Jul 012012


Heiress to a French seed company fortune, Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin (1902 -1969) was a whirlwind of affaires du coeur as well as publications. Among her amorous conquests: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Orson Welles, Prince Ali Khan, a Hungarian count, Duff Cooper (British ambassador to France after World War II) and André Malraux. While setting the social world on fire she also managed to write fifteen novels, five books of poetry and ghost-authored the memoirs of Coco Chanel.  Her most famous novel was Madame de, which was made into a movie by Max Ophuls called The Earrings of Madame de…, starring Charles Boyer.

Here are several bitter little poems and my translations.

— Marilyn McCabe




Fiancée aux mille détours
Que cachez-vous dans votre manche ?
Est-ce la carte d’un séjour
Où le rêve en gestes s’épanche ?
Est-ce le plan de vos revanches
Sur le vol d’un baiser vautour ?

(from L’alphabet des aveux, 1954)


Fiancée of a million deviations
what do you hide up your sleeve?
Is it a postcard
from the place where dreams are discarded?
Is it your revenge plan:
a vulture’s kiss: stolen and flown?



Fleurs promises, fleurs tenues dans tes bras,
Fleurs sorties des parenthèses d’un pas,
Qui t’apportait ces fleurs l’hiver
Saupoudrées du sable des mers ?
Sable de tes baisers, fleurs des amours fanées
Les beaux yeux sont de cendre et dans la cheminée
Un cœur enrubanné de plaintes
Brûle avec ses images saintes.

(from Fiançailles pour rire, 1939)


Flowers of promises, bouquet in your arms,
flowers fallen like the parenthesis of a footprint, no
one knows who brought the flowers winter
scattered on the shore?
Sands of your kisses, flowers of faded ardor,
their beautiful eyes are cinders and on the hearth
a heart enribboned with cries
burns with holy fire.



Les mots sont dits, les jeux sont faits
Toutes couleurs toutes mesures,
Le danger cueille son bouquet,
Aux falaises de l’aventure
Je ne reviendrai plus jamais.

Adieu chapeau de Capitaine
Adieu gais écheveaux du vent,
Astre du Nord, étoile vaine,
Un baiser est au firmament
Des jardins où je me promène.

Adieu bateaux au jour défaits,
L’heure attendue est bien venue,
L’amour me choisit mes secrets.
À la tour des peines perdues
Je ne monterai plus jamais.

(from Le Sable du sablier, 1945)


The words were said, the plays were made,
all colors, all measures,
danger picked its wild bouquet.
To the cliffs of this adventure
I will never return.

Goodbye captain’s hat.
Goodbye gay skeins of wind,
north star, vain éclat,
your kiss is in the heaven
over the garden I am lost in.

Goodbye ships of defeated days,
the waited hour is well come;
love chose me my pains.
To that widow’s-walk of sweet affliction
I will never climb again.

 — Translations by Marilyn McCabe


Marilyn McCabe’s book of poetry Perpetual Motion was chosen by judge Gray Jacobik to be published as part of the Hilary Tham Capital Collection by The Word Works in 2012, and her chapbook Rugged Means of Grace was published by Finishing Line Press, 2011. She is a regular contributor of poetry book reviews for Connotation Press, and her poetry has appeared in print and online in such magazines as Nimrod, Painted Bride Quarterly, Numéro Cinq, and the Cortland Review. She has twice been awarded New York State Council on the Arts Individual Artist grants, most recently in 2012 for the development of a video-poem.


May 302012

Steve Dolph is the translator of Juan José Saer‘s novels The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and Scars, both published by Open Letter Books. He is currently at work on a translation of Saer’s posthumously published novel, La Grande. Dolph is a scholar in the highest sense of the word. His passion and dedication to his work are contagious. Saer (1937-2005) was a celebrated Argentine novelist and writer. He moved to Paris in 1968 and became a lecturer at the University of Rennes. He wrote numerous novels and short story collections as well as critical studies on literature. Dolph’s grasp of Saer’s work is expansive, and his passion for the preservation of world literature through translation is, in  a word, noble.  Our conversations opened a window for me into the gruelling, precise and often unacknowledged work of translators, men and women who toil away like monks locked in an abbey, preserving and passing along the gift that is the world’s collection of stories. It was a rare privilege to have spent time talking with Steve Dolph, and it is a distinct pleasure to introduce him to Numéro Cínq.

See also the NC reviews of Scars and The Sixty-Five Years of Washington; also an excerpt from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and an excerpt from Scars.

—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell:  How did you come to work on literary translations? Was this something you sought out or did it just happen through the course of your studies?

Steven Dolph: During my master’s program in creative writing at Temple, I took a translation class with Lawrence Venuti, the translator and scholar. That class was incredibly energizing and inspiring. It was a half a dozen students from various disciplines, no one focused exclusively on translation, if I remember correctly. We read a good amount of canonical translation theory, then workshopped translations-in-progress, not only from a formalistic perspective typical of creative writing workshops, but also based out of the theory we were reading. We read the translations, in fact, as theory, an approach that was at first shocking. Like most writing students, I think, I had always understood theory and literature to be distinct practices, and overlapping them seemed pretty scandalous. Frankly, I was less than prepared to read and write in that way, and I did pretty poorly in the class. But it was my first real exposure to comparative literature, and it stuck in a big way. After that class, I couldn’t really do anything else. It was at that time that I started working on the poetry of Néstor Perlongher, a project I stuck with for quite a while.

RF: It seems like most of the translators I know are poets, though I don’t know why that is. Are you a poet?

SD:  I’m not a poet. I studied fiction at Temple.

RF: Are you still writing fiction?

SD: I stopped writing. I never felt the enthusiasm for writing that I felt for translation. I’m back in grad school now, at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m getting a Ph.D. in Hispanic studies.  It’s a five year program. I hope to write about translation of Latin American literature. I’ve always thought of translation as a critical practice, and I’m trying to develop that sensibility.

RF:  Your work with translating Saer’s novels must be intensely time consuming. Could you walk us through a typical ‘day in the life’ of working on the translation of a novel?

SD: On a good day I’ll spend six to eight hours at the computer. It’s hard to measure production by the day or the week, because I’ve always squeezed it in, early in the morning before work or class, or on the weekend. In any case, the farther along, the slower it goes. Sometimes I’ll spend an entire morning on a single paragraph, or less. That has to do not only with the nature of Saer’s prose, which is difficult, but also the nature of the work in general. I’m always thinking in terms of capturing equivalences between Spanish and English, and if I’m translating a passage on, say, the description of a river, I may spend an entire morning reading sections of Huck Finn just to remind myself what writing the river sounds like in English.

RF: Do you work directly with the original works? I know that some translators use native speakers to do an initial translation, a literal translation, before going in and turning the ‘rough’ translation into something with more nuanced (poetic) language.

SD: I do translate directly from the original. That said, I rely on the help of informants— friends who either know Saer’s work better than I do, or who have a deep fluency in Spanish, which I don’t have, or who have a particular familiarity with some aspect of the English vocabulary: doctors, lawyers, mothers, scientists, horsemen, and so on. I’d be lost without these people.

RF: I wonder if you might expand a bit on who your ‘informants’ are.

SD:  Sure. One is Sergio Chejfec, who is a contemporary Argentine novelist and a professor of writing at NYU.  He’s a big fan of Saer, and he reached out to me and offered to help .  It helps to have other people who know the work, who really know the work as it was first written.

With Saer especially, there is a certain style, a certain sensibility that his prose follows. There’s a lot of parataxis in his writing, and a certain openness of meaning in his lines, or double meaning, inversions, and so on. Some of these things can be lost on me when I first read through it. A lot of the humor is there.  The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, for example, plays with a lot paraphrase and hearsay. So I would check on sentences that I couldn’t quite get a handle on. It helped to have people who were more familiar with his language to guide me.

 RF:  How did you come to work with Saer’s novels. I imagine you must be under contract before you begin. Perhaps not?

SD: The Saer translations, a three-book contract, were offered to me by Open Letter after I submitted a sample. This was back in 2008. I should mention, while we’re talking about the press, the amazing editorial work of E. J. Van Lanen, the editor at Open Letter. He’s been so fantastic to work with, and some of the real gems have come from his suggestions. In fact, many of the passages that have been quoted in reviews have been directly inspired by if not literally copied verbatim from his suggestions.

 RF:  How much contextual/historical research do you have to do with a writer’s work in order to render the best translation?

SD: For me, lots. Lots and lots. Before translating the first Saer book, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, I read quite a bit of Argentine history, especially the history of the Peronist regime, the coup, and the military dictatorship that followed: from 1940 to 1990, basically. I also read some of the literature that was being made at that time. That period, though, was one of the most productive, in terms of the novel, in the history of Latin America, and arguably anywhere, so I barely scratched the surface. I’m trying to focus some more attention on that these days. I also read a bit of what Saer was reading as he wrote the first book, in particular the French nouveau roman, Robbe-Grillet and so on. Finally, for tone and affect, I read some history of rhetoric, and narration theory. The Sixty-Five Years is concerned, primarily, with the nature of storytelling, and Saer slides between close, colloquial speech and detached, critical prose. I tried to recreate that balance. I also read The Chicago Manual of Style like a novel, and had the idea of a parody of that style always close in mind. All that said, I don’t know if my research made the translation better in any way. After I started working, I read everything of Saer’s that had already been translated, mostly by Margaret Jull Costa and Helen Lane, to get a sense of what Saer already sounded like in English. I read a few interviews on line.

I came to see The Sixty-Five Years of Washington as a novel about storytelling, about Argentina’s Dirty War and about the memory of trauma.  The more I read the book, the more I came to appreciate it. Saer was so intent on rendering the Santa Fe region of Argentina, the region around the Paraná River.  So a lot of the early research involved gathering a sense of the history, of the language, and referring to the previous translations.  I tried to look at how those translations handled his idiosyncratic use of the language.

 RF: I know that you founded a literary journal on translation. Could you talk about that journal and how it works?

SD: As I was finishing the master’s program in writing, I got the naïve idea that I wanted to start a journal of literature in translation, focusing primarily on the voice of the translator. We would publish brief translation excerpts alongside the originals and translator introductions. Brandon Holmquest, who’s an editor at Asymptote now, said he would edit the thing with me, and it ran in print and online for three years and five issues. We wanted, basically, to publish a journal in which literature and criticism held equal footing, and where translators could speak more than just anecdotally about their craft.

RF: How does translation affect your appreciation of language and literature?

SD: The effect has really been profound. I tend to see all writing in terms of translation, either linguistic or cultural, and have less trust in concepts like national literatures or genealogies among writers. Even the idea of a unified language in itself seems deeply suspect and ideologically motivated to me. I’ve also become much more conscious of translation’s connection to linguistic colonialism, and the political role that translation plays between national groups and between individuals. I see novels, and narration in general, as less closed or finished, and rather more open than I used to, more a confluence of many, many voices than the product of a single voice. Along with that, the idea of authorship, and the distinction between fist-order and second-order artistic products seems more and more like a fiction to me. At the most basic level, though, I’m compelled to see translation—and, by extension, all reading, of text or of the world—as essentially hermeneutic rather than empirical. Which is to say: meaning is not inherent to writing or to language as such; meaning is a product of interpretation, which is never disinterested or absolute, but always, always informed and circumscribed by the cultural position that the reader occupies.

RF: Could you expand a bit on this idea of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ production with respect to translating literary works?

SD:  The idea of a clear transfer from a first order to a second order production is really recent, and has more to do with the 19th-century development of copyright than with what actually happens between texts, and involved the codification of the limits of artistic work and influence.  It’s certainly useful from a legal standpoint, but from a reader’s perspective, I don’t see it as very useful. A book is a confluence of many different voices and ideas. For the translator, it’s a whole other set of voices and ideas. The process just feels more open to me. Our ideas about originality and authority, these codes, are informed by an ideology of the role of arts and the artist that translation has always worked to destabilize.

RF: You mentioned linguistic colonialism. Is this about dominant languages and how this affects the work of translators?

SD: Are you asking, is the translation of a literary text a neutral agent?  A good portion of translators might not want to think about that question too much.

Translations are always informed by the ideologies that are implicit in the language community, from the way language is used, to its ideological undercurrents. Translators can be aware of or ignore these relationships. A translator has to find ways to address this issue, especially when these dominant languages move in to displace minority languages.

 RF:  I’m imaging that to translate a novel-length work, you must enter into a very deep relationship with the book. I’m also imagining that this could have negative effects, too. You must reach a point of exhaustion after a while. Do you ever just get sick of the pace of it?

SD: Never sick of it, no. Nor exhausted, really. A negative effect, though, is that with such an intense focus on producing a good structure, rhythm, and sound for individual sentences, it’s often easy to lose sight of the forest for all the trees. Then again, this focus has made my reading of other books that much more enjoyable. I pay much more attention than in the past to the ways that rhythm and syntax in prose are employed to create effect. I’m also now constantly on the lookout for interesting or startling language use in the world around me. I think the positive effects offset the negative ones, definitely.

RF: There must be work that is still in need of translation or in need of fresh translations. Who do you want to see brought back to life?

SD: That list is infinite. Something I’d really like to work on, and which has been neglected here for the most part, would be the black novels—hard core pulp detective writing—from Argentina since the 60s. Borges had his hands all the way in that mess. And Ricardo Piglia, more recently, has been working out of that tradition. What’s between those two writers needs a second look.

RF:  What projects are you working on now?

SD: Right now I’m working through the last of three books for Open Letter Books, Saer’s posthumous novel La Grande, which should be out next year.

RF: I know this is beyond the scope of strict translation, but in Scars, the character of the judge is translating into Spanish Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This must have been a fun moment for you while translating!

SD: Not to sound sentimental, but that was the most heartwarming part to translate. That section was a metaphor for the way practices are invisible, how the product stands at the front and the producer is behind a screen.  Despite his cynicism, despite his nihilistic view of society, his relationship to the work shows a deep care and attention, though he understood the futility of the work—the novel had been translated  so many times.

Then you read The Picture of Dorian Gray, and you see the way the book discusses appearances and the aesthetic practice and how the book calls this into question. And the content of what the Judge was translating, it made him seem so alive.  We only get a little bit at a time, but the moments when he is working, that is the person he is when he’s most alive.

Steve Dolph is currently a doctoral student in Hispanic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  He previously translated Juan José Saer’s novel, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, part of a three-book contract with Open Letter Books. He founded the journal Calque, which focuses on literature in translation. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.

May 292012

Herewith, an excerpt from Juan José Saer’s novel Scars (originally published in Argentina in 1969). Open Letter Books has released a new English translation from Steve Dolph. Saer, who died in 2005, is considered one of Argentina’s most important writers, alongside Juan Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. Saer was a prolific writer of novels, stories and criticism. For much of his life, he lived and worked in France, and the theme of exile is prevalent in his writing. Saer also blurred genres, a technique especially prevalent in Scars. With equal dexterity, he blends the influence of Dashiell Hammet with that of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Scars might well be read as four linked novellas. In each of the four sections of the book, a different narrator recounts the events surrounding a brutal murder which takes place on the streets of Santa Fe, a small city along the Parana River in northeastern Argentina.  In the section excerpted below, the second in the book, the narrator is Sergio, a non-practicing lawyer who writes occasional essays (“Professor Nietzsche and Clark Kent”)  but who mostly gambles. Sergio’s obsession is baccarat. His entire existence seems centered around the system he has worked out for playing at the baccarat table. It’s not so much about winning or losing to Sergio, but about being in the game, about being at the table when the cards are dealt.  “In baccarat I saw a different order, analogous to the phenomena of this world, because that other world, the one in which the opposite face of every present moment is utter chaos, and in which the chaos, reinitiated, could erase all the present moments behind it, just like that, seemed horrible to me.” Sergio gambles with a mad fever. Watching him at the tables, your heart races as he throws down the last of savings. You feel that gambler’s high when he goes on a winning streak. You shout at the pages, trying to talk sense into this philosopher-madman as he puts up the mortgage on his house in order to have one more night of baccarat. “Every bet is desperate because we gamble for one single motive: to see.”

–Richard Farrell



Mostly I played baccarat, because there my past was predetermined. Once in a while it could change, but it felt more solid than the crazy mayhem of the dice in the shaker, better than the blind senselessness of their flight before they came to rest on the green felt. My heart would tumble more than the dice when I shook the cup and turned it over the table. You can’t bet on chaos. And not because you can’t win, but because it’s not you who wins, but the chaos that allows it.

In baccarat I saw a different order, analogous to the phenomena of this world, because that other world, the one in which the opposite face of every present moment is utter chaos, and in which the chaos, reinitiated, could erase all the present moments behind it, just like that, seemed horrible to me. That’s what I felt whenever I shook the dice. In baccarat, my eyes could follow every movement the dealers made as they shuffled the cards and reinserted them into the shoe. First they would spread them out over the table, and then stack them in piles organized in three or four rows. They’d combine all the piles into a single column, two hundred and sixty cards, five decks in all, and drop them into the shoe. Then the game would start. First you had to think about the cards in the shoe. In baccarat, when the player is dealt a five—made up of a face card and a five, a three and a two, a nine and a six, or any other combination—he can choose whether or not to hit in order to improve his score. If the player hits, the entire makeup of the shoe changes. Before, I said that in baccarat I had a predetermined past. But it’s probably better to say I had a predetermined future. Objectively speaking, the cards in the shoe are actually a past. For me, ignorant of their arrangement, they become the present and then the past as they are dealt, two at a time. At that point they become the future. And the player’s decision when he lands a five—hitting or standing—changes the cards. But the present is necessary for that change to take place.

So the dealer’s shoe, its cards arranged in a way that could be completely reorganized by a subjective decision to take a single card, is at once a predetermined past and a predetermined future, and at once determined and changeable according to the player’s decision to hit on five or stand.

Every hand was the present, but with the shoe there in the middle of the table both the past and the future were also the present. The three coincided. All three overlapped on the table. Once played, the two cards from that hand moved to a pile of cards face up next to the shoe, the cards that had been used in previous hands. They formed, in this way, another past. Several relative pasts were thus formed: the past of the discards piled face up next to the shoe; the past in the shoe, which was also the future; and the pasts of the rearrangements suffered by the shoe according to the gambler’s decision to hit on five or stand.

Several futures coincided as well: the future of the shoe as initially arranged, as well as every future determined by the player’s decisions to hit on five or stand. Because the decision to hit was always present, always future, until the decision to hit, standing, you could say, was also a rearrangement.

Every hand was thus a kind of bridge, a crossroads where distinct pasts and futures were exchanged, and where, at its center, all the presents were collected: the present of the current hand, momentary, transitory; the present of the past of the pile of discarded hands; the present of the past of the shoe as it had been arranged initially; the present of the past of the shoe, now that, objectively speaking, the shoe was both a determined past and a determined future, and at once a past and a future from which rearrangement could be dealt.

And with each hand the different pasts and futures would coalesce and intermingle: for example, the first four cards dealt, two to the player and two to the banker—which could reach as many as six each if the player and the banker failed to reach the minimum score (four)—belonged to the past, or the future, of the dealer’s shoe: they originated from the two hundred and sixty cards stacked up inside the shoe and nowhere else. And the pile of cards face up next to the shoe consisted of cards that had originated in the shoe, and which had briefly been the deal—that absolute, coalesced present, which my eyes had seen on the table. A narrow relationship, therefore, unified all the states.

Also present were the precedent chaos, the coincident chaos, and the future chaos. The three coincided, actively or potentially. The precedent chaos coincided with the organization suffered by the cards in the shoe, and rematerialized as the coincident chaos represented by the cards that were piled face up next to the shoe, which it coincided with. And this chaos would undergo a transformation similar to the first—when the dealers shuffled the cards, organized them into several even piles, and combined them, ultimately, into a single column of two hundred and sixty cards before dropping them into the shoe. The precedent chaos was present in this act, as the organization of the shoe was determined by it. The future chaos, at once active and potential since it took shape from the chaos of the cards piled face up next to the shoe—and therefore consisted partly of this chaos and could only come from it—would ultimately be indistinguishable from this—the precedent—chaos and from the coincident chaos, since chaos is in itself indistinguishable and essentially singular. Each chaos was also the future chaos, and the arrangement of the cards and the transitory present of the deal were also part of the future chaos, since they would soon become it. And the three mutually coincident states of chaos, meanwhile, were coincident with the arrangement of the shoe, the present of the deal, and all the intersections of the past and the future that had been, were, or would be coalesced in it.

Each time the shoe resets, having passed through the original chaos in which the dealers’ distracted hands spread the cards in random piles over the table, a new arrangement is produced. As many possibilities for its arrangement exist as there are possibilities for arrangement among the two hundred and sixty cards, each one a fragment of the original chaos submitted to an organization by the reflexive movements of the dealers’ hands. As I see it, no arrangement could be identical to another, and even if in two of the arrangements the cards fell in the same order, the first arrangement still wouldn’t be the same as the second, and for this reason: it would be, in effect, another. On the other hand, it wouldn’t seem the same. There wouldn’t be a way to verify it. The task—a tedious and hopeless waste of time—would be dismaying from the start. And in any case, only the initial arrangement would resemble the other’s. Which is to say, only a given pathway or portion of the process could resemble a pathway or portion of the process of the other arrangement.

Because the other pathways or parts wouldn’t be the same. For that to happen, the following similarities would have to occur: first, the way the dealers shuffled would have to be exactly the same both times, and the way the cards were arranged would have to turn out exactly as before. A five of diamonds that appears in the shoe between a three of diamonds and an eight of clubs would need to come to occupy this location by the same itinerary as before—above a four of spades and a king of diamonds, under a queen of clubs, between an ace of hearts and a two of hearts, for example—something which, of course, is impossible to verify.

Also: every player dealt the five would have to choose the same in every case in each of the arrangements. Bearing in mind that there are players who tend to stand, and players who tend to hit sometimes and other times not, and players who tend to follow their gut when the cards are turned over, the possibility of repetition becomes practically impossible.

Finally: the pile of cards face up next to the shoe would have to be a arranged in the same way as the pile formed by the discarded hands of the previous arrangement. But that arrangement, because no one controls it, is impossible to verify.

In baccarat, ultimately, repetition is impossible.

— Juan José Saer (English translation by Steve Dolph)


Juan José Saer (1937-2005) was a celebrated Argentine novelist and writer. He moved to Paris in 1968 and became a lecturer at the University of Rennes. He wrote numerous novels and short story collections as well as critical studies on literature. Winner of Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize, several of Saer’s novels have been (or will soon be) translated by Open Letter Books.

See also Richard Farrell’s review of Scars here, also his review The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and an excerpt from that novel here. Read an interview with Steve Dolph, Saer’s translator.

Apr 222012

“Rite of Spring” is an essay from Andrzej Stasiuk‘s Dukla, translated from the original Polish by Bill Johnston and published by Dalkey Archive Press late last year (see NC’s review here).  Short, precise and lyrical, “Rite of Spring” captures Stasiuk’s clear-eyed view of his landscapes—brilliantly alive and cruel. As often the case in Dukla, Stasiuk meditates on image, light, and color to produce stunning insights and metaphors. “Rite of Spring” comes near the end of Dukla, and is part of a series of short essays on nature and its dominance.

–Jason DeYoung


Rite of Spring


 When the frogs come out from beneath the earth and set off in search of standing water, it’s a sign that winter has grown weak. White tongues of snow still lie in dark gullies, but their days are numbered. The streams are bursting with water, its animated, mo­notonous sound can be heard even through the walls of the house. Of the four elements, only earth has no voice of its own.

But this was supposed to be about the frogs, not the elements. So then, they crawl out of their hiding places and make their way to ditches and puddles, to stagnant, warmer water. Their bodies look like clods of glistening clay. If the day is sunny the meadow comes to life: dozens, hundreds of frogs moving up the slope. Actually it can barely be seen, for the color of their skin matches the dull hue of last year’s grass. The eye catches only light and motion. They’re still cold and half asleep, so they hop slowly, with long rests between bursts of effort. When the sun is shining at a particular angle, their journey is a series of brief flashes. They light up and go out again like will-o’-the-wisps in the middle of the day. But even now they join into pairs. Frogs’ blood, as everyone knows, has the same tem­perature as the rest of the world, so as they push through patches of shadow on a clear but frost-sprinkled early morning, it’s quite possible that red ice is flowing in their veins. Yet even now, one is seeking another, and they cling to each other in their strange two-headed, eight-legged way that makes Tosia call out: “Look! One frog’s carrying the other one!”


All this is happening in a roadside ditch. The sun warms the water all day long, it’s only in the late afternoon that the leafless willows cast an irregular network of shadows. There’s no outflow here, it’s sheltered from the wind, no stream runs into it, yet the surface of the water is dense with life. It’s like the back of a great snake: it shimmers and coruscates, reflecting the light; the cold gleam slithers, melts away, divides, and does not come to a rest even for a moment.

To begin with it’s only the frogs. Some are dark brown, almost black, with tiger stripes on their pale yellow legs. Others are bigger, the color of dusty fired clay—the ones in the water turn slightly red, take on warmer tones, and you can tell they’re made of flesh.

 Pairs join into foursomes, lone frogs adhere to couples, then there are eights, dozens, frog-balls appear with untold numbers of legs. They look like bizarre animals from the beginning of time, when the familiar forms of life had not yet been established, and the material expression of existence was still an experiment.

Soon frogspawn appears. At first it’s clear as condensed water, then there’s more and more of it and it acquires a luminous dark blue sheen. The water disappears completely, the inert shapeless substance reaches all the way to the bottom of the ditch, and when the frogs are startled by the shadow of an approaching human they dive in clumsily and only with effort. The substance, slimy and mercuric in its weight and its inertness, pushes them back to the surface. All this is accompanied by a sound that recalls an underwater rumbling of the belly.


When everything is over, the sky remains blue across its whole breadth. The surface of the water is equally still. The frogs have left, all that remains is the spawn and the bodies of those that didn’t survive. They float up on their backs, they have white bel­lies, while pale pink filaments of intestine unravel from their mouths like some delicate species of water plant. This is the sign that spring has now arrived.

— Andrzej Stasiuk from his book Dukla, translated by Bill Johnston

Apr 132012

Liliana Heker’s novel The End of the Story begins with a description of a woman “born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass” and then leaps back over the decades to the beginning of the Argentinian Dirty War when youth and History collided in a spasm of hope and political violence and civil cannibalism. Heker is a woman engaged with History and Memory. But her History and the Memories are different, are at the antipodes, as it were, of the North American cultural experience. Her school girl revolutionaries sing rousing songs from the Spanish Civil War and join the Communist Party to fight fascism. Try to get your minds around the difference between Madonna singing the faux heroic, sentimental “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Spy3Nd2D6w and Joe Strumm singing “AY CARMELA!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1eEW5VTqNM (the song referred to here as “The Army of the Ebro”). The chapter here presented begins with storytelling, loops back to school girl friends laughing innocently together, then knots in a Judas like moment of betrayal. The End of the Story was translated by Andrea Labinger and will be published later this month by Biblioasis. Wonderful to find this book and have it here on NC.


 Liliana Heker


Anyone watching the olive-skinned woman walk along Montes de Oca that October afternoon would have thought that she had been born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass. It had to be true. Even those who would disparage her years later would have noticed it somehow, seeing her advance towards Suárez like someone who has always known exactly where she was going. Diana Glass herself, who at that very moment was sitting cross-legged on the floor of her balcony – eyes closed, face upturned to the sun like an offering – must have thought so because sometime later she would jot down in her notebook with the yellow pages: She was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass. Although a certain ironic expression (or was it just wisdom enough to soften the expression, to de-emphasize it) crossed her mind like a bolt of malice: Is that necessarily a virtue?

She was tormented by these distractions, which, from her very first notation on a paper napkin at Café Tiziano, kept diverting the course of the story. Not to mention the reality that, from that napkin to this haven on the balcony, had flung her – one might say – from hope to horror, and which (though neither one of them knew it), at that moment when the olive-skinned woman unhesitatingly turned off Suárez, heading towards Isabel La Católica, would once again begin to unravel her tale.

Strictly speaking, Diana Glass, who now opened her eyes and gazed admiringly at a bougainvillea blooming on the opposite balcony, hadn’t even decided where to begin: with the spring morning when a tree fell on her head and the two of them – or at least she – thought about death for the first time, or with a freezing, dusty July afternoon fourteen years later – when death had already begun to be a less remote eventuality, although it hadn’t yet become that chill on the back of the neck every time one turned the key in the lock to enter one’s house – as she waited nearly a half-hour for her at the entrance of the school, staring insistently towards the corner of Díaz Vélez and Cangallo so not to miss the elation – or the relief? – of seeing her arrive.

The name she was going to give her, on the other hand, was something she had decided right away. Leonora. Not because it had anything to do with her real name (less melodious), but rather because it went well with that face, with its high cheekbones and olive skin, still smiling at me from the last photo, and it suited that jaunty girl who, if Diana Glass had simply begun with that unpleasant July afternoon in 1971, would by now have burst out of Díaz Vélez onto the page, waving with such an old, familiar gesture that it would have made Diana forget her fear for a few seconds.

Later, it was different. The other woman had barely finished waving her arm, her features hazily coming into focus, when the relief would be replaced by a premonition of catastrophe.

It should be pointed out that Diana Glass is nearsighted and that, at the time of that meeting with Leonora, she refused to wear glasses. Her explanation was that the few things worth seeing in detail usually end up moving closer to you (or you to them) and besides, a nearsighted person’s view doesn’t just have the advantage of being polysemic: it is also incomparably more beautiful than a normal person’s. “Just think about the sky after dark,” she once said. “I swear, the first night I went out on the balcony wearing glasses, I almost cried. The real moon has no resemblance to that enormous, mystical halo I see.” And, she added, the diffuse forms allow a limitless range of imagination, as if the world had been created by some over-the-top impressionist.

These are the sort of interruptions that disturbed her. (Absurdity has invaded the story, she wrote, though not in the notebook with yellow pages, which she reserved for episodes that were more or less relevant, but rather on the back of one of those printed ledger sheets that she haphazardly filled: papers with a predetermined function exempted her from assigning one to them herself and allowed her madness to spill out unrestrained. Absurdity has invaded the story, has invaded History. Nothing could be truer. She was plunging into History; perversely, doing so prevented her from dealing with the purely historical, despite her belief that history was the only thing that made any sense.) For example, she was unable to assess the exact quality of her fear at the school doorway (assuming, of course, that the fear was historical) without noting her surprise at the fact that the closer the woman got, the more unfamiliar she became, and how could she explain that phenomenon without mentioning her myopia? But if the beginning was hesitant, the ending was alarmingly blank. Nothing. Just a little faith and a few old photographs. And a very immediate fear lodging at the back of her head as she turned the key in the lock of her front door – and at this very moment – and didn’t go with the light of this October afternoon in 1976, a light that illuminated the bougainvillea, adorned Buenos Aires, and mercilessly enhanced the olive skin of the woman who has now turned off Suárez and is heading towards Isabel La Católica.

The trees on Plaza Colombia catch her by surprise. It’s as if something dangerously vital – more suitable to a jungle than to this grey street with its stone church – as if an unscrupulous thirst for life had forced them to overflow the plaza, invade the sidewalk of Isabel La Católica and bury the unfortunate Church of Santa Felícitas beneath an avalanche of joy.

She has one desire: not to go to the meeting at the house with the white door where Fernando, the Thrush, and two others must already be waiting for her, not suspecting the contents of one of the two letters she hides in the false bottom of her purse. To run away towards Plaza Colombia, that’s her precise desire. This, however, doesn’t disturb her, as the purple explosion of bougainvillea has disturbed Diana Glass to the point of forcing her to leave the balcony and walk to the library. Both of them loved the sun, she thinks, like someone who’s writing it down (or like someone making excuses for herself) – as she did so often in those days – and she takes out the box with the photos of the trip to Mendoza.

There they are, the two of them. Among vineyards, on top of a stone block, on the shoulders of a couple of drunks, on a suspension bridge, thumbing their noses, in wide-brimmed hats, always laughing and embracing and a bit outrageous among the group of brand-new – and slightly foolish – schoolteachers.

The woman who at this moment is walking through the imitation jungle that spills out of Plaza Colombia lifts her head for a moment, allowing the sun filtering through the leaves to flicker on her face without thinking: I was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass.

It might not displease her if someone else thought it for her. That’s true! she would exclaim if she knew about this assessment of her person that Diana Glass is about to make. She knows how to delight in other people’s words and put them at her service when necessary.

But she doesn’t need to define herself in order to confirm her existence. Accustomed to action and to charging headlong at everything in her way, she knows she exists because her body (and what’s a brain but a part of that body?) displaces the air as she moves, leaving an exact impression on the world. And if she hasn’t slowed her pace, if she hasn’t gone running towards Plaza Colombia, following her heart’s song, if she’s left the trees behind, guiltlessly abandoning this fleeting, intoxicating desire, if now, without a speck of desire, she’s about to head proudly and resolutely towards Wenceslao Villafañe, it’s because, even now when her world seems to be tumbling down, she’s still capable of brushing aside all trivialities in the name of what she’s convinced she needs to do.


But with Celina Blech’s arrival (when vacation ended, in the time of the tree), something began to change. Celina, too, had read Captains of the Sands and had sung “The Army of the Ebro,” but she possessed a quality Leonora and I lacked: she could unhesitatingly state who was a revolutionary and who was a counter-revolutionary. Heraclitus? she said. Heraclitus was a revolutionary, and Berkeley was, without a doubt, a reactionary. Listening to her was amazing: standing beside the bench, flanked by girls who crossed themselves before class and went to dances at the club with their mothers every Saturday, and by girls who neither crossed themselves nor took their mothers along to dances but who didn’t seem too impressed by Heraclitus’s revolutionary powers either, she had the guts, in front of the philosophy teacher, an active member of Catholic Action, to obliterate Berkeley with a swipe of her pen for his notorious inability to start a revolution. The daughter of a poetic Communist shoemaker of the old guard, she behaved with the confidence of someone who has always known where the world is going and who moves it. It was she who taught us to read Marx. How could anyone forget the leap of the heart, the jubilant certainty (for me, too) that the world was marching along a happy course, when reading for the first time that a spectre is haunting Europe ? And every week, concealed in an innocent-looking package, she brought us a copy of CommunistYouth magazine.

She never flaunted her superiority before Leonora or me – she was good-natured, a comrade, and she had little patience for the rock and roll that, despite “The Army of the Ebro” with its rumbalabumbalabumbambá and its Ay, Carmela, Leonora and I kept dancing to frenetically during our Saturday assaults – but that latent superiority was there, nonetheless, and soon it would become apparent. In all other respects we were similar: all three of us loved the Romantic poet Esteban Echeverría and despised Cornelio Saavedra, the head of Argentina’s first junta; all three of us resonated to the verses of Nicolás Guillén; all three declared, with the élan of Spanish Republicans at the very moment of victory, that the invading troops rumbalabumbalabumbambá got a well-deserved trouncing, Ay, Carmela. So we sang and so we were that winter of 1958 when History invaded our peaceful Teachers’ Prep School in the Almagro District.

Later we would learn that it had been there all along, that, without realizing it, we had noticed it among the small events woven by our personal memories. Chaotically and without any sign – or with some fortuitous sign – I preserved the memory of that morning in grade two when they made us leave school early because some general had tried to oust Perón (whom I imagined as eternal and omnipresent, since he had been in the world when I was born and since my mother had forbidden me to pronounce his name in vain); the slogan Free the Rosenbergs, read on the walls of forgotten streets; the outrage of some older cousins at the phrase “Boots, Yes; Books, No”; the hoarse voice of a news hawker shouting War in Korea; and a secret, incommunicable envy when, in the movie newsreel children who weren’t me travelled through the Children’s City by bus like fortunate dwarves; a certain initial disbelief in the face of death the day the Air Force bombed the Plaza de Mayo; an almost literary emotion when a group of men, in a hidden place called Sierra Maestra, prepared to free Cuba – a remote country about which only “The Peanut Vendor” and Blanquita Amaro’s ebullient thighs were familiar to me; the bitter or dejected faces of some bricklayers one late September morning in 1955. Random fragments jumbled together in my memory, with the German acrobats around the Obelisk, with a butcher named Burgos who had scattered pieces of his girlfriend throughout Buenos Aires, with a nine-year-old girl who had drowned in Campana and who could be seen, brutally depicted at the moment she went under, on a page of La Razón. Scraps of something whose ultimate shape seemed – continues to seem – impossible.

And we would also come to know the dizzying sensation of imagining ourselves submerged in History. Because one day soon, reality would be shaped so that everything – I mean everything – that occurred on earth would be happening to us. The Cuban Revolution and the war in Vietnam would be ours; the antagonism between China and the Soviet Union and the distant echoes of men who, in the Americas or in Africa or in every oppressed corner of the planet, lifted their heads: all of it would be our business. We fleetingly attempted to figure out the meaning of our lives. And we would live with the startling revelation – and the strange reassurance – of understanding that the world could not do without our deeds.

But that was the end of the winter of 1958 when, as proper young students, we recited the lesson from Astolfi’s History and sang that bombs are powerless rumbalabumbalabumbambá if you just have heart, ay Carmela; that September of 1958 when History came to Mohammed. It awakened the universities, shook the entire nation, invaded classrooms for the first time, and at the peaceful Teachers’ Prep with its wisteria-covered patio, it left no stone unturned.

I wonder now if it might have been a gift, a blessing whose uniqueness we were unaware of: to be fifteen years old and to have a compelling cause. Everything seemed so clear that late winter and the following spring: on one side were the people, behind a goal as incontrovertible as universal education; on the other side, the government, allied with the power of the church in order to impose its dogmatic, elitist lesson. It didn’t matter if the motives of either side were less than transparent. At fifteen, beneath the budding wisteria and with a motto that seemed to condense all possible good and evil for the species – secular and free, we said, confident that we were encompassing the universe – we believed we could confirm forever those words we read as though they were anointed: the people’s cause is a righteous cause; all righteous causes lead to victory; we have a role to play in that road to victory.

The headiness of the struggle, combined with the golden wine of adolescence – wasn’t that our touchstone, the stamp that marked us? I look around me on this particularly dark night in 1976 and can see only death and ravaged flesh, and yet I keep on stubbornly typing these words, perhaps because I can’t tear hope from my heart. Because once you’ve tasted that early wine, you cannot, do not want to give it up.

I see I’ve gotten mired in melancholy, but that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about certain domestic problems.

We’ve already established that there were three of us muses, three of us in the vanguard, and that our task was nothing less than to rouse a group of nice, future schoolteachers who hadn’t asked to be roused and who, more than anything else, aspired to matrimony. It wasn’t easy. Personally, I can say that I killed myself haranguing those young hordes, prodding them to organize and strike. I closed the eyes of my soul and hurled myself headlong into the jumble of my prose. Only in this way could I fulfill my mission. Because if I stopped for one second to reflect, I risked reaching a conclusion that would render me silent: I had no faith that my words could change a single one of those heads turned towards me with detached curiosity. In other words, my political career was in doubt. Leonora, on the other hand . . . That September, dressed in her white school smock, she revealed herself to us like a Pasionaria. She spoke, and Argentina became a burning rose, crying out for justice. How could we not follow her? Behind her magnetic words, the holier-than-thou declaimers of Astolfi and the blasphemers, the virginal and the deflowered, agreed to join the strike. Even the holdouts showed their mettle: ignited with reactionary passion, they brandished their faith in the Church and their disgust with the popular cause like a banner. No one remained indifferent when Leonora spoke. In the classrooms where small, private dreams had nestled for years, a political conscience began to grow like a new flower.

Not only did she defy the school authorities (they expelled her at the end of the year, despite her excellent average): her father, whom she loved (and whom I secretly wished was my own father), the brilliant Professor Ordaz, an old-school idealist, loquacious defender of public education and friend of writers, was a government official who therefore (and in other ways) betrayed the dreams of his constituency. To oppose a government plan was to defy her father. But I was the only one who knew that. The others saw whatever they saw: a tall adolescent with a gypsy’s face. And perhaps they believed less in her words – acquired words that she effortlessly made her own – than in the uncompromising, vibrant voice that pronounced them.

So it was that Leonora became the architect of that unusual thing that was becoming apparent in the prep school of the wisterias. But the one who pulled the strings was Celina. In secret meetings with the few Communist youths at the school, she formulated policies that came (as we later learned) from a higher authority. We two were her allies in the field, her confidantes and friends. It wasn’t for nothing that she taught us a secret, last stanza that we sang quietly, savouring the nectar of rebellion: and if Franco doesn’t like the tricolour flag (rumbalabumbalabumbambá, ay, Carmela), we’ll give him a red one with a hammer and sickle (ay, Carmela). But we didn’t interfere in her decisions.

I can’t say that being left out bothered me. I’ve already stated that early on – and not without some conflict – I had accepted the fact that politics wasn’t my destiny. Besides, on the wall of my room I had a poster of Picasso’s “Three Musicians,” and in my soul was the melancholy of being “the grey beret and the peaceful heart.” I loved the rustic nobility of Maciste the blacksmith and Raúl González Tuñón’s verses; I was rocked in the cradle of Communism and didn’t mind having decisions made for me.

Leonora, on the other hand, wasn’t one to let herself be rocked. Shortly after that September, she told me she had a secret to share with me. It must have still been springtime because the memory of it blends with a certain perfume and with an almost painfully intense awareness of being alive.

She had slipped her arm around my shoulder and, as on so many other occasions, we started walking along Plaza Almagro. A habitual gesture, that embrace, clearly required by the four inches she had on me and by a certain matriarchal attitude she always assumed. We both liked – or now I think we both liked – to walk like that, as though feeling the other’s body made us strong enough to sustain the universal laws we invented right then and there as we walked along, which were designed to eradicate stupidity, injustice, and unhappiness from the earth. I was the lawmaker, quite adept at inventing theories for everything, though too shy or carried away to convince anyone who didn’t know me as well as Leonora did; so it was she, not I, who was in charge of using those arguments whenever the time came.

But that afternoon there were no arguments or theories. There was a revelation that shook me. I’ve thought a lot about her decision that spring. Maybe I still think about it, and maybe that’s the real reason I’m writing these words.

“I have to tell you a secret,” Leonora said as we walked arm in arm. “I’ve joined the Communist Youth.”

Her activism didn’t change things between us, at least not until she met Fernando. We told each other more secrets, and on our graduation trip (in spite of her expulsion, everyone, even her enemies, wanted her to come along), we scandalized the other newly credentialed teachers, as one can see in the photos. But without a doubt, something seemed to change in Celina Blech, whose knowledge of Berkeley now dazzled me somewhat less. Leonora had loaned me Politzer’s The Elementary Principles of Philosophy, and there they all were: Berkeley and Heraclitus and Locke and Aristotle and Descartes, fixing their positions definitively for or against the revolution.

I ran into Celina last year. She told me she had an important position in a multinational company – she’s a chemical engineer – and that she was about to go to Canada to work. I can’t stand this violence, she told me, and we talked about the violence of the Argentine Anti-Communist Association and about the madness that the rebel group, the Montoneros, was committing in their desperation. The worst part isn’t the fear of death, she said; the worst part is that now I don’t even know which side the bullet might hit me from. I asked her if she was still a Party member. She smiled condescendingly, like someone who had long ago forgiven the girl she once was. She asked me about Leonora. I told her I didn’t know where she was, and I wasn’t lying. How could I know her whereabouts that threatening winter of 1975?


She’s no longer thinking about trees. She’s walking along Wenceslao Villafañe, heading towards Montes de Oca. This might seem baffling to a spectator following behind her: why take such a roundabout route to go a single block? What the spectator wouldn’t understand is that, except for a deceptive interval containing an embrace that Diana Glass categorized as triumphant and belonging to the realm of hope, for some five years now the mere act of moving from one place to another has obliged her to undertake some disorienting manoeuvres. She knows – she is, or has been, a more than competent physicist – that in Euclidean terms, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but it isn’t always the safest. And a leader, above all, must always have her own security in mind, as Diana thought five years earlier, beneath a dusty sky.

She’s late because she couldn’t risk waiting for me. The thought doesn’t comfort Diana: for the last few minutes, she’s done nothing but gaze towards Díaz Vélez and towards Cangallo with little spastic turns. A waste of time, useless, since it’s unlikely she’ll be able to recognize her from so far away, as she used to do at the time the tree fell on her head. Not only because on this July afternoon, she’s much more nearsighted than she was that spring (a surprisingly early spring, or so it seemed to me because never before – and never since – did I feel so intensely the fragrance of the wisterias at the Prep School or the pleasure of walking down the street bare-armed. Everything was happening for the first time that spring when I was fourteen. Life, I said to myself, is something formidable that knocks you over like a wave and which not everyone can feel in its total splendour. “The two of us, you understand, we really do know how to feel life, the transformation of life, in our own bodies.” I liked those words: transformation, life, bodies; I loved words because they were capable of preserving each thing in its perfection. Leonora needed them less than I did because Leonora was her dark body, and she especially was her hair, long and coppery, heavily undulating to the rhythm of that body. And yet, during that spring of 1957, words and things were inseparable for me, as well. Wisteria was a melody and a perfume and a shade of blue, as if everything around me had conspired to make me happy), not only, as I say, because on this July day she’s more nearsighted than she was that spring, but also because she can’t even be very sure of recognizing her from a distance.

They’ve seen one another only three times in the last ten years, under precarious conditions: the first time, at the Ordaz home, among old pots and pans, dying of laughter at age nineteen because they understood – or cared – very little about such chores, but nostalgic in spite of their laughter, or at least Diana was nostalgic, watching, a bit mystified, as Leonora put together an outlandish trousseau because she was going to marry the most beautiful – and the purest, Diana would think one night at a party – militant Communist in the College of Sciences: Fernando Kosac, with his grey eyes and transparent gaze. They seemed like a lovely adolescent couple from some Russian film, she would think nine years later as she read the police reports in the paper. The second time was also at the Ordaz place – Fernando was on a trip, she explained without further clarification – when their daughter Violeta was born, and Leonora, always knowing her place in the world, was all bosom, milk, and opulence. The third time was during an encounter so fleeting that she didn’t even have time to look at her friend carefully. Diana walked through the Ordazes’ front door at the exact moment when Leonora was rushing out, so they bumped into each other. They exchanged a kiss, and Leonora, one second before shooting out the door, said, “They killed Vandor.”

It was surprising, but not so much the death itself. At that time, history still seemed logical to Diana, as did death. And a traitor was a traitor. Stumbling unmethodically, history marched irrevocably forward. That’s the way it was. Only she, always so speculative, didn’t have the time or the desire to stop and think that “forward” was as perfectly opaque an expression as “yonder” or “in the olden days,” capable of obscuring more than just history.

It was surprising because the tone didn’t match the meaning. As if she really had said Violeta has a fever. They killed Vandor: that’s why I have to leave in a hurry.

“We’ll talk another day, when there’s more time.”

But there was no time. Because, as always, ever since their return from the trip to Mendoza, life carried them along divergent paths.

And so they hadn’t met again since the day before that dusty afternoon, if you can call something that happened in the intersection of two incompatible dimensions a “meeting.” Diana, lying in bed, reading the paper and drinking mate, and Leonora fleeing to who knows where, from an announcement on the police report page.

What the report said:

That a highly dangerous terrorist cell had been uncovered. That the boldness of its constituents was immeasurable. That the subversives had been planning to blow up the official booth on July 9, when the Argentine and Uruguayan presidents and their entire retinues would be watching the parade. That to that end they had planned to use a fuel truck they had stolen in Nueva Pompeya, loaded with ten thousand litres of gasoline.

The question that crossed Diana’s mind (momentarily interrupting her reading): How do you steal a fuel truck? And this query generated what threatened to become an unending chain of thoughts, starting with the initial question: how do you steal a fuel truck? This chain led nowhere and was destined merely to chase its own tail, to spin meaninglessly around the woman lying in bed, thinking (there’s a sort of action that’s totally alien to someone accustomed to thinking in bed while drinking mate, she wrote, embarrassed or melancholic, that same afternoon on the back of a deposit slip) and indirectly wondering: Would I be capable of stealing one? And even more incisive: Do I have any right to speak of revolution, to want a revolution, when I can’t even steal a fuel truck? This precipitated a conflict that threatened to degenerate into another, indirect question leading to unforeseeable conclusions, specifically: If I were certain that stealing the fuel truck would lead unfailingly to revolution, would I steal it? This, in turn, seemed to hide the corollary: it isn’t certain that stealing the fuel truck would lead to revolution. Suddenly, a name, casually noticed on the newspaper page, yanked her abruptly from those Byzantine musings.

What was that name? Kosac.

What she did next: she turned back and read: It all began at dawn on Wednesday, when police personnel armed with rifles raided an apartment at the intersection of Juan B. Justo and San Martín. The police managed to collect a large quantity of subversive data and materials that led to further measures being taken. The place was vacant, but neighbours informed this newspaper that it had been occupied by a young couple named Kosac and their approximately five-year-old daughter. These two subjects were among those individuals most actively sought by the police. “They were very friendly,” affirmed a neighbour who refused to give her name. “Very nice; they always greeted me in the elevator.”

She didn’t steal a fuel truck, but she did take action in her own way: got up, got dressed, grabbed a taxi, and fifteen minutes later was standing before the Ordazes. I’m here for whatever Leonora needs, brave little soldier raised on the Maid of Orléans and Tacuari’s Drum. Which led her to receive an anonymous call the next day: My dad said you wanted to see me, and even before recognizing the caller’s voice, she recognized the turn of phrase, crystallized in her childhood like a school snapshot.

For which reason she’s been waiting for half an hour at the entrance of the school, looking first towards one corner and then another with a not altogether unwarranted fear, since something more suited to a morbid imagination than to the realm of possibilities was happening that winter of 1971. Not long before, a lawyer had disappeared, and just a few days earlier, they took away a young couple. The man’s bullet-riddled body had been found in a ditch, but no one knew anything about the girl, and that was more terrible than the fear of torture or death; it was a black hole containing all possible horrors, something they hadn’t been prepared for, she thought, referring to herself and Leonora one specific summer night, singing their hearts out by the river, as though the joy of being adolescents and the need to change the world and the heroic ballad of a defeat were one and the same thing (Mother, don’t stop me for even one minute / for my life’s of no value if Franco is in it), not realizing, or not realizing entirely, that they were beginning to become impassioned with death.

No, not impassioned: familiar (as the olive-skinned woman who was about to reach Montes de Oca might have corrected her). And once you become familiar with death, nothing is ever the same.

But the one who waited for her at the entrance of the school five years earlier wouldn’t have understood her, since, even though she’s beginning to fear death, she’s hasn’t yet passed through a time of death that the one about to turn onto Montes de Oca knows quite well, since she’s seen death at close range, has planned deaths, and, with a firm hand and even firmer resolve, has killed a man.

The one who waits tries to forget about death. She thinks – has thought: she’s late because a leader must think about her own safety above all; she couldn’t risk waiting for me there. Which very feebly minimizes an unbearable idea: something has happened to Leonora, and another, even more miserable thought: the phone call was tapped; the man at the kiosk who hasn’t taken his eyes off me for a while now is there to take us both away, and what if Leonora doesn’t come? A thought that remains happily incomplete because in the distance, on Díaz Vélez, waving with her arm in the air just as she did during the spring of the fallen tree, Diana sees – or thinks she sees – that person who, now, five years later, with a haughty gait and a haphazard detour, is entering the same street she left ten minutes ago.


Only this time the detour proves useless: in the first place because the house with the white door is empty, and in the second because no one is following her: they’re waiting for her.

A certain breakdown in her contacts – something she paradoxically had noted in one of the two letters hidden in the false bottom of her purse – doesn’t allow her to know the first fact. And for five years she’s been accustomed to avoiding thinking about the possibility of the second: a warrior is obliged to take all precautions to avoid falling, as she teaches the novices; but once taken, she mustn’t think about danger: that would only weaken her in battle. For that reason, she’s concerned only about what she will say in the meeting of the Secretaries General. She knows it won’t be easy to justify what she wrote in the letter. Not in the one where she mentions the lack of contacts, which is strictly a technical problem that doesn’t require justification – the military government, carrying out kidnappings with impunity, is destroying the network of contacts, so that she cannot locate the Montonero presses in the capital, if, indeed, there are any left; in order to keep functioning as Press Liaison, she needs to make new connections in La Plata . . . (The prose is deplorable, Diana thinks, reading the back of a photo where Leonora appears by a window, radiant, rubbing her beatific eight-months-pregnant belly. Dear Friend: This letter is to inform you . . . What makes Leonora, a revolutionary from head to toe, write like an old Spanish teacher? She decides to omit the transcription of letters and dedications from her story; it would give the wrong impression.) It’s justifying the other letter that’s going to be difficult. And not because there haven’t been enough resignations in her life – from the Party to join the splinter group, from the splinter group to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces, from the Revolutionary Armed Forces to join the Montoneros – but she always knew how to make those resignations seem like a leap forward. This one, on the other hand, doesn’t seem a leap in any direction; it’s not even exactly a resignation, but rather the rejection of an offer. What to call it?

(Existential problems, Fernando, the most implacable of the four, would say, bourgeois scruples.

She wouldn’t respond to the insult. With authority she would point out that so many desperate deaths were hardly political.

“They’re killing us,” Fernando might say. “Our response must be to kill them.”

Would she have the courage to say she didn’t like any of it, that the people were now rejecting them and she didn’t like that?

“It’s not a question of what you like,” Fernando would say at that point. “It’s a matter of following strategy, and strategy is decided at the Commander level” – pause, eloquent look – “and by the Secretaries General.” Without intending to, he would see her as he had seen her for the first time, with her flaming hair and her haughty expression, entering the College of Science, and then he would resort to the only method he knew of swaying her. “Accept the post of Secretary General we’re offering you, and then you can discuss strategies with us. As an equal.”)

What would she reply to that? For the moment, she doesn’t care: she’s confident of finding the right response when the time comes. She’s not used to losing, and an unwary observer watching her walk along Montes de Oca would agree.

But the five men observing her are not unwary: they’ve been waiting for her for a half-hour, two of them from inside a car on the corner of Wenceslao Villafañe, and three others a few yards away, pretending to chat on the sidewalk. And it’s likely that at least four of them haven’t acquired the habit of reflecting on something like this: the rhythm of a gait can encode the secret of a man or a woman. One must love life, Diana will jot down days after this event, as the Bechofen woman observes her from another table, thinking: she has too much passion to give shape to what she’s writing. And yet, isn’t that where the seed of all creativity lies, in passion? One must revere life in order to form even an inkling of how much is sacred within a woman walking down the street.

Those four seem only to spy a possible prey that the fifth man, sitting next to the driver, hasn’t even noticed yet. Perhaps, against his will, he’s dazzled by the élan vital emanating from the woman who has burst into view on Montes de Oca. Or maybe a certain thread, about to break, still links him to that man who, intoxicated with the spirit of the times, once said that it was necessary to join the struggle, to become the struggle in the name of the dignity of the people. Who knows? (Diana Glass will ask herself one day). Who knows at what moment or under what circumstances a man becomes a life-hater? Or is he born that way? And she’ll ask herself this question, turning herself inside out to see if she can discover in herself how a chain of events, a singular combination of received words, can sculpt one in a unique, immutable way. Or is it that a saviour or a criminal or a traitor nests within each of us, just waiting for the right opportunity to leap out?

The man in the passenger seat still hasn’t made a move: he’s facing a new situation, and this, naturally, slows his action. It’s not that he’s the type to hesitate: two days before, he had no problem telling the Chief of Intelligence, known as the Falcon: “The meeting is going to be in a house with a white door on Montes de Oca and Wenceslao Villafañe.” But to point out a woman who, like the Pasionaria, addressed students at university assemblies – she was addressing him, an implacable and enthusiastic science student – to move his mouth or his hand and communicate, “That’s the one,” is something else entirely. He’s watching the woman walk along, confident, jaunty, self-assured, unaware that in a few seconds she will be subdued. And that power seduces him, but it also paralyzes him. For that reason he doesn’t speak: it’s the man sitting at the wheel who says:

“Is that the one?”

He just nods. Then he leans his head back against the headrest. It was easier than he thought: he simply let himself be, ceded gently in the name of life itself, barely confirming something that someone else like him would have confirmed sooner or later. He or someone else, what difference did it make? He closes his eyes for a moment, so that he doesn’t see the signal the man at the wheel makes to the ones waiting on the sidewalk. Nor does he see – someone has removed him from the car in order to carry out the task from a different place – how those men advance and, so swiftly that a pedestrian on sun-filled Montes de Oca Street couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) tell if this was happening in the real world or in a dream, force the olive-skinned woman’s arms behind her back.

The Thrush, thinks the woman, who knows the Thrush’s propensity for sick jokes. She feels fleetingly protected by that joke, as if by a bell that protects her in some ancient territory of camaraderie, so much so that she admits what she never would have otherwise admitted: that, in spite of her haughty gait, now that so many others around her are falling, in a certain part of her heart she feels afraid. Because she truly and intensely loves life. Even though there is no unwary observer of this scene to note that the hooded woman shouting, “They’re taking me away!” and yelling out a telephone number that no one remembers was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass.

—Liliana Heker


Liliana Heker was born in 1943 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is the author of two novels and many books of short stories and essays, in addition to being a founder of two important Argentine literary magazines. Her collected short stories were published in Spanish in 2004 and translated into Hebrew; her stories have been included in anthologies in many countries and languages. Her collection, The Stolen Party and Other Stories, is available in English. The End of the Story was not only a literary success, but a cultural event that provoked controversy and avid discussion of how best to remember the years of the Argentine dictatorship.
Andrea Labinger received her BA degree in Spanish from Hunter College, and her MA and Ph.D. degrees in Latin American Literature from Harvard University. She is Professor of Spanish Emerita at the University of La Verne, California. Labinger specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction. Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Daína Chaviano, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela. Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and Other Stories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007. Her Web site is Trans/Latino Trans/Lation.
Mar 192012



The following excerpt is from Svetislav Basara’s novel, The Cyclist Conspiracy, his second to be made available in English. The novel is translated from the Serbian by Randall A. Major and published by Open Letter Books. Basara has published more than 20 works and has earned every major Serbian literary award, including the prestigious NIN Prize. The Cyclist Conspiracy is a collection of apocryphal texts dedicated to the secret of the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross, a mystical sect whose members gather in their dreams and spend their waking lives riding bicycles, creating havoc, altering the course of human events, and meditating on the form of the bicycle. This excerpt follows one unwitting member, L. Loentze, as he is initiated into the Order and introduced to his new post as the chief architect of the Evangelical’s Grand Insane Asylum.

—Taylor Davis-Van Atta



L. Loentze: The Madness of Architecture–The Architecture of Madness


When, huffing and puffing, the messenger of the Grand Master delivered the orders for me to write a paper dedicated to the study of space, I remembered a few details of a letter which I was sent many years ago by Dr. Çulaba Çulabi. In spite of that, I found myself in a dilemma. I knew that a generalized, practically undefined topic does not demand exactness or credibility, that the goal of research is purely subjective and that it will lead me in quite a different direction, revealing things to me that I do not want to find out, just as the appearance of Dr. Çulabi sent my life in a direction I was not expecting, at a time when I still ran a very profitable engineering office, had a lovely house, and respectable friends with whom I played tennis on Sundays. Dr. Çulabi showed up one day in my studio. He said that he, Çulabi, was a representative of the IMPEX COMMERCE Company; he had heard praises of my work and wanted to hire me for a big job that his company had taken over. If I thought his name was strange, the job he proposed to me was even stranger. Namely, with a deadline of ten months, I was to draw up the plans for a Circular Psychoanalytic Center with 15,000 offices; then the plans for the interior of Napoleon’s study (in 450 copies), and finally a plan for the torture chamber of the Holy Inquisition, complete with the devices for torture. I said that it was a really big job and that I had to think about it. Çulabi had nothing against it. His rather strange appearance did not fill me with confidence. I checked the business records of the IMPEX Company and I found out that it was reputable, and also that Çulabi was indeed a representative of the company.

The next time Çulabi visited me, I told him that I would accept the job. I offered him some cognac (which he refused) and coffee (which he accepted), and then we got down to signing the contracts. That was the last time I saw Dr. Çulabi in the waking world. But that same evening when I fell asleep, I dreamed of him in an unfamiliar town; he was standing under the eaves in front of a dilapidated house, and he was obviously waiting for someone because he kept glancing at his watch. When I approached him, he said that I was late. He took me into an empty tavern (I remember that it said EVROPA in peeling black letters above the door), he offered me a seat, and then he talked to me for a long time about Byzantium, bicycles, real and false eternity, and I remember that I was horribly bored in my dream. He also told me that the contract we signed in reality was really important, but that I had been hired because of a much more important job, for the repair of a cathedral that had been damaged during the war by some Nazi commandos. Then he told me that, from that night onward, I was a member of a certain sect, the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross. I argued with him and said that no one recognizes contracts made in dreams, and that I had no intention whatsoever of being a member of any kind of sect. Çulabi smiled mysteriously. “It isn’t up to you,” he said. “You don’t choose, you’re chosen. But you just don’t get it, I see. So, tomorrow you’ll break two timepieces.”

When I awoke, I remembered the dream in detail and laughed: a dream is just a dream. Still, I was upset, and I could not figure out why. In front of my office, I looked at my watch. It had stopped. I tore it off my hand and – beside myself with anger – slammed it down on the sidewalk, remembering Çulabi’s threat in my dream at that very instant. I went into a nearby bar, drank two cognacs, gathered my thoughts and went to my office. For a while everything was all right. Concentrating on my work, I forgot all about the dream and the broken watch. However, the wall clock began to chime twelve. Seven, eight, nine . . . I counted silently, attempting to overcome the rage that was growing in me. I did not manage; I grabbed an ashtray from the desk and flung it. The glass on the clock broke, the pendulum stopped swinging. My fellow workers looked at me like I was a madman, which I was to some extent. I mumbled a few words of apology, said that I was not feeling well, that I was nervous and exhausted, and I left the office. Later, when I had come to my senses, I called my doctor on the telephone, described what had happened to me (saying nothing of the dream), and he recommended a certain Dr. Schtürner to me, a reputable psychiatrist, a student of Carl Gustav Jung. He also told me not to worry, that my spiritual health was all right, and that the whole thing was most likely the consequence of psychological exhaustion.

The next day, I did not go to my office. I had an appointment with Dr. Schtürner at eleven in the morning. I was rather upset because that night I dreamed Çulabi in that same town; he was leaning against a linden tree (in full bloom), laughing out loud and saying nothing. I thought that, regardless of the financial consequences, I should break the contract with IMPEX COMMERCE, but I changed my mind: that would be a sure sign that I had gone completely mad; I cannot break contracts with customers just be­­cause I am dreaming their representatives. But I decided to tell Dr. Schtürner everything.

“Yes,” Dr. Schtürner told me a while later in his office, “such things do happen. However, there is no cause for alarm. Dreams are a practically unstudied area. The unconscious knows much more than the conscious. For the unconscious, temporal-spatial limitations do not play any kind of role. And you see, preoccupied by work and social obligations, you have very little time for yourself, and that is being expressed in your unconscious processes. Your dream, as I interpret it, is a warning. The nervous tension that forced you to behave uncontrollably has been reduced by the very fact that you faced it, because you, if I may say so, dulled its edge by thinking about the dream.”

Dr. Schtürner asked me to tell him one of my typical dreams, a dream that I had often and which remained most clearly in my mind. I told him that I do not have such dreams, but the doctor insisted; everybody, he said, has such a dream, you just have to relax and you will remember. Lying on the couch in Dr. Schtürner’s office, I tried to remember such a dream and in the end I did, but that was a dream that I had not had in years:

In the company of a woman I don’t know, I am walking down a village road. For some reason, her company makes me feel uncomfortable, like the unpleasant company of unfamiliar people. I look at her from the corner of my eye to check, and become certain that I have never seen her before. I try as hard as I can to get rid of her. I turn left and right, but she follows in my footsteps. Then I come up with an excuse – I’ve forgotten something – and go back the way we came. I arrive in a village which, obviously, rests on a cliff above the sea which I cannot see, but I hear the murmur of the waves. And there, in the narrow village square, I see an older woman whom I recognize to be the elderly figure of my mother. She has her back turned to the sea and she is crying. I approach her, and the voices of people who I cannot see are saying that “she was thrown out of her home in her old age” and that “no one takes care of her.” At that moment, not far from me, I see that unfamiliar woman who I tricked. She is watching me, more in pity than as an accusation, but I am overcome with anger and I say: Get out her out of here. Then I shout: Get out her out of here!

Doctor Schtürner carefully noted down the dream, with the comment that it was interesting; he recommended that I not go to work for a while and made an appointment for the next day at the same time. But that night, I dreamt Çulabi again. “Loentze, Loentze, it will do you no good to resist. You’re working against yourself. Because you’re not listening to me.” I jumped up out of my sleep all covered in sweat, overwhelmed by an undefined fear. Then I comforted myself with Doctor Schtürner’s remarks. I’m just exhausted, I thought, my unconscious is warning me, I will get some rest and everything will be all right. I took two pills to calm my nerves, read for a little while and quickly sank into a dream with no one in it.

“You see,” Dr. Schtürner told me the next day, “your dream is completely clear and is full of unambiguous symbols. You say the area is by the sea, but that you cannot see the sea. You hear the murmur of the waves. The sea is, you might know this, a symbol of the unconscious. You don’t dare to look at the sea (into the unconscious), but you are still aware that it exists. Beside you is a woman you don’t know. Are you sure that you have really never seen her in real life?”

“Quite sure,” I said.

“An unknown woman in a dream, that is a symbol of the anima. It represents your soul which you are obviously neglecting. As I mentioned yesterday, you are too busy in the waking world and therefore your internal world is disturbed. The anima is trying to get closer to you, but you don’t want it to. And why you don’t want it to becomes clear in the next episode of the dream: the one where you encounter your mother in her ripe old age.”

I wondered how all of that was related.

“You don’t have a father?” Dr. Schtürner asked with a lot of tactfulness in his voice.

“No,” I said. “I was born out of wedlock. My mother never told me anything about my father, and I never dared to ask.”

“There you have it. By nature, you have an affinity for mysticism; if I may so, you are poetically inclined. However, the fact that you grew up without a father caused you to choose an extroverted, almost exact profession in which you have affirmed yourself as a successful man. In other words: you had to be both father and son for yourself. That is the explanation of your dream: an unresolved Oedipus complex. You don’t have a father. The day when you confronted the Sphinx, when you symbolically came to the conflict between your corporality and spirituality, you wanted to marry your mother. But the myth is incomplete: you don’t have a father and you don’t know who you should kill. So, your tragedy – symbolically, of course – is not complete, it has not been lived through to the end, you have been left without catharsis. This can be interpreted from the fact that your mother, very old, is standing with her back turned to the sea. She is no longer expecting anyone.”

I hardly managed to say anything out of my amazement.

“And what should I do?” I asked.

“Listen to what Çulabi is telling you. Your problem can be solved only in dreams.”



 At the time, of course, I could not have guessed that Dr. Schtürner was also a member of the Order of Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross and that the whole thing had been prepared even before I was born. That night, I was not afraid of my dreams. I fell asleep fairly early; Çulabi still had not come. I waited for him in the gloomy tavern, this time it was full of people talking in a language I did not recognize, probably a Slavic one. When Çulabi arrived, I told him to tell me about my father. Who is he? Where is he? How can I find him?

“Your father died recently,” Çulabi told me. “For reasons which would not be clear to you now, we won’t talk about why he never came to see you. But you should know this: your father was an exceptional man. You can be proud of him. His name is Joseph Kowalsky.”


“Yes,” said Çulabi. “Kowalsky is your father. In a way, I am sort of replacing him, so I will always be around at the beginning. And you really will need help, just as I did and many others before me. Because some things are just hard to understand . . .”

That it really was like that, I found out the next night when Çulabi, via indescribable nightmares, led me close to the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. The shining astral structure was damaged by emanations of the nasty thoughts of the members of the Traumeinsatz, a unit formed by the Third Reich with the goal of destroying the Order of the Evangelical Bicyclists. As if hypnotized, I stared at the building, a magnificent house of worship which is not built like earthly churches of brick and stone (of which the Tower of Babylon was also built) but of the yearning for unification with the primordial light, a yearning that itself became light.

“This is why you studied architecture,” Çulabi told me. “Your task is to repair the Cathedral and, fulfilling your age-old dream, to make it even more beautiful. But before that . . . Before that you have to finish one more job, up there, in the waking world . . .”

The task was banal. Senseless. At least I thought so in the be­­ginning. To Bajina Bašta, a nondescript town in the heart of the Balkans, I was supposed to take two small documents, A Tale of My Kingdom and A History of Two-Wheelers; further, I was to hide those documents in a pile of magazines where they would await their future finder and reader. However, residing in that little town during that foggy autumn, I realized that I had gotten onto the trail of my task: I was not supposed to do any kind of study of space; I was to write a paper on the organization of a space in which, in one place, all of the evil of this world could be gathered so that it could be systematized and systematically destroyed. After three months of work, I made the Outline for the Project of the Universal Insane Asylum.

On the pages which follow, I present the results of my work.

—Svetislav Basara


Mar 122012

John B. Lee is Poet Laureate of Norfolk County on the north shore of Lake Erie where I grew up on a tobacco farm smack in the middle of a geologic formation called the Norfolk Sand Plain. He lives in Port Dover, home of the peculiar fresh water fishing boat called the turtle back (photos provided upon request), also Fred Eaglesmith, the singer, and a bar called The Brig in the basement of which several American interlopers were held captive during the War of 1812 (not an unpleasant prison experience, one imagines, as these things go). John is an old friend and a prolific author of more than 60 books. These poems are part of a forthcoming collection entitled Let Us Be Silent Here (Sanbun Publishers, New Delhi, India, 2012). The poems were translated into Spanish by Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon for a recent reading John gave in Havana, Cuba, and we also have, here, the Spanish versions. But the poems themselves are based on a trip John made to the Holy Land and his reading of Palestinian and Israeli poets. This is a vast message loop–Canada, Israel, India and Cuba–something to get your minds around as you read these poems. But the poems themselves are gorgeous meditations on that thorny, dry land, birthplace of great world religions, refuge for the Holocaust remnant, where the geology is a book of prayer and story blossoms in the ruins.

this is the closest I will ever come
to seeing
through the eyes
of the Messiah
this mask of stars
this moon

John has contributed to Numéro Cinq twice before. See those earlier poems here and here.



Book cover detail from The Rooftop, a painting by Israeli poet/artist Helen Bar-Lev



Linen and Wool

 a poem in honour of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish[1][2]

“you must not wear a garment woven from linen and wool”  — Deuteronomy

I have retted the linen
and carded the wool
of two voices
and my hands are rich
and smooth
with the lanolin
of my work
anointed by the silkening
oil of the seed of the field

and from these
I have fashioned
a garment of sky
for the mind and the soul
imaginary blue
haunted by the absent dazzle
of stars in the dark

and next to my skin
I fasten a shirt of earth
where the heart
falls in green
through green
like the crimson drop
of a peach hooked high
in the sun
let loose from the pull
of a ripening stem
and it plunges and subsides
plunges and subsides
like the soften gone still
of fruit on a bruise

it releases its colour from form
like the fading
of rain on damp loam

this gloaming
inclusion of grey

this wearing away
of the tattering light

this dew
on a web in the heat

unwinding a glistening thought

old memories dream
in dry land

when the water’s the past
in a well

one thirst will empty the cup

another’s a cup
we must fill



Lino y lana

un poema en honor al poeta israelí Yehuda Amichai y al poeta palestino MahmoudDarwish[1][2]

“No usarás ropas tejidas de lino y lana” — Deuteronomio

He humedecido el lino
y cardado la lana
de dos voces
y mis manos se han vueltofértiles
y suaves
con la lanolina
de mi trabajo
ungidas por el sedoso
aceite de la simiente del campo

y de estas
he confeccionado
un vestido celeste
para la mente y el alma
azul imaginario
hechizado por el resplandor ausente
de las estrellas en la oscuridad

y cerca de mi piel
me abrocho una camisa de tierra
donde el corazón
cae en el verde
a través del verde
como una gota carmesí
de un durazno suspendido alto
en el sol
soltado del tirón
de un tallo que madura
y se desploma y decae
se desploma y decae
como la suavidad aquietada
de la fruta en el cardenal

derrama su color desde la forma
como el desvanecimiento
de la lluvia en la arcilla húmeda

esta inclusión de
gris crepuscular

este desgastarse
de la luz desgarrada

este rocío
en la telaraña del calor

desdoblando un pensamiento resplandeciente

sueño de viejas memorias
en la tierra reseca

cuando el agua es el pasado
en un pozo

una voluntad sedienta vacía la copa

es la copa de otro la
que hemos de llenar



A Sadder Music: meditation on YadVashem

“the sad music of humanity”
—William Wordsworth

I have entered into this place
of the lost
lost elders, lost children of Europe
with its death-grey
housefly-grey   burnt-ash grey
what the cruel past calls
once horror beat in the breast
like a great-winged bird
where its flame-shadow
fell in the blood
and its season’s plunge
was a sea of fire

how is it that we set the lists
in volumes tall as life
and learn where quiet ladders lean
to say the darkness in the names
that burn the pages through
with ink gone into smoke—sing
softly, softly, let’s be silent here—

oh reverent grief
that war is done
those lives
have lined the earth with bones
like rootwork of a thousand-thousand-thousand
wind-broken trees

the soul of man
grimes over
like a lamp of oil
and shame shines through
the tainted light we touch



Una música más triste: meditaciones sobre YadVashem

“La triste música de la humanidad”
—William Wordsworth

He entrado a este lugar
de los perdidos
los ancianos perdidos, los perdidos hijos de Europa
con su crematorio
gris como la muerte
gris como las moscas   gris de cenizas quemadas
lo que el pasado cruel llama
una vez que el horror golpeó en el pecho
como un gigantesco pájaro alado
donde su sombra flameada
cayó en la sangre
y el desplome de su época
fue un mar de fuego

como es que fijamos el listado
en volúmenes tan altos como la vida
y comprendemos donde se apoyan las quietas escaleras
para decir la oscuridad en nombres
que queman a través de las páginas
con tinta convertida en humo—cantar
suavemente, suavemente, hagamos silencio aquí

oh la aflicción reverente
por la guerra que ha acabado
esas vidas
han cubierto la tierra de huesos
como el trabajo de raíces de mil millares de millares de
árboles fertilizados por el viento

el alma del hombre
se enturbia toda
como una lámpara de aceite
y la vergüenza resplandece a través de
la luz mancillada que tocamos



Night Sky Over Jerusalem

this is the closest I will ever come
to seeing
through the eyes
of the Messiah
this mask of stars
this moon
pale as a sickly child
and in the daylight
blue heaven blooms
with those invisible
subsumed by the sun

my son asks
“why did Christ make no mention
of dinosaurs?”
American critic Harold Bloom
says, “Christ was a mortal
god—and we humans
are immortal animals …”
one Toronto theologian suggests
“Christ’s life is the same
as the life of ancient
Egyptian god Horace
and the Beatitudes are
from mythologies
far older
than the gospels”and I
looking up at Cassiopeia,  at
Orion’s belt
at the inconstant drift of the milky way
with my contemporary
of this much-storied universe

consider Aristotle, Copernicus
Galileo, Newton, Einstein
Hawkins, the resonant
music of cosmic strings
living here in these entropics
on this event horizon
my life like a snowflake
falling onto the surface
of a great water
or an ember
briefly breath-crimson in the grey glow
of a larger ash

pull the bow on the arrow of time
from nock to tip
at this motionless moment
the quiver is full
as a clutch of ornamental reeds
and the one wound I make is doubt
and the other
pure belief, and I feel
in the presence of placeless place
and in the absence of timeless time
a common faith
in the sorrowful joy
of letting the arrow      sing



El cielo nocturno sobre Jerusalén

esto es lo más cerca que alguna vez estaré
de ver
a través de los ojos
del Mesías
esta máscara de estrellas
esta luna
pálida como un niño macilento
y a la luz del día
el cielo azul florece
con esas constelaciones
subsumidas por el sol

mi hijo pregunta
“¿por qué Cristo no mencionó
a los dinosaurios?”
el crítico americano Harold Bloom
dice, “Cristo era un dios
mortal—y nosotros los humanos
somos animales inmortales…”
un teólogo de Toronto sugiere
“la vida de Cristo es igual a
la vida del antiguo
dios egipcio Horacio
y las Beatitudes han sido
de mitologías
mucho más antiguas
que los evangelios”
y yo
mirando a Casiopea, al
cinturón de Orión
y la deriva inconstante de la vía láctea
con mi contemplación
de este universo tan celebrado por la historia

considero a Aristóteles, Copérnico
Galileo, Newton, Einstein
Hawkins, la música resonante
de las cuerdas cósmicas
viviendo ahí en los entrópicos
sobre este evento de horizonte
mi vida como un copo de nieve
cayendo hacia la superficie
de un agua magna
o una pavesa
brevemente alentada hasta el carmesí en el fulgor gris
de una ceniza más vasta

tiro del arco en la flecha del tiempo
desde la muesca hasta la punta
en este momento detenido
el carcaj está lleno
como un puñado de cañas ornamentales
y la única herida que hago es dudar
y la otra
creencia pura, y siento
en la presencia del lugar sin lugares
y en la ausencia del tiempo sin tiempo
una fe común
en el júbilo triste
de dejar a la flecha    cantar



In the City of Megiddo

 “in the city you didn’t find the city”
—Mahmoud Darwish from “Hoopoe”

I stand in the slipping heap
on the rocky berm
of a seven-thousand
year old excavation
and evidence is everywhere
that we vanish when we die
as in ashes
as in dust
on the sun-blackened stone
not one scrap
of bone, nor tool
to thrill the tell
the shovel turns
its voice on basalt
broken from a broken wall
imagine here
a house, and here        a well
wherein the water’s ghost
beyond the darkest dark
to dry the falling cup

and yet, see here
they lived—
these ancient people
of a former time

they loved and thrived
and bore their children
out of hope
they worked the fields
and flailed the grain       and died
to keep their store
as heroes die and die again
in endless war

the sun
improves my shadow
with a sharp-edged light
what drums I hear
are of my living heart
please take my word
that I was here
and thought of you
as dry wells
think on rain



En la ciudad de Megiddo

“en la ciudad no encontraste la ciudad”
—Mahmoud Darwish de “Hoopoe”

estoy parado en el cúmulo resbaloso
sobre el borde rocoso
de una excavación de
siete mil años de antigüedad
y las evidencias están por todas partes
de que nos desvanecemos al morir
bien en cenizas
bien en polvo
sobre la roca ennegrecida por el sol
ningún pedacito
de hueso, ni de utensilios
que haga el relato emocionante
la pala devuelve
su voz sobre el basalto
roto de una rota pared
imaginen aquí
una casa, y aquí    un pozo
en el que el fantasma del agua
más allá de la oscuridad más oscura
para enjugar la copa que cae

y sin embargo, miren aquí
vivieron ellos—
estos antiguos
de un tiempo remoto

amaron y prosperaron
y parieron a sus hijos
desde la esperanza
trabajaron los campos
trillaron el grano    y murieron
por mantener sus provisiones
como héroes murieron y murieron otra vez
en una guerra sin final

el sol
perfecciona mi sombra
con una luz afilada
los tambores que escucho
son los de mi corazón viviente
por favor reciban mis palabras
de que estuve aquí
y pensé en ustedes
como los pozos secos
piensan en la lluvia

 —John B. Lee & Dr. Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon


John B. Lee is the author of over sixty published books.  His most recent book, Let Us Be Silent Here, is forthcoming from Sanbun Publishers in New Delhi, India.  He is currently working on a memoir of his life in hockey. Under the working title, You Can Always Eat the Dogs: the hockeyness of ordinary men, it is forthcoming from Black Moss Press in the summer/fall of 2012.  Inducted as Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity, he was also recently appointed Poet Laureate of Norfolk County where he now lives in Port Dover, a fishing town located on the south coast of Lake Erie.  A recipient of over seventy prestigious international awards for his writing, the poems taken from Let Us Be Silent Here, were inspired by an eighteen day journey through Israel and Jordan.  He and Manuel have collaborated on translations on several occasions, the most substantial project being Sweet Cuba, a bilingual anthology of Cuban poetry in original Spanish with English translations.

Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon is a professor at University of Hoguin.  A co-founder of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance, he is editor-in-chief of the bilingual literary journal, The Ambassador.  He and John B. Lee collaborated on the 360-page bilingual anthology Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958, (Hidden Brook Press, 2010).  Sweet Cuba has been called “the most significant book of translated Cuban poetry ever published.”  He lives in Holguin, Cuba, with his wife and their young son and is the publisher of Sand Crab books which recently printed a bilingiual editon of Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Glen Sorestad’s book, A Thief of Impeccable Taste.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. … the poetry of Yehuda Amachai is a challenge to me, because we write about the same place.  … so we have a competition: who is the owner of the language of this land?  Who loves it more? Who writes it better?  — Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian
  2. “the linsey-woolsey of our being together…”  is  from a poem by Jehuda Amichai inspired by the concept of ‘shatnez’
  3. … la poesía de YehudaAmachai es un reto para mí, porque escribimos acerca del mismo lugar. …así que tenemos una competencia: ¿quién es el dueño de la lengua de esta tierra? ¿Quién la quiere más? ¿Quién escribe acerca de ella major? — Mahmoud Darwish, palestino
  4. “la tela de dril de estar juntos…”  — de un poema de JehudaAmichai inspirado por el concepto de ‘shatnez’
Feb 172012

Marilyn McCabe has a new book of poems —Perpetual Motion— just out in the Word Works Hilary Tham Capital Collection selected by Gray Jacobik. But today we feature another of her gorgeous translation and performance pieces. It became something of a tradition for French composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to set lyric poems by their poetry contemporaries to mélodies for solo voice and piano. Inspired by the poetry of the likes of Verlaine and Baudelaire, composers from Berlioz to Saint-Saens created these musical settings, attempting to “translate,” in a way, the lyric into a musical format that created a form greater than the two elements. This time Marilyn sings a little surrealist poem by the highly eccentric (he abandoned surrealism, eventually, for communism and revered Joseph Stalin) French poet Paul Éluard (1895-1952), set to music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).

See also Marilyn McCabe Sings (& Translates) a Guillaume Apollinaire Poem and Marilyn McCabe Translates (& Sings) a Paul-Armand Silvestre Poem. Marilyn’s chapbook Rugged Means of Grace was published by Finishing Line Press, 2011. She earned an MFA in poetry at New England College.



Click the player and listen to Marilyn’s voice while you read the poem.


Une Ruine Coquille Vide
By Paul Éluard

Une ruine coquille vide
Pleure dans son tablier.
Les enfant qui jouent autour d’elle
Font moins de bruit que des mouches.

La ruine s’en va à tâtons
Chercher ses vaches dans un pré.
J’ai vu le jour, je vois cela
Sans en avoir honte.

 Il est minuit comme une fleche
Dans un coeur à la portée
Des folâtres lueurs nocturnes
Qui contredisent le sommeil.


A Ruined Empty Shell
Translated by Marilyn McCabe

A ruined empty shell
weeps in her apron.
The children who play around her
make less noise than the flies.

She goes groping
to search for cows in a meadow.
I saw the day; I see it here
without shame.

It is midnight like an arrow
in the heart open
to the folly of night’s gleams
that deny sleep.

—Translated and sung by Marilyn McCabe




Jan 152012

Poems from Jorge Carrera Andrade’s Micrograms

Translated by Joshua Beckman and Alejandro de Acosta


Newly released from Wave Books, Micrograms, by the Ecuadorian poet Jorge Carrera Andrade, pays meta-homage to the brief yet visceral impact of the microgram. Featuring a meditative body of short works translated by Joshua Beckman and Alejandro de Acosta, the collection also includes Andrade’s hermeneutical “Genealogy” of the microgram that serves as a primer to the form while simultaneously providing a substantive look at Andrade’s innately philosophical consciousness. In Andrade’s words, “The microgram is but the Spanish epigram deprived of its subjective hue. Better: an essentially graphical, pictorial epigram. Through its discovery of the deep reality of the object (its secret attitude) it arrives at a refined emotional style.”

As we learn in the translators’ introduction, Andrade was a world traveler who believed in a universal human solidarity that transcended borders and united him to all men. Evidenced in his introduction and his poetry, Andrade was also a tireless observer of the natural world who remained committed to illuminating the metaphysical through an examination of the miniscule. Micrograms, with Zen-like clarity, offers earthly, object-centric writing that informs our perceptions and emotions with refreshing brevity.

Jorge Carrera Andrade (1902-1978) was born in Quito, Ecuador, and was a diplomat as well as a poet, essayist and journalist. His distinguished literary career comprises a wide range of work, including editing, translation, criticism, and poetry. William Carlos Williams described Carrera Andrade’s images as “so extraordinarily clear, so connected to the primitive I imagine I am … participating in a vision already lost to the world.”

I have included a sampling of Andrade’s poems below along with one of the translators’ reinterpretation of Andrade’s Japanese to Spanish translation of Basho.

Martin Balgach


tiny measuring tape
with which God measures the field.

  Continue reading »

Dec 122011

Herewith an excerpt from Plainsong, a novel by Kazushi Hosaka, translated from the Japanese by Paul Warham and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press. Plainsong was heralded by the Japan Times as a “laid-back celebration of the empty and the ordinary” that “reads like a Jean-Luc Godard movie scripted by Samuel Beckett with added jokes by Richard Brautigan and Charles Bukowski.” NC’s reviewer, Brianna Berbenuik, writes: “Hosaka’s characters are like ghosts; they are never quite fully fleshed out and remain incomplete – an eerie transience, in a sense trapped in the plight of their generation. None of the characters is particularly rebellious, though perhaps the more eccentric ones, like the jobless and outwardly childish Akira, think of themselves as rebels.  They are, after all, an ‘in between’ generation.”


Excerpt from Plainsong

By Kazushi Hosaka

Translated by Paul Warham


All of this made me feel like talking things over with Yumiko again. I called her after lunch the next day from a phone booth near Ebisu station. She picked up on the third ring.

“Hello, stranger. I’m just breast-feeding at the moment, actually.” I had to laugh—this seemed an odd way to start a conversation over the phone with someone who didn’t call more than once in a blue moon. But maybe she talked about this kind of thing with everybody.

“Don’t be silly—you’re not just anybody. But come to think of it, I wouldn’t want to work with anyone unless I felt comfortable talking to them about this kind of thing, so maybe it comes to the same thing. Maybe I do talk about it with just about everyone—everyone I know, anyway.” I had another question, though: how long was it normal to breast-feed a child for?

“I don’t know. I mean, my kid has been eating normal food for ages now. But I decided to keep on breast-feeding till he’s five.”


“Didn’t I mention it before?” Yumiko asked, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. “I think it’s good to provide a child with a strong maternal presence for as long as possible. Don’t they say it helps give a child a more optimistic outlook on life?”

“Who says so?”

“Ah, maybe I just made it up. Anyway, that’s what I think.”

I couldn’t imagine any child of hers being troubled by a pessimistic or gloomy outlook.

Continue reading »

Nov 082011

Marilyn McCabe is a singer/poet/essayist/friend. She has already appeared on NC with her own poetry, translations, and in song–which makes her a kind of regular, an old  favourite, at least an old favourite of mine. Herewith we offer a poem by the 19th century French poet Paul-Armand Silvestre with a Marilyn McCabe translation and Marilyn McCabe singing the French version put to music by Gabriel Fauré. This is gorgeous to hear, especially to listen to while you gaze at the screen reading the poem (or maybe you’ll just shut your eyes and listen). Marilyn’s poetry manuscript Perpetual Motion was chosen by judge Gray Jacobik for the Hilary Tham Capital Collection by The Word Works, and will be released in January 2012. Her chapbook Rugged Means of Grace was published by Finishing Line Press, 2011.  She earned an MFA in poetry at New England College.


Paul-Armand Silvestre’s “Le Secret”

Translated & Performed

By Marilyn McCabe



Click the button to hear Marilyn McCabe singing “Le Secret.”

Le Secret

Je veux que le matin l’ignore
Le nom que j’ai dit à la nuit,
Et qu’au vent de l’aube, sans bruit,
Comme une larme il s’évapore.

Je veux que le jour le proclame
L’amour qu’au matin j’ai caché
Et sur mon coeur ouvert penché
Comme un grain d’encens, il l’enflamme.

 Je veux que le couchant l’oublie
Le secret que j’ai dit au jour,
Et l’emporte avec mon amour
Aux plis de sa robe pâlie.

—Paul-Armand Silvestre


The Secret

I want the morning to ignore
the name I spoke to the night,
and let it, with the dawn’s breeze,
silently, as a tear, evaporate.

I want the day to proclaim
the love I asked morning to hide
and make it in my open heart,
like a grain of incense, ignite.

I want the sunset to forget
the secret I told the day,
and sweep it, with my love,
in the folds of its pale robes.

—Translated by Marilyn McCabe

Oct 252011

Blanca Castellón’s poems are starkly honest. Her tenacious pursuit of the unknowable results in work that illuminates a resolute but permeable humanity. Through an intently economic use of language, her writing strikes chords by casting familiar images into new light. With vicious yet softly abstracted lines such as, “Nostalgia brings its thorns to the back of the eye until I am left blind,” I am reminded of the magnetic existentialism of René Char. These wonderful translations come to NC through the extensive work of the poet J.P. Dancing Bear.

Blanca Castellón is a Nicaraguan poet born in Managua. In 2000 she received the International Award from the Institute of Modernists. She is the Vice President of the International Poetry Festival of Granada and the Nicaraguan Writers Association. Her books include, Love of the Spirit (1995), Float (1998), Opposite Shore (2000), and Games of Elisa (2005).

J.P. Dancing Bear is author of nine collections of poetry, his most recent being, Inner Cities of Gulls (Salmon Poetry, 2010). He is the editor of the American Poetry Journal and Dream Horse Press. His next book of poems is Family of Marsupial Centaurs due out from Iris Press. He is the host of Out of Our Minds poetry show for public station KKUP and available through podcast or iTunes.

—Martin Balgach

I Walk Directionless and Groping

In this moment, imposed by distance, I remain silent today, looking back to contemplate the city in ruins.

Nostalgia brings its thorns to the back of the eye until I am left blind, groping for the secret seams of the universe where cracks continue to flourish and no one walks, where the missing populate the soft areas of the unconscious.

As if I flung on a dress of uncertainty, stopped in front of my house and recognized myself at once: I no longer watch, my feelings confirmed by the eternal verses:  I WALK DIRECTIONLESS AND  GROPING.

This is nothing but the enduring image that walks with me always and forever.



Couch sadness
with your red dress
Lay down in the center of the page
get the attention of seaweed
recognize your knees in the sand.


The Dead

The dead distill smoke
and pending matters.

They settle in a crown of arteries,
making home around the heart.

The dead are not
so noble in their rest.

They take advantage of free time
in order to interfere with the living.

Practice smiling
because you have life.

Soon they will turn a key
and release the water in your eyes

and make us all cry.

—Blanca Castellón.



Sep 122011

A Anupama2

A. Anupama contributes five poems translated from the anthology of classical Tamil poems known as the Kuruntokai (pro-nounced Kurundohay), gorgeously symbolic love poems that work within a strict formal structure. Strange and beautiful they are, a revelation of an ancient culture and tradition to which we have as a guide, also, a lovely essay by the translator who uses, yes, Ludwig Wittgenstein as an entry point into her own considerable cultural heritage. The essay is a delight, not the least because it lays bare some of the structures of the poems and thus does what good criticism should always do–help us read more deeply.



On Translating from Kuruntokai


Wittgenstein wrote “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” This wasn’t exactly the reason I set about learning and translating Tamil, the language of my south Indian heritage, but I admit that I liked the idea of pushing back the limits.  In my work of distilling English in my poetry, I had begun to notice my many refusals to use foreign words and syntactic differences, which often correspond to my thoughts stemming from Indian philosophy. I turned to learning my mother tongue and attempting translations with the hope of finding a door through which I might reconcile these two movements in my own writing.

I didn’t have to look hard to find a compelling doorway. A.K. Ramanujan’s translations of Kuruntokai, an anthology of love poems from the Cankam era of Tamil poetry, illuminate the beauty of both languages. Reading this work was not only an opportunity for me to walk into Tamil with a brilliant guide, it represented a chance to roam in the genius of a community of poets and scholars in ancient India.

Cankam (pronounced “Sangam”) means community, and the poems in Kuruntokai are a formal genre called akam written by many different poets based on a common poetic language of five landscapes, with corresponding symbolism in the specific plants, animals, bodies of water, occupations, seasons, and more in each. These poems revolve around a love affair with a cast of five speakers: the heroine (in Tamil, talaivi) and hero (talaivan), her friend, her mother, and his mistress.  Each poem is a short monologue or half of a dialogue, part of an unfolding drama, but is self-contained, a glistening snapshot of a particular moment.

The simplicity of the verses in the translations is deceptive. I was amazed to find allusions and symmetry working together to create a trapdoor in each poem. As I worked on my own translations from the original Tamil, I found poetic devices like parallel feet in symmetric opposition representing the dichotomy of the senses and the mind. An example of this is verse 237, where the hero speaks about his heart setting out boldly to embrace his lover at the start of the second line of the poem and then speaks of his mind as hardly daring to think at the end of line 7. These are set symmetrically around the center of the poem: the image of the dark ocean and the words referring to the obstacle between the two lovers. Symmetry presents a different meaning from the literal sense of the hero’s monologue, in which it is the distance and the forests that are the obstacles. The symmetry suggests more than the literal sense of the words, creating a superimposition of meanings so that the reader’s understanding can shift away from the expected storyline, the bold heart and distracted mind, and see something more. Another set of parallels occurs even closer to the center of this poem, amplifying the effect: the image of arms clasping is set opposite the word for circling or echoing. In both cases, the references are ambiguous. The first one suggests that the heart, lacking arms, can’t embrace his lover. The other one could refer to the waves of the ocean or to the deadly tigers. The effect demonstrates the futility of trying to comprehend this sort of circling inward with one’s head-on logic. (I’m grateful, or I might have spent a lot more time trying to figure out the Tamil metrics looking for more clues.)

Sometimes the image or word in the geometric center of the poem is a hinge point or a clue. In verse 36, the central foot of the poem is about the inseparable intimacy of the two lovers. Interestingly, this word is a partial rhyme for mÀõai and for the usual Tamil word for elephant, which is not used in this poem. The effect here is that the conscious statement of the heroine is contradicted by the very way she is making her statement. The elephant is in the room, even though she denies it by her words. On another level, the deeper intelligence, sleeping under the surface, is the point here.

Sometimes the poem seems to flow backwards, with images at the beginning of the poem only making sense at the end. Throwing the reader back to the beginning of the poem seems to be one of the reasons for this device, as in verse 46. The original doesn’t begin with any mention of the lover. Ramanujan reordered this poem in his translation (and I followed him in mine) so that the heroine’s suggestion wouldn’t be lost in the poem in English. The original poem unfolds from the opening image of the wings like faded waterlilies and ends with the statement that her lover has left for another land. When the reader skips back to the beginning, automatically because of the surprise of the revelation at the end, the image of those limp brown wings suggests that no one is really going anywhere. This device superimposes that suggestion over the heroine’s suggestion that her lover will return to her, as the sparrows return to their nests, because he can’t escape the loneliness of life without her. This sort of set up, with no escape through the ends of the poem, forces the reader to circumambulate the center of the poem, where the image of the sparrows playing in the dust of dried cow dung is the trapdoor’s hinge. In traditional Indian villages, dried cow dung is used as fuel.

The mysteriousness of these love poems is even more striking because they were compiled during the legendary gatherings of Tamil poets and scholars roughly a thousand years ago. I wondered, why love poems? Why landscapes and flowers? I went to philosophy texts for those answers. (Thanks Wittgenstein!) The commentary in Edwin F. Bryant’s translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali explains: “The senses can grasp only sense objects, but not vice versa; the mind can perceive the senses, but not vice versa; and the purusa [soul] can perceive the mind, but not vice versa.” So one conclusion is that the love poetry of Kuruntokai and the other akam poems of the Cankam era mean to stand firmly among the sense objects of the world and point absolutely in the direction of the soul, transcending the limits of this world.

A.K. Ramanujan’s books Poems of Love and War and The Interior Landscape offer a fascinating discussion of Tamil akam poetry. I also consulted Robert Butler’s translation, which includes informative footnotes on the language, flora and fauna, and traditional commentaries on the verses. I’m grateful to B. Jeyaganesh and my mother, who offered literal translations and discussion. None of us are scholars on these poems or on ancient Tamil, so I can only claim that these translations are my attempt to make guideposts, in contemporary American poetry-ese, pointing to the sublime trapdoors embedded in these poems. These guideposts have helped me to find my own poems, too, by inspiring a sequence based on the landscapes and poetic devices of akam poetry. Pushing away the limits of my language has expanded my world a bit; thanks, Wittgenstein.

—A. Anupama


Translations from Kuruntokai, Ancient Indian Love Poetry


Poem from the purple-flowered hills

Talaivi says to her friend—

He swore “my heart is true.
I’ll never leave you.”

My lover from the hills,
where the manai creepers
sometimes mount the shoulders of elephants
asleep among the boulders,
promised this on that day
when he embraced my shoulders, making love to me.

Why cry, my dear friend?

Kuruntokai, verse 36


Poem from the fertile fields and fragrant trees

Talaivi says—

Don’t you think they have sparrows
wherever he has gone, with wings like faded water lilies,
bathing in the dung dust in the village streets
before pecking grain from the yards
and returning to their chicks in the eaves,
common as evening loneliness?

Kuruntokai, verse 46


Poem from the jasmine-filled woods

Talaivi says—

The rains have come and gone.
The millet grew and now is stubble
nibbled by stags while jasmine blossoms flourish
alongside, their buds unfolding to show white petals
like a wildcat’s smile.
Evening comes, scented with jasmine
bringing bees to the buds,
but see, he hasn’t come,
he who left for other riches.

Okkur Macatti
Kuruntokai, verse 220


Poem from the blue lotus seashore

Talaivi says to her friend—

My heart aches, my heart aches!
My eyelids burn from holding back these hot tears.
My love, who alone comforts me, is called unworthy
by even the moon. My heart aches.

Kamancer Kulattar
Kuruntokai, verse 4


Poem from the desert road

Talaivan says—

Fearlessly, my heart has departed
to embrace my beloved.
If its arms are too slack to hold her
what use is it?
The distances between us stretch long.
Must I think of the many forests
where deadly tigers rise up roaring
like the waves of the dark ocean
standing between us? I don’t dare.

Allur Nanmulla
Kuruntokai, verse 237


—Translated by A. Anupama


A. Anupama holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her career has spanned molecular biology, legal publishing, and orthopedic surgery textbooks in her search for beauty, truth, and the marrow of life. Her book Kali Sutra: Poems was a semi-finalist for Tupelo Press’s 2011 First or Second Book of Poetry Award. She lives in Nyack, New York.

Jul 082011


The Road into the Future and the Past (An Unfinished Story) from Bowstring
By Viktor Shklovsky

Translated by Shushan Avagyan



In July 1856 Lev Tolstoy was “. . . writing a somewhat fantastic story.”

He wrote only eight pages. They are inserted in a folio made of writing paper. Some of the pages contain separately inscribed phrases above the text representing the plan of the story and how it should develop.

The work was abandoned. Let’s turn the pages and go over the typed text.

“. . . Major Verein rode alone in the night on the road from the Belbek mill to the Inkerman position.”

He was returning from a regimental celebration.

It was raining—gently sprinkling, then the drops would get larger, slanting with the wind, falling heavy and fast as though from invisible trees.

“On the road going south, over the horizon, the black sky often lit up with red streaks of lightning and Verein could hear the rumble of gunshots in Sevastopol. Wrapped in his army overcoat, heavy and reeking of soap from wetness, the major sat hunched on the damp warm saddle, pushing relentlessly his wet slippery heels into the sides of the tired bay cavalry horse.”

Continue reading »

Jun 252011


Another Numéro Cinq first: This time Marilyn McCabe sings and translates a poem by the turn-of-the-century French poet Guillaume Apollinaire but not simultaneously. Marilyn is an old friend (we last ran into each other helping to pour concrete at a friend’s house in Porter Corners, NY, a couple of weeks ago), a poet, translator and essayist who has already appeared twice on NC. But now you get to hear her sing! It’s a treat, eerie and beautiful.


It became something of a tradition for French composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to set lyric poems by their poetry contemporaries to mélodies for solo voice and piano. Inspired by the poetry of the likes of Verlaine and Baudelaire, composers from Berlioz to Saint-Saens created these musical settings, attempting to “translate,” in a way, the lyric into a musical format that created a form greater than the two elements.

I’m preparing a concert of some these art songs, and as part of my preparation, I’m doing translations of the poems. Here is a funny little poem by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) set to music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).

—Marilyn McCabe


L’hotel by Guillaume Apollinaire, Music by Poulenc

Performed (& Translated) by Marilyn McCabe


Click the button to play Marilyn McCabe singing “L’hotel.”



Ma chambre a la forme d’une cage,
Le soleil passe son bras par la fenêtre.
Mais moi qui veux fumer pour faire des mirages,
J’allume au feu du jour ma cigarette,
Je ne veux pas travailler — je veux fumer.


The Hotel

My room is like a cage.
The sun hangs its arms through the bars.
But I, I want to smoke,
to curl shapes in the air;
I light my cigarette
on the day’s fire.
I do not want to work —
I want to smoke.

—Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by Marilyn McCabe


Marilyn McCabe’s poetry chapbook Rugged Means of Grace is due out from Finishing Line Press any minute now. Her poetry has appeared in magazines such as Painted Bride Quarterly, Nimrod, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Numéro Cinq. Her recent collaborative poetry chapbook with Elaine Handley and Mary Sanders Shartle won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Best Poetry Book award for 2010. A Marilyn McCabe essay appeared in Hunger Mountain. She took classical voice lessons for ten years and performs classical or jazz concerts whenever the mood strikes.

Jun 172011

Of The Book of Happenstance, a novel from the award-winning South African author Ingrid Winterbach, our reviewer wrote: “The Book of Happenstance is about memory and death, yet paradoxically so, for the novel is ebulliently alive, ironic and smart. The characters seem hyper-linked to Google and Wikipedia; the book is full of spontaneous eruptions of intelligence, and that is fun to read.” Here’s a delightful excerpt from a new translation hot off the presses at Open Letter Books. Read the whole Numéro Cinq review here.




The dead move along their own orbits, like planets. Like celestial bodies they encircle me in their elliptical courses. My mother, not urgently present in my thoughts for a long time, now appears in my dreams night after night. Her soft, elliptical path is at its point of closest proximity to me, and each of her appearances ushers in a great sadness. I see her lying in a small room, with only a bed and a tiny window. She is sleeping. She is abandoned, she is sick or dying. There is something indescribably desolate about her sleeping form under the blanket. There is something about the blanket which lends it an unbearable emphasis. I cannot hold on to the dream to reflect on it. Even worse is when I know that I have dreamt of her, but cannot remember the dream.

If Marthinus Maritz should describe an orbital course, it would be that of a distant, cold planet. Would he be one of the outer planets? Neptune with its howling winds? Uranus with its aeons of darkness, where time gets infinitely extended? Saturn, so light that it could float on an enormous lake? Or Pluto, the smallest, coldest, darkest, and most distant—the only solid outer planet, with its surface of ice and methane, a frozen rock?

Sof phones again late one night, shortly after we had sat in the car looking out over the sea in the manner of Mrs. C and Vercueil. At least this time I am not asleep. I am still immersed in my unravelling, in my laborious journey through evolutionary and geological history. I am still trying to make sense of the magma ocean, of iron pools, of the cooling earth crust, of the crystallising of the earth’s mantle. (How in God’s name should I conceive of all these processes?) My eyes are burning. Much more than a therapist (and here I have to differ from my lover), I need a geologist to guide me step by step through this inaccessible and treacherous terrain.

“Am I disturbing you?” Sof asks.

“No,” I say.

“I’m thinking of taking a lover,” she says and clears her throat slightly.

What can I say to this? Have you anyone particular in mind? Who is the lucky man, or woman? Nowadays anything is possible, and I am not yet familiar with the ambit of Sof’s sexual preferences.

“Who is it, Sof?” I ask.

“It is my children’s paediatrician,” she says, and gives an exculpatory little cough.

“I see. What does he look like? She? What kind of person is this—a kindred spirit, a concordant fellow being? Is there a future in it for the two of you?” I am tired, the nightly acquisition of complex knowledge is taking up much of my energy.

“He’s a cripple. I think he had polio as a child. He has reddish hair. He has heavy eyelids that flutter slightly when he speaks, as if he can open his eyes only with great effort,” she says with the unmistakeable tremor of erotic excitement in her voice.

“That has to be irresistible,” I say.

I know the type; I am familiar with the erotic persuasiveness of a russet complexion. (Perhaps I should never have terminated the relationship with Felix du Randt.) As regards the other afflictions, I do not need much convincing, since I have been beguiled by a variety of aberrations and deviancies—physical as well as psychological—myself. Consider the bony brow and the blunt death’s-nose. I should have re–mained true to Felix du Randt. He would have been a good man for me. He would have kept me on the straight path, the virtuous way. I would have been less exposed to temptation and spared many woes. My impressionable spirit would have been less contaminated. I am suddenly under the impression of the lifelong burden of emotional sullying (from the French souiller, to soil, Theo would have pointed out).

“It is!” Sof says. “It was the fluttering, half-mast eyelids that finally did the trick.”

“When was the deal clinched, so to speak?”

“This afternoon.”

“What is the next step? Where will you meet? Will you go dancing? No, sorry, I guess that’s not an option.”

“I’m meeting him in his consulting room on Friday afternoon after five. We will take it from there.”

“Sof,” I say, “this is unexpected. I don’t know what to say to you. I wish you luck. Happiness, ecstasy if needs be.”

(If I had the choice now between the bitter excitement of a drawn-out erotic intrigue and the grind and risk of writing—to which Becket refers as the “bitter folly”—which would I choose?)

“I’ve just read an interesting article,” Sof says with a little cough. She is embarrassed; she wants to change the topic. “All writers are actually pursuing a single ideal, namely the universal.”

“I’ve always thought the universal to be suspect.”

“It is,” she says, “but it does not make the striving of writers less valid. All writers intuitively know this—the one who gets a grip on the so-called universal attains the upper hand. The trump card. Whatever. I thought it would interest you.”

During this time Theo sometimes leaves the office in the afternoon for an hour or two to attend auctions. He returns with a feverish glint in his eye. In this state of heightened excitement he listens to Schubert’s piano sonatas to calm himself down. He breathes deeply, closes his eyes, and surrenders himself to the music. Only then can he resume his work.

Did you see lovely things? I ask cautiously. (What is the ironic undertone doing in my voice?) Beautiful, he says, but does not elaborate.

Enamoured of something? His heart set on objects of beauty? With that I am well acquainted.

His hands are not small, but well-formed, like his wrists. His nails are somewhat fan-shaped, the way I like them. He is no longer a young man. The well-defined, youthful male form has begun to soften. The eyelid is softer, it looks more vulnerable, as does the skin of the neck—I know how desirable I find that in my lover. The hair on his chest (what is visible of it) is beginning to turn grey. All these things appeal to me. I am here to assist him. The documentation of words no longer commonly used, that is our shared purpose.

I return to the cards. Eindera, regional term for eintlik—actually. Eindjie—archaic form of entjie—a little way (stap ’n eindjie met my saam, my lief—walk a little way with me, my love). Einste, originally eienste—decidedly the same. Eindtyd—the end of time, end of the earthly dispensation. Êit!—restraining exclamation: êit, kêrel, nie so onverskillig nie—easy, lad, not so reckless! Elkedaags and elkedags—outdated variants of everyday. Elkelike—regional term de-noting regularity. Elkaar and elkander (each other); elkend-een (everyone); elkendeur or elkensdeur (time and again); elkenkeer or elkenmaal (every time)—all of them outdated forms. Ellend (variant of ellende—misery).

Die ellende staan blou in die blom,” I say. (Misery stands blue in the bud.) “A lovely expression. What would be the origin of ellende? Of the word, I mean.”

Theo explains that the Dutch ellende is derived from the Middle Dutch ellende,which means another country, or exile, also a disastrous condition, grinding poverty, and privation. This may be compared to the Old Dutch elelendi from the tenth century, the Old Saxon elilendi, and the Old High German elilenti, of which the el was abbreviated from elders, alja, and lende, landa—which literally means land elsewhere, that is to say, sojourn in a foreign country, exile, and its accompanying feelings of uprootedness.

“Thank you,” I say. “Now I understand that our earthly existence is essentially wretched.”

Theo smiles, but will not take the bait. I wonder how often I am mistaken about him.

We often listen to Schubert during this time. When Theo is relaxed, he sometimes whistles softly to the music.

A day or two later he shows me a ring that he has bought at an auction. It is an antique Indian ring, white gold, inlaid with countless small amethyst stones. He must have paid a fabulous sum for it.

“Is it a gift for someone?” I ask (cautiously).

“Yes,” he says.

“For your wife, perhaps?”

“Yes,” Theo says, “yes. It’s a present for my wife.”

“Then she is a lucky woman,” I say.

“Do you think so?” he says, and looks at me searchingly for a moment.

He holds the ring in his left hand with the tips of four fingers and a thumb. I notice that his fingers are trembling slightly. He is under the impression of the beauty, of the costliness of the ring, his face suffused with blood, his eyes gleaming with gratification. I can see that it gave him plea-sure to buy it. He turns the ring ever so slightly for the stones to catch the light. He slips it on the little finger of his left hand and spreads his fingers. He looks at it as a woman would look at it. I have seldom seen him so pleased, elated even.

At the end of July we have completed the letter D. From doodbabbel (babble to death), to deurween (to thoroughly bewail). From dadedrang (the urge to act, to do the deed), to dabbeljasgras (edible grass, on which the man from Am-ster-dam survives in the riddle). From diepborstig (deep-chested) to donkerbloedig (dark-blooded—with or from blood of a non-white, sic). From droeflik (a sorrow-filled state), to duiwel,sometimes duwel: the devil incarnate and carnal, the real, the one and only, undisguised and palpable, Beelzebub and Belial, the Foul Fiend, old Nick, old Scratch and Harry, the Evil One, lord of the evil kingdom and underminer of the salvation of our soul. All his folk names we have written up: Asmannetjie and Bokbaard (Ash Goblin and Goatbeard); Bokhoringkies and Bokspoot (Little Goat’s Horns and Goat’s Hoof); Broesa, Damoen, Drietoon (Three-toe); Gratebene (Fishbone Legs); Herrie, Horrelpoot (Club-foot), and Hans Jas (Hans with the Coat). Jasbok, Jonkers, Joos, Josie. Kantvoet (Lacefoot)and Klamhandjies (Little Damphands). Knakstert (Snaptail); Kopertoon (Coppertoe); Oortjies (Small-ears); Oupa langoor (Grandpa Longear); Ou Vale (Old Grey); Penkop (Peghead); Pikhakskene (Tarheels); Pylstert (Arrow-tail); Stofjas (Dustcoat); Swart Piet (Black Piet); Vaaljas (Old Drabcoat); Vaalkaros (Greykaross); Vaal-toon (Greytoe); Veins-aard (Trickster); Vuilbaard (Dirt-beard); and Woltone (Wool-toes). All the devil combinations we have written up.

Duiwelsnaaigare?” I ask. Devil’s serving thread. Also called monniksbaard (monk’s beard), nooienshaar (maidenhair), perdeslaai (horse salad), or duiwelstou (devil’s rope), Theo Verwey explains. Duiwelsloënaar (devil’s denier), and duiwelsprenteboek (devil’s picture book). Duiwelstuig (devil’s instrument), and duiwelstoejaer (jack of all trades—my role as Theo’s sidekick and factotum).

The endless death combinations have been rounded off and written up. The cards have been alphabetised, brought up to date, catalogued. We move on, the devil and death and all the possible names and combinations we leave behind us. Too long we have tarried there.

—Ingrid Winterbach, translated from Afrikaans by Ingrid Winterback & Dirk Winterbach


May 292011

Poems from Microscope

by Maya Sarishvili

Translated by Timothy Kercher and Nene Giorgadze

These rare English translations of the Georgian poet, Maya Sarishvili, come to us through the work of Tim Kercher and his translation partner, Nene Giorgadze. Of Tim’s many translation projects (see another Kercher translation here on NC), I am particularly drawn to Sarishvili’s poems as her work creates a meticulously urgent consciousness—her writing reminds me of the startling humanity of Anna Swir’s poetry mixed with elements of the mysteriously resonate, vulnerable work of Mary Ruefle.

Tim Kercher and I became friends at Vermont College, having survived the famed Lasko pivo, DG-infused Slovenia residency of 2008. Originally from Colorado, Tim currently teaches high school English in Kyiv, Ukraine, his fifth overseas teaching appointment. Tim lived in the Republic of Georgia for the past four years, where he started editing and translating an anthology of contemporary Georgian poetry. His manuscript, “Nobody’s Odyssey,” was recently selected as a finalist for the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry and his poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review, Quiddity, The Dirty Goat, Poetry International Journal, upstreet, The Minnesota Review, and others.

Co-translator Nene Giorgadze holds an MA in Georgian Literature from Ilia University (Tbilisi, Georgia), has lived in US since 1999, and speaks three languages: Georgian, English, and Russian. She has written poetry and prose since childhood. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Ann Arbor Review, Raleigh Review, Rhino, and others

Maya Sarishvili won the SABA Prize for Poetry, Georgia’s top literature award, for her collection, Microscope, which includes these three poems. She is the author of one other poetry collection, Covering Reality (2001), as well as three radio plays. She lives in Tbilisi, Georgia where she works as a third-grade teacher and is mother to four children, ages 5 to 12. Her work has is forthcoming or has appeared in Crazyhorse, Versal, Nashville Review, Los Angeles Review, Guernica, and others.

What a pleasure it is to grapple with and savor these poems.

-Martin Balgach



[Now, the storm has arrange the insane,]

Now, the storm has arranged the insane,
set down a different order.
Those at the end are children, like rhymes.
A lunatic poem started as a protest.
My smile is thrown down
like a wounded wing
—clumsy me—
I can’t lift it, can’t grip it.
A crowd tramples my lips—
it gets worse in the throng’s midst.
I look up—drops like mini-megaphones.
I chase them down and to each one,
read my poems.
It’s odd. Not a single drop lingers with me.
And I remember the sticky stage
in a packed-out house
where, once upon a time
as a child, I foolishly rose
when my mother was dying
and clumsily climbed up on the table
to make God better hear my prayers…

Continue reading »

May 082011




The following excerpt is from the seventh chapter of Mathias Énard’s novel, Zone—his first novel translated into English from the French by Charlotte Mandell. Before Zone’s publication by Open Letter Books in December 2010, it won multiple literary awards including Prix du Livre Inter, Prix Décembre, and Prix Initiales. The excerpt finds Zone’s narrator, Francis Servain Mirkovic, amid a journey from Milan to Rome to sell the Vatican information he acquired as a spy for French intelligence. Indicative of the novel in its entirety (you can read an NC book review of Zone here), Mirkovic drifts between stories—stories of his past as a soldier for the Croatian army, stories of former comrades, stories spanning mythological epochs, and stories of lovers. Mirkovic crosses the boundaries between his present reality and the prismatic chaos of his traumatized mind, hoping this trip to sell information from the zone will be his last.

— mcs



everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, living shut up inside yourself harried destitute full of memories I’m not taking this trip for nothing, I’m not curling up like a dog on this seat for nothing, I’m going to save something I’m going to save myself despite the world that persists in going forward laboriously at the speed of a handcar operated by a man with one arm, blindly a train at night in a tunnel the dark even denser I had to sleep for a bit, if only I had a watch, I just have a telephone, it’s in my jacket hanging on the hook, but if I take it out I’ll be tempted to see if I have any messages and to send one, always this passion for writing into the distance, sending signs into the ether like smoke signals gestures with no object arms hands stretching out to nothingness, to whom could I send a message, from this prepaid phone that I took care to get a tramp to purchase for me in return for a big tip, as luck would have it he had an identity card and wasn’t too wasted, the seller didn’t cause any trouble, I left my apartment dropped off a few things at my mother’s sold my books in bulk to a bookseller at the Porte de Clignancourt took three or four things, as I was sorting through things I of course came across some photos, I saw Andrija again in his over-sized uniform, Marianne in Venice, Sashka at twenty in Leningrad, La Risiera camp in Trieste, the square chin of Globocnik, Gerbens’s mustache, I took everything, and I can say that everything I own is above me in a slightly scaled-down bag, next to the little briefcase that’s going to the Vatican and that I plan to hand over as soon as I reach Rome, then tonight in my room at the Plaza on the Via del Corso I’ll go drink at the hotel bar until it closes and tomorrow morning I’ll take a bath buy myself a new suit I’ll be another man I’ll call Sashka or I’ll go straight to her place I’ll ring at her door and God knows what will happen, Zeus will decide the fate that’s suitable to allot me the Moirae will bustle about for me in their cave and what will happen will happen we’ll see if war will catch up with me again or if I’ll live to be old watching my children grow up the children of my children hidden away somewhere on an island or a suburban condo what could I possibly be living on, what, like Eduardo Rózsa I could tell the story of my life write books and screenplays for autobiographical films—Rózsa born in Santa

Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia of a communist Jewish father a resistant in Budapest was the special correspondent for a Spanish paper in Zagreb before he became a commander in the Croatian army, I met him once or twice on the front and later in Iraq, an admirer of Che Guevara and war who founded our international brigade, a group of volunteers who spoke English among themselves Warriors of the Great Free and Independent Croatia who all arrived like me after the first images of the Yugoslav madness, Eduardo was already there, he landed in Croatia in August 1991 one month before me during Osijek and the first clashes, he came from Albania and before that from Budapest and Russia where he trained for espionage for guerilla warfare for comparative literature and philosophy, a poet—today he writes books collections of poems and plays himself in films, maybe Che Guevara would have ended up the same if he hadn’t made Achilles’s choice, if he had been given life he too might have become—weapons put away, life over—an actor, he was so good-looking: like Hemingway Eduardo Rózsa wrote fast, I picture him on an August night on the terrace of the Hotel Intercontinental in Zagreb where all the foreign press stayed, the Vanguardia from Barcelona re­­proached him for describing the fighting too much and for not talking enough about politics, he downed shots as he described the first battles, the Yugoslav tanks against the shabby Croats, his hotel room was transformed into a real War Museum, pieces of shrapnel ammunition the tail-ends of rockets maps relics of all kinds, Eduardo a funny character idealist warrior converted to Islam after having fought for the Catholic crucifix, vice president of the Muslim community of Hungary, formerly press secretary for the first free Iraqi government, men want causes, gods that inspire them, and in that scorching August of 1991 in front of the Intercontinental’s pool his R5 riddled with bullets in the garage his pen in hand he thought about the Bolivian sierra about socialism about Che and his old hole-filled uniform, he had just been shot at by Serbs on the highway from Belgrade, he writes his article, it was the first time he was under fire, the half-open window shattered to pieces, the passenger seat opened up suddenly spitting out its stuffing with hisses and metal clangor, with the speed and distance he probably didn’t hear the explosions, he swerved turned off the headlights instinctively and kept going straight ahead his hands damp clutching the steering wheel sweat in his eyes up to the suburbs of Zagreb, up to the hotel, up to the foreign colleagues the two French photographers who were sharing his room, they see Eduardo arriving dripping with sweat beside himself those two twenty-five-year-old journalists also came to Croatia to get shot at and to run around the countryside with Yugoslav tanks on their tail, to them Eduardo is a master, a man of experience and now he’s arriving trembling and sweating, he says nothing, he takes out his notebook and quietly goes to get drunk on plum brandy by the pool watching the American reporters laughing in the water at their cameraman’s jokes, that’s where it happens, touched by Zeus Eduardo Che Rózsa chose his camp, the next day in Osijek he’ll go see the Croatian officers, he’ll enlist, join the Achaean ranks in a fine rage, a rage against the Serbs: the journalists saw him one fine day in a khaki uniform, a rifle on his shoulder and when I arrived at the end of September he had abandoned the pen to devote himself to war, he would come back decorated medaled honorary citizen of the new Croatia, a hero, godfather of I don’t know how many children, and he would write his exploits himself, play his own role in the film—the first time I saw him it wasn’t on the screen, he was sitting in the middle of the trench in which I was crawling in Osijek, I was scared stiff, absolutely clueless, the shells were raining down in front of us there was the Yugoslav army its tanks and its elite troops, I didn’t know where I was going I climbed up the trench my nose in the autumn smell, in the humus, to escape, to go home, to find again the attic room and Marianne’s caresses, I couldn’t hear anything and I couldn’t see much I had glimpsed my first wounded man fired my first cartridges at a hedge, the uniform of the national guard was just a hunting jacket that didn’t protect much I was shivering trembling like a tree under the explosions Rózsa was sitting there I crawled right onto him he looked at me and smiled, he gently moved the muzzle of my gun away with his foot, had me sit down, he must have said something to me of which I have no memory and when our people began firing he’s the one who propped me up against the parapet with a pat on the back so I’d start shooting too, before he disappeared, Athena comes to breathe courage and ardor into mortals in battle, and I fired calmly, I fired well before jumping out of the trench with the others, fear evaporated, flew away with the shells towards the enemy and the farm we were supposed to take, far from Zagreb, far from the Hotel Intercontinental from its covered pool its terrace and its sauna that I had never seen, far from Paris, Che Rózsa would continue his career, I heard his name many times during the war, heroic and other more mysterious deeds, like the murder of a Swiss journalist accused of espionage for I don’t know whom, some people thought he had come to infiltrate the brigade: he was found dead by strangulation during a patrol, a dozen days before the British photographer Paul Jenks was shot in the back of the head as he was investigating the previous man’s death, heroes are often wreathed in shadows, marked by Hades great eater of warriors, Eduardo as well as others, even though in those days journalists were falling like flies, in Croatia at least, or later on around besieged Sarajevo—in central Bosnia, between Vitez and Travnik, they made themselves much scarcer, aside from a few reporters from the television channel owned by the HDZ, the Croatian party in Bosnia, who had the strange habit of emerging from nowhere, like a jack-in-the-box, of appearing at the unlikeliest times and some British reporters clinging to the white tanks of the nuisances from BRITFOR—those photographers and journalists were plying a strange trade indeed, public spies in a way, professional informers for public opinion, for the majority, we saw them that way, high-end informers who hated us as much as Her Majesty’s soldiers scorned us, frustrated by inaction their hands on the triggers of their 30-millimeter guns, perched on top of their Warriors painted white, ice-cream trucks they were called in Croatia, what possible use could they serve, they collected the corpses and negotiated cease-fires so they could go on leave to Split, where they swam, danced, drank whisky before returning to count the shots in Travnik, through binoculars at their windows, or to jog around the stadium—Eduardo Che Rózsa ex-secret agent ex-journalist ex-commander of one of the best-organized brigades in eastern Slavonia writer poet screenwriter turned Muslim and activist for Iraq and Palestine, in Budapest in his suburban house, is he thinking about the Chetniks he killed, about his first two dead, torn to pieces by a grenade in a barn by the Drava River, about his comrades fallen like mine, is he still thinking about the war, about Croatia, he a Catholic by his mother a communist by his father, a murderer by the grace of God, does he remember the freezing rain of the winter of 1991 in the outskirts of Osijek, Eduardo who grew up in Chile until the coup against Allende, deported to Budapest on a chartered flight of foreign “Reds” who couldn’t be sent to the firing squad or tortured, Eduardo going in the opposite direction from me began in intelligence before he became a journalist, then a volunteer to fight with the Croats, by our side, and re­­turned, enriched with wisdom’s store, to live in Hungary through his remaining years, in poetry screenplays books strange missions, plus everything I don’t know about him probably, Eduardo Che Rózsa who didn’t recognize me when we met in Baghdad by the Tigris not long after the invasion, between a cheap restaurant and a peanut-vendor, during the fleeting euphoria of victory, of dictatorship overthrown, justice restored—the treasures of Troy were still burning, manuscripts, works of art, old men, children, while already the coalition forces were congratulating each other on the river’s shores, not worrying about the first attacks, the signs of a catastrophe of the same caliber as the one in the 1920s, or even worse, Eduardo Rózsa was strolling in the company of a few officials by the eternal Tigris, I was eating a corncob from a street vendor with a guy from the embassy, I had just met Sashka and I didn’t want war or peace or the Zone or to remember Croatia or Bosnia I wanted to go back to Rome even for just twenty-four hours to be with her, and then Commander Rózsa walks by without seeing me, a ghost, was I the ghost or him, I had already begun to disappear I was burying myself little by little in the contents of the suitcase, in Sashka whom I thought I’d seen for the first time in Jerusalem years before, in Iraq the heat was incredible, a damp vapor rising from the slow Tigris bordered with reeds where from time to time corpses and decaying carcasses ran aground like the Sava River in 1942 without perturbing the American patrols who were still strolling about like Thomson and Thompson in Tintin a blissful look on their faces as they observed around them the country they had just conquered which they didn’t know what to do with, Baghdad was drifting, ungovernable like Jerusalem or Algiers, it was de­­composing, an atom bombarded by neutrons, hunger, sickness, ignorance, mourning, pain, despair without really un­derstanding why the gods were persecuting it so, destroyed, sent back into limbo, into prehistory the way the Mongols did in 1258, libraries, museums, universities, ministries, hospitals ravaged, Rózsa and I the ex-warriors come to share the spoils or inhale its re­­mains, as specialists of defeat, of victory, of the New World Order, of the peace of the brave, of weapons of mass destruction that gave the soldiers a good laugh, they slapped each other on the back as they drank their Budweisers like after a good joke, in Basra the British were the same as in Bosnia, very sportsmanlike, professional and indifferent, they unloaded hu­­manitarian aid trucks as I’d seen them do in Travnik, as Rózsa had seen them in Osijek, except this time they were authorized to use their weapons, which they weren’t shy about using: they hunted former Ba’athists the way others hunt deer or rather wild boar in the Ardennes, the English soldiers were returning to Basra, to the same place where their grandfathers had been stationed in 1919, after the Dardanelles, after the Hejaz and Syria, the ex­­hausted Tommies rested their legs in the country of palm trees and dried lemons, by the edge of the swamps and meanderings of the Shatt al-Arab, they stuffed their faces with dates and lambs stolen from native shepherds, wondering how much longer the war would last, it lasts forever, almost a century after Gavrilo Princip’s Balkan gunshot, the referee’s pistol shot in a long-distance race, all the participants are already at the starting line, ready to dash forward into the world of Ares great eater of warriors, hoping to return loaded with treasure and glory: Che Rózsa commander covered in medals from the great patriotic Croatian war, Vlaho or me decorated with the order of the grateful nation, Andrija with a fine black marble tombstone with no corpse, To our brother the Hero, he no longer has a body, Andrija, no bones beneath his slab, no gold pin on his jacket he’s a name a phrase a brother and a hero, I was thinking of him in Baghdad conquered humiliated subjected and pillaged as I passed Rózsa the Hungarian from Bolivia a convert to Islam and to international aid, president of the Muslim community of Budapest, or something like that, after having been a fervent defender of Opus Dei, was he informing for the Hungarians, or the Russians, or the English, were we still colleagues, colleagues of the shadows—in the night of war, of the Zone, of memories of the dead, we were living together, without seeing each other, we were sharing the same life, passing each other by the edge of the Tigris, that Styx like the Tiber like the Jordan the Nile or the Danube like all those deadly rivers running into the sea

—Mathias Énard translated by Charlotte Mandell


May 032011

Cesare Pavese once said, “No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide,” a grim line that always makes dg chuckle. Pavese was a hugely important Italian writer of the first half of the 20th century. These poems date from the 1930s, early in his career, when he was briefly imprisoned for anti-fascist activities. After the Second World War, he became a communist (remember Italy had a powerful and for the most part legal Communist Party) and wrote prolifically until his death by suicide in 1950, the year he won the Strega Prize for a book of novellas called La Bella Estate. Richard Jackson is a beloved colleague and friend and, once upon a time, dg’s Virgil in the wilds of Slovenia (during one of those famous Vermont College of Fine Arts summer residencies). See also his revelatory essay on translation, published earlier on Numéro Cinq, and his lovely translation Leopardi’s “The Infinite.”


Poems by Cesare Pavese

Translated by Richard Jackson



We have the right to treat them that way.
It’s certainly better than having some compassionate
heart for them and then just enjoying them in bed.
“It’s the strongest need we have in our entire life,”
or rather “and we are all fated this way,
but if ever the girl makes a got of it with her skills
I’d choke her in a rage or learn some other revenge.”

Compassion was always just a matter of lost time,
life is bigger than any of us and won’t be changed by this,–
better to clench your teeth and be silent.

One evening
I traveled on a train where there was this woman
dressed plainly, made up, serious in her face.
Outside the lights paled and the green became gray,
erasing the world. We were isolated
in that car — third class– woman and young man.
I didn’t know what to say to her at that age
and I always wept when I thought of women. That’s the way
I made my trip, looking around nervously, and she also
looked at me sometimes, smoking.  I didn’t speak,
didn’t think anything, but still in my blood I can
feel her stern look, the laughter of an instant
of someone who has worked hard and took life
as it came, in silence.

A friend, someone
who says what he thinks, would like to save
a woman and wipe her tears, and give her some joy.
“No, it is the strongest need in our entire life
and if it is our fate that we have only this power
and a hardened soul, it doesn’t do any good.”

You have the power to save thousands of women
but those I have seen smoking and looking about
with pride written in their faces, –they will always live
to suffer in silence and pay for us all.


I want to know why the grave of evening settled in the meadow.
Perhaps it was because I collapsed, exhausted from sunstroke,
Pretending to be some wounded Indian. In those days the boy
Tried to escape loneliness by seeking models for ancestors,
And drew his imagined painted arrows and shook his lance.
The evening sky itself was colored with war paint.
Every day the air was so fresh, and the aroma indeed was
So plush, so deep, from sprays of flowers that were also
Reddish gray, and then suddenly the clouds and sky
Caught fire among the early stars. The boy turned
To the village feeling he should preserve it by celebrating it.
But the sunset dulled his senses. It seemed best to squint
So he could enjoy and embrace what he saw. As if immersed in water.

All at once a gruff voice assaulted me as if out of that sun—
It was the master of the manor, my nemesis from the house,
A voice that stopped me short in that pool where I was submerged–
Because it knew me from the village and berated me, irritated
That I could ruin everything that I could have been by not working.
I leapt from the grass, and I remained silent holding my hands tight
To stop them from shaking and I turned away into the darkness.

Oh what a good chance to shoot an arrow into the chest of that man.
If the boy didn’t have the courage, I at least deceived myself
To take on the air of a tough commando against that man.
But even today I deceive myself in order to act immovable and firm
And not to go into that darkness in silence, so I can draw my arrows
Whistling through the air, screaming words like some a paralyzed hero.
Perhaps it was the disheartening look when I saw a man
Who could have beaten me up badly. Or pitiful shame
Like that of a person who laughs embarrassed in the face of danger.
But I had a fearful terror. I had to flee, and so I fled.
And that night, returning home, I cried so hard into my pillow
That it left my lips bloody, knowing the blood of defeat.

The man is dead now. The field has become like a trench, harrowed,
But I can see that old field clearly just as it was back then,
And curiously, in this journey where I speak to myself, I am unmovable,
Like that other man, and I spend the evening still baking from that sun.

—Poems by Cesare Pavese, Translated by Richard Jackson

Apr 152011

Herewith an excerpt from Juan José Saer‘s novel The Sixty-Five Years of Washington translated by Steve Dolph and recently published by Open Letter Books.  Two friends walk stroll an Argentine city, relishing tales of a wild party neither of them attended (one cannot escape the allegorical parallel with Latin American colonial self-deprecation). They reminisce about the past, expose their anxieties, jump proleptically into a future filled with repressive violence. (See Richard Farrell’s review here.) In this flashback scene, the main character, Angel Leto, has gone away to the countryside with his mother. Leto is returning home on a Sunday evening to discover his father’s body. In their absence, Leto’s father has committed suicide.


from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington

By Juan José Saer

Translated by Steve Dolph

They’ve left behind the wide, residential section of the street and are now walking down a narrow, treeless sidewalk where more and more frequently the windows and doors of businesses sit open. Bringing the stem of the unlit pipe to his lips, the Mathematician distractedly starts stroking them with the tip, its bowl hidden in his closed hand. He doesn’t say anything now. Above his eyebrows, on his smooth forehead, his skin wrinkles a little, into horizontal furrows, and be–tween the two little blonde brushes appear two oblique fissures, forming a vertex at the bridge of his nose. Leto, meanwhile, remembers: Isabel, the past year, Lopecito, the wake, the closed casket, etc.—and five days before all that, that is, before the wake, Lopecito, etc. no?—as we were, or rather I, yours truly, no?, was saying: green wheat, already so tall, from the bus window. He has left Rosario Norte an hour before, with his mother. They’re on their way to Andino, to his maternal grandparents’ house, to spend the weekend. It’s a Friday in late spring. They left Rosario at 1:00. When they leave behind the San Lorenzo industrial complex, the land fills with tall green wheat, fields of flax, and, sometimes, yellow sunflowers right up to the shoulders of the road. Every once in a while they pass a farmhouse, with its windmill and eucalyptus, which interrupts, as they say, the fields, the same way stations divide the scant towns in two like a river or a railroad would in other places in the world. A parallel dirt path separates, in the country, the geometrical grains from the road—and on that path, every once in a while, a solitary carriage travels, hardworking and unreal, which the bus, as slow as it is, leaves behind with ease. He, helpful and enthusiastic, went along to the station. That man who, ever since Leto has had use of his reason, has always been silent, distant, shut away with his unsuspected chimeras in his radio workshop, for the last month or so seems to have broken the bell jar that separated him from the outside world, and has come with them, seeming euphoric, close, warm, and open. Leto observes him at a distance, incredulous. At first the change was so sudden that, in his skepticism, he was sure it was some kind of joke, or a tactical transformation, but his persistence and his conviction to the role were so intense that Leto’s initial incredulity was replaced with doubt—is he? would he?—all that, no?, telling himself at the same time, but from then on without concrete ideas or words and almost without realizing it, though not only his mind but also his whole body are for some reason saturated with those senses that more and more resemble the shudder or the silent beating or the contraction of nerves, temples, veins, muscles, telling himself, he would say, but in that way, no?, that if it was a comedy the intended audience was Leto himself, because for Isabel, Lopecito, and the rest, who were convinced in advance, no persuasion was necessary—he, Leto no?—the only one who suspected that the man had something up his sleeve, that the man had realized—and decided I was the last obstacle to demolish before his magical circle could finally close, the straggler he had to force in before sealing, hermetically, from the inside, the capsule, and launching it into the interstellar space of his own delirium, Leto thinks, this time with clear and well-formed thoughts, walking, next to the Mathematician, always to the south, on the shady sidewalk, where, more and more frequently, the windows and doors of businesses are open. On a bright, warm, and calm November afternoon, the bus drives past rectangles of blue flax, of yellow sunflowers and green wheat, leaving behind, slow and regular, the repetitive uprights of the telegraph poles, while Leto, sitting next to the window, candidly observes Isabel who, in the seat ahead of him, calmly and serenely flips through the latest issue of Ms & Mrs. The comedy that Leto, after several weeks, has convinced himself is real, produces a tranquilizing and at the same time euphoric effect in Isabel, inasmuch as her old phantasms of marital bliss, upward mobility, sexual satisfaction, economic stability, familial harmony, religious tranquility, and physical well-being have seemed, in recent weeks, to have found their long-awaited substantiation, de–spite the resistance of a hostile world. Isabel’s attention, detached from the intense perfection of the land, is fixed on the page—a weight-loss plan? the horoscope? an interesting recipe? the opinions of a movie star? sentimental correspondence? Leto doesn’t wonder anymore, feeling nonetheless, indifferently, definitively perhaps, the abyss that separates them. The magazine, elevated almost to her chest, lets him see the belly which, under a modest skirt, ends at the vertex that the crossing muscles form with the pubis—he was in there, for nine months, and then funneled out, fell into the world. What should he feel? First of all, the ubiquitous mother, the amazing plain, fascinates him just then more than his own; the vast world, so indifferent, nevertheless seems more familiar than the one he was raised in at home. His coldness isn’t quite hatred—still, the censure he himself ignores, buried for a long time, feeling now that it’s too late to want them to have been different, makes him see his own feelings as though they were controlled remotely by others, an older and distinct species—not hatred, no, but instead a sort of quiet and curious outrage that makes him observe them constantly to see how far they’ll go, with the wild hope that, after so much time, with laughter and a shift in pose, they will finally say: Okay, that’s enough, show’s over, time to start being our real selves. He, the kind and helpful man, has gone with them to the bus station, in Rosario Norte, has given the impression, for the last month, of being something else, not his real self, but still very different—his concentrated detachment has become lightheartedness; his distracted indifference, friendly attention; his limp and depressive inertia regarding his family and work, enthusiasm and projects. The day before, he came out of the workshop with his eyes tired from connecting so many thin cables and adjusting so many tiny screws, and while he helped Isabel get dinner ready and set the table, he told Leto that next week, when they came back home, they would go fishing together; they would cross the river on a canoe with Lopecito and camp on the island for a couple of days. He even rang up Lopecito who, of course, sounded excited. And in Rosario Norte, just as they were getting on the bus, he, that man, reminded him: on Wednesday, at the latest, because Lopecito was busy Monday and Tuesday, they would row to the island. In fact, Leto has to put effort into showing that he finds the outing as attractive as Lopecito and his father seem to, but the slightly irked, wary curiosity these altered people inspire allows him to give himself over, to persist, with the same affected detachment one would use to observe the behavior of a colony of laboratory mushrooms, in acting out the different scenes of the comedy, hoping to finally unravel the heart of the plot and its characters. Many years later he will understand, from the overwhelming evidence, that the so-called human soul never had, or will ever have, what they call substance or essence, that what they call character, style, personality, are nothing but senseless replications, and that their own subject—the body where they manifest—is the one most starved of their nature, that what others call life is a series of a posteriori recognitions of the places where a blind, in–comprehensible, ceaseless drift deposits, in spite of themselves, the eminent individuals who, after having been dragged through it, begin to elaborate systems that pretend to explain it; but for now, having just turned twenty, he still believes that problems have solutions, situations outcomes, individuals personality, and actions logic. Leto observes, with some pleasure, the countryside through the window. Every ten or fifteen kilometers the bus stops at a station for a few minutes to drop off or pick up bags of mail, travelers, the ticket taker, the shopkeepers returning from their restocking trips to Rosario, the packets of newspapers and magazines, the passengers going from one town to another, few compared to those coming from Rosario, as though contact among those towns were prohibited and it was only possible for them to connect by way of the abstract and distant city, those towns on the plains, squared off like the country, regularly and strictly consisting of two rows of houses, most of unplastered brick, four blocks long, one on each side of the highway and separated—each row of houses, no?—from the bus station by a wire fence, a windmill, and a wide dirt street—and on the ends of the four blocks, two lateral streets that close the quadrilateral and rise slightly at the shoulder, towns that are, to put it one way, like a miserly concession from the plains to roughen, at brief and regular intervals, its simplistic, monotonous geometry. To Leto those towns are childhood—that is, in his case, the coming and going by train or by bus, the vacations, in winter or summer, at his grandparents’ house, his grandfather’s general store with its big, dark shelves, the colored fabrics, patterned with flowers, stripes, polka dots, blocks, or with little black and white flowers, stacked on top of each other and lined up diagonally in the cases, the carefully situated yellow bags of sod, the logo and the letters of the brand repeated on several rows, the pyramids of identical cans of preserves, piled up at the back of the store, the bins of caramels, the rows of cigarette packs organized by brand, the ones with blonde tobacco on the left side of the case, with black tobacco in the middle, toscanos, toscanitos, matches, loose tobacco, and rolling paper on the right, the big bins of sugar, of lentils, of garbanzos, of noodles, the rows of dried cod, stiff and covered with rock salt, the harvesting bags smelling of leather and oil, the bottles of wine, by type, by brand, by size, the glass cases with toiletries, the cooler, the scales, the wood countertop, smooth, dark, and weathered, the calendars and the cardboard advertisements with pictures of movie stars, of soccer teams, funny or artistic drawings, the shoeboxes, the kerosene cans and cooking alcohol in the storeroom, next to rows of detergent, flour, salt, oil, and above all, the boxes of Quaker Oats with the drawing of a man holding a smaller box of Quaker Oats with a smaller man holding an even smaller box of Quaker Oats with an even smaller man holding, no?, an even smaller, no?, to infinity, no?, like . . . no?, childhood, we were saying, or rather yours truly was saying, or rather, that is to say, no?, childhood: internal construction and external wandering, convalescence of nothing, corporeal truth versus social fiction, hope of pleasure versus generalized deception, just like that thing on Sundays, the pursuit, torture, and murder of grasshoppers and frogs between the trees in the back yard, the terrifying nights under the crucifix hanging on the headboard with dried olive branches from the last Palm Sunday, the white nightgowns of his aunts, cousins, grandmother, his uncles drinking cold beer under the trees, the afternoon, the whistles of the express passing through town and filling it with fear, the childhood Leto is already starting to tell himself, without words or concepts—not even with images or representations, no?—Isn’t what I had expected. It’s still not what I think it should be like. This can’t be all there is.

Ultimately, as they say, and to say it a second time, though it’s always the Same, no?, every thing. He even rang up the man he calls his best friend, Lopecito, to suggest going fishing on the island the following week. And Leto, on the bus, is willing to let himself be carried along, with a somewhat uneasy sense of calm, through those warm and beautiful spring days, to the following Wednesday, on the island near Rosario. That anticipation saturates the entire weekend: arriving in the town, crossing the streets and the bus station, passing the windmill, arriving at his grandparents’ house, the dinner, the evening walk through the town, the croaking of the frogs, the intermittent song of the crickets that has always attended, and no doubt preceded, the human night, the intermittent, phosphorescent glow of the fireflies, the smell of the paradise trees, the family gathering on Saturday with the relatives who have been arriving from nearby towns in cars or on the bus, the organized abundance, formed by identical objects repeated over and over in the store, the night spent under the crucifix, the mass, the cookout at noon on Sunday, the women’s flower-patterned dresses, the walk around the station with the cousins, and more than anything else, the perfect hour on the plains, the afternoon, and also, every once in a while, in little outbursts to someone in the family, Isabel’s foolish declarations of her marital bliss, her upward mobility, her sexual satisfaction, her economic stability, her familial harmony, her religious tranquility, her physical well-being, which he lets run on like background noise whose fictitiousness intrigues him less than its obstinate and emphatic repetition. That insistence betrays her uncertainty, the same way that, on Sunday night when the bus arrives at Rosario Norte, the thing she murmurs, slightly distracted, Hopefully he hasn’t made anything for dinner because I could pop after everything we ate in Andino,could be translated, Leto thinks, into a way of saying the opposite, because the fact of him waiting with a warm dinner would help dispel the uncertainty that’s working on her and which is of such a curious nature—when it manifests itself externally, it always appears to be the opposite.

The man is not at the station, It’s good he didn’t come, murmurs Isabel, after scrutinizing the walkway and the entrance. It’s good he didn’t come because anyway we don’t have suitcases and the train leaves us a block away. Leto, who after so many years has become an expert in the art of pretending he hasn’t heard anything, or of responding, almost inaudibly, with vague monosyllables, to every irrational, or, as he refers to them privately, false bottom argument laid out by Isabel, turns the conversation to fresh eggs, their bouquet of flowers, the greasy chorizos just made at the farm stand and plied on them in the town.

Slowly they leave the train, walking away from the palm trees lining the avenue to enter the dark, tree-lined block that separates them from their house. Isabel isn’t, Leto thinks, in any hurry to get there, as if through some physical inertia her body, contrary to her reason, were trying to express things more truthfully. Twice in a single block she stops for several minutes to talk with neighbors who, sitting in folding chairs on the sidewalk near their front doors, or leaning out a window, have come out to enjoy the cool night, while Leto, keeping a polite distance, with the basket of eggs and chorizo in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other hand, asks himself if she isn’t trying to gain time so that he, who she supposes innocent of machinations and exempted from her intuition, will overtake her and get home first—and all of this in spite of the fact that, to the outside world, they are just a mother and son, a silent twenty-year-old young man, coming back, respectable, straightforward, and a little tired, from a weekend in the country, neighborhood people, apparently the husband is an electrician who works on televisions and doesn’t mix much with the neighbors, the boy studies accounting, and she’s still pretty even though she’s around forty, the men more or less silent and withdrawn, while she sometimes maybe has the habit of talking too much, like she can’t stop, or she’s trying to hide, to cover up, with words, deep dark fissures which her words, despite her intentions, open at their multiple, secret edges. But she doesn’t give up. Leto waits, patiently, or a little callously, rather, at every stop, and when they get to the house, which is dark, silent, and lifeless, and he slides the key in the lock, and turns it, he feels again, coming through the door, the trail of the snake, the indefinite but distinct presence of the scorpion, whose signs, weakened in the previous weeks, have returned, unequivocal and palpable. When he turns on the light, this presence draws him, sucks him, slowly, toward the bedroom, and when he sees the man sprawled on the floor, his skull shattered by the gunshot, the revolver still in his hand, the floor, walls, and furniture splattered with blood, with chunks of brain, hair, bone shards, he says to himself, calmly and coldly, So that’s what this was. Specifically, this meaning the days, the nights, the time, the body, the world, the thick beating life, how the man, in his little electrical workshop, had dismantled them, detaching and separating them into separate pieces, colored cables, copper wires, gold screws, spreading them over the table to inspect them one at a time, neutral and merciless, limiting himself to reaching what he no doubt considered objective conclusions, and later, during uniform and meticulous hours, putting everything back together according to the indisputable logic of his delirium. To achieve his goals he had to construct the comedy, setting a stage, the visible universe, and making all of his so-called loved ones take part, modifying the plot sometimes to convince the most reticent, as had been happening for the previous weeks with Leto, whose mistrust had forced him to make appearances outside his “workshop,” transforming his personality slightly and preparing, with Lopecito’s unconditional support, when he swallowed whole the supposed week of fishing on the island, for Leto, his reticence becoming hope, to fall, on his return from the country Sunday night, from an even higher rung. Put briefly, and by the man himself, no doubt to himself, and no doubt without words as well, more or less like this: When I say dance, everyone dances. No excuses.

Two or three days later the autopsy reveals that he shot himself on Friday at around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, meaning that he said goodbye with a grin at the station, reminding him before he left that on Wednesday they would cross to the island with Lopecito, then, still grinning, boarded the train back to their neighborhood, walked the block between the train stop and the house at a calm and regular pace, and no doubt without losing his grin entered the house, crossed the hallway, shut himself in the bedroom, and without hesitating or losing the fixed, vindictive grin, blew his brains out.

—I call that an insolent suicide, said César Rey, a few months later, at the bar Montecarlo, in the city, while they watched the sun, through the window, rising into a cold autumn dawn. And Rey can speak with authority because the day before, in fact, he had gotten a hotel room, intending to slit his wrists, but at the decisive moment he had suddenly changed his mind, and after leaving the hotel, he had run into Leto at the arcade’s bar, where they proceeded to go on a bender.

—The insolent suicide, says Leto, shaking his head. Isabel and Lo–pecito were left stupefied by the event—in the director’s absence they no longer knew exactly what role they played in the comedy—but Leto himself thinks he has known how to conserve enough cold blood to keep him from the path of the gunshot, though the suspicion of having been the primary target for the last few weeks could be, without his realizing it, proof of the opposite.

The insolent suicide, he thinks, discreetly watching the Mathematician, whose eyebrows indicate a laborious reflection that Leto cannot know, and is not interested in knowing, but which is more or less the following: Where does instinct come from? Does it belong to the individual or the species? Is there continuity between individuals? Does the latter individual take over the instinct from the point where the former left it or does he reconstruct, from zero, the whole process from the start? Is it substance, energy, reflex? What is our idea of instinct? How was it first formed? By whom? Where? As opposed to what? What, in a living thing, isn’t instinct? And then, forgetting Noca, Noca’s horse, instinct, the images he has built up thanks to Botón’s story on the ferry, the previous Saturday, on the upper deck, images of Washington’s birthday at Basso’s ranch, which he didn’t attend but will remember for the rest of his life, the other questions, always stirring, underground, and sometimes rising to the surface, suddenly, that follow us, form us, lead us, allow us to be, the old questions first brought up in the African dawn, heard in Babylon and asked again in Thebes, in Asia Minor, on the banks of the Yellow River, which sparkled in the Scandinavian snows, the solilo–quy in Arabia, in New Guinea, in Königsberg, in Mato Grosso, and in Tenochtitlán, questions whose response is exaltation, is death, suffering, insanity, and which stir in every blink, every heartbeat, every premonition—who planted the seed of the world? what are the internal and the external? what are birth and death? is there a single object or many? what is the I? what is the general and the particular? what is repetition? what am I doing here?—that is to say, no?—the Mathematician, or someone else, somewhere else or at some other time, again, though there is only one, only one, which is always the same Place, and always, as we were saying, once and for all, the same Time.

—Juan José Saer; translated by Steve Dolph

Mar 122011

Here is a Richard Jackson translation of an ever so slightly upbeat Leopardi poem. Giacomo Leopardi was one of the 19th century greats, an Italian patriot and a great pessimist in the Schopenhauer mode.  Rick Jackson is poet, translator and teacher at Vermont College of Fine Arts and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. You might want to read this Leopardi poem in conjunction with Rick’s terrific essay, “Translation, Adaptation and Transformation: The Poet as Translator,” published on Numéro Cinq earlier this week.




The Infinite

By Giacomo Leopardi

Translated by Richard Jackson


Always dear to me was this hermit’s hill,
And this hedge that always separates me
From looking at the distant horizon, but
Seated here and lost in an endless meditation
Which discovers a vaster space within,
Boundless silence and deep inner quiet,
My heart is nearly overcome. And like the wind
Murmuring among the leaves to which I compare
Its beating, this infinite silence, this inner voice
So with my mind I encompass an eternity,
And the seasons die, and the present lives
In that sound. And in the middle of all that
Immensity, my thought drowns itself:
Sweet to me, to be shipwrecked in this sea.

—Leopardi, translated by Richard Jackson

Mar 072011

Richard-JacksonRichard Jackson, Betanja, Slovenia, June 2008. Photo by Douglas Glover

Richard Jackson is an old friend, an eminent colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts where he teaches poetry and translation, and an indefatigable traveler and spirit guide (dg spent nearly 2 weeks in Slovenia with Rick, during the 2008 VCFA summer residency—see  photo above—dg is still recovering). Richard Jackson is a prolific poet, a great humanitarian, a man of immense culture and erudition, and a gifted translator. He raises the bar. When you’re around Rick, you want to read more, see more art, learn more languages, and travel to distant fabled places.




Why translate? Kenneth Rexroth, one of the most influential translators, writes in his essay, “The Poet as Translator,”– “The writer who can project himself into exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry.” Translation is at the heart of poetry– a poet like Rilke writes in his “Ninth Elegy” that when the poet

returns from the mountain slopes into the valley,
he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window–
at most: column, tower….But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.

Rilke’s notion that words only metaphorically stand for ideas, sensations and feelings suggests that they are themselves a form of translation. Of course, this could lead us quickly into a maze of problems and suggest that even a poem in our own language must be “translated.” What is at issue in translating poetry is the very nature of poetry, and the very nature of language. The main problems and debates that arise concerning the translation of poetic works occur when one realizes to what extent the essence of a poem lies, as Rilke and Rexroth suggest,  beyond the words per se.

First, I want to point out that literary translation differs in many important respects from the kind of translation that is usual in a language class. Literary translation, for one, involves a good deal of interpretation about intent and effect. For another, it is often not so interested in a literal “transliteration” as much as finding a corollary mood, tone, voice, sound, response–any number of issues can be raised here. John Dryden, the great neoclassical poet, wrote in his “Preface to Pindaric Odes,” that translation should be “not so loose as paraphrase, nor so close as metaphrase.” A poet such as John Nims feels that the most important thing to translate is sound; for him, the pure music of the poem is most crucial. James Wright in translating Hesse’s poems aims to duplicate their emotional effect more than any technique such as sound per se. Robert Bly’s translations are extremely loose yet often capture the essence of Neruda’s and Rilke’s spirits.

“Poetry is what is lost in translation,” wrote Robert Frost, a notion we have probably all heard. “Poetry is what is gained in translation” wrote Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel prize winning Russian poet who also spoke several languages. Or as Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel prize winning poet says, “poetry is what gets transformed.” Ezra Pound, in “How To read,” describes three aspects of the language of poetry: melopoeia, its music; phanopoeia, the imagistic quality; and logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words.” It is this last aspect that Pound says is the essence of poetry, Rilke’s unsayable. What Brodsky, Pound and Paz were driving at was that there are intangible things, that the realm of the wordless and visionary, as Dante himself says in Paradiso XXXIII , is both untranslatable while also being the essence of poetry. Brodsky may be echoing Boccaccio’s notion in Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, X,7, where Boccaccio says that in listening to the Greek Iliad in Latin translation “some passages I came to understand very well by frequent interpretation.” And the renowned Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer, writes that a poem is a manifestation of an invisible poem that is written beyond languages themselves. “Languages are many but poetry is one,” says the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky.

Where does this leave us? Yang Wan-Li, a Chinese poet, once wrote about poetry and translation: “If you say it is a matter of words, I will say a good poet gets rid of words. If you say it is a matter of meaning, I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning. ‘But,’ you ask ‘without words and without meaning, where is the poetry?’ To this I reply: ‘get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.’” It is that intangible that is left that is the object, I suggest, of good translation. That is why the contemporary poet and translator, Jane Hirshfield, says: “A literal word-for-word trot is not a translation. The attempt to recreate qualities of sound is not translation. The simple conveyance of meaning is not translation.” She is perhaps echoing the great Latin poet Horace who writes in his “Art of Poetry” (Ser. II,iii)that a good translation of Homer can exist only:

if you don’t try to render word by word like a
slavish translator, and if in your imitation you do not
leap into the narrow well, out of which either shame
or the laws of your task will keep you from stirring a step.

The step image, by the way, is a pun of the use of “poetic feet,” a way to measure rhythm. Horace’s and Wan-Li’s notions have been echoed through the ages. In our own day Octavio Paz says: “After all, poetry is not merely the text. The text produces the poem: a sense of sensations and meanings….With different means, but playing a similar role, you can produce similar results. I say similar, but not identical: translation is an art of analogy, the art of finding correspondences. An art of shadows and echoes….of producing, with a different text, a poem similar to the original.” This leads us to an essential irony: Stephen Mitchell, the well known translator of Rilke, says that “with great poetry, the freest translation is sometimes the most faithful.” And the great English poet, translator and critic, Samuel Johnson, who was one of the most conservative critics of the neoclassical period, wrote: “We try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge the merit of translation.”



Let’s look at a small portion of Dante’s text, the opening stanza of the Inferno, as a way to see look at the problems involved in such judgements . The four versions I’ll briefly look at are John Ciardi’s standard translation which strives to duplicate the colloquial effect of the language as well as some rhyme, Mark Musa’s relatively accurate literal version which uses a three line unrhymed stanza which renders an accurate sense of the poem’s meaning and scope, even the play of its metaphors, yet does not provide any of the poem’s tonal qualities,  Robert Pinsky’s terza rima version strives to capture more of the varied aspects of Dante’s language, and Michael Palma’s new colloquial terza rima version that adds a great deal of interpretive material. One could say, as with Ovid, that in all these translations one is not reading Dante but only a translator, but of course that is also true for an Italian of today who must not only cope with archaic words and word forms, but also the different force and even connotative meaning of images and metaphors. We can gain a basic insight into these versions by looking at the opening stanza:

First here is the Italian and a literal transcription:


The road, first of all, is both literal, and as we soon learn, spiritual, the Biblical, “straight and narrow” road to salvation. Note that the loss is in the passive voice—Dante the pilgrim narrator is incapable of admitting at this point in the poem what Dante the poet knows: he is ethically confused and about to lose his soul. Ritrovai has special problems: to be lost and found is a basis of the Christian faith Dante is writing out of, yet the primary meaning of the word in the reflexive (mi ritrovai) is to meet another, also to come to consciousness, —which explains why some translators will use “came to myself” (though some use the reductive “awake”) emphasizing the spiritual split inside the narrator. Similarly, “straight” and “right” might be spiritual equivalents, but they suggest two different moods, the second being more directly a matter of ethics. Similarly dark and shadowy pose two distinct choices, both with Biblical connotations, shadowy suggesting more of the Hebrew Bible.  Note also that Dante uses two words for the road—perhaps suggesting the road mortal people usually take as opposed to the correct path of righteousness.

While Ciardi’s version retains much of the colloquial energy of the original, he makes the narrator admit his fault (“I went astray”), which goes against the dramatic unfolding of the poem, for Dante’s narrator does not understand his own guilt and is in fact filled with pride and the inability to perceive sin accurately. Ciardi gives us:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
From the straight road and woke to find myself
Alone in a dark wood. How shall I say….

Much of the drama of the poem rests in his struggle to separate his emotional sympathy for sin from his rational knowledge of evil. This sort of split is not something common to Ciardi’s own poems, either, which are straightforward and confessional– as is his translation. In many ways we are reading Ciardi using Dante as a way to describe his own self. To really understand what Ciardi is doing and the relation between his poem and Dante’s, one should read some of Ciardi’s poems along with his translation: what we find is the same forceful, direct, driving voice that the translation offers. Understanding this, we can extrapolate in order to imagine Dante’s quieter and more lyrical voice behind Ciardi’s. We can under stand, for example, that “Went astray” seems to lower the stakes while it lowers the linguistic level in a way that works better in Ciardi’s own poems than in this translation. We begin, in other words, to understand Ciardi’s approach as a sort of “common man” approach to the poem.

Mark Musa’s version suggests that Dante’s drift was part of a sleep, for now he awakens, a very literal and reductive interpretation of mi ritrovai not as a coming to consciousness, but a mere waking up– Musa’s pilgrim also states that the wandering was his own fault, as Ciardi’s does. By using “path” he also emphasizes the physical dramatic setting of the woods:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in some dark woods,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

Musa’s use of “some” suggests a kind of casualness, at least as much as Ciardi’s, though he probably means it to heighten the narrator’s sense of being lost. This casualness– perhaps a product of our age’s fascination with freer verse forms and the looser Wordsworthian and Frostian blank verse– dominates Musa’s account, which is hardly a poetic step above the plain prose account of Mark Singleton. Musa doesn’t really provide a range of rhetoric, a range that is essential to Dante’s poem, and which a translator like Pinsky strives for. If we use Musa’s account, then I think we have to look at the influences that have led him to his form– to much of the poetic strategies of mainstream contemporary American poetry (he’s not a poet himself). Still, understanding that allows us to start to be able to perhaps take a step back towards understanding the difference in poetics between our world and Dante’s world, and gauge at l4ast the force of his metaphors which Musa remains absolutely loyal to.

For my money, the best current versions are those by Robert  Pinsky and Michael Palma. Pinsky’s tries to be formal where Dante is formal, more rough and colloquial where Dante is Colloquial, imitates formal elements in the rhetoric such as anaphora and parallelisms, and generally keeps the tone. He also suggests something of the pace of the original, ironically by condensing it somewhat. Here is Pinsky’s opening:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough…

Pinsky leaves the responsibility for the way being lost ambiguous which I think is a good interpretation of Dante’s sense of things at this point. Pinsky places the reference to the tangled wood, which occurs in Dante a few lines later, at this point, allowing, as dante intended, the tangle refer to the pilgrim’s words nand ideas as well as the physical path. If we continue through his version we find Pinsky echoing the harsh onomatopoeic effects Dante uses to describe the lawyers in later in the poem, and imitating the song-like anaphora Francesca uses to seduce the Pilgrim in her “imbedded” lyric within canto V. Pinsky raises and lowers the linguistic register just as Dante does and the reader leaves the poem with a pretty fair sense of what the poem is trying to do.

Michael Palma’s version, which seems to lean on Pinsky’s, uses slant rhymes as well as full rhymes, and also the interlockings of terza rima in an interesting new version, though one must be also aware of interpretive additions or juxtapositionings which place in a half notch below Pinsky’s version:

Midway through the journey of our life, I found
Myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed
From the straight pathway to the tangled ground.

Of course, some of what he adds is to fill out the rhymes, but in doing so he inadvertently emphasizes the physical journey over the spiritual with “tangled ground”  by including it in this first sentence rather than a tad later where it actually occurs. And he also allows the narrator to be more conscious of what his own culpability is than Dante’s narrator, as Ciardi and Musa do– all three of them perhaps falling prey to the sort a sort of guilt complex that seems to have entered much contemporary poetry and consciousness. Palma’s very colloquial version also seems to sometimes create a suburban inferno; his use of “pathway” here suggests a kind of jogging path, an effect one also sees in Longfellow’s 19th century version.

One could say that in all these translations one is not reading Dante but only a translator, but of course that is also true for an Italian of today who must not only cope with archaic words and word forms, but also the different force and even connotative meaning of images and metaphors. One answer is simply to not read any version because it is not the author per se, but that would lead to a pretty narrow view of our literary heritage. (What would happen if the same principle were applied to the UN where speeches are given and translated but cannot translate nuances of meaning, tone, voice, rhythm, etc.?)



In recent years translators have taken to collaborative efforts, often translating language they do not know or know very little. Such collaborations, usually between a good linguist or native speaker and a good poet have resulted in some stunning translations. Usually the poet is provided with a literal translation, then works with the translator over phrases and words with colloquial, historical or metaphoric resonance, and then the poet comes up with a poem that is a version, imitation (fairly close) or adaptation (loose). This, too, is an old practice: Johnson, for instance, describes it in his description of Pope’s work on The Iliad. When Pope or any translator poet felt himself “deficient” in understanding, he would make “minute inquiries into the force of words.” Chapman, for example, besides Pope, clearly worked this way. The aim of these efforts is to provide, as Johnson, sought, the best poem in English. The result of translation in the context I have been discussing is, as Johnson notes, a way to enrich both languages just as Pope’s translation of Homer “tuned the English tongue.” Pond puts it this way: “it is in the light born of this double current that we look upon the face of the mystery unveiled.” Pound says that his translations of Cavalcanti are not line by line by rather “embody in the whole of my English some trace of that power which implies the man.” Clearly the notion of translation here is far different than what the average person thinks.

The French poet, Paul Valery, in his The Art of Poetry, writes that in translating Virgil he wanted to change parts for he felt a merging with the author: translating was creating, he felt. In a similar way, in our own time, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and translator Charles Simic writes: “translation is an actor’s medium. If I cannot make myself believe I am writing the poem I’m translating, no degree of aesthetic admiration for the work will help me.” Judith Hemschemeyer, who translated perhaps the greatest poet of the century, Anna Akhmatova, describes a slow process of first getting a basic sense and then working to duplicate various effects depending upon what she felt the main strength of a particular poem to be. And well known American poet Galway Kinnell describes, in his preface to Villon’s poems, how “one can be impeccably accurate verbally and yet miss the point or blur the tone quite badly….I wanted to be ‘literal’ in another sense. I wanted to be more faithful…to the complexities of the poetry, both to its shades of meaning and its tone. At the same time I wanted the English to flow very naturally. Therefore I avoided transferring ‘meanings’ from one language directly into another.” Kinnell goes on to say he attempts to “internalize” the French: I would not merely be changing language into language but also expressing what would have become to some extent my own experiences and understandings.” If that seems strange, remember that whenever we read a poem in our own language we bring our own experiences, contexts, and notions to the text, and they interact to form a unique experience called the poem. One could argue– and many critics and linguists today do so– that we translate even as we read within our own language. reading Kinnell’s poems and Kinnell’s translations involves similar activity, and not unlike what we would do when reading Villon in the original. So what is Villon’s poem? As read by a French scholar? a French poet? a good reader of French? a bad reader? Do the poems exists in some absolute Platonic place where all the meanings and effects are intact? Do they exist in individual reader’s responses? Somewhere in between? These are precisely the issues a translator and a reader of translations must face. “It is because it is impossible that translation is so interesting,” wrote William Matthews who has translated Ovid, Horace and Martial.

In a letter about the nature of poetry to his brother, Gherardo, Petrarch wrote of the Biblical poetry that they “never have been, or could be, easily translated into any other language without sacrificing rhythm and meter or meaning. So, as a choice had to be made, it has been the sense that has been more important. And yet some trappings of metrical law still survive, and the individual pieces are what we still name verses, for that is what they really are.”  Still, unsatisfied finally with that, Petrarch wrote his own sequence of Salmi Penitenziali in a single year in imitation of the Biblical psalms, but using phrases and ideas from the originals. In the “Preface” to his “Familiar Letters” Petrarch wrote that “The first care of the poet is to attend to the person who is the reader; this is the best way to know what to write and how to write it for a specific audience.” In a sense he prefigures Johnson’s concern, cited above, that the purpose of poetry is to be read.

How, then, to restore poetry’s original sense of freshness, of movement, and yet take into account a modern audience is always the issue. Translators like David Slavitt, with Ovid and Virgil, and William Matthews, with Martial and Horace, have magnificently transplanted these poets to our own times so that they seem to come alive, filled with their own concerns, but as they would speak in our own age, as Johnson had wanted. Matthews, for instance, adds current references, Slavitt’s Virgilian Eclogues are as much interpretations as translations. In other words, they have considered the contemporary reader, as Petrarch urged, along with the meaning and rhythms. This is precisely the example of Horace and of Pope. As Johnson wrote of Pope’s Homer: “To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient: the purpose of an author is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside.”

Literary translation comes close, as Pope suggests in a letter about his Imitations of Horace, to the notion of imitation. One anonymous wrote that Pope’s versions were “bound hand and foot and yet dancing as if free.” Earlier, Ben Jonson had defined imitation in his Timber as merely a poem loosely based on another poem. Dryden in his “Preface” to his translation of Ovid,  then defined three kinds of relationship a poet could have to a prior text.  “Metaphrase” for Dryden was a slavish, “word by word” account. “Paraphrase” was a “translation with latitude” that kept the original meaning but often with “amplification.” “Imitation,” on the other hand, meant, for Dryden, a process where the “translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty, not only to vary words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion; and taking only some general hints from the original, to run division on the groundwork, as he pleases.” This is precisely the sort of thing Robert Lowell does in his Imitations from various poets, and what Pound does in his “Homage to Sextus Propertius,’ a sequence of loosely translated lines rearranged into a sequence of totally new poems. And it is related to what Stephen berg does in  gathering images, tones and lines from Anna Akhmatova in his With Akhmatova at the Gate . Dana Gioia has written an essay describing how Donald Justice makes use of various lines, poems and forms of previous poets in over a fourth of his own poems.

We’ve become so used, in our own time and place, to valuing the new and the different above all else, that we have lost sight, in our own art of poetry with its rich tradition, of, as Roethke says in the title of a revealing essay, “How to Write Like Someone Else.”  Indeed, poets through the ages have learned to write by imitation, from Catullus adaptations of Callimachus, Horace’s borrowings from Lucilius, Petrarch’s use of Dante and Cino di Pistoia, Wyatt and Surrey’s use of Petrarch, and so on. Pope in fact said he turned to imitation to tighten his own verse and to find a voice to say things he was not ready to speak in his own voice. Petrarch, an early champion of learning from the past,  writes in a letter to his friend Boccaccio: “An imitator must see to it that what he writes is similar, but not the very same; and the similarity, moreover, should not be like that of a painting or statue to the person represented, but rather like that of a son to a father, where there is often great difference in the features and members, yet after all there is a shadowy something– akin to what the painters call one’s air–hovering about the face, and especially the eyes, out of which there grows a likeness…. [W]e writers, too, must see to it that along with the similarity there is a large measure of dissimilarity; and furthermore such likeness as there is must be elusive, something that it is impossible to seize except by a sort of still-hunt, a quality to be felt rather than defined…. It may all be summed up by saying with Seneca, and with Flaccus [Horace] before him, that we must write just as the bees make honey, not keeping the flowers but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many different flavors into one, which shall be unlike them all, and better.” Imitation, in other words, is creation: just taking a glance at what Samuel Johnson does to Juvenal in his “Vanity of Human Wishes” or what Frost does with  Virgil’s Georgics in his North of Boston the Greek Anthology in A Witness Tree ought to show us how one can learn from the past and still be original. Curiously, Frost gave a January 1916  lecture called “The discipline of the Classics and the Writing of English” which extolled imitation. One can see how James Wright’s middle poems were influenced by his reading of Lorca, Jiminez, Neruda and various imagistic poems from China and Japan. In fact, a glance at W.S. Merwin’s poems in The Lice (1967) and the translations he was doing at that time show an incredible similarity of the type Petrarch describes. Of course, sometimes imitation is very close to the original: in fact, one translation of Merwin’s , “The Creation of the Moon” derived from a South American Indian tale is almost rendered step by step in  in The Lice but with a different ostensible subject.

Even more  loosely, we can see a number of influences: Kunitz, Horace and Robinson on James Wright; Greek and Roman epigrams on Linda Gregg and Jack Gilbert; Vallejo, Rimbaud and the beats on Tomaz Salamun. Longinus, the Roman critic wrote: “Emulation will bring those great characters before our eyes, and like guiding stars they will lead our thoughts to the ideal standard of perfection.” Perhaps one of the greatest examples is the way Petrarch borrows the idea of creating an evolving self in a sequence of poems from Horace’s Odes and his sense of how to address the reader from Cicero’s letters. Ultimately the point here is that poets learn to advance their craft by reading other poets from other ages and other cultures, adapting impulses, lines, forms and ideas to their own times. Not to read, not to “emulate,” is to isolate one’s art, to leave it static.



My personal history of ideas by poet-translators on their art is a far ranging one that extends from the Romans like Catullus who saw it as a “combat” with the original, to poets like Petrarch and Samuel Johnson who judged a version by its effect in the so called “target language,” to Robert Lowell’s and Alexander Pope’s loose “imitations.” I know that some of these practices would startle if not horrify most of my language teachers. Yet even a respected academic like Wilhelm Humbolt, in his introduction to his translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, says: “the more a translation strives toward fidelity, the more it ultimately deviates from the original, for in attempting to imitate refined nuances and avoid simple generalities it can, in fact, only provide new and different nuances.” This is perhaps why a poet like Jane Hirshfield, also a translator from Japanese, writes: “Translation’s very existence challenges our understanding of what a literary text is.”  I think what has intrigued me about the various possibilities of various kinds of translation is precisely that challenge; it offers a way to understand my native language better, to pay more conscious attention to kinds of detail that I approach on a more subconscious level in writing my own poems, and to appreciate some relationships between my own poems and those of poets in another language with whom I have found a kindred spirit.

For my own part, I have done three separate and very different translation projects that I would like to describe for what light they might cast on the the poet as translator. I felt that each poet’s poems demanded a different approach. Perhaps what links these three very different projects is Milan Kundera’s notion, in Testaments Betrayed, of the importance of the original author’s “personal style.” In many ways he extends Humbolt’s theory when her says that “every author of some value transgresses against ‘good style,’ and in that transgression lies [his] originality. The translator’s primary effort should be to understand that transgression.” For me this has meant reading everything, from letters to journals to work in other genres, to the author’s own translations of other writers’ works, and to the author’s own contemporaries, in an attempt to get to the source of his style, the structure of his mind. The results have been variously:  a fairly traditional approach, a radical transformation of the original, and a collaborative project.

First, the traditional approach. Several years ago I stumbled across a book of last poems by Cesare Pavese in a bookstore in Firenze, poems not then availabe in English, and very different from the William Arrowsmith versions I knew. This book, his last poems before he committed suicide, contains a number of poems in narrow lines where the metamorphic aspect of his earlier work is much intensified. A number of these poems of “Disamore,” “Disaffection” or “Lost Love,” as it might literally or figuratively be translated, identify the land of northwest Italy, especially from Torino to Genoa with a woman, and that land as variable, enticing, dangerous, beautiful, forbidding and distant.

Most translators translate one section of these last poems, originally published in a pamphlet, as “Death Will Come and It Will have Your Eyes.” I translate the title as “Death Will Come and She Will have Your Eyes.” This small difference suggests a huge difference in what Pavese is trying to do. The whole section, in fact, deals with a woman or women who potentially betray him—leading up to his suicide reportedly after his rejection by an American actress. The personification, using “she” rather than “it” is warranted first by the way he personifies other things such as the land, which he sees as feminine, in earlier sections from this book. (While “morte” is technically feminine in Italian, this of course does not carry over into English, though one wonders if Pavese, so careful with images, might have felt this more than we do.) For example, in one poem in this book he writes: “You are the land and death.” In another he says the woman is a “clump of soil.” In another section he is even more direct in linking womanhood to death, something he does in his journals where he says that one kills himself for the love of a woman, “any” woman because of the way the self is humiliated by all women. Obviously, Pavese’s attitude towards women throughout his poems could have benefited from serious counseling.

In any case, my version reads:

Death will come and she will have your eyes.–
this death that accompanies us
from morning to evening, sleepless,
deaf, like an old remorse,
or an absurd vice. Your eyes
will be one empty word,
a hushed cry, a silence.
Things you see each morning
when you alone gather yourself
into a mirror. O dear hope
when will we ever know that
you are life and you are the empty day.

For every death looks the same.
Death will come and she will have your eyes.
It will be like giving up a vice,
like seeing in a mirror
the face of death come to the surface,
like listening to closed lips.
We will descend to the abyss silently.

Personifying death this way also makes the image of seeing death, the woman, in the mirror, more powerfully, for in many ways the idea of a deadly woman took over and controlled his own identity. So the Pavese project has been one where the basically accurate translation tends to emphasize Pavese’s peculiar humanizing of his landscapes more than other translations.

I should also add that these later poems have an entirely different rhythm than his earlier ones: there are quicker turns and the emphasis is more on words and their placement in the line than on phrases and sentences as in the earlier poems. I feel, because of the rhythm of thinking in the original, that, as much as possible, the original word order should be kept. In translations of earlier poems, on the other hand, I have placed more emphasis on the phrase and image order, for it is in those poems that Pavese practices his theory of the “image narrative.” So for example, my last line in “Death Will Come” reads “we will descend into the abyss silently” rather than the more normal American English order, “we will descend silently into the abyss.” The word, silently (“muti”),  comes as a kind of afterthought in the syntax, and yet its place at the end of the line also emphasizes the relationship between silence and death.

The effect on my own poems, if I can judge that, has been first of all an increase in the use of personification, and related to that, a more functional use of landscape. I think I have also noticed a greater attention to different effects of lineation. And as far as understanding Pavese goes, I have gained a more sympathetic understanding of the pathology of his torment.

The second project is not really translation at all, but rather “Poems based on Petrarch,” where I have taken an entirely other approach, using the originals as take off points for what might be likened to jazz riffs. I have in mind the way Coltrane uses a few bars of “Bye Bye Blackbird” in his Swedish date and then takes off into the stratosphere for 13 minutes until we are so far afield all we sometimes hear are a few of the original notes in various patterns. In a way I am following Petrarch’s own advice when he writes in a letter to his friend Boccaccio: “An imitator must see to it that what he writes is similar, but not the very same; and the similarity, moreover, should not be like that of a painting or statue to the person represented, but rather like that of a son to a father, where there is often great difference in the features and members, yet after all there is a shadowy something– akin to what the painters call one’s air–hovering about the face, and especially the eyes, out of which there grows a likeness…. [W]e writers, too, must see to it that along with the similarity there is a large measure of dissimilarity; and furthermore such likeness as there is must be elusive, something that it is impossible to seize except by a sort of still-hunt, a quality to be felt rather than defined…. It may all be summed up by saying with Seneca, and with Flaccus [Horace] before him, that we must write just as the bees make honey, not keeping the flowers but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many different flavors into one, which shall be unlike them all, and better.”

I suppose another model for me was the way Ben Jonson had defined imitation in his Timber as merely a poem loosely based on another poem. Besides, for me there was a problem of the quality of the English version, for even by the time of Shakespeare’s mocking of Petrarch in “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” many of Petrarch’s fresh images and comparisons had already become clichés. This was a problem I experienced with my first versions of Petrarch which were standard conservative translations. These early versions led me to realize that I wanted a sense of what I felt Petrarch might sound like if he wrote today in America. In this context I think of what Pound does in his “Homage to Sextus Propertius,’ a sequence of loosely translated lines rearranged into a sequence of totally new poems and  what Jo Shapcott does in Tender Taxes, based on Rilke’s French poems, which, as she says,  “re-imagines Rilke’s brief and fugitive lyrics as English poems.”

Here, for example, is Petrarch’s #234. ‘O cameretta che già fosti un porto’, literally translated:

O little room that sometimes served as a port
In these fierce daily storms of mine,
You are the fount, now of my nightly tears,
Which, because of the shame I feel, I hide by day.
O little bed, that used to be a comfort and a rest
In many trials, from what  doleful urns
Love bathes you with those hands of ivory,
So cruel to me alone, so unjustly!

I flee not only from seclusion and my rest,
But flee myself and my thoughts even more,
Which used to raise me in flight as I followed.
And now for asylum, I seek out the crowd,
My hated foe — who would believe that?
I am so afraid of finding myself alone.
(my translation)

My riff, “The Exile,” tries to extend the mood of the poem, keeps some allegiance to the setting, but radically changes the images, making them more surreal. I suppose I had in mind what Dryden called “imitation” and what Pound logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words. It is admittedly a far cry from the original, in fact I would really consider it more of an original poem that, in Eliot’s phrase, “steals” from the original. Here, then, is my “riff”-

Grief frames the doorway to that room I used to call my port
against whatever storms came careening down my street,
that room with its memories now crumpled on a table, a fleet
of hopes wrecked by words that regret what they alone distort.
Thorns fill the bed. A taunting night shakes its keys to closets
of desire I can no longer open. Who sleeps there, indiscreet
rival, while I flee his shadows that loiter like a disease
which waits for a soul to pummel, a love to perfectly thwart?
The doorknob of the night is always turning, but it is myself I flee–
my dreams, my rhymes, that lifted me towards a heaven
I thought was the love these words might finally create.
Maybe now I’ll hide in those city crowds I’ve come to hate
since I can no longer face myself, no longer be alone.
Longing rings the doorbell, but the house is empty.

My first idea was how to make this remarkable poet and influence fresh again, more contemporary. So there’s the doorbell is a contemporizing effect, and the doorknob, and the colloquial American English in general. But in all of them I have kept the original rhyme scheme, or one of the schemes, using a lot of slant rhymes. I also loosened the line from his pretty strict classical 11 syllable Italian line, but within those constraints I was often thinking through Petrarch’s mind as I understood it, especially after reading all the 365 poems in his conflicted book about Laura, his Ciceronian and Familiar letters, his other poems and prose and several biographies and critical works.

The poems vary considerably in what they owe to the original, because my ultimate aim was what I could apply to my own work. As I worked with more of his poems I saw much in his life and times similar to my own, and so I began to absorb that personality. Oddly, then a great number of these poems are in effect more autobiographical than my other poems from about 1993 on. This project effected a greater sense of the possibilities for contradictions and arguments within the evolving movement of my own poems, a move also towards more concise poems than I had been writing, a greater sense of the odd and sudden twists and turns metaphors can take, and the way a controlling metaphor can move in and out of a poem’s surface. I’ve done about seventy poems, mostly sonnets, with a few canzoni, and am probably done with it for now.

My third translation project is a collaborative effort with two other American poets, Susan Thomas and Deborah Brown, with occasional help from a few of our friends. In our versions of Giovanni Pascoli, a turn of the last century poet who spent his last years in rural Barga, in northwest Tuscany, we have used John Hollander’s notion of finding an analogue in English poetry to use as a kind of base. (As with the Pavese and Petrarch, I have visited Pascoli’s home and favorite haunts to gain a further feel for the landscape that is so important to him.)  Pascoli, by the way,  was a terrific influence on Pavese. Just as Nabokov found an analogue for his translation of Pushkin in Andrew Marvell,  as part of our procedure, we found an analogue in a combination of Hardy and Frost, that is, a voice that is at once rustic and cosmopolitan, melodious and rough, minute in its natural observations and ready to imply larger analogies.  We have not kept strictly to Pascoli’s format, never the rhymes which his rustic syntax allows him to sound more natural in Italian, though we have tried to duplicate the inner form, the appearance on the page and many of the sound effects.

Our procedure, after deciding we wanted an accurate translation that also conveyed the mood and tone– was for one of us– this varied  poem to poem — to provide a version to work on. Then the other two would offer comments, suggestions, sometimes radical rephrasing. This was mostly done by email. A number of problems surfaced immediately. For one, Pascoli writes in a particular dialect from the mountains of northwest Tuscany above Lucca. A number of words had to be deciphered contextually through the meanings of the poem in question, its companions and through the online version of the poems that also contained a useful concordance. Stylistically, Pascoli often drops part of a sentence, uses pronouns in an ambiguous way to extend meanings, and puns in sometimes very subtle ways (both verbally and visually). As with Pavese, I felt the word order with its rhythm and lineation was crucial.  Some of his references are to specific places near Barga, and to particular folk events and sayings. He also has a habit of linking clauses together by semicolons to suggest a kind of linking of the particulars of a scene in a kind of image narrative that may have later influenced Pavese’s theory of the “image story.” His poems range from dialectic sequences of brief lyrics about rustic life to odes and other longer poems, and then later in his career to political poems and poems based on classical and mythic themes, on artists and other famous figures.

One example of the problems of translation here stems from his extensive knowledge of astronomy and mythology. For example, one of his most interesting sequences is “The Last Voyage,” a narrative of Odysseus wanderings after the Odyssey to plant an oar where Poseidon is not known, certainly a sequence influenced by Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”  Susan rendered the opening poem’s lines 3-5 as:

Because of an error made on land,
He was exhausted and foot weary,
Supporting an oar on his strong shoulder.

Now the word for shoulder is “omero” which, capitalized, is also “Homer.” The poem itself is a carrying forward of Homer: should we try to account for this pun? Would the phrase “Homeric shoulder” work? The adjective for shoulder is “grande” which can mean here “big” or “strong.” Someone even suggested “epic shoulder” which we rejected. Also, the “error made on land” is that he is lost — (the root of “error” in English and the Italian original here is to wander– as in Spenser and Milton, for example). Lines one and two had referred to Ulysses as the great navigator– on sea. So, for now, our committee of three has settled on the following, also changing the word order to reflect the original:

Because he had lost his way
He was exhausted and foot-weary,
Carrying, on his strong Homeric shoulder, an oar.

Even the title of the poem, “La Pala,” or “blade,” though, poses problems. “Pala del remo” is the blade of an oar, but the oar here is mistaken for a harvest flail, and in the second poem “L’Ala” (literally, “wing” or even “oar blade”) the oar is perceived as a wing. So should we render the two titles as “The Oar as Flail” and “The Oar as Wing”? We are still wrestling with the possibilities.

With references to constellations and stars we have consistently described them as the animals and figures they were seen as in ancient times because Pascoli seems to be using them this way. For example, Deb’s literal rendering of one section of a later poem in the sequence would yield:

It is time to plow the field, not the sea,
from which you can see not even
a handful of the seven stars.
It is sixty days till the sun returns,
Until Ursa Major, the stars that guide you,
will return. By then the breeze is sweet,
the sea is calm, the shining Bootes will be visible.

The seven stars are possibly the Pleides according to an Italian editor’s notes, but most likely the big dipper, Ursa Major, the great bear because Bootes, after all, is the hunter who follows after her. Indeed, the handful of stars is what is probably referred to as the tail of the bear — or the handle of the dipper.  Actually, Pascoli uses the word “Carro” (capitalized) for Ursa major which is its astronomical meaning, but its more common meaning is cart, and so the tail of the bear is also the cart’s handle and the dipper’s handle. The association with the cart is important because it relates to the plowing image. There is a kind of furiously quick web of associations here that is probably impossible to translate. Here’s our version:

It is time to plow the field, and not the sea,
From which you can not even begin to see
A handful the seven stars in the Great Bear.
It is sixty days till the sun will return,
Until the Bear, your guiding constellation,
Will return. By then the breeze is sweet, the sea
Calm, the brilliant hunter will be visible….

There is an interesting play between what can and can’t be seen, between finding one’s way and being lost. And this version tries to maintain some of the traditional 11 syllable line length that Pascoli deploys. We have kept “handful” to suggest both the plowed earth and the handle of the cart. Finally, turning the constellations into the figures they represent gives, we hope, a greater sense of visual drama.

Working on this collaborative effort has been immensely rewarding for it has the advantage of having different minds, while adhering to the same general poetics, offer and discuss various alternatives. The result has been a deeper understanding of the process of translation, and of the inner workings of  Pascoli’s poetic mind, and also possibilities for using myths in our own poems. And we have been able to see how Pascoli’s descriptive poetry is later adapted and transformed into a more metamorphic vision by Pavese: in other words, we have been able to see a kind of translation between poets of the same language which has in turn influenced how we read our own influences.

The American Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Charles Simic, writes that “Lyricism, in its true sense, is the awe before the untranslatable.”  I suppose it is that sort of lyricism that these three projects aim for. Obviously, too, I have been using American rather than British English, a difference radically brought home to me this past September at Vilenica where I worked on a couple of poems by a Slovene poet with a British poet translator, Stephen Watts, the  Slovene translator, Ana Jelnikar, and the poet herself. Several times Stephen and myself had very different phrasing. Each of our choices, I believe, was appropriate to our audiences back home. I was reminded of the American teacher who had his class translate a sentence, “The evening passed,” from an English novel, and one student rendered it as “It got late.” And it has– so I’ll end here.

—Richard Jackson

Some Useful Sources

Arrowsmith, William and Roger Shattuck, eds., The Craft and Context of Translation: A Critical Symposium. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961.

Baker , Mona, ed., Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London: Routledge, 1998.

Barnstone ,Willis, The Poetics of Translation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Belitt, Ben. Adam’s Dream: A Preface to Translation. Grove, 1978.  Interviews, essays, introductions on a variety of problems and poets.

Brower, Reuben, Mirror on Mirror: Translation, Imitation, Parody. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974

_____, ed., On Translation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959. This landmark anthology includes Bayard Quincy Morgan’s critical bibliography of works on translation (from 46 BC. to 1958)—an essential historical survey of the topic.

Gass, William. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. Knopf, 1999. A well thought out, book length account of what it means to translate an author, his life, his work, his being.

Gentzler, Edward, Contemporary Translation Theories. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Graham, Joseph F., ed., Difference in Translation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Grahs, Lillebill and Gustav Korlen, eds., Theory and Practice of Translation. New York: Lang, 1978.

Hawkins, Peter and Jacoff, Rachel. The Poet’s Dante: Twentieth Century Responses. Farrar, Strauss, 1999. Essays by numerous essential poets such as Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Montale, Lowell, Auden, Merwin, Pinsky, Doty, Hirsch and many others.

Hirschfield, Jane. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. Harper Collins, 1998. This terrific book has a great essay on translation.

Kelly , Louis G.. The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West. Oxford: Blackwell, 1979

Raffel, Burton, The Art of Translating Prose, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

_________, The Art of Translating Poetry, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.

_________, The Forked Tongue: A Study of the Translation Process. Hawthorne, NY: Mouton de Gruyter, 1971.

Schulte, Rainer and Biguenet, John. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. University of Chicago Press, 1992. Includes major works by Goethe, Rossetti, Benjamin, Pound, Nabokov, Paz and others; the best single source of theory.

Schulte, Rainer and Biguenet, John. The Craft of Translation. University of Chicago Press, 1989. Excellent practical essays, many being introductions, on translating writers such as Celan, Eich, Japanese Poetry, medieval works, and some theory.

Steiner, George, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. London: Oxford University Press, revised edition 1993 (original edition 1975).

Warren, Rosanna, ed., The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.

Weissbort, Daniel, ed., Translating Poetry: The Double Labyrinth. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989

Wechsler, Robert. Performing Without a Stage: The Art of Literary Translation. Catbird Press, 1998. General introduction to major issues.


Other Sources

Some examples of Adaptation include: Jo Shapcott, Tender Taxes (Faber and Faber, 2001); Stephen Berg, Oblivion (Illinois, 1995) and With Akhmatova at the Black Gates (Illinois, 1981); Robert Lowell, Imitations (Farrar, Strauss, 1961).

Two excellent examples of various versions of two major poets, from translation to imitation are:

  • Dante’s Inferno: Translations by 20 Contemporary Poets, ed. Dan Halpern, Ecco Press, 1993. Widely different approaches by Heaney, Strand, Kinnell, Graham, Plumly, Mitchell, Williams, Wright, Clampitt, Forche, Merwin, Digges, Hass, etc.
  • After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, ed, Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun, Faber and faber, 1994. Everything from strict translation to tangential relationship is represented in versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Hughes, Graham, Fulton, Pinsky, Boland, Carson, Muldoon,  Simic and others.

The Nov/Dec 2002 Poets and Writers magazine has a complete section on translation.

See also the comprehensive web site sponsored by P.E.N. International.

There is a terrific Manual For Translators with bibliography and resources at http://www.pen.org/translation/handbook1999.html#_Toc452369688


Mar 052011

Here is a twisted, black comic reversal of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which, yes, is already a twisted, black comic reversal story. So that “Gregor,” by the wonderful Catalan author Quim Monzó is a double dose of twisted and black, or maybe twisted and black squared. This story is from Monzó’s collection Guadalajara, translated into English by Peter Bush, and forthcoming this summer from Open Letter Books. Watch for the book—it’s amazing. Like “Gregor,” many of the stories work on the principles of literary reference and inversion: Ulysses gets trapped inside the Trojan Horse, Robin Hood steals so much that the rich are impoverished and the poor become wealthy, a famous prophet can’t remember any prophecies. Monzó’s influences are often postmodern (Coover, Barthelme, etc.) or surrealist (Raymond Queneau). He was born in Barcelona in 1952. He has been awarded the National Award, the City of Barcelona Award, the Prudenci Bertrana Award, the El Temps Award, the Lletra d’Or Prize for the best book of the year, and the Catalan Writers’ Award; he has been awarded Serra d’Or magazine’s prestigious Critics’ Award four times. He has also translated numerous authors into Catalan, including Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway.



When the beetle emerged from his larval state one morning, he found he had been transformed into a fat boy. He was lying on his back, which was surprisingly soft and vulnerable, and if he raised his head slightly, he could see his pale, swollen belly. His extremities had been drastically reduced in number, and the few he could feel (he counted four eventually) were painfully tender and fleshy and so thick and heavy he couldn’t possibly move them around.

What had happened? The room seemed really tiny and the smell much less mildewy than before. There were hooks on the wall to hang a broom and mop on. In one corner, two buckets. Along another wall, a shelf with sacks, boxes, pots, a vacuum cleaner, and, propped against that, the ironing board. How small all those things seemed now—he’d hardly been able to take them in at a glance before. He moved his head. He tried twisting to the right, but his gigantic body weighed too much and he couldn’t. He tried a second time, and a third. In the end he was so exhausted that he was forced to rest.

He opened his eyes again in dismay. What about his family? He twisted his head to the left and saw them, an unimaginable distance away, motionless, observing him, in horror and in fear. He was sorry they felt frightened: if at all possible, he would have apologized for the distress he was causing. Every fresh attempt he made to budge and move towards them was more grotesque. He found it particularly difficult to drag himself along on his back. His instinct told him that if he twisted on to his front he might find it easier to move; although with only four (very stiff) extremities, he didn’t see how he could possibly travel very far. Fortunately, he couldn’t hear any noise and that suggested no humans were about. The room had one window and one door. He heard raindrops splashing on the zinc window sill. He hesitated, unsure whether to head towards the door or the window before finally deciding on the window—from there he could see exactly where he was, although he didn’t know what good that would do him. He tried to twist around with all his might. He had some strength, but it was evident he didn’t know how to channel it, and each movement he made was disconnected, aimless, and unrelated to any other. When he’d learned to use his extremities, things would improve considerably, and he would be able to leave with his family in tow. He suddenly realized that he was thinking, and that flash of insight made him wonder if he’d ever thought in his previous incarnation. He was inclined to think he had, but very feebly compared to his present potential.

After numerous attempts he finally managed to hoist his right arm on top of his torso; he thus shifted his weight to the left, making one last effort, twisted his body around, and fell heavily, face down. His family warily beat a retreat; they halted a good long way away, in case he made another sudden movement and squashed them. He felt sorry for them, put his left cheek to the ground, and stayed still. His family moved within millimeters of his eyes. He saw their antennae waving, their jaws set in a rictus of dismay. He was afraid he might lose them. What if they rejected him? As if she’d read his thoughts, his mother caressed his eyelashes with her antennae. Obviously, he thought, she must think I’m the one most like her. He felt very emotional (a tear rolled down his cheek and formed a puddle round the legs of his sister), and, wanting to respond to her caress, he tried to move his right arm, which he lifted but was unable to control; it crashed down, scattering his family, who sought refuge behind a container of liquid softener. His father moved and gingerly stuck his head out. Of course they understood he didn’t want to hurt them, that all those dangerous movements he was making were simply the consequence of his lack of expertise in controlling his monstrous body. He confirmed the latter when they approached him again. How small they seemed! Small and (though he was reluctant to accept this) remote, as if their lives were about to fork down irrevocably different paths. He’d have liked to tell them not to leave him, not to go until he could go with them, but he didn’t know how. He’d have liked to be able to stroke their antennae without destroying them, but as he’d seen, his clumsy movements brought real danger. He began the journey to the window on his front. Using his extremities, he gradually pulled himself across the room (his family remained vigilant) until he reached the window. But the window was very high up, and he didn’t see how he could climb that far. He longed for his previous body, so small, nimble, hard, and full of legs; it would have allowed him to move easily and quickly, and another tear rolled down, now prompted by his sense of powerlessness.

As the minutes passed, he slowly learned how to move his extremities, coordinate them, and apply the requisite strength to each arm. He learned how to move his fingers and gripped the windowsill. Seconds later he finally succeeded in raising his torso. He thought that was a real victory. He was now sitting down, legs crossed, with his left shoulder leaning on the section of wall under the window. His family stared at him from one corner of the room with a mixture of admiration and panic. He finally pulled himself on to his knees, gripped the sill with his hands, so he wouldn’t fall, and looked out of the window. Part of the building on the other side of the street stood out clearly. It was a very long, dark building, with symmetrical windows that broke up the monotony of the façade. It was still raining: big drops of rain that were easy to spot individually and hit the ground separately. He made one last effort and pulled himself up and stood erect. He marveled at being so vertical, yet felt uncomfortable at the same time, even queasy, and had to lean on the wall so as not to fall down: his legs soon went weak, and he gently eased himself down until he was back on his knees. He crawled towards the door. It was ajar. He had to push it to open it wide, and he pushed so energetically (he found it difficult to estimate the effort strictly necessary for each gesture he made) that he slammed it against the wall and it swung back and almost shut. He repeated the movement, less brusquely this time. Once he’d managed to open the door, he went out into the passageway, still on his knees.

Could humans be somewhere in the house? Probably, but (he im­­agined) if he did find any, they wouldn’t hurt him; he looked like them now. The idea fascinated him. He’d no longer have to run away for fear they’d crush him underfoot! It was the first good thing about his transformation. He saw only one drawback: they would want to speak to him, and he wouldn’t know how to reply. Once he was in the passage, he pulled himself up again with the help of his arms. He didn’t feel so queasy now. He walked along slowly (his legs bore his weight better now) and every step forward he took became easier. There was a door at the end of the passage. He opened it. The bathroom. A toilet, bidet, bathtub, and two washbasins under their respective mirrors. He had never looked at himself before and now saw immediately what he was like: naked, fat, and flabby. From his height in the mirror he deduced he wasn’t yet an adult. Was he a child? An adolescent? He was upset to see himself naked; he didn’t understand why—nudity had never bothered him before. Was it the misshapen body, the pounds of flesh, the chubby, acne-ridden face? Who was he? What was he all about? He walked through the house, gaining in stability all the time. He opened the door to the bedroom that was next to the bathroom. There were some skates next to the bed. And lots of pennants on the walls. There was also a desk, exercise books, reading books. And a shelf full of comics, a football, and some photos. A photo of himself (he recognized himself straightaway, just like in the bathroom: fat, spotty, and dressed as if for indoor football, in a blue jersey with a white stripe on each sleeve). He found clothes in the cupboard: underpants, a T-shirt, a polo, tracksuit bottoms, socks, and sneakers. He got dressed.

He looked through the spy-hole in the front door. Outside he could see a landing and three more front doors. He went back to the living room, ran his finger along the spines of the few books on the shelves. He caressed a china mug. Turned on the radio. Music blared out, but he couldn’t understand the words:

. . . unforgettable doves,
unforgettable like the afternoons
when the rain from the sierra
stopped us going to Zapoopan . . .

He switched it off. Silence. Sat down on the sofa. Picked up the channel-changer. Turned on the TV. Changed channels; brightened the colors as much as he could, turned the volume all the way up. Turned it all the way down. It was so easy. There was a book open on the sofa. He picked it up, convinced he would understand nothing, but the second he looked at the page, he read almost fluently: “I’ve moved. I used to live in the Duke Hotel, on the corner of Washington Square. My family has lived there for generations, and when I say generations I mean at least two-hundred or three-hundred generations.” He closed the book, and when he’d put it back where he’d found it, he remembered he’d found it open and not shut. He picked it up again, and while he was looking for the page it had been open to, he heard the sound of keys turning in a lock. A man and a wo­­man appeared; they were clearly adults. The man said, “Hello.” The wom­an walked over, kissed him on the cheek, looked him up and down, and asked: “How come you’ve put your pants on backwards?” He looked at his tracksuit bottoms. How was he to know they were back to front? He shrugged his shoulders. “Have you done your homework?” the man asked. Oh, no, not homework! He imagined (as if he could remember) an earlier time, when homework and backward pants didn’t exist. “Get on with it then!” It was the woman’s turn. Before going to his bedroom and getting on with it, he went into the kitchen, opened the fridge, took out a can of Diet Coke, that he struggled to open (still being clumsy with his hands), and spilled half on the floor. Before they could scold him, he went to the junk room, and as he unhooked the mop, he spotted three beetles huddling against the wall; after freezing for a moment, they tried to escape. He felt disgusted, put his right foot on them, and pressed down until he could feel them squashing.

—Quim Monzó, translated by Peter Bush


Peter Bush is an award-winning literary translator who was born in Spalding, Lincolnshire, UK, and now lives in Barcelona. Previously he was Professor of Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, where he directed the British Centre for Literary Translation.He has been active in defence of the rights of literary translators as Vice-President of the International Translators Federation and was founding editor of the literary translators’ journal, In Other Words. His recent translations from Spanish include Níjar Country and Exiled From Almost Everywhere by Juan Goytisolo and Celestina by Fernando de Rojas; from Catalan A Shortcut to Paradise by Teresa Solana and The Last Patriarch by Najat El Hachmi. He is now finishing Tirano Banderas by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, the classic novel on the theme of dictatorship in Latin America and L’Éloge de l’Amour, a philosophical dialogue between Alain Badiou and Nicolas Truong. He has also translated the novel, The Enormity of the Tragedy, by Quim Monzó.


Jan 162011

Pierre Joris. Photo by Joseph Mastantuono


Pierre Joris is a poet and translator who teaches at the University at Albany-State University of New York. I got to know him in the mid-1990s when I taught graduate creative writing students at the university and did a weekly radio show called The Book Show (two years, over 80 interviews with famous and infamous writers from Europe, Canada and the United States) at WAMC, the Albany Public Radio affiliate. One of my  interviews was devoted to Pierre who is not just a poet and teacher but a protean dynamo of translation, theory, criticism, editing, and international literary promotion. One of his many accomplishments is the massive multi-volume Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry which he co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg. In 2005 he won the PEN Poetry in Translation prize. Later this year ‘Exile is My Trade:’ The Habib Tengour Reader, edited, translated & introduced by Pierre Joris will be published by Black Widow Press.

Tengour is an Algerian poet, novelist and ethnologist, a post-colonial, surrealist, and self-described mestizo writer who has lived, worked and studied in Algeria and Paris. As Pierre Joris writes, Tengour is “one of the Maghreb’s most forceful and visionary francophone poetic voices of the post-colonial era. The work has the desire and intelligence to be epic, or at least to invent narrative possibilities beyond the strictures of the Western / French lyric tradition, in which his colonial childhood had schooled him.” Few of Tengour’s works are available in English, but a Joris translation of the narrative poem “The Old Man of the Mountain” was published in 4X1: Works by Tristan Tzara, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean-Pierre Duprey, and Habib Tengour by Pete Monaco & Sharul Ladue (a former student of mine) at Inconundrum Press (which was subsequently taken over by another former student and NC community member Nina Alvarez). Herewith I am pleased to present two new Tengour works translated by Pierre Joris.



“Five Movements of the Soul” and “Hodgepodge”

By Habib Tengour

Translated by Pierre Joris

2 Sections from: Etats de chose suivi de Fatras.



Five Movements of the Soul (new version)

Gray this voice

goes to earth



has sung

has taken

body of evocation

In silence

at a loss

to stretch

stone                                river
a door


this did not last

Continue reading »

Jan 112011

I met Tim Kercher during the Vermont College of Fine Arts residency in Slovenia in 2008. You can see my photos from that trip here. He was living in Tbilisi, Georgia, at the time (now he and his wife and their brand new twin girls live in Kyiv in Ukraine) and that got me interested  in talking to him because I had spent time in Tbilisi in the late 1980s when I toured the old Soviet Union at the invitation of the Soviet Writers Union. Tbilisi was an amazing place–intricate frame buildings, statues of Lermontov, fiery aging writers, all of whom claimed to have been put up against a wall a nearly shot by the Russians, vineyards, immense hospitality, gracious toasts–and my interpreter, Inge Paliani, took me to see Stalin’s mother’s grave. Inge subsequently translated two of my stories and published them for me in a Georgian magazine. So it gives me intense pleasure to finally return the favour and publish a Georgian writer in translation in Numéro Cinq. For a little background see “Conformism and Resistance: The Birth of Modern Georgian Literature,” included here starting on page 7. Georgian is a language spoken by about 4 million people, but these people are proud of their literary heritage. Even Stalin was a poet. They even have their own national epic, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin.

Timothy Kercher is a graduate of VCFA. He now, as I said, makes his home in Kyiv, after spending the previous four years in Georgia,  where he was editing and translating an anthology of contemporary Georgian poetry. Originally from Colorado, he teaches high school English and is working in his fifth country overseas—Mongolia, Mexico, and Bosnia being the others. His manuscript Nobody’s Odyssey was recently selected as a finalist for the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. His poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of literary publications, including Atlanta Review, The Dirty Goat, Poetry International Journal, The Evansville Review, upstreet, Guernica, The Minnesota Review and others.

Ani Kopaliani holds a MA in the theory of translation. She is working towards a PhD in the same subject at Tbilisi State University. She was named Best Young Georgian Translator in 2005 and again in 2010. She has published a translation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women, and is currently translating William Faulkner’s Flags in the Dust into Georgian.

Besik Kharanauli‘s The Lame Doll, which was published in Georgia (USSR at the time) in 1971. It was groundbreaking–the first poem to employ free verse (and to have an average  “everyman” as persona) in Georgian.  It influenced the entire generation of Georgian poets. This is his first complete work translated into English. The Georgian government just nominated Besik for the Nobel Prize, although there’s little chance he’ll win it–this being his only work published in English (a novel of his was recently translated into French and won some awards—my next project is to translate this novel into English). The complete translation of The Lame Doll is going to be published in Turkey by a Georgian press sometime next year.  —Timothy Kercher



by Besik Kharanauli

translated by Timothy Kercher and Ani Kopaliani


It’s morning. March. February.

Rush hour. Drizzle. Noise.

The kind of weather
where everything you see
or think is stitched with vanity.

It’s neither suburb
nor center, but a midday sun.
If a man isn’t a worker
in a district like this,
he’s a state servant.

An office sign
like a black cloud
hides the sky
and the days go on
bluelessly, tediously.

A tram with a small bell on its neck speeds away.
Continue reading »

Dec 092010

In the last years of his life, Rilke wrote hundreds of poems in French. Not widely translated, they continue his meditations on and imaginings about the things of the world but in the fresh expression of this adopted language. Marilyn McCabe is poet and essayist and an old friend, part of “the Greenfield Crowd,” a disparate and rowdy group of writers, painters, cellists and cross-country skiers loosely based in Greenfield, NY (though Marilyn actually lives in Saratoga Springs). Laura Von Rosk and Naton Leslie, who have both appeared on these pages, are part of the group. Marilyn has published widely, including an essay in VCFA’s own magazine Hunger Mountain. With Elaine Handley and Mary Shartle (two more members of the Greenfield Crowd), she published a collection called Three Poets on Themes of Love, Death, and Sex. It’s a great pleasure to be able to introduce her here.

from Vergers (Orchards)

Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated from French by Marilyn McCabe


Ce soir mon coeur fait chanter
des anges qui se souviennent….
Une voix, presque mienne,
par trop de silence tentée,

monte et se decide
à ne plus revenir;
tender et intrépide,
à quoi va-t-elle s’unir?

Tonight my heart makes sing
the angels who are remembering….
A voice, close to mine,
lured by too much silence,

rises and decides
to never return;
intrepid and tender,
with what will it unite?

Continue reading »

Nov 302010

Poems from Privanje na svetlobo (Adjusting to the Light)

By Andrej Hočevar

Translated by Andrej Hočevar and Kelly Lenox


Kelly Lenox is a poet, translator and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate. Some of you have attended the VCFA summer residencies in Slovenia where Kelly has been the boots-on-the-ground facilitator and interpreter for ages. DG particularly recalls a day he and Kelly spent wandering around Venice together during the 2008 residency. She was a delightful Virgil to dg’s Dante, though, as dg recalls, Kelly was nearly as lost as he was. In part because of her connection with Slovenia through VCFA, Kelly has made something of a specialty of discovering Slovenian poetic talent. Herewith, a series of poems by the young Slovenian poet Andrej Hočevar.

Don’t miss these poems. There are some lovely, heart-breaking lines:

I re-stack the books, I lie on the sofa,
my presence only thickening the dark,
my stillness but a thing among things.

And this:

I drink another glass of wine
out of another glass. Where are you.
There is a new color forming as the birds
breathe with the evening. Where are you.
I don’t know how to put this; I mean,
look, how I struggle with myself
for you to see me at all.

Born in 1980 in Maribor, Hočevar has published four books of poetry. He also writes essays and reviews of books and music, is a member of the editorial board of the Literatura magazine, and plays bass guitar in the rock group Mrtvi psi. His poems have been translated into Croatian, Macedonian, Serbian, Italian, Hungarian, English and German.



Meja med mano in zrakom se je
dvignila čez vrhove dreves, zdaj je
oddaljenost dneva najbolj otipljiva.
nebo je narobe obrnjeno jezero,
naježene veje, ke jih bo zdaj
zdaj pogoltila tema, stojijo
pokončno kot moški v osemdesetih.
Danes je rojstni dan mojega deda
in nov letni čas mi k nogam polaga
stare užitke, v katere začenjam
spet verjeti. A dnevi so zdaj kratki,
zato začnemo hitreje misliti
na tistega, s komer jih želimo končati.


The border between me and the air
has risen above the treetops—
the remoteness of the day at its most tangible.
The sky is an inverted lake,
the bristled branches, soon to be
swallowed by the dark,
stand upright like a man in his eighties.
Today is my grandfather’s birthday
and the new season brings me
old pleasures I’m beginning to believe in once again.
But the days are short now
and so it is earlier when we begin
thinking of the person
we want to end them with.

Continue reading »

Nov 162010

Henighan in Romania

Hot off the presses (actually not even off the presses yet), here is the first chapter of Mihail Sebastian’s novel The Accident, translated into English from Romanian for the first time by Stephen Henighan and about to be published by Biblioasis (in just a few weeks). Numéro Cinq readers are already familiar with Stephen’s fiction (see his story “After the Hurricane” earlier published on NC). He is also an indefatigable globetrotter, critic and translator. Here is his own short intro to the chapter that follows.


Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945) was one of the major Central European writers of the 1930s. Born in southeastern Romania, he worked in Bucharest as a lawyer, journalist, novelist and playwright until anti-semitic legislation forced him to abandon his public career. His long-lost diary, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, was published in seven countries between 1996 and 2007, launching an international revival of his work. Sebastian’s novels and plays are available in translation throughout Europe, and also have been published in Chinese, Hindi, Bengali and Hebrew.

The Accident is Sebastian’s first work of fiction to appear in English.

In spite of what his death date might suggest, Sebastian was not liquidated by the Iron Guard (Romania’s Nazis). He survived the Holocaust (in gruelling circumstances), resumed his public career in early 1945 and was run over by a truck in May 1945, at the age of thirty-seven, while on his way to give a lecture on Balzac. On the basis of the four novels and five plays he left behind, it’s hard not to conclude that Europe lost one of its major writers.

—Stephen Henighan


The Accident

By Mihail Sebastian

Translated from the Romanian by Stephen Henighan


Chapter 1

She didn’t know how much time had passed. A few seconds? A few long minutes?

She felt nothing. Around her she heard voices, footsteps, people calling out, but all muted and grey, like a sort of auditory paste, from which occasionally a tram bell or a shout shook loose with unexpected clarity, only to fade away again into the suffocated commotion.

They’ll say it’s an accident, she thought very calmly, almost with indifference.

The thought made her feel neither alarmed nor hurried. She had a very vague impression that she must be stretched out next to the sidewalk with her head in the snow. But she didn’t try to move.

A stupid, senseless question passed through her mind: What time is it?

She strained to listen to the tick-tock of her wristwatch, but couldn’t hear it. It must have been smashed. Then, in an effort to concentrate, as though immersed in herself, she observed that in fact she heard nothing of her own being; not her pulse, not her heart, not her breath.

I’m…, she reflected. I’m like a clock. And it seemed to her that she was smiling, although she couldn’t feel her lips, for whose outline she searched in vain somewhere in that familiar yet vanished space that was her unfeeling body.

Continue reading »

Nov 082010

DG realizes that this may be a stretch for some of you. A couple of weeks ago NC published Jacob’s poem “After Reading Heidegger and Seeing a Dead Rat” which has proved amazingly popular, partly because it’s a witty poem and partly because it gets a certain number of hits every day from people searching “dead rats” on Google (who would have thought this was an underground hot topic?). DG took off the “rat” tag, but that hasn’t stopped the deluge. In any case, this is neither here nor there to Jacob who wrote the poem for fun and who has since translated it into Latin for fun. The fact that he has a mind for this is a continual delight to his father.


After Reading Heidegger and Seeing a Dead Rat

Vidi id in bestiolam via
Secundo die autumno
Bestiola, quae bestiolae fuit, sed
Nunc nihil non fuit, sed
Aliqua non Ens
Bestiola habuerat, sed nunc
Tenebras firigidas rigidarumque habet.
In via, secondo die autumno
Enti cinctus est, in Ente,
Idquod bestiola, non iam ens, fuit
Olim, Ens in Bestiola fuit
Olim Ens fuit hac bestiola, quando ea
Fuit ens.
Sed nunc, Ens nihil non est, abfuit,
Ex hac bestiola, utique, ergo abisset.
—Jacob Glover

Oct 062010

author-u6-a53Herewith a sequence of poems from Steven Heighton‘s book Patient Frame. Numéro Cinq readers will (or may not) recall Steven from two earlier appearances on these pages (here and here). He is an old friend, a hurting hockey player, father of a daughter, and he published a book of poems and a novel this year, which is more than I have (probably you, too). He sent me “A Strange Fashion horaceof Forsaking…” months ago for fun and it’s been biting at the back of my brain ever since, not the least because he refashions Horace after Thomas Wyatt, one of my favourite poets. I leave it to Steven to introduce Horace and these translations—which he prefers to call “approximations”—in his own words.




Horace, or Quintus Horatius Flaccus, was a Roman poet. During his lifetime (65 BCE – 8 BCE) he served briefly as a military officer, as a functionary in the Roman treasury, and as a writer, producing satires, epodes, epistles, literary criticism, and poems. He was a highly versatile poet, both formally and thematically; his Odes comprise work ranging from personal lyrics to moralistic verse, and from private, occasional poems to public, ceremonial verse. Horace’s words survive not only in Classics departments and in translation (David Ferry’s The Odes of Horace is deservedly respected and widely read), but in common parlance: the phrase carpe diem ­comes from one of his poems.

In approaching these four odes of Horace I’ve stuck with my usual practice as an amateur translator, giving myself the freedom to make each approximation as “free” or as “faithful” as the original inspires me to be. So “Pyrrha” sticks close to the untitled original in its structure, imagery and level of diction, while “Chloe” has morphed from an unrhymed twelve line poem into a short-lined sonnet. “A Strange Fashion of Forsaking” is inflected and re-gendered by way of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s famous poem “They Flee from Me”, while “Noon on Earth!” has gone from a linguistically formal eight lines to a highly colloquial seventeen.

Robert Kroetsch once observed that every poem is a failed translation. What a translation can’t afford to be is a failed poem—or at least an uninteresting one. My aim in approximating a poem that I love is, of course, to make a compelling counterpart in English—something to entertain you, startle you, pry you open—while in the process entertaining myself: sitting up, by candlelight, with dictionaries and a glass of Douro red, the house silent, even the bats in our walls asleep; reciting the original lines aloud, in some cases two thousand years after their conception; weighing how best to re-conceive those cadences in English; serving as a kind of stenographer to the dead, a medium at a prosodic séance, an avid collaborator, an apprentice always learning from the work. And for me, the most mysterious, engrossing work lies in finding a way into old or ancient poems and making them young again. Hence Horace.

I’ll conclude by quoting the middle section of a poem I translated several years ago—a poem by the contemporary Italian writer Valerio Magrelli, which suggests some of the addictive bustle and exertion of the translator’s work. (The unquoted opening lines introduce the metaphor of the translator as a one-man or –woman moving company.)

I too move something—words—
to a new building, words
not mine, setting hands to things
I don’t quite know, not quite
comprehending what I move.
Myself I move—translate
pasts to presents, to presence, that
travels sealed up, packed in pages
or in crates . . .

The final unpacking, of course, is the task of the reader.

—SH, Kingston, Ontario

Pyrra (i:5)

What slender elegant youth, perfumed
among roses, is urging himself on you,
Pyrrha, in the fragrant grotto? Have you
bound your yellow hair so gracefully

for him? How many times he’ll weep because
faith is fickle, as the gods are, how often
will the black, sea-disquieting winds
astonish him, although for now

credulous, grasping at fool’s gold, he enjoys you,
hopes you’ll always be calm water, always
this easy to love. Unconscious of the wind’s wiles
he’s helpless, still tempted

by your gleaming seas. But high on the temple wall
I’ve set this votive tablet, and in thanks
to the god for rescue have hung
my sea-drenched mantle there.

Chloe ( i, 23)

You flee from me, Chloe, a young deer
urgently in search of mother, lost
in lonely, high forests
tremulous with fear

at the mountain’s slimmest breeze, or
springtime’s delicate revealing
of leaves, or a leafgreen lizard’s spring
from thickets. (What terrors seize

the fawn then!). But Chloe, I’m neither
a tiger nor a lion, intent
on savage appetites, or upon

causing you any pain. Forget
looking back for your mother
now, woman:
it’s time to love a man.

“A Strange Fashion of Forsaking . . .”
(i, 25: via Thomas Wyatt)

The wilder girls hardly bother anymore
to rattle your shuttered window with fists, or
pitch stones, shatter your dreamfree sleep, while your door,
once oiled and swinging,

nimbly hinged, hangs dead with rust. Less and less
you wake now to ex-lovers crying, “Thomas,
you bastard, how can you sleep?—I’m dying for us
to do it again.”

Seems to me your turn’s long overdue—solo
nightshift when, like some codger in a cul-
de-sac, you’ll moan for all the women (scornful
now) who one time sought you.

The cold will be what finds you then—northeasters
whining down in the gloom of the moon, and lust
in riddled guts twisting you like a stud in must
who has to stand watching

his old mares mounted. You’ll know then, the desire
of girls is for greener goods—such dry sticks
and wiltwood, blown only by the cold, they just figure
who has the time for.


Noon on Earth!
(starting from i, 11)

Why trouble wondering how long
breath will last, how long your eyes
will still bask in the heavenshed
lucence of noon on earth. Horoscopes,
palmistry, the séance gild pockets
but confide nothing sure. We have to take it—
the future’s shrugged whatever, that weather
of uncertainty—unknowing whether gods
will grant us the grey of further
winters that’ll churn the sea until the sea
gnaws, noses into the littoral
of our lives, eroding whatever is
so far unclaimed.
Better open the red, pitch the cork, toast
our moment—tomorrow’s an idle
nevering, ghost of a god
unworth such wasted faith.

—Translated by Steven Heighton


Steven Heighton, born in 1961, is the author of nine books, most recently the novel Afterlands. His poetry and fiction have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including the London Review of Books, Poetry (Chicago), Europe, Tin House, Agni, The Independent, the Walrus, and Best English Stories. His work has been widely translated, has received a number of prizes, and has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Award, a Pushcart Prize, and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award.