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I have wasted my life

24 Mar



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.

Landeg White

1 Feb


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.

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.





Fists held high in Mexico: Juan Villoro and ‘El puño en alto’

23 Sep

El puño en alto

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

long ago

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

in September?

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,

history’s beggar.

Who picks through rubble

after the tragedy.

Who shifts bricks,

gathers stones,

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.

to listen

if anyone was living.

Those who held up their fist

to hear if anyone was living and heard

a murmur.

Those who didn’t stop listening.









Reasons for his Absence

30 Oct



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

in himself,

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

for eyes

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

and nothing.


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

está desesperado

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

haberlo soñado,

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


y nada.


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).

The Dead

10 May

Mexico Drugs War


The Dead


María Rivera (Mexico)


Here they come

the decapitated,

the amputees,

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,

in-laws, neighbours,

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 Sonsonate,

from San Salvador,

from San Juan Mixtepec,

from Cuscatlán,

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

three times.

Where do they come from,

from what gangrene,

oh lymph,

the bloodthirsty,

the heartless,

the murdering


Here they come,

the dead so alone, so mute, so much ours,

set beneath the enormous sky of Anáhuac,

they walk,

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

little kicks

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,

laying bricks,

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

Gelder (17)

Daniel (22)

Filmar (24)

Ismael (15)

Agustín (20)

José (16)

Jacinta (21)

Inés (28)

Francisco (53)


in the scrubland,

hands tied

in the gardens of ranches,


in the gardens of ‘safe’ houses,

in some forgotten wilderness,

disintegrating mutely

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









breasts bitten,

hands tied,

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








chucked away,

they are called meat,

they are called meat.


without flowers,

without tombstones,

without an age,

without a name,

without sobbing,

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:


Los Muertos


Allá vienen

los descabezados,

los mancos,

los descuartizados,

a las que les partieron el coxis,

a los que les aplastaron la cabeza,

los pequeñitos llorando

entre paredes oscuras

de minerales y arena.

Allá vienen

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.

Allá vienen

los muertos que salieron de Usulután,

de La Paz,

de La Unión,

de La Libertad,

de Sonsonate,

de San Salvador,

de San Juan Mixtepec,

de Cuscatlán,

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

tres veces.

¿De dónde vienen,

de qué gangrena,

oh linfa,

los sanguinarios,

los desalmados,

los carniceros


Allá vienen

los muertos tan solitos, tan mudos, tan nuestros,

engarzados bajo el cielo enorme del Anáhuac,


se arrastran,

con su cuenco de horror entre las manos,

su espeluznante ternura.

Se llaman

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.

Se llaman

restos, cadáveres, occisos,

se llaman

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.

Se llaman

chambrita tejida en el cajón del alma,

camisetita de tres meses,

la foto de la sonrisa chimuela,

se llaman mamita,


se llaman


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,

echar tabique,

darle de comer a mis hijos,

se llaman dos dólares por limpiar frijoles,

casas, haciendas, oficinas,

se llaman

llantos de niños en pisos de tierra,

la luz volando sobre los pájaros,

el vuelo de las palomas en la iglesia,

se llaman

besos a la orilla del río,

se llaman

Gelder (17)

Daniel (22)

Filmar (24)

Ismael (15)

Agustín (20)

José (16)

Jacinta (21)

Inés (28)

Francisco (53)

entre matorrales,


en jardines de ranchos


en jardines de casas de seguridad


en parajes olvidados,

desintegrándose muda,


se llaman

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.

Allá van









los pechos mordidos,

las manos atadas,

calcinados sus cuerpos,

sus huesos pulidos por la arena del desierto.

Se llaman

las muertas que nadie sabe nadie vio que mataran,

se llaman

las mujeres que salen de noche solas a los bares,

se llaman

mujeres que trabajan salen de sus casas en la madrugada,

se llaman









se llaman carne,

se llaman carne.


sin flores,

sin losas,

sin edad,

sin nombre,

sin llanto,

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

6 May




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.

Bewildered before

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.




Ballad of the House

2 May
Romulo Bustos

Colombian poet Romulo Bustos Aguirre



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)