deny this, nor give her the pleasure of being right. So I quoted Proust, who said that writers don’t invent books; they find them within themselves and translate them. This seemed to do the trick, and she fell silent. I dipped my fingers into a bowl of scented water and started on the rice. An aftertaste of clay and leaves and metal took me by surprise. What is in this rice? I asked her. Mushroom stock? Shotgun cartridge? Earthworm? No, she said, peering at me through the candlelight, the stories that you haven’t written yet are in the rice. You must be tasting them.
Reading ‘Translation’ at International Poetry Festival of Granada, Nicaragua, February 2011.
Spanish version by Sadurní Vergès, read by Melisa Machado.
From ‘Sad Giraffe Cafe‘ by Richard Gwyn (Arc, 2010).
There are some books – and some poets – you come to when you are no longer young, but with a sort of recognition, as though they were travelling companions with whom you share a memory or two, but do not know well. The Black Heralds was such a book for me, stirring a vague awareness of something that lay just beyond my grasp or understanding.
César Vallejo (1892-1938) was a poet of utter authenticity and wholesale transgression: by which I mean he transgressed both in a spiritual and a literary sense. The former, a convoluted animism and solidarity with the oppressed peoples and creatures of the earth, and especially with the indigenous American notion of identity as being intrinsic to place, fomented the desire to practice in the latter a re-visioning of Castilian vocabulary; both tendencies which allows us to see him as an exacting and tortured example of postcolonialism long before the coining of the term. Born in a small mining town in northern Peru into a predominantly Indian family, Vallejo struggled to get an education, but did manage to complete his studies at the University of Trujillo, then supported himself as a primary school teacher while writing his first two books, Los Heraldos Negros (1918) and Trilce (1922). Robert Bly, an earlier translator of Vallejo, has called The Black Heralds “the greatest single collection of poems I have read.” That is quite a commendation. A troubadour of angst and spleen, fuming and bleeding like Verlaine, he lost his teaching job in Peru and moved to Paris, where he remained until his death in 1938, impoverished, hungry, and a committed communist.
His poetic consciousness is more complex, invert, pained and explosive than his near-contemporary, Neruda’s, and he has never been embraced by translators in the same way as the Chilean because, firstly he does not have access to the same seductive exoticism, and secondly because he is relatively difficult. Where Neruda’s metaphors (more usually similes) are astonishing and transformative, the literary equivalent, at times, of performing seals, Vallejo launches metaphor at the reader with a sense of frenzied restlessness. His habitual juggling with Castilian syntax (as though it represented the logos of Empire, and was a legitimate target for his guerrilla tactics) oddly parallels the insistence within the poetry on a pre-Columbian anima that seethes and writhes and brews its sticky alloys beneath the crisp white sheets of European hegemony. Rebecca Seiferle suggests that in the poetry Vallejo “disarticulates the Spanish language in order to disarticulate many of the dominant assumptions of Western culture” and even goes on to say that Vallejo is always “replying to the language of empire.” This would partly explain why the Americanism that Vallejo expounds is not shared by North American writers of the same era: by the end of World War One, the United States was already an imperial power. Vallejo’s driving force is more akin to Whitman’s: authochthonic, primeval, pre-logical, inspirational. If Vallejo has to write in the language of the enemy, the occupiers, he can at least lay claim to a diverse cosmology: he can interject from Inca beliefs, confounding the dualisms and even the symbology of Western thought, such as by introducing the figure of Mamá Cápac, the mother of the people, the Mamacona, the women who served the Sun, the native weaver-crone, spinning the yarn of human folly, also the Muse, or put more searingly, “the bitter grandmother / of the outcast’s neurasthenic epic – “ (in which the “outcast” is the poet and the “neurasthenic epic” his work). At the same time, Vallejo finds himself a prisoner of the very dualism he seeks to undermine, orphaned between Spanish and indigenous culture: he occupies Spanish, the language of the conquistadores, and can adopt that Hispanic voice both in contradiction too, as well as in elaboration of, the Indian identity that he idealizes. He was, it has been suggested, doubly othered. He is, moreover, always addressing someone who isn’t there. He speaks from absence and into absence. We can perhaps find a precise image for this in the poem ‘Nervous fit of Anguish’, with the lines:
It’s eight o’clock in the morning, in witch cream . . .
It’s cold. . . A dog goes by gnawing the bones of another
dog that used to exist. . . And a match that I smothered
with capsules of silence begins to cry out in my nerves.
Vallejo comes across most strongly as an articulate disemboweller of hegemonic thinking. His complaint is of the vast lack, the void, that this cultural hegemony leaves in its wake. Like St John of the Cross, he carries a wound suffered at the hands of Christ, but unlike St John of the Cross he cannot lift himself to a Christian transcendence, seeing rather the incomprehensibility of human identity and the absolute nothingness, the great nada, that lies behind it.
It pleases me that there is so much rain in Vallejo’s work: the almost constant presence of rain rouses the scepticism (and something approaching joy) that I experience on learning that anywhere is as wet as Wales. But rain there is in Vallejo, aplenty. Again, Vallejo harks back towards his Inca heritage, and the father-god Viracocha, bringer of rain. That the Catholic Church should figure as one of the main targets of Vallejo’s assault on hegemonic values comes as no surprise. Death shrouds every line in Vallejo; never more so than when he writes of love. In The poet to his beloved we get the theme of a sundering, rendering passion (and passion here extends into its meaning as the ‘Passion of Christ’) that reminds me of John Donne without the dualism:
Beloved, tonight you’ve been crucified
on the two curved timbers of my kiss;
and your pain has told me that Jesus has cried.
And there’s a Good Friday sweeter than that kiss.
The voiding of religious faith from the poet’s lines confines his hopes to a state of sleep, rather than redemption, as we are given, in the same poem, the liebestod refrain that “both of us will die together, so together;/ it will dry up our lofty bitterness / and our dead lips will have touched in shadow.” As it turned out, Vallejo died in Paris, in the rain, just as he had predicted years before in his poem Black stone lying on a white stone:
I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris – and I don’t step aside –
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.
If you don’t know César Vallejo’s work, try reading The Black Heralds, which is excellently translated by Rebecca Seiferle in a bi-lingual edition, from Copper Canyon Press. Alternatively, Shearsman have a 2007 edition, together with some of the early poems.