Oct 122016



THE SIGHT OF you in the bustle of the late winter street paralyses me. I had better turn tail and flee, I think: my words squeeze me out of my apathy, seeing you I am embarrassed as though I had inadvertently opened the bathroom door and found you standing naked in front of the mirror, I am startled and would like to back out. What strangers would settle with one phrase I embellish with a lengthy explanation and over-emphatic apologies until my patience runs out and I turn on you because you don’t answer. But how come this imaginary bathroom scene occurs to me? We met on the street by accident, mother and daughter. I recognize myself in you, I find this intrusive and despair at once: how dare I appropriate what is yours, your beauty, as if it were my merit in the least, how dare I presuppose that you inherited it from me, that you resemble me. You fear my love as I do yours, I ratiocinate to myself, and despair at once. If you are weary and the premature, erroneous shadow of age shows on your young face, my heart shrinks, for I cannot help thinking that if one morning you should see yourself as I have just seen you, you will be hurt. Still, I don’t want to rush time: may you stay young yet, I wish, a cruel teenager; I have already burrowed myself in my hole, but please don’t demand explanations from me.

You were around eleven; through the window the light of the full moon illuminated our home: the stage. I tidied up your room while you two were fast asleep; I picked up your scattered things from the floor: a book, one sock, paper tissue, a ballpoint pen and lastly, the half-gnawed apple fallen on the rug, and went out into the bathroom to wash your white blouse for the school festivity the next day. I spotted my careworn face in the misted-over mirror. I was washing your blouse as romantic heroines wash their child’s linen shirt in the rippling creek. Self-commiseration brought tears to my eyes, they flew over, into the water foaming with the washing powder, into the world, into the thick steam, I don’t know why I consumed so much water to wash one single blouse. I tried to cool my swollen eyelids in the cave-like bathroom but my tears continued flowing, I kept wiping my eyes, that is, I was lacerating myself in the usual way. How do you see me, I asked myself and answered my own question: A shadow, a body no longer living, a black contour chased by the routine activities. I jotted down my words on an envelope at hand—for what we write down we manage to distance from ourselves: a mute slave, an hour hand—so I phrased my complaint—that unprotestingly walks the clock face of days, nights and years for you. I hung up your blouse above the bathtub to dry, then sat on your bed and watched you sleeping, taking in your beauty, relishing your free-flowing tresses, my lovely terrorist: as if you were permanently running away from your hunters. A few years later—you were no longer living with us—you showed up on the street all of a sudden, with your cascading gold-chestnut hair: a strange girl in a black shawl, a strange woman was walking uphill on the other side of Török Street. At her sight my heart jumped, but she pretended she didn’t recognize me, she didn’t even greet me. Had you really not noticed me, or did you merely not want to see me? I haven’t dared to ask you ever since, for you always tell the truth and would say, Yes, I had seen you and avoided you.

Quite understandably this time I am overcome by the desire to flee, to disappear in the opposite direction before you see or don’t see me, to be spared the disappointment: you are not happy to see me. I immediately recall that the year before, during the first term you were coming to my university to attend English classes—by that time you had been living apart from us for seven years—we finished at the same hour, we could at least have walked together to the subway station, but you chose to walk with your girlfriend instead, only sparing the time to say hello. So I get off the bus like one drawn on a string, I hasten my steps towards you. I often feel as though I were pulled on a string by a foreign will, for I wouldn’t otherwise stir an inch by myself. I will not put on it the label: on such occasions I get a whiff of the cellar breath of depression. You are approaching with arms wide open, quickening your pace. We wear identical jackets. I had bought you, your little sister and myself identical jackets in America—for financial reasons, it had been a rational decision. They were available in one colour only, this fashionable off green, I risked wearing the same jacket as yours. I rejoiced at the thought of us wearing identical clothes and I thought you wouldn’t mind. On that despondent winter, far from each other on the overcrowded city’s streets, three women would go on their shadowy errands, unaware of one another’s itineraries. But why should winter be despondent? From now on we would embrace each other when we met, for from now on you would come towards me with arms wide open, and I hardly dare believe my eyes.

I would have liked so much to finally tell you—we have always liked to discuss men—that not long ago, on an empty Sunday when your little sister was baby-sitting in England and I, slowly recovering from an unreal love, was going to the swimming pool on a tight schedule, on one of my swimming sessions I suddenly halted in the middle of the pool as if an engine had stopped in me. (The engine had tired of the tight schedule, strength ebbed from it, the water reached up to its mouth.) I made my way to the lane rope and gripped it. I had known the man who was swimming on the next lane for years, our paths often crossed at noon when the others would be eating their lunch, napping or whatever, when there were few people in the pool. He swam to the lane rope in his strange, funny swimming cap (I had anticipated this) and said hello. What a pretty cap you have, I smiled at him (I often smile in self-defence). He took advantage of the situation and proposed that we walk together for the length of a few bus stops after swimming. I said yes. I had indeed wanted to walk, bored by the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon (as if I were kicking an empty barrel upwards on a ramp), I longed to hear a man’s voice next to me. I was of course not a bit embarrassed because of the ambiguity of the situation, for I had no plans with him, I merely wanted him to talk to me in his deep voice—as though social mores did not apply to me (and they did not, indeed). He was well-proportioned, a bit younger than me. At that time I, too, was still considered beautiful or, more precisely, one that’s got the look. On the same summer a short, pig-faced professor who was to become the rector of the Technical University shortly, and whose twin daughters had been your groupmates in kindergarten about twenty years ago if I’m not wrong, came up puffing after me on the roof terrace, stopped above my chaise-longue and renewed his boorish proposal, familiar from the years before, but, as he pointed out, for the last time. My refusal had been unequivocal, but it seems he hadn’t learnt his lesson (neither have I ever learnt how to shame those who make loutish proposals. In addition, the pig-faced man happened to be my colleague.) Next year you won’t be so attractive any more, he warned me, huffing. He stayed some more by my bedside, expecting his sincerity to make me think twice. Even if his offer fell on deaf ears, his prophesy proved to be astute.

I could hardly recognize the man with the swimming cap who was waiting for me at the entrance according to our agreement. He wore a check shirt, jeans and worn trainers. Dressed like that, he looked penniless, which made me feel embarrassed and moved at the same time. We walked in the heavy smog along Mártírok Street (or was it already Margit Körút?), we could hardly hear each other in the traffic noise. The ambiguous situation irritated me and I was sorry for wasting the day. He stopped in front of a restaurant whose name sounded familiar, I couldn’t recall from where. I invoked some non-existent appointment for family lunch to get rid of him; at this he asked if I would like to have a glass of wine with him. I felt ashamed for my fib that he must have seen through, for up to that moment I hadn’t appeared to be in a hurry. Against my better will I ended up saying yes, for the second time already. We entered the dining hall redolent of kitchen smell, sat down at a table with soiled table cloth; with princely nonchalance he ordered a bottle of white wine. The restaurant and the bad wine made him more self-assured. I asked about his profession but, lest he might take my question for a cross-examination, I added that I taught literature at the Faculty of Arts. This was another lie (of course I wanted to cover up the traces beforehand). He asked me if I knew Shakespeare. Well, I’ve heard his name in conversation, I laughed. Do you also know Richard III?, he inquired further. “My life would be incomplete without him”—and this was even true. But he made a remark that suggested strong skills of observation. “You tend to exaggerate. Or are you just doing it for my sake?”

Ever since I bought these three olive-green jackets in America I have often toyed with the idea that if somebody observed us from high above and placed us next to one another on account of the identity of our outfit, then we three do belong together. You look at me with tenderness, it is perhaps the first time you notice that the lines around my eyes show not only when I’m laughing: they stand at attention, ready to grow deeper, even when I’m watching something with my face going stiff. “What’s up with the two of you,” you ask, “how’s life?” Well-behaved, I answer your question as though it were a stranger’s, quickly going over the tissue of my days and weeks, but can’t find anything worth mentioning, anything your eyes should linger on, or in which your palpating fingers should get caught. Still, I cannot whole-heartedly say I feel this way because of my forsakenness. I myself cannot tell what was first, the thousand small signs of your love withdrawn from me, or this even more unbearable, even more telling feeling of forsakenness in me. (I feel that everybody is happy with their grown-up children, except for me with you.) So I bravely drag forth some promising topic, academic success, travel, I don’t remember what. I can obviously not speak about what preoccupies me most, what I phrase to myself, alluding to its unbearableness, as “I live wounded to death,” and that “I ought to see a doctor before it’s too late.” Not only because of you but also because of the fresh break-up that put an end to our seven-year affair with K. “Nothing worth mentioning,” I answer, but immediately start wavering, perhaps you will find me indifferent and would say good-bye rightaway and then the magic will dissipate. My sharp-eyed swimming-pool acquaintance might be right in the smelly, smoky restaurant: I exaggerate when I talk about myself. Although I might bring up an excuse: it is not only my words but also my feelings that are so passionate. Throughout my teens I was convinced that everybody was like me. I couldn’t understand where the indifference on the faces of others came from, their sheepish patience in front of injustice, I couldn’t comprehend why they didn’t rebel. Later, in my arrogance, I arrived at the conclusion that the others saw halfway and dimly, while I saw far and clearly. I was already a grown-up, the two of you were born, when I realized that the ability of too sharp phrasing was at once my strength and my weakness.

“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York; / And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. / Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths, / Our bruised arms hung up for monuments, / Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings, / Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.” My acquaintance in a poor man’s apparel halted for a moment in the middle of his recitation, I thought his number was over but I was wrong. He gave me a searching look to see if I was with him. I could see the unuttered question in his eyes, so I named the play. Like an award-winning student I added: first act, opening scene, but it seems I misunderstood his question, for he waved his raised finger at me to be patient and continued quoting Gloucester, the future Richard III: “I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasure of these days. / Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, / By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams / To set my brother Clarence and the King / In deadly hate the one against the other. / And if King Edward be as true and just / As I am subtle false and treacherous…” At this verse he halted and gave a laugh with a mysterious expression. My face was all amazement. “So you are an actor?” I didn’t quite believe it, I was trying to acknowledge his stunt rather. “You missed it narrowly,” he said in a mystifying tone, but I could see on his face that my guess flattered him. “Then let me ask something else, do you have a regular day job or are you a freelance?” “I am unemployed.” I tried to avoid the dangerous high waters. “And where did you get your swimming cap?” His answer was no less surprising than his performance: “I had sewn it myself,” he said. “So you are the one with the sewing, while your wife goes to work,” I was trying to joke, although I would have liked to steer clear of discussing our family situation by all means. I felt like biting my tongue, but fortunately he didn’t take up the issue, he merely answered that he was not married and lived with his mother. In the meantime he was diligently pouring himself one glass after another, his eyes were shining already, while I barely touched the sour wine and, although thirsty, didn’t dare to order water for fear I’d offend him, as a short while ago I warded off his invitation saying I was not drinking of the wine because I was not thirsty. So I returned to the play: “Do you really love Shakespeare so much?” “I needed him. I can quote whole acts by heart.” I liked the past tense, and the arbitrary, lordly “I needed him” suggested an adventurous life or else, serious professional dedication.

You will of course have your own stories of me, memories that I perhaps don’t remember at all, or at the very least remember differently, out of self-defence. Not for absolving myself but rather, in order to be able to lull myself into the conviction: basically everything was all right between us. For I love you, and the birth of the two of you has been the best decision of my life. And you love me too, it is only our temperaments that are not suited. The realization that one’s treatment of one’s children can be tackled as a methodological issue, and that the books on parenting give outstanding recipes for coping with conflicts with teenage children, came like a cold shower—to stick to the imagery of the bathroom memory. I found the awareness that we ourselves could be characters in a case study, and that the positive or negative outcome of our conflict depends on my skillfulness, humiliating. I refused to believe that the first child, if a daughter, is a rival of her mother and if a son, a rival of his father. My shelves were laden with psychology handbooks, I fooled around with ha’penny horoscopes you could pick up everywhere on the street, with cheap booklets about famous people born in different zodiac signs, I bought everything to persuade myself that it was not my fault and perhaps not yours either, to doom our lives was maybe the unfavourable constellation only. It was chance that helped me learn the lesson “at the dawn of our love” with K. (to use his phrase). His presence changed our relationship. I simply had no courage to burden this relationship with my despair over the latest evidence of your inability to love me. At fourteen for instance, one Friday afternoon you announced that on Tuesday you would move out. K., as my sympathetic witness, said that I should be glad, for this way the situation would be solved in the most peaceful manner possible, and that I shouldn’t be brooding over the fact that you told me in the last moment. It was the last possible moment anyway, it would have been too late to fight for you, something that I would never have done to your detriment or against your will, by the way. We were invited for a dinner that evening, so there was no time to get engrossed in my failure or inquire about the practicalities. (I knew so much that instead of your mother’s, from then on you would be under a father’s supervision.) I can remember well the moment when you chose to communicate your decision, I was just putting on my thinnest coffee-coloured tights. “I have already arranged about moving my things out on Tuesday,” you said. I answered only that I was sorry I would not be at home and therefore unable to help with carrying your things, because I had classes that afternoon. You were so taken aback by my calm that on the day after your moving out you unexpectedly came over for a visit. We were just celebrating K’s birthday—alone for the first time. Perhaps you felt that you were losing me, that day you stayed with us late. Your little sister was away on a school trip.

“Do you need the Shakespeare quotes for your work?” I inquired. I would have been glad to hear that my interlocutor sought an outlet for his intellectual energies, or that he had learnt lengthy scenes for emotional reasons, but he said nothing of the kind, just continued to play mysterious. “Indeed. And not just in general but in the most concrete way possible.” I suspected that he wanted to test my inventiveness and that it would please him if I guessed sooner or later, even if slowly and with some help, what he did for a living before becoming unemployed. But nothing came to my mind apart from the theatrical professions, because the thought that he was getting drunk and I couldn’t get rid of him paralyzed me. Much help it will be to me, I joked to myself, if he turns out to be a prompter who is a dipsomaniac. I also remembered why the restaurant’s name rang familiar: the waitress living in our house worked here, where I was sitting at a table decked with a soiled tablecloth, in an intimate tete-a-tete with the stranger of doubtful circumstances. If she spots me, she would spread rumours in the house that I led a double life, I panicked. I hastily removed my elbow from the table, knocking over the wrought iron ashtray. At the loud clatter that startled everybody on the premises the waiter came to our table; I apologized but he didn’t grace me with an answer. With a commandeering gesture he replaced it, as if I had pushed it off the table deliberately. “Are you a theatre prompter?” I risked the question I came up with a moment ago. “You’re getting closer and closer,” he laughed complacently, with satisfaction, as if he had hidden an object from me that I was supposed to find. “I give up!” I answered impatiently, at which he said: “There is a time for everything.” And added that he wanted to see me open up entirely, whereas I was very reserved. As though I had been at a police interrogation, his unmasking observations uttered in a tone of superiority rained down on me. On top of it, every time the waiter passed through the swing-door, the light of a naked electric bulb pierced my eyeballs. “I loathe it when they analyze my soul,” I answered, closing my eyes. “How typical!” he commented without apparent rancour. “But allow me, how do you know that there is such a thing as a soul?” “I feel I have one.” I immediately realized the stupidity of my reaction. How can I be debating this issue, with this wretch? So I suggested that we talk about him rather. “Ask me, and I will answer,” he offered. “What do you live on if you have no job?” “I hold a few shares.” Once again I was surprised. “I had always imagined shareholders differently.” “You don’t live in this world, do you?” He fixed his velvety eyes on me.

I don’t even know for how long I’ve been living not in this world. I would have liked to tell you this when to your question, what was up with us, I answered, nothing special, I was just busying myself with my dream of the Last Judgement. It must have been about ten years after the death of my mother, your grandmother. In my dream we were all together in the garden expanding into an infinite square, of our last common home: not only the family, but all the living and the dead. The people came stepping on one another’s heels, in a controlled vortex. Trams pulled in with passengers hanging in clusters around the open doors; taxis came; crowds of pedestrians. The air filled with the excitement of apprehension. People were walking to and fro on the road, on the pavement, along the garden paths strewn with pebbles, their mouths moving mutely as if they were memorizing something, or trying to remember some important event by reciting their story. I heard the flutter of angels’ wings approaching and, now and then, a clash imitating the striking of a clock. All through, a dull, repetitive popping, as in the houses, through the wide open larder windows the souls of preserves tore open the cellophane and broke free from their jars and, crossing the airspace above the square, the erstwhile fruits flew back on the branches of surrounding trees. In my dream I felt the beatific state of belonging together; the boundaries separating me from the others dissolved, my senses were sharpened as if I had taken drugs. But I knew that if I started relating my unrelatable dream I would phrase it wrongly and you would correct me at once, saying: rather than beatific, my vision seemed downright terrifying.

Do you remember the Christmas Eve we spent with your grandmother, when she was no longer let out of the hospital? We brought in the plates, the cutlery, the Christmas dinner. We laid the table on the corridor, dressed the Christmas tree—it would be undressed in an hour and a half—and started eating. Unexpectedly the doctor on night duty stopped by our table—he bore a serious grudge about the fact that every Monday mother’s one-week pension would go to the ward doctor, never to him. “Are you at least aware that you have become a drug addict from taking so many painkillers?” he unleashed himself on mother. Never has the worn-out cliché sounded more truthful: “food turned bitter in my mouth.” We were eating the dessert, the Gerbeaud cake, its taste instantly turned to gall; I spat it out into my napkin and mother, too, pushed the plate with the cakes away from herself, we all put our forks down and started packing. I don’t even know why you came home with us after dinner at all? Probably for the books you got as present, in order not to offend me by leaving them there, or for your lovely leather gloves that you left in a taxi that very night. When you said good-bye I was arranging your shawl; you pulled out violently and shouted at me: Take your hands off me! At this I smashed a cracked Meissen plate on the floor. I can’t even say I grabbed it up in an irate moment: I knew exactly that I had placed it on the edge of a library shelf because I decided it was ready to be thrown out. So I dashed it on the floor and it broke to pieces. I have often heard that the best way of releasing built-up tension is to smash plates. I followed the advice like a half-hearted reveler, and it brought little relief. But my clownish role hurt me to the quick. As though the stage-prop wooden rifle had gone off, shooting the one who was brandishing it. I gasped for air, my heart stopped, I collapsed into an armchair. From that time I stopped sharing my dreams with you. Just as I don’t tell you that at Christmas time the Child is not born for me. Even though not from that day—for there had been signs before that I was on the doorstep of peril. I even phrased it for myself: “I don’t want to live in this world anymore.” I had believed myself to be strong enough to drink the bitter cup and stand without a scratch, for I had sufficient routine in unhappiness. At most I would sleep more, or sit listlessly in the armchair mentioned above. But, however concise my phrasing, later it proved to be too self-indulgent. I had smashed a cracked plate. I had not denied the world but merely the circumstances I lived in. I chose another place for my home: music. For weeks I would listen to the same pieces of chamber music. But instead of sounding ever clearer, the trios or quintets repeated to the point of madness became increasingly fragmented; the possibility of continuous reading between the lines was lost, the weighty beats were punctuated by overlong pauses, the musical phrases rapped like so many clots of earth on an (imagined) coffin lid. My workplace, too, became a stage, although it was at exactly that time that I was appointed chair and so could travel all over Europe. I couldn’t have imagined earlier how many things you can do by being half present, without anyone taking notice of my half-absence. I was overcome by a strange feeling: it was as if I were invisible and anybody could stick their hands or walk right through me. At times, riding tram 4 or 6 to work, I fell out of time; at the sight of a Gypsy girl’s beautiful, bare shoulders my eyes filled with tears and I forgot I was going to the exams. In short, the ever thinning sentence, “I don’t want to live in this world anymore,” losing its complements (or concessions), was soon reduced to five words, not reducible any further, and my wish—which by that time appeared far too compromising—became “I don’t want to live.” As soon as I found this brief negation I felt relieved. Soon I resigned from my position at the university, thereby losing the severance pay, the condition of which would have been common assent, but I wasn’t sorry. I didn’t want to profit from my behaviour. My dream of the Last Judgement seemed to justify, retroactively, my rash decision.

So for the moment my swimming pool acquaintance observed that I was not living in this world, although his observation was meant to refer to the world of shares and dividends. “I remember a poster of a fat capitalist with a top hat and cigar,” I answered lightly, “with a gold signet ring on his sausage-like fingers. And you forgot to put on your signet ring!” I joked, gazing at his shapely hand and suddenly a clever idea about his profession struck me. “Are you a psychologist by chance?” “As you could have seen, I have studied psychology,” he answered, placing his fingers on the bottom of his glass. And—” He stopped suddenly. I looked at him: “And?” “And I have known lots of people like you.” “You have no idea how consoling it is to know that there are many people like me,” I continued joking, “so I’m not such a strikingly pathological case after all.” “At least not among my former acquaintances,” he nodded approvingly at his own words, “there are many similar ones.” He leaned back in his chair. The light of the naked lightbulb glared in my eye, I saw our waiter, holding the swinging door open with his foot, exchanging a few words with the receptionist. After your births I would have loved to have a third child, but had to realize that our marriage would not last another trial. Then I kept daydreaming about adopting an abandoned newborn from the nearby orphanage, before it became “manageable,” that is, before it got used to the lack of love. As a result, our walks took a turn towards the home on Lóczi Street, perhaps you remember the terrace, sunny even in winter. According to the strict rules, the nurses weren’t allowed to form closer bonds with the babies, for it would have made it even more difficult for these to cope with the fact that at one year old, then at three, and then at regular intervals throughout their school years, they were taken out of the community imitating a family where they may have taken roots. With my hopes connected to you and then with their repeated dissolution, I myself became distorted into your easily manageable, abandoned child. Don’t worry for me, but don’t try to love me either, I wished for later, for my eyes got used to the dark and your love would blind me.

“When the Company was dissolved,” my swimming-pool acquaintance revealed his cards suddenly, pulling the ashtray in front of him while his dark brown eyes pastured on my face, “they gave us a few shares.” It was the first time I heard the code name Company, but I knew at once what he was talking about. Perhaps I had already solved the riddle when I phrased my experience, inwardly, it is as though I were at an interrogation. So, I was having a conversation with a member of the dissolved Legion in the third-rate restaurant. I knew exactly what kind of shares he was talking about, because on one of our organized trips the driver informed the passengers about them when he stopped at a certain gas station. I must have become stand-offish. “Does this rule out our meetings from now on?”, my acquaintance asked. “Does the truth disturb you?” “It does.” I couldn’t tell anything else. Slowly we got up, he fished an one-thousand banknote, the only one, from his seedy purse, I protested in vain to share the bill at least, he insisted to pay.

The third yes. She was lying on the fresh bedsheet bleached from overwashing, covered with a blanket. She was numb, she remembered her negation, “I don’t want to live!” She was surprised that she had believed it to be irreducible any further, but now she knew one sentence that was shorter even. “I don’t live”: this was her conclusion. The ticking of an alarm clock was chasing the dust on the shelves decked with lace coverlets. The lace hung over the edge of the shelves. She could never understand why someone who is not good with plants would keep greenery in pots, if not for wanting to test the endurance of agonizing with leaves turned yellowish-brown. “Since my mother was taken to hospital”, the man apologized when they entered the flat, “everything’s been untidy.” She took a good look at the room. In fact everything was tidy. Tidy and dusty. She started dressing before becoming herself a stage prop, she rushed through the mechanical gestures, wanting them to be over the soonest possible, just as she wanted the ones to which she had lent herself a short while ago in the bed to be over. She picked up her blouse from the chair, disturbing the daytime sleep of a moth. She remembered her first love, the overwhelming bliss of thirty years ago, that barely let her sleep at night. Back then the flutter of a moth’s wings would wake her up at night, or at least she would have liked to believe so, as her senses got so sharpened that even noises inaudible to the human ear could startle her. In those days she was sorry for the time spent sleeping. Probably it was not the moth but the sense of her happiness that shook sleep from her eyes. She had read somewhere that in the empty hours, while waiting for a bus, queuing in a shop or bank, the thoughts of ninety percent of grown-ups revolve around love. It is curious, although perhaps understandable, that in this very situation she should remember this word, so out of place. She glanced at the door: the key which the man had turned at the moment of their entrance, probably mechanically, was no longer there. She tried to open the door but couldn’t. “How will I escape from here?” she asked, aghast. In the meantime they must have been talking about some thing or other with the man, because she could remember his pleasant voice coming in from the kitchen now and then, but had no inkling what the subject was. Did he want to hold her captive? Or was he merely warning her that she had walked into a trap?

To this day I can’t understand how it could happen. For a month my parents took care of you while I was in Madrid with a research scholarship—almost fifteen years ago now. I worked from the morning into the afternoon in the Cervantes Library. I lived in a depressing hostel where a lone 40-Watt lightbulb spread its sickly light in the windowless room, in utter solitude, without friends or company, dividing up the two-week grant to last a month. I lived like a hermit, even if not on berries and roots but on the two-course menus of cheap restaurants; rising early and going to bed early in the narrow iron bed; forever warding off the insistencies of the postman who would knock on my door on his free Sunday afternoons, put his foot in the gap when I opened the door, and whom I had to push out into the corridor. I toyed with the idea that I was all alone in the world, I didn’t even have you. I was always hungry, eating or carnal desire was forever on my mind. Often I dreamt of my father who had been dead for six years already. He had had a beautiful death, as they say, a heart attack took him away very quickly. It often occurred to me that, had he been alive, I could have asked him for advice. I didn’t see him die; perhaps he was still alive in some intermediary state, I codded myself. I would have liked to tell him that in my dreams I got letters from him, as thin as gossamer, they were handed to me by our dipsomaniac postwoman from back home. Leaning over the railings of the stairs I could barely reach her held-out hand, I would have complained; the sheets of the letter, sticking to one another, became unreadable and were torn in my hands. But, to return to my story: I had agreed with you that when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel I would call you. I had reckoned that it would happen halfway through my stay, so I had asked you to be at home on the 17th, on a Thursday afternoon at 6 o’clock. Back then it took twelve days for a letter to reach me from Budapest, and ten for one from me to travel home, so I didn’t have any fresh news from you, or you of me. From your little sister’s doodles I gathered that she missed me very much. In my happier days there I recognized her in all the black-haired little girls in long skirts. Once a little girl of about seven even greeted me: “¡Buenos días, seňora!” and I answered happily, to be ashamed in the next instant when she corrected me with the self-confidence of a proper young lady: “It wasn’t you I greeted, Madam!” Howeer absurd it sounds, her rejection made me very despondent. Her greeting was answered by the woman walking behind me. Your plump, trusting letters I interpreted now as a promise of the return of our lost happiness, now as its refutation. When I imagined how good it would feel to hear your voices, I immediately became insecure: you might be dismissive. I conjured up the possibility that they organize a school-wide ping-pong championship on that day, or that you would want to enroll in an orienteering competition but either have to drop out or leave earlier because of me. I feared that my mother might over-emphasize my importance and this would fuel your resentment. I tried to ward off my depressing thoughts with diligent note-taking and museum visits at luxury entrance fees. Then one morning on my way to the library I saw a poster announcing the screening of Bardem’s film, Calle Mayor, at a reasonably priced downtown cinema.

I had a season ticket for ten single journeys, I had to be tight with money, so I only took a bus or trolley-bus for long distances. That afternoon, too, I started out on foot on the Princesa to the cinema, leaving myself sufficient time. I had already bought the ticket and still had about half an hour to spend, so I walked on for a few streets’ length when I noticed a large glass office building or emporium on the corner; according to the billboard, a “Sala de Conferencias”, a “Conference Hall”. There were rather many people waiting inside, I thought I would take a look around the hall flooded in light, to see with whom you could have a conversation in there, and on what. I would like to ask my father, I toyed with the idea, if I was allowed to have cheap adventures. I craved the velvety skin of men and the touch of their long fingers, exactly as he used to crave women. As if my yearning had no further aim beyond aesthetic pleasure, and as if one step did not engender the next one, my desires appeared in lamb skins. As if I could stop this side of the instant of complete abandon and could be satisfied by running my fingers along the line of their mouths, or rest my head on their naked chests. Can I keep my name secret from them, and—as soon as I step out the door—become a stranger to them, just as they would remain strangers to me? I would have liked to hear his approval to such questions. But he kept silent until the night of our return from America. He only spoke to me in the mist of the night separating All Souls Day from All Saints Day, when I said good-bye to K. with whom I met for the first time after my long absence in an acquaintance’s flat. When I was groping in my handbag for my key to open the gate, at that moment he addressed me: “You live rightly.” But perhaps you have already guessed what the glass office building or emporium was in reality? The post office headquarters for long-distance telephone calls. The day of my cinema outing fell on April 17th, the Thursday of our agreement, and the hexagonal clock on the wall showed exactly a quarter to six. So I called you exactly at the time when you expected it. Your sister picked up the receiver, then my mother followed, and in the end you arrived (you had a ping-pong championship at school). There must be a rational explanation, to do with the working of the unconscious, for the fact that I didn’t forget about the call, although I had well-nigh forgotten about you. I was filled with gratitude towards providence that you were not disappointed in me, that I could keep my word.

The secret police agent soon reappeared in the shabby room with a flowery majolica plate full of sandwiches. On the one hand she was hungry, on the other hand she thought she couldn’t offend her one-time partner, provided he would let her out at all, so she took a bite. The bread with pork grease and Lajta cheese wrinkled up around her teeth. The grease reminded her of the most tortuous period of her childhood, the months she spent on a farmhouse without her parents; fortunately she couldn’t detect in the taste that smell of the pigsty, the swill and of the boar, which always made her stomach turn; it was its consistency rather that disgusted her. She watched the man’s boyish upper body, familiar from the pool. She didn’t even feel a passing tenderness towards him, her head would not rest on his smooth chest, although she had believed that in her dejection she was ready for this betrayal even.

Thus we started out together with my swimming-pool acquaintance from the restaurant to the bus stop. I wore his company like a thistle sticking to my coat after a walk through the thicket, all the way to Moszkva Square and from there on tram 59 for a few more stops, until the thistle finally detached itself from my coat and got off, for, as he said a short while ago, he lived around there. I imagined his apartment (his mother had been in hospital for some time). Perhaps women go up to his place and help with the cleaning up, perhaps they even cook for him, I mused. Provided he kills his time with women. His neighbours hardly knew anything about him, he told me when we were still in the restaurant, because his apartment opens on a closed corridor, so they can’t check. He must have a secret cabinet with drawers from which he takes out his documents, starts a strategy game, lays out photographs. With me too he proved to be a sharp observer, so at home he would open a new file and put down accurate notes on my behavior. “She has two grown-up daughters. Teaches literature at the Faculty of Arts. She is easy-going and open by temperament but is cautious and backs out before the decisive step. Has a bit of intellectual arrogance. Makes hostile statements on the past regime, doesn’t like to talk about herself, her behavior is tense. The one surveiling her should expect her to lose her nerve at any moment, or to simply turn round and leave. She has her weak spots through which she can be easily approached, these are to be specified, provided the relationship with her continues.” I had already got used to the fact that you would ridicule me. That my feeling of isolation would culminate this evening and I would drown in its high waters, but tomorrow morning, eternal survivor, I would surface again. It is not entirely bad to be a stranger—even to our own child—if we dive into the depths. By giving a shape to my story I tried to gain your sympathy, but I am not trying to get anything, for I’m afraid of change. That you should send me into exile among the happy, and be born to me again? It caught me unprepared that you embrace me, that two identical jackets embrace each other—this makes me lose my bearings. Once the daughter of a well-off family left off her university studies and went to work in the Renault factory: from that time whenever somebody spoke to her kindly she thought their kindness was merely an effect of a misunderstanding. For a long time to come I will live with the faith that you are mistaken, and that your error will shortly become obvious to you, too. Yet out of weakness, for a moment I rest my head on your shoulder.

— translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa


Zsuzsa Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. She started publishing in the early 1970s, gradually developing a consciously understated, slightly elegiac lyric voice coupled with profoundly personal themes, addressing both private and historical traumas. A former professor of Romance literatures, she has translated St. John of the Cross, Pessoa, Borges and others into Hungarian. Her story “Conference Hall” originally appeared in her 2007 volume A megtévesztő külsejű vendég. Önéletrajzaim [The Deceptive-looking Guest. My Autobiographies]. Her work is widely anthologized, and has been translated into English by George Szirtes, Laura Schiff, and Ottilie Mulzet, among others. Her poems and stories have appeared recently in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, and Locomotive Magazine. Reviews of her work and an interview can be read on Hungarian Literature OnlineShe lives in Budapest.



Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature TodayThe Missing SlateTrafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.



Sep 132016

MLbuganvilias1 (1)


IT WASN’T LIKE they’d been invited, but when they saw that house in the distance, they left the highway and took the dirt road that led to it. Nor were they accustomed to dropping in at strangers’ homes, but the fact was the long trek from Belize to Guatemala, the hours it’d taken to cross the border—as if the young couple traveling in a camper with the young man’s father were suspicious—had left them hungry and thirsty. If they drove up to the house it was to ask where they could eat. As they neared the structure of amber wood, evidence of the occupants’ life comforted them: a bicycle tossed on the grass, a tire swing hanging from the branch of a tree, sheets hung on a line. The sound of their motor attracted the attention of the inhabitants. First the children, then two small blond women and then a man with a long beard came onto the porch and smiled as if they had been expecting the visit. The couple and the boy’s father got out of the cab and the latter took the lead, greeted them in a mix of English and Spanish and quickly discovered English was the language to communicate with that friendly family. Rose, Wendy and Bob introduced themselves and gestured at the children, indicating that they were Wayne and Stephanie. The man and the young people also introduced themselves and then explained that they were looking for a place to eat, if they could give them directions, but Rose, Wendy and Bob immediately insisted that they were their guests, they were making lunch and would be delighted to share it with them. They emphasized the words “share it” and among the three exchanged glances as when a husband and wife consent to a decision taken on the fly, without consultation. Rose, who was wearing an overall which exposed her shoulders crossed by the turquoise straps of a bikini, directed the children, by way of giving them the news: we have guests, set three more places at the table. The children, without copying the welcoming smiles of their parents, said, yes, Mamá, and with looks of annoyance went into the house. Wash your hands, Wendy ordered, lost within a shimmering red dress. Yes, Mamá, the children answered without enthusiasm. The young couple exchanged a fleeting look, trying to disguise their discovery without being able to say a word; only confirming their suspicions by squeezing each other’s hands. They’d heard about communes, different ways of living together, thought they knew all about it, thought they owned the word “freedom” (maybe this trip derived from such a conviction) but now they were witnessing a lifestyle that embodied that word. When they were seated at the table, a bowl of salad was passed around, accompanied by rice with carrots, squash, sprouts, beans and eggs, the main course. They were vegetarians, they said, smiling; they were sorry not to be able to offer anything else, but the eggs supplied protein, Wendy said, and the legumes, the lentils and beans they mixed with the rice. The boy’s father, who traveled with a plethora of vitamins and minerals lined up each morning like beads on a string, endorsed Wendy’s nutritional knowledge and said that in addition these were foods rich in lecithin and nobody took lecithin into account.

During the meal, while Wayne and Stephanie opened their mouths and showed the guests their chewed balls of vegetable protein when their three parents weren’t looking, the young pair and the boy’s father learned their hosts had moved to Orange, Belize five years ago. Before the children were born, the three took a trip to Tikal and were convinced that Central America was the place to start a new life, far from the conventions of capitalism and hypocrisy, with the mystic force of the native cultures. They found a bit of land they rented from a British relative of Rose’s stepmother, and as it was very complicated to explain that, they summed it all up. Here they were, they had chickens, they made soy cheese, ground wheat and corn to make bread, grew fruit trees because vegetables were difficult; the climate didn’t permit tomatoes, for example. They said it rained a lot. We have beehives, Rose informed them when she served the dessert, and it was she who took care of the bees; the guests had to try the mango blossom honey. And she passed the pot with its dense aroma so the guests could pour the divine product over the mangos of their orchard.

The young couple kept exchanging glances; they had arrived in a place as sweet and yellow as the flesh of the mango that they lifted to their mouths in juicy bites. They were eighteen and on the point of deciding what to do with their lives. In the light of that golden well-being, their world seemed made of asphalt and motor noise, too much clothing and too many school exams: insipid routine. The boy’s father talked enthusiastically, asking about methods of cultivation, how they made compost, collected water. He’d just sold his automobile wheel factory and had bought the camper to explore his new life. He’d invited the couple to come along on this journey of recovered freedom, if indeed he ever had freedom, he told them when he spoke of his plans. Wanting to be together and on the road, they readily joined the father’s curiosity and imagination, felt an astonished and joyful complicity with that man twenty-five years their senior. They supposed it was his attitude about the trip and adventure that excited them. They didn’t realize that they shared the same question—what was happiness?

When Rose, Wendy and Bob invited them to see the water reservoir which supplied the house, and which they drank after boiling, the three were elated by the goodness of the paradise their hosts had built. One could live isolated, eat well, laugh and love each other, create a home. The young couple walked slowly in the tropical heat, seeking refuge in the shade of trees on the path. The children got on their bikes and sped by, splattering them with mud from the puddles. But all that was fine. Much more than taking the camper through the middle of the city, much more than the parties where they danced and drank, much more even than going to La Marquesa and climbing to Cruz Blanca at nearly 13,000 feet. Here they were more together. The boy said his friend Aldo would be happy to go with them. She understood his meaning: the three of them could be hand in hand and sleep curled up in the same bed of the camper if need be.

As if to demonstrate he was versed in engineering issues, Bob explained how the water drained down the sides of the pond and how it was fed into another lower reservoir from which it was piped into the house. The gradual slope and quantity of rain were ideal. If the reservoir overflowed, the canals they’d designed carried the water as far as the orchard and then the river below. Under that high sun, the children took off their rubber boots and stripped rapidly to throw themselves into the pond. Bob watched them with satisfaction: the water’s fresh and irresistible, he informed the guests as if he were the narrator of an ad. And he also sat on a stone to take off his shoes. Wendy and Rose joined forces to advise the guests to swim: they had to refresh themselves before getting back on the road. The young couple looked at each other again because they’d left bathing suits in the camper, but their hostesses had already taken off the red dress, the overall and blue bikini, and Bob his pants and t-shirt. He didn’t wear boxers. How annoying they are, he said, when he saw that the boy’s father lingered in his briefs before exposing himself completely. The girl looked at her boyfriend, hesitating. They were still protected in their pants and tee shirts, and even worse, lacked the skill to undress quickly and fling themselves into the coolness with the naturalness of their hosts. The boy began: took off his tennies and shirt, and she, without looking at the boy’s father out of modesty, rushed to take off her playera, bra and finally her pants and socks. When she saw the boy going ahead to jump into the water, she tossed her clothing carelessly on the grass. Alone and naked on the shore she felt destitute. Running after him more as a chore than for pleasure, she submerged herself in the water that revealed their bodies. She looked for the boy because she needed his protection, but it was Bob and Wendy who swam to her side and bragged about the benefits of bathing in their crystalline water. Rose emerged naked and round on the shore, the sparse down of her sex dripping, her breasts pink and large, while the boy and the girl, separated, avoided looking at each other. The women shouted to Wayne not to urinate, which he was doing in a sumptuous arc, on the water where everyone was swimming. And Wayne took off running after his sister.

The young couple began to feel comfortable in the water, in front of the others. As Wendy went over to Bob and embraced him sweetly, as Rose hugged Wendy, as Bob kissed them each tenderly, and then gave them a pat on the butt when they moved away, kicking toward the boy’s father, the shame of nudity seemed to abandon them. It was a thing of the past, of the shore minutes earlier. Submerged near the shore the boy’s father needed a little push, Wendy and Rose said, challenging him to a race. Then he, without saying a word, left his reserve and set out swimming, leaving them far behind while the young people looked at his white rear emerging from time to time. The two women revenged his triumph by splashing him, and then warmly embracing him. Rose kissed him on the lips and swam across to Bob, who laughed while Wendy boldly kissed the guest. The young couple got closer together, there in that water, whose muddy bottom they dipped toes in. They didn’t go near the others, although Bob called them to where he and Rose were playing. He cupped water in his hands and let it fall over her breasts. The young couple weren’t prepared to share their nudity with others; it was enough to feel their submerged bodies beating with a pulse that hadn’t ever manifested like this before: in the midst of a liberty without restrictions, a naturalness like mango flesh. They kissed their wet mouths and his erection brushed her thighs. They’d made love before the trip and during it had dared to while the boy’s father slept in the upper bunk, and also when she stretched out in the back bed, because the tight curves had made her carsick.

This time, with the laughter and nearness of the others, they discovered secret, prohibited sex. There was something public and private in that rubbing under the water; their nakedness, no different than that of the others, excited them. They didn’t talk to each other nor let Bob coax them over; there was enough mystery between them to add something new. The children came back asking that one of the parents peel them a green mango and fix it with lime and salt. Rose moved away from Bob, Wendy from the boy’s father, and Bob stopped calling the young couple and started getting out of the water to take care of the kids. No help for it, he said, and invited the others to eat green mango. He’d wait for them on the porch. He walked his naked, hairy body in front of them all and only the girl looked at it openly. The nakedness of men was something recently added to her experience, and she compared the sex of the boy with that of Bob, who had not been circumcised. The pubes of Wendy and Rose, whose rosy bodies passed near them to get dressed and help with the green mango ritual, didn’t provoke the same curiosity in her.

They didn’t notice when the boy’s father got out to get dressed. Now that only they remained, they wanted to stay, oppose themselves to the rest and the children, kiss each other rabidly because they had participated in a definition of happiness they hadn’t known before. They didn’t know if they wanted it for themselves or if the boy’s father would adopt it.

They said goodbye to Bob, Wendy and Rose, and the children Wayne and Stephanie, who ran next to the camper along the dusty stretch of road, throwing dried mango pits, irritated by that world of smiles and living in harmony, of rice with vegetables and pond water, of nakedness and shared bodies, of Papá and Mamá and Mamá and we love you very much, of that way of being happy. The couple looked at the approaching highway. They paid no attention to the sound of pits striking metal, had their hands interlaced as if to protect them from the need to find answers. When they reached the asphalt and the camper slid along smoothly, the boy’s father broke the silence: good people those Dutch. They didn’t respond, only abandoned themselves to the serpentine road in the midst of the luminous green of the countryside.


The Textbook Case
for Emilia

HAVE YOU EVER dialed a wrong number? I’m talking about when you’re stressed because you’re not going to get to an appointment on time and then in the car, at a red light, trying to keep the traffic cop from seeing you, you open your day minder, quickly punch in the number of the person you’re going to meet? Since he doesn’t answer, she leaves a message on his cell: “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, wait for me.” Relieved, she drives to the meeting and there he is with the documents that have to be reviewed so that her paper can be considered for the conference, the first in her anthropology career: “Single mothers in middle class neighborhoods of the city.”

Has it happened that you don’t even realize you’d left a message on a wrong number because the person you had the appointment with doesn’t mention the call and has simply waited the fifteen minutes imposed by familiarity with city traffic? She parks and apologizes before sitting down, but he has no complaints because after all, he’s been comfortably waiting in a café while she’s been the one driving and dodging through traffic, her mind racing like the motor of the car. They begin immediately to review the objectives she had posed for the research: he’s a member of the committee that selects presenters and had been her professor besides. He knows she’s brilliant. During the discussion, her cell vibrates within her jacket pocket; she feels it because she didn’t take the jacket off. She wouldn’t have answered it anyway, because she doesn’t like to be interrupted. She knows when she should take a call and when not to. This isn’t the time. Warming up by her second coffee, she sheds the jacket, so doesn’t feel the insistent vibration–like a dentist’s drill—demanding an answer.


She’s back home before she realizes that she has five calls from the same number. The number hasn’t been registered under a name—it would have shown on her screen. There’s a message. “What do you want? Stop bothering me.” The number appears to be similar to her professor’s, which she’d called when she was going to be late. She checks the call and confirms it. But it isn’t her professor’s voice. It’s someone else who answered her call while she was in the café. The voice is unpleasant; she listens to it again. The “what do you want” is loaded with irritation. While she searches for the professor’s number to see what the error was, someone leaves another message. She listens to it: “I told you not to call me.” It’s the same irritated male voice. The insistence angers her and she thinks how absurd it is that an attempted apology set off this series of calls. When she gets a call from someone she doesn’t know, she simply doesn’t bother to answer it. To do this, someone must be very lonely. At best, it’s a message in a bottle washed up from the sea, like in the story she read by some Bernardo Ruiz, where a girl calls numbers at random from prison to see if someone sometime will answer from the outside. And someone does.


She fixes dinner: a sincronizada, grilled tortilla sandwich with lots of salsa and beans. She’s happy with the professor’s comments: it’s likely that she’ll be chosen to read her paper at the conference. She feels good, like when she made paper boats with her father and blew on them so they’d sail in the fountain at the park and the boat didn’t fall on its side, but kept going straight. As she sits to eat, the cell phone buzzes. She’d put it on vibrate, and on the table the sound resembles a compulsive cicada. That’s what her mother says: “Answer your compulsive cicada already.” She’d never seen a cicada. Her mother said they were big, ugly, nocturnal insects. That their looks match the disagreeable sound they make. She answers without thinking, and the voice at the other end scolds her: “I told you to never leave me messages.” She thinks about the cicada’s appearance; suspects this man has a wart on his big nose. “Look, mister, I don’t know who you are. I called a wrong number,” she says, liberated and looking at the sincronizada on her plate. “I made a mistake,” she mutters in an exasperated tone after a silence. The cicada seems to have realized he doesn’t know her voice. Another silence; she’s on the point of hanging up but he finishes with: “Then don’t go around making mistakes, stupid,” and hangs up. She returns to her lukewarm dinner. Now on top of feeling guilty for arriving late to her appointment, she’s supposed to feel bad for having dialed a wrong number. She has the urge to call the imbecile back and tell him that surely he’s never made a mistake. He’s never confused a two with a seven, which is what happened to her.


Has it ever happened that the mistake you made kept coming back? That once you’ve sighed the relief of confusion clarified and begun to forget the voice of the bothersome, disconcerting cicada, and are in bed reading the novel that lulls you to sleep, the phone rings again and you find that at such an hour (when normally only family or your partying friends would dare to call) the wrong number is calling again? She doesn’t even consider answering. If it wasn’t clear enough and he can’t stand getting an erroneous message, then he should see a shrink, give that a shot, just stop bothering her. She mutes the phone and sleeps. The next morning its red blinking makes her realize there’s a message. She sighs, reluctant to listen to this intrusion. She thinks the word and it seems curious to qualify someone who calls that way, because actually she was the one who inserted herself into a stranger’s life, by bungling a simple courtesy call.


While drinking her coffee on the edge of the bed she listens to the message. “Slutty woman, leave my husband alone. Damned whore.” The strange voice is fraught with aggression. It’s astonishing that her misdialing has resulted in all this. She supposes that it’s the old, where there’s smoke…or she fit like a glove in the wrong place at the right time, someone’s tail has been stepped on…She’s upset, making explanations in proverbs like her grandmother. She wants to call the woman and shout at her that she’s done nothing, that they need to leave her alone, that their fights are their problems and if her husband is despicable, they have to deal with it themselves. She clears herself with those words with which she would like to pierce the idiot’s ear. Then she starts thinking about how absurd the situation is and how laughable. What if she calls and says to the man: Look, I already told you I called your number by mistake, straighten things out with your wife but don’t put me in the middle of it? She imagines him explaining: “Sweetheart, honestly, the girl called by mistake. She can tell you herself.” He hands over the phone. She says: “I’m Elsa, an anthropology student, you’ve mistaken me, ma’am, and I’m neither a whore nor do I get mixed up with repulsive cicadas, and even less married ones. If you are not disgusted by your husband I am.” And the wife replying: “Ah, you know him? Don’t think that I’m going to believe you, dead mosquito. It doesn’t matter to me whether you study seals or whistles, don’t students fuck? Or do books inhibit sex?” She wasn’t going to bare her breast for the other woman to unload on. She didn’t want to begin her day that way, fed up to here, or better yet, up to her ass, in the middle of the bed of Mr. & Mrs. X.


Haven’t you done the same out of sheer exhaustion? On the tenth message from the wife infuriated by the infidelity of her husband, by her jealousy justified or not, after receiving insult after insult each time more obscene, more grotesque, wouldn’t you opt to put an end to the situation? Of course, she could have shut off the cell, asked for a change of number. But she thought she shouldn’t have to be made the victim of the game and suffer the consequences: having to advise everyone that her number’s changed, especially the professor who should call her in the next few hours. And no way he ought to get that “the number you called is no longer in service” routine. The messages have intensified so drastically that she thinks only confronting the gross, obscene woman will resolve things. So she answers the tenth call in the afternoon and tells the woman they can meet in the Vips on Revolution. Sufficiently far from her house. She will explain who she is and why the woman should leave her in peace. Perhaps the two of them can get a load off their minds.


She sits at the table nearest the entrance, as they’d agreed, and orders a coffee. She doesn’t like the coffee in that place but only wants to pass the time and calm her nerves. She doesn’t know how she’ll react when she sees the enemy: what’s the woman like, with her shrieky voice and beside herself? Short? Curly hair? Does she have a big nose? Doesn’t wax her moustache? Dresses in loud colors? By the jealousy, she supposes the wife’s neither very young nor very old. Forty-something, she thinks. Typical case of the husband who betrays her with young women because her fading looks and domestic preoccupations have killed his appetite. Typical case. She, young, nice-looking, tall, a bit plump but acceptable, fell into the middle of a textbook case (so says the professor). If the jealous wife sees her, she won’t doubt that her husband has been having an affair. The thought floors her. She looks at her watch: the fifteen minutes have lapsed. The woman ought to be there already. She looks around: tables with couples, groups of women, two men, a family, various young people. She realizes that she’s the only woman by herself in the place. The cell rings. She recognizes the number and answers cautiously. Nobody speaks on the other end. She looks around thinking that a cell at the ear would allow her to discover the accuser. She feels afraid. Better to go.


Wouldn’t you have done the same? Now she doesn’t want to face the person who has not appeared. She’s been naive. The textbook case doesn’t end like this. Go. She leaves quickly after paying and stamping the parking ticket, looking around as if she were guilty of something. Not wanting to run into the woman who was perhaps just calling to say she was late. But the voice didn’t speak. Would she repeat the situation that started this distasteful appointment in the first place? She gets in her car and goes down Revolution, takes Rio Mixcoac to her house: she’ll get home and throw the cell in the trash. She’ll send her professor an email, trying to make sure he doesn’t think it’s just a way of trying to find out the committee’s decision; she’ll say her cell’s not working, that she missed anything if he called or texted her. If there was anything, of course; and then she’d tell him what happened as a result of her appointment, the textbook case…


The last two blocks seem interminable; she turns, parks in front of the house and when she starts to get out of the car it hits her. Noticing a car parking behind her, she’s struck by an urgent need for safety. Instead of walking away, she runs to the front door of the house. She goes in and, without lighting the lights, closes herself in her room. Then the cell rings again. She knows that if she looks out the window, a woman will be standing on the sidewalk with a phone to her ear. She moves the curtain and peeks out. The woman’s a tall redhead. And determined. The cell continues to ring. She has no reason to get rid of it now.

— Mónica Lavín, translated from the Spanish by Patricia Dubrava


Mónica Lavín is the prolific author of short stories and story collections, including Manual para enamorarse, 2012. Her novels include Yo, la peor, about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, which won the Elena Poniatowska Prize, 2010. Lavín has also won the Gilberto Owen National Prize for Literature among other awards. www.monicalavin.com.



Patricia Dubrava is a writer and translator whose translations from Spanish include stories by Mónica Lavín in Metamorphoses, Reunion: The Dallas Review, K1N, Lunch Ticket, and Norton’s Flash Fiction International, 2015. Most recently, in 2016, Lavín stories have appeared in Aldus Journal of Translation and Mexico City Lit. Dubrava blogs at www.patriciadubrava.com


Sep 112016



The setting is rural Catalonia in the early years following the Spanish Civil War, and the young narrator of Black Bread has been sent to stay with relatives on his paternal grandmother’s farm. His father has been jailed and his mother is too busy to care for him. In this excerpt, Andreu and his cousins, Quinze and “Cry-Baby,” enjoy that last days before school resumes playing in the orchard and spying on the TB patients in the monastery garden. They have, however, the clear sense that the adults in their lives are not entirely truthful about what is really going on during this troubled time.

Black Bread was originally published at Pa negre in 2003, and is translated from the Catalan by the great Peter Bush.

— Joseph Schreiber


WE LIVED UP the plum tree until autumn came.

When the days began to shorten, nighttime sometimes caught us in the tree and Ció had to shout to us to climb down.

“Blessed kids!” she’d gripe after she’d stopped bawling, when we were standing in front of her. “You spend too much time playing for the age you are. One of these days a branch will break and you’ll crack your skulls open.”

“They’re all up to no good, they run riot,” said Grandmother, keeping her eyes glued to the knitting needles her fingers moved over her ample bosom, while she kept her arms still.

The Novíssima didn’t start until early October, and for the early weeks of school when we three chased back to the farmhouse, the first thing we did was put our cardboard satchels on the stone bench in the entrance, go into the kitchen and grab the slices of bread spread with oil and sugar or wine and sugar Ció or Grandmother had prepared for us on a dish in the middle of the table, then we’d run with our snacks to the plum tree so we could climb up and eat them lounging back on our branches.

Now and then, when a colder breeze blew and the reddish sun didn’t linger as it did in summer, when evenings were like the inside walls of a bread oven that retained the heat from the flames of logs burnt moments before, we took blankets up the tree to wrap around us and fought off as best we could the cold and early nighttime damp coming out of the woods. The damp, stifling heat, treacherous cold or gusting wind all emerged from the forest that was like an immense belly or huge pantry full of small compartments that hoarded all the good and bad luck that existed in the world. Up in our plum tree we often thought we’d be able to catch the moment when the leaves changed colour, but the change in the leaves, like moulting feathers, always happened from one day to the next; overnight an area of wood turned a dazzling saffron yellow, and a few days later the beech trees had turned wine-red, soon to be followed by the silvery white of the poplars, the dark brown of the chestnut trees, the humid greens… We looked at each other in dismay, as if someone was making fun of our wait and one year Cry-Baby suggested we stay there the whole night to catch the precise moment of change.

“You’re such an idiot!” laughed Quirze. “How would we ever see anything? It’s pitch black at night and we won’t see the new colours until the following morning, when it will all be over and done with!”

However, Cry-Baby was stubborn and ignored him. She’d say nothing and I could tell from her determination, from her staring eyes, firm lips and jutting chin that she wouldn’t give up until she got a proper answer.

From the tree we used to gaze at the mysterious little lights in the cells in the Saint Camillus monastery as they lit up one after another, indicating that the friars, brothers and novices were getting ready to go out to care for the moribund souls in the neighbouring farmhouses or village.

Until someone howled from the gallery: “Where have those little blighters got to?”

“I want to see them here breaking up the sweetcorn. Or fetching buckets of water for the troughs or the sink.”

Cry-Baby was such a ninny nobody ever included her in their summons.

“They’re back up the plum tree!” shouted an astonished Dad Quirze or a farmhand, usually Jan, the oldest hand, who was like a piece of the furniture.

“Where did you get those blankets?” raged Ció, as she watched us walking towards her, shamefaced, with our blankets. “No corner of this house is safe with you drones buzzing around. I’ve told you a thousand times not to touch the things I keep in the two big baskets in the doorway, whatever they might be. These blankets don’t belong to us! Put them back where you found them right away.”

And when we were just about to return them to the big basket, before removing the lid, Ció snatched them from us, looking alarmed: “Leave them on the floor! Don’t ever touch them again. Nobody must touch them. They are all infected. Go and wash your hands at once, you naughty devils! You’re disgusting!”

We three didn’t know what to do next. We knew Ció was contradicting herself and we put that down to her being so upset by our mischief-making. We didn’t understand why the easygoing Ció was getting worked up by what we thought was a worthless pile of cloth no doubt destined to be used by the livestock, the mule, the mares, the horses or the colt, that was small and frisky like a toy and the one we liked best.

“They are the blankets the Saint Camillus friars threw out because they stank to high heaven. Ugh! They used them to cover their ill patients until they breathed their last. Most were draped over the ones with TB who sun themselves in the heartsease garden. Ugh! I wasn’t very keen to take them, and I only did so as a favour, and I didn’t touch a single one with my hands, I stuffed them in the big basket using tongs and a pitchfork.”

However, whenever we spied on the heartsease garden from the top of the plum tree, or, especially when we’d stood by the wall separating the land around the farmhouse near the pond and hazelnut spinney from the monastery gardens and orchards, we were horrified to see a row of naked, skeletal bodies stretched out, all young men, sunning themselves in a meadow full of yellow daisies, pale pink carnations, bright red poppies and purple, almost lilac or mauve heartsease, the colour of the habits the Saint Camillus order reserved for Holy Week. All those boys, or rather, young men, lay on the whitest of sheets, some clutching a corner to cover their nether parts, the area that most drew our attention, the bit that fascinated us infinitely more than their emaciated faces, sunken eyes, the small beads of sweat on their temples, their chests striped by protruding ribs, bellies, collapsed in some cases, swollen in others, and their off-white or yellow rancid butter skin…, those blackened, shrunken genitals and a crop of lank hair like an obscene black bloodstain…, monsters in our eyes, phantoms from a forbidden world, sickly, worn down and consumed by a horrible microbe, victims of a contagious, suppurating disease like the rabies dogs spread or sheep’s foot-and-mouth, that can be caught simply by breathing the air or drinking from the same glass a TB sufferer has used, an accursed disease, contracted as a result of an errant life of vice, sick men condemned in life, proof of the deity’s pitiless punishment of sin, swaddled in white sheets like premature cadavers in dazzling white shrouds… Yet we’d never seen one under a blanket.

A black umbrella was planted next to the sheets of just three or four TB sufferers, so the shade protected their heads. The presence of those faceless bodies, some shamelessly displaying their sexes, were shocking in our eyes and beyond words. A mystery and a secret no one could fathom. And a friar sat next to the little gate from the vegetable plots to the monastery garden, reading his breviary and never looking up, as if to have sight of the infirm was to behold evil, physical evil, a palpable sign of invisible spiritual evil, a repugnant manifestation of sin.

We didn’t touch another blanket that autumn. But the two baskets, especially the big one, were inexplicably marked out as things only adults could handle. Why did they keep those dangerous blankets in that place of transit, within everyone’s reach and what should the movers and shakers in the house—Dad Quirze and Aunt Ció—the delegates of our invisible masters, do about them? Why didn’t the friars destroy them in the monastery if they were worthless? What deal had they done over those ignominious bits of cloth?

“They should be washed back and front, boiled, scrubbed, scraped, dusted and dried and then we’ll see if they are any use,” said Ció on that occasion, after she’d calmed down. “On Saturday when we go to the market in Vic, we’ll leave them with the wenches who launder the lovely linen from the Poor Hospital, and let’s see what they can do. The Town Hall allows those nuns to use the communal wash-house all night, when nobody else washes and the water is filthy from all the daytime washing. On Sunday, when the sisters have finished, they change the water. And even then the wretched Saint Camillus folk won’t make anything from them.”

However, one day, surely another autumn, when we were looking for clothes to keep us warm, when the weather drove us from our tree, when we’d all forgotten her little rant, Aunt Ció mentioned those blankets again.

“Don’t touch the blankets!” she said this time. “God knows where those damned friars found them! I expect they collected them up after the war, when they returned to the monastery the lice-ridden militia had occupied like a barracks, and the church was full of shit, with hens running round the altar and sheep penned up in the Chapel of the Most Holy Spirit as if it were a stable… I bet they found them on the floor abandoned by the Republican soldiers who’d had to beat it hell-for-leather when the fascist troops, led by the Moors, entered Vic. And now they don’t know what to do with them, they can’t use them, not even to wrap up the sick, and they want us to sell them in the market: I wonder what we’ll get for rags that are so old and filthy not even the novices in the monastery want them, ugh, and so full of bugs they need washing at least ten times.”

We never saw anyone take the blankets to Vic market on that Saturday or any other.

Adults think children have the same poor powers of recall they have. They forget we children have no memories of anything, that words and acts are all new to us and every little detail remains automatically etched on our brains.

— Emili Teixidor, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Excerpt from the novel Black Bread, translated into English by Peter Bush, and published by Biblioasis.


Born in 1933, Emili Teixidor‘s first novel, Retrato de un asesino de pájaros, was published to tremendous acclaim in 1988, followed by several more which established him as one of Spain’s greatest contemporary authors. Teixidor died in 2012.



Peter Bush is a prize-winning English literary translator. He has translated works from Catalan, French, Spanish and Portuguese to English, including the work of Josep Pla, Joan Sales and Merce Rodoreda.


Sep 092016
Photo by Dorothea Erichsen

Photo by Dorothea Erichsen





On Translating Les Fleurs du Mal

The line-by-line process I learned in poetry translation workshop mimics the molecular genetics mechanism of DNA into RNA into protein into living energy, but writing these translations, I’ll admit, felt a little more like using organic chemistry glassware to make hard candy. One evening, late in the workshop session when I had been feeling somewhat misunderstood and far from the main thread, I departed from my usual non-Roman alphabets (Tamil and Arabic) to work on Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. I didn’t think of it as a temper-tantrum at the time, but yes, there I went, twisting rhymes up against the poems’ glass tubes and then adding a few microns of imagery to enshrine my favorite women from history in the “flowers of evil.” As subversion it failed—no one took offense at my riff on “La Beauté.” But I became curious: subversion of a subversive collection yields… what exactly?

A little background on Les Fleurs du Mal… first published in 1857, Charles Baudelaire’s first poetry collection was not well received: “the book was publicly denounced as offending public morality, which led to the prosecution of Baudelaire and Poulet-Malassis. Author and publisher were dragged to court, convicted, fined heavily, and six of the poems were banned from the book.” The 1861 edition, which included 35 new poems, lifted Baudelaire’s prospects temporarily, but never raised his career as poet to anything like success during his lifetime. His poetry stemmed from influences like Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit, an early instance of prose poetry, and it blossomed prolifically in influencing the French symbolists and those who followed them. Baudelaire’s brilliance fits a description by Phong Nguyen in the introduction to the latest issue of Pleiades: “writers…can always go for shock because scorning the prevailing moral consensus fills us with the cathartic joy of breaking taboo. But the ones who do it really well challenge the fixed morality of their day in order to further collective moral understanding, not actually to subvert or replace it.”

In my line-by-line translation of “La Beauté,” I added a reference to radium, an element that my workshop peers pointed out would have been known only after Baudelaire’s time. Marie Curie discovered radium in 1898 and much later founded the Radium Institute in Paris, propelling its fame. Eve Curie, in her biography of her famous mother, described something so close to the inverse of the poem: “[she] bent over the apparatus where the ‘numeration’ of atoms took place, and admired the sudden irradiation of a willemite ore by the action of radium. Before these familiar miracles a supreme happiness was set alight in her ash-gray eyes… ‘Ah, what a pretty phenomenon!’ she would murmur.” Describing Mme. Curie on her deathbed, “All in white, her white hair laying bare the immense forehead, the face at peace, as grave and valiant as a knight in armor, she was, at this moment, the noblest and most beautiful thing on earth. Her rough hands, calloused, hardened, deeply burned by radium, had lost their familiar nervous movement. They were stretched out on the sheet, stiff and fearfully motionless—those hands which had worked so much.”

I chose other poems from Les Fleurs du Mal by consciously searching for connections with my fiercest heroines. In “Rise,” the biography of Margaret Fuller came to my mind, because of the poem’s quiet insistence on a transcendental mood. In “Je n’ai pas oublie, voisine de la ville…” the last three lines especially evoked scenes from Edith Wharton’s and Elizabeth Bowen’s novels, where the narrative sets us up to spy on the characters, almost to glare at them, and usually to set them apart from the opulence that enshrouds them. “La Vie antérieure” and “L’Aube spirituelle” point to the recurrence of social diseases, over and over in human history, which brought me to a few powerful promoters of change: Dorothy Day, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

My departures from the original poems are slight, but these experiment-translations are not meant to reproduce an exact copy of Baudelaire’s intentions. My device was more like a titration experiment: adding a substance of known pH to the unknown solution, in this case adding my personal goddesses to the poems. In the introduction to Shapiro’s translation, Willis Barnstone explains that these poems were a type of experiment for Baudelaire himself: “he was obsessed with the notion of evil, and to accept or reject it he had first to express it….the poems speak of beauty and escape, love and death, and an overriding metaphysic. And the mood of melancholy morality may at once be infused with an ecstasy of otherness and joy when the poet, for a moment, climbs high or descends so low as to find light. In poems where corruption and beauty seem inseparable, the poems give off both light and darkness.” Translation, as an active investigation, rather than a pursuit of perfected products, can yield, in my metaphor, the excellent peppermints and extra clean lab glassware that make all the difference in understanding the poet’s genius.

—A. Anupama


“Je n’ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville…”

(Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bowen)

I haven’t forgotten our white cottage,
small and quiet, beyond the town’s edge,
where plaster goddesses stood hidden,
Pomona and Venus, naked in the sickly garden.
The sun in the evening, flowing and vain,
scattered his rays across every pane
and loomed, an enormous staring eye in the strange sky,
to meditate on our long, silent dinners and to spy,
glaring, like candlelight spilling across our table, until
finally gilding each drapery cord twist and curtains’ twill.


Je n’ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville,
Notre blanche maison, petite mais tranquille;
Sa Pomone de plâtre et sa vieille Vénus
Dans un bosquet chétif cachant leurs membres nus,
Et le soleil, le soir, ruisselant et superbe,
Qui, derrière la vitre où se brisait sa gerbe
Semblait, grand oeil ouvert dans le ciel curieux,
Contempler nos dîners longs et silencieux,
Répandant largement ses beaux reflets de cierge
Sur la nappe frugale et les rideaux de serge.


La Vie antérieure / My Past Life

(Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman)

I had a long life, under vast porticoes
stained by marine sunlight’s thousand-fold flame
and framed by grand pillars, of upright and royal fame,
which, in evening light, reflect everything basalt knows.

Sea-swells scroll the reflection of the skies,
shuffling the solemn and the mystics
with the powerful, by harmonizing their rich music
with the colors of sunset, on the surfaces of my eyes.

I lived there in tranquil, voluptuous
deep blue, in the waves, in splendors
with nude slaves, all pricked with odors

and fanning my forehead with palm branches,
whose true role was the deep answer
to the grievous secret that made me shiver.


J’ai longtemps habité sous de vastes portiques
Que les soleils marins teignaient de mille feux,
Et que leurs grands piliers, droits et majestueux,
Rendaient pareils, le soir, aux grottes basaltiques.

Les houles, en roulant les images des cieux,
Mêlaient d’une façon solennelle et mystique
Les tout-puissants accords de leur riche musique
Aux couleurs du couchant reflété par mes yeux.

C’est là que j’ai vécu dans les voluptés calmes,
Au milieu de l’azur, des vagues, des splendeurs
Et des esclaves nus, tout imprégnés d’odeurs,

Qui me rafraîchissaient le front avec des palmes,
Et dont l’unique soin était d’approfondir
Le secret douloureux qui me faisait languir.


La Beauté / Beauty

(Marie Curie, H.D.)

Dear mortals, I am lovely, like a dream made of stone,
and my breast, upon which all are bruised in their turn,
inspires in poets especially a love that burns
solid, eternal and mute as radium, pure matter alone.

I sit enthroned, a mysterious sphinx in the blue sky–
my heart of snow, like the whiteness of swans,
despises any movement that displaces the lines,
and never do I laugh and never do I cry.

The poets, prostrate before my grand nudes,
which I pretend to have lent the masterworks of art,
consume their days in studies, their minds occlude;

because I have, for hypnotizing those open hearts,
pure mirrors that amplify my spell:
my eyes, my large eyes, an eternal well!


Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre,
Et mon sein, où chacun s’est meurtri tour à tour,
Est fait pour inspirer au poète un amour
Eternel et muet ainsi que la matière.

Je trône dans l’azur comme un sphinx incompris;
J’unis un coeur de neige à la blancheur des cygnes;
Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes,
Et jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris.

Les poètes, devant mes grandes attitudes,
Que j’ai l’air d’emprunter aux plus fiers monuments,
Consumeront leurs jours en d’austères études;

Car j’ai, pour fasciner ces dociles amants,
De purs miroirs qui font toutes choses plus belles:
Mes yeux, mes larges yeux aux clartés éternelles!


L’Aube spirituelle / Spiritual dawn

(Florence Nightingale, Dorothy Day)

When dawn’s pink light enters the house of sin,
like the meeting of the Pure with her congregation of river rats,
a mysterious operation begins, piercing vengeance in the ersatz
profligate, numbly sleeping while an angel awakens within.

The blue sky of spirit is impossible
for the man struck down again and again by dreams
and for whom the abyss beckons and beams.
And just so, dear Goddess, pure and bright Apple,

over the charred remains of mindless orgies
your memory grows ever more clear, rosy, charming,
turning cartwheels in my eyes, which dilate to apertures alarming.

The sun blackens the flames of candles;
and just so, your vanquishing spirit in whole
equals the immortal sun, dear blazing soul!


Quand chez les débauchés l’aube blanche et vermeille
Entre en société de l’Idéal rongeur,
Par l’opération d’un mystère vengeur
Dans la brute assoupie un ange se réveille.

Des Cieux Spirituels l’inaccessible azur,
Pour l’homme terrassé qui rêve encore et souffre,
S’ouvre et s’enfonce avec l’attirance du gouffre.
Ainsi, chère Déesse, Etre lucide et pur,

Sur les débris fumeux des stupides orgies
Ton souvenir plus clair, plus rose, plus charmant,
À mes yeux agrandis voltige incessamment.

Le soleil a noirci la flamme des bougies;
Ainsi, toujours vainqueur, ton fantôme est pareil,
Ame resplendissante, à l’immortel soleil!


Élévation / Rise

(Margaret Fuller)

Above the valleys, above the ponds,
the mountains, woods, clouds, and seas,
well past the sun and ether’s breeze,
and past the limits of sphered stars beyond,

my soul, you move with ease,
and like the swimmer who leaps into waves
you cheerfully cross an unsoundable gulf, brave
and with a mute and masculine tease.

Stay away from these miasmas of death.
Transparent orb, take to the high, pure air,
and make a fine and divine elixir,
like flames in space, of your breath.

Leaving behind all the ennui and sorrows
of daily dread, heavy as fog upon the countryside,
the blissful can dial their wings wide
and dart toward bright and serene furrows.

With minds like morning songbirds
gliding near the skies in rising liberty—
they soar through life and know every subtlety
of lectures by flowers and of all without words!


Au-dessus des étangs, au-dessus des vallées,
Des montagnes, des bois, des nuages, des mers,
Par delà le soleil, par delà les éthers,
Par delà les confins des sphères étoilées,

Mon esprit, tu te meus avec agilité,
Et, comme un bon nageur qui se pâme dans l’onde,
Tu sillonnes gaiement l’immensité profonde
Avec une indicible et mâle volupté.

Envole-toi bien loin de ces miasmes morbides;
Va te purifier dans l’air supérieur,
Et bois, comme une pure et divine liqueur,
Le feu clair qui remplit les espaces limpides.

Derrière les ennuis et les vastes chagrins
Qui chargent de leur poids l’existence brumeuse,
Heureux celui qui peut d’une aile vigoureuse
S’élancer vers les champs lumineux et sereins;

Celui dont les pensers, comme des alouettes,
Vers les cieux le matin prennent un libre essor,
— Qui plane sur la vie, et comprend sans effort
Le langage des fleurs et des choses muettes!

—Charles Baudelaire translated by A. Anupama


A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she organizes literary community (RiverRiver.org), and blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.


Sep 042016



Throughout the first three novels in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s tetralogy, the unnamed narrator and his love interest Marie have been on the verge of break-up and broken up. Yet, in some ways, they’ve never really been apart. In this passage from the fourth and final novel Naked, after returning from a trip where the couple rekindled their love, the narrator sits alone in his apartment thinking of Marie, waiting for a sign that she’s thinking of him too.

Naked was originally published in 2013, and is translated from the French by Edward Gauvin.

— Jason Lucarelli


IDIDN’T DARE admit it to myself outright, but what I was waiting for now at the window was—already—a phone call from Marie. I even hoped to get her call before stepping away from the window, before I had time to do anything in the apartment, go through my mail or unpack my bags, so that when I picked up I could say, the amused modesty in my voice perhaps tinged with a zest of triumph, “Already?” and the endless half-hour I spent in front of the window waiting in vain for Marie’s call was like an abridged version of the two expectant months I was about to spend waiting for any sign from her at all. In the first few moments, fervor and impatience still held sway, feelings of love the days spent together on Elba had rekindled, the intact desire to hear her voice on the phone—perhaps intimidated, tender, light-hearted, suggesting we see each other that very night—and then, as the minutes, the hours, the days, the weeks, and soon even the whole month of September went by without so much as a word from Marie, my initial impatience gradually gave way to fatalism and resignation. My feelings toward Marie went progressively from the impatient affection of those first few moments to a kind of annoyance I was still trying to get under control. After a while, I no longer held anything back and gave free rein to my resentment. Marie’s final act of fickleness, inviting me to spend two weeks with her on Elba just to ignore me and not make so much as a peep afterward, was but the ultimate demonstration of her radical nonchalance.

But now a new element, perhaps, since our return from Elba, was that Marie managed the feat of annoying me even when she wasn’t around. For up till now, whenever Marie hadn’t been around, I’d missed her immediately, nothing whetted my love for her more than distance—what to say, then, about her absence? This new annoyance, this more deeply ingrained irritation, taking shape right there at the window as I waited for her call, was perhaps the sign that I was readying myself for our separation and imperceptibly beginning to resign myself to it—except that, and here the nuance is vital, it might very well be the case that if Marie annoyed me so much when she wasn’t around, it was perhaps quite simply because she wasn’t around. There was also an odd, abiding element in my love for Marie, which was that as soon as anyone, even me, took it in mind to criticize her, and quite justifiably, with the best intentions in the world, I couldn’t keep myself from dashing to her rescue straightaway, as in certain couples where the one defending his or her partner tooth and nail is in the best position to know the extent of that partner’s shortcomings. In fact, I needed no outside detractors to come up with all the ill that could be said of Marie, I quite sufficed. I knew very well that Marie was exasperating. I knew perfectly well indeed, along with her detractors, who didn’t even know the quarter of it, that she was superficial, fickle, frivolous, and careless (and that she never shut drawers), but no sooner did I alight on this litany of deprecating qualifiers than I saw the other side to these complaints, their secret underside, concealed from view, like the precious hidden lining of too-flashy finery. For though glittering sequins sometimes kept one from seeing Marie clearly at first, to reduce her to the frothy society gossip abubble in her wake would be to underestimate her. A more substantial wave, timeless, ineluctable, carried her through life. What characterized Marie above all else was her way of being in tune with the world, those moments when she felt flooded by a feeling of pure joy: then tears would start rolling uncontrollably down her cheeks, as if she were melting with rapture. I don’t know if Marie was aware she contained, deep within, this unusual kind of exaltation, but everything in her bearing bore witness to her capacity for intimate harmony with the world. For just as there exists such a thing as oceanic feeling, so we may speak, where Marie is concerned, of oceanic affinities. Marie had a gift, that singular ability, that miraculous faculty, for being at one with the world in the moment, of knowing harmony between herself and the universe, in an utter dissolving of her own consciousness. Everything else about her personality—Marie the businesswoman and Marie the CEO, who signed contracts and closed real estate deals in Paris and China, who knew the dollar’s daily exchange rate and followed the latest market fluctuations, Marie the fashion designer who worked with dozens of assistants and collaborators the world over, Marie the woman of her time, active, overworked, and urbane, who lived in luxury hotels and dashed through airports in cream-colored trench coats, belt trailing on the floor, pushing two or three carts over owing with luggage, suitcases, clutches, portfolios, poster tubes, not to mention—dear God, I can picture it still—parakeet cages (fortunately empty, for she rarely transported living animals, apart from a thoroughbred—a trifle—as it happens, on her last trip back from Tokyo)—also characterized her, but only superficially, including her without defining her, encircling her without grasping her, nothing in the end but mist and spray beside the fundamental affinity that alone characterized her completely, the oceanic affinity. Intuitively, Marie always knew how to be in spontaneous tune with natural elements: with the sea, into which she melted with delight, naked in the salt water surrounding her body, with the earth, whose touch she loved, primitive and crude, dry or slightly slimy in her palms. Marie instinctively attained a cosmic dimension of existence, even if she sometimes seemed to spurn its social dimension entirely, and treated her every acquaintance with the same natural simplicity, ignoring age and formalities, seniority and etiquette, showing each the same considerate kindness, the same graces of sensitivity and benevolence, the charms of her smile and her figure, whether it was an ambassador having her over to dinner at his residence during a show, the cleaning lady she’d befriended, or the latest intern at the fashion house Let’s Go Daddy-O, seeing only the human being in each of them without a care in the world for rank, as if, beneath all the finery of the adult she’d become and her standing as a world-renowned artist, it was the child in her that had survived, with that child’s bottomless well of innocent generosity. There was something in her like a radical abstraction, an abrasion, a stripping-away of the social reality of things, such that she always seemed to be wandering around naked on the surface of the world, the “seemed” even being redundant with her, so often did she actually walk around naked in real life, at home or in the yard of the house on Elba, to the astonishment of creatures that watched her rapturously, a butterfly coming upon its alter ego in nature or the tiny, exhilarated fish quivering behind her in the sea, when I myself wasn’t the privileged witness to her innocent fancy for walking around nude at the drop of a hat, which was almost like her signature, her soul number, the proof of her integral harmony with the world, with what has been most permanent and essential about it for hundreds of thousands of years.

As we had just come back from Elba, these were the sunlit images of Marie that now came to mind as I stood before the window: Marie half naked under an old blue shirt of her father’s in the yard on Elba. I stared at the gray, rainy Paris street before me, and it was Marie who raced irresistibly through my mind without the slightest conscious effort on my part. I don’t know if Marie knew just how alive she was in my thoughts at that moment, as if, beside the real Marie who must have reached her apartment on Rue de La Vrillière by now, where the taxi had dropped her off, was another Marie, free, autonomous, separate from herself, existing only in my mind, where I let her come to life and move about my thoughts as she went swimming naked in my memories or took shape in the yard of her father’s house. I saw her again, then, in the little yard on Elba, that double, my personal Marie, wearing a basic swimsuit she’d pulled down and rolled around her waist because it was too hot (or even with no swimsuit at all, I kid you not). Cautiously, I drew closer to her in my mind, and through the tree branches in the little yard shivering in a light breeze made out her bare silhouette, the skin on her shoulder dappled with sun-shimmer, crouching by an earthenware jar, kneading the potting soil with both hands and tamping it down, evening out the earth around young shoots she’d just replanted and watered, watching the meager trickle from the hose intently, with a kind of meditative steadiness that seemed to wholly absorb her. I skimmed her shoulder as I joined her in the yard and told her in passing that for lack of a swimsuit, she could maybe put on a hat—people do that when they’re naked, you know (and she shrugged, didn’t dignify that with a reply). Marie, who always managed to surprise me, throw me for a loop, unpredictable Marie who, a few weeks earlier on Elba, had filched an apricot from the display at a fruit stand in Portoferraio’s old town, and kept the pit in her mouth for a long time, sucking on it dreamily in the sun, before suddenly pinning me to the wall in a shady alley near the port to press her lips abruptly against mine and dispose of the pit in my mouth.

And then I realized that I was chewing over these same happy visions time and again, the same summer images of Marie kept coming back to me, as if filtered by my mind, purified of any unpleasant elements and made more endearing still as they began to grow distant in time with my return. But since, I told myself, any true love and, more broadly speaking, any project, any undertaking, from the flowering of a bud to the growth of a tree to the realization of a work of art, has but one aim and intent, to persevere in being, doesn’t it always, inevitably, come down to chewing the same thing over? And a few weeks later, taking up this idea again of love as rumination or continual reprise, I would further refine my phrasing, asking Marie if the secret to lasting love was never to swallow.

I don’t know how much time had passed since I got back, but day was beginning to wane in Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas, and I still hadn’t budged from the window. The street had gotten a bit livelier, a few signs were now lighted near the Bourse. One of the houses across from me was being renovated. On the fourth floor, an apartment had been laid utterly bare, the façade gone, leaving the entrails of the building exposed, as if after a hurricane or an earthquake. Under the arc lights, a few workers in helmets passed to and fro over plastic tarps covering the floorboards of what must once have been the living room. The scene had something, if not hallucinatory, then at least not very Parisian about it (or I’m no Parisian), and seemed instead to be taking place in a major Asian metropolis, by neon light and the glare of welding torches. I contemplated the building under construction across from me, and thought back to the trip Marie and I had made to Japan at the beginning of the year. That was where everything had started, or rather everything had ended for us, for that was where we’d broken up, that was where we’d made love for the last time, in the room of a luxury hotel in Shinjuku. We’d left for Japan together, and come home separately two weeks later, each to our own lives, no longer speaking, no longer bothering to stay in touch. When I got back to Paris, I finalized our breakup, in a way, by moving to Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas, and we had barely seen each other at all till late summer, when she’d suggested I join her on Elba. But what Marie didn’t know—and still doesn’t—is that I, too, was there the night her show opened at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa.

— Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin

Excerpt from Naked appears by permission of Dalkey Archive Press.


Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of nine novels and the winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Décembre for The Truth about Marie, which is available from Dalkey Archive Press. His writing has been compared to the works of Samuel Beckett, Jacques Tati, Jim Jarmusch, and even Charlie Chaplin.



A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Edward Gauvin was a 2007 fellow at the American Literary Translators Association conference and received a residency from the Ban International Literary Translation Centre. His translation of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Urgency and Patience was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2015.


Aug 152016

allan cooperAllan Cooper


In 1974 I found Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, translated by Stephen Garmey and Jay Wilson. I was twenty and had just begun my first real attempts at writing poetry. I was insecure and hesitant about my own work. What if I couldn’t write? What if my idea of becoming a poet was a sham? I was encouraged by these lines in the Fourth Elegy:

….Look, I’m here, waiting.
And even if the lights are turned down, and someone says
“There’s no more, that’s it”–even if the emptiness
flows toward me like a grey breeze from the stage,
and none of my ancestors
sit beside me anymore, no women,
not even the young boy with the brown squinting eyes–
I’ll stay. I can always watch.

Or I can always read. So I decided to read as much poetry as I could. I searched out North and South American, European, Chinese, and Japanese poets to see if I could  develop a voice that could carry the kinds of images and insights that I found in Rilke’s work.

During the fall of 1975, the Canadian poet John Thompson and I had several long discussions about Rilke. He encouraged me to write English versions of some of Rilke’s shorter poems to see what they looked like. I tried two or three and took them back to Thompson. He liked some of the lines, made several suggestions, and the exercise slowly helped me with my own poems. But for years Rilke haunted me, especially the Duino Elegies. At times, reading various translations was like looking down into roiled ocean water and seeing something moving beneath, but nothing was clear.

It seems to me that the Elegies were something entirely new in the canon of literature, as Tom Thomson’s paintings of Algonquin Park were new to visual art, or Pablo Casals’ interpretations of the Bach Cello Suites were new and astonishing in the canon of musical performance. One of the great risks of translating Rilke, especially the Elegies, is that it’s tempting to bring in the “ohs” and “ahs” and embellishments of the original, but we don’t speak that way anymore. One question that dogged me was what Rilke would sound like if he were writing now. So I began translating Rilke with a contemporary English voice in mind.

The themes of the Elegies are immense and often personal. There are passages in the Elegies either addressed to or about his mother and father that are as moving as anything I have read. He praises the things of the world, cathedrals, children, heroes, young women, animals, catkins, mountain springs, and that list in the Ninth Elegy:

…perhaps we’re here to name things, to say house,
bridge, fountain, wooden gate, water pitcher, apple tree, window–
at the most pillar, tower… But understand, to say them
in such a way that the things themselves
would never think of. Isn’t the secret purpose
of this coy earth to urge lovers on
so that they leap inside with ecstasy?

Rilke’s friend, the pianist Magda Von Hattingberg, said she felt there was a certain dislike of simple joys in the Elegies, but I don’t believe this is the case. In the Ninth Elegy he says we’re here to praise, to transform, to be alive in this world:

Praise this world; don’t try to tell an angel what can’t be said….
Show him how joyful and innocent a thing can be; show him
how much it is ours, how much sorrow and grief become pure
in the end, serve as something, or die into something, and blissfully
escape beyond the sound of the violin. And these things of the world
that live only a short time know that you’re praising them…

Or this the passage from the Seventh Elegy:

To be here is marvellous. Even you young girls
sensed it, you who had nothing, who seemed to sink down
into the filth of city streets, the garbage festering,
open, on display. You had an hour, maybe less, that small
space between two moments when you felt
completely here, your veins filled with being alive.
But we forget so quickly what a laughing neighbour
neither confirms nor envies in us. We want to hold it up
and show it, but even our most visible joy can only reveal itself
when it’s transformed completely inside.

I don’t pretend to understand everything that Rilke says in the Duino Elegies, but working on the poems daily for many months has given me new insights. They feel like long letters to us, letters about what it’s like to live and love and die on this planet. I think of them now as letters to the universe.


The Fourth Elegy

Living trees, when do you sense the coming of winter?
We’re not in touch; we don’t have that instinct
the birds feel in autumn. Late, at the last minute
we coax ourselves onto the wind
and fall abruptly into a cold, indifferent pond.
We’re conscious of the blossoming and the withering
at the same time. And somewhere lions are roaming,
unaware of any weakness in them.

And we, who try to focus on one thing,
already feel the lure of another. That conflict
is part of who we are. Don’t lovers
always find the limits of each other?–
although they promised
a certain space, to pursue bliss, to find a sense of home?
They prepare a quick sketch of the other side,
a sort of background of pain
to help us see them, to make
themselves clear. And we don’t even understand
the contours of our own feelings,
only what forms them from outside.
Who hasn’t stood at the curtains of their own heart, shaking?
And when they rose, it was the landscape of goodbye.
That’s easy enough to understand. A familiar garden,
moving slightly in wind. And then a dancer stepped forward.
It wasn’t the beloved. No matter how lightly he danced
he was someone else, a carpenter coming home through the kitchen.
No, a puppet is better. At least it’s complete. I can stand
the limp body, the wires, the face
that’s almost expressionless. Look, I’m here, waiting.
And even if the lights are turned down, and someone says
“There’s no more, that’s it”–even if the emptiness
flows toward me like a grey breeze from the stage,
and none of my ancestors
sit beside me anymore, no women,
not even the young boy with the brown squinting eyes–
I’ll stay. I can always watch.

Am I right? Father, didn’t your life
taste bitter after you’d tasted mine,
the first distillation of what I had to do,
and you kept tasting as I kept growing,
and you, troubled by the aftertaste
of such a strange destiny, tested my lofty vision.
And you, my father, who since you died
I’ve held so often inside me, in my wishes and dreams,
you, concerned and afraid for me,
traded some of the tranquility the dead own,
their kingdoms, for my grain of destiny,
am I right? And all of you
who loved me from the beginning
of my love for you, a love I turned away from,
because when I loved you, the distance in your face
turned into something infinite,
and you were gone… When I’m moved by it
I stand in front of the puppet stage,
or stare at it so intensely an angel appears
to counter-balance my seeing
and make those limp bodies come alive.
An angel and a puppet: now we have a play.
Then the separation created simply by our presence
can come together again. And at last, out of the seasons
of our lives the cycle of everything is transformed. Above us
and beyond us an angel is playing. If no one else feels it,
at least the dying must sense how pretentious
our accomplishments are here.
We won’t let anything be what it is. What I wouldn’t give
for those hours of childhood, when everything was more
than a memory, and what opened out in front of us wasn’t the future.
Our bodies were changing–we felt that–and sometimes
we were in a hurry to grow up, just to please those
who had nothing to show for having grown up.
And yet when we played alone, we were delighted
by what never changed, and we stood in that place
between the world and our toys,
a place where a pure event had been waiting to happen
from the very beginning.

Who can show a child exactly as she is?
Who will place her like a star, and put the yardstick
of immense distances in her hand? Who will make a child’s death
from grey bread, which grows hard, or leave it
inside her round mouth like the core
of a shining apple? What moves a man to murder
is easy to understand. But death,
all of it, completely, even before
our lives have really begun, to hold it gently and not be bitter–
we don’t have the words to describe this yet.


The Seventh Elegy

This wooing, this courtship won’t be part of your nature anymore,
for your voice has outgrown it. Now your cry is as pure as a warbler’s song
when the abundance of spring lifts him up, and he almost forgets
he’s a small, fretful, anxious thing, not this complete heart
thrown into the clear light of a deep and limitless sky. Like him
you would court the silent one you love,
and she’d begin to feel you, still invisible to her,
and some reply would wake inside her, almost a kind of inner listening.

Even the spring understands this–there’s no place
that wouldn’t carry the sound of your announcement. The first
short questioning notes, and the day, pure, affirms it
and shelters it with more and more silence.
Then the song goes higher and higher, up a stairway of notes
to that dream temple of the future; a trill, a warble, a fountain of notes
that in their rising already know they will fall,
for this is a play of promises… And the summer still to come.

Not only those summer mornings, and the first light breaking,
but the way the light changes and opens up the day;
not only the day, gentle around blossoms,
and the shapes of trees, so solid and strong;
not only the intensity of this unfolding power,
light touching the forest paths, the dusky meadows;
not only the rolling thunder at night, and the air clearing;
then near sleep, and some premonition you finally understood…
But the nights themselves, high summer nights,
and the stars of this earth.
And when you die, to understand that those stars are infinite:
this is something you will never forget.

Look, I’ve called out to the one I love. But she wouldn’t be the only one
who would come. Young women would rise from their insubstantial graves
and stand here. For once you call out, how can you put a limit
on the depth of your cry? The dead are always longing
for the earth again. When children feel something completely
it’s enough to last them for the rest of their lives.
For our destiny is nothing more than the closeness we felt as children.
How often you outdistanced the one you loved
as you ran blissfully, breathing quickly, into the open spaces.

To be here is marvellous. Even you young girls
sensed it, you who had nothing, who seemed to sink down
into the filth of the city streets, the garbage festering,
open, on display. You had an hour, maybe less, that small
space between two moments when you felt
completely here, your veins filled with being alive.
But we forget so quickly what a laughing neighbour
neither confirms nor envies in us. We want to hold it up
and show it, but even our most visible joy can only reveal itself
when it’s transformed completely inside.

Beloved one, the world only exists inside us.
We spend our lives transforming it, and the world outside us
slowly disappears. And where a house once stood
we create an image of that house inside us, board
by board, as if it were still there, complete, in the imagination.
The spirit of our age has built immense reservoirs of power, shapeless
as the intense emotions it draws from everything.
Temples and all sacred places mean nothing. And where one
remains, where we worshipped, and kneeled and prayed,
it lives on in the invisible world.
We can’t see them yet, we
can’t find them inside us, those pillars and columns
that could be so much greater now.

Each hollow change in the world has its forgotten ones,
who don’t belong to the past and aren’t a part of the future.
For even what is closest to them seems distant.
This shouldn’t confuse us, but make us stronger
in our labour to preserve those forms we still recognize.
Once they stood among us, in the middle of a destiny
that slowly destroys things, in the middle
of what we don’t understand; endured there, and made the stars
bow down from the protective heavens. Angel,
this is what I have to show you: it’s in your gaze,
saved at last, rescued, standing there,
those columns, sacred gateways, the sphinx,
the grey domes of cathedrals thrusting up from a strange city.

Angel, wasn’t it a miracle? Be astonished, great one, for this
is what we are. Tell them what we accomplished here; my breath
is too short to praise it. So in the end we didn’t neglect
our abundant allotment, this world space
which is ours alone. (And how terrifyingly immense
that space must be, which hasn’t overflowed
with our feelings after thousands and thousands of years.)
Wasn’t a tower magnificent,
even compared to you? And Chartres was immense, and the music
reached even higher and transcended us. But even
a young woman in love, alone at night by her window,
didn’t she reach almost to your knee?
Angel, don’t think
I’m wooing you, and even if I were, you wouldn’t appear. For my
call is always filled with leaving, and you couldn’t move against
the strength of that current. My call is like an arm stretched out
to hold you back. And my open hand, as if reaching up
to grasp something, defending and warning
at the same time, is something
you will never understand.


The Ninth Elegy

Why, if the rest of our lives could be spent as quietly
as the laurel tree, a darker green than all
the other trees, with small curves on the edges
of every leaf (like a wind’s smile)–why do we
try to escape our human fate,
and yet long for it…
Oh not because of happiness,
that quick profit we take just before the coming loss.
Not out of curiosity, or to give the heart practice,
which the laurel tree already feels as well…

But because being truly alive is difficult: because the fleeting
things of the world need us, and in a strange way
call out to us. And we’re the most fleeting of all.
Each living thing is here once, that’s it. And we
live once. But to have been here
once, completely alive here–
to have been a part of this world–nothing can take that away.

And so we’re driven to achieve it.
We try to hold it in our simple hands,
in our overcrowded seeing, in our heart which is speechless.
We try to become the world. But who would we give it to? We’d
hold onto it forever…But then what could we take with us
to the other side? Not our seeing, that we learned so slowly,
and nothing that happened here. Not one thing.
Perhaps pain then, and the heaviness of life,
and love that lasted a long time;
and what can’t be said. But later, beneath the stars,
what would we say? There are things better left unspoken.
The wanderer doesn’t bring a handful of earth from the mountain
to the valley, or what can’t be said, but the pure word, the intense blue
gentian. Perhaps we’re here to name things, to say house,
bridge, fountain, wooden gate, water pitcher, apple tree, window–
at the most pillar, tower… But understand, to say them
in such a way that the things themselves
would never think of. Isn’t the secret purpose
of this coy earth to urge lovers on,
so that they leap inside with ecstasy?
How much a threshold means
to two lovers, who wear down their own
threshold, like those who came before them,
and those who are yet to come…light as can be.

This is the hour to say things, and this is its home.
Say it now. For now more than ever
the things of this world are falling away from us,
and in their place there are acts without images,
acts like shells that crack open
as soon as what is inside outgrows it and takes on a new form.
Despite the hammering of our heart,
the heart lives on; and though our tongue is clenched
between our teeth, it continues to praise.

Praise this world; don’t try to tell an angel what can’t be said.
You can’t impress him with your grand emotions. In the universe
he feels more and more, and you are just a beginner. Show him
some simple thing which, passed down over generations,
lives on in our hands and our eyes.
Tell him about things. He’ll be astonished, as you were
standing by the rope maker in Rome, or the potter beside the Nile.
Show him how joyful and innocent a thing can be; show him
how much it is ours, how much sorrow and grief become pure
in the end, serve as something, or die into something, and blissfully
escape beyond the sound of the violin. And these things of the world
that live only a short time know that you’re praising them;
transients, they want us to preserve them, and we’re the most transient
of all. They want us to take them inside our invisible hearts
and transform them into ourselves–whatever it is we finally are.

Earth, in the end, isn’t this what you want: to rise inside us
invisibly? Isn’t your dream
to be completely invisible one day? The earth, invisible!
Isn’t your urgent message to be transformed?
Earth, dearest one, I’ll do it. You don’t need to show me
anymore spring times to win me over; just one
is more than my blood can take.
I’ve belonged to you from the beginning, without saying a word.
You’ve always been right, and your inspiration has always been death,
that friend, that companion.

Look, I’m alive, but what feeds me? Neither my childhood
nor the future grows any less… an infinite presence
rises from my heart.

—Rainer Maria Rilke introduced & translated by Allan Cooper

Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.



Aug 122016


Photo by Nina Subin

The following excerpt appears about a third of the way into Moya’s wonderful novel, where we find Vega, Revulsion‘s narrator, describing his relationship with his brother, Ivo, to the author. Vega has spent fifteen days living at his brother’s home while trying to sell their dead mother’s house, and he has had enough of the noise made by Ivo’s family.

This passage works as an excellent example of Moya’s commitment to writing in the style of Thomas Bernhard. You’ll notice many of the Austrian writer’s techniques on display, from long, run-on sentences to a fantastic sequence of repetition when Vega describes soccer players as “undernourished.”

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador was originally published in 1997 in Spanish as El asco, Thomas Bernhard en El Salvador, and has been translated into English by Lee Klein. 

— Benjamin Woodard


MY BROTHER Ivo and I are the most different people you can imagine, Moya, we don’t resemble each other in any way, we have not a single thing in common, no one would believe we’re from the same mother, we’re so different we never even became friends, only a few acquaintances know we share the same parents, the same last name, the same house, said Vega. We haven’t seen each other for eighteen years. We never write each other. The half dozen times my mother would call me and he’d be with her, Moya, we’d hardly exchange hellos or commonplaces; we never called each other because we didn’t have anything to say, each of us lived without having to think about the other, because we’re complete strangers, we’re total opposites, living proof that blood doesn’t mean a thing, it’s random, something perfectly worthless, said Vega. I just turned thirty-eight years old, Moya, same as you, I am four years older than my brother, and if my mother hadn’t died I would have been able to live my entire life without returning to see my brother Ivo; that said, Moya, we don’t hate each other, we’re simply two planets on distinct orbits, without anything to say, with nothing to share, no similar tastes, the only thing that brought us together is the task of having inherited my mother’s house in Miramonte, nothing more, said Vega. I have nothing in common with a guy who dedicates his life to making keys, a guy who has dedicated his life to making copies of keys, whose only concern is that his business produces more and more copies of keys, Moya, someone whose life revolves around a business called “Millions of Keys.” His friends gave him the inevitable nickname “Key Ring,” his total universe, his most vital worries, fail to exceed the dimensions of a key, said Vega. My brother is possessed, Moya, it causes me true sorrow that someone could live a life like that, it causes me profound sadness to think about someone dedicating his life to making the most possible copies of keys, said Vega. My brother is worse than someone possessed, Moya, he’s the typical middle-class businessman who trains to accumulate the money he needs to buy more cars, houses, and women than he needs; for my brother, the ideal world would be an immense locksmith operation, and he would be the only owner, an immense locksmith operation where they would only talk about keys, locks, doorknobs, latchkeys. And it’s not going badly for him, Moya, on the contrary, it’s going very well for my brother, every day he sells more keys, every day he opens another branch of “Millions of Keys,” every day he accumulates more money thanks to his key business, my brother is a true success, Moya, he’s found his goldmine, I doubt there exists another country where people have the same obsession for keys and locks, I don’t think there exists another country where people so obsessively lock themselves in, which is why my brother is a success, because people need tons of keys and locks for the walled houses they live in, said Vega. For fifteen days I haven’t had a conversation that’s been worth it, Moya, for fifteen days these two have talked to me only about keys, locks, and doorknobs, and about the papers I should sign to make the sale of my mother’s house possible, it’s horrible, Moya, I have absolutely nothing to say to my brother, there isn’t a single minimally decent topic we could address with intelligence, said Vega. The principal intellectual preoccupation of my brother is soccer, Moya, he can talk for hours and hours about teams and players, especially about his favorite team, called the Alliance, for my brother the Alliance is the finest manifestation of humanity, he doesn’t miss a single game, he’d commit the most heinous sin if it meant the Alliance would win all its matches, said Vega. My brother’s fanaticism for the Alliance is so high, after a few days it actually occurred to him to invite me to the stadium, can you imagine, Moya, he invited me to the stadium to support the Alliance in a difficult match against their long-time rivals, that’s how he proposed it to me, as if he didn’t know that I detest huge crowds, that concentrations of humanity produce in me an indescribable affliction. There’s nothing more detestable to me than sports, Moya, nothing seems more boring and stupid than sports, most of all the National Soccer League, I don’t understand how my brother could give a damn about twenty-two undernourished morons running after a ball, only someone like my brother could almost have a heart attack about the stumbling of twenty-two undernourished men running after a ball and making a show of their mental deficiency, only someone like my brother could have passionate ideas about locksmithing and a team of undernourished morons that calls itself the Alliance, said Vega. At first my brother thought he would be able to convince me that we shouldn’t sell my mother’s house, that it was best to rent it instead, according to him the real estate market improves every day, my brother said he had no desire to sell my mother’s house, but I was emphatic from the start, I had no doubt that the best decision was to sell her house, it’s what suits me best, so I never have to return to this country, so I can break all ties with this place, with the past, with my brother and his family, so I don’t have to hear anything more about them, which, to be blunt, is why I was emphatic from the start, I didn’t even let my brother make his case against the sale of the house, I said I only wanted my half, if he could pay me the forty- five thousand dollars right then, he could keep the house, that’s what I told him, Moya, because I saw his intention to blackmail me with idiotic sentimentalities, with ideas natural to a guy whose life is limited to keys and locks, idiotic sentimentalities like saying my mother’s house represents the family heritage, like saying we were raised there and similarly the house is associated with the best moments of our youth, I didn’t let him continue with that nonsense, Moya, I told him that for me the family was coincidental, without any importance, proof of this was that the two of us had been able to pass eighteen years without a single conversation, proof was that if this house hadn’t existed we surely wouldn’t have decided to meet again, that’s what I told him, Moya, and I explained that I wanted to forget everything that has to do with my youth spent in this country, my youth lived in this walled house that now I must sell, there is nothing so abominable as the years I spent here, nothing more repulsive than the first twenty years of my life, said Vega, they were years committed only to idiocies, Moya, horrible years, associated with the Marist Brothers, with anxiety about getting away from here, the uneasiness caused by the inevitability of having to live my life in the middle of this rottenness.

—  Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein

Excerpt from the novel Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, translated into English by Lee Klein, and published by New Directions, on July 26, 2016.



Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in 1957 in Honduras and grew up in El Salvador. The author of eleven novels (including SenselessnessThe She-Devil in the MirrorTyrant Memory, and The Dream of My Return), he is now living in the U.S.



Lee Klein‘s fiction, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Harper’sThe Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, and many other sites, journals, and anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is also the author of The Shimmering Go-BetweenThanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox, and Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World. He lives in South Philadelphia.


Aug 112016

Zazil by Mari H. Res+®ndiz


Zazil Alaíde Collins (Mexico City, 1984) has written four books of poetry: Junkie de nada (a first collection structured around Jarocho musicicans and the well-known Mexican lotería card game), No todas las islas (her prize-winning book that charts the history of her family myths by way of a sort of nautical cartography in verse), El corazón, tan cerca a la boca (in which she weaves together ekphrastic prose and poetry inspired by the photographs of Nora Nava Heymann) and, most recently, Sipofene. Sipofene, maybe her finest book to date, represents a sort of tabula rasa upon which Collins can construct a fragmented vision of the problems of our times. In the words of Javier Taboada: ‘Zazil Alaíde Collins’s Sipofene does not spring from any myth. By way of a journey back to an original state, the poetic voice strips bare the world of our times “los días más oscuros”. The geography of desertion: the pain that stretches out to the four cardinal points.’

In a world of shortening attention spans and click-bait journalism, it is refreshing to find a poet who still believes in the integrity of the poetry collection. Each of Collins’s books to possess their own unique focus and structure. Perhaps it is not surprising that Collins, also a broadcaster with a wide range of musical interests (her co-edited bilingual volume Músicos en la Ciudad de México/Musicians in Mexico City will be launched this August), is drawn to this kind of project: each of her books feels like a concept album in verse.

This interview, in which Collins discusses her wide range of influences and literary obsessions, was carried out via a series of emails between Zazil Alaíde Collins and Dylan Brennan. Included also is a videopoem featuring the opening verses of Sipofene, click CC for subtitles in English. Translations of poems to English by Cody Copeland.

DB: Tell us about your early life, where you were born, grew up, studied… and when and how you first came into contact with poetry.

ZC: I was born in the Roma neighbourhood of the Federal District, now officially known as Mexico City, on Saturday, September 1st, 1984. One year later, after the earthquake of September 19th I moved to La Paz, Baja California Sur, with my paternal family; a desert in which I learned to walk and observe. It’s an essential part of the imagery of my written work, and the place to which I return any time I need to touch base. When the city was reconstructed, I returned to the Roma area and studied my whole life in Mexico City. My university days were spent between political sciences, literature and anthropology.

My introduction to poetry was aural, before any kind of formal reading. There was never any lack of poetry books in my parents’ house, so poetry was always close. My parents even partially named me after a poet, the Guatemalan Alaíde Foppa, who, to this day, remains disappeared…

The first books of poetry that I can remember were popular cancioneros and two collections by Cuban poets (when I was a child my father lived in Cuba and his gifts were books from there): Mundo mondo by Francisco de Oraá, and Con un garabato by José Antonio Gutiérrez Caballero. In my adolescence, I was struck by “Tarumba,” by Jaime Sabines, and I discovered poetry by James Joyce, George Bataille and, by accident, the Mexican poet Mariana Bernárdez—by my reckoning, one of our most outstanding contemporary poets. I became obsessed with the work of Artaud… And I continued discovering authors in our family library, like Nicolás Guillén and César Vallejo. A short time before entering university I bought, also by chance, a facsimile edition of Muerte sin fin, by José Gorostiza, which changed something for me (I can’t say what it changed, but reading it still excites me, just like “Tarumba”).

Although I could go on naming other authors, the aforementioned ones opened up channels of perception for me, and are part of my initiatory journey, along with the internalised expressions of music and dance. When I was a girl, I studied contemporary dance for a few years and one of my ways of registering the choreography was to write down words that, little by little, began to take the form of verses; I would say that these were my first poems, without me knowing they were poems at the time.

DB: Which poets do you read these days? Which ones have influenced you? Which do you dislike?

ZC: Right now I’m reading the recently published books by Ernesto Miranda Trigueros and Javier Peñalosa. A few years ago I realised that I only read work by dead authors and, since then, decided to force myself to read work by my contemporary colleagues; amongst them, ones I definitely try not to lose track of include Mariana Bernárdez, Camila Krauss, Javier Taboada, Jair Cortés, Alejandro Tarrab, Daniel Bencomo, Ingrid Valencia, Daniela Camacho, Tere Avedoy, Fabio Morábito… I’m also reading a book by Coral Bracho, another by Guadalupe Galván, and I’m re-reading Heather Thomas, who I met a few months ago at a poetry reading in Egypt and whose work I enjoy greatly.

I think that I’ve been influenced by reading work by Oliverio Girondo, Wislawa Swymborza, Octavio Paz, Haroldo de Campos, Miguel Hernández, Jorge Guillén, García Lorca, Ángel González, Anne Waldman, Ferlinghetti and Gertrude Stein. While not poets, António Lobo Antunes  and Roberto Bazlen have become something magical for me. At least they are texts that I admire and re-reading them continues to provoke questions. I believe that poetry should consist of a constant questioning, perennial. I also believe that music exerts a permanent influence over me (even more so than poetry); I cannot disassociate from the poetic endeavour the lyrics of composers, from Henry Purcell to Chico Buarque, from Son jarocho to Canto cardenche (a kind of Mexican a cappella form).

I do not like poetry that tires after the first reading; that feels like something tepid. While we all develop our own obsessive metaphors (words, recurring images), I am not attracted to writers who seem to be writing a monopoem. There are poetics that seem overvalued to me, but it’s not for me to mention them. I will limit myself to saying that the poets that I dislike are those who have abandoned a feel for their own body, who have lost the musicality, the spontaneity. I also dislike poetry with the tone of a saviour, of an illuminator.

DB: Forgive if I’m mistaken but I sense more of a gender balance in contemporary Mexican poetry than in prose. Is this true? Do more women write poetry than prose these days or am I wrong?

ZC: It’s strange. I agree. However, in the professional practice, I mean, from so many anthologisers, teachers, editors or editorial committees, it seems to me that female poets remain relegated, while, in the case of female prose writers, things seem a bit different. Female prose writers seem, somehow, “freer” to me, more at ease, less worried about forming part of a power base, which is something healthier, from my point of view. Maybe I’m wrong. I feel that female poets are more protective of their own space, distrustful even with other female poets. In this way, sometimes there is not a gender balance when they act in the same way as those who violate communal liberties and achievements. In other words, there is not always a sense of sorority between female poets; at least not when it comes to my own experience in central Mexico.

DB: I suppose we could talk a great deal about female poets. I still hear people using the word “poetisa” (“poetess”); can you say something about that? Also, is it more difficult for female poets to get published these days? I know it certainly used to be that way.

ZC: I’m amazed that the word poetisa is still used, among poets. I have never liked this mark of differentiation; I subscribe to Anne Waldman’s “Feminafesto”: “I propose a utopian creative field where we are defined by our energy, not by gender.” I believe that it is difficult for women to get published (nowadays I don’t know if it’s easier or more difficult than it is for male poets) because we are not taken as seriously; “Could it be that we don’t go out boozing with the right editors?,” I often ask myself (in an ironic tone, of course). There exists a professional and emotional dialogue that continues to be “restricted” between genders. I have never understood why, but the act of publishing tends to be sectarian in nature, due to a series of factors of public relations, which sometimes spring from motives of class, gender and even sexual orientation. Of course, when I read phrases like “We badly need more Mexican women to write literature of the highest level like the work of Elena Garro, we urgently need them to stop wanting to earn a fortnightly wage and to get down to the business of writing,” though it may just be nothing more than marketing, it is clear to me that the rift still exists. It seems to me that some colleagues have not understood that the problem is not talent, but the conditions and access to certain spaces. For starters, while women earn less than men for carrying out the same job (any job) we cannot begin to start talking about equality. In Mexico people complain about the PRI but many intellectuals (who work in publishing) possess that same PRI mentality, where cronyism and favouritism take precedence over merit, and they are often the people who make decisions about who gets published and who doesn’t. At the publishing houses there also exists a kind of false democratisation: they often don’t even read manuscripts seriously. But, the more autonomous work that is produced, the more this schizophrenia can be challenged.

Sipofene – Zazil Alaíde Collins from Andrea Grain on Vimeo

DB: Is poetry changing nowadays? Is it reinventing itself or is it the same as it ever was? What about the Sipofene videopoem? How did you come up with this idea? Tell us about the process, the director, those who took part, etc.

ZC: New media has caused changes with regard to the way in which readers approach literature, and authors have adapted too; it’s something reciprocal. It’s not that new, really, either; since the avant-gardists there have been textual and discursive explorations, and those who believe that these experimentations, between literature, dance and visual arts, for example, have existed since the beginnings of civilization. My undergraduate thesis dealt with the textual borders of video-poetry, so you can see that I’ve studied the theme for quite a while. However, though I fantasize about directing my own video-poems, my own weaknesses are clear to me: “the cobbler sticks to shoes,” as the saying goes. The reinvention within poetic languages stems from an integral approach to text, audio-visual elements, collective work with photographers, videographers, editors, actors… Literary work can also be viewed as a kind of laboratory. The idea of collectivisation includes working in many fields; at least attempting to initiate dialogues; in this way, creating small mobilisations (this is my idea of activism).

I had already seen photographs and videos made by Adrea Grain Hayton for musical groups, and as she studies literature, I decided to propose that we did something together, without any pretensions, so I just suggested that she could do anything she liked with a few of my poems. She liked the idea and chose just a few sections, as Sipofene is a long poem. She asked me a few questions about the meaning and intention of certain lines, but it was she who visualised and directed the material. For me, poems liven when the readers (not the poets themselves, as authors) perceive them, recreate them, taste them, and, so, I’ve always preferred the readings that others can give to my texts, even when they don’t coincide with my own original ideas. I wanted to know how someone with a visual imagination like Andrea could understand the poem. And in a spirit of making community I decided to invite people who I admire, either because they are friends or because they are poets that I both admire and read (only one poet couldn’t make it).* We met one afternoon at my house, every participant read in front of a camera the complete verses of the first section of Sipofene, called “Bóreas,” and then Andrea cut everything, extracting fragments of each collaborator and combining them. I know that she absolutely associates the visual part with the Greek myth of Boreas and the horses.

*DB: That was me, so sorry I couldn’t be involved.

 DB: Tell us, what books have you written? Tell us a little about each one? What about the process and the reception that your books have received from readers?

ZC: I’ve written four books of poetry: Junkie de nada (Lenguaraz, 2009), No todas las islas (ISC-Conaculta, 2012, City of La Paz State Prize winner in 2011), El corazón, tan cerca de la boca (Abismos-Mantarraya, 2014) and Sipofene (La tinta del silencio, 2016); and,  independently I’ve adopted my thesis on video-poetry as a free e-book: Videopoesía, poíesis fronteriza: hacia una reinterpretación del signo poético. I’ve also participated in some anthologies of essays and, also, poetry, as co-author: Deniz a manzalva (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2008), La conciencia imprescindible. Ensayos sobre Carlos Monsiváis (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2009) and the major anthology Antología General de la Poesía Mexicana: poesía del México actual. De la segunda mitad del siglo XX  nuestros días (Océano, 2014). I’ve uploaded nearly all my books to Google Books so that they can be looked up online.

Junkie de nada is a sort of compendium of my first poems; I completed it in less than a month with poems that I’d written over a period of five or six years, approximately, and I tried, of course, to give them a sense of unity. At that time I had to hand a set of lotería jarocha (a variation on the Mexican card game resembling bingo, this one featuring figures from Veracruz folklore), from the Canadian printmaker Alec Dempster, and, in a sort of eureka moment I got the idea that I could play around with the idea of a collection of poems that revolve around the cards of a lotería set. It was fun to throw down the cards and to group the poems together, according to a character or emotion. Some friends from university ran an independent publishing house; they liked the material and decided to publish it. I showed them the poems after they’d been rejected by an official publisher (the federal government). A huge plus for me was that they allowed me to suggest authors for an epilogue, and, of course, I thought of the poet that I admire: Mariana Bernárdez. The editors got in touch with her and she accepted their proposal to read my work and to write something. The book deals with metapoetical anxieties; all part of exploring the meaning of life. I was 25…

No todas las islas was conceived as a sort of cartography of my family’s history (and myths); I threw it, like a message in a bottle to the sea, into a competition and I won the Baja California Sur state poetry prize, and so I got to have it published. This made me very happy because, apart from all the rest, I wrote that book thinking of my seniors (my grandparents, mainly), who live there and whose parents were involved in the foundation of that state. During the editorial process, I suggested to the state government the idea of producing a special edition, different from their normal collections. In reality, all I wanted was permission, for them to allow me to print a special limited edition on my own, one in which two friends would help me, one that would include colour and playful typography; but the publishing section of the Instituto Sudcaliforniano de Cultura liked what they saw and decided to take the chance and change their collection style from that book onwards. While Efrén Calleja, a friend and, now, neighbour of mine, was in charge of the edition, and Benito López was the designer, for almost a year the three of used to meet on a weekly basis to discuss colours, typography, meaning, size, corrections, etc. In this way it has been the book with which I’ve been most involved and the one that has caused me most professional delight. That level of communication with an editor and designer is something I’ve yet to replicate. The book is structured like a travelogue, an imaginary journey, but one which can be followed on Google Earth through the suggested coordinates.

El corazón, tan cerca de la boca is an exercise in which I decided to try to write just one poem, one that would weave together strands of poetry and prose, by way of ekphrasis and the photographs of Nora Nava Heymann. Ideally, this book was conceived in conjunction with the images, but the publishers (Abismos) decided not to include the images—they don’t do that kind of publication—so that, in the end, only the text remained. At the same time, I suggested that a jazz singer work with the material and musicalise some poems in free form; in that way, the texts which gave rise to songs were also translated. The music is online and can be downloaded and/or listened to. The book plays with the word “Bardo,” as a concept and state: the poet bard and the Buddhist “bardo” which represents the intermediary state, a state of transition (another one of my obsessions). Many of the metaphors stem from a journey to Ireland, peyote, meditation and nephelomancy (a form of divination based on observation of clouds).

Sipofene is a long poem that I wrote in 2015, which stems from images of a trip to the desert and the feeling of political discontent, after interiorising these lines from Ferlinghetti: “If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.” When I thought of the text, I visualised it as a performance, and from there came the desire to make the video, which is free to be seen by the public.

Even today, I still find reviews and new readers of my first book, because, who knows why, they still can be found in some bookstores in outside Mexico City. I think that’s the book that has been reviewed the most, both in print, radio and television. Each of my books, though, has found a distinct audience, I think, because of the playful approach I’ve tried to establish, from the visual to the musical.

DB: What about practical things. When do you write? How often do you write? Where? Any particular process?

ZC: My methodology involves writing a dream diary as soon as I wake up (many of my poems stem from dreams), and keeping notebooks under my pillows, in the bathroom, dining room, in my bag, etc. You never know exactly when that powerful line that can guide a poem or book can appear. I don’t think I have any particular process, but I usually write in the small hours of the night (that is what I most enjoy: the silence), and then closing myself off at home (it doesn’t suit me to be out in the open air); I’m a bit of a hermit but I don’t like to force myself. There’s an intuition which beats in a peculiar manner when I need to sit myself down to write; I try to yield to it.

DB: What is Sipofene?

ZC: Sipofene is a place where death doesn’t exist, from the conception of the indigenous Americans, the netherworld. I knew this a long time after the word had resonated in my head, when the first verse arrived: “When the bones burn, Sipofene,” which motivated me to start the poem. I’ve tried to remember how that word made its way into my imagination, and the surest clue is that I probably heard it in one of the films of the Twilight saga (yes, it’s true, I consume almost anything related to werewolves and vampires)… Or some kind of trick of the subconscious after a reading towards which I was indifferent, what do I know… As the poem advanced, it flowed for two intense weeks, and I found that this world (the world of Sipofene) was an intermediary state, a theme that I had dealt with before in El corazón, tan cerca a la boca. It’s possible that my age is accentuating this anxiety, but this third state that flitters between past, present and future, this third way of being is, for me, the current social, political and human condition. We are living at a time of confrontation between opposing systems, radicalisation, fanaticism, and we need to reconstruct from another perspective, comprehensive and able to accept dissent and diversity. I tried to write while eliminating genre distinction, thinking of a somewhat personified Sipofene that could be something like a muxe (a third gender) that would speak of the search for identity of those who are exiled, for a variety of reasons. There’s an underlying tone of lament, musical, I hope, revolving around our dead and battle-wounded. Sipofene is the others. And the others are all of us who search for, hopeful or resigned, a new world: “another world is possible.”

DB: The published version of Sipofene is something special, tangible, very pretty. Tell us a little about the editorial process. Did the publishers approach you or how did it work?

ZC: I wrote the poem and decided to put it up online, via Amazon, with the idea that some publisher or editor might be interested in it, but, really, so that it could be read online by anyone. I also decided to give away free copies of a paper-bound PDF via social networks and, among my contacts, a former colleague from my master’s program at UNAM read it and told me that she had set up a publishing house and wanted to talk to me. I’m referring to Ana Cruz, editor of La tinta del silencio. And that’s how it all started. I got to know the publisher’s work and I was convinced by her idea to manufacture books by hand, numbered copies, in personalised editions, that suit the text and the author. The publishers were very meticulous with regard to communication and editing. The idea of a prologue and the cover image were left wide open, and so I decided to invite an illustrator that I admire, Alejandra Espino, with whom I’d been wanting to collaborate for a long time, and she agreed to draw the cover image and to make a serigraph. For the prologue I turned to Javer Taboada, a colleague who I also admire for his astute readings and, also is someone who knows my work well since we’ve been reading each other since we were very young. My ideas of publishing involve bringing together talents and disciplines. This is something I’ve been able to accomplish with this book.

DB: To finish up, tell us about contemporary Mexican poetry. Do you like it? Is it in a healthy state? What do you think?

ZC: I like it because I feel that it’s regenerating, like every fabric. Little by little it finds its connections and now it’s difficult to judge it but the debate about whether or not a regeneration exists is growing. We are many voices; for me it’s a restless choir that still hasn’t decided what it’s singing about or, indeed, who is doing the singing. I suppose it’s fairly normal, as it matures. I think of poets such as Homer Aridjis, Ramón Rodríguez and Dolores Castro as completely contemporary voices as well, with solid trajectories free from the false bureaucratic quarrels, with a restless and pointed poetry.  I feel the same about, although he has died, Gerardo Deniz. It may be that Mexico still hasn’t stopped revisiting its modernity and, for that reason, authors such as Los Contemporáneos and Octavio Paz still seem to beat so closely. Poetry prevails thanks to its sincerity; if that continues, as far as I’m concerned, it will never cease to be current.


—Zazil Alaíde Collins & Dylan Brennan

From No todas las islas

Natural History

Words are crabs
Buried in the deep.

Shipwrecks speak
in seashells.

The wind sings its syllables
of whispered names.


The Giant Women

They came from the north,
but no one knows when they were wiped out.

From the cave of music
they made their rounds,

raising their pentagram arms;
they all croaked under lock and key.

The old men claim to have seen them
devoured by the sea.


from Boreas

THE DAY LABORERS howl with the sound
of war in the poppy fields,
music for bull calves,
train whistle that carries the breath
of the soldier suckled by Chernobyl.

There’s so much slackening the thread, Sipofene,
such fire in the crotch,
…………humiliated boots,
…………metallic hands,
…………headquarters’ silences.

What will the dust bring,
if we’re always dead in the presence
of the violet stockings’ nudity?
It is a field of iron, Sipofene,
…….a keloid field.


from Austral

with more poems and tulips;
no resection of the migrant
who flees in order to survive
the harassment of offices
that are after his right thumb.

Tell us what emporium has robbed you?
How many prisons have you trod?
Who knew the truth of your sandstone?

The cherry and blue meeting houses
were part of the eclipse.
We speculated up until the year of your birth.

of an angel of clay
in the jaws of the common grave,
no one asks for his minimum wage
at the sides of Cadmus’ ships,
and no one deserves to die by stone
on a high tension cliff,
but there go the 50 thousand orphans
who have lost their hunger
walling in the cattle.


from Zenith

the substance that undermines us
breaks us
deludes us
the exhausted gaze of serfs;

it’s called weariness, Sipofene,
this solitude without a capital
these lead hillsides,
paradise of the dissidents.

—Translations by Cody Copeland


Cody Copeland

Cody Copeland teaches English and writes poetry. His work has appeared in Mexico City Lit, The Ofi Press, and The Bogman’s Cannon. He is currently based in Mexico City.

Dylan Brennan by Lily Brennan
Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

Jul 122016



The following excerpt opens as the narrator and his sister arrive on the Gaspé Peninsula. Eric’s father and step-mother, otherwise known as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, are expecting a child together and have decided to uproot the family from Rivière-du-Loup, mobile home and all, to relocate 300 kilometres to the east. The move to the town of Matane will effectively put an abrupt end to the children’s weekly visits with their beloved mother whom they refer to as either Catherine of Aragon or “Micheline Raymond, professional cook.” The year is 1977 and separatist sentiments are rising in Québéc. The king and queen are staunch Sovereigntists and want to solidify their influence by introducing a series of rules to define the protocols of “court life” in their new setting.

Life in the Court of Matane was originally published in 2008 in French as Bestiaire. The English translation is by Peter McCambridge.

—Joseph Schreiber


EVEN TODAY, every time I drive along Route 132 east of Rivière-du-Loup, I fall into a kind of trance. Something about it upsets me. Despite the picture-postcard scenery, despite the lovely people and the smell of the sea, something presses down on my lungs, reminding me that I’m moving away from where I belong. I watch in the rear-view mirror as Rivière-du-Loup slowly recedes into the distance. It’s usually at times like this that I feel my little earthquakes.

At Sainte-Flavie, they told us we had arrived in Gaspésie. The invisible line separating the Lower Saint Lawrence and the Gaspé Peninsula is much more than an arbitrary border drawn up by geographers with nothing better to do. People live quite differently to the east and west of the dividing line: The people of the Lower Saint Lawrence expect things will pick up, while those on the Gaspé Peninsula know they’ll only get worse. Both sides are sometimes disappointed. When Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn told us with a smile that we had just entered the Gaspé Peninsula and the north shore of the St. Lawrence was nothing more than a thin strip of blue land, I became a Gaspé man once and for all.

At the end of that day, I stood before Matane like Attila before Rome. Looking toward the town, I wished it would just disappear. When I awoke after my first night there, I waited in vain for the TV people to come pack up the miserable set. Truth be told, the main problem with Matane was that it wasn’t Rivière-du-Loup. Ironically enough, my father seemed to like Matane for the very same reason. And yet of all Quebecers, the good people of Matane are probably among the friendliest of the lot. Their cheeks have turned rosy from the wind that blows over the town three hundred and sixty-two days of the year. There, the supports below our trailer drew back, and on a cliff overlooking the sea the house fell down in a puff of smoke. We didn’t stay there very long. A year or two, I think. I was seven when we moved to Matane. I had already had six addresses. In the decade I was to spend in my new town, I would have six others. Henry VIII wasn’t the type to sit still. In Matane the rules of censorship were repeated even more firmly than the first time. We were given a helpful list of ins and outs:

In:………..Quebec (and all its symbols)
…………….Anne Boleyn
…………….Jacques Brel
…………….Cod in all its forms

Out:………Canada (and all its symbols)
…………….Catherine of Aragon
…………….Elvis Presley
…………….Drives in the Renault 5

They couldn’t have been clearer with us. In the same tone used to shout “Die, you pig, I’m gonna come spit on your grave!” the new rules of memory were presented to us. Over the years, a series of inexorable royal edicts were added. Edict 101: It is strictly forbidden to pronounce the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook. Edict 102: The eating of Cadbury products is forbidden. Edict 103: The telephone is not a toy. It is strictly prohibited to call anyone without permission. All conversations shall be supervised by the queen. Get used to it. Edict 104: The word of the Lord is outlawed in the royal court. The king and queen shall hear no talk of catechisms, nuns, the new or old testaments, or resurrection. The dead shall not rise again. Edict 105: It is forbidden to make any allusions to the past in front of the soon-to-be-born little brother. He will have to work out how we got here by himself. Edict 106: You shall lend your unfailing support to the sovereignty movement, on pain of being disowned. The fleur-de-lys is your emblem, and Quebec is your country. Edict 107: This home is no place for halfwits. It is therefore forbidden to watch television for more than one hour per day. All programs must be approved by the queen. All TVA programs are outlawed. Since we will have no truck with cable, you shall have to make do with Radio-Québec and Radio-Canada. You will thank us later. Edict 108: You shall do the dishes thrice daily, after each meal. Even when visiting. The queen shall inspect the plates. Edict 109: Saturdays are devoted to cleaning. The girl shall scour the palace bathrooms, and the boy shall ensure the floors are spotless. Everyone shall do his or her bit in the kingdom of Anne Boleyn. And even then, the queen shall not let you out of her sight as you go about your work. Edict 110: You shall respect and obey your queen, whom you shall address by her first name. The queen’s jurisdiction extends to justice, stewardship of the palace, financial management, culture, and telecommunications. You no longer have a mother. The king shall from time to time take it upon himself to remind you where you come from. For all questions about the matter, see Edict 101.

Oppression breeds revolution. The crushers will be crushed. Or at least that’s what we like to believe. Anne Boleyn was a boycotter. Her strategy was a means of survival. She forbade. Castrated. First came the boycott of our mother. There then followed a series of lesser bans that made everyday life tough. One of them involved Cadbury, the chocolate makers. In 1976, after the Parti québécois had been elected in Quebec, a number of English companies had seized the occasion to move their head offices to Toronto, preferring the comfort of boredom to the tribulations of Quebec politics. Outraged separatists launched a boycott of Cadbury (and Sun Life Insurance, among others). Chanting “Let’s bar Cadbury” as their slogan, they waged war against the English manufacturer of the sweet candy. Their movement would have left me completely indifferent at the age of seven had Anne Boleyn and the king not decided to buy into it. It was thereafter forbidden to purchase or consume any Cadbury products in the presence of the king or Anne Boleyn. The same glacial tones reserved for my mother were used to proclaim the banning of Cadbury.

There was just one problem: Cadbury was—and still is—the maker of the Caramilk bar, a chocolate bar with a soft caramel centre that at the time was high on my list of favourite things to eat. My mother would pass them to me in her Renault 5 as I sang Gérard Lenorman to her. “Caramilk” had become a hammer word. Whenever I managed to scrape together thirty cents, I would slip off to a store where no one knew me to buy a Caramilk. I had to bike for kilometres to make sure word didn’t get out. Anything not to get caught. Once we were in the depths of the countryside, beyond the village of Saint-Ulric near Matane, I settled on an old general store run by two senile biddies. It belonged to a different era, an old-fashioned general store that smelled of before the war. In the deserted store, you had to wait for one of the old witches to limp her way out of the storeroom. Children in the village used to say that they had both been dead for years and we were being served by ghosts. Their memory was so shaky that I could walk into the store four times in the same day without them remembering a thing about my earlier visits. Alzheimer’s guaranteed my anonymity. Even under the harshest interrogation, at best they would have been able to confirm I had been to the store. They would never have been able to betray the nature of my purchases.

The first time I did it, I remember I was wracked by guilt and high on the sweet smell of dissidence. I stood before one of the two old crones and asked for a Caramilk bar. A few seconds went by in silence. A clock struck three. Slowly, she asked me to repeat my order, tapping away at a small device lodged in her ear. “A Caramilk! I want a Caramilk!” I repeated, pointing at the coveted candy. She turned around. I heard her bones protest. Three short steps toward a counter in disarray. From there, she looked at me to make sure she had understood, pointing to a bottle of bleach. Patience was paramount. My finger tried to guide her shaking hand toward the Caramilk. Sometimes, she would break off to ask me if I was Armand’s son, a man who had probably been dead and buried for over seventy years. Then, a glimmer of reason flashed across her eyes, and her hand at last grasped the Caramilk. Her memory had also forgotten inflation. Thinking she was still in 1970, she asked me for twenty cents. Not that I was going to contradict her. I fled so that she wouldn’t have to denounce me if ever the king raided the store. Then I went to the beach, the place of all outlawed activities, where Anne Boleyn never set foot because it was too windy. Hiding behind a rock, I devoured my Caramilk while looking out to sea. I had to be careful not to leave the orange and brown wrapper at the bottom of my pocket. It would have been giving myself away too cheaply. I dug a hole half a metre wide and buried it there. Today I sometimes still buy a Caramilk, eat it in secret, and burn the wrapper to destroy the evidence. I am the only Montrealer for whom eating a Caramilk is a subversive, revolutionary act.

Back home, some first-rate lying covered my tracks. Always have an alibi. In the court of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, the sovereignty-association debate had plumbed the depths of the most commonplace candies. Some of their most memorable mini-boycotts included religious education, the TVA television network, my sister wearing makeup, anything made by non-unionized workers, and visits to relatives Anne Boleyn didn’t like. Boycotts invariably lead to other boycotts, until everybody ends up boycotting everything. After boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980, the tables were turned on the Americans when the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Games in 1984. What goes up must come down, apart from Cadbury, that is. Since 1976, the company has more than doubled in size, in spite of the separatist boycott. It just goes to show that sugar always wins in the end.

— Eric Dupont, Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge

Reproduced with permission from QC Fiction, a new imprint featuring the very best of a new generation of Quebec storytellers. qcfiction.com



Born in 1970, Eric Dupont lives and works in Montreal. He has published 4 novels with Marchand de feuilles and in France with Éditions du Toucan and Éditions J’ai lu (Flammarion). He is a past winner of Radio-Canada’s “Combat des livres” (the equivalent of the CBC’s Canada Reads contest), a finalist for the Prix littéraire France-Québec and the Prix des cinq continents, and a winner of the Prix des libraires and the Prix littéraire des collégiens. His fourth novel, La fiancée américaine, has sold over 60,000 copies in Quebec alone.



Originally from Ireland, Peter McCambridge holds a BA in modern languages from Cambridge University, England, and has lived in Quebec City since 2003. He runs Québec Reads and now QC Fiction. Life in the Court of Matane was the first novel he chose for this collection and the book that made him want to become a literary translator in the first place. His translation of the first chapter won the 2012 John Dryden Translation Prize.


Jul 092016

Yannis Livadas


Dissection of four reminiscences on Rue Casimir Delavigne

Spirit is revealing itself through the exultant image of a prodigal.
And through another one.
Even though there is nothing more normal than the end;
Find other subjects to relinquish.
Over an undetectable point
Comes the time when words surrender to their masters.

I was never in despair.
And beauty is no more what people thought about her.
I stumble on the ship
That Ranajit Jana shakes;
The printer of my new book
In Calcutta.

I go to the National Library.
That’s a nice line as it is.
Inside they discuss the latest Nobel quietly.
The employee, a former drug addict now
Even worse with this ponytail
And a jackal glower.
I say, where can I find this one and
I would certainly like to take a look at that.
She says, both are out of the question,
Since the institution is under renovation.
But if you want
You can sign your latest book for me
(She recognized me).
My pen stops writing and
Only half of my name is scribed.
I push the pen point but she says, it’s good enough
As it is.

The trafficking of readers
It is a proof
Of poetry.



Of all the dubious elements of the abyss
The boomerang ideas
I most appreciate,
Which return dazzling
To their one and only locus.



Turns of cordial words
With particular interest
Limit the dimensions.
Most I admire Praxiteles
than Hermes.
Until night becomes a virgin.
So that being means to write.


I guess I will survive consubstantial

Very recently I stated the problems
Of experience as strongly as the bagatelles
Assume expatiating that they find us
Fatalists when once they considered us adaptive
To whatever concerned us.
I imagine that will survive all alone
Consubstantial with the imperfect
I am reviewing out
Of the blue.


This swollen face is a wreath

This swollen face is a wreath.
Many of those who exhibit the unseen arrangement
Of death are not visible.
In contrast to the unscathed delirium of life.
So, don’t bother.
Interiority equals cowardice.
Conceptually some delve into fears.
Not here though.
Those over there are resuming
Based on the peacefulness of the testicular balls.
Such hours you have to rejoice
That the spirit is man
And with just a weather forecast
Is getting ready for
The futile.

—Yannis Livadas


Yannis Livadas is a Greek poet, born in 1969. His work constitutes the idea of experimentalism based on «organic antimetathesis» — the scaling indeterminacy of meaning, of syntactic comparisons and structural contradistinction. He is also an editor; essayist, translator, of more than fifty books of American poetry and prose; an independent scholar with specialization on American modern and postmodernism literature plus haiku. He contributes to various literary magazines, both in Greece and other countries. His poems and essays have been translated in eight languages. He lives in Paris, France.


Austerity Measures/The New Greek Poetry [is included with six poems] (Penguin Books 2016)
Modart (Alloglotta Editions, Athens 2015)
Strictly Two (Sea Urchin Editions, Rotterdam, Holland, 2015)
The fat of the fly (Kedros, Athens 2015)
Au comptoir de La Manne au 90 rue Claude-Bernard (Édition privée, Paris 2014)
Sound Bones (Iolkos, Athens 2014)
At the stand of La Manne, 90 rue Claude Bernard (Private edition, Paris 2013)
La Chope Daguerre + Ηusk Poems (Kedros, Athens 2013)
Bezumljie (Peti Talas, Serbia 2012)
Ravaged By The Hand Of Beauty (Cold Turkey Press, France 2012)
Kelifus (Cold Turkey Press, France 2011)
Ati – Scattered Poems 2001-2009 (Kedros, Athens 2011)
The Margins Of A Central Man (Graffiti Kolkata, India 2010)
The Star Electric Space/An International Anthology Of Indie Writers [is included with 4 poems](Graffiti Kolkata, India 2010)
40a (Private edition, Athens 2009)
John Coltrane & 15 Poems for Jazz (C.C. Marimbo, San Francisco 2008)
Apteral Nike/Business/Sphinx (Heridanos, Athens 2008)
John Coltrane and 12 Poems for Jazz (Apopeira, Athens 2007)
The Hanging Verses Of Babylon (Melani, Athens 2007)
Annex of Temperate Emotion (Indiktos, Athens 2003)
Receipt of Retail Poetry (Akron, Athens 2002)
Expressionistic Feedback (Akron, Athens 2000)

Anaptygma/Essays and notes on poetry (Koukoutsi, Athens 2015)

The Laocoon Complex (Logeion Books, Athens 2012)


Jul 082016

Kinga Fabo 2016


Blow Wind, Blow

You sit me down. Make my bed. For me. For you.
For her. The way she swings around. Sways. Bows.
Let’s say: I’ll tell you. Let’s say: You’ll listen.

My dearest!
You congregant!
How should I use you?
I’m sitting right here and murmur.
I am sweet, you are sweet.

It was beautiful. Congregated. Used.
I should have done something to him.
There were many other
things. Things? Many?
It was winter. Hard. Un-
There was a woman. A man. Insignifican’


Dracula Orchid

We didn’t choose each other.
We were locked together.
Watching his ugly face.

He looks back: I see myself.
Who is in which end of the cable
who is that places me at his will?

This isn’t a game between the two of us,
this tug of war.
Someone’s pulling my strings from above:

once he pulls me, next he leaves me.
Smells the blood. Nosing around me.
The heat of the body. Steaming.

Can’t take it anymore. This distillate is too raw to me.
The beast wins out of beauty.
The scale goes off balance.

Two derelict puppets. Deteriorated.
Event in the greenhouse: behold.
The heart’s been stubbed.


False Thread

Seasons jam up.
Drill through the spring.
Winter, summer start attacking.

The flood makes a run.
Surging again and again
stalls and then throngs ahead.

Under the sea, the land is shaking.
(The unhoped front comes with such commotion.
While the other is dragging a heatwave.)

The shipwrecks of the lips: pilling of syllables.
Slurs and stutters.
Breaks and floods the words with anger.

It hits. Or gets hit by a syllable
culminating above it.
Gives no time to get resentful.

There is its double if it bales out.
None holds a grudge against none.
It hits. Or let others beat it.

The client is the same man.
Hiding in my shadow.
Matters not what I say or do.

There is no love: Spring’s been postponed.
It might be hiding in my shadow.
Snip. I’ll cut you up, you false thread.

(An iceberg broke off in Greenland.
The woods are on fire around Moscow.
The air is poisonous above Moscow.)


I’m not a city

I’m not a city: I have neither light, nor
window display. I look good.
I feel good. You didn’t
invite me though. How
did I get here?

You’d do anything for me; right?
Let’s do it! An attack.
A simple toy—
wife? I dress, dress, dress

The dressing remains.
I operate, because I’m operated.
All I can do is operate.
(I don’t mean anything to anyone.)
What is missing then?

Yet both are men separately.
Ongoing magic. Broad topsyturviness.
Slow, merciless.
A new one is coming: almost perfect.
I swallow it.

I swallow him too.
He is too precious to
waste himself such ways.
I’d choose him: if he knew,
that I’d choose him.

But he doesn’t. My dearest is lunatic.
In vain he is full: He is useless
without the Moon, he can’t change,
he won’t change,
the way the steel bullets spin: drifting,

the blue is drifting.
He tolerates violence on himself, I was afraid
he’d pull himself together and
asks for violence.
I watched myself

born anew with indifference:
(if I melt him!)
stubborn, dense, yowls. They worked on him well.
Right now he is in transition.
He is a lake: looking for its shore.



You are free, said the stranger.
Before I arrived there.
Costume. I had a costume on though.
I was curious: what his reaction might be?

He closed his other eyes.
I’ll send an ego instead of you.
Getting softer, I feel it, he feels it too. Hardly moves. He chokes himself inside me.
Now I must live with another dead man.

It’s not even hopeless.
Not vicious.
Serves the absence.
Delivers the unnecessary.

—Kinga Fabó

Kinga Fabó is a Hungarian poet, linguist, and essayist. She is the author of eight books. Her latest, a bilingual Indonesian-English poetry collection titled Racun (Poison), was published in 2015 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Fabó’s poetry has been included in various international journals and zines, as well as in anthologies. Some of her individual poems have been translated into Persian, Esperanto or Tamil. One of her poems, “The Ears,” has six different Indonesian translations by six different authors. She has also written an essay on Sylvia Plath. In everything she’s done, Fabó has always been between the verges, on the verge, and in the extreme.

Gabor G. Gyukics is a Hungarian poet and literary translator.



Jul 012016


The following excerpt appears early in Vaseline Buddha (translated by Jung Yewon) yet contains all of the important themes and patterns, including the narrator’s interest in writing non-traditional narratives, his illness, and his reflections on death. It also contains crucial metafictional commentary on how the novel is constructed sentence-for-sentence, with its repeating use of “thought,” the book’s most important word. —Jason DeYoung

Read our review here.


I’m somewhat curious as to what kind of a distorted story will result overall when you devote yourself to the details with no thought to the overall structure. One of the reasons why I don’t write stories with a clear structure or theme is because there’s something about such stories, in and of themselves, that make me shudder with their boredom, and another, because just one look at our reality will show you how far removed such stories are from our reality—or my own life, at least—and how different the truth of our reality is from what’s depicted in them

What I can write is a story that’s not quite a narrative, and is much too obscure and unstable. Not being obsessed with a completed story will create an opening into different territories in novels. A story with gaps and cracks and leaps and loopholes, a story that’s incomplete somehow, may more faithfully reflect real life. What exerts the greatest influence on my life is things without substance, and I’m turning my life into something without substance, and as I regard the struggle against things without substance, or tangible substance, as the only genuine struggle—this problem of mine seems to be a fundamental problem of the world as well—I have no choice but to clumsily write something without substance.

Make it a story, if possible, that’s not full of the power of narrative, a story seeking to break away from narratives whose naivety makes you smile, narratives that are dull because of their inherent tendency to seek power, and because their dull ideas are generally audacious, and their audacious aim to enlighten is inevitably dull. The persistent tendency in me to prevent the unfolding of a story, and the belief that there’s no narrative to life, could perhaps make that possible. There are, of course, people who believe that there’s a narrative to life, some of whom seek to turn their own lives into something with a narrative, through whatever means possible, and some of them do so with ambition, and some write narrative texts, and some reveal their ambition without hiding it, for it’s difficult to hide such an ambition when you have it, but among such people, there are probably some who come to realize that in the end, their lives can’t be a narrative, and that a narrative is not a principle that penetrates life, and turn their attention to something that’s not narrative. What I want to write is something  that depicts the fragmentary aspects of life, which are like a tangled skein, in a fragmentary manner, something that reflects my own life, which in itself is a great chaos, by creating and maintaining chaos, the greatest constituent of life.

Perhaps I seek to write something that’s fit to be read on a rock in a forest you come to while on a daily walk, or in a café on a street where you’re traveling. I would bring into my story fragmentary stories whose pages, turned by the wind, can be read at random, stories that allow you to close your eyes while reading and dwell for a moment on a scene that can be taken out from the book and savored, stories that are far from being narrative. Even when I talk about the anecdotes, they will be stories that are not quite narratives, stories that cannot be narratives. Perhaps even as I talk about the anecdotes, I could talk about my impressions on the anecdotes and the thoughts created by those impressions, preventing the anecdotes from developing into narratives.

What I seek to emphasize as I write this story, which perhaps says nothing, and in which something becomes nothing when the standards are changed, or whose meaning or importance changes (Some of the stories I tell could end up being told somehow even though I had no intention of telling them, or tried not to tell them. And there will be almost no difference between some of them, even if there’s a difference between those that are told and those that are not told), is not the story itself, but ways in which stories are told (The ways would include saying something that doesn’t seem to make sense at one glance in a clever way so that it does make sense), and ideas that prevent something from degenerating into a story—ideas that prevent a story, even as it is told, from developing into a story in the end, or at least into a complete story—or, since many ideas come from things, something that is developing into ideas on things, or thoughts on thoughts I’m thinking, or on the pleasure or the difficulty of thinking, or thoughts on pleasure or difficulty itself.

And I’d have to subdue the various voices within myself that raise themselves or speak simultaneously—some of the voices seem to plead some kind of a difficulty, and some of them are on their way to understanding a cruel, merciless heart—or give weight to one of the voices. I’d have to close my ears to the end to the nastiest of them all, and press and suppress it, the voice that comes from the part deepest within me, the voice that denies everything, the voice that is used to silence or has learned to be silent.

Perhaps that is the result of a certain conflict between a figure I have designated as the first person narrator of the story I’m writing and myself, for it could be difficult for a narrator, who feels uncomfortable that the author’s voice slips in, and that his autonomy is violated, and the author, who sticks his head out while hiding behind the narrator, to speak in one voice. I already sense that the figure I have designated as the narrator would spoil the fun of the figure identified as the author, and dash cold water on the thoughts that the author has, possibly leading the author to stand up to him even more for fun, and the person actually writing this story could find himself in an awkward position between the narrator and the author, and have a difficult time arbitrating between the two and side with one of them at times, but find himself in an ambiguous position at times (Perhaps this story will be written by at least three people), and I’d have to write so that a calm tone and a cheerful tone cross and collide like dissonance, so that the unity of tone is broken, and tell the darkest story in the most cheerful way, or vice versa.


Anyway, there are other thoughts I’m obsessed with now, thoughts about death. Thoughts about death, of course, have always followed me around, and I’m as familiar with death as I am with the spots on my body I’ve had since I was born.

In light of the fact that although many things in life seem predetermined, nothing, in fact, is predetermined, and that you yourself can decide everything at every moment, and if you think carefully, very carefully on that fact, there come moments in which suicide, the best choice you can make, becomes very alluring, and such moments come to me far too often.

What I think about mostly, however, is death in general, not suicide through which I would murder myself, and not actual death, but something abstract, like the memory of a day when you shivered terribly in the cold, or a feeling you had upon seeing an abstract painting, or a sudden thought you have when looking at a dead fish, still intact, on your plate in a restaurant.

It’s summer now, and in full bloom by my bedroom window are trumpet creepers, which are known to be toxic, or which I somehow came to believe are toxic, though I don’t know whether or not it’s true, and which I could touch by reaching out a hand, over the wall of my neighboring house, and looking at them, I think of death once again. For some time, I had indulged in the idea that the toxin in the showy flower could make me die slowly, or at least go insane, and felt a strong desire to eat a trumpet creeper, and at one time had to realize that desire in another way, by coming up with the sentence, When a trumpet creeper dressed in the wrong clothes is going round and round many horses, you need to make an effort to row and go to the bottom of the lake.

Summer was always the most difficult season for me to endure; in any case, it was difficult for me to feel that way about any other season besides summer. It was difficult, at least, for me to do so as I did about summer. And that was because I thought summer was a difficult season for me, that it was inevitably a difficult season for me, but there really were aspects about summer that gave me a difficult time. For several years when summer came around, I felt that the summer would be difficult to endure, and each time, summer came to me as a season that would take me to a point of no return. Thus, summer seemed to be a season I had to stand up to, and I thought I could write something about an exhausting struggle and tragic loss of a summer, with the title, “The Record of a Summer’s Struggle,” or “The Record of a Summer’s Loss.” And I considered using one of them as the title of what I’m writing, but concluded that they were more fitting as the titles of certain periods you went through.

Nevertheless, I managed, barely, to endure through several summers that came to me, and was faced with another summer. And yet, although I didn’t know the exact cause—for I didn’t try to find out the exact cause—my condition was steadily growing worse, and so for a long time, I had a sort of a belief, the belief that I, or my condition, wouldn’t improve, that it would never improve, that it could go terribly wrong at one point, and the belief seemed excessive in a way.

But when this summer came around, I passed out in my house, as if through a miracle that comes to someone who has unshaken faith and clings to it, as if through the realization of a long-held belief, and the incident was something that had been foreseen through dizziness that had been growing worse for a long time, and I’d prepared for it in my own way, that is, by not doing anything. My terrible negligence of everything made that possible for me.

The physical ailment that I’d imagined would come to me, however, was seizure or leg trouble or something of the sort. I’d also thought at one time that if one of my legs became impaired, I could procure a nice cane, and with three legs, now that one had been added, take more complicated, rhythmic steps, which wouldn’t be possible with two legs (I actually took a very careful look at an old woman with bad legs at the park one day, taking modest steps, relying on a cane, submitting to a certain rhythm, and afterwards when I saw normal people walking, they seemed somewhat stupid and awkward. And if I carried around a cane, I could raise it and politely scare off a dog on a walk with its master, delighted to see me and about to come running even though we didn’t know each other, and prevent it from coming toward me, or use the cane to make the dog come closer as it changed its mind while coming toward me and refused to come any closer, feeling threatened by the cane I was holding or by me, holding the cane, or, before all this happened, I wouldn’t have to chase away the tiresome dogs one by one, for the dogs could lose their nerve early on, seeing the cane, and not come close. And as occasion demanded, I could scare someone off, acting as if I would beat him if necessary, even if I didn’t actually beat him with the cane, or I could, using the cane, pluck a ripe apple or a rose, hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, at a height I couldn’t reach with my hand. I’m of the opinion that anyone passing by should be allowed to pluck an apple or a rose hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, but once, I was caught by the owner while plucking a rose, and was somewhat humiliated. The owner of the house was a philosopher, well known to the public, and he was furious at me, as if quite upset that one of his roses had been stolen. The aged philosopher seemed to be of the philosophy that nothing that belonged to him should be taken away from him by anyone. But it was my philosophy, if I had any philosophy at all, that something so small as taking an apple or a rose without the owner’s permission should be allowed on this earth, still the only planet among the countless planets in the universe known to have life forms. A world in which you couldn’t pilfer a luscious fruit or a rose while taking a walk on a bright afternoon or in the middle of the night would indeed be a world without hope. After that, I saw the philosopher in front of his house, severely scolding a dog, though I’m not sure if it was his dog or someone else’s, or what it had done, and he was scolding it as menacingly as he did when I plucked one of his roses. In other words, I was scolded by him just as the hapless dog was scolded. Mercy was possibly the ultimate sentiment that a human could have toward other humans and living things, but it seemed that he had no mercy. He always seemed fraught with anger, and it was possible that he became angry even with his desk or dishes from time to time).

Nevertheless, the culmination of the persisting poor condition of my body in the form of dizziness seemed to be something that suited me as the final outcome, although I hadn’t secretly anticipated it, and it felt a little like a miracle when it actually happened because I’d been hoping in my heart that something would throw my life, which was much too tranquil in a way, and almost unrealistic—I had an earnest desire to disturb a stable condition, even as I sought stability—into confusion, albeit slightly.

When I was severely dizzy, I felt as if I were suffering from seasickness on land, and I accepted dizziness as my natural state of being by thinking that I knew that I was on a rotating earth because of my dizziness, and that dizziness was something quite natural you could feel on the earth, in this dizzy world, and sometimes, even when I kept still, I felt as if I were standing on a slab of ice floating down the river, or as if I were falling slowly, while at the same time soaring with an infinite lightness, into a seemingly bottomless space devoid of gravity, but also as if I were sinking, like some kind of a sediment, deep into the ocean where enormous pressure weighed down upon me, and at the same time, I felt as if my entire body were a building that was collapsing, unable to endure its own weight after many years.

But the dizziness I felt was something that could not be described properly through any color, shape, texture, figure of speech, or anything at all (One day, it seemed as if the floor of my room were slowly tilting this way and that—one of the symptoms of dizziness I felt could be described in this way—and it seemed that if there were balls on the floor, they would roll around here and there, but the problem seemed to lie in that I couldn’t free myself of the thought that my dizziness wouldn’t cease so long as it felt as if the nonexistent balls were rolling around on the floor and I failed to make the balls come to a stop), and I was frustrated, while at the same time fascinated, by the impossibility of describing the dizziness—I felt a bit of joy that I couldn’t describe the dizziness, which was purely because I was thinking about how easily the modifier “indescribable” was accompanied by the word “joy”—and thought that the only adjective that could describe it, inadequate as it was, was “uncontrollable (But is this an adjective?),” and that the dizziness some people felt was something that separated them from others, and would be as distinct and diverse as their personalities or appearances.


The moment I lost consciousness, I felt as if I were clutching the hem of a woman’s long skirt, that I was grasping it with more strength in my hand than was necessary, but I thought that in reality, the strength in my hand that was grasping it was leaving, and when I woke up after being unconscious for I don’t know how long, I was, in fact, loosely clutching the hem of the curtain on my kitchen window, made of thick velvet.

But what I couldn’t understand, above all, was how I’d woken up by the window, which was several steps away from the living room, when it seemed that I was in the living room when I collapsed. Perhaps I walked slowly toward the window the moment I collapsed, losing consciousness, or crawled quickly, when it wasn’t necessary, like some animal that
crawls quickly.

The sudden swooning brought me a peculiar sort of pleasure, but I couldn’t tell if it was because I could think that I was clutching a woman’s skirt hem, even as I lost consciousness and collapsed—I wasn’t sure, however, if this very Kafkaesque experience was an experience of Kafka’s, penned in one of his works, or my own—or if there was an inherent pleasure that could be found in the loss of consciousness, a pleasure that could be found if you sought to find it. The moment I lost consciousness, I actually thought that I was pulling and taking off a woman’s skirt, a daring yet rude thing to do, but one that was delightful in a way, and also thought that I couldn’t help laughing, though it wasn’t something to laugh about, but I don’t think I actually laughed.

The swooning also brought a peculiar sort of satisfaction, for there seemed to be an infinite space within the dizziness of swooning through which I could spread out infinitely, after being sucked up into the whirlpool of dizziness because of dizziness. And the incident gave me a sense of anticipation, a great sense of anticipation, for more to come in the future (Anticipation is a very strange thing, making you anticipate such things, and making you, at times, anticipate your own fall and decline above all).

Having woken up by the window, I felt as if I could lose consciousness again at any moment, and everything seemed like a lie, and I thought somewhat clearly that everything seemed like a lie, in a way that was different from the way in which life itself seemed like a lie, but that there was nothing strange about it. In the end, I felt an acute pain in my knee joint, which had been bad for some time, and while trying to focus on it, wondered, This pain, where’s its origin, and when was its origin? but it occurred to me that these expressions weren’t correct, so I wondered again, What is the origin of this pain? and wondered if this expression was correct, as I lost consciousness again, and this time, I woke up in the bathroom. I couldn’t remember how I’d made my way from the window to the bathroom, and why there, of all places, either.

Sitting crumpled on the bathroom floor, and feeling great sorrow this time, I thought that I’d never be able to regain my consciousness if I lost it again, and agonized over whether I should stay where I was, hoping to get better, or go to the emergency room, and if I were to go to the emergency room, how I’d get there, and thought that I’d never gone to the emergency room in an ambulance and felt an urge to do so, but in the end, I called a taxi, and while being taken away in a taxi, I clenched my hand tightly, as if I holding onto a string of consciousness which I’d lose forever if I let go, and thought that it wouldn’t matter that much even if I did lose consciousness, as if falling asleep, on my way to the hospital, and again thought, somewhat playfully, that if I swooned again, I should make sure to grab the hem of a woman’s skirt.

I got to the emergency room, and lay on a bed without being able to properly explain my symptoms to the doctor, and as he took certain measures, I wondered whether or not I should let go of the string of consciousness, and felt a strong desire to do so, even while fighting against it, and saw the curtains flapping in the open window, and remembered that it was while I was staying cooped up in a hotel in New York that I thought, looking at the curtains that were flapping in the same way, that I wouldn’t go outside unless a gigantic sailboat, with a full load and the sails taut with wind, entered through the window, and the memory brought me a strange, almost unbearable pleasure.

—Jung Young Moon translated by Jung Yewon


Asia Talks: Author Jung Young Moon
Jung Young Moon is the author of numerous works of fiction including Vaseline Buddha, A Contrived World, A Most Ambiguous Sunday, and A Man Who Barely Exists. Jung has also translated more than forty books from English into Korean. In 2005 Jung participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Jung Yewon

Jung Yewon is the translator of One Hundred Shadows, by Hwang Jung-eun. She is also the translator of No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin and one of the co-translators of A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories by Jung Young Moon, both published by Dalkey Archive as part of their Library of Korean Literature series.


Jun 102016

Julian Herbert


I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

The sign juts up suddenly in the sky above the beltway. It’s a hazy deep green, rectangular and rusting away. Sitting shotgun, with my notebook in hand, it takes me a few moments to understand and write down the words. Fevers bring on this sort of sluggish lucidity. I want to laugh but the purple bolt of pain that slashes from my jaw to my ear is so bright that I find myself curled up into a ball in the seat. Without slowing her Mazda the least bit (the bitch has a Mazda; three years ago she was barely surviving by turning tricks, picking up paying pricks at El Diablito Tun Tun to the sound of reggaeton rhythms), Lisandra looks at me and says:

“You want an aspirin, baby?”

It’s neither a question nor a statement. It’s just polite auto-babble. A salicylic silk handkerchief to dull the razor blades of varying thickness slicing my face, the face of nothing. I answer no with a shiver: that was the babble I used to sputter out when I was a kid and thought about murdering Mom.

My mom made a living as cold mill laminator in the AHMSA Steel Plant No. 1. Every day she returned home from work encrusted from head to toe in metal shavings, and white from saltpeter, the soles of her feet cracking, her knees tight and creaking like knots, her calves hard as a cutting board. She made me massage her with Stanhome Foot Repair the whole afternoon while we watched reruns of tacky soap operas: “A Girl Named Miracle,” “Rina,” and “The Strange Return of Diana Salazar.” Once in a while we could hear Papa shouting as he played marbles out in the garden with the little kids. It made me really angry that he had permission to go out and play while I stayed inside.

“It’s you I love the most,” she said if I argued, her face taking on an expression she meant to look sweet but which always struck me as obscene.

Sometimes when I gave her massages I daydreamed, imagining Mom toppling into an enormous blast furnace, her body vaporized in the boiling pig iron (in school I’d seen some crude sketches of those gigantic ladles used to hold molten steel). It was a nightmarish vision and it made me feel enormously sad, almost bad enough to want to die too, but I consoled myself by playing marbles with Dad and the kids next door.

Sometimes Mom complained of a headache.

“Do you want an aspirin?” I’d ask her, imagining that maybe the pharmacist had accidentally dropped a few sleeping pills into the bottle of aspirin. Or better yet, a cyanide capsule like secret agents used in spy movies.

It wasn’t quite dark yet but she gave me my late afternoon snack and sent me off to bed.

“You’re the best boy in the world,” she would say, bending over me, before switching off the light. “Some day God will reward you so much, because there’s nothing holier in this world than someone who looks after their mother.”

Then she’d leave me there in my dark room. I’d lay awake for a long time. I’d listen to the television through the wall, trying to imagine a face and a situation for each character. I’d listen to the voices of the neighbors’ kids in the street, making fun of Dad’s stupidities. I’d review my plans for how to kill her until I was finally overcome by sadness or sleep.

“C’mon now, stop that,” says Lisandra. “You can’t go on like that, baby. Really.” She drums her fingers on the steering wheel until she remembers the prescription. “You’ve got to take a shot of that stupid Cetri-. . . .”


“That’s it.”

“And Acetaminophen.”

“Stop writing in your notebook, man, and listen to me. You’ve got to take your medicine and give it to your wife, too. Because, look, with that scrawny, flea-bitten body of hers, Cecilia isn’t gonna be able to put up with your little joke until you decide you’ve got the balls to tell her the truth, ok? You inject her or she dies, and then let’s see how you get rid of her body.

We cut across the edge of the city by a side street before hitting the bottleneck from the construction on the new bridge. Lisandra stops to get my prescription filled in a Guadalajara pharmacy. I stay in the car with my head leaning against the glass, reading over my notes. My hands are throbbing. I feel a spiral of pressure in my chest and my head, a spiral of pressure sliding out of my mouth like a vaporous boa constrictor. My fever must have risen to more than 102˚. They can all go to hell: I’m not taking any pills or injections. And Cecilia isn’t either.

Lisandra is just scornful of Cecilia’s body; the last vestige of the fact that she was once my wife.

I’d gone to Havana to play a show as the bassist in Daddy Dada. We performed in the Plaza de la Dignidad on the same bill as Elvis Manuel and Gente de Zona, playing on stage with our backs to the office of foreign affairs. There were about fifty or two hundred or two hundred thousand black flags with a white star in the middle (the number varies according to the level of patriotism of the Cuban who tells you about them), waving over our heads and making one hell of a racket throughout our whole set. I felt that I’d landed on a Caribbean island of heartless but well-intentioned pirates. Pirates with short-term collective amnesia: every so often they hoisted their corsair flag, as if that would stop the merciless English commandants from raping their mothers the way Blackbeard did.

The moment the show was over all of us musicians in Daddy Dada, like good little Mexican boys, immediately took off to scour the town for whores. (A Mexican is easy to spot in Havana, the taxi driver explained to us: he’s got a big belly, he’s demanding, he’s stingy, he dresses well, he sports his bling, and he asks where to find the blonde whores with the lightest skin.) They took us in a Chinese van to the legendary Diablito Tun Tun, the whole club throbbing with the sound of yet more reggaeton. I’d almost jump out a second-story window to get away from that hellish music, and the fans even clamor for autographs. It drives me fucking nuts: I was once an aspiring artist but a couple of rappers already have everything I ever dreamed of.

Lisandra was standing there at the door of the club, with her almost transparent eyes and her lightly freckled breasts, swaying more gracefully than a Las Vegas table dancer (collectivist and affable: “You’re not a penny pincher, I can tell you like to share.”) and asking for some Cuban pesos so she could get through the door. I paid her way in, treated her to a Red Bull, and fifteen minutes later we were back outside. Her “cousin” gave us a lift in his broken-down Ford to the half-dead entrance into central Havana where her “aunt” loaned her a room (with a TV with an antenna that could pick up the channels out of Miami) so she could spend some time alone with “her friends.”

I paid in advance.

Lisandra handed me a condom. I told her that first I wanted to give her head. She stripped naked without a word. She lay on her back, looking at the ceiling, spread her legs and let me sink my face between them. As I was stroking her soft hairy mound, I felt how she was getting excited little by little. There was a moment––the most intense one we’ve ever experienced together––when her back arched and her fingers very softly brushed the hair on my head. It barely lasted a second. Then she sat up all of a sudden, grabbed the condom from where I’d placed it on the bureau, and said to me:

“Alright: now put it on and get it over with.”


“Because you’re a tourist; you can’t touch me that way.”

“Why not?”

“Because tourists make me wanna puke.”

I was so offended that I immediately had the idea that I wanted to marry her. I wanted to drag her back to Mexico, chain her to the wall of some shadeless, sun-bleached patio, force her to scrub the floors, wrapped tight in a pair of denim short-shorts that would allow me to comfortably appreciate (from the imaginary recliner of a postmodern creole slave driver) her legs and her ass.

“OK,” I told her.

I slipped on the rubber and came inside her as fast as I could.

Courting her was the easiest thing of all: three short days later we were already engaged. She gave me only two conditions: first, that her “cousin” not find out yet, and, second, that I let her keep going to the Diablito Tun Tun the same as always while we waited for her visa to be approved. It seemed reasonable to me. The afternoon that I had to catch the plane back to Mexico, Lisandra took me home to ask for her hand. Her father cried.

We got married. I got her out of Cuba and, for a few months, we lived together in my old apartment. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was going to be impossible to humiliate her, hate her, or fall in love with her: Lisandra is the sweetest person I know. She’s also as greasy as a pig and as hard as a hammer: everything slides right off her, and she puts a dent in everything. On the other hand, the sexual aura she so strongly exuded when I met her disappeared completely as soon as she stepped foot off the island. It was as if her body just suddenly powered down or got old or was suddenly drained of life.

One day she found a job (whoring didn’t spoil her schooling: she’s a certified nutritionist from the University of Havana and she speaks four languages). Placing her open palm on my crotch as a sign of peace, she told me: “Listen, darling, you and I have got nothing left to do together.” She packed her bags and moved in with a woman I know.

Lisandra returns to the car with the little bag of medicines. I ask her:

“How much do I owe you?”

“Quit fucking around. You just better take the prescribed dose and stop driving me crazy with all these trips to the doctor. Any day now my patience is going to come to an end.”

I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

Acetaminophen, commonly known by its brand name Tylenol, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication used to reduce symptoms of pain. Occasionally it causes vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. People who take it in place of aspirin run a greater risk of heart attacks or cerebrovascular accidents.

Ceftriaxone is a third-generation cephalosporin for parenteral use against serious gram-negative bacteria. It penetrates the blood-brain barrier, which makes it useful in the treatment of meningitis. Its spectrum is not effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It must not be physically mixed with other medications. It can produce neurotoxicity if administered simultaneously with aminoglycosides.

Acetylsalicylic acid, the chemical name for aspirin, inhibits the activity of the cyclooxygenase enzyme, which diminishes the formation of precursors of prostaglandins and thromboxanes. It can induce bronchial spasms in patients with asthma. Children and adolescents with viral symptoms must not consume it owing to the risk of it causing Reye’s syndrome, which is usually fatal.

“Do you want an aspirin?” is a poisonous question.

One day Mom and Dad were arguing about the which way they needed to set a new beam in the house. “Like this,” she said. “No, this way,” said Dad, his voice shrill, about ready to throw a fit, and he turned it around. I was sitting on the floor, very close to them, monkeying around with the tools. The beam slipped out of their hands and landed on my head. They slapped a bandage on me, filled me up with pills, and bought me a carton of vanilla ice cream. Then Mom beat Dad with her belt and sent him off to sleep in the doghouse.

Lisandra turns the car onto Calle Pedro Aranda and we roll into the neighborhood of Colonia Bellavista, the uppermost district in the city. Below us lies the flooded quarry, a hard reddish pool, where they extracted the stone used to build the cathedral of Santiago Mataindios––St. James the Indian Slayer––constructed between 1745 and 1800 with the meagre funds of the rich people in the valley of Zapalinamé.

I am both the son and heir of a legendary man: Santiago el Cavernícola––the “caveman”––the hippie guitar hero, the mestizo twin of Robert Plant who sold his Chevy Nova to pay for a coyote to lead him up the stairway to heaven, to the land of stars and bars, to the house of the rising sun, and the dark side of the moon: I am son and heir of a handsome Mexican who became a wetback to get to California. Not to pick tomatoes but to become a rock star.

Santiago el Cavernícola left the barrio of Alacrán––a place whose name means “scorpion”–– long before I was born. He packed only a double change of clothes and the second-hand Takamine twelve-string he had bought at a flea market. Among the flock of teenage girls sighing and pining away in his absence was my mom.

There is a drop of blood trembling in the white of my left eye. I don’t see it: I feel it. I tried to turn my pupil inwards. I know perfectly well it can’t be done. I try. My fever must be close to 104˚. I need a cold shower to bring it down without any pills.

For years, nobody in our town heard anything about my dad. Not until a bus driver on a company shuttle for metalworkers ran into him trying to thumb a ride on Highway 40, near Cuatro Ciénegas. They say it was pretty difficult to recognize him: he’d shaved off all his long hair and his eyebrows with a straight razor. He was carrying a woman’s purse with a big wad of money: twenty thousand dollars. He spoke confusedly about Saint Francis of Assisi, and he hid from trees because, he said, they were trying to recruit him for the war.

Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

Everyone realized that he was flying high on a permanent acid trip and nevertheless, for some months, he once again became one of the most popular young people on the scene. Partly because, as his hair started to grow back, the scars on his scalp became less noticeable and his brown face was as handsome as always. Partly because, by Alacrán standards, twenty thousand dollars was a fortune.

“Step on it,” I tell Lisandra. “I’ve got to get under the shower.”

“Again?” And she feels my forehead with the same hand that she uses to shift gears. “You’re going to take that fucking Acetaminophen.

It was thanks to my father’s acid madness that my mother, a shy and ugly woman, managed to seduce Santiago el Cavernícola. They got married. I was born. By the time my earliest memories begin, my dad’s mind had come down from its hellish time warp but he was now stuck somewhere between eight and ten years old, and maintained that emotional age until the day he died. We were great friends. He showed me a number of tricks for how to copy on exams. He was my biggest rival on the Atari console. And he became a true thug at playing marbles.

My mother, however, could never forgive the fact that he had destroyed his mind before letting her make love with him.

The car stops. My house. Black iron gate. The garden destroyed, kicked to pieces in a sudden attack of gastric infection. Cecilia is standing in the doorway. In pajamas. I think: if she continues trying to follow me in my experiments with feverish illnesses, she’s gonna kill herself. And Lisandra, again:

“You’ve got to take this fucking Acetaminophen. You’ve got to inject it right now.”

I’m slipping into the nirvana of fever: that sea of tranquility where thermometers burst and the blood swirls slowly behind the eyelids, and the fleshy matter (that well-congealed gelatin) begins to fall silent.


I sell sheepskins.

A surge of explosions or rustling leaves tearing me a part as if I were a saint.

— Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley


Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila, where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003; rereleased in Spain by Vaso Roto publishing in 2014); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism.


Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.


Jun 042016
Photo by Francesco Fiondella

Photo by Francesco Fiondella

Tirukkural encodes the cultural intelligence of the Tamil people in its 1,330 couplets (called kurals), written sometime between the third and first centuries BCE in south India by the legendary poet Tiruvalluvar. Like other classical Indian treatises on right living, Tirukkural starts with a section on virtue (dharma), continues on to a section on wealth (artha), and then covers love (kama). (More about Tirukkural can be found in my earlier essay, here on NC.)

Though ancient in origin, these verses are still alive in Tamil culture. My mother tells me that the local Indian cultural association where she lives in rural Ohio has just started a kural-memorization competition for the kids. Each participant has to start from the beginning of Tirukkural, the very first couplet, and recite as much as he or she can remember. The prizes are awarded to the top memorizers, one dollar per kural. I laughed, thinking of how much money a kid could make if she made it all the way to the section on wealth (that’s $380 for getting there).

The following couplets are from the first and third sections (virtue and love).

 —A. Anupama


Chapter 8: On possessing love

In love, what lock? Heartache
gleams on the tear tracks left in its wake.

The loveless take all for themselves, but those who love own
not even their bones.

Love unites thought and action in pure life—
a consummation to the very marrow.

Love’s thrill leads to
friendship—boundless bliss.

Love’s possessors manufacture this world’s joy,
and, by possessing joy, win glory.

Pure virtue is love’s sole fruit according to the ignorant, oblivious
that pure valor ripens alongside.

Boneless worms in sunlight burn,
as do loveless people in moral virtue.

Loveless hearts bloom in an arid waste
on parched trees, withering.

What use are the outer limbs of the body
without the inner limb?

A love-filled path is the soul,
without which the body is only bones covered over with skin.


Chapter 122: On night visions

My love’s messenger came to me: a dream.
What feast of thanks can I offer it?

Of my eyes, shaped like darting fish, I beg sleep. Then for my love
truth will pour from my suffering heart.

Awake, he never came to me, but, asleep,
seeing him preserves my life.

In dreams, I seek that fierce pleasure, which in my waking life
avoids me: I find him.

Awake, my vision and its dream
met in one sweet moment.

If waking life would cease and only sleep persist
my love would never leave my mind.

Awake, he never came near. What cruelty takes, in my sleep,
its right to torture me?

I dreamt he made love to me. When I woke,
he swiftly entered my heart.

In this waking life, he offered me nothing. Yet I ached when in my dream
my love evaporated from my longing eyes.

Every day they will gossip about us and my forsakenness. But my dream
they didn’t glimpse, thankfully, these villagers.


from Chapter 123: An evening lament

Budding in early morning and unfurling all day,
the evening blooms, like this ache.

—Translated by A. Anupama


A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she organizes literary community (RiverRiver.org) and blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.


May 062016

Zsofia Ban by Dirk SkibaPhoto by Dirk Skiba



I can see she’s unhinged the moment she gets in. She sits for long seconds on the back seat with eyes closed, pressing her head against the headrest. Breathing hard, with long sighs like one short of oxygen. She’s going to be sick in a second. The thought makes me panic a bit, not here of all places, in my cab.

Where can I take you?

I don’t care. Away from here, quick.

But is it Buda, or Pest?

Pest. That’s on the other side, isn’t it? The farther the better.

This is of course an invitation to dance, after two years of taxi driving I can tell that much. That is, that I should ask questions. “You had a bad day?”, “Did something upset you?” and the like. She’s expecting sanctimonious sentences, questions that should mean, “Come, sweetie, have a good hearty sob on my broad shoulder.” I’m not sure I want it. I’m not sure I want to hear the details of her emotional disaster. For that’s what it’s all about for certain. No, I’m not going to become a self-styled confessor or psychotherapist again. I’m tired of the vain, petty, endlessly repeating stories. I’d much rather touch her nape, which is reflected for an instant in the rear window, where her unruly black hair is severely cropped. This makes her look vulnerable and helpless. You could cut off her head smoothly with a guillotine any time. Her silky, surprisingly large and fleshy earlobes are curving strangely outward and upward, in a shape slightly reminiscent of a V. Perhaps she’s in the habit of twisting them when she’s nervous. Some fidget with their hair, some drum with their fingers, and there are some who keep twisting their earlobes. Sweet girl, stop twisting them, for you’ll end up with them twisted. If I bit them, a drop of her ruby-red blood would gush out at once. A gift of earrings. No, I’m really not saying anything. Her presence fills the car cabin like some strange material obtained through long experimentation, for NASA let’s say, it has the capacity to fill even the smallest and most hidden cavities, seeps in everywhere, into the trunk, ashtray, outer ear, bronchia, pores, Mari of course, at the Déli station at last the penny drops where this familiar feeling comes from, making those butterflies go off immediately in my stomach (when she got in they went off at once), it was Mari who could fill everything with her presence so, at the end I could hardly breathe, because her existence oozed into the nostrils and the mouth cavity and blocked the way of the air, making me breathe hard and staccatoed like this one in the back, I look into the mirror and she immediately looks back at me, looking for eye contact, looking for the thread of the conversation, she is clinging to my gaze like one drowning, begging me to throw her a rope, a word, anything that keeps her from sinking into the swamp of her trauma. No, sweetheart, I’m not going to be your Bruce Willis, your Stallone, you can safely sink in the back seat like the Titanic as far as I’m concerned, you are exactly what I needed in the night, exactly this convulsion of the stomach that is all Mari, I’m sure Mari has sent it just to remind me how useless to cod myself that, with a bit of cab-driving and white nights, I can wash her out of my system, that I shouldn’t believe I can atone so easily, although that chick didn’t mean anything, the whole affair barely lasted for two seconds, after five years I was simply curious what another skin smelled like, it was nowhere near Mari’s, I only wanted to try out for a second what it felt to be free, because Mari clutched me with her arms like a beautiful, fleshy octopus, a rare specimen, the likes of which you only meet in fairy tales. Seemingly fragile, frail, in need of protection, but once you’ve yielded she will crush you with her embrace sooner or later, and this one is splayed there on the back seat exactly like that, like one about to fall apart to atoms unless somebody helps her, she gives another well-audible sigh, hoping I will take pity on her at last, why me, why do these little monsters always pick me, why don’t they just leave me well alone to drive about in the night, so that in a suitably beaten moment I can feel I might manage to sleep again, because there is this strange physiological phenomenon, whenever somebody is released too abruptly from a too-tight embrace, they will not sleep for long, just keep shifting their body’s weight from one leg to another like a dog suddenly untied, looking around unsure, not knowing what to do with all this unexpected freedom, and it is not rare that they end up looking for someone else they might serve, rather than roaming together with the other discarded dogs.

We are on Chain Bridge already when she speaks again.

I’ve never traveled with a woman cab driver before. Aren’t you afraid?

Just like this. Aren’t you afraid, driver? Aren’t you afraid, woman? They’re going to kill you or worse, they’re going to fuck you.

And you? Aren’t you afraid to get in a stranger’s car, just like this?

I look into the rear mirror. I see she smiles faintly.

Well, there’s some truth in it.

We are stuck at the red light, József Attila street, an uncommonly balmy April night, silence. If she shut up now and would just stay put in the back until I drop her off somewhere, I could even enjoy this sudden spring.

But in all truth a stranger is better than someone you know. At least you don’t imagine you know him. With someone you know, you’ll always discover in the end that they are complete strangers. I’m being so fucking profound, sorry. I don’t want to burden you with my pearls of wisdom.

Well to this you just can’t say no. I have a heart too, even if a bit stony. Come now, here’s this stony, loving, cabby’s heart of mine. Take it. Shred it to pieces.

Just dumped?

Worse. I found out she has a husband.

Her look in the rear mirror is hard, provocative, she’s waiting for the effect. For the bafflement. She is preparing some grand statement to fling into my face. Sweet mother of mine. You have to get up earlier, darling. A cab driver who is not able to size up the client in half a second should go breed monchichis. My radar beeped in the first second, as it should. Hers is not yet functioning, as I see. After all, I’m sitting with my back to her, I have to grant her this. Some say though that you could tell from my nape alone. Anyway. Tears must obviously be blurring her vision. Do I have to say that by now they are rolling down in big fat drops on her freckled and strikingly white face. The turned-up collar of her black leather jacket surrounds it like an obituary announcement. I half turn around. Not without a touch of rancour, I must admit.

So, she screwed you.

For a moment she looks me in the eye, surprised. Then goes on relieved, like one who has unexpectedly gained absolution for a sin not committed.

Not only me. Her husband too. Her children. Everybody. The whole fucking world.

And how did you find out?

I can’t believe I’m asking this. Who the hell cares how she found out, who said what, who lied, how this or that one was caught, and what they said at that, and how she reacted to it, who cares about this pathetic little story, this scrap opera.

You won’t guess of course: Dad went off on a business trip, but Dad returned earlier than he should have, the airport workers were on strike, ha ha. I will never forgive her though for laying me in their marital bed. Only men would do such crap.

And, now you see, sometimes women too. Which is harder to recover from. This shows how nasty prejudice is. At least you’ve learnt something today.

This turned out lighter and harsher than necessary. That is, it turned out like this out of necessity. I just had to keep her at a distance. I had to try and wipe off her sad eyes’ burning, tattooing look from my skin. I had to air the sea, algae and seaweed smell of her breath out of my nose, I had to try to surface from the deep sea water and not let myself be caught by this stifling underwater garden; I had to try to erase her from my mind, I’m standing on the runway like Humphrey Bogart and don’t have to say anything, because the woman (who is also me) doesn’t get on the plane, but turns round slowly, comes up to me and takes my arm; I had to erase from my memory Mari standing in the corridor and shrieking into my face that she hopes someone will some day really break my heart into chips and smithereens, so it can never be put together again, and then I will learn what I did to her, because she can see I have no idea, callous brat that I am, I had to forget her thick lashes in the long first moment she closed them, her preternaturally dark eyes, the likes of which can only be seen in inner Congo, Tshad or Zambia, small wonder Dr Livingstone vanished for years on end because he set eyes on exactly such a pair of eyes, to his perdition, and this caught him so unprepared and off guard that it took Stanley, who went on an expedition, to drag him out of there. My goodness I thought, who on earth will ever start an expedition for me, who will ever find me and save me when everybody has long given up hope I am still alive, who will search this grimy urban jungle for me, who will be that fearless detective who decides to give the matter one last try, defying the explicit orders of his superior, and inspects that disused factory destined to be demolished, where he finally finds me, half dead. I obviously have to erase from my brain, like from a hard disk by pushing a single button, everything that passed my mind the moment I spotted her on the street corner where she got in; that this is like, this is precisely like when I watched the transit of Venus in front of the Sun two years ago and thought this was what people keep waiting for all their life, such a perfect constellation, which of course then slowly moves apart but as long as it lasts it is nothing but prolonged, perfect bliss.

Wouldn’t you like to have a drink after the fright you got?

I hear this sentence coming out of my mouth. It is my mouth, there’s no doubt about that, but I couldn’t tell who is speaking. I can see she is at least as much taken by surprise by the question as I am. Her face first shows the signs of surprise, then of recognition. At last her radar turned on, however late. I change gear, let the engine run out a bit, there is nobody on the streets, we are sweeping across the city like two survivors come from a different planet.

Why not, after all. It wouldn’t hurt to wash off this filth.

It’s only the street lamps’ light gliding past that gives some emphasis to her dull words.

But let’s not go to the Reflection. I don’t want to meet anyone.

Of course not there, I’m not in the habit of going to such fancy places. I switch off the taxi meter. By now the car must be going on the lead in the air, because the dashboard red light is on, showing there’s hardly any fuel. It feels like having been on the road for days, without food or drink, and now with our last strength we are reaching the oasis. Or rather, its mirage. We go next to Klauzál square, to Fater’s pub. That’s home territory, there I feel safe and there no one will know her, for sure. I take the corner on two wheels almost, a late dog-walker looks at us startled, what is this, not a chase scene again? Yes, a chase. I pull the hand brake and look into the mirror.

Shall we go?

I think I just felt a cool draught of air brush past my nape. In the mirror I can immediately see where it came from.

I’m sorry. I think I changed my mind.

A precise, professional blow to the heart, delivered with an iron bullet. I turn around to see her face, not only its reflection. She should shoot me face to face, properly.

What should we do now?

I’d like to… I’d like you to take me back.

She pulls her black leather collar closer around her neck. Her face is as small now as a shrunken Indian head.

Are you sure it’s a good idea?

I’m already sorry for saying it. I turn back and start the taxi meter again. I’ll have at least this satisfaction, of offering her to them on a plate. I can hear from the back:

No, but I must.

I switch on the radio and turn up the volume. Green wave all the way to Moszkva Square.

—Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa

Zsófia Bán was born in Rio de Janeiro and grew up in Brazil and Hungary. Her writing often addresses topics related to visuality, visual arts, photography, personal and cultural memory, historical trauma, as well as gender. Her short stories and essays have been widely anthologized and translated to a number of languages, including German, English, Spanish, Czech, Slovakian and Slovenian. Besides her volumes of essays, she has published two books of fiction. This story is from her book Amikor még csak az állatok éltek (When There Were Only Animals), 2012. She lives and works in Budapest, where she teaches American Studies, and is currently DAAD writer-in-residence in Berlin.



Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.



Apr 072016

IMG-20160223-WA0005Photo by Sonia Quiñones

I first came across Óscar Oliva’s work a couple of years ago when Keith Payne came to visit me at my house in Cholula. He spoke of Óscar’s poetry with such enthusiasm that, as soon as he and his partner (the wonderful singer, Su Garrido Pombo—listen to her perform one of the poems below) left, I pulled out the massive anthology of Mexican 20th century poetry that sat guiltily on my shelf and went directly to the entry on Oliva. The first two poems intrigued me—El artista (The Artist) and El sufrimiento armado  (The Armed Suffering). El artista takes its cue from the famous Velazquez painting Las meninas, in which the artist chooses to place himself within the painting. The speaker of the poem states that his intention is similar to that of the Spanish painter, to become one with his art: ‘How to make myself and this book indivisible?/How to make this poem break free from the yoke of paper?’ In El sufrimiento armado Oliva visits the tomb of Marco Antonio Yon Sosa, a Guatemalan guerrillero killed by Mexican armed forces near the border with Chiapas. In the second half of the poem the speaker returns to his home in Mexico City to read about the event in the local papers. He notes how the minister for defense claims that the Guatemalan guerrilleros had fired first and that: ‘In these conditions…our soldiers will not reply with flowers and embraces.’ Oliva would reply with poetry, with music. From these two initial encounters it was clear to me this was a poet who gave equal importance to social matters as he did to ars poetica, singing for the sake of music. It was also clear that I would read more.

Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico and also one of the states with the highest portion of indigenous groups, is an important element of Oliva’s poetry, his love for his native land is palpable. In Keith’s excellent article for the Irish Times (Rebel Hearts Beat with the ‘Poetry of Vitality’) he charts the circumstances that brought Oliva back to Chiapas in the mid nineties: “In 1994 The Zapatista Army of National Liberation had asked Oliva and (Juan) Bañuelos to join its delegation for peace talks with the Mexican government …Hearing the declaration, Oliva returned to his native Chiapas.” But Chiapas, with its stunning natural beauty, armed struggles and social injustices, though a recurring presence, is not the sole location of Oliva’s work. As likely to reference Q’uq’umatz as Juvenal, his wide range of references weave a vast and varied tapestry. Oliva is a troubadour who travels far and wide, crossing spatial and temporal boundaries with ease, though always carrying with him the stones and soil of Chiapas. These four poems are testament to the variety, vitality and integrity of his work. Long may he continue.
— Dylan Brennan

Óscar Oliva comments on “Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico”

Writing poetry always constitutes a journey that starts upon the arrival of the first line, which contains within itself the impulse to keep going. Sometimes we travel down these roads in the dark, like St. John of the Cross, and sometimes at great speed like Rimbaud, all in order to remember or imagine we are remembering, different aspects of situations. We were taught all this by the classic Chinese and Japanese poets. Also by Fernando Pessoa and the Provençal troubadours. I have never stopped making that journey, a journey into knowledge, an initiatory journey, one that is never the same—the landscapes change, the towns and cities also change. I and everyone else continue along this wheel that also changes.


Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico

for Enrique González Rojo

From Tuxtla to the city of Mexico
is more than a thousand kilometres
more than a million metres
more than a hundred million centimetres

and so many more stones,
so many more trees that

I can neither measure nor count
what I’ve done so many times,
at so many kilometres an hour,
with the hot breath of wind blowing down the Isthmus,
torrential rains barrelling down the Veracruz stretch
that threaten to jack the car and drop it in a ditch,
I’ve picked up the names of all the bridges,
of all the throttled villages
buried in the curves and straights of the road
that I’ve driven down all the days and all the months of the year,
first light, late at night, and at that moment
when the evening is a cicada turning back
into its primitive shell, spinning back to larva,
the exhaustion hooks the mouth,
twists the shoulder and down
into the back of the foot,
and burrows with a spoon
deep into the head;
I still feel when I’m on the go
from one place to another
in this dread between life and death,
when language and anger pushes you on,
and I’m making my way with a pick and a trowel
or when I’m sat in a chair
or laid between the legs of the one I love,
this gearshift, the pulse of the engine
pulling up the mountain, heading up into
the knotty heart of it all
the gentle giddiness on the way back down
and the speed that makes us swallow the landscape
and our words;
the first time I came to Mexico city
I didn’t know which way to turn
which corner to round,
it was like beginning to write,
sat to the white sheet elbows on the table
alone, shoulders hunched forward
waiting for the pistol and the engine rev,
the race to be won
but you’re the only driver,
the page that burned in my hands
like the rubbish tips that burned in Santa Cruz Meyehualco,
and the trucks and trams that burned in the risings,
that screamed hunger,
I came down from the attic to campus,
books under my arm
rolling up spit balls and firing them
out of the bus window
polluting the city with Kant and Antonio Caso,
I dumped my books on the bus and jumped
into one of the greasy spoons on Academía St.
………….or a pub
then dancing all night in La Perla,
later on I’d feel the heat of the woman
who had brought me home,
a moisture spreading like an expanding universe
in a few square metres,
in a few cubic metres of air;
and I wrote across the city roofs,
I spread my reach, my turf
I wandered the hideous streets
where the people crawled
out of work with nothing to eat
gougers or thieves
who raised their eyes to my shirt
and it was like stepping back into the movies
back into Buñuel’s The Forgotten,
and on those ulcerated streets I saw for the first time
carfulls of police, mounted police
pick-ups of riot police
who closed the streets;
the power of the State
who charged full tilt
swinging batons
booting the rubbish bins,
shaking up the neighbourhood
shooting point blank
a blitzkrieg down on our heads,
then the silence of Chaplin’s Easy Street
and I wake up on the path
my eye cut, babbling
like a groggy boxer and they’ve stopped the fight in the third on a technical
and the howls of the crowd not there,
I gathered what was left of my books
without a cent in my pockets,
and back to my room
whistling the tune from The Graduate,
to write the poem I lost
like so many things you lose;
I.D. and women
strikes and chewing gum
faith and socks;
It gets cold in the mountains around Puebla
you have to roll the windows up,
turn on the heat and slow right down
to a regular speed, and later on the sunlight
through my bedroom window,
she’s coming in to wake me
taking off her school uniform
lying down on top of me sliding over me
kissing each other like something out of the movies,
caresses straight out the The tower of lust
Gone with the Wind’s big house,
it’s late, it’s late the sunlight tells us,
they’ve turned up the lights in the cinema,
It was time for a sup and head out across the Zócalo,
kiss her goodbye at the door
then up Guatemala St.,
two blocks take a right,
back into the new poem
back into the dream jaunt,
grab some stuff for the street again
to listen to the jangle and bounce of the trucks
…………loading and unloading,
the travelling salesmen’s banter,
the binmen,
the schoolkids,
hop up on a bus
in with the workers
the driver has the radio full blast,
it’s hard to get to the door, I ring the bell,
a red light flashes on the dash,
I take a wander up by San Lazaro station,
watch a train pass
as it pulls itself across the face of the earth
a letter on each of the six cars
that form the word STRIKE,
I measure these things in my pocket
against what’s on the street,
at the stand I grab an orange juice, the passing
railwaymen lift a finger in salute,
I salute them too, it’s as if we’re saying
reality is in those fingers
this train,
the orange juice lights up my whole body,
I arrive
and the five poets are sat around a table
someone reads a poem, I watch them:
they’re the same age I was when I first met them,
………….I think;
they haven’t moved, still as a photograph
hands in mid air,
pen in the hand,
a glass at their elbows,
they’re as old as our children are now,
it has all passed so fast
just like coming down out of the mountains in Oaxaca,
where it seems that the road breeds another road
where the slightest slip could send me over the edge,
where the brakes don’t seem to work,
where I’ve lost control of the car,
I come back to the photograph and hang it
…………on one of the walls at home,
I arrive for the first time in Mexico City,
I am just one more shoulder in the crowd marching through,
teargas fumes me,
derailed trains burnt out at the terminal
ripped up tracks and the attack
of the police, of the army, of the riot squad
all in battle formation,
the Zócalo is a rifle butt in the face,
there’ll be more battles
José Revueltas tells us,
the railway workers pass by and lift their fists
…………in salute
they walk out of one cell straight into another,
back down to the underworld, into their nooks,
take note, write all this down,
I’m nothing more than a chronicler
who has seen his friends fall,
who has buried his dead,
who has washed in the wind,
full of ghosts and contradictions,
demands and manifestos,
who has patched his back so many times
falling in love again and again, watching the future
so it’s hard to keep an eye on the telescope lens,
denying the future, hating it again,
starting over again, in the end
starting the journey, setting out from the same place,
going the same way,
coming down the highway, braking,
tooting the horn, the lights change,
gearshift, watch the tyres,
flick on the wipers,
and keep an eye on the gas,
barrelling down again till finally I pull in
and here I am writing this
at the end of the journey,
hitting the brakes
so I don’t run over everything I’ve written
or myself.
So I can keep on rising and falling.

Translation by Keith Payne/Audio reading by Ophelia Ellen McCabe


Al volante de un automóvil por la carretera panamericana de Tuxtla a la ciudad de México

A Enrique González Rojo

De Tuxtla a la ciudad de México
hay más de mil kilómetros de distancia
más de un millón de metros
más de cien millones de centímetros

mas las piedras,
mas los árboles,

que no se pueden medir, ni contar,
que he recorrido tantas veces,
a tantos kilómetros por hora,
con mucho calor y viento por el Istmo,
con lluvias torrenciales por el tramo de Veracruz
que tratan de detener el carro, derribarlo en un barranco,
que he aprendido los nombres de los puentes,
de los pueblos asfixiados, hundidos
en las curvas y rectas de la carretera;
que he recorrido por distintos días y meses del año,
en la madrugada, en la noche, en el momento
en que la tarde es una cigarra volviendo a su funda
primitiva, saltando al revés, a su condición de ninfa,
sintiendo ese cansancio que nos prende de la boca
………con un anzuelo,
que continúa en un hombro,
baja hasta el calcañar de los pies,
y escarba con una cuchara
el cráneo;
todavía siento, cuando voy caminando
de un lugar a otro, en esa trepidación de vida y muerte
a la que nos empuja la gramática o la cólera,
de regreso a casa, abriéndome paso
con un pico y una pala, o cuando
estoy sentado en una silla
o cuando acostado entre las piernas de la que amo,
ese cambio de velocidades, el esfuerzo del automóvil
al subir una montaña, entrar a ese nudo de raíces,
el leve mareo al descender
y la velocidad que nos hace tragar el paisaje
o nuestras palabras;
la primera vez que llegué a la ciudad de México
no sabía a dónde dirigirme,
qué esquina cruzar,
era como comenzar un escrito,
estar acodado en una mesa frente a un hoja en blanco,
solo, con los hombros colgados hacia adelante
esperando el disparo que inicia el arranque,
la carrera que hay que ganar
y donde se es el único competidor,
una hoja que ardía en mis manos
como a veces arden los tiraderos de basura de Santa Cruz
o como los camiones y tranvías en tiempos de rebelión,
que aullaba, que tenía hambre,
iba de un cuarto de azotea a la ciudad universitaria,
con libros bajo el brazo,
haciéndolos pedacitos y tirándolos

por la ventanilla del camión,
contaminando más la ciudad con Kant y Antonio Caso,
y ya sin ellos me bajaba a la mitad del camino,
entraba en una cocina económica de las calles de Academia,
o a una cervecería
y en la noche a bailar a La Perla,
más tarde sentía la humedad de la muchacha
que se había acostado conmigo,
una humedad que iba creciendo
como un universo en expansión
en unos cuantos metros cuadrados,
en unos cuantos metros cúbicos de aire;

y yo escribía en las bardas de la ciudad,
ampliaba mi territorio, mi radio de acción,
entraba a calles espantosas
donde la gente se arrastraba,
desempleados que no tenías para comer,
rateros, tal vez criminales
que alargaban sus ojos hasta mi camisa,
y era como entrar de nuevo al cine
a ver Los Olvidados de Luis Buñuel,
y en esas calles ulcerosas vi por primera vez
carros llenos de policías, y también policías a caballo,
granaderos en camiones
que cerraban esas calles,
parte del poder del Estado,
que entraban empujando,
entraban a paso de carga
y arremetían contra todos,
tirando los botes de basura,
despertando al vecindario,
disparando a quemarropa,
acometiendo como en un juego de futbol americano
y después era el silencio de La Calle de la Paz de Chaplin
y yo despertaba tirado en la banqueta,
macaneado, con las cejas cortadas,
como un boxeador groggy que le han parado la pelea
por knock out técnico en el tercer asalto,
con la rechifla de un público que no existe,
levantaba los pedazos de libros que me habían quedado,
sin un quinto en los bolsillos,
y regresaba a mi cuarto
silbando el mambo de El Estudiante
a escribir el poema
que se perdió
como se pierden tantas cosas,
credenciales y mujeres,
huelgas y chicles,
buena fe y calcetines;
con mucho frío por la sierra de Puebla,
hay que subir los cristales de las ventanillas,
poner la calefacción, descender a una velocidad regular,
y luego la claridad entrando por la ventada de mi cuarto,
entrando ella a despertarme,
quitándose su uniforme de colegiala,
echándoseme encima, moviéndose,
besándonos como se besan el actor y la actriz en los filmes,
acariciándonos en La Torre de Nesle,
en la mansión de Lo que el Viento se llevó,
ya es tarde, ya es tarde, nos decía la claridad,
se hacía la luz en la sala de cine,
había que ir a cenar y atravesar de nuevo el zócalo,
despedir a la amiga en la puerta de su casa,
después subir a la calle de Guatemala,
a dos cuadras dar vuelta a la derecha,
llegar de nuevo al poema recién comenzando,
entrar de nuevo a la expedición del sueño,
ir recogiendo muestras de distintos materiales,
para bajar de nuevo a la calle
al escuchar el ruido de los camiones
de carga y descarga, las voces de los vendedores ambulantes,
de los recogedores de basura,
de los niños que van a la escuela,
subir a un camión de pasajeros
junto a obreros y obreras,
el chofer lleva el radio encendido a todo volumen,
es difícil llegar hasta la puerta de bajada del camión,
se toca el timbre, se prende un foco rojo al lado del volante,
caminar sin rumbo fijo por la estación San Lázaro,
ver pasar un tren
que a la tierra arrancara su estructura
en seis de sus vagones una letra
que conforman la palabra H U E L G A
esos materiales que llevo en el bolsillo
los comparo con los que voy viendo en la calle,
llego hasta un puesto de jugos y pido uno de naranja,
los ferrocarrileros al pasar levantan el puño y saludan,
yo los saludo,
parecen decirnos
la realidad son estos puños,
este tren,
el jugo de naranja ilumina todo mi cuerpo,
llego al sitio de reunión,
los cinco poetas están sentados alrededor de una mesa
alguien lee un poema, yo los observo:
“tienen la edad que yo tenía cuando los conocí”, pienso;
se han quedado inmóviles fijos como en una fotografía
en actitud de golpear la mesa,
con el lápiz en las manos,
con una copa al lado de cada uno,
tienen la edad de nuestros hijos,
edad que ha pasado vertiginosamente,
tal como el descenso por las montañas de Oaxaca,
donde parece que la carretera engendra otra carretera,
donde el menor descuido puede llevarme al precipicio,
donde parece que los frenos no responden,
se ha perdido el control del auto,
llego hasta la fotografía y la cuelgo en una de las paredes
………de mi casa,
llego por primera vez a la ciudad de México,
soy un hombro más de la multitud al dar un paso,
gases lacrimógenos me hacen rabiar,
trenes descarrilados o incendiados en las terminales,
las vías levantadas, y el ataque
del ejército, policías y granaderos
en formación a paso de batalla,
el zócalo reducido a un culatazo en la frente,
vendrán otras batallas, nos decía José Revueltas,
los ferrocarrileros pasan frente a mí levantan el puño y saludan,
salen de una cárcel para entrar en otra,
pasan a la ilegalidad, a sus escondrijos,
tomo nota, apunto todo esto,
no soy más que un cronista
que ha visto caer a sus amigos,
que ha enterrado a sus muertos,
que se ha bañado de viento,
lleno de contradicciones y fantasmas,
de asperezas y afirmaciones,
con la espalda remendada tantas veces,
de nuevo amando, avizorando el futuro
que es tan difícil retener en el lente del telescopio,
negando ese futuro, de nuevo odiando,
de nuevo comenzando, en fin
iniciando el viaje, partiendo del mismo lugar,
dirigiéndome al mismo lugar,
descendiendo por la carretera, frenando
tocando el claxon, haciendo cambio de luces,
cambiando de velocidades, atento
al deslizamiento de las llantas, poniendo
en acción los limpiadores del parabrisas,
vigilando la aguja que marca el contenido del tanque de gasolina,
bajando a gran velocidad, en fin
hasta llegar al lugar donde estoy sentado escribiendo,
al final de todo,
frenando bruscamente
para no atropellar todo lo que llevo escrito
y a mí mismo.

Para continuar ascendiendo y descendiendo.


Su Garrido Pombo Sings the Poem


Su Garrido Pombo via sugarridopombo.com



Óscar Oliva comments on “For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez”   

It is a poem of circumstance, one in which I once again proclaim my love for Tuxtla, my hometown. I like to walk around Tuxtla because for walls it has mountains that have hardly moved since I was born. It is also a poem in which I speak of the evil machinations of the State and the Church, how they transform religious faith, with the 30 golden coins from the spotlights of mercenary publicity.


For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez

In the water’s flow lies its fall
voices, faces beloved for having
survived rivers upon rivers:
is like amber under pooled waters;
so now, you’ll make it to my hometown,
Pontifex Maximus, and I would have
liked to have seen you with my 1947 eyes.

You will see that sky of almost solid light that there begins,
that continues in Guatemala like a wild boar’s head,
…………………………………carried on a shoulder,
that can be weighed by hands in all of Central America,
so battered by North American imperialism
………………………………..(that’s what we called it),
and on resting your workman’s hands upon my hometown,
you’ll hear the fluttering thoughts of Q’uq’umatz.

I don’t really know what your visit will bring,
under a sky with no eyelids; it will be astonishing,
tongues will mingle, you will stumble,
heads will bash against each other,
and your word will disseminate, your soul torn to shreds,
thousands will photograph you, shoot you in video and film,
and I will watch you so far away so close on the telly.

I would have liked to have been there in my doorway
……………………………….to have seen you pass by,
but, since many years ago,
a child that came running from the backyard,
not yet having received the Eucharist,
upon opening the door to the street, fell down in a faint.
My grandparents, parents, siblings, and I myself, all dead,
buried; all together, all shouting
……………………..Goodbye Holy Father! God Bless You!

Now then, I am writing these words down before
……………………..you arrive in Mexico, from where
news of your visit breaks
……………………………………………from the TV stations,
which we watch between adverts, which dirty
…………your robes upon which they play dice,
between political slogans from George Bush to the world
………………………………from the White House;
before you leave Rome, Sir John, Sir Paul,
before you open one of the gates of the Vatican Palace;
before I can establish that Rome really exists, the Vatican
Palace, Tuxtla,
because you know very well that all that I’m saying
………………………………………………………………..is possible,
especially between two poets who will not see each other, not now, not ever.

Upon arrival, you will see the trees, that cannot grow
………………………………………………………………..any longer.
You will not see the idols—nobody has seen them—that the Indians
…………hide behind the Catholic images.
You will see, just beside the arroyo, Brother Bartolomé de las Casas,
and you will kneel before him; the bishop of Chiapas
……………………………….will not know who you are.

I beg you not to lift the stone that trips you up
………………………………..on your way to Tuxtla,
………………………………..I do not want the wound to open.
In the place from which you’ll speak,
you will be able to see the Cañon del Sumidero
and the Río Grijalva which carries another river in its depths,
and you will feel there are more leaves under the breeze,
more amber under the light.

What word will be gathered by those poor
who will listen to you, who have survived so many stonings
…………………………………………and prisons?

I don’t know. What I do know is that Christ has not died with them,
that he’ll listen to their words, and when you are through,
He will return with them to where they live, and upon opening
……………………………….the door of one of those houses, will fall down in a faint.

……………………………………………………Safe journey home.

—Translation by Dylan Brennan


Al Papa Juan Pablo II para cuando llegue a Tuxtla Gutiérrez

En el manar del agua está la caída,
algunas voces, rostros amados porque
han sobrevivido ríos sobre ríos:
es como el ámbar bajo el agua empozada;
en fin, llegará usted a mi pueblo,
Sumo Pontífice, y me hubiera
gustado verlo con mis ojos de 1947.

Verá el cielo de luz casi sólida que ahí comienza,
que continúa en Guatemala como una cabeza de jabalí
………………………………….colgada al hombro,
que es una sola pisada de tapir en El Salvador,
que puede sopesarse con las manos en toda Centroamérica
ahora tan golpeada por el imperialismo norteamericano
………………………………….(así se decía antes),
y al posar sus manos de obrero en mi pueblo,
escuchará el aleteo y el pensamiento de Gucumatz.

No sé bien cómo será su visita,
bajo el sol sin párpados; será impresionante,
las lenguas se confundirán, se trastabillará,
las cabezas chocarán unas con otras,
y su voz será propagada, y su espíritu hecho girones.
Miles lo fotografiarán, le tomarán videos y películas.
Yo lo veré tan lejos, tan cerca, desde la TV.

Me hubiera gustado estar en la puerta de mi casa
………………………………..para verlo pasar,
pero desde muchos años atrás,
un niño que llega corriendo desde el traspatio,
que no ha recibido la eucaristía,
y al abrir la puerta de la calle, cae desmayado.
Mis abuelos, padres y hermanos, yo mismo, todos muertos,
enterrados; todos juntos, gritando:
…………………………“¡adiós, Santo Padre!” “¡Dios lo bendiga!”

Ahora bien, estas palabras las estoy escribiendo antes
………………..de que llegue usted a México, de que se desate
………………………………………….por los canales de televisión
………………..información sobre su visita,
de que lo veamos entre anuncios comerciales, de que ensucien
………su túnica y de que jueguen sobre ella a los dados,
entre consignas políticas de George Bush al mundo
……………….desde la Casa Blanca;
antes de que parta de Roma, don Juan, don Pablo,
de que abra una de las puertas del Palacio del Vaticano;
antes de que yo pueda constatar que existe Roma, el Palacio
del Vaticano, Tuxtla,
porque bien sabe usted que así como lo estoy diciendo
……………………………………………………………………es posible,
más entre dos poetas que no se verán ahora, ni nunca.

Al llegar, verá usted los árboles que ya no podrán
………………………..crecer más.
No verá los ídolos —nadie los ha visto— que los indios
………..esconden detrás de las imágenes católicas.
Verá, junto al arroyo, a Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas,
y se arrodillará ante él; el obispo de Chiapas
…………………………………no sabrá quién es usted.

Le ruego no levante la piedra con la que tropezará
……………………….en su camino a Tuxtla,
……………………….no quiero que se le abra la herida.
Desde el lugar donde va a hablar,
podrá ver el Cañón del Sumidero
y al río Grijalva que lleva en sus profundidades a otro río,
y sentirá que hay más hojas bajo el aire,
más ámbar debajo de la luz.

¿Qué palabra será recogida por esos pobres
que lo escucharán, que han sobrevivido a tantas pedradas
…………………………………y cárceles?
No sé. Lo que sé es que Cristo no ha muerto con ellos,
que estará atento a sus palabras, y cuando usted termine,
Él regresará con ellos por donde vinieron, y al abrir
……………………la puerta de cualquier casa, caerá desmayado.
…………………………………………Buen viaje de regreso.


Óscar Oliva comments on “Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys”

No, I cannot explain what this is about. A warning cry is nothing more than an open throat. Everyone knows about this atrocious crime, I am nothing more than a troubadour in a land where crime reigns supreme. Nobody is obliged to respond with poetry to these nameless occurrences. Poetry must fly with a freedom that is absolute and when it sounds must do so with a beauty with which, and, for which, we breathe. I do not like so-called political poetry, it too has been corrupted by ideologies. I do believe in rage in poetry. Poetry changes nothing, nor is change its function. It is only to be written and, from time to time, sung. For this reason I like for my poems to be sung, in other languages, other intonations, by popular artists.


Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys

There are no limits for this country of crime.
There is no name for this country of crime.
There is no country with names for this crime.
There are no crimes for this country of crime.

Tell me, in what faraway land will they be found?

To Juvenal I’ll add François Villon
to compose this ballad, I’ll ask other troubadours

to lend an interrogative refrain: where, in which
crimeless country are those boys who only just
………….stripped naked for love?

Help me run along a river
that runs with so much strength.

Where are they? Encapsulated in which black house?

You won’t find them in the white house, nobody lives there anymore.
The time of new Sirens will come, of new sorcery,
and the lily whiteness will become a yellow shine

or a black lily at the whims of a new owner, a new Circe
of deceit, amongst lions and wolves of the same woods.

…………Our Lady of the Sorrows, where are they?

Where are the 43 tears of yesterday afternoon?

We won’t find out tomorrow where they are,
nor in the coming mornings or afternoons where they are,
nor in a whole year, in which we cannot but return
………………………………………….right back to this refrain:
Where again are the Ayotzinapa boys!?

There are no limits.
There are no names.
There is no country.
There are no crimes.

They run with so much strength.

………………………………Tuxtla, November, 2014.

Translation by Dylan Brennan


Balada por los muchachos de Ayotzinapa

No hay límites para el país del crimen.
No hay nombre para el país del crimen.
No hay país con nombres del crimen.
No hay crímenes para el país del crimen.

¿Díganme, en qué país lejano hallarlos?

A Décimo Junio Juvenal agrego a François Villon
para componer esta balada, y pido a otros cantores
añadan otro estribillo interrogativo: ¿dónde, en qué
país sin crímenes están los muchachos que apenas
……….se habían desnudado al amor?

Ayúdenme a correr junto a un río
que corre con demasiada fuerza.

¿En dónde están, en qué casa negra, encapsulados?

En la casa blanca no están, ahí ya no habita nadie.
Llegará el tiempo de otras sirenas, de otros sortilegios,
y la blancura como lirio será un resplandor amarillo
o un lirio negro al capricho de otra dueña, otra Circe
de engaño, entre leones y lobos del mismo bosque.

………¿Dónde están, Madre Dolorosa?

¿Dónde están las 43 lágrimas de ayer por la tarde?

No vamos a averiguar en esta mañana dónde están,
ni en las siguientes mañanas y tardes dónde están,
ni en todo el año, que a este estribillo no nos lleve:
¡Mas dónde están los muchachos de Ayotzinapa!

No hay límites.
No hay nombres.
No hay país.
No hay crímenes.

Corren con demasiada fuerza.
…………………………………..Noviembre/ 2014


Óscar Oliva comments on “A Ballad for François Hollande”

I did send this poem to Hollande. However, the carrier pigeon never made it to his window. Either that or it was devoured by the waters over which it crossed. Certainly Hollande forgot about Boris Vian’s song, one that he would have listened to with excitement in his youth. That was my reason for paraphrasing him, to remember the poet and his long trek along the paths of the Provençal troubadours.


A Ballad for François Hollande

Monsieur le président
take this ballad
as I awaken ‘The Deserter’
………….by Boris Vian

don’t be surprised if a messenger
pigeon arrives at your window
– there’s all sorts falling from the Cloud

I see you’re busy making war
was I born to the world
for no more than this?

as down the French avenues sings Boris Vian
don’t go to war, we didn’t come here to kill

my mother suffered when I left
when they strafed the bus I was on
I was reading Guillaume de Poitiers’ poem
……………………..about I don’t know what about nothing

you and the terrorists you and the terror
………………………………………….let us
dream the three dreams of Decartes

………………………………………….let us
go into the cafes
the arenas
the football stadiums
I’m no member of either
sleeping or active cell

I’m better off in Agnes’ dream
like Guillaume who dreams
as he sleeps
………….on his horse

don’t make war
don’t make war
at home

I’m a deserter
sings Boris Vian
………….don’t obey them
don’t go to war
tell your police
Mr. President
that I am unarmed
on the road to peace
I’ve slipped off
my electronic tag
Boris Vian recorded ‘The Deserter’
the same day as his country’s
defeat at Diem-Bien-Phu

all down the Aquitaine roads
about I don’t know what about nothing
but early and almost unseen

I slip this ballad through your window.

–Translation by Keith Payne


Balada para François Hollande

Monsieur le président
le mando esta balada
paráfrasis de “El desertor”
………….de Boris Vian

no tendría nada de extraño que
una paloma mensajera llegara a su ventana
la nube cibernética da sorpresas

lo veo tan ocupado
en hacer la guerra
¿vino a este mundo
nada más para eso?

por los caminos de Francia Boris Vian canta
no vayan a la guerra no venimos a la vida para matar

mi madre sufrió tanto cuando me fui a otro país
cuando ametrallaron el autobús donde viajaba
leía el poema de Guillermo de Poitiers sobre no
…………………………sé qué sobre nada

usted y los terroristas usted y el terror
tener los tres sueños de Descartes

entrar a las cafeterías
a las salas de conciertos
a los estadios de futbol
no pertenezco a ninguna
célula dormida o activa

mejor entro al sueño de Agnes
como Guillermo que la
sueña porque duerme
………sobre su caballo

no haga la guerra
en casa ajena ni
en su propia casa

soy un desertor
Boris Vian canta
……….no obedezcan
no vayan a la guerra
dígale a sus policías
señor presidente
que no llevo armas
camino desarmado
me quito el dispositivo
electrónico el brazalete
de geolocalización
Boris Vian grabó “El desertor”
el mismo día de la derrota
de su país en Diem-Bien-Phu

por los caminos de Aquitania
sobre no sé qué sobre nada
muy temprano casi invisible

dejo esta balada en su ventana


Óscar Oliva: Final words

I have not stopped writing. I no longer can stop. I have finished a new book, LASCAS, which is the continuation of this long race in which we all take part. It is also a journey through the mountains of Chiapas, alongside my grandparents and great-grandparents, alongside Li-Po, Rubén Darío, Juan de la Encina and others who have gazed upon the changing skies. Sturdy horsemen under torrential rains.

— Óscar Oliva, Dylan Brennan, & Keith Payne

Óscar Oliva was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, on 5 January 1937. He belonged to the group of poets known as La Espiga Amotinada, encouraged by the Catalan poet Agustí Bartra. He has published extensively since the appearance of La Voz Desbocada in 1960 and has been widely recognized for his work as a cultural promoter. He has been honoured repeatedly for his work, winning an array of prizes including the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes (1971), Premio de Poesía Ciudad de México (1981), Medalla Rosario Castellanos (1990) and the Premio Internacional de Poesía Ramón López Velarde (2013). In addition to his literary work, Óscar was also a member of the Comisión Nacional de Intermediación (CONAI), between the Ejercito Zapatista de la Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and the Mexican government, eventually leading to the establishment of autonomous, indigenous communities in his home state of Chiapas.

Keith Payne is the Ireland Chair of Poety Bursary Award winner 2015-2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications, 2015) will be followed by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) in 2016.


Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan


Mar 122016


Present in this excerpt from A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn, are some of the recurring themes of the novel: rescue, rebirth, metaphysics, and an example of unexpected kindness alongside violence involving individuals, factions, and nations, as well as the hint of remorse, perhaps on the way to redemption. The language is relaxed and the details vivid. In the last lines those who engage in brutality are said to acknowledge the power of words. Put another way, Agualusa shows that civilization is held in regard even as vengeance, chaos, and an eternal thirst for more, threaten to swallow his country. —Jeff Bursey


Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. Or occasionally, desistances. Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin. Jeremias Carrasco had something very like this happen to him. He awoke, after facing a careless firing squad, in a bed that was too short for his six feet, and so narrow that were he to uncross his arms they would both hang down with their fingers touching the cement floor, one on each side. He had a lot of pain in his mouth, neck, and chest, and terrible trouble breathing. He saw, on opening his eyes, a low ceiling that was discolored and cracked. A small gecko, hanging directly above him, was studying him curiously. The morning was coming in, wavy and scented, through a tiny window high up on the facing wall, just below the ceiling.

“I’ve died,” thought Jeremias. “I’ve died, and that gecko is God.”

Even supposing that the gecko was indeed God, he would appear to be hesitating about what fate to assign to him. To Jeremias this indecision was even stranger than finding himself face-to-face with the Creator and the fact that He had taken on the form of a reptile. Jeremias knew, and had known for quite some time, that he was destined to burn for all eternity in the flames of Hell. He had killed, he had tortured. And if he’d started off doing those things out of duty, obeying orders, he had later acquired a taste for it. He only felt awake, whole, when he was racing through the night, in pursuit of other men.

“Make your mind up,” said Jeremias to the gecko. Or rather, he tried to say, but all that came out of his mouth was a dull, tangled thread of sounds. He made a second attempt, and, as in a nightmare, the dark rush of noise came again.

“Don’t try to talk. Actually, you’re not going to talk ever again.” Jeremias believed, for some moments, that it was God who was condemning him to eternal silence. Then he turned his eyes toward the right and saw a hugely fat woman leaning against the door. Her hands, with tiny, fragile fingers, danced before her as she spoke:

“Yesterday they announced your death in the newspapers. They published a photograph, it was quite an old one, I almost didn’t recognize you. They said you were a devil. You died, you were reborn, and you have another chance. Make the most of it.”

Madalena had been working at the Maria Pia Hospital for five years. Before that she had been a nun. A neighbor had witnessed the shooting of the mercenaries at a distance and had notified her. The nurse drove to the site on her own. One of the men was still alive. A bullet had passed through his chest, on a miraculous, perfect course that hadn’t hit a single vital organ. A second projectile had gone into his mouth, shattering his two upper incisors, then perforating his throat.

“I don’t understand what happened. Were you trying to catch the bullet in your teeth?” She laughed, her body shaking. The light seemed to laugh with her. “Yes, sir, those are some good reflexes. And it wasn’t even such a bad idea, either. If the bullet hadn’t found your teeth, it would have taken a different direction. It would have killed you or left you paralyzed. I thought it best not to take you to the hospital. They would take care of you and then when you were recovered they’d only shoot you again. So be patient, and I’ll look after you myself with what little resources there are. I just have to get you out of Luanda. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hide you. If the comrades find you, they’ll shoot me, too. As soon as possible we’ll travel south.”

She hid him for nearly five months. By listening to the radio, Jeremias was able to follow the difficult progress of the government troops, supported by the Cubans, against the improvised, unstable alliance between the UNITA party, the National Front, the South African army, and mercenaries from Portugal, England, and North America.
Jeremias was dancing on the beach, in Cascais, with a platinum blonde, and he had never been in a war, never killed, never tortured anyone, when Madalena shook him:

“Come on, Captain! We go today or never.”

The mercenary sat up in bed, with some effort. The rain was crackling in the darkness, muffling the noise of what sparse traffic there was at that time. They were to travel in a little old van, a Citroën 2CV, its yellow bodywork badly worn, eaten away by rust, but with its engine in perfect working order. Jeremias was stretched out on the backseat, hidden by various crates of books.

“Books instill respect,” explained the nurse. “If you carry crates full of beer bottles, the soldiers will search every inch of the vehicle. Besides which, you’ll get to Moçâmedes without a single bottle left.”

—José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn


Mar 102016

gayraud3-001Joël Gayraud

Selections from La peau de l’ombre (The Shadow’s Skin)
by Joël Gayraud,
With permission of Editions José Corti, 2004. 239 pp.

Composed of 410 fragments [17 of which appear below], Joël Gayraud’s seductive work belongs to a grand tradition that stretches from seventeenth-century moralists like Baltasar Gracián to Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Arranged in agreeable disorder, following an approach that gives pride of place as much to reverie as to conceptual thought, to poetry as to revolutionary theory, the texts weave together themes as diverse as dreaming, revolt, utopia, death, childhood, telepathy, and atheism.

Inspired by Castiglione and Nietzsche, Leopardi and Bakunin, Fourier and Benjamin, Gayraud is at once a dreamer—“I am one of those who wake up only to continue dreaming”—and a rebel. An immoderate love of revolt courses through his maxims and inspires such sparkling formulations as: “No one ever revolts too much . . . . It is with revolt as with love: excess gives them life.” It is a logical revolt that comes from afar and “draws its legitimacy not only from the injustice that causes it, but from the immemorial past of rebellion that grounds the human in man”; a permanent revolt that, as soon as it “annexes all historical experience,” develops “into a revolutionary strategy”; a revolt, finally, that could not be reduced to narrow-minded quantitative causes: “The insurgents of 1848, the Communards, or the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square fought less for having (bread, work) than for being (communism, freedom).”

Claiming an ethics of “the internal subversion of the reality principle,” Gayraud does not hide his attraction for surrealism, “the only major attempt to reenchant the world on a secularized magical-mythical basis,” an effort consciously turned towards the future, and aimed at accessing the marvellous of things themselves “as a poiesis immanent to the world.”

Michaël Löwy
review of La peau de l’ombre published in S.U.RR.. 5 (2005)


Gayraud (born 1953) has written on and translated both classical and modern authors, including Ovid, Giacomo Leopardi, Primo Levi, and Giorgio Agamben. His own, often loosely biographical writings, steeped in the double legacy of surrealism and situationism, comprise not only critical essays, fragments and aphorisms, but also poems and short stories as well as children’s books. These have appeared in collections (Clairière du rêve, 2010, Passage public, 2012, Ocelles, 2014) and in numerous radical and surrealist journals in France, French Canada, and the UK. He lives in Paris, where he taught classics until his retirement.

168. The development of sadomasochistic practices contributes more effectively than many revolutionary discourses to undermining the psychological foundations of power. When, in the intimacy of their bedroom, couples experimented with the game of submission and dominance—even where the sexual roles themselves remain uncriticized, the mere fact that this game took place enables the objectification of old fantasies of domination and slavery—fantasies that, as a consequence of the brutal and barbaric establishment of relations of domination, have been buried deep in the breast of humanity. Aggression, whose sublimation can only rarely be satisfying and whose repression perverts and turns it outward, against society, finds here its direct expression. Above all, however, the pleasure shared as much by the dominant partner as by the submissive one, who incidentally often swap roles, initiates them into a veritable communism of pleasure, experienced as a perfectly antagonistic representation of the social economy. It is then the exercise of exclusive power that appears as a sinister perversion, founded as it is on the capitalization of pleasure and its exclusive appropriation. Everyone who, thanks to sadomasochistic practice, each night purges their self of the libido dominandi by giving it playful satisfaction, albeit one leading to real mutual pleasure, cannot but find the pretension to social domination laughable, ridiculous, and a sign of frustration and mediocrity.


1Paul Nash 1889-1946. Black and white negative, wrecked aeroplanes at the Cowley Dump 1940 © Tate (2015).

244. When I first discovered the beautiful photographs by Paul Nash dating back to the Second World War and showing the carcasses of aircraft that had been shot down, it became clear to me that the inorganic often takes on the appearance of the organic in its obsolescence or destruction. A plane in working order only lets itself be perceived as a simple machine upon which we look with indifferent eyes, except when we are dealing with a new model, in which case it is the machine’s novelty, even its aesthetic, that attracts us. That attraction, however—except owing to highly particular affective connotations—remains wholly intellectual; in truth, we do not doubt for a second that we are in the presence of the purely inorganic. By contrast, in these images of machinery that had crashed to the ground, I saw not a simple heap of metal but an organic system fixed at an arbitrary moment of its decomposition, the twisted scrap iron, the battered cabins, the gaping and rusted motors, forever out of operation, resembling mangled flesh, eviscerated and mutilated bodies—which did not fail to silently stir through the keyboard of my sensibility the strings of a perfectly licit sadism.

In retrospect, I should clarify that, when looking at these images, I never for a moment thought of the crew that had perished in this mass of metal. And, as added proof that I was not guided by this idea even unconsciously, I remember having experienced similar jubilation before an old dismantled rotary press, a gutted piano, or, to go back even farther in my memory, a tube radio meticulously taken apart by a child’s hands. More recently, and this time on the scale of a landscape, I had an analogous impression of Coney Island, having wandered around the old amusement park entirely abandoned to the elements and wild vegetation: the scenic railway and roller coaster, come to a halt, their carcasses covered in a shroud of rust, had acquired a kind of organicity that one could never have attributed to them at the time of their functioning, when their full operation rendered them emotionally invisible. It is doubtless the attainment of irreparability that makes all these metal creatures approach the intimate sense of our own precariousness.

2Paul Nash 1889-1946. Black and white negative, wrecked aeroplanes at the Cowley Dump 1940 © Tate (2015)


181. Just as those seventeenth-century still lifes showing a bowl of fruit, fish fresh out of the water, or a table sagging beneath a heap of venison have only ever provoked my boredom and even repugnance, so, on the other hand, I have always taken pleasure in representations of inanimate objects of everyday life, such as can frequently be seen in the vanitas of the same period. It seems that, if the still life’s immediate effect is to reify the organic entities it depicts, it has the opposite effect on objects and things. The latter, appearing not simply juxtaposed as in a catalogue but, rather, assembled as parts of a whole delimited by the painting’s frame, are elevated to the dignity of organs in a new body, which is that of the painting itself. Such compositions break with the naturalism of their predecessors and, in their mannerism, foreshadow the symbolic function of objects in surrealism or in the boxes of a Joseph Cornell.


204. Sometimes when fixing one’s gaze on a rock from a particular vantage point one sees emerge from it the head or the body of a human or an animal. Never, in my experience and in those I have heard recounted on this score, does one see objects that are manufactured or animal forms too removed from us, such as fragments of insects. There is, nevertheless, nothing in the form of the rock that would prevent one from finding them. Doubtless it is that we do not want to find them and hold on to a narcissistic mimetism that makes us search for our of own face or for animals most familiar to us, such as those we have domesticated or those that people our fantasies, our dreams, and especially our nightmares—lions, stags, bears, horses, dragons, and other monsters hailing from mythology enriched by the discoveries of paleontology. Man must no doubt have very quickly understood that nature liked to imitate itself, but that this mimesis was not worried about exactitude and realism in representation; rather, it deformed in stone what had been formed in the flesh, it stylized its features, practicing a kind of abstraction and fetishization of certain elements in detaching them from the whole, in treating them in isolation, in enlarging or shrinking them, in thus playing with the proportions of the different elements being represented. This representation, by nature radically alien to the idea of symmetry, is that of contours and profiles. It is, it seems, the first to have been tried by prehistoric artists. And if we began representing the human face only much later, it is probably because the mask was in use for a very long time.


243. Unlike the dialectic of Plato, based on distinction (in the Phaedrus, the dialectician is modelled on the butcher skilled in carving up beasts following the joints of the meat), the dialectic of Heraclitus is based on analogy—on real analogy, which is to say one that grasps the relation of coming together that exists in being. Indeed, if the opposition of two forces lets the bow be drawn and to send an arrow, it must be that these two forces act simultaneously and without mediation. The author of this double action is the archer, but the analogy exists in the very structure of the bow independently of him. Every bow in good condition, thus true to its concept, is capable of shooting an arrow. Put differently, in every bow there already exists the analogy allowing it to actualize the arrow’s flight.


259. Our inclination will be to accrue the implicit and the vague, to multiply paradoxes, but also to enhance the lenses of vision so as to make of the smooth surface of things a landscape deeply cut with valleys, bristling with wild mountain ranges, riddled with potholes and crevasses, in order to rediscover the labyrinth of the living beneath the cellophane of scientific certainty. This is precisely what Leopardi did when, in his Zibaldone, in a striking change of focus, he describes a charming garden in flower as a “vast hospital” or battlefield where all of life’s suffering and consubstantial violence are deployed.


262. The bones of six million Parisians are piled pell-mell in the hollows of the catacombs, and in all of Paris’s twenty arrondissements there are at present just over two million souls. If all the dead rose to lead us in a danse macabre, each of us would have three skeletons as partners for a quadrille.


248. When our parents tell us they had wanted us, they unwittingly deceive us, since first of all they deceive themselves. It is not us, the being whom they address today, that they desired; what they wanted was a child, not this child they then watched grow up. This one here, despite all the ultrasounds, amniocenteses, and karyotype tests that reassured them of its normality, they were utterly incapable of expecting. And so we are brought down to the level of the supposed unwanted unfortunate, which should cut our narcissism and self-confidence down to size. The desire for a child is always a desire for any child, a desire to create whatever entity, ens quodlibet. The scholastic category of quodlibetality, “whatever being,” is here eminently applicable: as wanted or unwanted beings, we are ontologically whatever.


263. Historians are the eunuchs charged with guarding the seraglio of truth. Although they have the privilege of seeing it naked, they can never conjoin with it, and never let it go out without first wrapping it in its veil.


267. The first Greek philosopher of atheism was called Theodorus, which means “gift of the gods.” For the best that the divine has to offer us is the capacity for negation, all the way to negating the divine itself.


287. A dog plays with a man like a child, but its gaze is not that of the child, laughing and reaching for the next moment. The eyes of a dog engaged in child-like play seem, to the contrary, the bearers of an immemorial wisdom. Its gaze is the profound and melancholy one of a sage who has passed through the infinite series of necessary experiences, each time drawing lessons and, in the end, understanding that not one of them merits being retained. He has no other choice than to arrange them in his memory as in a museum display case. It is something like a reflection of such useless and suspended knowledge that can be read in the eyes of an animal drawn by man into one of his games.


322. If memory is the condition of knowledge, oblivion is the condition of experience.


184. There is no passion so naked that it is not dressed in language.


311. One of the watchwords of May ‘68 in France, as of the sixties the world over, was freedom of speech. But, even more than freedom, it was about the uncontrollable necessity of speech for all. Yet, little by little, the paradoxical injunction to “express yourself” spread, becoming an authoritarian commonplace as the movement ebbed away. This paradox of an injunction to freedom did not escape notice and emphasis among the fiercest enemies of freedom in its anti-utilitarian form, who lie in wait for anything that could put back into the service of capital what was meant to contest it. What is most remarkable, however, is that the wretches ordered to express themselves could say nothing, not because they had nothing to say, not because they were totally lacking the faculty of thought, but because it was obvious that the command line between ideas and speech remained, for them, incurably blocked. The world revealed itself as aphasic, which moreover has often been the case among the poorest and most isolated classes, such as peasants. One discovered, in effect, the full extent of the general proletarization of society: access to expression, free at last, opened onto a void. This is why the greatest triumph of humor at the time came from a comedian in overalls narrating the story of someone who had nothing to say, a storyteller with no story to tell, while managing to hold his audience spellbound for a good quarter of an hour.


342. As Elias Canetti saw clearly, in contrast to Georg Lukács, it is the masses and not the proletariat who were the subject of history in the twentieth century; in other words, a subject paradoxically deprived of attributes necessary for the definition of a subject; a subject without consciousness; a headless, acephalous subject or, just as good, one whose head is interchangeable. It is on this enormous body of the masses that the evil genius of history grafted the head of Mussolini, Lenin, Perón, Hitler, Nasser. There were, of course, a certain number of positive heroes like Makhno, Zapata, and Durutti, who precisely did not want to play this little role of head. We know what fate was reserved for them.


213. Finding its roots is not a preoccupation of the wild plant—to which it never occurred it could lose them—but of the unhappy potted bonsai.

—Joël Gayraud, translated by S.D. Chrostowska

(NC wishes to thank Tate for permission to use the photographs included in the text — creativecommons@tate.org.uk.)



Selected and translated from the French by S.D. Chrostowska

S.D. Chrostowska teaches at York University in Canada and is the author of Literature on Trial (UTP, 2012), Permission (Dalkey Archive, 2013), and MATCHES, a collection of critical fragments (punctum, 2015).


Feb 112016

Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem by Domenico di Francesco via Wikipedia

Divine Comedy

1595 Edition


THERE IS A PHRASE coined by the critic Harold Bloom “the anxiety of influence,” which once raised the dust of a herd milling around its allure. Without paying Bloom, a prominent bad-boy, the compliment of either expounding or contradicting the truth of his book The Anxiety of Influence, his phrase “influences” me if only to retort upon it.

I draw my greatest satisfaction as a novelist and a writer of short stories, though the scholarship of others has been a major influence on both my fiction and non-fiction. As a novelist I have written three books that speak to two authors who have drawn the attention of scholarly critics and researchers, Shakespeare and Dante. This perhaps is a form of academic cross-dressing but in the past few months I have returned to think about Dante, since the editor of a literary journal asked me to interview the poet, who has been holed up in his grave for well over half a millennium. As I finished a first draft, I was struck by the coincidence of a note arriving from the wife of the novelist John Barth, saying that she had found my book, Dante Eros and Kabbalah on her husband’s shelf and was reading it. We printed in Fiction Barth’s story of Ulysses setting sail with the princess Nausicca for a new life to the west of Greece, excerpted from Barth’s novel Tidewater Tales. That particular tale was one of those that inspired me in speculating on Dante. Shelley Barth’s curiosity about Dante just as I was returning to the poet was a bit uncanny and it suggested my lecture’s real title.

Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man asks his audience, “But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure?

“Answer: Of himself.”

What follows is how I came to read Dante as closely as I could and returned to Dante’s Comedy influenced by a 13th century classic, by literary criticism, the scholarship of others and the way a work of literature often embodies the influence of texts that have preceded it, an enthusiastic if mischievous re-reading of texts that precede it. That sounds like a more generous way to put it than Bloom’s “anxiety.” I could call what follows as advertised “The Anxiety of Laughter,” or “The Generosity of Influence,” or but the title, which seems to ring right is, “The Coincidence of Influence.”


I don’t know what the guiding principle of scholarship is but I feel that coincidence is what dictates the novel and the epic poem alike, since it is what sets the direction of the plot. I think that when one is drawn to a writer, a work of literature or scholarship, it is because one senses that coincidence has played its magical part. Your life and the life of the writer become entwined and you exchange identities. Isn’t that what happens when you fall in love? Dante talks about how he met Beatrice at nine years old and then nine years later Beatrice appears before him in a miraculous way; how nine seems to keep reoccurring as a magical number between them. This coincidence he assures us is a sign of Divine intention. And of course three times three makes nine, and the Comedy will be organized in the basis of three—even to its triple rhyme.

I first read Dante in high school. It was the first volume of the Comedy, the Inferno, and it was in John Ciardi’s translation. I read it out of curiosity—I was an omnivorous reader—but although I found it interesting, I did not find myself in it. The world of cruel punishments was repellant. As little boy I was more than once set upon and beaten by juvenile delinquents from the nearby streets of poverty stricken Irish for “killing Jesus” and paraded by canvases of Jesus crucified in the Museum of Fine Arts that made me cringe. The laughter and complexity of the poet descending his Inferno did not bleed through to an adolescent. Dante remained for me through college and graduate school a writer I could admire but not understand. In my mid twenties, however, I received a fellowship to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference presided over by the poet John Ciardi. Unexpectedly, since the young editor at Simon and Schuster, who procured the fellowship for me, did not like my novel, Thou Work Jacob, Ciardi did; praised it, and wrote several sentences for its publication that still make me blush with gratitude.

Ciardi’s generosity sent me back to Dante. I was now a disciple of Ciardi. He had endorsed me; given me hope that what I wrote would be touched by the poetry of language he said he had found in my first novel. I wanted to be influenced by Dante, the poet to whom Ciardi’s name was so prominently linked. I re-read Ciardi’s translation of Inferno, but decided I ought to read the whole of the Comedy and bought the Modern Library prose version, slowly making my way through Inferno again, then Purgatory and Paradise. The Comedy seemed to be about the three obsessions of my life; sex, politics, and religion, but its drama remained at a distance and though I read with more understanding, I felt no empathy.

At twenty-nine, my mother died. I took up a book that the rabbi at Harvard had given me as a junior or senior, Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. At twenty-one I had read three or four pages. It made no sense and I put it down. It was beyond me. Now I read it as a guide to the world beyond, a world to which my mother, abruptly, at fifty-six, and in a startling metamorphosis recovering her beauty as a slim adolescent before her final awful dissolution, had gone. I was left in nightmares and hallucination. Scholem’s lucid scholarship about the Jewish imagination seeking to read the “Other World” led me to the Zohar, the major mystical or Kabbalistic text of Jewish Spain in the 13th century, which Scholem’s volume explicates. Reading the Zohar’s abridged English translation I had just enough understanding of the Biblical world and the Talmud to respond to its flights of wild story telling. Scholem’s warning that there were elements of parody, and deliberate fiction, including the Aramaic, which was an artificial construct of the 13th century, not the 2nd century as it claimed, stimulated my own imagination and its details seeped into my fiction. I became a student of Scholem’s, a group that included I would learn, Harold Bloom and Jorge Luis Borges.

I was unaware what would happen when I tried again to read Dante. Suddenly the poet spoke to me. I had absorbed a language of imagery reading the Zohar, a language that made the barriers of Italian, Aramaic, the world of l3th century Spain and late 13th century Italy, seemingly sealed against each other, fall away as I recognized their common share in neo-Platonic philosophy. Scholem had taught me to hear the laughter in the Zohar as a vast hot spermatic flood burst out of the earth and drowned a hapless world of sex abusers; a world fathoms beyond Melville’s dreams of the White Whale. Now I heard Dante’s bitter self-laughter for the first time but I could not have gone many steps beyond the opening cantos of the Inferno if I had not found myself the beneficiary of coincidence and the generosity of influence. About this time I had several interviews with Professor Harry AustrynWolfson who was described at the time of his death in The NY Times obituary as the world’s greatest scholar. Wolfson’s unexpected friendship extended as a result of some articles I wrote about the Boston Jewish world in the Sunday Globe brought me the gift of his witty, mischievous presence, his extraordinary books, and their insights into the poetry of religious philosophy. In particular just at the moment when I was absorbing Gershom Scholem, I read in Wolfson’s short masterpiece, Religious Philosophy, a startling essay called “Immortality and Resurrection” which viewed the possibilities of the Afterworld from the perspective of the Church Fathers. To my father, Harry Wolfson, his freshman tutor at Harvard, was the final authority on Maimonides, Spinoza, Philo. Wolfson I would realize was also a pre-eminent scholar of the Church Fathers and the Islamic Kalam. An essay of Wolfson put what I believe was the key to Dante’s search for Beatrice in my hands and Wolfson was my guide through Purgatory and Paradise though I could never have turned the lock without the coincidence of reading Scholem roughly at the same time.

Now several figures step out of the shadows with their books and thoughts. For long before I met John Ciardi and decided to solve for myself the mystery of Dante’s authority, I was prepared by one of the two professors at Harvard who are responsible for my career. This was the critic, Albert Guerard, who wrote the first important critical study of Andre Gide in English, and is still an authority on Conrad. It was Albert who announced to me in his workshop that I was an important writer, who chastised, encouraged, drew me close, smacked me down. He shared his paranoia and his dreams, and I slowly assimilated his critical perspectives. Both as a teacher and in my three books on Shakespeare and Dante I find myself working out Albert’s dictum that one can always find the writer in his or her work. (A former City College chairperson, who wrote a single book on Shakespeare talking about the difference between the Folio and Quarto versions of plays, dismissed the first of mine, The Absent Shakespeare as “a book for the Humanities,” implying that it had nothing of scholarly value though I had found some value in his.) With the insights of Scholem, Albert Guerard, Wolfson in hand I went searching for Dante in the Comedy. I determined to try to read him in Italian encouraged by another coincidence. Speaking about my thoughts on Dante in Paris during a sabbatical to Andre Le Vot, who was a professor of American Literature at the Sorbonne on my way to Italy he urged me to try to read Dante in Italian. I protested that I knew no Italian. He asked if I could Chaucer in Middle English. “Yes, easily, ” I laughed and added that when I was required to basically memorize the whole of Troilus and The Canterbury Tales I found myself dreaming in Middle English. “Then you will be able to hear Dante in Italian,” Le Vot insisted. I had been sketching to him, the possibility of a radical revision of what I considered the “pious view” of the mass of critical literature on the poet. The text that suggested this to me was Max Frisch’s William Tell, in which the Swiss novelist using footnotes as his sly knife in the back lacerated the Swiss myth of William Tell as a hero, We had published Frisch’s William Tell in the magazine I edit Fiction. I was and remain in awe of Frisch and I decided to draw on his tactics writing about Dante. Max, his wife Marianne and I were seated in a sunny window of a restaurant outside Zurich, where I was his guest. Frisch smiled faintly when I outlined my project and that was enough of a blessing to continue.


I found myself in Florence and above it in the Tuscan countryside at Bernard Berenson’s villa months later, with a copy of the Sinclair translation that has the Italian facing it on the other side of the page, walking with Dante. I began to understand him, hear him though I had the echoes of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s essay whistling in my ears, and Howard Nemerov’s (who had been as generous as Ciardi to me), thoughts on the Comedy as well. Albert Guerard showed a first draft to one of the deans of Dante studies in America, John Freccero who wrote that I was “the Philip Roth” of Dante scholarship, that I had treated Saint Augustine, shamefully, but that he would have loved to have me in his graduate seminar. Closer to home it was City College’s Renaissance scholar, Frederick Goldin, who confirmed that I was indeed on the “la diritta via,” Dante’s “right track.” I had become the director of the M.A. in Literature and Creative Writing at the college. After hearing a lecture by Professor Goldin I asked to sit in on his class on medieval romance. As he translated at will from the Provencal poets who had brought the neo-platonic notion of love into the vulgar languages and created the literature of Provence, Italy, France and Germany—I recognized the laughter and dreams that underlay Dante’s Comedy. Indeed Dante himself acknowledges the debt, but to feel it alive, leaping from one world to another, that would have been difficult without the aura of Frederick Goldin’s class in which scholarship made vivid the French Arthurian romances, the German Parsifal, their radical implications, texts that as he taught them became what one might call with sly appropriation, the true, the blissful “magical realism.” Frederick in one sentence about Dante confirmed an intuition that I felt but had not dared to give words to. At every turning in his descent through the tortures of Hell, Dante sees the punishment of his own sins. My own sins often coincided with Dante’s and this gave me a sense of how pride, covetousness, deception, if truly recognized has to haunt us all at some level of consciousness not to mention the deep sexual riddles to which our bodies seem to consign us regardless of human will. Dante keeps asking these questions in the Purgatory, and in Paradise, something that many readers do not recognize.

Finding the essay by Cecil Roth on Emannuel Ha-Romi the Italian-Jewish poet of the Renaissance who wrote a parody in Hebrew of the Comedy led me to think about a series of poems that Roth discussed. Dante’s contemporary and friend Cino da Pistoia, in an exchange with Bosone da Gubbio, put both Emmanuel and Dante in the same circle of hell with Alessio Unterminei, a truly filthy one where the condemned sit under caps of shit for using their talent as writers to seduce young women. That lit up the character of Dante, as seen by his contemporaries and it was an element of biography ignored by almost all conventional Dante scholars. It was funny and cruel and yet Dante and Emmanuel might have had a good laugh at their contemporaries’ exchange—one at least gave them hope of an escape from Hell. Another precious contribution came from a scholar at NYU who invited me to join a seminar on medieval philosophy, Professor Alfred Ivry. His lucid article on the degree to which Maimonides was influenced by the Shiite doctrine of concealment, was another proof for me that Dante too was concealing secrets. El-Farabi’s dictum, on which Leo Strauss built his remarkable book, Persecution and the Art of Writing, posits that poets in a society in which freedom of speech is not allowed, particularly doubt about a faith that the State endorses, learn to leave their real meaning concealed from the vulgar eye. Three times Gershom Scholem, whom I met in Jerusalem, then in Zurich, then again in Jerusalem, —not knowing anything about my manuscript on Dante asked me if I had read Strauss’s book When I finally read Strauss a shiver passed through me as if the master of Jewish mystical doctrine, Scholem, had read my secret. The coincidence was uncanny so was the Dante I found in the Comedy whose burning question to Beatrice was—what body will I find you with here in Heaven? Will I experience you in the body you had on earth. Isn’t that the question I had to ask my mother in the dreams that came after her death? Isn’t the hope of some extraordinary coincidence or its defeat what drives one great novel after another? The Dante I fell in love with was a poet who had secrets to whisper to those who could read between the lines and I found many, unconventional scholars, few of them however among the guardians of Dante as a Catholic puritan, willing to assist me. The footnotes of Dante, Eros and Kabbalah are crowded with such voices.

I was asked last year if I would interview Dante and the idea renewed my curiosity in associating anew with the poet. I tried through a fiction to make contact with him again, to hear his voice, and in pursuit of that took up the bi-lingual pages of the Hollanders, which some said had displaced the Sinclair as the best edition in that regard. I had a painful disagreement with Robert Hollander when I was invited by his wife Jean to their home in Princeton. I had no idea that Robert was a preeminent Dante scholar, but reading his notes on the Inferno now I understand how deep I put my foot in my mouth at supper suggesting that Dante had slept with Beatrice. The company laughed but Professor Hollander at the head of the table turned to ice and the atmosphere became glacial. Despite extraordinarily learned and witty notes on Dante’s Comedy, the poet’s sources and influences, Robert Hollander insists there that Dante has no real sympathy for the tormented. His Dante is a resolute Puritan, while mine is a laughing sinner. And yet my deeper quarrel now is with his wife, Jean’s translation, which however talented I feel misses the art of Dante in ignoring the frequent repetitions of words. And to introduce the uncanny into this story, I must add the coincidence of my friend, the Biblical scholar, Edward Greenstein’s lecture on the campus just a few weeks ago, which reacquainted me with his essay on Biblical translation. For Edward’s definition of “literal” translation, which he redefines as “literary” translation, is in fact the summation both of the rationale of my work on Dante, to lose myself in the Comedy, or rather, to find myself by finding Dante. Not to understand the “meaning” of the Comedy, which must finally be elusive, but to find oneself in the Comedy itself. To do that, however, one must enter the Comedy, enter its words, its associations, and I think every serious writer understands that this requires as literal an understanding as possible. I am going to quote Edward Greenstein at some length in this regard.

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov . . . translated Pushkin “into a rigorously literal and consequently rather ugly English version” because he felt that only in this manner could one lead the reader to the poem itself . . . John Berryman, the lyric poet employed a fairly literal style of rendering the Book of Job into English, contending that such a translation would be “truer.” The early Twentieth century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke expressed a clear preference for a more literal translation of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic over a more recent but less literal one. It is hardly coincidental that many Biblicists, as well as some serious amateurs, who devote themselves to the literary analysis of Scripture tend toward the more literal styles of translation. A work of literary art is essentially an arrangement of words, as music comprises tones and silences and as sculpture comprises matter and space. If one loses the words, one loses the art, just as one loses the music if one loses the tones or the silences. But aside from a purist’s devotion to words, there are two other foundations supporting more literal translation. The one is stylistic. The meaning of a biblical passage may hinge on the repetition of a word or an allusion. For example, in 2 Samuel 7 the word bayit house’ interweaves three themes: King David had already established his kingship and was dwelling in a royal house: the Lord, his god, was then dwelling in a tent-shrine, not in stable house: David will build for the Lord a house and the Lord will assure the enduring prosperity of David’s dynasty, which is expressed in Hebrew by “bayit house.”: The more literal rendering of the King James (or Authorized) Version (KJV) of 1611 translates bayit consistently as ‘house’ so that the literary device of verbal repetition reaches the English reader. The more idiomatic rendering of the British New English Bible (NEB) of 1970 translates bayit as “house” when it refers to the king’s palace or the future temple but as ‘family’ when it refers to David’s dynasty. The super-idiomatic Today’s English Version (TEV, entitled the Good News Bible) of the American Bible Society (I976) renders bayit as “palace,” “temple,” and “dynasty” in its respective references, completely obliterating the thematic connections of the original.

I could go on and on here but my subject is Dante not the Bible. There are two more quotes, from Greenstein, however, relevant to my conclusion.

Walter Benjamin (d. 1940), in his “unequalled” essay on “The Task of the Translator,” insisted that “a literary work” does not in any essential way tell anything or impart information! It does, it is. In the “literary” view it is perhaps more crucial to convey the rhetorical features of the text and the manifold connotations of its words than it is to convey the denoted or ideational message of the text. Philological translation endeavors to pin down meaning while literary translation seeks, as in literary analysis, to proliferate meaning . . .

As the German Romantic Friedrich Schleiermacher put it, in his epoch-making essay “On the Different Methods of Translation”: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible, and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.”


That is what the novelist or poet, reading Dante most often wants to do, on the one hand to “proliferate meaning”; on the other to “move towards” the author. I found myself frantic reading Jean Hollander’s translation as I watched her ignore the repetition of words in Dante’s Inferno in order to convey the different shades of meaning she thought they had in the varying context of specific cantos. In doing so, the subtle associations intended by Dante in repeating a word were lost. Long ago at Harvard I learned the tenets of New Criticism under Reuben Brower and Richard Poirier—one could decipher a work though the repetitions of key words by an author. (Shakespeare’s hammering at “nothing” in King Lear, as it is flung in her father’s face by Cordelia then by the Fool, taken up by Lear, Kent, Edmund, Edgar — echoed over and over in the action, Lear crying “the thick rotundity of the world” to “be struck flat” to nothing, and looking for a breath of life in the play’s last moments where there is no life, nothing). Jean Hollander by changing Dante’s deliberate repetition of a keyword was making it impossible to trace Dante’s intentions. Even her husband Robert became uneasy at this as I found when I read his notes to Jean’s translation — particularly in regard to one word that had caught my attention.[1] It was the word on which the whole of my book Dante, Eros and Kabbalah depended, smarrita or smarrito—which can be translated as I do “bewildered” but also “confused,” or “lost,” and which provided me with the understanding of what was happening throughout the Comedy as Dante groped his way down and up through the windings of the Other World. The way at the beginning is not so much “lost” as “confused” for the poet is, “bewildered” in life. Preparing these remarks, I wondered—could it be there at the very end of Paradise? I had not asked that question in my book. If Dante began with human bewilderment, however, surely before the final overwhelming vision of the Unknown in the whirling geometry of the Heavens “bewildered” would show up but in a very different context. Coincidence, the Divine laughing coincidence of plot assured me that the great poet would spin bewilderment into his resolution. Finding it there, I laughed with glee.

I think that from the keenness that I suffered
Of the living light that I would have been smarrito, bewildered
If my eye had been turned from it.

Paradise, 33, 76-78

This is the true laughter of the Comedy. Dante turns his confusion “smarrito,” upside down in a volley of geometrical fireworks. His verse implies that while once bewildered, lost, etc., and yet would be if he looked away, now absorbed in a vision, he never will be.

—Mark Jay Mirsky


Mark Jay Mirsky

Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. See page 201, of The Inferno, A Verse Translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, Anchor Books, 2002, where Robert Hollander does acknowledge that Jean’s translation cannot convey the associations of “ “The word used by Virgil to describe Dante’s difficulty is smarrito, a word that has been associated with the protagonist’s initial lost and perilous condition (Inf I.3) and then occurs again (Inf XV.50) with specific reference to his lostness at the outset of the journey for the last time in the poem It is also used in such a way as to remind us of his initial situation in Inf. II, 64, V.72 and XIII.24; in the last two of these scenes the protagonist is feeling pity for sinners, emotion that the poet fairly clearly considers inappropriate.”

    I do not have the space here to challenge that remark about “pity” where Robert Hollander assumes (as he does throughout his notes) the role of Inquisitor who will not allow Dante or his readers to feel any sympathy for sinners against Catholic doctrine. I do however want to acknowledge Jean’s brilliance in her translating e sanza alcun sospetto, as “without the least misgiving” in the Fifth Canto and her catching the deadfall at the end of this canto (which a much praised translation by another contemporary poet makes a complete hash of) by exchanging the hard c’s of the Italian for the d’s of English, “E caddi come corpo morto cade, And down I fell as a dead body falls.” To return to smarrito, in line 72, in this Fifth Canto, where Dante earlier writes, pieta mi giunse, e fui quasi smarrito” and Jean translates, “pity over came me/ and I almost lost my senses.” Robert remarks (p. 105) “The repetition of the word smarrito to describe Dante’s distraught condition, also recalls the first tercet of the poem Here we can see his reuse of key words from previous contexts in order to enhance the significance of a current situation in the poem.” Yet how does “lost my senses” signify to the reader that the key word “smarrito” has been repeated. Even Robert’s “my distraught condition” is closer to the “bewildered” that I choose in my translation.

    Of course the reason for the Hollanders’ joint choices in translation are revealed in this note (as in others), “69-72 di nostra vita. The echo of the first line of the poem is probably not coincidental. Dante was lost “midway in the journey of our life,” and we will later learn, some of his most besetting problems arose from misplaced affection.” (p. 105) The Hollanders’ Dante is an author who is in their view, not Dante, the character; a character who is a benighted “lost” soul. This is not my Dante; a Dante who on the contrary as the author, chooses to reveal himself in the fiction of his character Dante, a Dante who is bewildered at the beginning but not at the end of the whole Comedy; not bewildered “smarrito” in the final canto, because he does feel sympathy, pity, throughout his journey, and because his affection was never “misplaced” but rather the source and rationale and end of his journey which brings him to its final laughing revelation.

Jan 112016

presentación jtJavier Taboada


JAVIER TABOADA (Mexico City, 1982) is a translator and poet. He has translated the work of Alcaeus of Mytilene (Alceo, Poemas y Fragmentos, 2010) and Jerome Rothenberg (A Poem of Miracles and A Further Witness, forthcoming in 2016) amongst others. He is the author of a remarkable first collection of poetry, Poemas de Botica (La Cuadrilla de la Langosta, Mexico City, 2014). Dylan Brennan conducted this interview with Javier via email correspondence from October-December 2015.

DB: Tell us a bit about your early life, where you grew up, what you studied, how you first discovered poetry.

JT: I was born in Mexico City and grew up there. I studied at religious schools from primary through secondary before beginning a B.A. in Classical Literature at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where I also completed my M.A.

I suppose that my first contact with poetry was similar to that of most middle class children at that time. What I mean by that is, with rare exceptions, in every house you could find certain books by certain poets such as: Neruda (his 20 poemas de amor almost always featured), León Felipe, Sor Juana, San Juan de la Cruz, Amado Nervo, García Lorca, Jaime Sabines anthologies, amongst others. But there were also plenty of anthologies of what we call poemas de declamación (recital poems): in my house we had the Álbum de Oro del Declamador (The Orator’s Golden Album), I still have it now. It’s a collection of occasional poems, ready to be opened for a mother’s birthday (or for the anniversary of her death), poems that speak of heartbreak, lost loves, poems to scorn vices, to exalt familial and Christian love etc., all tinged with a moral outlook and an unbearable sentimentality. However, in the final section of this book, I found poems like Eliot’s Hollow Men, Lermontov’s The Cross on the Rock, Pasternak’s Night, The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter by Ezra Pound, Quasimodo’s Auschwitz, to mention just a few. The one I liked best from this book was Antonio Plaza’s A una ramera (To a Harlot) because the use of language made me laugh.

The other contact with poetry came from a source less bookish (for want of a better word), I mean popular Mexican music, especially the bolero. Then later, during puberty, rock music.

Beyond what I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t very interested in reading poetry until the age of about 16 or 17. And that had quite a bit to do with the so-called Contemporáneos poets. Xavier Villaurrutia, Salvador Novo, some of Carlos Pellicer’s stuff, José Gorostiza, Jorge Cuesta (his sonnets, of course, not his Canto a un Dios Mineral, which I could only begin to comprehend—years later—via an extraordinary book by Evodio Escalante). They astounded me. After a certain amount of time, I then began to buy poetry books or to read them in the school library, whenever I’d been kicked out of physics or mathematics class. My reading is completely disordered. I’m a trained Hellenist and I haven’t even been able to follow any kind of order with the Ancient Greeks.

DB: I know you translate quite a bit. Tell us about that. Does translation affect how you write, how you read? Do the poets you translate influence you much? Which poets have influenced you? How did you come into contact with them?

JT: Nowadays I read as a translator and this has become beneficial to me. In my current state of disorder I’m reading and translating Rosmarie Waldrop, Federico María Sardelli, Claudia Rankine and John Wilmot. I read them, then I attempt to translate a certain fragment, then I read them again, etc., until the job is done. Whether the translations get published or not, this permits me to be influenced in a way by their work, to assimilate something of their poetics, and, in some way, to redesign my own, to become re-moulded. I am in no way scared of continual influences (I don’t think they ever end) nor of revealing them to others. It is obvious that translation, as reading or as a constant act, not only modifies one’s own voice, but also changes literary traditions. One day, those who study the national poetry of certain regions will pay more attention to the translated works that their poets have read as opposed to the original versions. For example, I read Eliot translated by Ángel Flores and, in my memory, The Waste Land (La Tierra Baldía) is the one that Flores translated.

As I mentioned, I’ve been greatly influenced by the Contemporáneos. My reading of the classics, which I did almost exclusively for a period of about seven or eight years, has also left its mark. Fundamentally, the ancient lyrics: Alcaeus (whose work I translated almost in its entirety in 2010) but also Sappho and Alcman; and also Archilochus and Hipponax. The latter I consider the most modern due to his use of language and humour. His pugilistic poems are raw, his sexual references, explicit. For example, there is one poem in which the “poetic voice” attempts to cure his impotence with the assistance of a Lydian witch. Frankly, it’s hilarious, vulgar and ingenious. Among the Greek Classics I should also mention that I read Euripides and Aristophanes thoroughly.

There are common names such like Pound, Eliot, Wordsworth, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Pessoa, Hölderlin, Yeats. Of course, they have influenced me. More specifically, I can mention poets like Blake, H.D., Charles Wright, David Meltzer, William Carlos Williams, Lee Masters, Efraín Huerta, Rubén Bonifaz Nuño (I regards his Fuego de Pobres as a gem of Mexican literature) and Nicanor Parra.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the influence of Jerome Rothenberg. This is due, in part, to the fact that, in the last year and a half I have worked a lot with him. I’ve finished translating A Further Witness and A Poem of Miracles, two of his most recent collections. It looks like they’ll be published in bilingual editions this year (2016). I’ve also translated to Spanish and to Ladino (the language of the Sephardic Jews) his poem Cokboy which is, as you may know, written in a mixture of English and made-up Yiddish. This proximity (admirably generous) has transformed my understanding of his poetry. I will remain forever grateful to him.

DB: Is there a Mexican poetic tradition? Are there various? With which, if any, do you identify? What about the Mexico City cronistas (non-fiction chroniclers like Carlos Monsiváis or, most recently, Valeria Luiselli)? I ask because your book Poemas de Botica (Apothecary Poems) is very much steeped in the sights, smells, sounds of a particular part of the city.

JT: Everywhere, particularly during these years of globalisation, the borders between “national” literatures have begun to dissolve: they begin to respond to different stimuli and contact with other poetic tasks become more immediate. In Mexico right now I can see a conceptual growth as well as a turn towards new technologies. On the other hand I see an emerging interest in ethnopoetry, ecopoetry and colloquial poetry. Much of this owes to the incorporation of the North American poetic tradition or English language poetry in general.

As a tradition, I would have to mention the baroque. It’s still alive and has continued to adapt (in some instances, in other instances, frankly, it has not) to the times. In its use of language, for example, can be derived part of the metaphysical or mystical poetry that is composed in Mexico.

I don’t know to what extent I can associate myself with any “tradition”. It seems to me that that should be decided by others. I can only recognize some influences that are present in this book, but I cannot talk about belonging. Sophocles says that nobody should consider a person as being “happy” until the moment of his/her death. Other work will come, I hope. Then the time will come for me to cash out. Time will take care of putting everyone in their place. What I mean is, to answer your question, there are a wide variety of poetic traditions in this country. I’m sure there are others which I’ve forgotten, or am yet to have discovered.

Of the cronistas that you mention, I haven’t read Luiselli. I’ve read very little Monsiváis and a bit more of Novo. Honestly, the Mexico City chroniclers had very little influence in Poemas de Botica. I think that a much greater debt is owed to the Lyrical Ballads, to Huerta, Parra, Salvador Novo’s Poemas Proletarios, Fuego de Pobres by Bonifaz and Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. After the collection had been published I was introduced to Chetumal Bay Anthology—a very interesting collection by Luis Miguel Aguilar (winner of the 2014 Ramón López Velarde Prize)—and noted the similarities between my book and his (the focus on just one place, the style of language etc. which in turn is fed by the work of Masters). A fortunate coincidence.

Mexico City has a great deal of problems: brutal inequalities, violence, organized crime (though they claim it’s not there), racism and discrimination, misery belts, inefficient transport, unstoppable pollution etc. On the other hand there are the personal oases, those places that transform the city into your city, though you will always need to pass through chaos to get there. A bit like Milton’s Lucifer. This dichotomy is experienced by anyone who has lived in the D.F. In my case, I couldn’t stand it any more so I left.

DB: Tell us about how you write. Where does it all come from?

JT: I don’t have any particular schedule or discipline for writing. In reality, all my writing springs from obsession. After investigating a certain theme for a while, disposing of material, etc., ideas emerge. And then begins a process that is long. As you well know, there are texts that just jump onto the page and others that take forever. Then, when I believe that a certain text is speaking, I correct it, edit it. I throw away or erase what is no longer of use, without restraint. Usually, what I leave behind is the poem’s skeleton. When I’ve found—sometimes it’s just a few verses—the idea, the tone, the form of what I want to say, I begin to re-write it. In the end, I share it with some writers that I know and trust to be objective. Then, if the text passes this test, I think it’s ready. In general, I mistrust my own opinion. With regard to form, the form is dictated by the contents of the poem.


DB: Poemas de Botica is an admirably solid collection. By that I mean that it possesses a wonderful unity, all the poems revolve around your grandfather’s apothecary and it’s a collection that feels more like a place than a book to me. I mean that in a good way, it’s remarkably vibrant, alive. Where did it come from? Did you always know how it would be structured?

JT: Poemas de Botica emerged from the Guerrero neighbourhood, one of the oldest and dodgiest in the city. But, to be more precise, from the area immediately surrounding the Dr. Medina pharmacy which was the property of my grandfather for almost 65 years. The pharmacy also operated as an old-style apothecary. I had to work there for about 4 or 5 years, selling medicines and mixing remedies (not many, in reality), while I studied at university. The apothecary is still open, even today.

No, actually, it’s strange. Some of those poems (which were then called de Botica in 2003), were more or less finished. But I didn’t know what to do with them. I thought they’d never be published. You know, I didn’t have any more material. There were 4 or 5 poems and that was it. Then, I stopped working there, and I stopped writing poetry and focused on my studies. I submitted, like we all do, to that sterile prose of academia. And, while it gave me other positive things, it dried up my literary work.

I found it really very difficult to start writing again. A few years later, I’d say it was around 2012, I started to re-write those poems, now with the readings I mentioned above in my mind. The key to the collection arrived with the (Homeric) Cantos del Señor Olivares: I glimpsed the possibility of orchestrating the whole book with an array of different voices: the historical voice of the city (Olivares), the lyrical voice (the Apothecary), the testimonial voices of the characters, all mixed up: humour, violence, colloquialisms, music and refrains. In other words, everything that I learned in Guerrero. And then I quickly discovered that the book was finished. Leticia Luna, the editor, insisted that the tone was not lost.

Finally came the business of unifying the collection. All the poems revolve around an apothecary. I understood that it was about the day-to-day running of the business. Working at an apothecary, you end up having to deal with the clients, with yourself, with those who promote the merchandise, with anything that was going on in the barrio. Outside and inside. And almost everything that happened in that small world is portrayed in the book. ‘The world is an apothecary of the depraved’ (El mundo es una botica de viciosos) says the book’s epigraph. The world or purgatory in which we all find ourselves. In fact, the first poem gives the physical location, the address of the pharmacy, but this also functions as a cosmic location of the Counter-Earth, according to an astronomy book by Giorgio Abetti, I think. That’s what the botica was for me.

DB: What do you think of contemporary Mexican poetry?

JT: Honestly, and this has a lot to do with my formative period, I’ve attempted to immerse myself in contemporary Mexican poetry only recently, in the last three or four years. For example, I have discovered fantastic works such as those of Francisco Hernández (Moneda de Tres Caras, La Isla de las Breves Ausencias), Elsa Cross (Bomarzo, Bacantes, Canto Malabar), Myriam Moscona (Negro Marfil and Ansina), Coral Bracho (Si ríe el emperador), José Vicente Anaya (Híkuri), Ernesto Lumbreras (Lo que dijeron las estrellas en el ojo de un sapo), Tedi López Mills (Muerte en la Rúa Augusta and Parafrasear) Gerardo Deniz (who had already passed away but his Cuatronarices was a major discovery for me), Luis Miguel Aguilar, as I already mentioned, the Mazateco poet Juan Gregorio Regino (No es eterna la muerte), Víctor Sosa (Nagasakipanema), amongst others.

There are some writers, a bit younger than the ones I just mentioned—often younger than I am—whose work I admire. Amongst these I can mention Alejandro Tarrab, Hugo García Manríquez, Balam Rodrigo, Inti García Santamaría, Heriberto Yépez, Hernán Bravo, Yuri Herrera, Óscar David López, Sara Uribe, Paula Abramo, Marian Pipitone, Eva Castañeda, Zazil Collins. So far. I know of many other names due to the renown they have earned but I haven’t read them, and that is a source of minor embarrassment. But that work is pending. The list will certainly grow.

DB: Personally, in Mexico, I’ve noticed a fair amount of literary cliques. As if the on-going feuds like the ones documented so memorably by Bolaño in his Savage Detectives are continuing today. Do you notice any of this? Does it hold interest?

JT: Yes, I suppose that, like everywhere else, there are. Regional, local, national, transnational. In general, I have very little time for personal disputes that always seem to mutate into group disputes. I read, ignoring the affiliations or ascriptions of an author. I’m only interested in the text. I can still identify the conflicts generated by the aesthetical (and political) differences between the Stridentists (Estridentistas) and the Contemporáneos or between the Infrarrealistas (the “Visceral Realists” from Bolaño’s Savage Detectives) and group of poets headed by Octavio Paz. Or the ongoing arguments between nationalism (whether that be criollo or mestizo) of Mexican poetry against its francophilia (afrancesamiento as Cuesta called it, extending the term to mean a sort of universalist ambition).

DB: There seems to be plenty of political poetry being written and disseminated in Mexico of late. What do you think of this? Should poetry be political?

JT: Yes, it is normal to see this emergence of political poetry. We live in tragic times. Some of these poems I simply don’t like: particularly those that seek to mythologize or ritualize that which has happened in Mexico. By so doing, they seem to engender a justification (myths and rites that outline a psychic, hegemonic and social mechanism a posteriori) in order to suggest some sense of destiny. Furthermore, I think that political poetry (as always) is at risk of turning into a simple instrument of affiliation, an occasional militancy that is of more benefit to the poet than to society.

A work that stands apart from these is Antígona González by Sara Uribe. Though she recycles the figure of Antigone, she refuses to justify suffering through the notion of myth.

DB: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

JT: Well this year (2016), as I mentioned, I hope to see the Rothenberg collections published. I also hope to publish Nacencia, a long poem dedicated to my son, which focuses on the processes of translation. It’s about the impossibility of translation. It’s also a unified piece, from the eve of his birth up until an event that seemed astonishing to me, which occurred when he was about four months old. He reached out to touch the shadow of his own hand on the wall. In other words he carried out his own process of translation: in four months he had interpreted the world, his surroundings, passing through a long phase of discovery and an awakening of the senses, until he could see that hand and touch it. From that point, everything became clear, the light of the allegory of Plato’s Cave. Nacencia is a poem that has nothing to do with, with regard to subject matter or form, Poemas de Botica. Which is something that pleases me greatly.

Furthermore, I want to continue with my translations of Claudia Rankine (her multi-prizewinning Citizen) and of Rosmarie Waldrop (The Ambition of Ghosts). I’d also like to keep translating some of Federico Maria Sardelli, who is real character (Vivaldi scholar, director of Modo Antiquo, painter, poet).

—Javier Taboada & Dylan Brennan



From Poemas de Botica (Apothecary Poems)
By Javier Taboada
Selected and translated by Jack Little.



las rameras
……….se canonizan en nueve meses
el diente de oro
es tatuaje de honor por las migajas
y el rito de la madre
es zumbarse al niño
y llevarlo a la escuela
cubriendo el látigo del marido.

Los boticarios
son los nuevos curas
que redimen
por menos del tostón.

La borracha canta
soy la Magdalena
revolcada en mierda
……….hay viejos oraculares
……….héroes y padrotes
y hasta los boxeadores rezan
que con la Virgen basta
y la piedra sosiega.

la camisa de fuerza
espera por la señal de la cruz.



Nadie sabe que soy un súper héroe.

Piensan que estoy loco
pero en las noches vuelo
……….aunque todavía
no aprendo bien
y me azoto en la banqueta.

De día
enjuago los carros
que llevan a los reyes actuales.

Mas luego oscurece
……….y no sé quién
le sube el switch
a mis rosas eléctricas.

Ahí me da por encimarme
……….los calzones
……….la capa
mis botas negras de hule
y entonces VUELO

por la quijada brillante
del burro
la tripa de cristal
que se hace rollo
y se alarga.

Eso que dicen
que es la epilepsia.

Y con mi lengua
en la banqueta
me quedo dormido
……….como una coca de vidrio
vacía de la furia del mar.



Un joven de quince años
pidió un gotero de cristal
para bajarle a su bebé la temperatura.

…………Mejor uno de plástico
…………que el vidrio es peligroso
…………si el niño tiene dientes.

No lo quiebra  no lo rompe.
Y besó una cruz
que hizo con los dedos.

………….Fui por su jarabe
y me dejó hablando solo
con la medicina.

Nunca había visto a un tipo tan flaco.


La piedra
el fumado
…………en papel
…………en lata de refresco
…………o gotero de cristal
es un tizón de sesenta pesos
…………llaga que arde viva
…………entre labios y garganta.

Hay que jalarle duro
…………fumarse hasta las burbujas
…………oír el crac en la piedra
y sentir cómo pega en putiza.


Pasadas las diez de la noche
chupando la mugre de las uñas
…………por si algo sobra
los muchachos del crac
…………ángeles de cera sobre una flama
salen a la calle
con todas las palabras
…………………en la manguera de la lengua
el sexo de fuera y erecto.

El barrio cierra sus ventanas
…………tapia sus puertas
porque los muchachos del crac
y se rascan para quitarse los piojos
…………que inundan su piel
……………….pues es mejor dejarla en carne viva
…………a que se la coman los gusanos.

Los muchachos del crac
…………ejército de cadáveres sin camisa
…………pubertas embarazadas
caminan a ninguna parte
…………juegan volados o rayuela
…………cantan  bajo la pequeña luz del encendedor
y miran de reojo
buscándose el cuchillo.

Luego caen
uno por uno
bajo los dedos del alba.


Al abrirse las puertas del metro
los muchachos yacen en el piso
………………como pan con hongos
……………………..arcada del ebrio
……………………..viejo al que chupó el diablo.

—Javier Taboada



the whores
………….are canonized in nine months
the gold tooth
a tattoo to honour crumbs
and the rite of the mother
is to hit her child
and to take him to school
to cover up her husband’s lash.

The apothecaries
are the new curates
for less than fifty cents.

The drunk lass sings
I am Mary Magdalene
wallowing in shit
…………here old oracles
…………heroes and pimps

and even the boxers pray
that the Virgin alone will suffice
and the crack rock soothes.

the straitjacket
waits for the sign of the cross.



Nobody knows that I am super hero.

They think I’m crazy
but at night I fly
……………even though still
I don’t learn all that well
and crash into the sidewalk.

By day
I wash the cars
that carry today’s kings.

After dark
………….I don’t know who
flicks the switch
on my electric roses.

I turn myself out in
……………the cape
my black rubber boots
and then I FLY
by the brilliant jawbone
of the donkey
the glassy guts
that roll
and lengthen.

That they say
……………is epilepsy.

And with my tongue
on the sidewalk
I sleep
……………like a glass bottle of coke
empty of the fury of the sea.



A fifteen year old guy
asked for a glass dropper
to bring his baby’s temperature down.

……….Better a plastic one
……….glass is dangerous
……….if the kid already has teeth.

He won’t crack it won’t break it
and he kissed a crucifix
made with his fingers.

……….I went for the syrup
and he left me talking alone
with the medicine.

I had never seen such a skinny fella.


The stone
……….on paper
……….in a can of pop
……….or a glass dropper
it’s a three buck ember
……….a sore that burns alive
……….between the lips and throat.

You have to pull hard
……….toke until it bubbles
……….hear the crack in the rock
and feel it like the smack in a brawl.


Past ten at night
sucking the muck on their nails
……….just in case there’s something left
the crack boys
……….wax angels over the flame
go out into the street
with all the words
…………..on the tube of their tongue
sex outside and erect.

The neighborhood closes its doors
……….shuts its windows
because the crack boys
and scratch to get rid of the nits
……….that fill their skin
……………for it’s better to leave it raw
……….than let it be eaten by worms.

The crack boys
……….army of shirtless corpses
……….pregnant adolescents
walk nowhere
……….play coin toss or hopscotch
……….sing under the dim glow of a lighter
and gaze askance
looking for a knife.

Then they fall
one by one
under the fingers of dawn.


As the metro doors are opened
the boys are lying on the floor
………………..like moldy bread
…………………….drunk’s retch
…………………….an old man made rotten by the five-second rule.

—Javier Taboada translated by Jack Little

Javier Taboada (Distrito Federal, 1982) traductor y poeta. Ha traducido a Alceo de Mitilene (Poemas y Fragmentos, 2010) y a Jerome Rothenberg (A Poem of Miracles y A Further Witness, de próxima aparición), entre otros. Es autor de Poemas de Botica (2014).

Jack Little Photo

Jack Little (b. 1987) is a British-Mexican poet, editor and translator based in Mexico City. He is the author of ‘Elsewhere’ (Eyewear, 2015) and the founding editor of The Ofi Press: www.ofipress.com

Dylan Brennan

Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan