I love you at ten in the morning, at eleven, at midday. I love you with all my soul and sometimes, on rainy evenings, with all my body. But at two in the afternoon, or at three, when I begin to think about the two of us, and you are thinking about preparing food or your daily tasks, or about the life you are not leading, I start to hate you mutely, with that portion of hatred I keep to myself.
Later, I return to loving you, as we lie down together and I feel that you are made for me, and that in a certain way your knees and your belly tell me as much, and my hands convince me of it, and there is no other place in the world where I might come, to which I would rather go, than your body. You come to meet me in your entirety, and the two of us disappear for an instant, we place ourselves in the mouth of God, until I tell you I am hungry or tired.
Every day I love you and hate you irremediably. And there are days, too, and hours, in which I do not know you, in which you are as strange to me as another man’s wife. Men worry me, I worry myself, my troubles distract me. Probably I don’t think about you for much of the time. You see: who could love you less than me, my love?
This poem, which I have translated somewhat literally, is by the Mexican Jaime Sabines (1926-99), known intriguingly as el francotirador de la literatura (the sniper of literature). Readers of Spanish can find the original text at the bottom of this post. Although the poem carries the traces of its time and origins – the woman preparing the food and doing the housework, and the fateful phrase ‘another man’s wife’ (which I cannot truthfully translate any other way, unless I ‘adapted’ the poem into a more contemporary idiom) – the underlying premise of emotional ambivalence comes through with a persuasive vitality.
Ambivalence lies at the core of human sensibility, most evidently in the way one is capable of holding conflicting and even contradictory ideas about everyone and everything. In my case this also means ambivalence towards my own long-held opinions and perceptions, which can change their hue and texture over time or else be utterly transformed within nanoseconds; ambivalence towards people and things I hold dear; even ambivalence towards my memories, and – most decidedly – ambivalence towards my own writings, many of which I forget about as soon as they disappear into the void.
Adam Phillips begins his fascinating essay ‘Against Self-Criticism’, which he can be seen reading on Youtube, with a perturbing insight into one of the most ambivalent – and fundamental – precepts of Christian faith:
‘Jacques Lacan famously remarked that there must surely be something ironic about Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself, because actually people hate themselves. Indeed, it seemed rather as if, given the way people treat each other, they had always loved their neighbours in the way they loved themselves. That is, with a good deal of cruelty and disregard.’
Perhaps, though, our ambivalence is more extensive, and more ambivalent, than our mere self-loathing might suggest. Phillips continues:
‘In Freud’s vision of things we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate, we love; wherever we love, we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can also frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us, we always believe that they can satisfy us . . . Ambivalence does not, in the Freudian story, mean mixed feelings, it means opposing feelings. ‘Ambivalence has to be distinguished from having mixed feelings about someone,’ Charles Rycroft writes, in his appropriately entitled A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (as though an ‘Uncritical’ dictionary would be somehow simple-minded):
It refers to an underlying emotional attitude in which the contradictory attitudes derive from a common source and are interdependent, whereas mixed feelings may be based on a realistic assessment of the imperfect nature of the object.
‘Love and hate’ (Phillips continues) – ‘a too simple, or too familiar, vocabulary, and so never quite the right names for what we might want to say – are the common source, the elemental feelings with which we apprehend the world; and they are interdependent in the sense that you can’t have one without the other, and that they mutually inform each other. The way we hate other people depends on the way we love them, and vice versa. And given that these contradictory feelings are our ‘common source’ they enter into everything we do. They are the medium in which we do everything. We are ambivalent, in Freud’s view, about anything and everything that matters to us; indeed, ambivalence is the way we recognise that someone or something has become significant to us. This means we are ambivalent about ambivalence (and the forbidden, we should remember, is an object of desire, which is why is it forbidden) about love and hate and sex and each other and ourselves, and so on. Wherever there is an object of desire, in this account, there is ambivalence.’
Jaime Sabines’ poem can be heard on Youtube, read by the author, here.
Te quiero a las diez de la mañana, y a las once, y a las doce del día. Te quiero con toda mi alma y con todo mi cuerpo, a veces, en las tardes de lluvia. Pero a las dos de la tarde, o a las tres, cuando me pongo a pensar en nosotros dos, y tú piensas en la comida o en el trabajo diario, o en las diversiones que no tienes, me pongo a odiarte sordamente, con la mitad del odio que guardo para mí.
Luego vuelvo a quererte, cuando nos acostamos y siento que estás hecha para mí, que de algún modo me lo dicen tu rodilla y tu vientre, que mis manos me convencen de ello, y que no hay otro lugar en donde yo me venga, a donde yo vaya, mejor que tu cuerpo. Tú vienes toda entera a mi encuentro, y los dos desaparecemos un instante, nos metemos en la boca de Dios, hasta que yo te digo que tengo hambre o sueño.
Todos los días te quiero y te odio irremediablemente. Y hay días también, hay horas, en que no te conozco, en que me eres ajena como la mujer de otro. Me preocupan los hombres, me preocupo yo, me distraen mis penas. Es probable que no piense en ti durante mucho tiempo. Ya ves. ¿Quién podría quererte menos que yo, amor mío?
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
When I first read the poem – my friend Clare Potter showed it to me after she had been using it for teaching – I was a little shocked by that last line, not sure what to make of it.
Since I am currently teaching a microfiction class, I decided to introduce my charges to a wonderful exhibition of photographs currently on show at the National Museum of Wales. ‘Swaps’ contains examples of the private collection of Welsh photographer David Hurn, the pictures he has acquired from photographer friends over half a century. It was only after re-reading the poem that I realised – for reasons I will describe below – that it might serve very well as a preface to visiting the exhibition.
So I researched the poem a little, and found a couple of interesting articles. In one of them, from the Paris Review, by the wonderfully named Dan Piepenbring, the author asks, of the last line: ‘is it a lament? Is it a joke, a kind of boast? Did Wright intend to undercut or to bolster his pastoral scene with it? Could it be a winking response to Rilke, whose ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ concludes with the imperative “You must change your life”?
But what of the poet himself? In an interview published two years before his death, Wright told Bruce Henricksen that he thought the line was “a religious statement”:
‘here I am and I’m not straining myself and yet I’m happy at this moment, and perhaps I’ve been wastefully unhappy in the past because through my arrogance or whatever, and in my blindness, I haven’t allowed myself to pay true attention to what was around me. And a very strange thing happened. After I wrote the poem and after I published it, I was reading among the poems of the eleventh-century Persian poet, Ansari, and he used exactly the same phrase at a moment when he was happy. He said, “I have wasted my life.” Nobody gave him hell for giving up iambics. You can’t win.’
Ben Lerner, writing in the London Review of Books, also says something that might relate to Wright’s poem:
‘Poets are liars not because, as Socrates said, they can fool us with the power of their imitations, but because identifying yourself as a poet implies you might overcome the bitter logic of the poetic principle, and you can’t. You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.’ Perhaps that comes close to explicating James Wright’s final line: the Perfect Poem never exists; indeed (as Lerner would insist) every poem is a failure, and the reason every poem is a failure goes something like this: ‘you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure.’
The novelist David Mitchell, who apparently keeps a copy of the poem pinned above his desk, regards it as a kind of exhortation to ‘be observant’:
‘I hear him [James Wright] exhale it with a wry laugh: I’ve wasted my life! He’s kind of smiling. I’ve done it again, all this wasted time, he thinks—but at least I know it. Though he hasn’t really wasted all of his life—he knows that, too. You have to enter the hammock, put the world on hold, to really see things clearly the way the poem does. He’s been to this hammock before, and he’s had moments like this before, and it’s mostly positive. It’s self-deflating, but not depressing. It’s sad, and longing, and nostalgic, and wry—the ironic half-bark of a laugh.
For me, the poem’s chief value is as a reminder to stay inside the moment. It asks us not to let our minds rerun things that have already happened, not to trouble our head fruitlessly about things that haven’t happened yet. Inhabit the now, the poem urges— just see the beauty around you that you don’t normally see.
We have a hard time remaining in the present: Our monkey minds are continually jumping through the jungles of the past and the forests of the future. But Wright’s poem says: Stop! Just stop. Calm down, be quiet, and look around. It’s an homage to, and an exhortation of, the act of seeing.’
For myself, I believe that the poem can be read as a paradoxically joyful manifesto to other readers (and, especially, to writers). I have no idea why it makes me feel good about life, when the ending is – at first sight – so dismally self-judgemental. That is the wonder of good poetry: that we are not limited to one response, that we can enjoy multiple responses, even ones that seemingly overlap or even contradict each other.
Perhaps the poem is, at heart, an entreaty not to be distracted, or rather, not to be distracted to the point of confusion: but to look closely, to watch the world. There is, after all, a close relationship between looking closely, to seeing – as expressed so lyrically in the first twelve lines of the poem – and the act of writing itself. You learn, in David Mitchell’s words, to look at the relationship ‘between objects and people and light and time and mood and air’. And animals, I would add. And fire, and water, and rock and grass and leaves. And this watching, this capacity to experience the moment, is something that, of all the arts, photography does best. As David Hurn puts it, in the notes to one of his favourite photographs: ‘What photography does terribly well is to point out how peculiar and how wonderful the world is. It allows you to see and point out to somebody the things they might not have seen themselves’. Which, of course, goes for poetry too, even if every poem is a failure.
It was with shock that I learned last week of the death of the poet Landeg White, at his home in Portugal. He was seventy-seven years old. Landeg, who was born in Taff’s Well, near Cardiff, published around a dozen poetry collections, three of them with Parthian, and I had a lot of fun working with him on his Selected Poems, Where the Angolans are Playing Football (2003). He went on to publish two further collections with Parthian and did two historical novels with Cinammon: Livingstone’s Funeral (2010) and Ultimatum (2018). He is also the author of scholarly works in the area of African Studies. Perhaps he is best known for his superb translations of Camões, including Portugal’s national epic, The Lusíads, which won the TLS poetry translation prize in 1998. Although I did not know Landeg especially well, I certainly counted him as a friend and we spent time together in Cardiff, and later, in 2003, on a rather strange British Council tour of Portugal, which was scheduled to terminate in a reading at the glorious Lello bookshop in Porto (made famous as the inspiration for the shifting staircases in the Harry Potter stories). The reading never took place, as the bookshop was about to close when we turned up, not having been informed of our event by the BC. Instead we retired to a restaurant on the banks of the Douro and had a memorable evening of good food and wine and conversation, at each of which Landeg was an adept.
Landeg lived much of his life in Africa, during the era that followed the final collapse of imperial rule and he was a thorn in the side of more than one African dictator. Deported from Malawi in 1972, he lived and worked in several African countries before settling in Portugal, where he spent the latter part of his life.
His poetry addresses both the political and the personal in equal measure, usually in poems with a disciplined approach to form but bursting with colour and visceral energy.
Now that he is gone I wish I had known him better.
An obituary appeared in The Guardian on 22 January, written by his friend Hugh Macmillan. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/22/landeg-white-obituary
Below is one of my favourites from Landeg’s work, in the style of a West African praise poem, addressed – with a dollop of gleeful irony – to himself:
(for my African age-mates)
I climbed the old elm tree and read William books in the rook’s nest,
My knee stuck in the pulpit rail: for once the congregation laughed,
The missionary told of the poison ordeal. I was spellbound in the cub hut,
I won the match by slicing a six off the back of the bat over backward point,
I cycled a hundred miles precisely to Nettlebed and back to town,
I planted crotons, a whole hedge in thirty-two varieties,
I scored Sparrow’s Melda for the steelbands’ Panorama,
I made love to the circuit-minister’s wife in a dark corner of the canefield,
I decamped from the island under an arch of leaping dolphins,
Baboons jumped on my steaming bonnet as I stalled on the escarpment,
I crossed the longest bridge at dusk, reading of a new country,
I found her on a sand dune where a coconut palm strained at its bole,
She to whom all metaphors return was outlined with chevrons,
She stretched like a tigress, adorned with her stripes,
I watched the Beetle spinning downstream, swept from the flooded causeway,
My dugout parted the hyacinths in search of the hidden history,
When the armed guerrillas ambushed us, I said Oh, there you are,
From four jobs I resigned,
From the fifth the President deported me, without rhyme or explanation,
I helped at my son’s birth: he came out looking dumbfounded,
My proudest expedient, bribing our baby on to the plane!
The professor rang at midnight: my poem was a masterpiece,
I designed and built a kitchen to a millimetre’s calculation,
I knuckled down to fifteen years of mortgages and pension,
I campaigned for my dear friend to step forth like Lazarus,
My vine, in Viking territory, was a miracle of survival,
My garden exploded in poppies and cornflowers: autumn blazed in nasturtiums,
He wrote marvellously of his resurrection: it was I gave the writing space.
They shook hands, enemies to the vein,
They shook hands and reminisced across my conference table
(The student wrote: thank you, who else could we have got drunk with?).
As a scholar, I set the paradigm: as a poet, I found my niche.
Let these praises float from my window, setting fires where they will.
The earthquake in central Mexico has produced startling and heartrending images, but perhaps none so powerful as those of rescue workers poised with fists held high – the sign for silence – so that any sounds from the rubble and ruins might be heard.
Yesterday the writer Juan Villoro published a poem in the Reforma newspaper called El puño en alto which has captured the imagination of many readers in Mexico and elsewhere. Here is my translation:
Fist held high
You’re from the place where you
pick up garbage.
Where two sunbeams fall
on the same spot.
Because you saw the first,
you wait for the second.
And you stay on here.
Where the earth opens up
And the people come together.
Another time you arrived late:
you’re alive because you’re not punctual,
because you didn’t show up for
the appointment that at 1.14 pm
would have killed you,
thirty two years after
the other appointment, to which
you didn’t arrive on time, either.
You are the victim who wasn’t there.
The building swayed and you
didn’t see your life pass
before your eyes, like
in the movies.
You had a pain in a part of the body
that you didn’t know existed.
The skin of memory,
that didn’t bring scenes
of your life, but of
the beast that can be heard
crunching up matter.
Also the water remembered
what it was when it
owned this place.
It shook in the rivers.
It shook in the houses
that we concoct in the rivers.
You gathered up the books of another
time, the one you were
before those pages.
The weather went from bad to worse
after the national holidays.
More of a party than a grand occasion.
Is there still room for heroes
You are afraid.
You have the courage to be afraid.
You don’t know what to do,
but you do something,
You didn’t found the city
nor defended it from invaders.
You are, at best,
Who picks through rubble
after the tragedy.
Who shifts bricks,
finds a comb,
two shoes that don’t match,
a wallet with photographs.
Who puts together loose parts,
bits of bits,
remains, only remains,
what fits in the hands.
Who doesn’t wear gloves,
Who shares out water,
Who gives away their medicine
because they’re cured of fright.
Who saw the moon and heard
strange things, but didn’t know
how to interpret them.
Who heard the cat miaow
half an hour before and only
understood it with the first shudder,
when water burst from the toilet.
Who prayed in a strange language
because they’d forgotten how to pray.
Who remembered who was where.
Who went to the school
for their children.
Whose battery ran out.
Who ran out onto the street to offer
their cell phone.
Who broke in to rob
an abandoned shop
and repented in
a food bank.
Who knew that they were
one too many
Who stayed awake so that
others could sleep.
Who is from here.
Who has just arrived
and is already from here.
Who says ‘city’ so as
to say you and me and Pedro and Marta
and Francisco and Guadalupe.
Who goes two days without electricity or water.
Who still breathes.
Who held a fist high to ask for silence.
Those who paid attention.
Those held up their fist.
Those who held up their fist.
if anyone was living.
Those who held up their fist
to hear if anyone was living and heard
Those who didn’t stop listening.
Reasons for his Absence
by Darío Jaramillo Agudelo (Colombia)
If anyone asks after him,
tell them that perhaps he’ll never come back, or else
on returning no one will recognise his face;
tell them also that he left no one any reasons,
that he had a secret message, something important to tell them
but he’s forgotten what it was.
Tell them that he is falling, in a different way, and in another
part of the world,
tell them he is still not happy
if that makes some of them happy; tell them also that he left
with his heart empty and dry
and tell them that this doesn’t matter, not even for pity or pardon’s sake
and that he himself doesn’t suffer on this account,
and that now he doesn’t believe in anything or anyone, far less
that from seeing so many things, his sight dwindled, and now,
blind, he needs touch,
tell them that once, on a sunny day, he had the faint glimmer
of a faith in God,
tell them that once there were words that made him believe in love
and that later he learned love lasts
as long as it takes to say a word.
Tell them that like a balloon punctured by gunshot,
his soul plunged toward the hell within,
and he isn’t even in despair
and tell them that sometimes he thinks this inexorable calm
is his punishment;
tell them that he doesn’t know what sin he has committed,
and that he considers the blame he drags around the world
just another aspect of the problem
and tell them that on certain insomniac nights and even on others
during which he believes he has dreamt it,
he is afraid that the blame might be the only part of himself
that is left
and tell them that on certain luminous mornings
and in the middle of afternoons of merciful lust and also
on rainy nights drunk with wine
he feels a certain puerile joy in his innocence
and tell them that on these blissful occasions he talks to himself.
Tell them that if some day he returns, he will come with two cherries
and a blackberry bush seeding in his stomach and a snake coiled
around his neck.
And nor will he expect anything from anyone and he will earn his living
as a fortune-teller, reading the cards and celebrating strange ceremonies
in which he will not believe
and tell them that he made off with some superstitions, three fetishes,
a few misunderstood instances of complicity
and the memory of two or three faces that always come back to him
in the darkness
Razones del ausente
Si alguien les pregunta por él,
díganle que quizá no vuelva nunca o que si regresa
acaso ya nadie reconozca su rostro;
díganle también que no dejó razones para nadie,
que tenía un mensaje secreto, algo importante que decirles
pero que lo ha olvidado.
Díganle que ahora está cayendo, de otro modo y en otra parte del mundo,
díganle que todavía no es feliz,
si esto hace feliz a alguno de ellos; díganle también que se fue con el
corazón vacío y seco
y díganle que eso no importa ni siquiera para la lástima o el perdón
y ni él mismo sufre por eso,
que ya no cree en nada ni en nadie y mucho menos en él mismo,
que tantas cosas que vio apagaron su mirada y ahora, ciego,
necesita del tacto,
díganle que alguna vez tuvo un leve rescoldo de fe en Dios, en un día de
díganle que hubo palabras que le hicieron creer en el amor
y luego supo que el amor dura lo que dura una palabra.
Díganle que como un globo de aire perforado a tiros,
su alma fue cayendo hasta el infierno que lo vive y que ni siquiera
y díganle que a veces piensa que esa calma inexorable es su castigo;
díganle que ignora cuál es su pecado
y que la culpa que lo arrastra por el mundo la considera apenas otro
dato del problema
y díganle que en ciertas noches de insomnio y aun en otras en que cree
teme que acaso la culpa sea la única parte de sí mismo que le queda
y díganle que en ciertas mañanas llenas de luz
y en medio de tardes de piadosa lujuria y también borracho de vino
en noches de lluvia
siente cierta alegría pueril por su inocencia
y díganle que en esas ocasiones dichosas habla a solas.
Díganle que si alguna vez regresa, volverá con dos cerezas en sus ojos
y una planta de moras sembrada en su estómago y una serpiente
enroscada en su cuello.
Y tampoco esperará nada de nadie y se ganará la vida honradamente,
de adivino, leyendo las cartas y celebrando extrañas ceremonias en las
que no creerá
y díganle que se llevó consigo algunas supersticiones, tres fetiches,
ciertas complicidades mal entendidas
y el recuerdo de dos o tres rostros que siempre vuelven a él en la
A note on ‘Reasons for his absence’
I was attracted to this poem by its epistolary style, and by the device of news being relayed about an absent party. The lack of clarity surrounding the reasons for the man’s absence holds particular poignancy in a country such as Colombia, where ‘disappearances’ were – at the time of the poem’s composition, in the late 1970s – already becoming an everyday occurrence. The slightly elevated or ‘baroque’ language and incantatory style creates a strange juxtaposition with the content, which describes a life of sensual dissolution. The curiosity is stirred by the profound sense of loss or lack with which the absentee seems infused, wherever he is. Whether his exile is literal or metaphoric is never made clear.
My principal concern with the translation of this poem concerned the title. The Spanish noun ‘razón’ can mean a range of things, including ‘reason’ or ‘information’, or even ‘explanation’, depending on context. Similarly ‘ausente’ – here a noun, but commonly an adjective – could be translated in a number of ways: ‘the absent one’ sounded too much like translatorese, ‘the missing person’ subject to over-interpretation in the context of recent Latin American history. In the end I chose ‘his absence’, which deviates from the original in a grammatical sense but conveys the meaning of the phrase accurately. A second concern was the repetition in the Spanish of ‘díganle’ (literally: tell him), which, since it refers back to ‘alguien’ (anyone) in line 1, I chose to translate as the generic ‘tell them’.
I attempted to re-create the long, rolling cadences of the original in my translation, alongside the reiteration of the introductory ‘tell them that . . .’.
I have also tried to reproduce the bereft tone that reflects the absentee’s solitude, and the distance he has chosen to maintain from those he left behind.
When I read this poem out loud at an event – as I do from time to time – it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t say that happens with many poems, but with this one it happens every time.
About Darío Jaramillo Agudelo is an internationally acclaimed poet, novelist and essayist. He graduated in law and economics from the Universidad Javeriana of Bogotá, and worked for many years in various roles with state cultural and arts organisations. He has been shortlisted or winner of several awards for his work, including the Colombian National Eduardo Cote Lamus prize for poetry (1978), and the José María de Pereda Prize for the short novel (2010). The most recent edition of his Selected Poems is his personal anthology Basta cerrar los ojos (México DF: Era, 2014).
María Rivera (Mexico)
Here they come
the torn into pieces,
the women with their coccyx split apart,
those with their heads smashed in,
the little ones crying
inside dark walls
of minerals and sand.
Here they come
those who sleep in buildings
that house secret tombs:
they come with their eyes blindfolded,
their hands tied,
shot between their temples.
Here come those who were lost in Tamaupilas,
the woman they gang raped before killing her,
the man who tried to stop it and received a bullet,
the woman they also raped, who escaped and told the story
comes walking down Broadway,
consoled by the wail of the ambulances,
the hospital doors,
light shining on the waters of the Hudson.
Here they come
the dead who set out from Usulután,
from La Paz
from La Unión,
from La Libertad,
from San Salvador,
from San Juan Mixtepec,
from El Progreso,
from El Guante,
those who were given the goodbye at a karaoke party,
and were found shot in Tecate.
Here comes the one they forced to dig his brother’s grave,
the one they murdered after collecting a four thousand dollar ransom,
those who were kidnapped
with a woman they raped in front of her eight year old son
Where do they come from,
from what gangrene,
Here they come,
the dead so alone, so mute, so much ours,
set beneath the enormous sky of Anáhuac,
they drag themselves,
with their bowl of horror in their hands,
their terrifying tenderness.
They are called
the dead that they found in a ditch in Taxco,
the dead that they found in remote places of Chihuahua,
the dead that they found strewn across plots of crops,
the dead that they found shot in la Marquesa,
the dead that they found hanging from bridges,
the dead that they found without heads on common land,
the dead that they found at the side of the road,
the dead that they found in abandoned cars,
the dead that they found in San Fernando,
those without number they cut into pieces and have still not been found,
the legs, the arms, the heads, the femurs of the dead
dissolved in drums.
They are called
remains, corpses, the deceased,
they are called
the dead whose mothers do not tire of waiting,
the dead whose children do not tire of waiting,
the dead whose wives do not tire of waiting,
they imagine them in subways, among gringos.
They are called
baby clothes woven in the casket of the soul,
the little tee shirt of a three-month-old
the photo of a toothless smile,
they are called mamita,
they are called
in the tummy
and the newborn’s cry,
they are called four children,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
and a widow (a girl) who fell in love at primary school,
they are called wanting to dance at fiestas,
they are called blushing of hot cheeks and sweaty hands,
they are called boys,
they are called wanting
to build a house,
giving food to my children,
they are called two dollars for cleaning beans,
houses, estates, offices,
they are called
crying of children on earth floors,
the light flying over the birds,
the flight of pigeons in the church,
they are called
kisses at the river’s edge,
they are called
in the scrubland,
in the gardens of ranches,
in the gardens of ‘safe’ houses,
in some forgotten wilderness,
and in secret,
they are called
secrets of hitmen,
secrets of slaughter,
secrets of policemen,
they are called sobbing,
they are called mist,
they are called body,
they are called skin,
they are called warmth,
they are called kiss,
they are called hug,
they are called laughter,
they are called people,
they are called pleading,
they were called I,
they were called you,
they were called us,
they are called shame,
they are called sobbing.
Here they go
their bodies burned to a crisp,
their bones polished by the sand of the desert.
They are called
the dead women that no one knows no one saw being killed,
they are called
women who go out alone to bars at night,
they are called
working women who leave their homes at dawn,
they are called
they are called meat,
they are called meat.
without an age,
without a name,
they sleep in their cemetery:
its name is Temixco,
its name is Santa Ana,
its name is Mazatepec,
its name is Juárez,
its name is Puente de Ixtla,
its name is San Fernando,
its name is Tlaltizapán,
its name is Samalayuca,
its name is el Capulín,
its name is Reynosa,
its name is Nuevo Laredo,
its name is Guadalupe,
its name is Lomas de Poleo,
its name is Mexico.
Translated by Richard Gwyn
This poem, along with 155 others by 97 Latin American poets, selected and translated by Richard Gwyn, will be published in October 2016 in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America, from Seren Books.
A video of the poet reading ‘The Dead’ can be found here:
a las que les partieron el coxis,
a los que les aplastaron la cabeza,
los pequeñitos llorando
entre paredes oscuras
de minerales y arena.
los que duermen en edificios
de tumbas clandestinas:
vienen con los ojos vendados,
atadas las manos,
baleados entre las sienes.
Allí vienen los que se perdieron por Tamaulipas,
cuñados, yernos, vecinos,
la mujer que violaron entre todos antes de matarla,
el hombre que intentó evitarlo y recibió un balazo,
la que también violaron, escapó y lo contó viene
caminando por Broadway,
se consuela con el llanto de las ambulancias,
las puertas de los hospitales,
la luz brillando en el agua del Hudson.
los muertos que salieron de Usulután,
de La Paz,
de La Unión,
de La Libertad,
de San Salvador,
de San Juan Mixtepec,
de El Progreso,
de El Guante,
a los que despidieron en una fiesta con karaoke,
y los encontraron baleados en Tecate.
Allí viene al que obligaron a cavar la fosa para su hermano,
al que asesinaron luego de cobrar cuatro mil dólares,
los que estuvieron secuestrados
con una mujer que violaron frente a su hijo de ocho años
¿De dónde vienen,
de qué gangrena,
los muertos tan solitos, tan mudos, tan nuestros,
engarzados bajo el cielo enorme del Anáhuac,
con su cuenco de horror entre las manos,
su espeluznante ternura.
los muertos que encontraron en una fosa en Taxco,
los muertos que encontraron en parajes alejados de Chihuahua,
los muertos que encontraron esparcidos en parcelas de cultivo,
los muertos que encontraron tirados en la Marquesa,
los muertos que encontraron colgando de los puentes,
los muertos que encontraron sin cabeza en terrenos ejidales,
los muertos que encontraron a la orilla de la carretera,
los muertos que encontraron en coches abandonados,
los muertos que encontraron en San Fernando,
los sin número que destazaron y aún no encuentran,
las piernas, los brazos, las cabezas, los fémures de muertos
disueltos en tambos.
restos, cadáveres, occisos,
los muertos a los que madres no se cansan de esperar
los muertos a los que hijos no se cansan de esperar,
los muertos a los que esposas no se cansan de esperar,
imaginan entre subways y gringos.
chambrita tejida en el cajón del alma,
camisetita de tres meses,
la foto de la sonrisa chimuela,
se llaman mamita,
en el vientre
y el primer llanto,
se llaman cuatro hijos,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
y una viuda (muchacha) que se enamoró cuando estudiaba la primaria,
se llaman ganas de bailar en las fiestas,
se llaman rubor de mejillas encendidas y manos sudorosas,
se llaman muchachos,
se llaman ganas
de construir una casa,
darle de comer a mis hijos,
se llaman dos dólares por limpiar frijoles,
casas, haciendas, oficinas,
llantos de niños en pisos de tierra,
la luz volando sobre los pájaros,
el vuelo de las palomas en la iglesia,
besos a la orilla del río,
en jardines de ranchos
en jardines de casas de seguridad
en parajes olvidados,
secretos de sicarios,
secretos de matanzas,
secretos de policías,
se llaman llanto,
se llaman neblina,
se llaman cuerpo,
se llaman piel,
se llaman tibieza,
se llaman beso,
se llaman abrazo,
se llaman risa,
se llaman personas,
se llaman súplicas,
se llamaban yo,
se llamaban tú,
se llamaban nosotros,
se llaman vergüenza,
se llaman llanto.
los pechos mordidos,
las manos atadas,
calcinados sus cuerpos,
sus huesos pulidos por la arena del desierto.
las muertas que nadie sabe nadie vio que mataran,
las mujeres que salen de noche solas a los bares,
mujeres que trabajan salen de sus casas en la madrugada,
se llaman carne,
se llaman carne.
duermen en su cementerio:
se llama Temixco,
se llama Santa Ana,
se llama Mazatepec,
se llama Juárez,
se llama Puente de Ixtla,
se llama San Fernando,
se llama Tlaltizapán,
se llama Samalayuca,
se llama el Capulín,
se llama Reynosa,
se llama Nuevo Laredo,
se llama Guadalupe,
se llama Lomas de Poleo,
se llama México.
Facing Rabbit Island
That night we came down
from the colony on the hillside.
The afternoon had strewn
about our heads
a debris of hyperbole
and vague menace.
the declaiming of Hikmet
by an Air Force General,
cast into stupor
by amphitheatre kitsch,
we sought out the solace
of the purple seaboard,
along with something darker.
But our path was convoluted
– the geography, as someone once
remarked, would not stay still –
and the road abandoned us.
A big white dog appeared, on cue,
led us to the village of Gümüslük.
Across a narrow stretch of sea
lay Rabbit Island.
I might have swum the strait,
but feared the straying tentacles
of confused sea creatures.
Everywhere was closed,
and what wasn’t closed
was closing in. Fishing boats
rocked gently in the harbour;
the awnings of the restaurants
pulled down, dark and silent.
No movement in the street
besides those watchful cats.
I looked to our canine guide,
but he had slipped away.
No respite from the labyrinth,
it pursues you
even when you think
you have evaded it,
sucks you in deeper,
lets you wander, trancelike,
from one variety of despair
to another, presents you
with a chthonic version of yourself,
the one that leads you back
at five a.m. to stagnant water,
the merciless mocking of the frogs,
the ironic moon.
Last Tuesday saw the launch in Bogotá of Rómulo Bustos Aguirre’s Collected Poems (1988-2013), La pupila incesante. The event was introduced by another fine Colombian poet, Darío Jaramillo Agudelo. Both poets feature in my forthcoming anthology, The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America, to be published by Seren in October. Using a language rich in metaphysical allusion and sensual imagery, Rómulo Bustos is a writer of ‘slow’ poetry, inspired by the landscape and themes of his native Caribbean. A professor of literature at the University of Cartagena, he has won the National Poetry Prize from the Instituto Colombiano de Cultura, and the Blas de Otero Prize from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Here is my translation of a poem of Rómulo’s, which was published in the Irish poetry magazine Cyphers, back in December 2014.
Ballad of the House
You will find a house with a strange name that you will attempt in vain to decipher And walls the colour of good dreams But you will not see that colour Nor will you drink the red plum wine that expands memories On the fence a child with a half-open book Ask him the way to the big trees whose fruits are guarded by an animal that sends passers-by to sleep just by looking at them And he will answer while conversing with a green-winged angel (as if it were another child playing at being an angel with wide banana leaves stuck to his back) barely moving his lips in a gentle spell “the cockerel’s song isn’t blue but a sleepy pink like the first light of day” And you will not understand. And nevertheless you will find an immense hallway that I crossed where the portrait of a lord hangs, shimmering slightly, his heart in his hand And at the back, right at the back, the soul of the house seated in a rocking chair, singing But you will not heed her Because in that instant A distant sound shall crumple the horizon And the child will have finished the last page
Translation by Richard Gwyn
Balada de la casa
Hallarás una casa con un nombre extraño
que intentarás descifrar en vano
Y muros del color de los buenos sueños
Pero tú no verás ese color
Tampoco beberás el vino rojo de los ciruelos
que ensancha los recuerdos
En la verja
un niño con un libro entreabierto
Pregúntale por el camino de los grandes árboles
cuyos frutos guarda un animal
que adormece a los andantes con sólo mirarlos
Y él contestará mientras conversa
con un ángel de alas verdes
(como si fuera otro niño que juega al ángel
y se hubiera colocado anchas hojas de plátano a la espalda)
moviendo apenas los labios en un leve conjuro
“el canto del gallo no es azul sino de un rosa dormido
como el primer claro del día”
Y tú no entenderás. Y sin embargo
hallarás un zaguán que yo recorrí inmenso
donde cuelga el retrato de un señor que resplandece
levemente, con el corazón en la mano
Y al fondo, muy al fondo
el alma de la casa sentada en una mecedora, cantando
Pero tú no la escucharás
Pues, en ese instante
Un sonido lejano ajará el horizonte
Y el niño habrá pasado la última de las páginas
Rómulo Bustos Aguirre (Colombia)
The War of the Idiots
by Beatriz Vignoli (Argentina)
We dynamited the bridge before ever
crossing it, the lovely bridge
that we built.
The bridge over the river of forgetfulness, it was.
Now we will die forgotten.
Let’s die then, and from this.
Translation by Richard Gwyn.
La Guerra de los tontos
Dinamitamos antes de cruzarlo
el puente, el bello puente
que habíamos construido.
El puente sobre el río del olvido era.
Ahora, moriremos olvidados.
Muramos ya, y de esto.
‘La Guerra de los tontos’ was first published in Beatriz Vignoli’s collection Viernes, Bajolaluna, Buenos Aires, 2001.
This poem, along with 155 others by 97 Latin American poets, will be published in October 2016, in the anthology The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America, from Seren Books.
by Julio Trujillo (México)
I went out into the street in flames
and without myself,
what was left were shreds of gazes:
the world was my eyes
and my eyes
seeking and at the same time
willing to be found,
striding down there below,
gasp and echo,
a flow without direction that wants
What sea awaits the man who brims over?
But the instant doesn’t ask questions,
it advances and remains standing,
straightens up to full height,
that in this blue night
A la calle salí en llamas y sin mí,
lo que restaba eran jirones de miradas:
el mundo era mis ojos
y mis ojos
buscando a la vez
dispuesto a ser hallado,
zancadas allá abajo,
resuello y resonancia,
caudal que va sin rumbo y que desea
¿Qué mar espera al hombre desbordado?,
pero el instante no pregunta,
avanza y se mantiene,
se yergue a toda altura,
que en esta noche azul
Translation by Richard Gwyn.
This poem, along with 155 others by 97 Latin American poets, will be published in October 2016, in the anthology The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America, from Seren Books.
Landscape with Beggars
Juan Manuel Roca
The good people wonder
Why a tattered rabble of beggars
Block their prospect of the lilies.
If they don’t receive their ration of manna,
It’s due to their savage custom
Of blighting the landscape and the view.
More ancient than their profession
The beggars emerge from ancient catacombs
Or from remote cathedrals that raise their domes
Between hospices and hospitals.
As they go by they wound and poison the landscape
And the people give way at their passing
As if they were parting a sea
Which they stain with taunts and devastation.
A procession of smells and a procession of dogs
Go past with the wretched hordes. Town mayors
Watch them with watery eyes
While spooning out soup as thick as lava.
The priests seek them out like food
From a kingdom in another world
And describe to them the quarries of hell,
Although they seem to have lived there forever.
They are of another race, another country,
The beggars are dark strangers
Who live on the invisible frontiers of language.
Between them and us a coin makes mock,
A dark commerce in scarcity
Beneath the trinket shop of a relative of God.
On festive days they stare at phantom ships:
They extend their bowls and rough beds to no one
And in the atriums they only pile up scraps of miracles.
There is something of the scarecrow about their trade
Something of falconry about the eyes,
In the way they look at the doves’ bread.
A drunk and downcast man told me at the exit to the bar:
They could send them off to war, to serve as barricades.
The beggars don’t know where to go
When we are ordered to confine the wounded shadows.
The tourist guides, so as not to worry travellers,
Inform them that the beggars are extras
For a film being shot on the streets.
Perhaps they have emerged from a bad dream, from a factory,
From a dockside, from a mine, from a squat.
From the bad dream they bring the surly gaze of those who flee,
From the factory they retain the complexion of a prisoner,
From the docks the vice of loading bales of nothing,
From the mine hard and aggressive eyes,
From the squat an echo carried from the land of Nobody.
Ridicule and Mockery, two faithful dogs, are their companions.
This translation by Richard Gwyn first appeared in Cyphers Magazine, Ireland, 2014.
Juan Manuel Roca (b. Medellín, Colombia, 1946) is one of the most widely read and respected figures in contemporary Colombian poetry. A successful journalist and social commentator, he has a long association with the world-famous poetry festival in the city of his birth, set up in defiance of the long years of war and civil strife in his country. He has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Spanish prize, Casa de Ameríca de Poesía Americana 2009, for his collection Biblia de Pobres, from which ‘Paisaje con mendigos’ is taken.
Paisaje con mendigos
Las buenas gentes se preguntan
Por qué los mendigos interponen,
Entre sus ojos y los nardos,
Su amasijo de harapos. Si no reciben
Su cuota de maná es por su feroz costumbre
De llagar el paisaje y la mirada.
Más antiguos que su oficio,
Los mendigos vienen de antiguas catacumbas
O de remotas catedrales que levantan sus cúpulas
Entre hospicios y hospitales.
Al cruzar hieren y enferman el paisaje
Y las gentes se abren a su paso
Como si partieran en dos un mar
Que tiñen de dicterios y quebrantos.
Un séquito de olor y un séquito de perros
Van tras las hordas miserables. Los alcaldes
Los miran con ojos acuosos
Mientras cucharean una sopa densa como lava.
Los sacerdotes los buscan como alimento
De un reino de otro mundo
Y les describen las canteras del infierno,
Aunque parezcan habitarlo desde siempre.
Son de otra raza, de otro país,
Los mendigos son oscuros forasteros
Que viven en las fronteras invisibles del lenguaje.
Entre ellos y nosotros una moneda nos escarnece,
Un oscuro comercio de penurias
Bajo la tienda de abalorios de un pariente de Dios.
Los días festivos escrutan buques fantasmas:
No encuentran a quien extender yacijas o escudillas
Y sólo amontan en los atrios migajas de milagro.
Algo de espantapájaros hay en su oficio,
Algo de cetrería en sus ojos,
En su manera de mirar el pan de las palomas.
Un hombre ebrio y compungido me dijo a la salida del bar:
Podrían mandarlos a la guerra, servir de barricadas.
Los mendigos no saben dónde ir
Cuando ordenan que acuartelemos las sombras malheridas
Los guías de turismo, para no inquietar a los viajeros,
Advierten que son actores de reparto
De una película que ruedan en las calles.
Quizá hayan salido de un mal sueño, de una factoría,
De un muelle, de una mina, de una casa usurpada.
Del mal sueño traen la mirada arisca de quien huye,
De la fábrica conservan un color de presidario,
Del muelle el vicio de cargar fardos de nada,
De la mina unos ojos duros y pugnaces,
De la casa usurpada en eco llegado de tierras de Nadie.
Escarnio y mofa, dos perros fieles, los acompañan.
Few more irritating quotations are cited more frequently than Robert Frost’s famous old saw about poetry being ‘what is lost in translation.’ For the unconverted, and in honour of a recent re-reading of Reid’s poem in Edith Grossman’s excellent Why Translation Matters, here is Alastair Reid’s poem on the subject.
Incidentally, as if the ghost of Alastair were intentionally confounding the matter, there are two versions of this poem about the translation process: one can found in Grossman’s book (and which I reproduce below); the other, in the otherwise excellent Inside Out, edited by Douglas Dunn, contains variations in the English and typos in the Spanish. I am therefore going with the other. Both versions, needless to say, can be found online.
What Gets Lost
I keep translating traduzco continuamente
entre palabras words que no son las mías
into other words which are mine de palabras a mis palabras.
Y, finalmente, de quién es el texto? Who has written it?
Del escritor o del traductor writer, translator
o de los idiomas or language itself?
Somos fantasmas, nosotros traductores, que viven
entre aquel mundo y el nuestro
between that world and our own.
Pero poco a poco me ocurre
que el problema the problem no es cuestión
de lo que se pierde en traducción
is not a question
of what gets lost in translation
sino but rather lo que se pierde
what gets lost
entre la ocurrencia – sea de amor o de desesperación
between love or desperation –
y el hecho de que llega
a existir en palabras
and its coming into words.
Para nosotros todos, amantes, habladores
as lovers or users of words
el problema es éste this is the difficulty.
Lo que se pierde what gets lost
no es lo que se pierde en traducción sino
is not what gets lost in translation, but rather
what gets lost in language itself lo que se pierde
en el hecho, en la lengua,
en la palabra misma.
Alastair Reid (1926-2014)