[translated poetry]


strike a match

but what if the match doesn’t

ignite the thing it should?

what if it doesn’t usher in the nightly calm

of the candles or the effervescent

seething of the skillets?

what exactly should a match ignite

during the sudden fulfillment of its fate

so long awaited

since before the shadowy time in the box

long before the glass fragments in the factory


before the splintering now?


You could say, for instance,

that the distinctions among

various types of Ciceronian figures of speech

are superfluous

when compared to the fact,

more or less apparently unprecedented,

that on October 7, 1934, Anna Stefania’s napkins,

embroidered with Austro-Hungarian care

successfully transplanted to the tropics and knitted

in the brief lapses of leisure allowed by her job

as a factory girl, that the napkins, to get to the point,

did not cover tangy pears or subdued apples

or hypertrophic figs of Nipponese origin, but

a collection of pistols,

of assorted models unrecorded

by this history of more or less simple lives, gathered

(the pistols) from who knows where and who knows whom.

You could say this, but the gritty dust rising from La Reforma distracts you.

Dust of gold and liquidambar, you’re thinking, not noticing the monstrously

trite figure of speech,

risking the fate of Thales of Miletus,

but in such a humdrum way,

nothing sublime in your mind, and instead of a well

it’s the car right in front of you, braking with a sudden screech.

In which case, you deserve what you get.

Welcome the hypothetical

interruption, the bumps on your head, the shards of glass on the street

mixed with that “golden” grit

that block any more wandering thoughts about inconsequential shit

having nothing to with the Nation.

But let’s say your body just grumbles a bit,

finds itself mildly terrified by the above-mentioned,

and then argues, on behalf of the napkins,

that these days, shall we say,

the Democritean theories of chance, collisions of atoms, and all that

are no longer fashionable.

Now we favor different notions of causality,

derived from those,

but more picturesque and tasty in the telling.

And, so, back to the napkins.

Your body could also say, thanks

officers of the Departamento de Odem Política e Social

for persecuting my father,

cramming him into a small cell with twenty others,

interrogating him on Tuesdays with his hands bound behind his back,

instilling fear forever with screams of torture and mouths of submachine guns;

and thank you, habeas corpus, for getting him out of there,

and thank you, AI-5, for persecuting him all over again.

I owe you my existence—your body would say—

and it would have something of a point, though

not all causation deserves to be appreciated, especially if what it produces

is the obscure poet scribbling these words,

the dust of a leaf storm ground up by passing tires.

But all honor to her who deserves it:

Anna Stefania

hides the guns in her shopping bag

and doesn’t go to the match factory but instead,

a slip of a girl at the age of 22,

heads for the central plaza of São Paulo,

where some things have already happened

and others are about to unfold.

She distributes the guns

to workers from the bank union,

the newspaper cartoonists’ union,

members of the old Left Opposition,

anarchists fresh from breakfast,

and she puts herself right in front,

and fires

into a wall of five thousand Integralistas kalói kai agathói.

The guns sing a carmine joy incarnate

—note how, here, two figures of speech

live in peaceful coexistence

to narrate an epic event.

And it would be wrong to invoke any well-known symbolism of green hues,

because green was the color worn

by the fascists in arms swarming the plaza,

not at all the color of hope.

The result—and there’s no denying this—

was an antifascist victory in the present indicative

the Integralistas scattering like frightened hens,

their green garb strewn on the streets,

a military victory for the United Front, although with one casualty:

let us remember

the dead youth Décio Pinto de Oliveria.

And Fulvio, and Rudolf, and Lelia, and Livio, and Anna, and Mario

Pedrosa and hundreds more

who were there and fought and won

against five thousand fascists.

And lived to tell the tale

without too much damage from figures of speech.


There are so very many

tiny borders

whose names and machinery we do not know

the exact length of time

for instance

to delay the flaming out

of a match by bathing the wood

in ammonium phosphate

or the borders inside the flame itself:

the cold cone the reduction zone

the oxidizing zone

or, outside, the threshold of stillness

separating an order from its execution

and the moment of stillness

or so it seems

when the one who must choose


whether or not to obey

Here comes Fulvio behind my back

close up,


Do you see this word blue?

Well don’t use it.

A prohibition about a border,

a limen, the abstracted quality

of a word:

a threshold whose crossing

always detracts

from truer glimpses, because

that long-suffering color, he says,

is down to skin and bones, always linked

with heaven, purity, and other mirages

almost always reactionary


it would be more accurate to say

cobalt-oxide, phthalocyanine, aluminum-silicate,

blended together to form

for instance

something like the cerulean ribbon in the spool

of his Mercedes Selecta

unwinding and winding

to and fro

in the 1930s,

in Bolivia,

blue not black

because black is more expensive,


as he types away

on onionskin paper,

cheap and light and almost

shriveled enough

to slip through the cracks

of censorship.

Fulvio comes, sits next to me, and dictates:

Dear censor

mediocre beast,

dumber than the horsethief holding your reins:

stop opening my letters in the hope that I,

sponte propria,

will throw myself into a well, because the spons,

old buddy, I’m taking it with me.

If you want to know me, my writing, my adventures,

then read all my mail, and then seal up

the envelopes, very nicely,

because obviously you think that will hide you away.

And in effect it does,

because you’re sealed up

along with the envelope,

inside the envelope,


Because over the next eighty years

your passage through history

through this history

will leave behind just a few traces of holes

and the shadow of a gray office dweller

a paid informant of the Estado Novo.


So says my grandfather

in Santa Cruz de la Sierra

in blue ink and with vowels lacking accent marks

beneath a chronicle that promises sequels

full of native people with huge bows and arrows

and headdresses

and jaguars

and he signs it Marcelo di Abiamo

du Nancy.

 Batalha da Praça da Sé, 1934

 prende un cerillo

pero ¿si el cerillo no enciende lo que debe

no inaugura la pausa nocturna de las velas o el atarantado bullir en los sartenes?

¿qué es lo que debe encender un cerillo

durante el rápido cumplimiento de su estrella tan largamente esperado

desde antes de la penumbrosa caja

desde mucho antes del baño de cristales en la industria desde antes


del astillamiento


Puedes decir, por ejemplo, que es superflua la distinción

entre los diversos tipos de traslación ciceroniana si se les compara con el hecho

más o menos aparentemente insólito

de que las servilletas de Anna Stefania, ese día

7 de octubre de 1934, bordeadas de austrohungárica labor exitosamente trasplantada al trópico y tejida

en los breves intersticios de ocio que dejaba el oficio de fosforera, que las servilletas, en fin,

no cubrieron con esmero peras, manzanas apocadas o hipertróficos higos de cultura nipona, sino

pistolas varias,

de modelos cuyo registro omite

esta historia de vidas más o menos simples, sacadas (las pistolas), de quién sabe dónde y quiénes.

Podrías decirlo pero el polvo de Reforma te distrae.

Polvito de oro y liquidámbar, vas pensando, sin notar la monstruosa

–por muy manida– translación que perpetras, corriendo el riesgo de que te pase como a Tales,

pero vulgarmente, es decir, sin nada sublime en la cabeza y en lugar de pozo el coche de enfrente, que frena a destiempo.

En cuyo caso, muy merecido lo tendrías.

Bienvenida la hipotética

interrupción de chichones, cristalitos sobre el pavimento mezclados con el polvo “de oro”

para dejar de andar pensando chingaderas que nada tienen que ver con la Patria.

Pero pongamos que tu cuerpo repela, viene un tanto horripilado por lo anteriormente dicho

y arguye, en favor de las servilletas, que en los días que corren, digamos,

el azar democritiano, y el choque de átomos y eso, han perdido el énfasis de antaño.

Y ahora uno se concentra en otro tipo de causalidades, aunque derivado de éstas,

pero más pintoresco y sabroso de narrarse. Y de ahí las servilletas.

Podía decir también tu cuerpo: gracias,

señores del Departamento de Ordem Política e Social

por perseguir a mi padre,

meterlo en la celdita ésa con otros veinte,

interrogarlo los martes con las manos atadas al respaldo, amedrentarlo para siempre con gritos de tortura y bocas de metralleta; y gracias al habeas corpus por soltarlo y al AI-5 por perseguirlo

de nuevo:

os debo mi existencia –diría tu cuerpo–, y algo de razón tendría, aunque

no toda causa debe agradecerse, sobre todo si de ella resulta esta oscura servidora:

polvito de hojarasca entre las ruedas. Pero honor a quien honor merece:

Anna Stefania

guarda las armas en su bolsa de mercado

y no va a la fábrica de fósforos sino que parte, muy chiquitita aunque de 22,

al centro de São Paulo, donde otras gestas ya pasaron y otras empiezan a esbozarse,

y reparte las armas

entre trabajadores del sindicato de bancarios, del sindicato de gráficos de diario,

miembros de la antigua Oposición de Izquierda, anarquistas recién desayunados,

y se pone al frente, y dispara

contra una valla de cinco mil integralistas kalói kai agathói. Cantan encarnado júbilo las armas

–véase cómo aquí

dos tipos de traslación conviven en pacífico concierto aunque sea épico el asunto–.

Y no viene al caso evocar el consabido simbolismo de los tonos verdes, porque verde era la farda

del fascismo armado y verde quedó el pavimento; de esperanzas nada.

Era puritita victoria antifascista en presente del indicativo y fardas vacías dispersas por la calle.

Gallinas ya sin vestes huyendo en estampida: triunfo militar del Frente Unido, aunque una baja:

guárdese memoria

del joven muerto Décio Pinto de Oliveira.

Y de Fulvio, y Rudolf, y Lelia, y Livio, y Anna, y Mario Pedrosa y otros cientos

que allí estuvieron y lucharon y vencieron a cinco millares de fascistas.

Y vivieron luego, y lo contaron

sin tanto abuso de las traslaciones.

Carta al censor, 1939

hay una cantidad inmensa de mínimas fronteras

cuyos nombres y mecanismos ignoramos por ejemplo la del tiempo

específico de retardar la llama de un cerillo bañando la madera en fosfato de amonio

o las de la llama misma:

el cono frío la zona reductora y la oxidante

o afuera el umbral de quietud entre la orden y su ejecución y el momento de quietud aparente

del que decide mientras decide si obedece


Viene Fulvio y me dice, por la espalda y de cerca me sisea:

¿Ves el término azul? Pues no lo uses.

Prohibición sobre la frontera,

sobre ese limen básico del vocablo cuando abstracto:

umbral que, si se cruza, es siempre en detrimento

de atisbos más acertados, porque

el pobre color azul, dice,

quedó mondo y lirondo asociado siempre con el cielo, la pureza y otros espejismos, de derecha, casi siempre,


sería más preciso decir

óxido de cobalto, ftalocianina, silicato de alumínio conjurados para, por ejemplo,

algo parecido al cerúleo enredado en el carrete de la máquina Mercedes Selecta

que corre

y vuelve a correr y corre

en la década de treinta, en Bolivia,

y que corre en azul para

no correr en negro, que es más caro, claro,

sobre un papel de ala de mosca, más barato y ligero y casi

tan mustio

como para filtrarse entre las grietas de la censura.

Fulvio viene, se sienta a mi lado y va dictando:

Estimado censor, bruto misérrimo,

más bruto que el cuatrero que te arrea: deja ya de abrir mis cartas esperando que yo, tan sponte propria,

me lance al pozo, porque la spons,

querido mío, la llevo al paso.

Si son mi estilo y aventuras lo que buscas, léetelo todo, y luego cierra bien,

muy bien, los sobres,

porque está claro que crees que así te ocultas. Y en efecto te ocultas,

te cierras

junto con el sobre, dentro del sobre, para siempre.

Porque, de aquí a ochenta años, de tu paso por la historia

de esta historia,

no quedarán sino un vestigio de agujeros y la sombra de un gris oficinista

con delación a sueldo del Estado Novo.

Eso dice mi abuelo

en Santa Cruz de la Sierra,

con su carrete azul y sin acentos,

y bajo una crónica que anuncia las siguientes llenas de indígenas de inmensos arcos

y tocados y jaguares,

firma Marcelo di Abiamo du Nancy.


Translator’s Statement

Paula Abramo’s FIAT LUX is a collection of poems evoking the poet’s ancestors who were political refugees from Italy and Eastern Europe to Brazil in the early twentieth century, from Brazil to Bolivia in the 1930s, and then again from Brazil to Mexico in the 1960s. At the same time, it is a meditation on the act of writing poetry and bringing historical characters to life. These two axes cross in the image of striking a match, which provides the book’s title and runs through the openings of all the poems. Abramo’s grandmother Anna Stefania Lauff, who appears in “Batalha da Praça da Sé, 1934” worked in a match factory making the brand called FIAT LUX, Latin for “let there be light.”

Translation challenges include switching among the poetry’s various modes: narrative, introspective, biographical, at times philosophical, at times making use of cryptic but evocative bits of ancestors’ journals and handed-down lore—such as, in these two poems, her father’s foreshadowed flight from Brazil to Mexico, which accounts for her being Mexican, or her grandfather’s use of multiple names and identities in Brazil and Bolivia. Also, the poet delights in surprising the reader with enjambments in which the next line playfully undermines the meaning the reader is constructing out of the line before, and these need to be made to work in English word order with equal measures of rhythm, comprehensibility, and surprise.

Translating the whole book has been somewhat like translating a novel, because many poems fill out suggestions about the characters that appeared in earlier ones. Abramo was a classics major in college and is a translator by profession, so it’s natural that the border-crossing and time travel involved in telling the family history are evoked by the use of multiple languages, including bits of Portuguese, Latin, and Greek. Since English is farther from Romance-language roots than Spanish is, I have helped English readers by translating some of these phrases while leaving others as they were.

Dick Cluster has been translating Spanish-language fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for over twenty years, most recently Gabriela Alemán’s Poso Wells, and his edited anthology Kill the Ámpaya!: Best Latin American Baseball Fiction. He also writes history and fiction, including The History of Havana (co-authored with Rafael Hernández) and a crime novel series. He has served as a mentor and teacher at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, the Yiddish Book Center, and the Mills College graduate translation program.

Paula Abramo was born in Mexico City in 1980. Her poetry collection Fiat Lux, from which these poems come, won the 2013 Premio de Poesías Joaquín Xirau Icaza for the best book by a writer under forty. She has also had a prolific career as a translator of more than forty books from Portuguese to Spanish, and is co-author of Yo soy la otra: las mujeres y la cultura en México (2017) and the art installation Ropa Sucia (2017), both exposing the causes of the invisibility of Mexican female writers and artists.