Today’s poem follows the announcement by the Prime Minister of the UK to ‘stay alert’ (whatever that means), while the leaders of Scottish and Welsh governments have told us to continue to ‘stay at home’, which seems clearer, at least. The protagonist in Darío Jaramillo Agudelo’s poem has left home, but no one is sure whether he will return. I love this poem, and apologies to those who have read it in a previous post, but since Carcanet recently published an entire collection of my translations of Jaramillo’s poems, called Impossible Loves, I thought I would give it a plug.
You can listen to Blanco reading ‘Reasons for his absence’ here.
Reasons for his Absence
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 honourably,
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
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
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 sol,
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 oscuridad
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 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.
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 won both the Colombian national prize for poetry (2017) and the García Lorca Prize (2018).
A rare photo of the young Darío Jaramillo (on the right) with J.L. Borges, Bogotá circa 1965.