Ricardo Blanco's Blog

Poems for staying at home (Day 3)

Atira CUR looking down


Today’s poem for staying at home is ‘Time of Crisis’, by the Mexican poet Fabio Morábito. Morabito’s poetry, infused with a wry and occasionally coruscating humour, is especially suited to the weird times we live in. This translation, along with the Spanish original, can be found in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America.

If your device allows you access to Instagram, you can listen to Idoia Elola reading the poem in Spanish and English by following the link below:



Time of Crisis

This building
has hollow bricks,
you get to know everything
about the others,
learn to distinguish
the voices and the couplings.
Some learn to pretend
that they are happy,
others that they are deep.
At times a kiss
from the upper floors
gets lost in the lower
you have to go down and fetch it:
“My kiss please,
if you would be so kind.”
“I kept it wrapped in a newspaper.”
A building has
its golden age,
the years and fatigue
wear it thin,
so that it resembles
the life that passes by.
The architecture loses weight
and habit gains ground,
propriety gains ground.
The hierarchy of the walls
the roof, the floor, everything
turns concave,
this is when the young people flee,
travel the world.
They want to live
in virgin buildings,
they want a roof for a roof
and walls for walls,
they don’t want
another kind of space.
This building doesn’t satisfy
it is in its time of crisis,
to knock it down you’d have
to knock it down right now,
later it’s going to be difficult.

Translated by Richard Gwyn


Época de Crisis

Este edificio tiene
los ladrillos huecos,
se llega a saber todo
de los otros,
se aprende a distinguir
las voces y los coitos.
Unos aprenden a fingir
que son felices,
otros que son profundos.
A veces algún beso
de los pisos altos
se pierde en los departamentos
hay que bajar a recogerlo:
“Mi beso, por favor,
si es tan amable.”
“Se lo guardé en papel periódico.”
Un edificio tiene
su época de oro,
los años y el desgaste
lo adelgazan,
le dan un parecido
con la vida que transcurre.
La arquitectura pierde peso
y gana la costumbre,
gana el decoro.
La jerarquía de las paredes
se disuelve,
el techo, el piso, todo
se hace cóncavo,
es cuando huyen los jóvenes,
le dan vuelta al mundo.
Quieren vivir en edificios
quieren por techo el techo
y por paredes las paredes,
no quieren otra índole
de espacio.
Este edificio no contenta
a nadie,
está en su época de crisis,
de derrumbarlo habría
que derrumbarlo ahora,
después va a ser difícil.


From De lunes todo el año, 1992


Fabio Morábito was born in Alexandria in 1955 and has lived in Mexico City since the age of fifteen. His award-winning poetry, short stories and essays have established him as one of Mexico’s best-known writers over the past 25 years. He is also a translator from Italian. Much of his work has appeared in translation, to growing international acclaim.

Poems for staying at home (Day 2)


Jorge Teillier (1935-1996)

Today’s house poem, by the Chilean Jorge Teillier, concerns a boy looking out of the window of his parent’s home at a winter landscape. It is the melancholy lyricism of this poem that first attracted me; a mix of myth and the mundane, centring on the boy whose imaginative world is allowed free rein while, in the house, his parents hold a party. The poem concludes in an almost mystical tone, suggesting that a defining experience of childhood will mark the boy forever, and that he is, in a sense, predestined on account of it.


Winter Poem

Winter brings white horses that slide on ice.
Fires have been lighted to protect the gardens
from the frost’s white witch.
Inside a white cloud of smoke, the caretaker stirs.
From his kennel, the freezing dog threatens the drifting ice-floe
of the moon.

Tonight the boy will be forgiven for staying up late.
In the house his parents are holding a party.
But he opens the windows
to see the masked horsemen
who await him in the forest
and he knows his destiny
will be to love the modest scent of night’s pathways.

Winter brings hard liquor for machinist and for stoker.
A lost star flickers like a beacon.
Songs of drunken soldiers
returning late to barracks.

In the house the celebrations have begun.
But the boy knows the party is somewhere else
and through the window seeks out the strangers
he’ll spend his whole life trying to find.

(Translated by Richard Gwyn)


Poema del invierno

El invierno trae caballos blancos que resbalan en la helada.
Han encendido fuego para defender los huertos
de la bruja blanca de la helada.
Entre la blanca humareda se agita el cuidador.
El perro entumecido amenaza desde su caseta al témpano flotante
de la luna.

Esta noche al niño se le perdonará que duerma tarde.
En la casa los padres están de fiesta.
Pero él abre las ventanas
para ver a los enmascarados jinetes
que lo esperan en el bosque
y sabe que su destino
será amar el olor humilde de los senderos nocturnos.

El invierno trae aguardiente para el maquinista y el fogonero.
Una estrella perdida tambalea como baliza.
Cantos de soldados ebrios
Que vuelven tarde a sus cuarteles.

En la casa ha empezado la fiesta.
Pero el niño sabe que la fiesta está en otra parte,
y mira por la ventana buscando a los desconocidos
que pasará toda la vida tratando de encontrar.            


Jorge Teillier (1935-96) was a Chilean poet, a key figure in the later 20th century literature of a country dominated by great poets such as Mistral, Neruda, Parra, Huidobro, de Rokha and Lihn.  Teillier offers a unique, gentle voice, with a profound sense of the lyrical, often associated with simple, everyday – and usually rural – concerns.


Poems for staying at home (Day 1)




As most of us are staying at home far more than we usually do, I thought I might post a series of poems — or rather, translations of poems — regarding houses. Most of these will be from my anthology The Other Tiger (Seren, 2016), but — who knows? — some might be from other places.

Today’s poem is by the Ecuadorian poet Siomara España, and is titled ‘The Empty House’. The translation is followed by the original Spanish.


The Empty House

Invite no one
into our house,
for they will notice
the doors, walls, staircase
and windows,
they will see the moths
in the corners,
the rusty locks,
the blind, ruined lamps.
Don’t bring anyone to our house
for they will only be distressed
by your table,
your bed, the tablecloth,
the furniture, laugh pityingly
at the cups, pretend to
be nostalgic for my name,
make fun, what is more, of our hammock.
Don’t bring anyone to our house any more
for they will write you songs,
excite your soul,
whisper mischievously,
plant a flower at your window.

That’s why – I beg you – you must
not bring people to our house,
for they will turn pink,
greenish, reddish, bluish,
on discovering broken walls
and withered plants.
They will want to sweep out the corners
they will want to open our blinds
and find, tucked away among my books
the depraved excuses they were searching for.

Don’t bring anyone to our house any more,
for they will discover our absurdities,
will carry you off to faraway beaches
tell you tales of shipwrecks,
drag you from our house.

(Translated by Richard Gwyn)


La casa vacía

No invites a nadie
a nuestra casa,
pues repararán en
puertas, paredes, escaleras
y ventanas,
mirarán la polilla en
los rincones,
los cerrojos oxidados,
las lámparas ciegas, arruinadas.
No traigas a nadie a nuestra casa
pues no tendrán más
que angustia de tu mesa,
de tu cama, del mantel,
del mobiliario se reirán
de pena por las tazas, fingirán
nostalgia de mi nombre,
y reirán también de nuestra hamaca.
No traigas más gente a nuestra casa
pues te escribirán canciones,
te entusiasmarán el alma,
te susurrarán traviesos,
sembrarán una flor en tu ventana.

Por eso no debes, te lo ruego,
traer más gente a nuestra casa
pues se pondrán rosados,
verdosos, rojizos o azulados,
al descubrir paredes rotas
las plantas marchitadas.
Querrán barrer en los rincones
querrán abrir nuestras persianas
y encontrarán seguro entre mis libros
las excusas perversas que buscaban.

No traigas más nadie a nuestra casa,
así descubrirán nuestros absurdos
te llevarán lejos a otras playas
te contarán historias de naufragios
te sacarán a rastras de esta casa.


Siomara España was born in Manabí, Ecuador, in 1976. She is a poet and professor at Guayaquil University; cultural editor of the newspaper El Emigrante and departmental editor of the Casa de la Cultura, Guayaquil. Her publications include: Concupiscencia, Alivio demente, De cara al fuego, Contraluz and Jardines en el aire. She has been included in several international anthologies, including Tapestry of the Sun: an anthology of Ecuadorian poetry (San Francisco: Coimbra, 2010).



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?

I have wasted my life



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


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.





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

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



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).

Facing Rabbit Island




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

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)


The War of the Idiots


blown bridge


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.








Landscape with Beggars



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.