Cut to shreds

The night before the wedding she’d tried on her wife’s floral party dress, which was of course too tight and too short on her. That she did this—putting a dash of rouge on her cheeks, a black line on her eyelids—might have caused consternation, but her bride-to-be just found it (so she said) funny. [. . .]

Author Headshot

Five Messenger Pigeons

One day, before Jassim’s death, Warqa, the dearest of his pigeons, landed above the cote and entered through the tower’s upper entrance, there in the Ashar district in southern Iraq. It was a bit after three in the afternoon when Jassim glimpsed the two wings beating slowly and descending. It was her, Warqa, returning home three years after she had set out on her journey [. . .]

Reverse Mimesis

The small white flowers are everywhere, you know. They splinter, then splinter again. I wonder if vulnerability isn’t entirely compromised. Just yesterday someone posted a story about people who’ve jumped off the Golden Gate. And lived.
The sun rises. Everything goes on looking iconic [. . .]

Sung’s Shop

Berlin was one of the first cities I ever visited in Germany, and since then, I’ve been fascinated by its East/West history and the legacy of that period. I was immediately captivated by Sungs Laden because it touches on a less-known aspect of East German history.[…]

Four Short Stories From Soulfood Equatoriale

The sap of the plantains stains your clothes, hard to get them clean afterwards. During the preparations, the rain continues to fall. You open the kitchen window. The smell of wet earth mingles with that of the fritters or the plantains cut into thin slices before being plunged in hot oil.[…]


Panama, whether in the Pacific or the Atlantic, and other poems

Panama, on this street and in this time we’re missing, Before my days and nights (And from this poem) oscillating like water between lilies, With its fortified walls and buildings[…]

Excerpts from Singing Through Clenched Teeth

Like frightened birds after a hunter’s shot—My dreams scatter in flight when I open up my eyes[…]

Remembering Those Whose Names Are Forgotten

The nun, Sister Hui, was very mysterious.
No one knew her family, or if she had one. No one knew whether she’d been raised rich or poor, educated or uneducated, in a village or in the capital city […]

Buwaya (Crocodile)

The Alabaster Cup

A crack is stained with the fog that begins on the plain.
The green of the curved jade grants transparency but also denies it:
leaves of thick dye, aroma that descends
clamoring at this somewhat empty start, condemned
from dye to aroma, peach that coats […]

The Sun’s Taste


Ancient Musical Legend

Excerpts from Poems from My Diary

The Clay of Time has Grown Soft

The clay of time has grown soft. The kneading of sunset
after sunset has made it rise. A tiny grain of sand
has suddenly split open in a dream to dispel a mystery,
and only the owl weeps from a silver lock of tangled hair.

The dead have been upright now for quite some time!
They hastily escaped here from the other world, from their heavy load,
and are doing yoga, playing chess and are free and intellectual,
laying siege to the opera and pecking out its box office.

Does anyone still remember who tore their limbs apart?
With weak and unsound teeth one should chew with extra care.
These dead love abstract art and being at loggerheads,
instead of the mark of Cain, Cain wears a mark of Abel.

And only a blind seer, flayed down to the bone,
a prototypical prophet who has never died
and no one knows he rolls away the darkness, could he be the sun?—
He runs from abyss to abyss rescuing the smiles of the sacrificed.


Those Green Eyes From Long-Long-Long Ago…

Those green eyes from long-long-long ago are gone. That fir-tree
forest green. Still, as I do just barely see the eyes, it’s a sign:
They see me. And fir-branch-green is also my envy
of starved ghosts, of sounds and of voices.

If God would only recreate their green, that dark green,
He would truly be God. How could they vanish?
I’m wandering in a forest: the sun burns through a cobweb,
green tears rush from green caves among roots.

If that green set of eyes would shut for all time,
worm-eaten seconds would take the place of eternity.
I wander in a forest: it is night. A root pulses, still believing,
after all, the sun through the cobweb here has not gone away.

They see me, that dark green, they wait for a sign,
they shiver side by side with their face opposite mine.
And from the green caves, rushing tears swim
into my visions and leave me their shine.


In Memory of Uri Tsvi Greenberg

When all had scattered from the Mount of Olives
and only one remained within the broken stone,
each had gone toward home, as always, alone,
and he, from the burned-out cliff, accompanied them in silence.

And just then a white flame of soul from his deceased breath
reduced the wreath that he had hated during life to ash.
For if he had been covered in scorpion-like thorns—
his deceased fingers would have drawn them to his skull.

And two thin, small voices, and in both exalted tears
came near, settling in like a candle in sand
at grave’s head: his mother’s mournful tears,
and the blooming tears from the trees in his garden.

And just then Jerusalem also approached, in a sunset
that never fully sets, never sets over times and eras—
and she, in the armor of her never-setting twilight,
kissed her pious poet through the face of rock.


A Face in the Window

A face in the window. It’s my neighbor with the blue glasses,
resembling flashes of blue lighting in rain: “Take pity
and come quickly to my doorstep, you will hear a mystery
of weeping and perhaps be able to explain it for me.”

We come to his doorstep. My neighbor in the blue glasses
rises on his toes to reach the mezuzah and bring it to his ear,
as if it were the fiddler in a seashell: “Is it my creator
weeping there, my child, or my wife, who was burned to ashes?

The door is open. Yortsayt candles with red peyes are burning.
I become a brother to my neighbor’s fate, and my ear
detects more clearly, like him, the weeping from his mezuzah:
Weeping from his wife of ashes, his child, or his creator?

The yortsayt candles with red peyes are drowning in the room.
The door slams behind us. Outside plays the fiddler.
“I will tell you the truth, as good neighbors do:
The weeping comes from all three separately, all three of them together.”


Our Terror Is the Terror of Ponar and Majdanek

Our terror is the terror of Ponar and Majdanek,
Their grass and chamomile—our bread until death.

Our hands will feel shame, though we’ll raise a glass:
To whom? To our savior? To the bliss of a glance?

Our breath belongs to a different kind of society:
To a mother, a grandfather, a snow-buried baby.

We’ll mine the earth the sun has snuffed out, to dig down
all the way to our language of hearth and hometown.

With a flash of iron lightning—with a pen instead of a shovel.
Twenty-two the number of strings on the fiddle.

Our blood will still feed string after string,
we’ll play them with a faith that’s complete.

We’ll play them like so, until the remembrance
splits open within us: for a world full of people.


It Drew Us Both Here….

It drew us both here, both the seashell and me,
to bring us together on the seashore in Yaffo,
so that within the seashell that being could send me
a greeting from its creator in the grottos.

The shell around the small pink body is still tender in immaturity,
and warm: a shell-child born in a woman’s head covering.
Still reflecting the caress of its distant arm
and the anguished parting with faultless form.

If I could be the smith of such a seashell,
with the phantom weeping sea and struck up bit of feeling,
with its armor speckled with tiny rainbow rings
and within the rain also rushing, a half shell or a whole:

I would tear myself away from syllables and thoughts—
the ribs of the soul—and like nothing in my nature,
lift the sea onto my shoulders in thanks
and gleam like its gull.


די ליים פון צײַט איז ווייך געוואָרן. ס’גייט שוין אויף די קנעטעניש
פון זונפאַרגאַנג נאָך זונפאַרגאַנג. עס ווערט שוין באַלד געשפּאָלטן
אַ זעמדעלע אין חלום צו צעטרייבערן אַ רעטעניש,
און בלויז די סאָווע פּלאַנכעט פון א זילבערלעכן קאָלטן.

די מתים זענען לאַנג שוין אויפגעשטאַנען! זענען האַסטיק
אַנטרונען דאָ פון יענער–וועלט, פון הויקערדיקער משׂא
און מאַכן יאָגאַ, שפּילן שאַך און זענען פרײַ און גאַסטיק,
באַלעגערן די אָפּערע און פּיקן אויס איר קאַסע.

געדענקט נאָך עמעץ ווער עס האָט צעריסן זײַנע גלידער?
צו וואַקלדיק און שוואַך די ציין מע זאָל אַזוינס צעקײַען.
די מתים האָבן ליב אַבסטראַקטע קונסט און קידער–ווידער,
אַנשטאָט אַ קַין–צייכן טראָגט אַ הבל–צייכן קַין.

און בלויז אַ בלינדער זעער ביזן אָפגרונט אַ צעשונדענער,
אַ קדמונדיקער נביא וואָס איז קיין מאָל ניט געשטאָרבן
און קיינער ווייס ניט: קײַקלט ער דעם חושך, איז די זון דען ער? —
לויפט אויסלייזן פון תּהום צו תּהום די שמייכלען פונעם קרבן.


ניטאָ די גרינע אויגנפּאָר פון לאַנג–לאַנג–לאַנג. די גרינע
ווי יאָדלעוואַלד. נאָר קוים איך זע די אויגן, איז אַ סימן:
זיי זעענ מיך. און יאָדלע–צווײַגן–גרין איז אויך מײַן קינאה
צו גײַסטער אויסגעהונגערטע, צו קלאַנגען און צו שטימען.

ווען גאָט וואָלט בלויז באַשאַף זייער גרין דאָס טונקל–גרינע,
ער וואָלט געווען דער זעלבער גאָט. ווי קאָנען זיי ניט–ווערן?
איך בלאָנדזשע אין אַ וואַלד: עס ברענט די זון אין פּאָוועטינע,
פון גרינע היילן שורשען צווישן וואָרצלען גרינע טרערן.

ווען די אָ גרינע אויגנפּאָר וואָלט אונטערגיין אויף אייביק,
אַנשטאָט אַן אייביק וואָלטן זײַן צעווערעמטע סעקונדן.
איך בלאָנדזשע אין א וואַלד: ס’איז נאַכט. אַ וואָרצל שלאָגט נאָך גלייביק,
די זון אין פּאַוועטינע איז נאָך אַלץ דאָ ניט פאַרשוווּנדן.

זיי זעען מיך, די טונקל–גרינע, וואַרטן אויף אַ סימן,
זיי ציטערן בײַנאַנד מיט זייער פּנים וויזאַווי מיר.
און שורשענדיקע טרערן פון די גרינע היילן שווימען
אַרײַן אין מײַנע זעונגען און לאָזן זייער גלי מיר.


לזכר אורי–צבי גרינבערג

ווען אַלע זענען זיך צעגאַנגען פונעם הר–הזיתים
און איינער איז אין אויסגעהאַקטן פעלדז פאַרבליבן,
אַוועק איז איטלעכער אַהיים אַלייניקער ווי תּמיד
און ער, פון אויסגעברענטן פעלדז, באַגלייט האָט זיי אַ שטומער.

און יעמאָלט האָט אַ ווײַסער ליכטזײַל פון זײַן טויטן אָטעם
געמאַכט צו אַש די קרענץ וואָס ער האָט פײַנט געהאַט בײַם לעבן.
אַז אויבן וואָלטן אים באַדעקט סקאָרפּיאָנענדיקע דערנער —
די טויטע פינגער וואָלטן זיי אַ צי געטאָן צום שאַרבן.

און צוויי קול–דממה–דקהס און אין ביידע הויכע טרערן
דערנענטערט האָבן זיך צו אים, געשטעלט זיך בײַם צוקאָפּן,
ווי ליכט אין זאַמד: לוויהדיקע טרערן פון זײַן מאַמע
און בליִענדיקע טרערן פון די ביימער אין זײַן גאָרטן.

און יעמאָלט האָט זיך אויך צום פעלדז דערנענטערט אין אַ שקיעה,
וואָס גייט ניט אונטער, גייט ניט אונטער איבער צײַט און צײַטן —
ירושלים, און זי האָט אין פּאַנצערדיקער שקיעה,
וואָס גייט ניט אונטער, דורכן פעלדז אַ קוש געטאָן איר פײַטן.


אַ קאָפּ אין פענצטער

אַ קאָפּ אין פענצטער. ס’איז מײַן שכן אין די בלויע ברילן
געגליכן צו אַ רעגן מיט אַ בלויע בליץ אין איינעם:
‘‫’דערבאַרעם זיך און קום געשווינדער צו מײַן שוועל, וועסט הערן
אַ רעטעניש–געוויין און אפשר קאָנען עס באַשיידן.”

מיר קומען צו זײַן שוועל. מײַן שכן אין די בלויע ברילן
דערלאַנגט זיך אויף די פיספינגער אַ הייּב צו דער מזוזה
און שעפּט זי אָן אין אויער, ווי דעם פידלער אין אַ מושל:
‘‫’צי וויינט עס מײַן פאַרברענטע פרוי, מײַן קינד, צי מײַן באַשעפער?”

די טיר איז אָפן. ס’ברענען יאָרצײַטליכט מיט רויטע פּיאות.
איך ווער אַ גורל–ברודער צו מײַן שכן, און מײַן אויער
שעפּט אָן העלהערעריש, ווי ער, ס’געוויין פון זײַן מזוזה:
געוויין פון זײַן פאַרברענטער פרוי, זײַן קינד, צי זײַן באַשעפער?

די יאָרצײַטליכט מיט רויטע פּיאות טרינקען זיך אין קאַמער.
ס’פאַרהאקט זיך הינטער אונדז די טיר. דער פידלער איז אין דרויסן.
‘‫’איך וועל דיר זאָגן אמתדיק, ווי צווישן גוטע שכנים:
דאָס וויינען אַלע דרײַ באַזונדער, אַלע דרײַ אין איינעם.”


אונדזער שרעק איז די שרעק פון פּאָנאַר און מײַדאַנעק

אונדזער שרעק איז די שרעק פון פּאָנאַר און מײַדאַנעק,
אונדזער ברויט ביזן טויט — זייער גראָז און רומיאַנעק.

מיר’ן הייבן אַ כּוס, נאָר די האַנט וועט זיך שעמען:
פאַרן גליק פון אַ בליק? פאַרן גואל? פאַר וועמען?

אונדזער אָטעם געהערט צו אַן אַנדער מין עדה:
צו אַ קינד אונטער שניי, צו אַ מאַמע, אַ זיידע.

מיר’ן גראָבן די ערד וואָס די זון האָט פאַרלאָשן
צו דערגראָבן זיך צום עיר–והיימישן לשון

מיט אַן אײַזערנעם בליץ — מיט אַ פּען אַנשטאָט רידל.
צוויי און צוואַנציק די צאָל פון די סטרונעס בײַם פידל.

אונדזער בלוט וועט נאָך אָנקאָרמען סטרונע נאָך סטרונע,
מיר’ן שפּילן אויף זיי מיט אַ פולער אמונה.

מיר’ן שפּילן אַזוי, ביז עס וועט זיך צעשפּאַלטן
דער זכּרון בײַ אונדז: פאַר אַ וועלט מיט געשטאַלטן…


געצויגן האָט אונדז ביידן דאָ

געצויגן האָט אונדז ביידן דאָ, סײַ מיר און סײַ דער מושל,
מיר זאָלן שליסן קאַנטשאַפט אויפן ים–ברעג אויפן יפוער,
אָז יענע זאָל פון וואַסערהיילן ברענגען מיר אין מושל
אַ גרוס פון איר באַשעפער.

נאָך קינדיש–ווייך דאָס פּאַנצערל אַרום דעם ראָזן לײַבל
און וואַרעמלעך: אַ מושלקינד געבוירן אין אַ הײַבל.
נאָך שפּיגלט זיך די צערטלעניש פון אָפּגעשיידטן אָרעם
און פּײַנלעכע געזעגעניש מיט שלמותדיקער פאָרעם.

ווען קאָנען וואָלט איך זײַן דער גאָלדשמיד פון אַזאַ אָ מושל,
מיט קיינעמסדיקן ים–געוויין און אויפגעשפּילטן חושל,
מיט רעגן–בויגן–רינגעלעך געשפּרענקלטע אין פּאַנצער
און וווּ עס רוישט אַ רעגן אויך, אַ האַלבער צי אַ גאַנער:

אַרויסגעריסן וואָלט איך זיך פון זילבן און געדאַנקען —
די ריפּן דער נשמהס; און ווי גאָרניט אין מײַן טבע,
אַ הייב געטאָן דעם ים אויף מײַנע אַקסלען אים צו דאַנקען
און בלאַנקען ווי זײַן מעווע.


Translator’s Note: 

Though these six poems are all taken from the same collection—the expanded edition of Abraham Sutzkever’s Poems from My Diary, published in 1985—writing a forward for all of them as one is difficult, as I have something different to say about each. “The Clay of Time has Grown Soft” strikes me as a work of social criticism. I suspect it may have been influenced by the decline of the social movements of the 1960s, combined with the after-effects of the wars Sutzkever had survived as a European and an Israeli, particularly the then-recent Six Day War of 1967, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Uri Tsvi Greenberg, whom Sutzkever eulogizes in one of these poems, was a towering figure in Yiddish and Hebrew poetry, but, also, in some ways, Sutzkever’s opposite, a reality far from evident in Sutzkever’s respectful poem. While Greenberg’s poetry is widely respected across spectrums, Greenberg took what many would characterize as extreme political positions. Greenberg’s views were influenced by his unlikely survival of the brutal 1918 pogroms in Lvov; by the 1929 pogroms in Hebron, which shaped his outlook on the Israeli-Arab conflict; and by the Holocaust, which he foresaw in his writing and in which he lost his entire family.

While both Greenberg and Sutzkever had initially written poetry in Yiddish and Hebrew, Sutzkever settled on Yiddish early, refusing to switch after he arrived in Tel Aviv in 1947. Yiddish was still his language of “hearth and hometown,” as he writes in “Our Terror is the Terror of Ponar and Majdanek,” and he wanted it to be part of Israel’s future. Greenberg, on the other hand, published his first books in both languages, but eventually abandoned Yiddish decisively, convinced that Hebrew embodied the only path forward for Jews. He felt the same about Israel, and viewed any Jewish desire to remain in Europe as dangerously misguided. Though Sutzkever believed in Zionism, he also continuously expressed longing for his European hometown, Vilna, and his elegy for Greenberg is followed in the Diary collection by poems in which that yearning is particularly acute.

Before the Holocaust, before his migration to Israel, and despite the heavily political atmosphere of his native Vilna, Sutzkever began his poetic career as a poet of nature and this preoccupation remained with him throughout his life. In his work, nature embodies a creative force in and of itself, as evidenced in “Those Green-Green Eyes” and “It Drew Us Both Here.” The first of these two poems recalls the forests of Eastern Europe, while the second takes place in what may have been Sutzkever’s favorite part of Tel Aviv: Yaffo, known more commonly in Arabic as Jaffa. He often wrote in a café there by the sea.

Lastly, a “Face in the Window,” features a character who has appeared, with some variation, in Sutzkever’s short fiction as well as his poetry. The ideal of neighborliness is one that Sutzkever often returned to, no doubt influenced by having survived a tragedy in which neighbors turned on one another—a fellow survivor of the Vilna Ghetto once described hearing the anthem of the Nazi party being sung by the Lithuanians who lived next door.


Special Guest Judge, Piotr Florczyk:

I was immediately struck by the visionary undertow of these poems, their author wearing a mask of “a blind seer” and running “from abyss to abyss rescuing the smiles of the sacrificed.” While translators are rarely afforded heavenly powers, technically speaking, their work is no less salutary. “A root pulses,” the poet writes, “still believing, / after all, the sun through the cobweb here has not gone away,” and so do we, the readers, thanks to the translator Maia Evrona’s deft hand, as we discover with each new line a home for own hopes and fears. These timeless poems—“the ribs of the soul”—remind us of the need to praise our world in chorus with those who came before and those who are about to take our place.

—Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator of Polish poetry. His most recent books
are East & West, a volume of poems from Lost Horse Press, and two volumes of
translations published by Tavern Books, My People & Other Poems by Wojciech
Bonowicz and Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska, which won the 2017
Found in Translation Award and the 2017 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award.
Florczyk, a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California, lives in Los
Angeles with his wife and daughter. For more info, please visit:


Maia Evrona’s poems, as well as excerpts from her memoir on growing up with a chronic illness, have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her translations of Abraham Sutzkever were awarded a 2016 Translation Fellowship from the NEA and have appeared in Poetry Magazine, The Kenyon Review online and other venues. She also loves to sing. Her website is

Abraham Sutzkever, born in 1913 in modern-day Belarus, is a legendary figure of the Yiddish literary world, with a poetic oeuvre numbering well over 1,000 pages. A survivor of the Vilna Ghetto and a former partisan, he immigrated to Mandatory Palestine just before the founding of the State of Israel and passed away in Tel Aviv in 2010, at the age of 96.

Wulf & Eadwacer

Gabo Finalist Winter/Spring 2019






































































































Translator’s Note:

We know the Old English poem “Wulf ond Eadwacer” due only to its survival in the Exeter Codex, the largest existing anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which dates back to the 10th century. Since no original manuscript for the poem exists, the date of its composition, its provenance, and even the identity of its composer are all unknown.

Even within the poem itself, ambiguities abound: the identity of the speaker is unknown, while the relationship of the speaker to both Eadwacer and Wulf, the poem’s setting, and its narrative content are all subject to conflicting interpretations. The prevailing interpretation of the poem’s narrative is as a love triangle in which the unnamed speaker (who is represented as “&” in my translation) is separated from her lover, Wulf, by threat of violence from Eadwacer, who is commonly viewed as either her husband and/or captor. It is also ambiguous in this interpretation if the “cub” to which the speaker refers is her and Wulf’s lovechild or her and Eadwacer’s legitimate son. However, the poem has also been interpreted as a riddle, a ballad, a wen charm, an elegy, and a beast fable. As Peter S. Baker notes in “The Ambiguity of Wulf and Eadwacer,” half of the poem’s nineteen lines “pose lexical, syntactical, or interpretive problems.” [1]

But the challenge of interpreting the poem is only part of what makes “Wulf ond Eadwacer” an anomaly. The poem is also formally radical, both for its departures from Anglo-Saxon prosody, and for its inclusion of elements like repetition, and refrain, which were uncommon in Old English poetry. For this, and other reasons, some scholars even believe that this compellingly mysterious lyric poem might itself be a translation from the Old Norse [2] .

As the act of translation cannot be divorced from interpretation, the highly enigmatic nature of “Wulf ond Eadwacer” would seem to begird the translator, to restrict the approaches, the strategies, and the outcomes available to her. Indeed, it seems sensible to decide what a thing is and what kind of effect it should have on the reader before translating it. But the reader should not have to pay for the translator’s convenience, and perhaps the least faithful translation of this enigmatic, polyvalent anomaly of an Old English poem that might have been born Scandinavian in the first place would be to present it in the absence of its complexity, to pin the poem down to a singular, definitive interpretation, to lock it into a linear narrative that it never loved.

The translation at hand aims to release the poem back into its radical complexity—to restore the lacunae, the indeterminacy, and the strangeness that makes the Anglo Saxon version of “Wulf ond Eadwacer” so haunting. Wulf & Eadwacer uses fragments of the original Old English both to re-acquaint the reader with her etymological roots and to make her a bit of a stranger in her own language. Code-switching between Old English and Modern English, Wulf & Eadwacer embraces the proto-feminist, disjunctive voice of the original poem so that its enigmatic nature and plurality can fully be explored for the first time.


[1] Baker, Peter S. “The ambiguity of ‘Wulf and Eadwacer.’” Studies in Philology, Vol. 78, No. 5, Texts and Studies, 1981. “Eight Anglo-Saxon Studies.” University of North Carolina Press.

[2] Danielli, Sonja. “Wulf, Min Wulf: An Eclectic Analysis of Wolf-Man.” Neophilologus, Vol. 91, Spring 2007: 505-524.


M.L. Martin is a prize-winning poet and translator whose experimental translations of Old English can be found in ANMLY (f.k.a. Drunken Boat), Arkansas International, Brooklyn Rail In Translation, The Literary Review, and Waxwing. Her poetry has appeared in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, EVENT: poetry & prose, The Fiddlehead, The Massachusetts Review, PRISM international, and many other Canadian and American literary journals. She is the recipient of the Theresa A. Wilhoit Fellowship, the Bread Loaf Translators’ Fellowship, and the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry. She currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is a Tulsa Artist Fellow. Find more of her work at

An Anonymous pre-10th c. Anglo-Saxon Feminist

What we know of the poet who composed the Anglo-Saxon text commonly referred to as “Wulf ond Eadwacer” is very limited. Though unnamed in the poem, we can discern from the feminine inflection on the words “rēotugu” and “sēoce” that the speaker is a woman. It is possible, though perhaps implausible, that the poet is male, but even so, because the poem describes and laments a forbidding set of circumstances foisted onto the female speaker by a patriarchal Anglo-Saxon culture, the poet—who may have been Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon and lived some time before the 10th c.—was undoubtedly a feminist, an outsider, and a radical poet, who mixed forms from both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian, subverting the literary conventions of each language culture in sophisticated and surprising ways.

Selected Poems from Our Ghosts and How We Talk to Them

Gabo Winner Summer/Fall 2018

[translated poetry]

I drank coffee with your devastated parents
or something we called coffee:
were you already different
when we sat across from each other in my kitchen
and you didn’t want to eat anything
except a piece of chocolate,
did you already have an eye on the reeds?
I can’t tell .. was that your way
of saying goodbye, impossible to know
if it was more than this exhaustion
I came to recognize
over the years .. the thing in your head
that breaks your bones
whenever it feels a hankering
like you for a piece of chocolate
I don’t know .. I only know
I was much calmer with you at the table
than I am now .. with your parents
who are devastated
where I can hardly breathe
where every sip
from my water glass
makes me cough, so that I, unlike you,
won’t disappear
in the water—


you shocked me more than dr. benn
and dr. benn really shocked me
with words that carved through corpses
like small blades until all flesh
hung from the bone
and nothing remained
except a poem

now you are stranded at dr. benn’s
in the middle of a poem, on a table
where they open you methodically
because you lay in the reeds
for two days in your favorite lake
with your clothes on,
and I ..

I stand next to you, to your lungs
which have grown too big for your body
and dr. benn, my analytical demon,
tries to find something
with his mind dull as lead
maybe you wanted to breathe in
your favorite lake

or your favorite lake you

and even when
we pull the skin down a little
from your brow to your nose
and dare to peek into your skull
and the summer sunlight cascades in,
we are in the end—dr. benn and me
and us—my friend

a piece of paper
that is left over—
nothing more.


we read the newspaper for five days
and sensed nothing, you spent five days
in the newspaper as “the drowning victim
the unidentified body in the sommersee
5’7”–5’9,” male, thin, a set of keys
in the pants pocket, or jacket
it said: you had your clothes on, even shoes
and your face: olive toned.
as if you were from southern climes!
the ice was your homeland, an iceberg
of crystal and loneliness … you were
not even reported as missing—
we didn’t miss you for almost a week
blissful monsters; you were too distant
for us to miss you after seven days ..
we were afraid for you too often
and became tired
like you did, and we fell asleep
like you—whole on the outside,
you lay in the reeds for two days, nights
stars over you, your shell
three pictures can be found online:
a boat that brings you ashore
two ambulances, a fire engine
as if you were only sick or injured
or alight .. in one picture
they are bent over you, two men
smoking, looking at you calmly
as if you were a rare fish—


twenty photo albums all of you
your bare bottom all over the place
a stack of pain on a table
in an apartment house, 11th floor
only child.

august first, eleven thirty
almost all birds quiet in the heat
while you were being buried
three buckets of dirt into a small hole
and a luncheon still to get through.

old friends of your parents
who order steak
and beer and begin to enjoy
and talk about vacation
on another plane than you ..

and your parents who order steak
without knowing what to do with it—
as if they themselves had been forked up
by you .. and were now staring at you,
into your open mouth—


you’d been dead three weeks
I was camping in the woods, asleep
when you stopped by, cheerful
in the night, to tell me
you may appear three more times
don’t worry anymore
it’s really
really good here ..
and you had to laugh
because you sounded like
the brothers grimm on valium.

I didn’t wake up,
your words were simply in my head
like diamonds the next day, then for weeks
for months, a year .. but now
they’re tin, with the hollow ring
of a selfie-dream .. a visit from you?
that can’t be: don’t be a fool
you stopped by dressed like him
to visit yourself, I’ve too often
thought and thought and thought ..

I tore the dream up myself
don’t wor
it’s rea
rea ood


ich hab mit deinen verwüsteten eltern kaffee getrunken
oder irgendwas, was kaffee heißt
ob du schon anders warst vielleicht
als wir uns gegenüber saßen, in meiner küche
wo du nichts essen wolltest
außer einem stückchen schokolade
ob du schon schilf im auge hattest?
kann’s nicht sagen .. ob das schon deine art
von abschied war, fast unbemerkbar
ob da schon mehr als diese müdigkeit
gewesen ist, die ich schon kannte
all die jahre .. das ding in deinem kopf
dass dir die knochen bricht
wann immer es die lust verspürt
wie du auf schokolade
ich weiß es nicht .. ich weiß nur noch
ich war viel ruhiger dort, mit dir am tisch
als jetzt .. mit deinen eltern
die verwüstet sind
wo ich kaum atmen kann
wo jeder schluck
aus meinem wasserglas
mich husten lässt, um nicht wie du
in diesem wasser
zu verschwinden—


du hast mich mehr erschreckt als dr. benn
und dr. benn hat mich mal sehr erschreckt
mit worten, die wie kleine messer
durch leichen fuhren, bis alles fleisch
vom knochen hing
und nichts mehr übrig blieb
nur ein gedicht

jetzt bist auch du bei dr. benn gestrandet
mitten im gedicht, auf einem tisch
wo man dich öffnet, schritt für schritt
weil du im schilf gelegen hast
zwei tage, in deinem lieblingssee
noch alle sachen an
und ich

ich steh jetzt neben dir, vor deiner lunge
die viel zu groß geworden ist für dich
und dr. benn, mein analyse-wicht
versucht noch irgendwas zu finden
mit seinem verstand stumpf wie’n kamm
ob du deinen lieblingssee
einatmen wolltest

oder dein lieblingssee
ganz plötzlich dich

und selbst
wenn wir die haut von deiner stirn
ein wenig runterziehen, bis zur nase
und einen blick in deinen schädel wagen
und alles sommerlicht reinfällt
sind wir am ende, dr. benn und ich
und wir, mein freund

ein stück papier
das übrig bleibt—
sonst nichts.


wir haben zeitungen gelesen, fünf tage lang
und nichts gespürt, du warst fünf tage lang
in allen zeitungen „die wasserleiche“
„der unbekannte körper aus dem sommersee“
1.70 – 1.75, männlich, schlank, mit einem schlüssel
in der hosentasche, oder jackentasche
dort stand: du hattest alles an, auch schuhe
und dein gesicht: südländisch.
als ob du aus dem süden wärst!
du kamst vom eis, vom eisberg
aus kristall und einsamkeit .. du warst
nicht mal vermisst gemeldet—
fast eine woche haben wir dich nicht vermisst
glückliche monster; du warst zu fern von uns
um dich nach sieben tagen zu vermissen ..
wir hatten angst um dich, zu oft
und wurden müd dabei
so müd wie du, und schliefen ein
wie du—von außen unversehrt
hast du im schilf gelegen, zwei tage, nächte
sterne über dir, der hülle
drei bilder, die jetzt online weiterleben:
ein boot, das dich ans ufer bringt
zwei krankenwagen, eine feuerwehr
als ob du immer noch ein kranker wärst
und brennst .. auf einem bild
beugt man sich über dich, zwei männer
rauchend, die dich ruhig betrachten
wie einen seltenen fisch—


zwanzig fotoalben nur für dich
dein nackter kinderpo in allen posen
ein stapel schmerz auf einem tisch
in einem hochhaus, 11. stock
einziges kind.

erster august, halb zwölf
fast alle vögel still vor hitze
als man dich eingegraben hat
drei eimer erde in ein kleines loch
und noch ein mittagessen in der nähe.

die alten freunde deiner eltern
die sich steaks bestellen
und bier, und langsam lustig werden
und von urlaub sprechen
ganz parallel zu dir ..

und deine eltern, die sich steaks bestellen
ohne zu wissen, was man damit tut—
als wär’n sie selber aufgespießt
von dir .. starr’n sie dich an
in deinen mund—


du warst drei wochen tot
ich schlief im wald, auf einem campingplatz
als du vorbeikamst, nachts
fast gut gelaunt, um mir zu sagen
du könntest dreimal noch erscheinen
hab keine sorgen mehr
hier ist es wirklich
wirklich gut ..
und musstest selber dabei lachen
weil das wie grimm auf valium klingt.

ich bin nicht aufgewacht
hab nur deinen satz am nächsten tag
wie diamant im kopf gehabt, noch wochenlang
noch monate, ein jahr .. doch jetzt:
wie blech ist er geworden, hohler klang
von einem selfie-traum .. besuch von dir?
wohl kaum. mach dich nicht lächerlich
du hast dich selbst besucht
geschminkt als er
hab ich zu oft gedacht gedacht gedacht ..

ich hab mir selbst den traum zerhackt
hab kein sor
hier ist es wirk
wirk ut


Translator’s Note:

Carl-Christian Elze began writing poems as a way to deal with bouts of anxiety that began unexpectedly in college and often prevented him from going to class. He discovered that forming his thoughts into musical, poetic structures was both soothing and empowering. In a sense, he sang songs with the ghostly voices in his imagination so they’d become harmonious. As we grow older, we gather more and more specters: parents and friends die, we start families, past selves emerge as experience changes us. When Elze’s childhood best friend committed suicide by drowning, he sat down to write his fifth book, diese kleinen, in der luft hängenden, bergpredigenden gebilde (Berlin: Verlagshaus Berlin, 2016), an exploration of what it means to live in the face of death. Who are we in relation to the ones we love? In relation to the universe? How should we live? Where do we go wrong in our attempt? In the book these poems come from, Elze talks it out with a good number of his ghosts as conversation partners.

A sense of openness, and even more so, the ability to marvel are the keys to Elze’s world—I aspire to make them mine also. Perhaps this is why I was attracted to this book and these poems to begin with. The voice shifts from chapter to chapter, much as the style and content of our conversation changes depending on who we are talking to. When speaking with the deceased friend, the poems mimic the disjunction in their relationship. Other poems in the book sound like a Sunday afternoon phone call with a parent. Elze speaks anxiously to himself at times, and at other times, the poems seem to come from the universe itself to remind us of our sense of wonder. Throughout the work, however, Elze’s poet voice presses through, and I have worked carefully to listen, convey, and respond.

I have my own accumulation of ghosts that I speak with often, and now I can add Elze to their numbers as one who rises up through the page. What translator hasn’t tried out a phrase and then thought, Oh, they would never say that, and deleted it? Falling into each of Elze’s modalities as his translator has been like finding new ones in myself, new ways of speaking where it’s not distinguishable anymore who is doing the talking. Me? Elze? Or perhaps, only a collective conversation on a universal piece of paper and “nothing more—”

Special Guest Judge, Tiffany Higgins:

In “you’ve been dead three weeks,” Caroline Wilcox Reul maintains the speaker’s consistently casual, sometimes humorous tone when addressing the person who’s come back from the dead to speak: “you sound like / the brothers grimm on valium.” A succession of metaphors is rendered rhythmically: “your words were… / like diamonds…but now / they’re tin, with the hollow ring / of a selfie-dream.” I love that the poet and translator have brought into English this concept of a selfie-dream. Throughout [her] translations of Carl-Christian Elze’s poems, Reul keeps us in this quirky, ghostly world. There’s comedy in the last stanza, when the speaker has to “tear up” this intrusive visitation; the first stanza’s reassuring statement gets slurred and shredded: “don’t wor/ it’s rea/ rea ood.” 


–Tiffany Higgins is the author of And Aeneas Stares into Her Helmet, selected by Evie Shockley for the Carolina Wren Press Poetry Prize; The Apparition at Fort Bragg, selected by Camille Dungy for the Iron Horse Literary Review contest; and Tail of the Whale (Toad Press, 2016), translations from the Portuguese of Rio poet Alice Sant’Anna. Her poems appear in Poetry, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She’s translating the work of Brazilian writers, including Itamar Vieira Junior and Lívia Natália. Her article of narrative journalism, “Brazil’s Munduruku Mark out Their Territory When the Government Won’t,” is forthcoming in Granta’s May 2018 online issue.


Caroline Wilcox Reul is a freelance lexicographer and translator. She has a MA in computational linguistics and German language and literature from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. She is the translator of Wer lebt / Who Lives by Elisabeth Borchers (Tavern Books, 2017) and co-editor of the poetry anthology, Over Land and Rising (9 Bridges, 2017). She is currently the poetry editor for the Timberline Review. Her translations have appeared or are forthcoming in the PEN Poetry Series, the Broadsided PressLyriklineTupelo Quarterly, and Poetry International.

Photo Credit: Nina Johnson Photography

Carl-Christian Elze lives in Leipzig and writes poems, short stories, plays, and libretti. Recent awards for his work include residencies at the Künstlerhaus Edenkoben (2017) and the Deutsche Studienzentrum in Venice (2016), as well as the Joachim-Ringelnatz Prize (2015). His most recent books include langsames ermatten im labyrinth: poems (Verlagshaus Berlin, forthcoming in 2018), diese kleinen, in der luft hängenden, bergpredigenden gebilde: poems (Verlagshaus Berlin, 2016), and Oda und der ausgestopfte Vater (kreuzerbooks, 2018), a book of short stories about growing up with the animals at the Leipzig Zoo where his father was head veterinarian.

Photo Credit: Sascha Kokot

A Glazier

Gabo Finalist Summer/Fall 2018

[translated poetry]

He was the same as other people

who know nothing about the white gray glass:

about the flat drop of sameness

in a frame

of white-lacquered window

like a gray block of longing

lying in a day rectangle of colored dough of encounters.


He has installed the window panes

in a gray house with white window frames,

in a white house with gray shops.

The first window pane. Second. Tenth.


The panes are flat and still, like rectangles.

The panes are colorful tears:

The glass is the color of watery joy.

Glass has a rhythmical smile

like a person after seven years of waiting.


Now his face is a transparent glass pane

which takes into itself

streets. Houses. Circulating bodies.

And a flat drop of sameness,

which smiles measured with watery joy:

everything should always be as is.


דער גלעזער


ער איז געװען גלײך צו אַנדערע מענטשן

װאָס װײסן גאָרנישט װעגן גראָ־װײסן גלאָז׃

װעגן דעם פֿלאַכן טראָפּן גלײכקײט,

װאָס ליגט אין אַ רעם

פֿון װײס לאַקירטע פֿענצטער

װי אין אַ טאָג־רעכטעק פֿון לאַקירטן טײג פֿון באַגעגנישן

ליגט דער גראָער בלעק פֿון דער בענקשאַפֿט.


ער האָט אַרײנגעשטעלט שױבן׃

אין אַ גראָען הױז מיט װײסע פֿענצטער־רעמען,

אין אַ װײסן הױז מיט גראָע לאָדענס.

ערשטע שױב. צװײטע. צענטע.


די שױבן זענען פֿלאַך און שטיל, װי רעכטעקן.

די שױבן זענען טרערן־קאָלירטע׃

ס’איז דער קאָליר פֿון װאַסעריקער פֿרײד.

גלאָז שמײכלט ריטמיש

װי אַ מענטש נאָך זיבן יאָר װאַרטן.


איצט איז זײַן פּנים אַ דורכזיכטיקע גלאָז־שױב

װאָס נעמט אױף אין זיך

גאַסן. הײזער. קרײזנדיקע גופֿים.

און אַ פֿלאַכער טראָפּן גלײכקײט,

װאָס שמײכלט אָפּגעמאָסטן מיט װאַסעריקער פֿרײד׃

ס’זאָל תּמיד אַלץ זײן װי ס’איז גראָד.


Translator’s Note:

Debora Vogel’s language could be best described in terms of its plasticity. We may think of plastic as stiff but it’s also a pliable material. It is the material that best exhibits the fact that form is constantly being transformed. The poem “Glazier” from Day Figures poetry collection (1930) is an example of an author’s stylistic play with linguistic malleability and rigidity. The poem is executed in the aesthetic of Constructivism; it is “constructed” as an artwork from the material of words mirroring the preoccupation with materiality of existence in this avant-garde artistic movement. Glass as material fascinated artists, designers, and architects because of its qualities of transparency and opacity, and the possibilities it presented for modern urbanism. Vogel utilizes glass as a “plastic” material, it is both “watery” and angular, voluminous and flat, clear and opaque. Her vocabulary is minimalist, the color palette is sparse (with white and gray colors predominating), yet repetition and lack of color engenders rhythm and colorfulness. The mood oscillates between stasis and dynamism, sameness and difference. The world of circulating bodies and encounters is fitted into a rectangular frame of a window-pane. There is a certain sense of wonder which arises out of monotony and everydayness in this synesthetic creation. These are the elements that my translation strives to reflect, or perhaps, it would be fitting to say, to mirror.


Anastasiya Lyubas is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature in Binghamton University where she is currently at work on her dissertation “Language and Plasticity in Debora Vogel’s Poetics.” Lyubas is a 2017-2018 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, and a Max Weinreich research fellow in YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. Her translations of Debora Vogel’s work appeared in The InTranslationat the Brooklyn Rail, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Pakn Treger, and are to be published by The Odessa Review. Lyubas is working on a full collection of Debora Vogel’s essays, reviews, polemics, and correspondence, which she translated from Yiddish and Polish into Ukrainian, to be published by Dukh I Litera publishing house in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Debora Vogel (1900-1942) was a Polish-Jewish writer, philosopher, art critic, and translator. She was a “wandering star” of Polish and Yiddish Modernisms in Eastern Europe and North America. Her writing is comparable to Gertrude Stein’s in its striking originality. Born in Eastern Poland (now Western Ukraine), she was educated in Vienna and Kraków, and travelled extensively in Paris, Berlin, and Stockholm, which is reflected in her work. Given her engagement with visual arts and avant-garde movements, her highly experimental texts challenged every notion of writing in Yiddish in her own lifetime. Her poems are examples of Cubist-Constructivist experimentation in a language that is at once lyrical and philosophical.

After Winter, Intrinsic Silence

Gabo Finalist Summer/Fall 2018

[bilingual poetry]

The first cable-car ride
brings him before tourists,
far above the daily concerns,
where a trail climbs and winds
in the shades of ancient woods.
A trunk and moss can be heard,
but many a tree leaf is gasping,
when the largest deer on earth
stops at six yards, watching.
From top to toe it forgot:
there are walking beings
who will gape and freeze.

In a mist over the waters,
an eagle breaks the prism:
above glistening grasslands,
almost still, it reaches no one.
The air extends an empty sigh.
Unnoticed, the distance is close
and returns colors to the world.
Nobody is getting in their way.
The molehill thinks it’s Mount
and a high oak muses light-footed.
I’m sure all is safe, says a young reindeer,
and weasel explores the absence of moving humans.



na de winter

De eerste kabelrit
brengt me vóór toeristen
tot ver boven beslommeringen.
Daar klimt en kronkelt een paadje
door de schaduw van een grillig bos.
De stronken en mossen zijn hoorbaar,
maar elk boomblad hapt naar adem,
nu het grootste edelhert op aarde
pal voor me staat, waarneemt,
van top tot teen vergeten was:
er zijn wandelende wezens
die staren en verstenen.

In de nevel boven water
breekt een arend het prisma:
over de glinster van het grasland
reikt het bijna roerloos naar niemand.
De lucht spreidt en zucht zich leeg.
De verte komt hier onmerkbaar
om weer een kleur te geven.
Niemand houdt iets tegen.
De molshoop waant zich Berg
en een hoge berk mijmert lichtlijvig.
Klein rendier denkt: volgens mij is het veilig,
en wezel verkent de afwezigheid van een mens in beweging.


Arno Bohlmeijer is a bilingual author in English and Dutch. He is the winner of the National Charlotte Köhler Prize and a finalist for the Gabo Prize and the 2018 Poetry Matters Project. The BBC calls his work “Consistently original. Evocative. Strongly atmospheric, very distinctive and interesting.” He holds an MA in English literature and a BA in French. Visit his website for more information

Selected Poems from Black and Blue Partition: ‘Mistry 2

[translated poetry]


Fresheur and life

“Same current, waters always new”
The voice runs over the waters
++++++++++speeches crossed from god to god
+++++sorcerous heritage, seaswells burgeoning
+++++with careful lightness
++++++++++same as
+++++same as grass crown, thatch, lalang;
water crystalline, upslope downslope harmony,
+++++++++++++++that the spirits’ good humor won’t cloud.
Begone-become, begone as foam
+++++++++++++++leaving home
+++++++++++++++++++++++++doors and windows opened,
+++++++++++++++Beauty seated legs akimbo:
+++++++++++++++++++++++++nest fledgling
+++++++++++++++++++++++++dirtmouse wings
+++++++++++++++++++++++++lalang grass tufts     spit
+++++++++++++++++++++++++shark mouth agape.

Let frogs renew and multiply

+++++Ô, the quivering like a sliver of moon
+++++the red red erythrina
+++++++++++++++and below the chirruping cantations of the initiated
the little antelope climbingclimbing toward the palm divinity,
Let humidity be that venerable weave, omnipresent
+++++++++++++++witchgrass, springside presages,
Let fresh water trickle anoint drum and bullock,
Let the serpent’s carcass burrow through the sand
+++++++++++++++head and tail python enclosure-held
+++++++++++++++ring the bells to empty them;
“The great swamp waters flow downriver”
+++++++++++++++++++++++++behind the mornes
+++++++++++++++++++++++++among the leaves,

Let home be of fresheur, walls smooth
did she rattle the lightning, that little silken thing?
did she cut the flesh deep, that millstone, did she gash open the ribetting of those gounouy?
did he wash his flesh from the river,
Did he prostrate at the threshold of the city Abydos,
Did he pass through the thorns,
Did he take concession?

+++++++++++++++Is he proud, impatient?
+++++++++++++++The charm:
+++++++++++++++++++++++++at first simple millet cake,
+++++++++++++++++++++++++at first mixed millet cake
+++++++++++++++++++++++++liana leaves licorice crushed
+++++++++++++++++++++++++then millet cake, leaves liana licorice
+++++++++++++++++++++++++and honey follewz;
+++++++++++++++++++++++++and yãmn-leaffes for collecting water.
+++++++++++++++++++++++++Then charm e’jaculatoire in hushed tones (three times)
+++++++++++++++++++++++++Three times ‘round the items,

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++in the crossing.
+++++++++++++++++++++++++And obscene chanting,
+++++++++++++++++++++++++Man kèy lélé-é-y
+++++++++++++++++++++++++Man kèy lélé kalalou-a
+++++++++++++++O the law of enclosure!

And open let the way be, of overflowing, of fertility,
+++++++++++++++++++++++++in the light of the ark of the waters of the world.



The child who birthed the mother

compass of winds, its rhombuses
+++++++++++++++the hill, its three palm trees,
the beauty named “Beauty”
+++++++++++++++below, rivers and lagunes.
In the water the child birdstares, the child who birthed the mother,
+++++the sixteen quarters of the sky
+++++++++++++++Yémaya’s divine body,
Grace of chills, of charms,
+++++figures carried by chance
+++++as the banks of Enjillé’s jetties, open to signs,
+++++coquillage and kola nuts

The beauty named “Beauty” birdstares, sways,
+++++++++++++++reflective mask, peaceful, grave
+++++abandoned to the flood, the swell,
+++++++++++++++the famous hill where three palm trees grow
+++++the famous, and below d’lo,
++++++++++void approves, baptizes.
Shimmers sway, go
++++++++++one bank the other
+++++the Far-off is never far “all weighed and measured”
++++++++++the gods exist in the water
++++++++++the sky is in the water
in the water paradise,
+++++++++++++++under the leaves, basins of flood,
Refresh and appease the vestibules of pleasure,
from saliva the fecundant charm
++++++++++and above, the sorceries,
+++++the mouth where “la Belle” sways
+++++from one bank to the other
++++++++++the two banks, the waters, their depths
+++++from one bank to the other, the slicing grasses
++++++++++the copious wild leaves
+++++the riverbank rebuffs the waters sloshing to the other side,
+++++here the crouching-god, here the sacred beast,
++++++++++the hunchback opens the true path through the leaves.

Forged up the watercourse:
++++++++++in the mirrorment the paradise,
+++++the subtle game of reflections,
++++++++++reflections inebriated,
+++++the sounds enchantment,
+++++++++++++++absolute lightness,
++++++++++++++++++++++++the mask,
++++++++++++++++++++++++the showing
+++++++++++++++unity of all
+++++++++++++++piety in all.

Forging up the rivercourse,
++++++++++little shards of clay, the fat ram,
++++++++++maternal breast,
+++++peace in the body, peace in the courtyard.


Copyright: Partition noire et bleue: (Lémistè 2) (Obsidiane, 2016)


Fraîcheur et vie

« Même fleuve, eaux toujours nouvelles ».
La voix court sur les eaux
++++++++++paroles transmises d’un dieu à un dieu
+++++héritage magique, commencement des flots
+++++avec légèreté soyeuse
++++++++++même que
+++++même que graminée fanée du lalang ;
Eau limpide, harmonie grave aigu,
+++++++++++++++que n’assombrisse la bonne humeur des esprits.
Disparaître-devenir, disparaître comme l’écume
+++++++++++++++laissant maison
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ouvertes portes et fenêtres,
+++++++++++++++Beauté assise jambes écartées :
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++nid oiselet
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ailes solsouris
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++touffes herbe lalang      salive
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++gueule requin béante.
Que grenouille renouvelle et multiplie

+++++Ô, cela qui palpite comme brin de lune
+++++la rouge rouge érythrine
+++++++++++++++et dessous le gazouillis de l’initié
La petite antilope qui grimpe grimpe au divin palmier,
Qu’humide toujours soit la natte vénérable,
+++++++++++++++le chiendent, les prémices près de la source,
Que tambours et taurillons soient aspergés d’eau fraîche,
Que la caresse du serpent creuse le sable
+++++++++++++++tête et queue python dans enclos
+++++++++++++++agite grelots qu’ils se vident ;
« L’eau du grand marais coule dans la rivière »
++++++++++++++++++++derrière collines
++++++++++++++++++++parmis les feuilles,
Qu’elle soit fraîche la demeure aux parois lisses,
+++++a-t-elle ébranlé la foudre, la petite chôye soyeuse ?
+++++A-t-elle couvert la gounouille de plaies, la pierre de meule ?
Lui a-t-on enlevé sa peau sur le fleuve,
S’est-il prosterné devant la porte de la cité d’Abydos,
A-t-il passé entre les épineux,
Est-il entré dans la concession ?

+++++++++++Est-il fier, impatient ?
+++++++++++Le charme :
+++++++++++++++d’abord simple gateau mil,
+++++++++++++++d’abord gateau mil mélangé
+++++++++++++++feuilles liãne réglisse crasé
+++++++++++++++puis gateau mil, feuilles liãne réglisse
+++++++++++++++et miel ensouite ;
+++++++++++++++et fèuille-yãnm pour aller puiser l’eau.
+++++++++++++++Puis charme jaculatoire à voix basse (trois fois)
+++++++++++++++Trois fois près les affaires,
+++++++++++++++++++++++++tout au bord mait’ zaffai,
+++++++++++++++++++++++++dans l’entre-jambe.
+++++++++++++++Et des chantés obscènes,
+++++++++++++++Man kèy lélé-é-y
+++++++++++++++Man kèy lélé kalalou-a
++++++++++Ô la loi de l’enclos !

Et qu’ouverte soit la voie de l’abreuvage, le chemin de fécondité,
+++++++++++++++dans la lumière de l’arche les eaux du monde.



L’enfant qui enfanta la mère

Rhombes de la rose des vents,
++++++++++++++++++++++++++belle colline aux trois palmiers,
La belle surnommée « la Belle »
++++++++++++++++++++++++++au-dessous, fleuves et lagunes.
Dans l’eau miroise l’enfant qui enfanta le mère,
+++++les seize quartiers du ciel
++++++++++++++++++++++++++sur le corps divin de Yémaya,
Grâce du saisissement, charmes,
++++++++++figures amenées par le hasard
++++++++++comme aux rives d’Enillé jetées ouvertes aux signes,
++++++++++coquilles et noix kola des femmes-mules.

La belle surnommée « la Belle » miroise, se balance,
+++++++++++++++masque réfléchi, grave, paisible
+++++abandonnée au flot,
+++++++++++++++la fameuse colline où poussent trois palmiers
+++++la fameuse, et au-dessous l’eau,
++++++++++vide qui agrée, fonts baptismaux.
Le reflet se balance, va
+++++++++++++++une rive l’autre
+++++le Lointain n’est jamais loin « tout bien pesé »
+++++++++++++++les dieux existent dans l’eau
+++++++++++++++le ciel est dans l’eau
+++++dans l’eau le paradis,
+++++++++++++++sous les feuillages, bassins d’inondation,
Rafraichissent et apaisent les vestibules du plaisir,
De la salive le charme fécondant
++++++++++et par-dessus, les sortilèges,
+++++la bouche où « la Belle » se balance
++++++++++d’une rive à l’autre
+++++++++++++++les deux rives, les tréfonds des eaux
+++++d’une rive à l’autre, les herbes tranchantes
+++++++++++++++les feuilles sauvages bien frues
+++++la berge qui rabroue vers l’autre berge les eaux clapoteuses,
+++++ici le dieu-accroupi, l’animal sacré,
+++++++++++++++le bossu qui ouvre le bon chemin parmi les feuilles.

Remonté le fil de l’eau :
dans le miroisement le paradis,
+++++le jeu subtil des reflets,
l’ivresse du reflet,
+++++l’ensorcellement des sons,
++++++++++++++++++++++++++l’absolue légèreté,
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++Le masque,
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++Le laisser-apparaître
++++++++++++++++++++++++++L’unité de tout,
++++++++++++++++++++++++++La piété en tout.
Remonté le fil de l’eau,
+++++++++++++++petits morceaux de glaise, le bélier gras,
+++++++++++++++le sein maternel,
+++++la paix dans le corps, la paix dans la cour.


Translator’s Note:

For Monchoachi, language is a site of both play and resistance, a rhizomatic system of becomings, origins, and renewals. As fellow writer Patrick Chamoiseau describes, “[Monchoachi] has completely renewed our vision of the Creole language—the way we read it, practice it, defend it. He has reshaped the relationship of this language to French, and has explored the blossoming of an unheard speech, its explosion into life, which we become witness to in Lémistè.”

My translation strives to reflect/refract this performative [re-]visioning, which Monchoachi so adeptly applies to his seemingly meandering (but always intentional, and sometimes instructive) narrative. In these poems, he is reaching into an oceanic sub-terrain—emerging here into ancient Yoruban spiritual practice, there becoming a Martinican river becoming a man becoming sacred—and all of it oscillating at the tip of his tongue. By extension, these poems strive to oscillate on the tips of the readers’ [multiple] tongues, to disorient and subvert the limitations of language in order to open and influence it with magic, the mysterious. The power of these poems is found in their physical and spatial integrality; they reside in the body, in the land and in the water. As a result, although the reader is carried through the intangible into the cantatory, we remain grounded, with a taste of the air in our mouths. With these translations I hope to showcase/carry Monchoachi’s linguistic project in a way that propels both the craft of translation and the presence of Creole literature in the Anglophone world.

Special Guest Judge, William Rodarmor:

Patricia Hartland set herself a major challenge in translating Monchoachi, a poet prolific in both French and Martinican Creole. Monchoachi is the pseudonym of André Pierre-Louis, who was born in Martinique in 1946. Hartland calls his work “a site of both play and resistance… of becomings, origins, and renewals.” Patrick Chamoiseau says Monchoachi has completely renewed the relationship of the Creole language to French. This means that a vigilant translator must look in two different linguistic directions while plotting her course in a third.

Hartland brings impressive skills to the task. An MFA candidate for poetry at Notre Dame, she focuses on post-colonial, linguistically hybrid, francophone texts. And she lends a deft touch to her Monchoachi translations. Here is a sample from “The child who birthed the mother”:

Forged up the watercourse:   
                        in the mirrorment the paradise,
            the subtle game of reflections,
                        reflections inebriated,
            the sounds enchantment,
                                    absolute lightness,
                                                            the mask,
                                                            the showing
                                                            unity of all
                                                            piety in all.


—William Rodarmor is an editor and French literary translator in Berkeley, California. He has translated some forty-five books and screenplays in genres ranging from serious fiction to espionage and fantasy. In 1996 he won the Lewis Galantière Award from the American Translators Association for Tamata and the Alliance, by Bernard Moitessier. In 2016, he won the Northern California Book Award for fiction translation for The Slow Waltz of Turtles, by Katherine Pancol.


Patricia Hartland is a candidate for the MFA in poetry at the University of Notre Dame, and a recent graduate of the Iowa Translation Workshop. She translates from French, Martinican Creole, and Hindi, with a special interest in Caribbean literature. Her translations of prose, poetry, and theatre have appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Circumference, Drunken Boat, Two Lines, and elsewhere.


Born in 1946 on the island of Martinique, Monchoachi is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Prix Carbet de la Caraïbe and the Prix Max Jacob. In 2007 he founded the Lakouzémi Project, an annual gathering of writers, dancers, performers, and activists: together they vivify history and generate meaningful, actioned community.


Excerpt from The False Note

[translated fiction]

“The wolf tone is a musical paradox.
An atonality we suffer
in the name of harmony.”

One of the trees has bloomed early. In the park in front of the conservatory. Dabs of pink along a dark core. What are they called?

Cherry blossoms, you’d say. You’re all grown up now.

Later I put on my black coat, the one with the silver buttons. My steps whisper through dry fallen leaves. You run on ahead. It’s October, maybe November. I pluck a leaf from a low branch of the flaming chestnut tree.

You paste the leaves on a sheet of white paper. I tuck you into bed.

God nat, I say. Gute Nacht, you say. Buenas noches, I say. Good night, you say. And I say buonanotte.

And then you say it: welterusten. You snigger, your green eyes suspect I don’t know what they expect, but this happens every time we get as far as welterusten.

Bon nuit, I smile. Your mouth is hidden behind the covers now, only your eyes are visible. Bon nuit, you whisper.



—When the piano was invented it was believed that we had found a way to track and emulate variations in pitch that were tuned by means of a scientific system. It’s just like mathematics, she says.

She always says that. She knows he’s good at maths.

English is like maths. The piano is like maths. Even his grandmother is maths.

He’s better at maths than she is.

Keeping her eyes on his, Zoe plays a few chords.

He rests his fingers on the keyboard and strikes the same keys, two octaves higher up. His hands follow hers, slowly, confidently over the keys. Swift as an echo he sounds the right note.

—But we couldn’t reproduce the original sound, for there is a natural… falsity that would disrupt the logic of harmony if we were to include it. —Here, she says, resting two fingers on the keyboard. —Right after this key.

It doesn’t sound false to him.

—We call it the wolf tone, she says, because it sounds like a horrible choir of howling wolves.

He’s not sure he can hear what she wants him to hear.

She lifts her hands off the keys and reaches for her glass of red wine that she has placed on top of the piano. She swirls the liquid in her glass.

—Pretty neat, don’t you think?

She puts the glass to her lips and takes a sip.

He nods.

‘When you compose a score of music you have a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea: You can resort to the original system, embed the false note in the seventh tone and deliberately compose around it. You simply don’t create it, and we don’t even hear it anymore.’

She returns the glass to its perch on the piano and starts to play a piece that he knows, but he can’t remember what it’s called. She can do that. Pick up any old tune and make it sound good.

He gets himself a glass of juice from the kitchen and puts it down next to her glass on the piano. When he was little he wasn’t allowed to do that, but now she doesn’t mind.

—Before the new system was invented all you had to do was avoid the wolf tone, she says, her hands jump up an octave. —You couldn’t include it without ruining your composition; the tone is natural, but false. It’s very frustrating.

—So new tuning methods were developed. The system we use today dates back to the sixteenth century. A plan was devised to spread this natural atonality—the wolf tone—over the maximum number of piano notes; you could juggle the note, stretch it, but never eliminate it completely. This means that every composition we hear is ever so slightly off-key, she says, still playing her sedate melody.

—But we can’t hear it anymore. Our ears have become accustomed to the aberration. It’s just like a cabal, Frederik. A tuning system can never be cracked.

She looks pleased with herself. She likes the idea of a system that cannot be cracked.

—It is possible to crack a cabal, he says.

—Ah. In that case, imagine the sort of cabal that cannot be cracked, she says.

This he can very well imagine. He looks at her. She has a special way of meeting his gaze when she’s playing the piano; seeing him without seeing him at all.

—So, Frederik. Her fingers have stopped moving over the keys.

She picks up her glass of wine, gulps it down.

—When you compose a score of music you have a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea: You can resort to the original system, embed the false note in the seventh tone and deliberately compose around it. You simply don’t create it, and we don’t even hear it anymore. It’s extinguished by dint of choice, just as we would choose to stop creating the colour… olive green; after a while we simply wouldn’t see this shade of green anymore. If you choose to compose according the modern principle however, you can spread the wolf note evenly across the scales. One could argue that we’re masking an innate link between music and nature, and, in effect, making everything we play false—which we don’t hear either.

She stares at the keys for a moment.

—Do you understand, Frederik?

He nods.

—It’s just something we’ve come to accept. The price we pay for creating a sound that is all but perfect. It’s the paradox of music that we can cheerfully, imperfectly recreate a false world.

She stands up and goes into the kitchen.

—It’s just like pi, don’t you think? she calls after her. —Or a leap year. We have leap years so the calendar will add up nicely. Isn’t that so?

He’s not sure this is true. He stares hard at the keys. Narrows his eyes, tries to see them in a different light, identify some kind of veneer. She’s opening a bottle of wine. There’s a pop of a cork from the kitchen. She comes back with her glass and sits down on the piano stool next to him. Plays one of her melodies.

—You can also think of it in terms of the dial of a watch, she says, lifting her left wrist so he can see the face on hers.

—There are twelve musical tones on a piano, and there are twelve numbers on the face of a dial. If the space between each number were a tone, then a complete rotation would end one second beyond the twelve; you would never strike dead on twelve. It just wouldn’t work, would it? Because with every rotation we’d edge a little further past the twelve. A little further every time.

Frederik looks at her watch and nods. It is five minutes to midnight.

—So, we cheat a little. We falsify each tone, just a tad, to make sure that we strike the number twelve. Dead on. Every time. People like to relate things to something else that they understand.

She looks at him. The corners of her mouth curl into a smile.

—It’s a symphonic problem, not a melodic one, she says finally. —We want to create great symphonies, rather than meek melodies. So we bend the rules of nature to suit our own. Rather than the reverse. Does that make sense to you, Frederik?

He nods.

—That’s a very abstract conception, don’t you think. Thomas’ voice cuts into the room. He’s standing in the lounge doorway wearing his coat. He must have arrived only moments before. Neither of them had heard the front door.

—If we had bowed to the rules of nature, man would have ceased to exist as a species, he says.

His voice sounds brittle. —Why aren’t you in bed yet, Frederik?

*     *     *

Frederik goes to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He washes his hands. The voices coming from the lounge are rising. He knows it’s very late. He opens the window to air the room.

If all manmade instruments were invented so we could play nature’s music, which instrument could sound like fresh air flowing into the bathroom?

He knows now is not a good time to ask.

He goes to his room and pulls on his pyjamas. Smooths down the sheets, shakes out the duvet, and crawls in under the covers.

He cannot make out the words, but he can hear that his father is cross. That rumble in his throat. He knows he’s stayed up too late. He can hear her going into the kitchen.

—Why do you have to ruin everything, Thomas.

—You’re drunk, Zoe.

He can hear the fridge being opened. The kettle clicks on.

—You’re drunk, Zoe, she repeats after him.

—He hasn’t a hope in hell of understanding what you’re saying. It’s twelve o’clock at night, for Christ’s sake, and you open a fresh bottle of wine. He’s nine years old, Zoe.

His dad is really mad now. So is she. The door into the lounge bangs shut.

—You underestimate him, she yells after him.

A little later his dad comes into his room. He sits down on the edge of the bed, tucks the duvet around him. He stays sitting there for a while. Sighs deeply.

—Nobody has to be that smart at twelve o’clock at night, he says, touching Frederik’s cheek.

—But I do understand, he whispers.

Thomas sits completely still for a moment longer.

—Then you’re a very clever boy, he whispers back. —Sleep well, sweetheart.

He lies in the dark for a long time. Waits for her to come. She always does.




He knows he shouldn’t call his grandmother. It would only make matters worse.

He can always turn up the volume. So he does.

But he can still hear it, the muffled sounds; as if wrapped in a blanket.

He has his phone in his hand. The battery is charged.

He thinks he’s about to fall asleep, but it’s almost impossible not to hear the smashing of glass. He turns up the volume even more, but the sound was there only a moment before. He’s fresh out of ideas. He turns off the music. It’s quiet downstairs. He listens. He knows he’s heard it again.

Some kind of banging noise. He’s not sure which. Maybe it’s nothing.

He sees the tangled mess where Bear, Chicken, and Duck used to be. The snapped rods. They spin round when a breeze blows in from the window. He takes it down. He should’ve kept his mouth shut.

He listens. Thinks he can hear something else, but it’s probably just the rustle of leaves outside.

He checks his timetable. He’s got double periods in English and maths. Followed by two single periods in science and IT.

He’s done all his homework.

He rolls over onto his side. Rests a hand on the wall; cool to the touch, its rough surface comforting on his palm.

*     *     *

He must have slept. She’s come into his room. His hand still on the wall, he listens to her breathing. He stays lying still.

She lies down on the bed next to him. She’s not touching him, but he can feel the warmth of her body. It feels nice. He stays quiet and tries to fall asleep.

*     *     *

When the alarm goes off she’s gone. The room is empty and the sun is slanting through the white curtains. He stares at the socks on the floor. Seven in all.

He thinks he’s about to fall asleep, but it’s almost impossible not to hear the smashing of glass. He turns up the volume even more, but the sound was there only a moment before.

He gets out of bed and goes for a pee, as quietly as he can, careful to aim for the sides of the bowl. Then he goes down the stairs and into the kitchen. He opens the fridge. Takes out the milk. Fetches the cereal from the cupboard. A bowl. He lays everything out on the dining table. His forgotten a spoon. He pulls a chair up to the kitchen counter and reaches for the sugar in the cupboard. Goes back to the dining room table and sits down. What could that noise have been all about? Maybe it was all in his mind. He puts his phone on the table next to his bowl and starts spooning cereal into his mouth. He didn’t have to prep anything for English period.

*     *     *

He searches for the eighth sock. Looks under the bed. He finds it—covered in fuzz. He shakes the sock and picks off the remaining bits of fluff. Sorted. Now he’s got a matching pair that he likes. He sits down on the edge of the bed, and pulls them on.

He knows that the door to the lounge bangs all the time. Little knocks against the wooden doorframe.

He looks outside. The sun is shining. He puts on his sandals.

There’s no packed lunch in the kitchen. He cuts himself a slice of bread, a chunk of cucumber. He deposits his sandwich in a plastic freezer bag.

He tiptoes to the lounge and opens the door, as if it’s been waiting for him all this time; he lets himself get sucked in. It’s the pane of the terrace sliding door. Splinters of glass are scattered everywhere. A cold wind is blowing through a big hole in the pane. She’s lying on the sofa. Wrapped in a blanket. He’s not sure if she’s asleep.

He backs out the lounge. Grabs his satchel in the hall. He clicks the front door closed behind him.

*     *     *

At ten minutes to two ‘o clock he climbs up the tree in the schoolyard and prepares to wait. The pupils from Third Grade are playing charades far below. His perch feels like a nest. Nobody can see him up here.

It’s already gone four minutes past two when it rings.

—Hi, Freddie, says his dad.


—How’s it going?

—Good, he says.

—What are you doing?

—I’m playing charades.

—That sounds like fun?


—Is Mom home?

—I’m not sure.

—Right, you’re not home right now, are you. Is everything okay?


—What did you have for lunch today?

He hesitates:


—I’ll be home day after tomorrow.


—Shall I call again tomorrow?


—Right-y ho. Keep well, says his dad.

—Wait. What time are you going to call tomorrow, he says. But the line is already dead.

*     *     *

He goes round the back to the garden gate. It’s locked. There’s no hole in the sliding door. And he can’t see her in the lounge. He goes back to the front door and unlocks the door. She’s not home. The sofa is empty. The blanket is lying in a heap on the floor.

He sets up his computer on the dining room table. Jonas from Sweden is online. They’re on the same team.

*     *     *

He hears the keys in the front door. He doesn’t turn round, but he can hear the rustle of bags. She’s packing stuff into the fridge. Pulls open the bottom drawer. Fills the kettle with water from the tap and switches it on. Now he turns his head. She’s holding a tea tin in each hand.

—Hej, she says.


She’s not home. The sofa is empty. The blanket is lying in a heap on the floor.

—Would like some tea?

—Yes, thanks, he says.

She comes over, thrusts each tin under his nose in turn.

—Uhmm, he says. —That one.

He knew she’d be back to normal.

She lays the table, and sits down opposite him, her face sticking up over the edge of the screen. She’s bought some cake. She slides a plate over.

—Shall I put this off? he asks.

—No, you don’t have to.

They sit at the table together. A string of his teammates are mowed down in an ambush from the rear.

*     *     *

She fetches the tea as soon as it’s had a chance to draw. Pours them both a cup. She fetches the bowl of sugar and puts it in front of him. She’s remembered to bring a teaspoon.

She sits down at the table.

—I’m sorry, Frederik, she says.

She’s peering over the edge of his screen. Blinks. It looks as if she wants to say more. She picks up her mug. Her hand is trembling.

—That’s okay, he says, glancing up briefly. He sees two snipers on the roof. He fires.

—I haven’t been feeling well, she says. It will pass.

—Yes, he whispers, making a dash for another sniper on the roof.


Copyright © Trisse Gejl 2016
Copyright denne udgave © People’s Press 2016

„Ulvekvinten er et musikalsk paradoks.
En falskhed, vi er nødt til at leve med,
ellers går stemningssystemet ikke op.“

Et af træerne blomstrede tidligt det år. Det stod i parken foran konservatoriet. Små, lyserøde pletter med en mørk kerne. Hvader det, de hedder?

Kirsebærblomster, vil du sige. Du er voksen nu.

Senere har jeg min sorte frakke med sølvknapper på. Mine skridt hvisler gennem de tørre blade. Du løber foran. Det er oktober eller måske november. Jeg plukker et lavthængende blad fra en flammenden kastanje.

Bladene klistrer du op på hvidt papir. Jeg putter dig.

Godnat, siger jeg. Gute Nacht, siger du. Så siger jeg buenas noches. Så siger du good night. Så siger jeg buonanotte.

Så siger du det: welterusten. Du fniser, og dine grønne øjne forventer, jeg ved ikke, hvad de forventer, men sådan er det, hver gang vi når til welterusten.

Bonne nuit, smiler jeg. Din mund er gemt bag dynen nu, kun dine øjne er tilbage. Bonne nuit, hvisker du.



– Da man opfandt klaveret, troede man, at det endelig var lykkedes at forklare og genskabe alle naturlige lyde i verden. Man stemte simpelthen klaveret efter et meget præcist system.

Det er fuldstændig som matematik, siger hun.

Det siger hun altid, fordi han er god til matematik.

Engelsk er som matematik. Klaveret er som matematik.Selv hans farmor er som matematik.

Han er bedre til matematik end hende.

Zoe slår et par toner an, mens hun ser på ham.

Han sætter fingrene på tangenterne og slår de samme toner an nogle oktaver oppe. Han følger hendes hænder, der flytter sig langsomt og sikkert rundt. Som et hurtigt ekko finder han de samme toner og slår dem an.

– Men det viste sig, at man aldrig kan efterligne naturens klange helt. For der findes en slags … naturlig falskhed, der ødelægger hele systemet, hvis man prøver at integrere den. Her, siger hun, – efter denne kvint, og hun sætter to fingre på tangenterne.

Det lyder ikke falsk, synes han.

– Man kaldte den ulvekvinten, siger hun. – Fordi man syntes, den lød lige så rædselsfuld som ulve, der hyler i kor.

Han er ikke sikker på, han hører det, hun vil have ham til at høre.

Hun slipper tangenterne og rækker ud efter sit rødvinsglas, der står på klaveret. Hun holder det svævende foran ansigtet.

– Det er ret fint, ikke?

Så sætter hun glasset til læberne.

Han nikker.

Hun sætter glasset fra sig og spiller et stykke, han kender, men ikke kan huske, hvad hedder. Det er sådan noget, hun gør. Lige spiller noget, der lyder godt.

Han henter et glas saftevand og sætter det på klaveret. Detmåtte han ikke, da han var mindre. Nu siger hun ikke noget.

– Når man så komponerede musik ud fra systemet, skulle man bare undgå ulvekvinten, siger hun og hopper en kvint op. – Den er ubrugelig, den ødelægger ethvert stykke musik. Den er naturlig, men falsk. Det er meget frustrerende.

– Så lavede man nye stemningssystemer. Det, vi bruger i dag, stammer helt fra 1600-tallet. Nu forsøgte man at fordele denne falskhed, ulvekvinten, over så mange kvinter som

muligt. Du kan altså godt flytte rundt på den falske kvint, du kan udtynde den, men du kan aldrig komme af med den. Med det resultat at al musik, vi hører i dag, er en lille smule falsk, siger hun, mens hun fortsætter en langsom melodi.

– Men vi kan ikke længere høre det, for vi har vænnet os til det. Det er ligesom en kabale, Frederik, stemningssystemer kan aldrig helt gå op.

Hun ser glad ud. Hun kan godt lide, at det ikke kan gå op.

– Kabaler kan godt gå op, siger han.

– Nå ja, siger hun. – Men så forestil dig en kabale, der ikke kan gå op.

Det kan han godt forestille sig. Han ser på hende. Hun ser altid tilbage med et særligt blik, når hun spiller samtidig. Som om han både er der og ikke er der.

– Så Frederik, siger hun og standser.

Hun tager vinglasset igen og tømmer det i en hurtig slurk.

– Når vi gennem mange hundreder af år komponerer efter klangsystemer, må vi vælge mellem pest eller kolera. Enten komponerer vi efter det ældste princip, der samler falskheden ved syvende kvint, og sørger for at komponere udenom den lyd. Vi skaber den ikke, vi hører den ikke længere, vi udrydder den på samme måde, som hvis vi ikke længere brugte farven … olivengrøn. Så ville vi til sidst ikke kunne se den. Eller også komponerer vi efter det nyeste princip, der fordeler den falske kvint over hele klaveret. Man kan sige, at vi så har valgt at sløre et umiddelbart link mellem musikken og naturen. Alt, vi spiller, er derfor en smule falsk, men heller ikke det hører vi længere.

Hun sidder lidt og ser på tangenterne.

– Forstår du det, Frederik?

Han nikker.

– Og det har vi slået os til tåls med, det er prisen for at have en klang, der er næsten perfekt. Det er musikkens paradoks. Nu genskaber vi glad og uvidende en falsk verden.

Hun rejser sig og går ud i køkkenet.

– Er det ikke ligesom pi? råber hun. – Eller skudår, ellers går tiden ikke op?

Det ved han ikke. Han ser på tangenterne. Prøver at klemme øjnene lidt sammen for at se dem anderledes, for at se den lille falskhed. Hun åbner en flaske vin, han kan høre suget fra proppen. Så kommer hun ind igen og sætter sig ved klaveret. Hun spiller en lille melodi.

– Du kan også tænke på urskiven, siger hun og viser ham sit ur.

– Der er tolv kvinter på klaveret, der er tolv tal på urskiven. Hvis mellemrummet mellem hvert tal var en kvint, ville kvinterne først stoppe et sekund efter tolv. Du vil aldrig ramme tolv helt rent. Det duer jo ikke, vel? For hvis vi bare fortsætter, så bliver klokken næste gang lidt mere over tolv. Og næste gang lidt mere.

Han ser på uret og nikker. Klokken er fem minutter i tolv.

– Så vi snyder lidt og laver alle kvinterne en lillebitte smule falske, så vi rammer tolv rent hver gang. Vi kan bedst lide, at tingene passer til det, vi kan forstå.

Hun ser lidt på ham. Så smiler hun.

– Det er et symfonisk problem, ikke et melodisk, siger hun så. – Og mennesket vil gerne lave store symfonier, ikke bare små melodier. Så vi har været nødt til at bøje naturen mod os i stedet for at bøje os for den. Forstår du det?

Han nikker.

– Det er godt nok abstrakt det der, lyder Thomas’ stemme. Han står i døren ind til stuen med frakke på. Han må lige være kommet hjem. De har i hvert fald ikke hørt ham.

– Hvis vi havde bøjet os for naturen, havde vi ikke overlevet som art, siger han.

Hans stemme er irriteret. – Hvorfor er du ikke i seng, Frederik?

*     *     *

Frederik går ud og børster tænder. Vasker hænder. De taler hurtigt derinde. Han vidste det jo godt. Så trækker han ud i toilettet.

Hvis alle instrumenter er lavet i et forsøg på at kunne spille naturens toner, hvilket instrument skal så lyde, som når man trækker ud i toilettet?

Han ved godt, det ikke er nu, han skal spørge.

Han går ind på sit værelse og tager nattøj på. Han glatter lagenet og ryster dynen, før han lægger sig ned under den.

Han kan ikke høre, hvad de siger, men hans far er sur. Han taler med den der brummen. Han ved godt, han er kommet for sent i seng. Nu går hun ud i køkkenet.

– Derfor behøver du ikke ødelægge det, siger hun.

– Du er fuld, Zoe, siger Thomas.

Han kan høre køleskabet blive åbnet. Elkedlen tændt.

– Du er fuld, Zoe, efteraber hun.

– Han har jo ikke en chance for at forstå det der. Klokken er tolv om natten, og du sidder dér med ham og har lige åbnet en ny flaske vin. For fanden, han er ni år.

Han er rigtig vred nu. Det er hun også. Døren ind til stuen smækker med et brag.

– Du undervurderer ham, råber hun.

Lidt efter kommer Thomas ind. Han sætter sig på kanten af sengen og stopper dynen ned om Frederik. Han sidder lidt. Så sukker han.

– Så klog behøver man ikke være klokken tolv om natten, siger han og stryger en finger over Frederiks kind.

– Jeg kan altså godt forstå det, hvisker han.

Thomas sidder lidt.

– Så er du en meget klog dreng, hvisker han tilbage. – Sov godt.

Han ligger længe i mørket og venter på, at hun skal komme. Det gør hun altid.




Han ved godt, at han nok ikke skal ringe til farmor. Det vil gøre det hele meget værre.

Man kan også bare skrue op. Det gør han.

Han kan stadig høre det. Men nu er det, som om det er inde i en dyne.

Han har mobilen i hånden. Den er fuldt opladet.

Han tror, han er ved at falde lidt i søvn, men det er næsten umuligt ikke at høre rabalderet af glas. Han skruer op, men det var der stadig lige før. Nu ved han ikke rigtig, hvad han skal gøre. Han slukker for musikken. Der er stille. Han lytter. Han ved, at det var der.

Måske er der en lille lyd nu. Men han er ikke sikker. Måske er der slet ingen lyd.

Han ser op på uroen, hvor Bamse og Kylling og Ælling var. Nu er der kun de hvide pinde tilbage, men de drejer stadig en gang imellem i trækken fra vinduet. Hun hev dem af. Han skulle ikke have sagt noget.

Han lytter. Tror, han kan høre lidt, men det er vist bare en raslen i bladene udenfor.

De skal have engelsk og matematik i to timer og så natur og teknik.

Det har han lavet.

Han vender sig om. Lægger en hånd på væggen. Den er kølig. Den nubrede overflade er rar at mærke i håndfladen.

*     *     *

Han har sovet. Han kan mærke, at hun er kommet ind i værelset. Han kan høre hende trække vejret. Han ligger helt stille. Hånden mod væggen.

Så lægger hun sig ned i sengen. Han kan mærke varmen fra hendes krop, selvom hun ikke rører ved ham. Det er rart. Han ligger stille og prøver at sove igen.

*     *     *

Da vækkeuret ringer, er hun der ikke mere. Der er tomt, og solen skinner ind gennem de hvide gardiner. Han kigger på syv sokker på gulvet.

Han står op. Han tisser, så stille han kan. Han styrer strålen op ad kummens sider. Så går han ud i køkkenet. Åbner køleskabet. Tager mælk ud. Henter havregryn. En tallerken. Han sætter det hele på bordet. Så går han tilbage og henter en ske. Trækker en stol hen for at nå sukkeret. Så sidder han der. Han ved ikke rigtig, hvad det var. Måske var det ikke noget. Han lægger mobilen ved siden af sig og spiser. Han havde ikke noget for i engelsk.

*     *     *

Han leder efter den ottende sok under sengen. Han finder den fuld af nullermænd. Ryster den. Piller det af. Nu har han to ens, han godt kan lide. Han sætter sig på kanten af sengen og tager dem på.

Han ved godt, at døren til stuen går op og i hele tiden. Små bump mod karmen.

Han ser ud. Solen skinner. Han tager sandaler på.

Der er ikke nogen madpakke. Han skærer en skive brød og et stykke agurk og kommer det i en frysepose.

Først nu skubber han døren til stuen forsigtigt op. Det er, som om den har ventet på ham, lader sig suge indad. Det er en af ruderne i terrassedøren. Der ligger glasskår over det hele. En kold vind står ind. Hun ligger i sofaen. Hun har et tæppe over sig. Han ved ikke, om hun sover.

Så tager han sin taske og lader hoveddøren falde i med et lille klik.

*     *     *

Klokken ti minutter i to klatrer han op i træet og giver sig til at vente. Dem fra tredje klasse spiller rollespil nede på legepladsen. Det er som en hule heroppe. Man kan ikke ses nedefra.

Først fire minutter over to ringer den.

– Hej, Frede, siger hans far.

– Hej.

– Går det godt?

– Ja, siger han.

– Hvad laver du?

– Jeg spiller rollespil.

– Er det sjovt?

– Ja.

– Er mor hjemme?

– Det ved jeg ikke.

– Nåh nej, du er jo ikke hjemme. Går det godt?

– Ja, gentager han.

– Hvad har I fået at spise?

Han tøver.

– Pizza? siger han så.

– Jeg kommer hjem i overmorgen.

– Okay.

– Skal jeg ringe igen i morgen?

– Ja, siger han.

– O.k., hav det godt så længe, siger hans far.

– Hvornår ringer du? spørger han, men forbindelsen er

allerede afbrudt.

*     *     *

Han går rundt om huset, om til havedøren. Den er lukket, og der er ikke hul i nogen rude mere. Han kan ikke se hende derinde. Så går han om til hoveddøren og låser sig ind. Hun er der ikke. Han ser den tomme sofa. Tæppet ligger på gulvet.

Han sætter sin computer på spisebordet i stuen og tænder den. Jonas fra Sverige er online. De er på hold sammen.

*     *     *

Senere hører han nøglen i døren. Han vender sig ikke om, men han kan høre poser. Hun sætter ting i køleskabet. Ryster poserne og folder dem sammen. Lægger dem ned i nederste skuffe. Hun fylder vand i kedlen, tænder den. Så tager hun tedåser ned. Hun stiller sig i døren ind til stuen. Nu vender han sig om. Hun har en tedåse i hver hånd.

– Hej, siger hun.

– Hej.

– Vil du have te?

– Ja tak, siger han.

Hun kommer hen til ham og holder først den ene og så

den anden dåse under hans næse.

– Uhm, siger han, – den der.

Han vidste, hun ville blive almindelig igen.

Hun dækker op på bordet og sætter sig overfor ham. Hendes ansigt stikker op over computerskærmen. Hun har også købt kage. Skubber tallerkenen hen mod ham.

– Skal jeg slukke nu? siger han.

– Det behøver du ikke.

Så sidder de der. En masse af hans medspillere er blevet skudt i et bagholdsangreb.

*     *     *

Hun henter teen, da den har trukket. Skænker op til dem begge to. Hun henter sukker til ham. Og en teske.

Så sætter hun sig igen.

– Undskyld, Frederik, siger hun.

Han kigger op over skærmen og blinker. Hun ser ud, som om hun vil sige noget mere. Så tager hun tekruset i stedet. Hendes hænder ryster lidt.

– Det er okay, siger han og ser ned og skyder to på taget.

– Jeg har det ikke så godt for tiden, siger hun. – Det går


– Ja, hvisker han og forfølger en snigskytte.


Translator’s Note:

Some say that the act of translation is, in itself, impossible. How does one express what cannot be verbalized? How do you record the disintegration of a mind? Perhaps it is impossible, but the first time I read The False Note I had a very real sense of what it might feel like to lose your mind, and, being a translator, I was intrigued by the way Trisse Gejl imagined how this language of loss—a void of madness—would sound: the nuanced language of music forms the central conceit of the novel; the relative veracity of a tone, as and when it reaches the ear. Frederik has the innocence of a child, but the gift to identify the relative “falsity” of a voice, and this novel invokes the irresistible challenge to translate certain tones of discord into English. When I read the original, it is often the silence, a pause in speech, which resounds.


Lindy Falk van Rooyen is a Danish literary translator and holds an LLM in commercial law from the University of Stellenbosch and an MA in Scandinavian and English literature from the University of Hamburg. Her translations have appeared in Blue Lyra Review, Asymptote, and The Missing Slate. Recent translation publications include The Last Execution by Jesper Wung-Sung (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and What My Body Remembers (Soho Press, 2017) by Agnete Friis.

Photo by Elfriede Liebenow

Trisse Gejl is a Danish author and journalist who made her debut with the critically acclaimed novel Where the Dandelions Grow in 1995. She holds a Cand.mag in aesthetics and cultural studies from the University of Aarhus. Her novels have been nominated for several literary awards, including Danish Radio’s Literary Award in 2007 and 2012. The False Note is her most recent novel and was short-listed for the prestigious Blixen Literary Award in 2016.

Photo by Les Kaner

The Last Ones

[translated fiction]

The first thing he recognized were José Luis’s mannerisms. He remembered
the way he’d sit on the bench and chew the little pink eraser on his pencil. Maybe
if he tried hard enough he’d be able to remember every part of the school: the sticky
hallways, the fossilized gum stuck under the long benches, the scratchy, pinching sleeves
of the uniforms. He could feel it all come rushing back at once in El Feeling nightclub, which was doused in fluorescent lights that danced on the tables and soaked in the bitter stench of urine that ran down the walls. Giovanni tried to light a cigarette, but his hands were shaking. When he finally got it lit, he distracted himself by looking at the artificial light diffused through the smoke he pushed from his mouth. His coworkers were off dancing in a private room. They’d all pretended to be drunker than they really were so someone might dare to suggest ending their bender at El Feeling.

Giovanni laid his head down on his hands, on top of the food-flecked tablecloth. He had a headache, and from somewhere through the pulsing murmur of the club he was able to make out a man’s booming metallic voice. The man was gigantic, monumental, even, with round legs and violet heels, and if he hadn’t been dressed as a woman, Giovanni thought, he would’ve made a handsome man. Giovanni was never really that way, but he’d had a few partners. He remembered how one had fallen in love with him, Gabriela? Or Jenny? He’d kissed her eyelids as she shivered underneath him and he ran the warm tip of his tongue over her thighs—those wide thighs like the woman’s at the table in front of him now, with her purple-painted lips and platinum hair past her waist. It was then, as she was chewing at the curve of her fake nails, that he recognized her furtive expression—as if she was waiting secretly for something inevitable. The first thing that made him recognize José Luis were his mannerisms. Besides that, she looked just like any heavily made-up woman leaning back on a Corona-brand plastic table.

The first thing he recognized were José Luis’s mannerisms. He remembered the way he’d sit on the bench and chew the little pink eraser on his pencil. Maybe if he tried hard enough he’d be able to remember every part of the school: the sticky hallways, the fossilized gum stuck under the long benches, the scratchy, pinching sleeves of the uniforms.

José Luis looked at Giovanni for a second, stunned and stuck in his seat in the middle of the dark club, his dress speckled with crumbs and beer. He let out a cackle as he clumsily got up from his table.

“Giovanni? Ideai! Well, look who it is.” She sauntered up to him and her hair covered her breasts as she crisscrossed one leg in front of the other. She leaned on the table. Giovanni invited him to sit down, but instead she hugged him, clinging to his shoulders. He found José Luis’s scent hidden under the perfume and then Giovanni was back in the hallways of the school—that evening alone on the bathroom floor, surrounded by all that blinding-white sadness. “Luisa, I’m Luisa now. Check it out, Papi, I got my chin and tits done. Although look… I still need work on my booty and dick.” She bit her lip. “But you know how it is, some guys like it, it’s a real pain in the ass! But I have my very own boy-toy now! Can you believe it? One of those for-real real boyfriends. Oh, and I have my salon, which is super successful, over on First. It’s called ‘Zielo.’ Sounds like some high-class stuff, right? You know I always liked exclusivity, because of my aunt. You remember her? What do you mean no! Yeah, she was the wife of a congressman, one of those real legit-lady types, with her roots always touched up, and my family—we were poor, I mean poor, but we all turned out cute and pretty feisty. And you? What’ve you done?”

Giovanni poured her a beer without being able to shake the memory of how José Luis had come into the bathroom that afternoon and said, “I’m a woman in the body of an ugly man.” He took out a little tube of lip gloss from his backpack and edged up close to the mirror. He must’ve seen Giovanni by then, sitting on the floor next to the urinals, his gaze drilled into the intricate blue pattern in the tile floor. Giovanni had just learned that his father finally died and had been sitting there a long time. To be honest, it was a relief for everyone—it was a relief for Giovanni. No more mopping up the black vomit, no more spending every night at the hospital, no more holding his icy yellowed hand and pretending not to be tired and pretending that they still loved him. He didn’t remember how long he’d been sitting there, looking at the line of filth collected in the grooves between the tiles, or how many boys had come in and asked if he was all right. He couldn’t remember if he’d answered them. It was then that José Luis had come into the bathroom, swinging his hips just like he was now, here in this fag nightclub.

Giovanni looked at him. He looked like a woman, and his lip quivered when he spoke. Luis was barely recognizable, but Giovanni recognized in him his familiarity, his caring nature, same as that day when Luis had stood in front of him with his backpack hanging off one shoulder and his hand on his hip. Giovanni remembered Luis’s instinctive need to comfort him. The water from the sink had been leaking towards the drain in the floor like a bitter cold comet-tail of clear water. José Luis had crouched down at his side, touched his shoulder, and called him by name in his fake and effeminate voice. Giovanni pushed him over. He remembered the sound of him falling down on the freezing-cold tiles. José Luis got up, but instead of leaving, he sat there next to him, watching the light pour in through the tiny bathroom window.

Giovanni could feel the close heat of his body. He intuited the weight of his clothes and searched for José Luis’s skin, the wetness of his tongue, his lipstick viscous with glitter, the tickling of his eyelashes against his cheek, his false scent. Giovanni shook with fear. He saw Luis now, transformed into a mass of curves with a bough of yellow roses tattooed on his wrist, and he thought about that day on the bathroom floor. How he’d forced his tongue into his mouth, and how they’d fooled around, fighting each other until the disgust and feverish trembling of his body overcame him. He’d thrown up right there, right on the pants of José Luis’s uniform.

No more mopping up the black vomit, no more spending every night at the hospital, no more holding his icy yellowed hand and pretending not to be tired and pretending that they still loved him. He didn’t remember how long he’d been sitting there, looking at the line of filth collected in the grooves between the tiles, or how many boys had come in and asked if he was all right.

“I’m not mad about the puke thing, Gio.” Luisa placed a hand on his thigh and batted her long fake lashes. “But make sure to tell your lady to go to my salon. Ugh, my Gio, don’t act all surprised. Yeah, I know all about it. It even showed up in the newspaper with all those fancy-ass people, right? Yeah, she’s pretty. I saw that it said ‘Mirta Diaz de Macuspanni,’ and I said to myself, what other Macuspanni is there in Tuxtla besides you, and I saw the photo of the baptism of your kid—what a cutie that little pichi of yours! So cute! I’m so damn happy to know you’re doing good. You were… like, the first guy I fell for. Oof, if you couldda seen me, the moment you stepped into that classroom, just seeing you made me wanna chew on the end of my pencil.”

“His name is Enrique, like my dad, he’ll be one next month. My wife is planning a party with her sisters—can you believe it, they want to make the local front-page news.” Giovanni didn’t know why he felt the need to mention this, maybe because he liked to imagine Luisa lifting up that little magenta dress, touching herself while looking at the photo in which he appeared with his wife, carrying his baby, in the house they’d just moved into.

He saw Luisa’s lipstick on the rim of her Styrofoam cup. He saw the fake breasts squeezed into her dress. He thought about his wife’s, also fake, but Luisa’s were glistening with sunflower oil. He felt suffocated by the music, by the time. He took off his blazer and sighed several times for all the lives he’d never live. He knocked the table as he stood and the beers rolled off and shattered on the floor. Luisa got up with him, and they tried to maneuver their way out between the club-goers. It was like a carnival with all the bodies convulsing to the music, and the singing queen on stage started to intone a tango. Someone threw a bottle at her that exploded into a thousand dazzling pieces around her heels.

As they walked along the street it smelled even more like urine than it had inside. They ducked around the corner to stay out of sight. Giovanni lit another cigarette, leaned against an unlit lamppost, and Luisa rested against his shoulder, whistling a little tune.

“You know, Gio, the other day I had a dream. I was dyeing a client’s hair, I think maybe it was the chemicals, because I dreamt about a man who was dying. I thought it was my dad, ’cause it’s been a super long time since I’ve seen him; but no, he’s still alive and kickin’. But the dream was so real. I dreamt about a man dying and puking up black stuff, and then I was the puke. I was your puke on my pants in the bathroom, which I hope you remember, Hum!”

“I don’t know, I don’t really dream, José Luis. I don’t have much time for that anymore.” Giovanni leaned against the wall. He didn’t want to go home, and he stroked his wallet in his pocket and then his keys. A key for the locked house where a woman slept with a child, in a room clouded by the sugary scent of vanilla candles.

“In my dream there was a city, I don’t know if you know much about dreams, I do, maybe it’s because I’m a Gemini and I feel drawn to the mystic and change, it’s on account of my cosmic ascendant: but anyways, in my dream there’s a city and I was out there workin’ it you know, just a broke-ass ho, but I was still just a little high-school brat, and I had a key that opened all the houses in town. I went into this old house and started making the bed. You know how? Like how they make the beds in hotels, like, tucking the corner of the blanket under the mattress.”

Giovanni loosened his tie. His coworkers would already be fucking someone by now. He bit his lip and let his cigarette butt fall to the ground. It bounced against the concrete, once, twice; its restless little light still glowing. He was like that cigarette, carrying inside himself a tiny ember that consumed him, small, but incandescent.

“Mmmm, so check it out, you’re not even listening! In my dream, it was like when I was still doing my show. They used to call me La Garoputa, but I actually went by Garota, which is like ‘girl’ in Brazilian. I was in high school when I did my show here, but before it was El Feeling it had another name, it was owned by don Iván and it was called… Butterflies! Ooh, I must’ve been about sixteen. I started out singing Emmanuel, but I really liked singing that one song, El Día que me Quieras. Oh, and hey, by the way, I lied to you earlier, the truth is I don’t have a boyfriend, well, I mean… not a for-real real one, anyway.” Luisa stepped a little closer and her platinum hair wound around the buttons of his shirt. She smelled like peanuts and onions, and Giovanni put his arm around her waist. “But in my dream, I was La Garoputa again, and I had a house and a crib with a baby in it and you opened the door and you said to me, you said…”

He imagined his father again, alone and facing that paradoxical clarity of death, and without even closing his eyes very tight, Giovanni could really remember it. He squeezed Luis and pulled him nearer until he held him so close he could see his wrinkles and eyeliner. He listened to the thick murky sound that escaped from El Feeling and the hissing of the few cars that crossed the avenue. He leaned his head on Luisa’s shoulder and rested his lips on her skin. He could hear her breathing, and her voice took on another quality, manly and cavernous. Giovanni felt her body come undone as he ran his hand along, stroking her uncovered back. The gritty sidewalk under the soles of her shoes, the icy slick floor of the bathroom, the smell of bar food on her breath, the locked door of his house, his child inside wrapped in a star-patterned blanket, twisting like unburying himself from the sheets, like his father in the starry blankets of the hospital. He wound his arms around José Luis tighter and tighter until he heard his stilted breathing and masculine voice that whispered in his ear, “So in my dream, you have my voice and I have yours, and you tell me, ‘El día que me quieras, baby, we’re gonna fuck this world right up its ass,’ and you look at me, just like you’re lookin’ at me now, and you tell me your blood woke you up this morning, boiling.”


Los últimos

Lo primero que reconoció de José Luis fue su gesto. Recordó la forma en que se sentaba en las bancas y cómo masticaba la cabecita rosada de su borrador. Quizá si lo intentaba, recordaría cada uno de los lugares de la escuela: los pasillos pegajosos, el chicle fosilizado debajo de los mesabancos, el escozor de las mangas del uniforme. Sintió todo de nuevo en el Feeling, rodeado por las luces fluorescentes que bailoteaban sobre las mesas y el hedor agrio de las marcas de orines que escurrían de las paredes. Giovanni intentó prender un cigarro, le temblaba la muñeca. Cuando por fin pudo encenderlo, se entretuvo viendo la luz artificial difuminada por el humo que expulsaba de su boca. Sus compañeros de trabajo estaban bailando en un privado; todos habían fingido estar más borrachos de lo que en realidad estaban, para que alguno propusiera ir a terminar la borrachera al Feeling.

Giovanni descansó la cabeza sobre las manos que posaba en el mantel moteado por las sobras de comida; le dolía la cabeza, pero en medio del murmullo, alcanzó a distinguir la voz metálica de un hombre que retumbaba en el antro, era monumental, con piernas redondas y zapatos púrpuras, de no estar vestido de mujer, pensó, hubiera sido un hombre apuesto. Giovanni nunca lo fue, pero había tenido varias parejas. Recordaba que alguna se enamoró de él ¿Gabriela? o ¿Jenny? Le besaba los párpados, mientras tiritaba debajo de él y Giovanni recorría tibiamente sus muslos con la punta de su lengua, esos amplios muslos como los de la mujer de la mesa de enfrente, que tenía los labios pintados de púrpura y el cabello plateado por debajo de la cintura. Fue entonces cuando reconoció ese gesto furtivo como el de esperar algo inminente a escondidas, mientras mordisqueaba la curva de sus uñas postizas. Lo primero que reconoció de José Luis fue su gesto; por lo demás, daba la impresión de ser sólo una mujer con mucho maquillaje, reclinada sobre una mesa de Corona.

José Luis lo observó por un segundo: perplejo y clavado en su silla en medio del antro oscuro, con la camisa salpicada de comida y cerveza; comenzó a carcajearse mientras se levantaba ruidosamente de su mesa.

— ¿Giovanni?, ¡ideai! —, se acercó a él, su cabello le cubría los pechos, caminaba cruzando una pierna frente a otra, se reclinó sobre su mesa. Giovanni lo invitó a sentarse, pero ella lo abrazó colgándosele un poco de los hombros; sintió el olor de José Luis debajo del perfume de mujer que lo enmascaraba. Giovanni volvió a los pasillos de la escuela, a la tarde en la que se quedaron solos en el baño sobre el piso, rodeados de toda esa blanquísima tristeza.

—Luisa, ahora soy Luisa. Velo papi: me puse mentón y me implanté las tetas. Aunque mirá… me faltan las nalgas y el pito —se mordió el labio—. Pero ya sabes, a algunos les gusta, ¡es un estorbo! Ahora tengo un cola, ¿tú crees? Uno de esos novios de deveritas. Ah y ya tengo mi salón, es de éxito, ahí en la primera. Se llama “Zielo” suena como de ricos ¿no? Ya sabes que a mí siempre me gustó lo exclusivo, era por mi tía, ¿la recordás? ¡Cómo que no! Si era la esposa de un diputado, una señorona de aquellas, con las raíces siempre pintadas, y eso que mi familia era pobre, pobre. Pero salimos chulas todas y tantito arrechas. ¿Y vos qué hicistes?

Giovanni le sirvió un vaso de cerveza, sin poder olvidar cómo José Luis había entrado al baño diciendo “soy una dama en el cuerpo de un hombre feo”, había sacado un tubito de brillo labial de la mochila y se acercó al espejo, debió ver entonces a Giovanni sentado detrás suyo, junto a los mingitorios, con la mirada clavada en los azulejos del piso. Había estado mucho tiempo ahí, desde que supo que su papá había muerto por fin. En realidad era un alivio para todos; en realidad, era un alivio para él: no más trapear sus vómitos negros, no más esperar hasta tarde en el hospital, no más agarrarle la mano amarillenta y gélida y fingir no estar cansado y que aún todos lo amaban. No recordaba cuánto tiempo había estado sentado ahí: observando la línea de mugre acumulada en la zanja que separaba los mosaicos, ni cuántos chicos habían entrado y le habían preguntado si estaba bien, no sabía tampoco si había respondido. Recordaba que José Luis había entrado al baño contoneándose como ahora en el antro de putos.

Giovanni lo observó. Era lo más parecido a una mujer, pero le temblaba el labio cuando hablaba, apenas podía reconocerlo. Identificaba su cercanía, su consuelo, tal como ese día cuando se había quedado de pie frente a él, con la mochila colgándole de un hombro y una mano sobre la cintura, observando su insaciable necesidad de consuelo. El agua de un grifo se escapaba por la coladera, una estela transparente de agua helada. José Luis se hincó a su lado, le tocó un hombro y lo llamó por su nombre con su voz artificiosa y afeminada. Giovanni lo empujó. Oyó cómo cayó sobre el mosaico helado y límpido. Él se incorporó, pero en lugar de irse, se quedó junto a él, observando la luz que entraba por la pequeña ventana del baño.

Giovanni sintió el cercano calor de su cuerpo, intuyó el peso de su ropa y buscó la piel de José Luis, la humedad de su lengua, el labial viscoso con diamantina, el cosquilleo de sus pestañas sobre su mejilla, su olor falso, tembló de miedo. Lo observó ahora, transformado en un bulto de curvas, con el tatuaje de un ramillete de rosas amarillas en la muñeca y pensó en ese día en el piso del baño, en cómo había arrasado su lengua dentro de su boca: juguetearon, batallando hasta que lo sacudió el asco y el temblor febril del cuerpo; había vomitado ahí mismo, sobre los pantalones del uniforme de José Luis.

—No te guardo rencor por lo de la vomitadita, Gio —Luisa le colocó una mano sobre el muslo y parpadeó con sus largas pestañas postizas.

—Pero decíle a tu mujer que vaya a mi salón. Uuuy mi Gio, no te sorprendás, si yo todo lo sé. Además aparece en el periódico con la gente nice ¿no? Está chula, es que vi que decía: Mirta Díaz de Macuspanni y qué más Macuspanni en Tuxtla que vos, eso me dije, y vi la foto del bautizo de tu niño, ¡qué pichi tan chulote! ¡reeechulo! me alegró harto saber que te va bien. Fuistes…como el primero del que me enamoré. Uuuy si vieras, desde que entraste al salón, de puro verte mordisqueaba mi borrador.

—Se llama Enrique, como mi papá, cumple un año el mes que viene. Mi mujer le prepara una fiesta con sus tías, imagínate, quieren un reportaje de primera plana. — Giovanni no sabía por qué tenía que mencionarle eso, quizá porque le gustó imaginar que Luisa se masturbaría levantando ese vestidito magenta, viendo la revista en la que él aparecería junto a su mujer, cargando a su hijo, en esa casa a la que se acaban de mudar.

Observó la marca de labial de Luisa en el vaso de unicel. Vio los pechos falsos apretujados en su vestido, pensó en los de su esposa, también operados, pero los de Luisa estaban rociados con brillantina tornasol. Se sintió asfixiado por la música, por el tiempo, se quitó el saco, resopló varias veces, por todo lo que no viviría jamás. Se levantó de la mesa, la golpeó al pararse, las cervezas rodaron hasta quebrarse en el piso. Luisa se levantó con él, intentaron salir entre la gente excitada. Le pareció un carnaval, los cuerpos estaban convulsionados por la música, aunque el mampo que cantaba había comenzado a entonar un tango, alguien le arrojó una botella de vidrio que estalló en miles de pedazos resplandecientes cerca de sus tacones.

Caminaron sobre la avenida, pero olía más a orines que dentro, doblaron en la esquina, para que no pudieran verlos. Giovanni encendió otro cigarro, se reclinó en un farol fundido y Luisa descansó en su hombro silbando una tonadita.

—Vieras Gio, que el otro día tuve un sueño, había estado tiñéndole el pelo a una clienta, yo creo que fue el líquido del tinte, porque soñé a un señor que se moría, pensé que era mi papá, como hace harto que no lo veo; pero no, ese anda aún vivo. El sueño fue bien real, soñé un hombre morir vomitando negro, y luego el vómito era yo. Yo era tu vómito en mi pantalón en el baño. Bien que te acordás ¡hum!

—No sé, yo no sueño José Luis. Ya no tengo tiempo para eso. —Giovanni se reclinó en la pared, no quería llegar a casa, palpó su cartera en el pantalón y las llaves. Una llave de una puerta cerrada, en una casa donde dormía una mujer con un niño, junto a un buró donde se consumía el olor dulce de unas velas de vainilla.

—En mi sueño, hay una ciudad, yo no sé si sabés de eso de los sueños, yo quizá porque soy géminis me siento inclinada a lo místico y al cambio, es por mi ascendente cósmico; pero bueno, en mi sueño había una ciudad y yo estaba ahí de puta perdida, arrecheando, pero aún era cuatito de la prepa y tenía una llave que abría todas las casas. Entré a una y me puse a hacer la cama de una casa vieja. ¿Sabés cómo? Como se hace en los hoteles, metiendo la punta de la cobija debajo del colchón.

Giovanni se aflojó la corbata, sus compañeros debían estar cogiendo ya con alguien, se mordió el labio, dejó caer la colilla de su cigarro, rebotó sobre el concreto: una, dos veces, con esa lucecita intranquila aun brillando. Él era como ese cigarro, cargaba una brasita pequeña pero incandescente que lo consumía.

—Mmm vélo, pues, ¡vos ni me estás pelando! En mi sueño, yo era como en los tiempos de mi show. Me decían “La Garoputa”; bueno, yo me hacía llamar “Garota” que es como “chamaca” en brasileño. Ya en la prepa hacia mi show aquí, pero esto antes de llamarse el Feeling tenía otro nombre, era de don Iván y se llamaba…Butterflies ¡Uuuuy! Yo tendría mis dieciséis. Entré cantando al Emmanuel pero a mí me gustaba más cantar esa de “El día que me quieras”. Oí, te mentí hace rato, la verdad es que no tengo novio, bueno no de deveritas. —Luisa se acercó más a él, sus cabellos plateados se enredaron en los botones de su camisa. Olía a cebolla y a cacahuate, Giovanni la rodeó por la cintura.

—Pero en mi sueño, yo era de nuevo la “Garoputa” y entonces yo tenía una casa y un bebé en la cuna y tú abrías la puerta y me decías, me decías…—Giovanni imaginó de nuevo a su padre, solo, ante la claridad inverosímil de la muerte; pero ni aun apretando muy fuerte los ojos, podía realmente recordarlo. Estrujó a Luis, lo jaló hasta tenerlo tan junto que podía verle las marcas del delineador y las arrugas de los ojos. Oyó el sonido brumoso que escapaba del Feeling y el siseo de los pocos coches que transitaban la avenida. Reclinó la cabeza sobre el hombro de Luisa y descansó los labios en su piel, podía oírla respirar; su voz tenía otro timbre, una voz cavernosa y varonil. Giovanni arrastró su mano acariciándole la espalda descubierta. Sintió su cuerpo deshacerse: el piso grumoso debajo de sus suelas, el piso helado del baño, el aliento a comida del bar, la puerta de su casa cerrada; su hijo dentro, envuelto en cobijas celestes, retorciéndose, como desenterrándose de la ropa, como su padre entre las cobijas celestes del hospital. Rodeó a José Luis con más y más fuerza, hasta oír cómo su respiración se entrecortaba y su voz de hombre le susurraba en el oído.

—Entonces, en mi sueño, tú tienes mi voz y yo la tuya y me dices: “El día que me quieras, chula, vamos a clavarle la verga al mundo” y me ves, así como me estás viendo ahora, y me decís que amaneció la sangre rabiándote.


Translator’s Note:

“The Last Ones” posed several fascinating challenges on both narrative and socio-linguistic levels during my translation process. This story takes place in a nightclub in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, Mexico, and follows the narrative memory of Giovanni, a closeted man who is recalling his first romantic encounter with someone of the same sex. These memories, which are deeply entangled with the memories of the death of his father, are brought back to life after running into Luisa, who has since transitioned into a woman. Luisa’s dialogue was a particular challenge when translating this story, as the voices of Giovanni and Luisa are quite distinctive in the original Spanish. Luisa uses the second-person vos form, which is typical of countries in Central and South America, but also sometimes present in the state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala. Their register is also quite different. As I was translating, I worked hard to maintain these speech patterns while being conscious of the risk of creating a caricature of transgendered women.

Another challenge this story presented is that it is written as a close third-person narrative. Because of this, the reader is often presented with perspectives that come from the point of view of Giovanni, who is a deeply closeted man. Giovanni’s internal narrative only acknowledges Luisa as a woman about half the time, through the use of feminine pronouns. Because Giovanni often refers to Luisa as “he,” there are some instances when the actions of the two main characters seem to be indistinguishable. This narrative technique beautifully portrays some of the internal conflict that Giovanni is experiencing in this story, such as the painful longing for a life distinct from the one he is currently living, the confusion and shame of being queer in a highly masculine society, and the nostalgia of reuniting with a schoolyard love. The last paragraph of this story wonderfully captures the heartbreak of being able to peer into the window of what could have been. It also provides crucial commentary on the life of queer and transgendered people, and the societal repression they face around the world.


Allana C. Noyes is a literary translator and writer from Reno, Nevada. She is currently an MFA candidate in literary translation at the University of Iowa. She translates from Spanish and French, and her literary and journalistic translations have been published by Mexico City Lit, the Trans-Border Institute, and Solis Press.


Claudia Morales (b. Chiapas, Mexico, 1988) holds a BA in Spanish language and literature from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and she is currently a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Morales is the author of the book, Hospitalidad (2014), and her first novel, No Habrá Retorno (forthcoming) received the Rosario Castellanos National Award for short novels in 2015.

Quotidian Blues


My sister is sitting
on the bank of a ploughed field,
catching the last grains like fish.
The black earth is agitated,
spattering poisonous salt
throwing foam beneath the blackthorn bush.

I go up to her, bent and old,
sobbing, so she pities me,
“Look, I’m cold, I’ll die.”
And she answers me,
“You were never alive,
you haven’t been born.”

I cry to her,
“Look at the clouds in the sky!
Here comes a storm!”
She furrows her brow,
doesn’t move,
watching the minnows of corn.


On the twelfth day   

On the twelfth day I met the one
who had talked to me.
He lay ill, wrapped in the Milky Way like a blanket.
He didn’t surprise me by this,
but he was not how I had imagined.
He washed down the medicine, with difficulty holding the glass,
whilst his other hand groped about in a silver dish,
then he handed a button to me and said:
Here’s the ocean—take it and show it to people.

Just then rained a meteorite shower,
it soaked me from crown to hem,
and the button dissolved like a handful of salt.
You know, of course, it is happiness,
When an ocean splashes in the lap of your dress.


Blok Capsule 

Here is my body, weighty, a simple protein,
going through customs, but through the window it’s all the same:
the night, the gloom of the station, the street and the street light,
the slow border guard in a white shirt, oh god,
here’s my bag, I’m trembling like a creature,
what if he discovers that under my skin
hidden in a box is Alexander Blok,
asleep like a puppy covered with a sack.

Go away, border guard, I’m still young,
if you don’t believe me, I’ll repaint my name,
a capsule of Blok is active in me
I’m starting to be confused by my pseudonym.
You should know, border guard, all my chatter
will be short, like a shot of adrenaline,
will be underground, fanciful, like water
with a smell of the north, with the tang of Ukraine.


A Dead Cat

I walked along the pavement and saw a dead cat in the gutter.
A woman drew near with a broom and scoop.
She shovelled the corpse into a bag and said:
“It’s my cat, I’m going to bury it.”

But then I went into a coat shop,
and soon forgot about the cat.

Light music was playing in the store.
A dead man wore a scarf and coat.
I said to the shop assistant:
“Give me a broom and scoop.
It’s my cat, I’m going to bury it.”
He replied:
“It’s not a cat, it’s a plastic dummy.
Please leave our shop.”

Then watching me go, he pointed a finger
and said something to another shop assistant.

I returned home.
Entering the lift I saw a pool of blood.
I got to the tenth floor with difficulty.
I felt bad.
I went out.
But coming towards me was my neighbour with a cloth and bucket.
I said to her:
“There’s blood there. A cat died there.
I’m going to bury it.”

She answered:
“It’s not blood. It’s just that I spilt tomato sauce.
I’m going to wash the lift.”
Then watching me go, she pointed a finger
and said something to another neighbour.

I went into my apartment.
I looked into the mirror and saw a dead cat.
It’s my cat.
I’m going to bury it.


Quiet is the molten night

Quiet is the molten night
on the steppes of Eastern Ukraine
you can’t surpass it, can’t overcome,
can’t fly up to the middle.

But a rock tears itself away
floats off, like a lonely sail
flows down in the mist of the sea
to find in a distant land

a house, that blooms on the boulders,
grows and reaches above,
all the while a liquid moon
seeps down from the tiled roof.


Like the word “flowerbed” 

I’m constantly rushing somewhere, for my troubles.
So today I went for bread and saw something white
flash past my feet and dart under a table in the summer café.
I follow the white thing. Suddenly I think it’s a rabbit.
I sit and wait, like the fool at the station,
twisting the menu in my hands, I order a beer.
And from under the table this white thing leapt out,
bounced like a ball and turned into a bird.
But I didn’t leave the café,
I sat at the table, leafed through the menu.
And on the last page in this book
next to the prices for Italian pizza
are three faint and roughly drawn arrows
“right,” “left” and “ahead.”
Under the “right” arrow it says “how you live,”
under the “left” arrow it says “how you die.”
Why did I sit at the table? Why did I stay looking at this menu?
Why did I come into this café at all?
I would choose the arrow “ahead,” but the inscription below is erased.
And for a long time that white bird flew over me,
as if I needed it, as if it was somehow interested in me.
Then it suddenly sat on the pavement not far from the night club,
and turned into something in bloom, like the word “flowerbed.”


Get lost

I approached
that is
I stood alongside
Russian literature
but she is proud
not paying attention

and I position myself
not giving way
clicking my heel on the asphalt
counting the crows

and suddenly she condescended
turned her gaze
saying what are you here for?
what do you need from me?
don’t stand alongside
fuck off from me
get lost

I tell myself to fuck off
and stand further off
not giving way
clicking my heel on the asphalt
counting the crows
in my memory
tying knots


I see almost nothing

my arms became branches
my legs lengthened like roots
I don’t know what to do now
how will I go to work
how will I open the green umbrella
how will I strike the keyboard
I see almost nothing
except the birds
sitting in the palms of my hands




Сидит сестра моя
на берегу вспаханного поля,
как рыбку, ловит последние зёрна.
Чернозём волнуется,
брызжет отравленной солью,
выбрасывает пену под куст тёрна.

Подхожу к ней, старая и кривая,
рыдаю, чтоб вызвать жалость.
– Видишь, мне холодно, я умираю.
А она мне:
– Ты не жила ещё,
не рождалась.
Кричу ей:
— Сейчас будет буря!

Взгляни, заволокло небо!
Она брови хмурит,
не двигается,
глядит на мальков хлеба.


на двенадцатый день

А на двенадцатый день я встретила того
кто со мной говорил.
Он лежал больной в млечный путь завернут как в одеяло.
Не то, чтобы он этим меня удивил,
но я не таким его себе представляла.
Он запивал лекарство с трудом удерживая стакан,
другой рукой что-то нащупывая на серебряном блюде,
потом протянул мне пуговицу и сказал:
Вот океан – возьми и покажи его людям.
В этот момент пошел метеоритный дождь,
и я промокла от макушки до платья,
а пуговица растворилась как горстка соли.
Знаете, наверно, это и есть счастье,
когда океан плещется в твоем подоле.


Капсула Блока

Вот мое тело, важный, простой белок,
едет через таможню, а за окном все то же:
ночь, привокзальный морок, улица и фонарь,
медленный пограничник в белой рубашке, боже,
вот моя сумка, я трепещу как тварь,
вдруг обнаружит, что у меня под кожей
спрятан в коробке сам Александр Блок,
спит как щенок, прихлопнув себя рогожей.

Уйди, пограничник, я еще молода,
если не веришь, я перекрашу имя,
капсула Блока действует на меня
я начинаю путаться в псевдониме.
Знай, пограничник, вся моя болтовня,
будет короткой, как выброс адреналина,
будет подземной, вычурной, как вода
с запахом севера, с привкусом украины.


Мертвая кошка

Я шла по тротуару и увидела на обочине мертвую кошку.
К ней приближалась женщина с лопаткой и веником.
Она сгребла труп в пакет и сказала:
— Это моя кошка, я буду ее хоронить.

Но я шла в магазин верхней одежды,
поэтому вскоре забыла про кошку.

В зале играла легкая музыка.
И стоял мертвый человек в пальто и шарфе.
Я сказала продавцу-консультанту:
— Дайте мне веник и лопатку.
Это моя кошка, я буду ее хоронить.
Он ответил:
— Это не кошка, а пластмассовый человек,
выйди из нашего магазина.

Потом он смотрел мне в след, показывал пальцем
и что-то говорил другому продавцу-консультанту.

Я вернулась домой.
Зашла в лифт и увидела лужу крови.
Я с трудом доехала до десятого этажа.
Мне было плохо.
Я вышла.
А навстречу мне соседка с тряпкой и ведром.
Я сказала ей:
— Там кровь. Там умерла кошка.
Я буду ее хоронить.

Она мне ответила:
— Это не кровь. Я только что пролила томатный сок.
Иду мыть лифт.

Потом она смотрел мне в след, показывала пальцем
и что-то говорила другой соседке.

Я вошла в свою квартиру.
Посмотрела в зеркало и увидела мертвую кошку.
Это моя кошка.
Я буду ее хоронить.


Тиха расплавленная ночь

Тиха расплавленная ночь
в степи восточной Украины,
не превзойти, не превозмочь,
не долететь до середины.

Но отрывается скала,
плывет, как парус одинокий
в тумане моря и стекла,
чтобы найти в стране далекой

дом, что цветет на валунах,
растет и делается выше,
покуда жидкая луна
стекает с черепичной крыши.


Похожее на слово “клумба”

Я постоянно куда-то бегу, у меня заботы.
Вот и сегодня пошла за хлебом, вижу белое что-то
под ногами мелькнуло и юркнуло в летнее кафе под столик.
Я — за этим белым, думаю, а вдруг это кролик.
Сижу и жду, как дурочка на вокзале,
покрутила в руках меню, пиво себе заказала.
А это белое из-под стола взметнулось,
как мячик подпрыгнуло и птицею обернулось.
А я из кафе уходить не стала,
сидела за столиком, меню листала.
И в этой книге на последней странице
рядом с ценами на итальянскую пиццу
три стрелочки “прямо”, “налево”, “направо”
нарисованы неотчётливо и коряво.
Под стрелкой “направо” написано — “как бы жизнь”,
под стрелкой “налево” — “как бы смерть”.
Зачем я села за столик? Зачем стала это меню смотреть?
Зачем вообще я в это кафе припёрлась?
Я бы выбрала стрелку “прямо”, но под ней надпись стёрлась.
А та птица белая ещё долго надо мной летала,
будто я ей нужна, словно я чем-то её заинтересовала.
А потом вдруг села на тротуар недалеко от ночного клуба,
и превратилась во что-то цветущее, похожее на слово “клумба”.


Иди отсюда

это я значит
к русской литературе
стала рядом
а она гордая
вниманния не обращает
а я стою себе такая
с места не двигаюсь
каблуком об асфальт постукиваю
ворон считаю

и вдруг она снизошла
взор обратила
че говорит пристала?
че тебе от меня надо?
не стой рядом
отвали от меня
иди отсюда

сама говорю отвали
и стою себе дальше
с места не двигаюсь
каблуком об асфальт постукиваю
ворон считаю
узелки на память


Я почти ничего не вижу

мои руки стали ветвями
мои ноги длинны как корни
я не знаю что теперь делать
как я пойду на работу
как открою зеленый зонтик
как ударю по клавиатуре
я почти ничего не вижу
кроме птиц
на ладонях сидящих


Translator’s Note

In translating these poems from Ganna Shevchenko’s first poetry collection, Домохозяйкин блюз, I wanted to retain their freshness and apparent simplicity. The spirit of the book is vital, with a fairy tale or dreamlike quality to some poems. I wanted to convey Shevchenko’s distinct, lively voice and—as the poet Arkady Shytpel commented in his 2016 review in Novyy Mir— the “strangeness and charm” of these poems.

I translated the title of the collection (literally Housewife’s/ Househusband’s Blues), as Quotidian Blues to convey the sense of lived experience, banality, the everyday. The connotations of the word “housewife” in English seemed too limited.

As much as possible, I have followed the structure of each poem. Rather than duplicating rhyme schemes, I have used half-rhyme, internal rhyme and consonant rhyme to preserve the formal integrity of each stanza in relation to the whole poem.

In Shevchenko’s poems, ordinary situations become fantastic as she meets with a dead cat, a dead poet (Charles Bukowski), her sister who tells her she doesn’t exist, someone “wrapped in the Milky Way as if in a blanket,” a bird which “turned into something in bloom, like the word “flowerbed.”

The poet Marina Galina in her preface to the book, describes some of the poems as “dark like the Ukrainian night with shining, terrifying stars, glowing through the cherry orchard close to the house.” This quotation is from Taras Shevchenko (1814-61), whose literary works form the basis of modern Ukrainian literature.

Shevchenko was asked in an interview in 2015 whether she was a Slavophile or a Westerner. She replied, “Actually I’m a transcendentalist. Like Henry Thoreau, who wrote Life in the Woods. If there was the hypothetical opportunity, I would be living right now somewhere on the outskirts of civilisation, in a hut on chicken legs, with my backside to the city, facing the woods.”


Special guest judge, Carolyn L. Tipton

“Anne Gutt has brought alive for us the strange and magical world of Russian poet Ganna Shevchenko. Though the collection of poems is titled ‘Quotidian Blues,’ the poet’s vision is anything but ordinary; she, herself, says she ‘see[s] almost nothing / except the birds / sitting in the palms of [her] hands.’ Through Anne Gutt, we enter a wonderland where the poet, following a white rabbit, goes into a café where, ‘next to the prices for Italian pizza / are three faint and roughly drawn arrows / “right,” “left” and “ahead.” / Under the “right” arrow it says “how you live,” / under the “left” arrow it says “how you die.” / … / I would choose the arrow “ahead,” but the inscription below is erased.’ We leave these poems with our minds slightly altered. It is Gutt’s particular skill to render this fantastical world in lucid English; the odd images come through with clarity; no ‘translation murkiness’ adheres to them. Moreover, the translator has given us English poems which, like the original poems, are musical, but whose music is subtle, and thus, more pleasing to most English readers; for example, rather than giving us full rhyme, she has used half-rhyme and assonance. I am so grateful to Anne Gutt for producing poems which feel as if they have been written in English, but which bring us not only a foreign world, but a quirky and original perception of this world.”

-Dr. Carolyn L. Tipton is a poet, translator, and teacher. She has been awarded both an N.E.H. and an N.E.A. Her first book of translations of the poetry of Rafael Alberti, To Painting (Northwestern University Press), won the National Translation Award. It was also a finalist for the PEN West Award in Literary Translation and was selected by Poet Laureate Robert Hass for Poet’s Choice. Her latest translation of Alberti, Returnings: Poems of Love and Distance (White Pine Press), is the recipient of the Cliff Becker Translation Prize.


Anne Gutt

Anne Gutt is a poet and artist living in the UK, working under the heteronym seekers of lice. She has books in many public collections, including ten in the collection of Artists’ Books at the Tate, London. She learnt Russian in order to read Russian poetry in the original. She is currently translating the poetry of Nina Iskrenko (1951-1995).

Photo by Franck Skyscape

Ganna ShevchenkoGanna Shevchenko is a poet and prose writer, born in Yenakiyevo, Donetsk, Ukraine. Her work has appeared in many literary journals in Russia, including Arion, Interpoezia, New Youth, People’s Friendship, October, and Siberian Lights, and in anthologies of poetry and prose. She won the International Contest of Contemporary Drama from the Belarus Free Theatre in 2010 for her play Iron, and was a finalist for the Moscow Account poetry prize in 2012 with Quotidian Blues; her novel Deep Miner (2015) was on the longlist for the Российская национальная премия (“National Bestseller” award). She has published three books, Cranes (2009), Quotidian Blues (2012), and The Inhabitant of the Crossroads (2015), and Window, Wind (2017). She is also a member of the Writers’ Union of Moscow.

  Photo by Andrey Tarasov


“Tell your father not to stay out there in the chill; it’ll make him sick.”

Actually, it was warm on the patio. The sun already hung low in the sky, but it was still two hours until dark. And the fence around the house shielded don Antonio Nemiña from the winds loaded with dust and dry leaves, bringing more warmth, not coolness.

“Tell him to come in. It’s cold,” his mother repeated.

Ignacio had just come home from the movies. On Sundays, he always went to the movies. It didn’t surprise him to see his old man there, seated in his rocker at the far end of the patio, smoking a cigar. But it must have surprised his mother. She didn’t know how to express why it worried her, so resorted to the excuse that it was chilly. She couldn’t say that directly to her husband because they had not spoken for years. If they wanted to communicate, even if they were in the same room, facing each other, they sent the message through one of their children. And now, that meant only Ignacio.

“Didn’t you hear me?”

Don Antonio didn’t even turn to look at them on the other end of the patio. His face empty of expression, he contemplated the smoke that came out of his mouth in thick ropes to become tangled between the branches of the tamarind. The gray at his pale temples shone with ruddy afternoon light. Seeing him like that, Ignacio felt the hatred he’d harbored in recent days ebb. Instead, he now pitied his father.

“Come inside yourself, Mamá. He must want to sit there.”

“He’s going to get sick. And then you’ll be left with all the work.”

“Leave him alone. You and I will go in. I want a coffee.”

If they wanted to communicate, even if they were in the same room, facing each other, they sent the message through one of their children. And now, that meant only Ignacio.

She had aged too. Pride and rancor had managed to keep her young for years, but now even those passions were beginning to decline. Ignacio took her arm and led her to the living room. He left her seated on the sofa and went to make the coffee. On the way to the kitchen he glanced at the photo of his sister hanging on the wall. It was from her wedding. She was alone, wearing her wedding gown, but alone, her hand resting on a marble pillar. Their parents hadn’t wanted her to marry the guy, resisted to the very end. In that, they had been in complete agreement. So, they had asked for a photo of Marina by herself, not with that mestizo. And so, she didn’t visit them. She had made her own life. She’d had the courage Ignacio lacked. You couldn’t tell that in this portrait—so sweet, even smiling, her fair complexion, her honey-colored eyes full of light.

Ignacio wondered what she would think if she found out what had happened here. She had always loved her father a lot. And he had loved her.

The kitchen smelled like canned fruit. He turned on the gas and lit the burner with a wooden match. The room was already gathering gloom and the ring of blue flames dispelled it a bit.

While he was making the coffee, his mind returned to the furniture store, to his father and the girl. Bibiana had the habit of spitting on the ground. She did it constantly: when she had the feeling that something was stuck in her throat, when she smelled something strange, when she heard dirty talk or thought of something nasty. He heard a dry hack and there it was: a gob of white spittle that she then squelched with her foot.

She’d made a bad impression on Ignacio the moment she came to ask for work at the store. She seemed vulgar, aggressive and dangerous. He was disgusted by her thick silver eye shadow, her smoker’s voice, the pride with which she bared her cleavage and flaunted her breasts. But he didn’t dare say anything because his father had looked at her with pleasure and Ignacio already knew: once he’d decided about something or someone, any word to the contrary only aroused his anger. For her part, Bibiana also took Ignacio’s measure, kept looking him up and down with her poisonous cat eyes until it was obvious that they’d never be friends. She took two steps out the front door and sent the first spittle to the sidewalk. Don Antonio didn’t say anything. As if he was going to say anything when, thanks to this act, she turned her back to him for an instant and he could get a good long look at her butt. The decision was made then. What followed was a formality: the supposedly careful reading of the job application, his comments on certain points, the admonition about the mistakes her predecessor had made—tardiness, sloppy dress—for which he’d been fired. Finally, while Ignacio attended to a woman who came in to ask if they still made Philco televisions, his father explained the job to Bibiana and came to an agreement about what he would pay her.

*     *     *

All this had happened before ten in the morning, almost six months ago. When the girl went to eat at three in the afternoon, don Antonio was already in the best mood Ignacio had seen him in for years. He and his wife avoided each other as much as possible. They slept in separate rooms and ate at different times. Perhaps with the goal of making the solitude he must feel less obvious, don Antonio had developed the habit of taking his afternoon meal at the furniture store. At four p.m. on the dot, when the employee returned, he shut himself in the small office at the back and spread his newspaper, the Galician Mail, on his desk so he could read it while he dipped slice after slice of black bread in olive oil. He closed the store at eight and walked home. Always in silence, always sealed up in himself, as if the punishment of not talking that he’d imposed on his wife had extended to include the whole world. He didn’t complain. He seemed to have accepted his fate: to be married for forty years to a woman he didn’t love; to live in a small city without plazas or trees, buried among dry hills, a place whose people he disdained; to communicate only through letters with the few relatives that he had sprinkled around the world. One day a week—Sunday—he closed the furniture store early and shut himself in his office to smoke a cigar and drink two bottles of wine. Never more, never less. He sat in there alone. Once in a while, Ignacio saw him leave around ten at night, and walk to his house: an enormous figure, solid and at the same time ghostly, elusive, as if it weren’t his father but a blurred memory of his father.

When he heard the water begin to boil, he walked back to the door and turned on the kitchen light before shutting off the stove. He poured the coffee, put two porcelain cups on a tray and carried it to the living room. His mother waited for him with the same suffering face as before. She raised her legs to the footstool and began to massage them. It wasn’t that they hurt, she said; it was a habit she’d picked up, nothing more.

“Have there been problems at the store?” she asked Ignacio.


“Then what’s bothering your father?”

“I don’t know.”

“Just yesterday he was happy.”

“The employee left,” he was going to say, but he thought that wouldn’t comfort his mother. She’d have more questions. And he didn’t want to answer more questions. He’d come from the movies, his only vice and the only thing that made him happy. His father hadn’t let him go to the university. He didn’t read, didn’t participate in any sports, had no friends or girlfriend—when he was young his father had forbidden him to associate with the town’s children—they’re not our kind, he said. Ignacio only went to the movies. And whenever he really liked a film, he would think about it for hours, review the scenes that moved or excited him, even after he was home, alone in his room. So, he kept quiet now. In the dusk, he put the tray with the coffee on the side table by the sofa where his mother sat and remained standing, as if awaiting an order or permission to leave.

“Turn on the light, son.” Still the suffering voice, the shushing of her rough hands kneading her white legs through wool stockings.

The light dazzled them a little, at first. He sat in the smaller armchair, resigned. He stared again at the photo of his sister. What if he had talked to her by phone and told her? It would do the old man good to talk to her, if his shame wasn’t too strong. No. Surely, he’d refuse.

“Hasn’t Marina called, Mamá?”

“You think she’s going to call? Only if she needs something from your father.”

Ignacio let a deep, weary sigh escape. Sometimes he missed his sister a lot. He envied her. Of all who had inhabited this house, she seemed to be the only one who was truly alive. He remembered the day when his father discovered she was engaged to “that guy.” It was also on a Sunday, like today. In those days, they had Sunday breakfast together: his father and mother, Antonio his older brother, Marina and him. Antonio had a hangover, as he always did after his weekend drinking bouts, and that had put the old man in a bitter mood. Besides, someone at the furniture store had already told him about Marina, although he still hadn’t confirmed it; he thought she would deny it if he asked. But it didn’t turn out that way. The maid had finished serving the hot chocolate when the phone rang. Marina jumped from her seat and went to answer it, but don Antonio stopped her. He answered it. Rudely. Then she couldn’t stand it anymore.

“They’re calling for me,” she told him. “Give me the phone.”

Her father ignored her.

He stood staring her in the eye, defiant. She, equally defiant, said, to end it: “It’s my fiancé.”

Ignacio escaped his anger. He always escaped because don Antonio didn’t think it was worth the trouble to get mad at him.

Then everything exploded. Her father restrained himself with her because he loved her very much. He only threatened to put a bullet in her boyfriend. But he used his fists on Antonio for not taking better care of his sister. And likewise, her mother. Ignacio escaped his anger. He always escaped because don Antonio didn’t think it was worth the trouble to get mad at him. He was useless, nothing more than a shadow.

“Turn on the television for me, son?”

“Yes, Mamá.”

Ignacio obeyed, knowing that after a few minutes he would have to get up again to turn it off. It was Sunday and there was nothing on that his mother liked, just sports and a musical program. She already knew that. Why then did she bother with it? He wanted to think about the movie he’d just seen, a story set in the Amazon jungle, about a black man who escapes from the Cayena prison and after walking forever and overcoming all kind of dangers, is captured by some savages who offer him a beautiful woman.

“The woman selling egg bread hasn’t come?” his mother asked, pensive.

Ignacio didn’t answer.

“And we don’t have a single slice left, do we?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why don’t you go see if at least there’s a bit? I really feel like having some.”

Ignacio went to the kitchen. From the living room, his mother called: “If you don’t find anything, bring me some fig cookies, please, son.”

Through the window, he looked toward the patio. Although it was now dark, he could still make out everything: the tamarind, the pomegranate, the two fig trees with the hammock hanging between them. Don Antonio was no longer smoking, but he still sat there, immobile. Ignacio envisioned a high waterfall, surrounded by tropical trees. The black man fell, caught by the current. He lost consciousness. The savages found him shortly afterwards, downstream.

In the living room his mother was watching a baseball game, although it was evident she was thinking of something else and what happened on the screen didn’t matter to her.

“Thanks, son.”

Ignacio felt sad looking at her. But also a certain satisfaction, because in the end, in spite of his father and two dead sons and everything else, there she was: healthy. Sustained by her manias.

Next to the photo of Marina hung a small one of Antonio. He couldn’t handle it, thought Ignacio. Antonio had been the chosen one since he was small. His father expected a lot from him. Because of that, of the three of them who survived to grow up, Antonio was the one who hated his father the most. That’s why he got drunk so much and squandered his money on whores. He suffered, but in the midst of his suffering he took satisfaction in frustrating the expectations don Antonio had forced on him. Then he was shot to death in a bar brawl. It was then, immediately after the burial, that the two old folks stopped talking to each other. In silence, with a deaf, unending rancor, they blamed each other for Antonio’s death. His father had driven him to vices with his punishments and hardness; his mother had spoiled him rotten with so much pampering.

“Just yesterday he seemed very happy.”

“Yes, Mamá.” This fixation of hers bothered him. Why worry about someone you no longer care about?

“It isn’t about some woman? At his age!”

“I don’t think so, Mamá.”

“He’s a dirty old man.”

Yes. As soon as Bibiana began to work for him, don Antonio had given her the eye. Even though at first, she had wanted to flirt with Ignacio. But Ignacio disliked her. It repulsed him to watch her spit. Since she couldn’t do it there, on the floor of the store, she went out to the street or to the bathroom. Besides her odor, the odor of her body… Ignacio felt like it lingered, clinging to his nostrils. At night he woke suddenly, throwing aside sheets soaked with sweat, and felt like Bibiana was there, spying on him, lying in wait in the darkness, naked and oozing lust. She lifted her arms as if they were wings and released the odor of her body, the odor Ignacio carried with him like an infection. And perhaps, yes, his father was a dirty old man. He began to talk to her, to give her privileges Ignacio didn’t have. He gave her authority. If anything didn’t go well, it was Ignacio’s fault, not hers. Bibiana made the best sales, attracted clients. The furniture store became those two: don Antonio and Bibiana.

“Close the door, son. Mosquitoes will get in.”

Ignacio obeyed. He got up to close the door and on the way turned on the outside passage light. From there he could see the obstinate figure of his father.

“Is he still there?”


“I think you know something and don’t want to tell me.”

Why, whenever he thought of her, did he see her spitting? Or hear her saying “yeah.” She said “yeah” instead of “yes.”

“No. I don’t know anything.”

“Do you have an employee at the furniture store?”

“No. We’re alone.”

It was true. What a relief not to have to lie. Why, whenever he thought of her, did he see her spitting? Or hear her saying “yeah.” She said “yeah” instead of “yes.” A half answer that to Ignacio meant it was not a real affirmation, as if she didn’t want to promise anything. It was all the same to his father, but to him it was disgusting. “Yeah.”

They began to make him feel like he was in the way. So finally, one afternoon, Ignacio decided to leave them alone. The next day he realized his father hadn’t wasted the opportunity. He saw it in his eyes, in the way he passed by Ignacio, practically pushing him, without saying excuse me. Bibiana came late and wasn’t reprimanded. Ignacio began to leave them alone more and more often. He walked through the city, that horrible city. He climbed the steep streets, heavy with heat. Not a single tree along the road, not a single bench to sit down on. Almost no one walked the sidewalks. Suddenly a door opened to a long patio, full of dark sweaty people: shirtless men holding cans of beer, women who danced and laughed around tubs full of wet clothing, children who urinated in any corner, among panting dogs.

Ignacio reached the highest hill and then turned, hoping to see an agreeable landscape, if one of those gusts of wind didn’t arrive to throw fistfuls of dust in his eyes. But he only saw the city spreading from the little valley to climb the nearby hills with its factories and miserable houses. Only downtown was dabbed with notable bits of color: the orange towers of the church, the banana trees and jacarandas that tried to give the hotels a touch of the exotic, the fruit trees that still grew in the orchards of some older houses. And the movie theatre: a tall building like a giant shoebox painted yellow.

Only downtown was dabbed with notable bits of color: the orange towers of the church, the banana trees and jacarandas that tried to give the hotels a touch of the exotic, the fruit trees that still grew in the orchards of some older houses.

There, one afternoon when things between Bibiana and the old man seemed certain and don Antonio had realized that Ignacio knew everything, he saw her. He saw Bibiana. With a boy her age. They were leaning against a wooden arch covered with withered flowers, leftover from the last religious fiesta. The smelly gusts of wind brought dust that muffled everything and was everywhere like a plague from God, but in spite of that, the two young people looked as fresh and free as if they had been on a beach or in a meadow or in some equally beautiful place and not that atrocious city. It was too late for Ignacio to take another street. Bibiana, cornered against the arch’s post, had sensed him. She raked him with a look so intense it made her companion turn also. And she stuck out her tongue, as if she were going to spit, but she didn’t do it. That time she didn’t do it. She only wet her lips a second before clinging to the boy who had her wedged in that corner. An evil smile sketched across her face, a smile of defiance, of triumph. A gust of wind came. Ignacio walked on and didn’t see them anymore.

He thought again with pleasure of the movie he’d enjoyed this afternoon.

“I’m going to bed, son. Help me.”

At last, he thought. Ignacio got up and shut off the TV, offered his mother his arm.

“Who knows how late he plans to stay out there,” his mother said. “Take him a blanket.”

They went down the passage loud with the noise of insects. At the end of it was his mother’s room: a big room with high ceilings. Her door opened, creaking.

While he waited for her to get a blanket from the wardrobe, Ignacio looked at the bureau covered with family portraits, including one of his youngest brother, the fourth child, who had died soon after he was born; the recliner nearby, the rosary hanging on the headboard of the bed. He thought again about his brother Antonio. Perhaps he would have been satisfied to see his father like this. To see him at last with his head hanging, sucking his balls, alone. Yes, if Antonio could see them from whereever he was, if his soul wandered around the house, he would be satisfied. He would be able to rest in peace.

“Until tomorrow, son. May God and the Virgin tend your sleep.”

Ignacio kissed her crossed fingers and closed the door after him. He went to the patio with the blanket. He was going to lay it across his father’s legs, but the old man’s hairy hand grabbed his arm. He grabbed it forcefully, as if Ignacio were a child again and he could hurt him and make him cry. He looked at Ignacio with eyes brimming with bitterness and spit on the ground. Something he’d never done before: he spit on the ground. The spittle of his rancor was lost in the darkness of the night. Then he got to his feet and walked toward his bedroom on the other side of the house.

Ignacio felt a rush of cool wind and thought, with pleasure, of the Amazon.



—Dile a tu padre que no esté en el fresco: le va a hacer daño.

En realidad hacía calor en el patio. El sol ya estaba bajando, pero aún faltarían por lo menos dos horas para que se ocultara. Y las bardas de la casa protegían a don Antonio Nemiña de los ventarrones, que venían cargados de polvo y hojas secas, pero no traían frío sino más sofoco.

—Dile que se meta. Hace frío —repitió su madre.

Ignacio venía de la calle, del cine. Los domingos iba al cine. No le sorprendió ver al viejo ahí, al fondo del patio, fumándose un puro sentado en su mecedora. Pero a su madre sí debió de sorprenderle y no sabía cómo expresar que estaba preocupada. Por eso había recurrido a aquello de que hacía fresco. No se lo decía directamente a su marido porque ella y él hacía años no se hablaban. Si querían comunicarse algo se lo mandaban decir por medio de los hijos, aunque estuvieran uno enfrente del otro.

—¿No me oyes?

Don Antonio ni siquiera se volvía a mirarlos. Con el rostro vacío de expresión, contemplaba el humo que salía de su boca en gruesos cordones para ir a enredarse entre las ramas de un tamarindo. Las canas de sus sienes brillaban con la luz de la tarde, rojizas. Al verlo, Ignacio sintió que se desvanecía el odio que le había tenido en los últimos días. Le dio lástima.

—Métete tú, mamá. Él ha de querer estar ahí.

—Se va a poner malo. Y te va a dejar a ti todo el trabajo.

—Déjalo. Vámonos adentro tú y yo. Quiero un café.

Ella también se veía envejecida. El orgullo y el rencor habían logrado mantenerla joven durante muchos años, pero ahora hasta eso comenzaba a declinar. Ignacio la tomó del brazo y la condujo a la sala. La dejó sentada en el sofá y fue por el café. Al pasar hacia la cocina echó una mirada a la fotografía de su hermana, que colgaba en la pared. Era de su boda. Estaba sola, vestida de novia pero sola, con la mano apoyada en una columna de mármol. Sus padres no habían querido que se casara; se resistieron hasta lo último. En eso sí estuvieron de acuerdo. Por eso habían pedido para la casa una foto donde Marina estuviera sola, no con el mestizo ese. Y por eso ella no los visitaba. Había hecho su vida. Había tenido el coraje que a Ignacio le faltó. Quién la viera en ese retrato: tan dulce, sonriendo apenas, con sus ojos color miel llenos de luz.

Mientras ponía el café, Ignacio se preguntó qué pensaría ella si se enterara de lo que había pasado acá. Siempre quiso mucho a su padre. Y él a ella.

Abrió la llave del gas y luego, con un cerillo de madera, encendió el quemador. Las llamas azules salieron por los orificios iluminando un poco la habitación ya en penumbra. Olía a frutas en conserva.

Su mente volvió a la mueblería, a su padre y a la muchacha. Bibiana tenía la costumbre de escupir al suelo. Lo hacía constantemente: cuando le venía la sensación de que algo se le había adherido en la garganta, cuando le llegaba algún olor extraño, cuando oía hablar de algo sucio o pensaba en ello. Se oía un chasquido y ahí estaba: un copo de espuma blanca que luego ella misma aplastaba con el pie.

Desde que llegó a pedir trabajo a la mueblería le causó mala impresión a Ignacio; le pareció vulgar, agresiva, peligrosa. Le disgustaron sus párpados pintados de plateado, su voz de fumadora y el orgullo con que sacaba el pecho luciendo sus tetas. Pero no se atrevió a decir nada porque su padre la había mirado con complacencia y ya lo conocía: una vez que se hacía una idea de algo o de alguien, cualquier palabra en contra despertaba su ira. Por su parte, Bibiana también lo midió a él; se le quedó viendo de arriba abajo con sus ojos de gata envenenada y con eso tuvo para saber que nunca serían amigos. Dio dos pasos en dirección a la puerta de la calle y aventó el primer salivazo a la banqueta. Don Antonio no le dijo nada. Cómo le iba a decir algo si fue gracias a ese acto que ella le dio la espalda, un instante, y él pudo mirarle el culo. La decisión estaba tomada. Fue mero formalismo lo que siguió después: la lectura supuestamente cuidadosa de la solicitud de empleo, los comentarios sobre algunos puntos, la advertencia sobre los errores que había cometido su antecesor—impuntualidad, descuido en su presentación— y por los cuales había sido despedido. Finalmente, mientras Ignacio atendía a una mujer que llegó a preguntar si todavía se fabricaban televisores Philco, su padre le explicó a Bibiana en qué consistiría su trabajo y se puso de acuerdo con ella respecto a cuánto le iba a pagar.

Todo esto sucedió antes de las diez de la mañana, hacía casi seis meses. Para cuando la muchacha salió a comer, a las tres de la tarde, don Antonio ya estaba de un buen humor que no se le había visto en años. Él y su mujer se evitaban lo más posible. Dormían en habitaciones separadas y comían a distintas horas. Quizá con el fin de hacer menos obvia la soledad que pudiera sentir, don Antonio había dado en tomar en la mueblería su comida de la tarde. A las cuatro en punto, en cuanto volvía el empleado, se encerraba en el pequeño despacho del fondo y extendía en el escritorio el Correo Galego para estar leyendo mientras sopeaba en aceite de olivo rebanada tras rebanada de pan negro. Cerraba pasadas las ocho de la noche y se iba caminando a su casa. Siempre en silencio, siempre encerrado en sí mismo, como si el castigo de no hablarle que le había impuesto a su mujer se hubiera extendido a todo el mundo. No se quejaba. Parecía haber aceptado su suerte: estar casado desde hacía cuarenta años con esa mujer a la que no amaba, vivir en una pequeña ciudad sin plazas ni árboles perdida entre cerros áridos, comunicarse ya sólo a través de cartas con los escasos parientes y amigos que tenía regados por el mundo. Un día a la semana —los domingos— cerraba temprano la mueblería y se encerraba en su despacho a fumarse un puro y a beberse dos botellas de vino. Nunca más, nunca menos. Se encerraba solo. Alguna vez, Ignacio lo vio salir, ya como a las diez de la noche, y tomar el camino de su casa: una figura enorme, sólida y al mismo tiempo fantasmal, inasible, como si no fuera su padre sino un recuerdo borroso de su padre.

Cuando oyó que el agua comenzaba a hervir, dio unos pasos hacia la puerta y encendió la luz de la cocina. Luego apagó la estufa. Sirvió el café, puso las dos tazas de porcelana en una charola, y volvió a la sala. Su madre lo estaba esperando con la misma cara de sufrimiento de hacía rato. Subió las piernas al taburete y comenzó a darse masaje sola. No era que le dolieran, decía; era una maña que se había cogido, nada más.

—¿Ha habido problemas en la mueblería? —le preguntó a Ignacio.


—Entonces, ¿qué le pasa a tu padre?

—No sé.

—Todavía ayer estaba muy contento.

“La empleada se ha marchado”, iba a decir Ignacio, pero pensó que eso no tranquilizaría a su madre. Haría más preguntas. Y él no quería contestar preguntas. Venía del cine, que era su único vicio y la única cosa que lo hacía feliz. Su padre no lo dejó ir a la Universidad. No leía, no practicaba ningún deporte, no tenía novia ni amigos —su padre le prohibió desde niño que hiciera amistad con los muchachos del pueblo—. Sólo iba al cine. Y cada vez que le gustaba mucho una película, se ponía a pensar en ella durante horas, a revivir en su mente las escenas que lo habían conmovido o excitado, aun ya en su casa, solo en su cuarto. Por eso se quedó callado. En la penumbra, puso la charola con el café en la mesita que había a un lado del sofá donde estaba su madre y permaneció de pie, como si esperara una orden o el permiso para retirarse.

—Enciende la luz, hijo—otra vez la voz de sufrimiento, el rumor de las manos rugosas sobando las piernas sobre las medias de lana.

La luz lo deslumbró un poco, al principio. Se sentó en el sillón más chico, resignado. Volvió a mirar la foto de su hermana. ¿Y si le hablaba por teléfono y le contaba? Al viejo le haría bien hablar con ella, si no era más fuerte su vergüenza. No, seguramente no lo haría.

—¿No ha llamado Marina, mamá?

—¿Tú crees que va a llamar? Sólo que necesitara algo de tu padre.

Ignacio dejó escapar un suspiro hondo, viejo. A veces la extrañaba mucho. La envidiaba. Le parecía el único ser vivo que había habitado alguna vez esa casa. Recordó el día cuando su padre descubrió que andaba de novia con aquél. Era domingo también, como ahora. En esa época, los domingos desayunaban todos juntos: su padre, su madre, Antonio el hermano mayor, Marina y él. Antonio andaba crudo, como siempre después de sus borracheras del viernes y el sábado, y eso había puesto de mal humor al viejo. Además ya le habían contado en la mueblería lo de Marina, aunque todavía no lo confirmaba; pensaba que ella iba a negarlo si la interrogaba. Pero no fue así. La criada acababa de servir el chocolate cuando sonó el teléfono. Marina saltó en su silla y fue a contestar. Pero don Antonio la detuvo: contestó él. De mal modo. Entonces ella no se aguantó más.

—Me hablan a mí —le dijo—. Dame el teléfono.

Su padre no le hizo caso. Se le quedó viendo a los ojos, desafiante. Entonces ella, igual de desafiante, le dijo para terminar:

—Es mi novio.

Ahí explotó todo. Su padre se contuvo con ella porque la quería mucho. Sólo la amenazó con meterle un tiro al muchacho. Pero a Antonio se le fue a golpes por no cuidar bien a su hermana. Y a su madre. Ignacio escapó de su ira. Él siempre escapaba porque a don Antonio ni siquiera le parecía que valiera la pena enojarse con él. Era un inútil nada más, una sombra.

—¿Me enciendes la televisión, hijo?

—Sí, mamá —Ignacio obedeció, sabiendo que después de unos minutos tendría que volver a levantarse para apagar el aparato. Era domingo y no había nada que le gustara a su madre: sólo deportes y un programa musical. Ya lo sabía. ¿Por qué entonces lo molestaba? Él quería pensar en la película que había visto: una historia en la selva del Amazonas, acerca de un negro que escapaba de la cárcel de Cayena y, después de caminar mucho y sortear toda clase de peligros, era capturado por unos salvajes que le ofrecían una mujer hermosa.

—No ha venido la señora del pan de huevo —dijo su madre, pensativa.

Ignacio no le contestó.

—Y ya no nos queda ni una pieza, ¿verdad?

—Creo que no.

—¿Por qué no vas a ver si hay por lo menos un pedazo? Tengo mucho antojo.

Ignacio caminó hacia la cocina. Desde la sala, su madre le gritó:

—Si no encuentras nada, tráeme unas galletas de higo. Por favor, hijo.

Por la ventana miró hacia el patio. Aunque ya estaba oscuro, todavía alcanzaba a distinguirse todo: el tamarindo, el granado, las dos higueras con la hamaca amarrada de una a otra. Don Antonio ya no fumaba pero seguía ahí, inmóvil. Ignacio pensó en una cascada muy alta, rodeada de árboles tropicales. El negro caía arrastrado por la corriente. Perdía el sentido. Los salvajes lo encontraban poco después, río abajo.

En la sala, su madre miraba un partido de béisbol, aunque era evidente que estaba pensando en otra cosa y no le importaba lo que sucediera en la pantalla.

—Gracias, hijo.

Ignacio sintió tristeza al verla. Y también cierta satisfacción porque finalmente, a pesar de su padre y de los dos hijos muertos y de todo, ahí estaba: sana. Apoyada en sus manías.

Junto al retrato de Marina, más pequeño, colgaba uno de Antonio. Ése sí que no pudo, pensó Ignacio. Antonio había sido el hijo predilecto, cuando niño. Su padre esperaba mucho de él. Por eso, de los tres que llegaron a grandes, fue el que más llegó a odiarlo. Por eso se emborrachaba tanto y se gastaba el dinero con mujeres públicas. Sufría, pero en medio de ese sufrimiento le quedaba la satisfacción de ver frustradas las esperanzas que don Antonio había puesto en él. Hasta que lo mataron a balazos en una cantina. Fue entonces, inmediatamente después del entierro, cuando los dos viejos dejaron de hablarse. En silencio, con un rencor sordo e infinito, se culpaban uno al otro por la muerte de Antonio. Que porque el padre lo había orillado al vicio con sus castigos y su dureza; que porque la madre lo había echado a perder de tanto solaparlo.

—Todavía ayer se veía muy contento.

—Sí, mamá —le molestaba esa actitud de ella. ¿Por qué preocuparse por alguien a quien ya no quiere uno?

—¿No será cosa de alguna mujer? ¡A su edad…!

—No creo, mamá.

—Es un viejo sucio.

*     *     *

Sí, desde que Bibiana entró a trabajar, don Antonio le echó el ojo. Y eso que ella primero había querido coquetear con Ignacio. Pero a él le desagradó: le daba asco verla escupir. Como no podía hacerlo ahí, en el piso de la mueblería, se salía a la calle o iba al baño. Además su olor, el olor de su cuerpo… Ignacio sentía que se le había quedado metido en la nariz. En las noches despertaba de pronto, aventaba a un lado las sábanas empapadas de sudor, y le parecía que Bibiana estaba ahí mirándolo, acechando en la oscuridad, desnuda y ahíta de lujuria. Levantaba los brazos como si fueran alas y dejaba salir el olor de su cuerpo, que Ignacio llevaba consigo como una infección. Y tal vez sí, su padre era un viejo sucio. Empezó a hablarle, a darle privilegios que Ignacio no tenía. Le dio poder. Si algo salía mal era culpa de él, de Ignacio, no de ella. Bibiana hacía las mejores ventas, atraía a los clientes. La mueblería era ellos dos: don Antonio y ella.

—Cierra la puerta, hijo. Se van a meter los zancudos.

Ignacio obedeció. Se levantó a cerrar la puerta y de paso encendió la luz del corredor. Desde ahí se veía, obstinada, la figura de su padre.

—¿Ahí está todavía?


—Se me hace que tú sabes algo y no me quieres decir.

—No. No sé nada.

—¿Tienen empleada en la mueblería?

—No. Estamos solos.

Era verdad. Qué alivio no tener que decir una mentira. ¿Por qué cada vez que la recordaba la veía escupiendo? O la oía diciendo “ei”. Decía “ei” en lugar de “sí”: una respuesta a medias, que a Ignacio le parecía no era una verdadera afirmación, como de alguien que no quiere comprometerse. A su padre le daba lo mismo, pero a él le disgustaba. Ei. Empezaron a hacerlo sentir que estorbaba. Por eso, finalmente, Ignacio decidió dejarlos solos una tarde. Al día siguiente se dio cuenta de que su padre no había desaprovechado la oportunidad. Se lo vio en la mirada, en la forma como pasaba junto a él casi empujándolo, sin decir Con permiso. Bibiana llegó tarde y no fue reprendida. Ignacio empezó a dejarlos más y más tiempo solos. Se iba a caminar por la ciudad, esa ciudad tan horrible. Subía las calles empinadas, humeantes de calor. Ni un solo árbol en el camino, ni una banca donde sentarse. Casi nadie andaba por las banquetas. De pronto alguna puerta se abría a un patio largo, lleno de gente acalorada: hombres sin camisa, mujeres que bailoteaban y se reían alrededor de los lavaderos colmados de ropa mojada, niños que orinaban en cualquier lado, entre perros jadeantes. Ignacio llegaba así a lo alto de los cerros y entonces se volvía, esperando ver algún paisaje agradable, si no venía alguno de esos ventarrones que le aventaban a los ojos puñados de tierra. Pero sólo veía la ciudad extendiéndose desde el pequeño valle hasta cubrir de fábricas y casas miserables todos los cerros vecinos. Únicamente hacia el centro destacaban algunas notas de color: las torres anaranjadas de la iglesia, los platanares y las jacarandas que trataban de dar a los hoteles un toque de exotismo, los distintos árboles que crecían todavía en los huertos de algunas casas viejas. Y el cine: un edificio alto como una gran caja de zapatos pintada de amarillo.

Allá, una tarde cuando ya las cosas entre Bibiana y el viejo parecían muy seguras y don Antonio se había dado cuenta de que Ignacio sabía todo, la vio. Vio a Bibiana. Con un muchacho de su edad. Estaban recargados contra un arco de madera cubierto de flores marchitas, rastro de la última fiesta religiosa. El aironazo traía embozadas de polvo que se metían por todos lados como una plaga del Cielo, y sin embargo los dos jóvenes se veían frescos y libres igual que si hubieran estado en una playa o en un prado o en cualquier lugar igualmente bello y no en esa atroz ciudad. Era demasiado tarde para que Ignacio tomara otro camino. Bibiana, arrinconada contra el poste del arco, lo había sentido. Lo barrió con una mirada tan fuerte que hizo que su acompañante se volviera también. Y sacó la lengua como si fuera a escupir, pero no lo hizo. Esa vez no lo hizo. Sólo se mojó los labios, un segundo, antes de aferrarse al cuerpo que la tenía atrincherada en ese rincón. En su cara se dibujó una sonrisa mala, de desafío, de triunfo. Vino el viento, otra vez. Ignacio no los vio más.

Pensó otra vez, con placer, en la película que había disfrutado esa tarde.

—Ya me voy a acostar, hijo. Ayúdame.

Ignacio se levantó y le ofreció el brazo a su madre. Por fin, pensó.

—Quién sabe hasta qué horas pensará quedarse ahí —le dijo ella—. Llévale una manta.

Salieron al corredor lleno de ruidos de insectos. Al fondo se encontraba la recámara de la madre: una habitación muy grande, de paredes altas. La puerta de madera rechinó al abrirse.

Mientras esperaba a que su madre abriera el ropero y sacara la manta, Ignacio observó la cómoda cubierta de retratos de familia, incluyendo uno de su hermano más pequeño, el cuarto de la familia, que había muerto casi recién nacido; el reclinatorio, el rosario colgado en la cabecera de la cama. Pensó otra vez en su hermano Antonio. Quizá él se habría sentido satisfecho de ver así a su padre. De verlo por fin con la cabeza doblada, mordiéndose los huevos, solo. Sí, si Antonio podía verlos desde algún lado, si su alma andaba rondando la casa, estaría satisfecho: ya podría descansar en paz.

—Hasta mañana, hijo. Que Dios y la Virgen cuiden tu sueño.

Ignacio besó los dedos en cruz y cerró la puerta tras de sí. Cruzó el patio con la manta. Iba a ponérsela a su padre en las piernas, pero el viejo le cogió el brazo con su mano velluda. Lo apretó con fuerza, como si Ignacio fuera otra vez un niño y él pudiera lastimarlo y hacerlo llorar. Lo miró con ojos brillantes de rencor y escupió al suelo. Lo que nunca había hecho: escupió al suelo. La espuma de su rencor se perdió en la oscuridad de la noche. Luego se puso de pie y echó a andar hacia su habitación, en el otro extremo de la casa.

Antonio sintió un golpe de viento fresco y pensó, con placer, en el Amazonas.


Translator’s Note

Agustín Cadena’s English is excellent and our working relationship is a pleasure: I send him a penultimate draft of a story and he sends me copious praise. (Well, he’s a Mexican gentleman, after all.) His critical comments and notes follow, and are always pertinent. I revise one more time and we’re good to go.

I have translated sixteen and published twelve of Agustín’s stories. Translating a writer more than once or twice results in familiarity with such things as vocabulary, style, syntax, and subject matter. Translating “Domingo” (Sunday) felt familiar, but with a density of tone new to me. It is older than the other stories I’ve translated. Agustín’s comment: “I don’t write like that anymore.”

Still, I was confident I’d captured the story’s essence. Here was a bitter old man living in a dry, featureless town, unable to forgive or forget, who’d kept his children from fulfilling their lives. The first response from Agustín was effusive. Then he gave it to his partner to read—English is the language they share—and discovered she didn’t get an aspect of the story that a Mexican reader would have understood immediately.

In the beginning, we learn the old man is don Antonio Nemiña, a surname Mexican readers would recognize as Galician. Galicians weren’t among the conquistadores or even 18th and 19th century immigrants. They arrived mostly in the 20th century, missing several hundred years of integrating and acquiring local blood along the way. When don Antonio calls his daughter’s boyfriend a mestizo, the Mexican reader already knows that don Antonio considers himself above the people among whom he lives.

Don Antonio smokes cigars, drinks wine, and eats black bread with olive oil. The people of the town smoke cigarettes, drink beer, and eat tortillas. He owns a furniture store, a business typical of Galician immigrants in Mexico, and reads the Galician Mail, a newspaper only available by subscription. He came here in hopes of a better life, but in isolating himself and his family, destroys any chance of that.

Rereading the story with that information, I thought of retired Americans I met in San Miguel de Allende long ago. They had lived there for years and never learned Spanish, associated only with other ex-pat Americans, and had no Mexican friends. That’s another version of this story.

It needed light touches. I don’t like to resort to footnotes. Although I’ve used “stealth glosses” when they fit snugly, “Nemiña, whose name was Galician,” was not acceptable. I added beer to the Mexican family we see briefly, hoping that will recall the contrast of don Antonio’s wine; emphasized the family’s fair complexion and amplified why Ignacio is forbidden to make friends with children of the town. “It’s enough,” Agustín decided. I agree. But it still may be a story that resonates in a way for the Mexican reader that we who are not Mexican cannot fully access.


Patricia Dubrava

Patricia Dubrava chaired the creative writing program at Denver School of the Arts, where she also taught Spanish, and currently teaches writing at the University of Denver. She has two books of poems and one of stories translated from the Spanish. Recent translation publications include flash fiction by Agustín Cadena in Café Irreal, 2013 – 2015 and stories in Mexico City Lit, Fiction Attic, and Numéro Cinq in 2016. Dubrava also translates Mónica Lavín and blogs at

Agustín CadenaAgustín Cadena was born in Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, México, and teaches at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Essayist, fiction writer, poet and translator, Cadena has won numerous national prizes for fiction and poetry. His 26 books include collections of short fiction, essays and poetry, novels and young adult novels, most recently Fieras adentro, 2015. His work has been translated into English, Italian and Hungarian. His recent publication is Dibujos a lápiz (Pencil Sketches) a collection of flash fiction, 2016. Cadena blogs at

Photo by Roberto Garza

Janin Cycle

The Fetus of the Dream

Dream fetuses.
And in the fetus dream,
like a growing amplified silence—
like ivy around nothing:

I dreamed last night.
I dreamed of wet ivy—
wet like water
and rapidly growing—
water that smells like old wine
in the deepest treasure beneath the earth,
where the spider danced the figure of its intelligence in the air.
I don’t know if I’m drunk or crazy.
In my head, he calls perpetually:

“Oh no, son!
We haven’t reached the garden.
We sank in shit.”

My wounded soul talks like this.
You don’t know what my unwounded soul would say.
This soul rises on the farthest bank of the sky
in the early evening.

Now that I write this,
it is sunset.
On the white expanse of the page
the lines dissolve in grey.
On the flying shadow of my hand
the sun descends.
I will dream—
dream of wet ivy everywhere.


The Fetus of the Text

Breathing on the window
between a frozen without and a hot within.
The glass does not permit light to pass with this breath
It colors with this breath.
Have you seen white days? The sun no longer gives light. It splashes white.
Just as white,
the window turns into a page for writing a name
for writing with fingertips on this fire within.

You have written something between without and within.
On the unseen glass a name is seen.
You have written something that can be read from without and within.
From without it reads backwards.
What happens when reading a text written on breath?
Little by little, breaths go away and take your text.
Ambiguity goes away and the text is lost in lucidity.


The Fetus of the Marginalia

I don’t inscribe marginalia
with my body
on your soul.



جنین خواب

خوابْ جنینْ می‌دید
و در جنینْ خوابْ همچون
سکونِ مشدّدِ رویایی بود همچون
پیچکی دورِ هیچ :

-‌ خوابْ دی‌شب دیدم
خوابِ یک پیچکِ خیس تر
مثلِ آب
و بسیار رویان
که بوی شراب کهنه می‌داد
در دنج‌ترین گنجِ زیرِ زمین
آنجا که عنکبوت در هوا نقشِ نبوغِ خویش را رقصیده بود .
سرم به سنگ خورده یا مستم
که در سرم یکی مدام صدا می‌زند :
« وای ! نه ! پسرم ،
ما به باغ نرسیدیم
ما به گه فرو رفتیم … »

و حالا که این را نوشتم
غروب بود و
خطوط در خاکستری تار می‌شدند
و بر پهنه‌ی سفید کاغذ
و سایه‌ی پرنده‌ی دستم
شب می‌شد
و من خواب خواهم دید
خوابِ یک پیچکِ خیسِ در‌همه‌جایی .


جنين متن

ها و ها كردن‌هايِ رويِ شيشه‌ها
ميانِ درونِ گر گرفته و بيرونِ يخ‌زده
شيشه ديگر گذرگاهِ نور نيست با اين ها
با اين ها رنگ مي‌گيرد
روز هاي سفيد را ديده‌اي ، انگار آفتاب نور نمي‌دهد ديگر ، سفيد مي‌پاشد
– همان قدر سفيد
صفحه‌اي مي‌شود براي نوشتنِ اسمي
با نوكِ انگشت
بر اين ها، آتشِ درون، نوشتن :

تو در ميانِ درون و بيرون نوشته‌اي.
شيشه، چون نامرئي است، مي‌شود جايي كه نامي را روي نامرئي مرئي كني
و نامرئي ‌ها هميشه با جاودان ‌ها هم‌پايه‌اند.
چيزي نوشته‌اي که هم از درون خواندنی‌ست و هم از بيرون
ولی از بيرون بر‌عكس خوانده مي‌شود.
در خواندنِ متن نوشته شده روي ها چه اتّفاقي مي‌افتد . ها كم‌كم مي‌رود ، متنِ تو را با خود مي‌برد. ابهام مي‌رود، متن گم مي‌شود در وضوح.


جنین حاشیه

با تنم
بر تنت
چه حاشیه‌ها که نخواهم نوشت


Translator’s Note: The Poems of Kayvan Tahmasebian

Born in the year of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Kayvan Tahmasebian has lived through the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, reformist political unrests, and over two decades of sanctions. The poems in the Janin cycle bear witness to each of these political upheavals. Together, they have shaped the author’s aesthetic response to the state of emergency that has become a norm for his generation within Iran, across the Middle East, and around the world.

Initiated in 2007 and now nearing completion, the Janin cycle consists of a series of mostly prose poems centered on the concept of janin (the Persian word for “fetus,” derived from the Arabic root that associates “concealment” and “genie”). These fetuses are people (historical and imaginary), objects, places and ideas. Moving between the “poetry of ideas” and the “idea of the poem,” the poems call on the reader to grasp poetic experience by absorbing the original idea in its most in-formed, fragmentary and unborn state. These poetic fetuses resemble poetic fragments that have either been aborted by the flow of history, or which are yet to be fully born. Like fetuses, the Janin poems abound in potentialities. Formally, they resist the hardening of language that accompanies birth. Seeking freedom from the restrictions of verse conventions, the Janin poems also resist conventional versification even as they engage with classical norm.

Poetic experiments in prose are rare in Persian modernism, but not unprecedented in Persian literature. In fact, prose poetry is a major part of the Persian classical mystic literature, as witnessed by the provocative poetics of Ruzbihan Baqli (12th century), Ahmad Ghazali (11th century), Attar of Nishapur (12th century), Rumi (13th century), and Shams Tabrizi (13th century). The prose poems of modernist French authors such as Francis Ponge and Edmond Jabès, whom Tahmasebian translated into Persian, have also influenced his literary experimentations. His translations of Ponge were published alongside three of his Janin poems in the 2007 volume of Jong Pardis, an important yearly anthology of Isfahani poetry that has helped to define Iranian literary modernism.

The Janin poems turn the act of reading into a form of poetic creation that balances thought and image. By proposing poetry as a commentary on creation, the complete Janin cycle serves as a prolegomenon to the author’s second major poem cycle, “Marginalia,” which consists of literary-critical fragments delivered in poetic language. Whereas the Janin cycle bears witness to a cyclical statement of emergency, “Marginalia” follows Walter Benjamin in seeking to restore poetry to its ideational substance and critical prose to its figurative origins.

Rebecca GouldRebecca Gould is a writer, critic, and scholar of the literatures of the Caucasus. She is the author of Writers and Rebels: The Literature of the Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016), and the translator of Prose of the Mountains, by Aleksandre Qazbegi (Central European University Press, 2015), and After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern University Press, 2015).



Kayvan TahmasebianKayvan Tahmasebian is an Iranian poet, translator, and literary critic based in Isfahan. He is the author of Isfahan’s Mold (Sadeqia dar Bayat Esfahan, 2016), on the fiction of the short story writer Bahram Sadeqi, and a forthcoming volume on the Iranian modernist poet Bijan Elahi.

Danica Mae and other poems

Danica Mae

The President’s helicopter will never land
near your barangay. He will never walk
up to your mother’s house, dust his shoes
off before stepping through the door.

He’ll never look around where you kept
your toys. His eyes won’t linger on your clothes
as they hang or lay folded, now separate
from the family laundry. He won’t ask

what your favorite ice cream
flavor was, or how you held a crayon
in your hand, or whether you covered
your mouth whenever you laughed.

Whatever I say won’t matter,
not to you. Not even as I declare that bullets
did not end your life, words did.
The bullets were nothing but bits

of metal that could have been
a door to your toy car,
or the buttons of a dress
you will never now wear.


Standing in Tagaytay

He crumples
his plastic cup
in his fist, this boy
with a toy gun.

Then he hurls the cup.
Like his father, he laughs
as it misses
the garbage bin.

They move to the woman
who has just dropped
a coin into the telescope.
“Ma, it’s my turn!”

The woman does not budge.
The boy gives a nudge
at his mother’s elbow
and, with his gun,

hits the metal body
of the telescope. It echoes
like a wailing baby.
As the woman surrenders her place

the man lifts the boy.
Happy, he clings to the cold
metal and takes a peek
at the stillness of the volcano

and the lake
that seem only a picture
misted in time.
For a moment

the woman watches her family
before turning back
to the vast world embracing
all who are there.

She stares into the distance
at the only boat moving,
moving as if forever
without reaching shore.

Tagaytay is a popular destination for Manila’s population because of its proximity and elevation. It offers a magnificent view of Taal Volcano which is surrounded by a lake; but inside the volcano is another lake which surrounds the center of the collapsed volcanoan eye-within-an eye if seen from the heavens.


The Long and Brief History of the Bald Old Man and the Busted Pot

coal darkens then goes
red at the fervent groans
and gripes of this man, all
skin and bones, boiling rice

Danica Mae

Hindi kailanman lalapag malapit sa iyong barangay
ang helikopter ng Presidente. Hindi siya kailanman
maglalakad patungo sa bahay ng iyong ina, o magpapagpag
ng alikabok sa sapatos bago humakbang papasok ng pinto.

Hindi kailanman hahagurin ng kanyang tingin kung saan mo
dating itinatabi ang iyong mga laruan. Hindi magmamabagal
ang kanyang mga mata pagtanaw sa mga damit mong nakasabit o tiklop na
nakahimlay, ngayon ay hiwalay sa labada ng pamilya. Hindi niya tatanungin

kung ano ang pleybor ng paborito mong ays krim,
o kung paano ka humawak ng krayola,
o kung tinatapakpan mo ng palad
ang iyong bibig tuwing matatawa.

Walang halaga ang ano pa man na aking sabihin,
lalo na sa iyo. Kahit pa man tukuyin kong hindi mga bala
ang kumitil sa iyong buhay, kundi mga salita.
Mumunting piraso lamang ng bakal

ang mga bala na maaari sanang naging pintuan
ng laruan mong kotse, o mga butones
ng damit na hindi mo na maisusuot
mula sa araw na ito.


Nakatayo sa Tagaytay

Pakuyom na pinalalagutok
ng batang may baril
na laruan ang plastik
niyang baso.

Inihagis niya matapos
sa basurahan sabay tawa
nang hindi pumasok
tulad ng sa kanyang ama.

Pinuntahan nilang dalawa
ang babaeng kahuhulog pa lang
ng bayad sa teleskopyo.
“’Ma, ‘ko naman!”

Hindi tuminag ang babae.
Tinabig ng bata
ang siko ng kanyang ina
at pinagpapalo ng baril

ang bakal na katawan
ng teleskopyo. Umalingawngaw
na parang uha.
Pagsuko ng babae

binuhat ng ama ang batang
tuwang-tuwa sa pagkapit
sa lamig ng bakal at pagsilip
sa bulkang walang tinag

at sa lawang tila
larawan lamang na dinapuan
ng hamog ng panahon.
Sandaling pinagmasdan ng babae

ang kanyang pamilya
bago bumaling muli sa lawak
ng daigdig na yumayakap
sa kanilang lahat na naroon.

Tinitigan niya ang mala-palitong bangka
na mag-isang naglalakbay,
para bang habang panahong
maglalakbay bago makadaong.


Ang Mahaba’t Maikling Kasaysayan ng Matandang Kalbo at ng Butas na Kaldero

naninimdim ang uling
sa taimtim na daing
at hinaing ng butu’t
balat na tagasaing

Translator’s Note

The Philippines can claim to have the most abundant linguistic heritage in the world, largely due to its geographic features and its long trade and colonial history. Yet this heritage has not been given proper attention even within its own borders. With the continued dominance of English and Filipino in the local popular culture, this poor situation can only continue. These days, though, there are far more tragic things taking place in the country.

I myself can only claim fluency in Filipino (or Tagalog, from which it is largely drawn) and English, as taught by Jesuits from America. My father was from the Ilocos region in the north (where the remains of Marcos, the former dictator lies, and his wax image displayed like a museum piece). It is home to one of the few surviving pre-colonial epics of the country, Lam-Ang. I should have learned from my grandmother who spoke only Ilocano (or Iluko), but all I picked up were the words relating to water and food, as well as a few curses (which I learned from my over a dozen cousins).

Although Filipino is my mother tongue, I started trying to write poetry in English first. Those attempts, way back when I was in my last year of high school, were awkward and artificial, but I didn’t know better. When I got to university I realized how hollow my attempts were. So I forced myself to write in Filipino after being told by a teacher that my work would sound more authentic. Indeed I noticed how I felt each poem came about more naturally instead of something I had to labor over. I did not, however, give up writing in English. They just seemed like separate worlds to write in, one warmer than the other.

Then my first mentor, the bilingual poet Danton Remoto, taught me how to identify weaknesses in my own poems by translating them. It was an exercise in looking at one’s own creation as if it were someone else’s. Being able to use two languages meant greater creative freedom. I could figure out how to improve a poem, or in which language the images and ideas would work better. It was like each piece had the possibility of having two lives, or two skins, sometimes with alternative levels of meaning.

For instance, the first images of a poem might arrive in Filipino. But then if I got stuck I would translate it to English and keep working on it almost instantly. Once I felt satisfied with the completed piece, I would then go back to the original Filipino and “transfer” the ideas and images in the vessel of my home language.

This transfer, though, often feels more like recreating a new life altogether. Sometimes it would be the other way around, with English acting as the first vessel. Eventually I grew accustomed to this way of writing. I saw then that each language had its own unique way of capturing an idea, an image, or an entire experience.

When we write we are merely trying to grasp the images from our minds, hoping we can share them with others by placing them in the vessels we have, the shape of whatever language(s) we are bound to use.

“Danica Mae” is a response to the terrible recent events in The Philippines under current President Rodrigo Duterte, and supposedly endorsed by U.S. President-elect Trump. In the last six months, under Duterte’s brutal anti-drug campaign, police have killed over 2,000 people. Additionally, the New York Times reports in that same time period over 3,500 unsolved homocides.

I started writing the poem in Filipino, but I stopped because I found the lines exhaustingly long. They needed to be shorter and less direct, almost detached, so I tried to translate the initial skeleton of the poem—or re-wrote it, to be more precise—in English. The more controlled tone in the English version gave the poem a less hysterical treatment of such a tragic subject matter. I then went back to try and bring that same feeling to the Filipino version, but the long lines proved unavoidable. That is the fate of the Filipino version, it seems.

The two other poems in this set were written many years ago. They were far easier to translate, as they rely on clear and simple, everyday imagery. I believe these two poems would be fairly easy to translate to other languages as well.


Special Guest Judge, Mark Statman

“There is something beautifully and sadly dense about these poems, which the poet, Jim Pascual Agustin, himself has translated. I found myself returning to them because I found them at once mysterious and ordinary, describing what I can only think of as tragic events (in “Danica Mae,” the actual death of one child, in “Standing in Tagatay,” the learned careless callousness in the life of another). The final short poem, “The Long and Brief History of the Bald Old Man and the Busted Pot,¨ presents the reader with a different kind of tragedy, a view of a long life at its unhappy end. Not easy to want to read, these poems nonetheless demand it. That demand is what I think I want most from a poem.”

– Mark Statman’s poetry collections include That Train Again (Lavender Ink, 2015), A Map of the Winds (Lavender Ink, 2013) and Tourist at a Miracle (Hanging Loose, 2010). Other books include Black Tulips: The Selected Poems of José María Hinojosa (University of New Orleans Press, 2012), the first English language translation of the significant poet of Spain’s Generation of 1927, and, with Pablo Medina, a translation of Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York (Grove 2008). His next translation collection, Never Made in America: Selected Poetry of Martín Barea Mattos, will appear with Lavender Ink/diálogos in April 2017. Statman’s poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in twelve anthologies, as well as such publications as Tin House, Hanging Loose, Ping Pong, and American Poetry Review. A former Associate Professor in Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School, he lives in Oaxaca, MX.

Jim Pascual AgustinJim Pascual Agustin writes and translates in Filipino and English. Born in the Philippines, he moved to South Africa in 1994. His poetry has appeared in Rhino, World Literature Today, and Modern Poetry in Translation. University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in Manila published five of his seven books of poetry, including his most recent, A Thousand Eyes (2015). In 2016 USTPH released his first short story collection in Filipino. He won Third Prize in the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award in 2014 and 2015. Jim wishes to draw the world’s attention to the despicable war on drugs pursued by Philippine President Duterte.


“The stench was awful again.” I hear her talking in bed as I shave.

“I might have gotten used to it. I’m not sure.”

“I don’t understand how someone can get used to something so disgusting and unbearable.”

I believed that the unbearable stench in the apartment was affecting our sex life. We were making love with much more passion since that stench found its way through our nostrils to irritate our brains. I’m sure that I would not have been able to muster so much ardor were it not for that unusual smell. Ever since the stench began, I’d been fucking her somehow, well, epically, as if the world depended on it. After the first fuck with the stench she said as much: Since the stench started, you’re fucking me somehow, well, epically, as if the world depended on it.

There are other details connected to that smell. For instance: I come out of the bathroom and find her in bed naked, sweaty, wrapped in a thin sheet down past her knees. Her face is green, and her body is again covered in big red spots. She feels under the bed, pulls out a metal basin and brings it to her lips. She fills the basin with two or three quarts of liquid. She says it’s due to the stench. I tell her that I don’t feel like I’m going to throw up. I suggest we go to the doctor. She refuses and again grabs the basin and expels the contents of her intestines and I don’t know what else as the basin travels from the floor to her gradually less green face.

It wasn’t always like this. Her illness, her nausea, started when the smell first appeared. That’s when the problems started.

The part of town we live in was orderly and quiet, no worse than any other neighborhood. A few years ago a butcher shop opened in the storefront of our building. Then a second one opened. The butcher shops had a fair number of customers, but there was always more meat than demand. We watched from our balcony as the workers took out boxes of veal carcasses and pig guts and shoved them into the garbage bin just a few stories below our window. Thus began the sweet smell of decay phase. That’s what I called it. And really, it would be an exaggeration to say that the stench was stronger than the usual unpleasant smell of the dumpster in which the dead animals were decaying.

Then came the dogs, and with them phase two. The dogs that moved into our neighborhood were attracted by the smell of meat from the dumpster. The skinned bodies of the animals with torn and exposed arteries and ligaments made us think of human bodies. But only at first. Later we got used to them. Occasionally we’d hear a shriek, and we knew that it was just someone passing through the neighborhood for the first time.

Scraps of cooked meat from residential trashcans, fruit rinds and moldy heels of bread had been the diet of the dogs who hung around the entrance to our building. And then one of them bit into the neck of a dead animal. From the moment the hungriest of them tasted raw flesh, the corpses in the dumpster became the one and only entree on the menu of our neighborhood dogs.

The butcher shop workers continued carrying out the remains.

The first unfortunate incident wasn’t serious. An impatient dog attacked the meat before it was tossed into the dumpster, and the butcher shop employee came away with a few scars. The next incident was more severe. A dog pounced and sunk his teeth into the man’s leg. With one bite it found the femoral artery and sent the employee to the hospital. After that, they didn’t carry the meat to the dumpster anymore. They tossed it out onto the street, into the pack of stray dogs that waited for their meal.

Over time, all of us in the neighborhood became vegetarians. No one wants to carry a bag full of fresh, bloody meat if he lives in or passes through a neighborhood occupied by dogs. The butchers lost all their customers, but it was ordered that they continue working so that the dogs would have regular meals. They were trying to protect the residents from animal attacks.

And that’s how a full complement of meat from two butcher shops ended up on the street just a few floors below our balcony. And so began the next phase and the barely tolerable stench. We suffer. We get used to it. She throws up from time to time, changes color and gets big red spots. But her misery is short-lived. She went out one day to take out the trash and still hasn’t come back. She was the first in the neighborhood to disappear. I believe that my beloved met her unfortunate demise in the jaws of a dog.

Since then I haven’t left the apartment. I’m afraid of more attacks. They closed off our part of town after a few more disappearances. We get our food and supplies from the air. And it’s the same with the meat. They don’t throw it out onto the street anymore; now they attach it to steel cables and lower it from the air. Because of that, the dogs are even hungrier. They won’t leave. And we, the residents of Dog Town, live in fear that wild dogs will soon break down our doors and force their way into our apartments, attracted by the smell of unwashed bodies.

Every day I contemplate carcasses suspended in air. They pause for a moment at the level of my balcony as if they want to taunt me. The sound I have been listening to for years is a variation on the theme of dogs barking, whining and howling. Ever since the meat started being lowered down and pulled up from above, from the sky, I’ve been trying to remember a saying I read somewhere a long time ago. Into the mouth of a bad dog flies many a good bone, if I’m remembering correctly.



– Smrad je ponovo bio užasan – čujem je kako govori iz kre­veta dok se perem.

– Ja sam se možda navikao. Nisam siguran.

– Nije mi jasno kako neko može da se navikne na nešto odvratno i nepodnošljivo.

Vjerovao sam da nesnosan smrad u stanu utiče na tok našeg seksualnog čina. Vodimo ljubav sa mnogo više žara od kad nam smrad kroz nozdrve iritira mozak. Siguran sam da ne bih bio u stanju da izvučem iz sebe onoliku strast da nije tog neobičnog mirisa. Od kad je smrada, jebem je nekako, sudbinski. Poslije prvog jebanja sa smradom izgovorila je to: Od kad je smrada, jebeš me nekako – sudbinski.

Postoje detalji vezani za taj miris. Na primjer: izlazim iz kupatila i zatičem je u krevetu golu, oznojenu, prekrivenu tankim čaršavom preko koljena. Lice joj je zelenkasto, a tijelo ponovo napaduju crveni pečati. Ruka prodire ispod kreveta, izvlači me­talni lavor i približava ga ustima. Puni posudu sa dva-tri litra tečnosti. Kaže da je to zbog smrada. Kažem joj da ja ne osjećam mučninu. Predlažem da posjetimo ljekara. Odbija i ponovo hva­ta lavor i ispušta sadržaj crijeva i ne znam još čega dok posuda putuje od poda do njenog sve manje zelenog lica.

Nije oduvijek tako. Njena bolest, njene mučnine, počele su kad se pojavio miris. Tako su počeli problemi.

Dio grada u kojem živimo bio je uredan i tih, ništa lošiji od drugih kvartova. U prizemlju naše zgrade prije nekoliko godina otvorena je mesara. Nakon prve otvorena je još jedna. Mesare su imale određen broj mušterija, ali mesa je bilo više nego što je potrebno. Sa terase smo posmatrali radnike kako u kutijama iznose teleće trupine i svinjske utrobe i guraju ih u kantu za smeće, nekoliko spratova ispod našeg balkona. Tako je počela faza kiselkastog vonja truleži. Ja sam je tako nazvao. I zaista, pre­tjerao bi onaj ko kaže da je smrad bio jači od neprijatnog mirisa kontejnera u kojem se raspada uginula životinja. Onda su došli psi, a sa njima i druga faza. Psi koji su naselili naš kvart bili su privučeni mirisom mesa iz kontejnera. Odrana tijela životinja sa otkinutim arterijama i tetivama podsjećala su na tijela ljudi. Ali samo u početku. Kasnije smo se navikli. Povremeno se čuo vrisak, a mi smo znali da je to još jedan prolaznik kroz naš kvart.

Komadi kuvanog mesa iz malih kanti, ostaci voća i krajevi buđavog hljeba bili su hrana za pse iz naših prolaza. Onda je neko zagrizao vrat mrtve životinje. Od trenutka kad je najgladniji među psima progutao živo meso, lešine iz kanti za smeće postale su glavno i jedino jelo na jelovniku naših pasa. Radnici mesare iznosili su ostatke.

Prvi nesrećan slučaj nije bio težak. Nestrpljivi pas nasrnuo je na meso prije nego što je prebačeno u kantu, a radnik mesare dobio je nekoliko ožiljaka. Sljedeći slučaj bio je teži. Pas je skočio i uhvatio čovjeka za nogu. Jednim ujedom zakačio je arteriju u butini i poslao radnika u bolnicu. Nisu više iznosili meso do kanti. Izbacivali su ga na ulicu, među podivljale pse koji čekaju svoj obrok.

Vremenom smo svi u kvartu postali vegetarijanci. Niko nije želio kesu punu svježeg, krvavog mesa ako živi ili prolazi kroz kvart naseljen psima. Mesare su izgubile mušterije, ali bilo je naređeno da ne prestaju sa radom da bi psi imali redovne obroke. Pokušavali su da zaštite ljude od napada životinja.

Tako je kompletan kontigent mesa iz dvije mesare završio na ulici, nekoliko spratova ispod našeg balkona. Počinje sljedeća faza i teško podnošljiv smrad. Trpimo. Navikavamo se. Ona s vremena na vrijeme povraća, mijenja boju i dobija crvene pe­čate. Ali ni njene muke nisu trajale dugo. Ona je jednog dana izašla da izbaci smeće i još je nema. To je prvi nestanak u ovom kvartu. Vjerujem da je moja draga nesrećno skončala u psećim čeljustima. Od tada ne izlazim iz stana. Plašim se novih napada. Zatvorili su naš dio grada nakon još nekoliko nestanaka. Namir­nice i hranu dobijamo iz vazduha. Isto je i sa mesom. Više ga ne izbacuju na ulicu, sad ga kače za sajle i puštaju u vazduh. Zbog toga su psi još gladniji. Ne napuštaju naše ulice. Mi, stanovnici psećeg kvarta, živimo u strahu da će podivljali psi uskoro da probiju vrata naših stanova privučeni vonjem neumivenih tijela. Svakog dana posmatram životinje u vazduhu. Zadržavaju se na trenutak u visini mog balkona kao da hoće da mi se nacere. Zvuk koji godinama slušam je varijacija psećeg laveža, cviljenja i zavijanja. Od kad meso odnose prema gore, ka nebu, pokušavam da se sjetim rečenice koju sam nekad negdje pročitao. Psi laju a karavan odlijeće, ukoliko se dobro sjećam.

Translator’s Note

Ilija Đurović writes stories that are surprising, disturbing, real in an unreal kind of way. Reading them, I feel as if I am walking in on a scene in progress—like entering a movie theater where the film has already begun or pausing by the door of an apartment that has been inadvertently left ajar. I have to listen for a moment to figure out who is speaking, what is going on, what is the relationship between the characters…

Like the experience of reading Đurović’s stories, my process of translation is also a process of discovery. My first contact with a text is usually reading for pleasure or out of curiosity: what is the author like, what does he or she write about, does it grab me? I am not translating in this first read—I am reading for the story, picking up images, getting a sense of tone and rhythm. And if the story stays with me, I take another look. I read it again to confirm my first impressions. Did he really describe meat rotting in the streets? What was that about being a prisoner in his own apartment? And why does the title now bring to mind an image of a dangling cow carcass? I pay more attention to details in the second read, sometimes stopping to ponder how I would render a particular phrase. At this point I usually know if I want to attempt a translation.

Even after two read-throughs, though, there is still more to discover. Now the linguistic issues kick in. How does the narrator express himself and, stepping into his shoes, how do I approximate that in English? Does he play with language, use uncommon words instead of common ones, speak in slang, make literary allusions? And what is left unsaid?

The danger of translating in discovery mode—working your way from beginning to end—is that you might encounter the most difficult challenge in the very last sentence. In “Meat,” for instance, the story’s punch line is a common saying in Montenegro and other countries of the region. The saying, “Psi laju, a karavana prolazi,” is commonly translated, “The dogs bark, but the caravan passes.” The narrator, in his stressed out state, twists that to “The dogs bark, but the caravan flies away.” But the dog/caravan saying is not a common expression in the United States (a few documented utterances substituting stagecoach or wagon train for caravan notwithstanding). I had to find an English expression that could be twisted in a similar way, preferably featuring dogs, barking, and, most important, motion that could become flight. The search led me through the internet and into the stacks of my public library, through a handful of proverb dictionaries and hours pondering the origins and meanings of the sayings I found. True discovery mode. Trying to solve these kinds of puzzles is one of the pleasures of translation.

Paula GordonPaula Gordon’s work as a literary translator encompasses drama, short stories, memoir, poetry, and archival material. Her translations have appeared in Words without Borders and Copper Nickel. Her translation of Otpad [Refuse] by Montenegrin playwright Ljubomir Đurković was commissioned and published by the Montenegrin National Theatre in 2003. She posts “current event” translations (from Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian) of news articles, essays, and Facebook and blog posts at


Ilija Đurović

Ilija Đurović (Podgorica, Montenegro, 1990) has been writing since he was a teenager. “Meso” is taken from his short story collection Oni to tako divno rade u velikim ljubavnim romanima, published by Žuta kornjača (Podgorica) in 2014. Another collection, Crne Ribe, is forthcoming from the same publisher. A story from this new collection, “Djelovi grada,” was one of three equal prize winners in the “VranacBest Short Stories of 2016” competition held by the Odakle Zovem festival (Knjižara Karver, Podgorica). His story “The Five Widows,” translated by Will Firth, appears in Dalkey Archive Press’s Best European Fiction 2016 (London, November 2015). Đurović also writes poetry, plays, and personal essays. He lives in Berlin. (Photo credit: Ivan Čojbačić)

5 Poems

The Drafting Teacher  

I’ll tell you all a story about three pencils.

The first pencil went to war.
Sketched tanks and ravens on the battlefields.

The second stayed in town on Roundup Street.
Slight and short, it snuck into a hiding place.

The third was carried in a pocket to a meadow.
There it drew wildflowers, weeds.

And then what, then what, dear teacher?

The three pencils never met up again.
The three pencils, what a sweet refrain.
The three pencils. With no erasers to be had,
the pictures they created will remain.

But where? Teacher, tell us where.



Mostowa 19.
A bare bulb beams
in the heatwave.

Plac Nowy 27.
That striped gooseberry,
an underlit
tart lantern,
marks a holy day
that passes unnoticed.

Miodowa 72.
at the synagogue’s entrance:
violet stalk
of the Kaddish.

Thoughts of you
like a shade
against the glare
of those blinding



Let’s meditate
on God’s suffering, the rabbi suggests
at the Holocaust conference.
Let’s do that instead of trying to explain
how it could happen.

Cinnamon cookies
with slivered almonds
are served.

Near the camp
children dig up
the shattered head of a Madonna
from a local church.
The plaster body’s some ways off.

In the crematorium
a tourist poses for a photo.
Let’s share in God’s suffering, the rabbi urges.
In ten minutes we’ll meet back
at the bus, the tour guide says.
We’ve got to keep to the schedule.


Hiding Place

He went missing.
Maybe he was kidnapped.
Though I had my suspicions

I was not allowed to look for him.

Once I heard
human voices from behind the curtain.
I felt that someone was hiding there.

I took advantage of the commotion
when they broke the Christmas wafer
and exchanged wishes at the table.

I slipped in through
a narrow window.
Tense, I glanced around.

Then I gathered my courage
and lifted the curtain
to the ark of the Torah.
In the niche—

curled up—
he lay there

I lowered
the faded parochet
and fled
down the spiral staircase.


They’ll decide

The little gate
to the Remuh Graveyard
has a handle
only on the inside.

So the dead will decide
whom they’ll let in.



Opowiem wam bajkę o trzech ołówkach.

Pierwszy ołówek poszedł na wojnę.
Rysował czołgi i kruki na pobojowiskach.

Drugi został w mieście, na ulicy Łapanka.
Wąski i mały, przemknął się do kryjówki.

Trzeci zaniesiono w kieszeni na łąkę.
Tam rysował polne kwiaty, chwasty.

I co dalej, co dalej, panie profesorze?

Trzy ołówki nigdy już się nie spotkały.
Trzy ołówki, jaki to miły refren.
Trzy ołówki. Zabrakło gumek do mazania.
Obrazy, jakie stworzyły, zostaną.

Ale gdzie? Panie profesorze, prosimy jaśniej?



Mostowa 19.
Świeci się naga
żarówka w upał.

Plac Nowy 27.
Agrest w paski,
kwaskowy lampion
na niezapamiętane

Miodowa 72.
U wejścia do bożnicy
fioletową szypułkę

Myśl o Tobie
jak kojący abażur
na jaskrawych,



cierpiącego Boga, zaproponował
rabin na konferencji o Zagładzie.
Róbmy tak, zamiast wyjaśniać,
dlaczego do tego doszło.

Podano ciasteczka
z cynamonem
i płatkami migdałów.

Dzieci wykopały
z terenu przy obozie
pogruchotaną główkę Madonny
z pobliskiego kościoła.
Gipsowy korpus osobno.

W krematorium
turystka pozuje do zdjęcia.

Dzielmy mękę Boga, ciągnął rabin.

Za dziesięć minut zbiórka
przy autokarze, woła przewodnik.
Musimy zmieścić się w programie.



Może został porwany.
Nie wolno mi go było szukać.

Miałam swoje podejrzenia.

Kiedyś usłyszałam
ludzkie głosy za zasłoną.
Czułam, że ktoś się tam ukrywa.

Skorzystałam z zamieszania,
gdy przy stole
łamano się opłatkiem.

Wczołgałam się
przez wąskie okno.
Rozglądałam się nerwowo.

Zebrałam się na odwagę
i uchyliłam zasłonę
Aron ha-kodesz.

We wnęce –
zwinięty w kłębek –
był tam.

spłowiały parochet
i uciekłam
spiralnymi schodami.



Furtka prowadząca
na kirkut Remu
ma klamkę tylko
od wewnątrz.

To umarli decydują,
kogo wpuścić.

Translator’s Note

We often think of translation as a one-way street, moving from the source to the target language. But for Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska, the highway of writing—and translation—moves in at least two directions. She has brought fifteen books into Polish, including a novel by Alice Munro and a book of essays and poems by Thomas Merton, and she has co-translated into English a volume of Ewa Lipska’s poetry with Robin Davidson. In fact, I first encountered Nowakowska through her translations of Lipska, seven of which I included in Scattering the Dark, an anthology of Polish women poets that White Pine Press issued in 2016.

But this summer I delved more deeply into Nowakowska’s own work, particularly Trzy ołówki (Austeria, 2013), where the five originals in this selection first appeared, and an earlier work, Merton Linneusz Artaud (Forma, 2012). In both books, Nowakowska’s taut, resonant language allows her to spotlight people, places, or relics from a disappeared past. Her fragmented syntax and short line put each phrase, each word under pressure. As I tried to replicate that intensity in English, I remembered Peter Constantine’s brilliant translation of Isaac Babel’s story, “Guy de Maupassant,” which itself happens to be about bringing a work from one language into another: “When a phrase is born. . . [t]he secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernible. One’s fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice.”

Trzy ołówki [The Three Pencils] is dedicated to the Margel family, Kraków Jews imprisoned in the city’s ghetto and in the local concentration camp, Płaszów, during World War II, who had been close neighbors of the poet’s great-grandparents before the war. Much of the book catalogues images from the past and present of the Kazimierz district, where synagogues stand close to Gothic churches. In “Addresses,” for instance, we get the names of streets still extant in Kraków: Mostowa [Bridge], Miodowa [Honey], and Plac Nowy [New Square]. Like those addresses, Nowakowska is alert to other traces—a striped gooseberry resembling a lantern, the “violet stalk” of the Kaddish—organic images that still live.

But other poems in the collection move beyond Jewish Kraków to contemplate Polish Galicia, a multicultural part of the country under Austrian control from the late eighteenth century through World War I, which was home to a large Jewish population. “The Drafting Teacher” refers to a parable that the writer Bruno Schulz is said to have told his students when he was working as a shop teacher in the Galician village of Drohobycz before World War II. By personifying the three pencils, Nowakowska suggests some of the different fates that Polish Jews and Catholics met during the war and also the ability of art to preserve vestiges of the past. Movingly, she also hints at the limits of art—how it freezes the past at a certain moment, after which, bound by the span of human life, it cannot follow.

Reading these lyrics by Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska, you might experience what I did: returning to my own world, I felt transformed by the most ordinary things—a pencil, a lamp.

Karen KovacikKaren Kovacik has published translations of contemporary Polish poetry in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, West Branch, Mid-American Review, and Southern Review. In 2011, she received a fellowship in literary translation from the National Endowment for the Arts for her translations of Agnieszka Kuciak’s work. In 2013, White Pine issued her translation of Kuciak’s Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don’t Exist, long-listed for ALTA’s National Translation Award. She is editor of an anthology of Polish women poets, Scattering the Dark (White Pine, 2016); author of the poetry collections Metropolis Burning, Beyond the Velvet Curtain, and Nixon and I; and recipient of, among other awards, the Charity Randall Citation from the International Poetry Forum.

Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska is a poet and translator (of Alice Munro, Thomas Merton, Ewa Lipska, among others). She has been awarded the Baczyński Prize for her work, and has published four collections of poetry, most recently Trzy ołówki (Three pencils) from which these poems have been excerpted. Her previous collection Merton Linnaeus Artaud features a conversation among those three thinkers. She lives and works in Kraków. With Robin Davidson, she translated Ewa Lipska’s The New Century (Northwestern, 2009). (Photo credit: Jan Wertz)

The Jaguar / About Writing / Spell to Ward Off Fear of La Catrina

The Jaguar

I am leaving the earth
with a jaguar in my hand

a jaguar that carries
a heart in its hand

in the silent looms of Mitla
the Mexican night grows

like sharing bread
with a brother

I let the jaguar
eat my heart

jaguar with heart
in its hand


About Writing

this moment, if it is a coincidence
was already written

rebellion is not against a written destiny
but against the shackles of a single reading

dream or omen
the Word comes from Eve’s rib
the black bone carves hieroglyphics
on the skin of the moon

Oedipus doesn’t know his chimeric path
is the calligraphy left by smoke on retinas
the course of a crooked foot along the wrong streets

there are no coincidences
only confused pages
a library of pulverized adobes
monographs soaked in the vinegars of Canaan

the flames of Alexandria
the burning of Cuzco’s quipus
the imperial mandate of Qin Shi Huang
all for nothing

only we remain
armed with laughter
stripped of Nebrijas and Cartas de Jamaica

such is the road of the erudite ants

we who are barely
a handful of vowels and consonants


Spell to Ward Off Fear of La Catrina

like a lost child
touch her breast
let her
guide your hand
only then
will she give you everything

she will teach you
to write
on the rough hide of the night
on the ridges of the sea
on a child’s smooth forehead
in a language
of open wounds

let her guide your steady hand
explain to you
that to write
is to exercise
the vocabulary of silence
it is to redraw
the exact contour
the precise sorrow
of each scar




me voy de la tierra
con el jaguar en la mano

el jaguar que lleva
un corazón en la mano

en el silencio de los telares de Mitla
crece la noche mexicana

como compartiendo el pan
con un hermano

dejo que el jaguar
se coma mi corazón

jaguar con corazón
en la mano


este momento, si es coincidencia
estaba ya escrito

la rebelión no es contra el destino escrito
sino frente al eslabón de una sola lectura

sueño o augurio
el verbo sale de la costilla de Eva
su hueso negro talla jeroglíficos
en la piel de la luna

Edipo no sabe que su camino de quimera
es la caligrafía del humo en las retinas
el rumbo de un pie torcido por las calles equivocadas

no hay coincidencias
solo páginas que se confunden
una biblioteca de adobes pulverizados
las monografías remojadas en los vinagres de Canáan

el incendio de Alejandría
la hoguera de los quipus cuzqueños
el mandato imperial de Qin Shi Huang
no sirvieron de nada

quedamos nosotros
armados con la risa
desnudos de Nebrijas y Cartas de Jamaica

tal el camino de las hormigas ilustradas

nosotros que apenas somos
puñado de vocales y consonantes



como un niño perdido
tócale el seno
deja que ella
guíe tu mano
sólo entonces
te lo dará todo

te enseñará
a escribir
sobre el áspero pellejo de la noche
en la rugosidad del mar
sobre la tersa frente de los niños
en un lenguaje
de heridas que no cierran

deja que ella guíe tu pulso
que te explique
que escribir
es ejercitar
el vocabulario del silencio
es dibujar de nuevo
el contorno exacto
el dolor preciso
de cada cicatriz

Translator’s Note

Alejandro Saravia’s work captured my attention from the very first time I read it. Soon after we met in 2007, he asked me to translate the poem that opens his first collection, Ejercicio de serpientes (Palabras prestadas, 1994). After several fledgling attempts to render “Hoy quizá llueva una ‘a’” into English, I agreed with him that it was impossible and set it aside. Recently, after many years spent dancing around it and translating several short stories, his first novel, and a good number of his poems, I revisited the poem and arrived at a version I felt confident enough to share with the author.

Saravia’s fascination with language is palpable throughout his prolific body of work. Writing and speaking are transformative acts—in that first poem, transmutation is enabled by a first, crucial step: writing the first vowel, the first letter of the alphabet, to realize the power and significance of language. The written word can soothe grief, alter mountains, bridge distances, spark creation itself. The three poems in this selection revolve around this axis, the all-encompassing generative process facilitated by the speaker’s engagement with language, silence, place, memory, and history. Maps are drawn. Pacts are made. Exchanges are negotiated.

As a poet and translator, I find in Saravia’s work an endless source of challenging encounters with the written word. But when is a poem finished? Poets know they must, at some point, consider a poem complete and let it go, even when they have more to say or strings of words could stand further refining to express a set of images and sensations. If writing poetry is an attempt to capture something essential, something felt but unknown and unsayable—if a poem is a snapshot, an approximation that can never fully convey that essence—if writing is a negotiated exchange mediated by language—what does translation add to the mix? One more pair of eyes to see, one more pair of feet to walk the same path, one more system of communicating vessels for the essence of the poem to flow through. The poem never stops.

This is a small sample from my humble, determined attempt to unearth, in the English language, the wondrous complexity of Saravia’s work. It is an honor to share my reading of these poems here. May these versions move, carry, and transmute you.


Special Guest Judge, Jesse Lee Kercheval

“One of the moments I enjoy most in reading translations is when they introduce me to a new writer and, through the joint act of the writing and translation, to a whole world. These three poems,”El jaguar,” “Sobre la escritura,” and “Conjura para no temer la Catrina,” lucidly and effectively translated here as “The Jaguar,” “About Writing” and “Spell to Ward Off Fear of La Catrina,” brought me that very real pleasure. The poems are by the Bolivian-Canadian Alejandro Saravia who lives and works as a journalist in Quebec. I see in these poems Bolivia, but also a world widened by immigration and exile, by a writer’s life of reading and thought. In “About Writing,” Saravia writes “such is the road of the erudite ants/ we who are barely/ a handful of vowels and consonants.” And the translations, in another voyage, another act of immigration, effortlessly bring Saravia’s words across to us in English.”

– Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of 14 books including the bilingual Spanish/English poetry collection Extranjera/ Stranger (Yaugarú, 2015). Her translations include Invisible Bridge/ El puente invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015). She is also the editor of América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets which is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press. She is the Zona Gale Professor of English and Director of the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

María José Giménez María José Giménez is a translator, editor, and rough-weather poet with a rock climbing problem. Recent work appears in K1N, Prelude, Rogue Agent, The Apostles Review, and Cactus Heart. Translations include poetry, short fiction, essays, screenplays, a mountaineering memoir by Edurne Pasaban, and Alejandro Saravia’s novel Red, Yellow and Green (Biblioasis, 2017), winner of a 2016 NEA Translation Fellowship. She is part of Montreal’s collective The Apostles Review and serves as Assistant Translation Editor for Drunken Boat.



Alejandro Saravia Alejandro Saravia was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia and since 1986 has lived in Quebec, where he works as a journalist. His publications have appeared in publications across Canada and the United States, including Quiebre, Tinta y Sombra, Mapalé, Alter Vox, The Fourth River, and Cactus Heart. In addition to the novel Rojo, amarillo y verde (2003), he has published six books of poems and a short fiction volume about the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup d’état, Cuarenta momentos chilenos (2013). He is part of Montreal’s Hispanic-Canadian collective The Apostles Review.




The Horseshoe Finder / The age / January 1, 1924

The Horseshoe Finder 
            (A Pindaric fragment)

We look at a forest and say:
+++— Here is timber for ships and masts,
Rosy pines,
Free of hairy burden to their very tops,
They should screech in the storm
As lonely pines
In a raging forestless air;
The plumb-line fastened firmly to the dancing deck will endure
++++++++++++++++++++a salty sole of the wind,
And a seafarer,
In a frantic thirst for space
Drags through soggy furrows
A fragile instrument of a geometer,
To weigh a rugged surface of the seas
Against the attraction of the terrestrial bosom.

Inhaling the scent
Of tarry tears which exude through plaiting,
Admiring the clamped planks of bulkheads
Which were not riveted by a Bethlehem’s peaceful carpenter, but by another,
The father of sea-fares, the friend of a seafarer,
We say:
+++— They too stood on land,
Uncomfortable as a mule’s backbone,
Their tops were forgetting about the roots
In a famous mountainous ridge,
And rustling under freshwater torrents
Offered heaven in vain to trade their noble load
For a pinch of salt.

Where to start?
Everything cracks and sways.
The air trembles with similes,
No word is better than any other,
The earth drones with metaphors,
And light two-wheeled chariots,
Dazzlingly harnessed to flocks of birds strenuously flapping their wings,
Fall to fragments
Competing with snorting favorites of the races.

Thrice-blessed is he who puts a name in a song;
A song embossed with a name
Outlives the others —
It is set apart from her girlfriends by a head-band,
Healing from oblivion by a befuddling odor too strong to endure —
Whether caused by the imminence of a man
Or the smell of a strong beast’s fur,
Or just by the scent of thyme grated by the palms.

The air can be as dark as water, and all creatures swim in it like fish
Whose fins thrust the sphere,
Dense, pliable, slightly warmed —
A crystal, where wheels revolve and horses shy,
A soggy black soil of Neaira each night plowed anew
By pitchforks, tridents, hoes, ploughs.
The air is kneaded as densely as soil —
It is impossible to leave it, hard to enter.

A rustle rushes through the trees like a green bat,
Children play knucklebones with the vertebrae of extinct beasts,
The frail chronology of our era comes to a close.
I am grateful for what was given:
I myself was lost, made blunders, lost count.
The era was ringing like a golden orb,
Hollow, cast, supported by no one,
Responding “Yes” or “No” to each touch,
Thus a child answers:
“I’ll give you an apple” or: “I won’t give you an apple,”
While his face is an exact cast of his voice, which utters those words.

The sound is still ringing although its source has vanished.
The steed lies in the dust and snorts dripping with sweat,
But a steep turn of its neck
Still keeps the memory of a thrush-legged race,
Not a four-hoofed race,
But as many hooves as there were cobblestones
Renewed in four shifts
As many times as a steed foaming with heat
Hit the ground.

The horseshoe-finder
Blows the dust off it
And polishes it with wool until it shines;
He hangs it on his doorway
Giving it rest,
So it won’t have to strike sparks from flint.

Human lips
++++++++which have nothing more to say
Keep the form of the last uttered word,
And a feeling of heaviness fills the hand
Though the jug
++++++++has been half-spilled
++++++++++++++++++++++while it was carried home.

What I am saying now is not spoken by me,
But is dug out like grains of petrified wheat.
+++++++stamp lions on coins,
+++++++a head.
Various copper, bronze and golden lozenges
Are buried in earth with equal honor.
The age has tried to gnaw at them leaving the clench of its teeth.
Time cuts me like a coin,
And there is not enough of myself left for myself….



The age

My age, my beast, who can try
Look straight into your eyes
And weld with one’s own blood
Vertebrae of two centuries?
Streams of building blood pour
From the throat of earthly things,
Only a sluggard who lacks backbone
Trembles on the brink of new days.

A creature, while still alive,
Should carry its spine on,
And the wave plays
With an unseen backbone.
Infantile age of earth
Is like tender baby’s bones —
The temple of life is again
Sacrificed like a lamb.

To tear the age from bounds,
To found a new world,
The knotty joints of days
Should be bound by flute sounds.
The age sways a wave
With a human sorrow that stings,
While the adder breathes in the grass
With a golden measure of things.

The buds will swell again
And a green shoot will burst,
But your backbone is broken, alas,
My wonderful wretched age!
A cruel and weak beast,
You gaze with a senseless smile
At the traces of your own paws,
Like a beast once strong and agile.

Streams of building blood pour
From the throat of earthly things,
And a warm cartilage of the seas
Sways searing fish ashore,
And from the bird’s height,
From azure wet rocks
Indifference flows down
Upon your mortal wound, beast.



January 1, 1924

He who kissed time’s tormented temple,
With a son’s tenderness will recollect
How time lay down to sleep
Behind the window in a snowy mount of wheat.
He who raised time’s sickly eyelids —
Two enormous sleepy apples —
Will always hear the noise of roaring rivers
Of deceptive and deadly times.

A tyrannous age has two sleepy apples
And a beautiful mouth of clay,
But on his death-bed he will kiss
A drooping hand of his aging son.
I know that life’s breath
Grows weaker day by day,
They will soon cut off a simple song
Of clay wrongs and seal the mouth with tin.

Oh, life of clay! Oh, dying of the age!
I fear the only one who can
Grasp you is the one whose helpless smile
Reveals the man who lost himself.
It’s such a pain to look for a lost word,
To raise sickly eyelids
And gather night herbs for a foreign tribe
When one’s blood is thickened with limestone.

The age. The layer of lime hardens in sickly son’s blood.
Moscow sleeps like a wooden chest.
There is nowhere to run from a tyrannous age…
The snow smells of apple as in old days.
I long to run away from my own threshold.
Where to? It’s dark outside,
And as if a paved road sprinkled with salt,
My consciousness shines ahead.

Past lanes, past starling houses, wooden eaves,
Somehow going somewhere not far,
A regular rider covered in a threadbare fur,
I try to button up sleigh robe.
Street after street flies past,
Sleigh’s frozen sound crunches like an apple,
A tight loop would not give up and keeps
Slipping out of my hands all the time.

With what iron hardware does winter night
Jingle along Moscow streets?
It rattles with frozen fish, streams steam
Like silver roach-fish from rosy tearooms.
Moscow—it’s Moscow again. I say “Hello!”
Bear with me—let bygones be bygones,
As in old time, I respect the brotherhood
Of hard frost and pike’s court. [1]

Pharmacist’s raspberry burns in the snow,
An Underwood somewhere clinked,
Two feet of snow and a coachman’s back:
What else to wish? You won’t be hurt or killed.
Winter’s a beauty, and a goat-like starlit sky
Scattered around burns like milk,
With a horse’s hair against the frozen runners
The sleigh robe rings and rubs.

The lanes smoked with kerosene,
Swallowed snow, raspberry, ice,
Still remembering the year of twenty and nineteen,
Scaling off the Soviet sonatina like dry fish.
Can I betray to a shameful smear —
The frost smells of apple again —
The wonderful oath to the fourth estate
And the wows as great as tears?

Whom else will you kill? Whom will you hail?
What lies will you devise?
That’s the Underwood’s cartilage—tear out a key,
And you’ll find a pike’s bone underneath,
And the layer of lime in the blood of a sick son
Will dissolve, and a blessed laughter will burst …
But the typewriters’ simple sonatina is just
A shadow of those mighty sonatas.

(1924, 1937)


[1] An allusion to a satirical fable “Carp-Idealist” of the great Russian satirist  Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889). In the story, Carp was proclaiming ideas of equality, observing the laws, which were labeled as “socialist”, and in the end was called for a dispute with Pike, was later taken in custody and finally eaten, or rather, occasionally swallowed by the Pike.

prose_section_divider Нашедший подкову 

        (Пиндарический отрывок) 

Глядим на лес и говорим:
— Вот лес корабельный,мачтовый,
Розовые сосны,
До самой верхушки свободные от мохнатой ноши,
Им бы поскрипывать в бурю,
Одинокими пиниями,
В разъяренном безлесном воздухе.
Под соленою пятою ветра устоит отвес,
+++++++пригнанный к пляшущей палубе,
И мореплаватель,
В необузданной жажде пространства,
Влача через влажные рытвины хрупкий прибор геометра,
Сличит с притяженьем земного лона
Шероховатую поверхность морей.

А вдыхая запах
Смолистых слез, проступивших сквозь обшивку корабля,
Любуясь на доски,
Заклепанные, слаженные в переборки
Не вифлеемским мирным плотником, а другим–
Отцом путешествий, другом морехода,–
…И они стояли на земле,
Неудобной, как хребет осла,
Забывая верхушками о корнях
На знаменитом горном кряже,
И шумели под пресным ливнем,
Безуспешно предлагая небу выменять на щепотку соли
Свой благородный груз.

С чего начать?
Всё трещит и качается.
Воздух дрожит от сравнений.
Ни одно слово
+++++++++++++не лучше другого,
Земля гудит метафорой,
И легкие двуколки
В броской упряжи густых от натуги птичьих стай
Разрываются на части,
Соперничая с храпящими любимцами ристалищ.
Трижды блажен, кто введет в песнь имя;
Украшенная названьем песнь
Дольше живет среди других —
Она отмечена среди подруг повязкой на лбу,
Исцеляющей от беспамятства, слишком сильного одуряющего запаха,
Будь то близость мужчины,
Или запах шерсти сильного зверя,
Или просто дух чобра, растертого между ладоней.
Воздух бывает темным, как вода, и всё живое в нем плавает, как рыба,

Плавниками расталкивая сферу,
Плотную, упругую, чуть нагретую,–
Хрусталь, в котором движутся колеса и шарахаются лошади,
Влажный чернозем Нееры, каждую ночь распаханный заново
Вилами, трезубцами, мотыгами, плугами.
Воздух замешен так же густо, как земля:
Из него нельзя выйти, в него трудно войти.

Шорох пробегает по деревьям зеленой лаптой,
Дети играют в бабки позвонками умерших животных.
Хрупкое летоисчисление нашей эры подходит к концу.
Спасибо за то, что было:
Я сам ошибся, я сбился, запутался в счете.
Эра звенела, как шар золотой,
Полая, литая, никем не поддерживаемая,
На всякое прикосновение отвечала “да” и “нет”.
Так ребенок отвечает;
«Я дам тебе яблоко» — или: «Я не дам тебе яблоко».
И лицо его — точный слепок с голоса, который произносит эти слова.

Звук еще звенит, хотя причина звука исчезла.
Конь лежит в пыли и храпит в мыле,
Но крутой поворот его шеи
Еще сохраняет воспоминание о беге с разбросанными ногами —
Когда их было не четыре,
А по числу камней дороги,
Обновляемых в четыре смены,
По числу отталкиваний от земли пышущего жаром иноходца.

Нашедший подкову
Сдувает с нее пыль
И растирает ее шерстью, пока она не заблестит.
Он вешает ее на пороге,
Чтобы она отдохнула,
И больше уж ей не придется высекать искры из кремня.

Человеческие губы,
+++++++++++++которым больше нечего сказать,
Сохраняют форму последнего сказанного слова,
И в руке остается ощущение тяжести,
Хотя кувшин
+++++++наполовину расплескался,
+++++++++++++++++++пока его несли домой.

То, что я сейчас говорю, говорю не я,
А вырыто из земли, подобно зернам окаменелой пшеницы.
++++++на монетах изображают льва,
Другие —
Разнообразные медные, золотые и бронзовые лепешки
С одинаковой почестью лежат в земле,
Век, пробуя их перегрызть, оттиснул на них свои зубы.
Время срезает меня, как монету,
И мне уж не хватает меня самого.




Век мой, зверь мой, кто сумеет
Заглянуть в твои зрачки
И своею кровью склеит
Двух столетий позвонки?
Кровь-строительница хлещет
Горлом из земных вещей,
Захребетник лишь трепещет
На пороге новых дней.

Тварь, покуда жизнь хватает,
Донести хребет должна,
И невидимым играет
Позвоночником волна.
Словно нежный хрящ ребенка
Век младенческой земли —
Снова в жертву, как ягненка,
Темя жизни принесли.

Чтобы вырвать век из плена,
Чтобы новый мир начать,
Узловатых дней колена
Нужно флейтою связать.
Это век волну колышет
Человеческой тоской,
И в траве гадюка дышит
Мерой века золотой.
И ещё набухнут почки,

Брызнет зелени побег,
Но разбит твой позвоночник,
Мой прекрасный жалкий век!
И с бессмысленной улыбкой
Вспять глядишь, жесток и слаб,
Словно зверь, когда-то гибкий,
На следы своих же лап.

Кровь-строительница хлещет
Горлом из земных вещей,
И горячей рыбой плещет
В берег тёплый хрящ морей.
И с высокой сетки птичьей,
От лазурных влажных глыб
Льётся, льётся безразличье
На смертельный твой ушиб.



1 января 1924

Кто время целовал в измученное темя,–
С сыновьей нежностью потом
Он будет вспоминать, как спать ложилось время
В сугроб пшеничный за окном.
Кто веку поднимал болезненные веки —
Два сонных яблока больших,–
Он слышит вечно шум — когда взревели реки
Времен обманных и глухих.

Два сонных яблока у века-властелина
И глиняный прекрасный рот,
Но к млеющей руке стареющего сына
Он, умирая, припадет.
Я знаю, с каждым днем слабеет жизни выдох,
Еще немного — оборвут
Простую песенку о глиняных обидах
И губы оловом зальют.

О, глиняная жизнь! О, умиранье века!
Боюсь, лишь тот поймет тебя,
В ком беспомо’щная улыбка человека,
Который потерял себя.
Какая боль — искать потерянное слово,
Больные веки поднимать
И с известью в крови для племени чужого
Ночные травы собирать.

Век. Известковый слой в крови больного сына
Твердеет. Спит Москва, как деревянный ларь,
И некуда бежать от века-властелина…
Снег пахнет яблоком, как встарь.
Мне хочется бежать от моего порога.
Куда? На улице темно,
И, словно сыплют соль мощеною дорогой,
Белеет совесть предо мной.

По переулочкам, скворешням и застрехам,
Недалеко, собравшись как-нибудь,–
Я, рядовой седок, укрывшись рыбьим мехом,
Все силюсь полость застегнуть.
Мелькает улица, другая,
И яблоком хрустит саней морозный звук,
Не поддается петелька тугая,
Все время валится из рук.

Каким железным скобяным товаром
Ночь зимняя гремит по улицам Москвы,
То мерзлой рыбою стучит, то хлещет паром
Из чайных розовых — как серебром плотвы.
Москва — опять Москва. Я говорю ей: здравствуй!
Не обессудь, теперь уж не беда,
По старине я принимаю братство
Мороза крепкого и щучьего суда.

Пылает на снегу аптечная малина,
И где-то щелкнул ундервуд,
Спина извозчика и снег на пол-аршина:
Чего тебе еще? Не тронут, не убьют.
Зима-красавица, и в звездах небо козье
Рассыпалось и молоком горит,
И конским волосом о мерзлые полозья
Вся полость трется и звенит.

А переулочки коптили керосинкой,
Глотали снег, малину, лед,
Все шелушиться им советской сонатинкой,
Двадцатый вспоминая год.
Ужели я предам позорному злословью —
Вновь пахнет яблоком мороз —
Присягу чудную четвертому сословью
И клятвы крупные до слез?

Кого еще убьешь? Кого еще прославишь?
Какую выдумаешь ложь?
То ундервуда хрящ: скорее вырви клавиш —
И щучью косточку найдешь;
И известковый слой в крови больного сына
Растает, и блаженный брызнет смех…
Но пишущих машин простая сонатина —
Лишь тень сонат могучих тех.

1924, 1937

Translator’s Note

As Mandelstam said in the “Conversation about Dante,” poetical speech is heard in a very relative way because in a true work of poetry we hear many voices, one of which, a musical voice, is deaf without a word; another, narrative, is absolutely meaningless without music and images, and can be retold as a dull story (that is the best proof of the absence of poetry); the other voice, metaphorical, expresses nothing without poetical motive and meaning revealed in a definite context. This thought of the Russian poet coincides to some extent with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s definition of verse as “speech wholly or partially repeating the same figure of sound.” To name the phenomena of the world is to reveal them. Revelation is re-evaluation: re-veiling and unveiling something so palpable and fragile that when “rendered in a disdainful prose,” to quote Pushkin, it evaporates.

It is my contention that the word as such is untranslatable, even in prose. As George Steiner mentioned, there is no such a vehicle that can transport a word literally into another language. Even composing in one’s own language is an impossible task. Imitations, adaptations, or free translations, which are of no time as poetry itself, on the other hand, do not attempt to render the original poem as translation as such into another language. What one can try to render is what George Steiner calls in After Babel “a contingent motion of spirit” (Steiner 71).

Translating the poems of Osip Mandelstam is even more impossible, since his poetry is not only full of allusions and hidden and direct citations (as, for instance, allusions to Pindar in “The Horseshoe Finder”), but it is also esoteric, and the bridges / associations between metaphors are in most cases eliminated. Hence the translator of Mandelstam’s poetry has to do a lot of research, but then thoroughly “hide” the acquired knowledge between the lines, since translation differs from interpretation (although the latter is also implied).

In Mandelstam’s “The Horseshoe Finder” (1923), “unbridled passion for space,” a desire to sail “beyond the Gates of Hercules” erases the boundary between time and space. The sea is doubtless a metaphor of life while wandering, in my view, is a metaphor of a spiritual quest. Mandelstam’s seafarer may be Odysseus (since he is called “The father of sea-fares, the friend of a seafarer”), but the scholars of Mandelstam’s poetry, Steven Broyd and Clare Cavanagh, do not exclude Peter the Great, since he was also a shipbuilder, though not “a Bethlehem’s peaceful carpenter.” As was mentioned by a number of scholars, rhythm and imagery of the poem have allusions to Pindar as well as to Hesiod’s Theogony (915-917), in which the Muses and their mother Mnemosyne are crowned with frontlets. It is notable that in Mandelstam’s “The Horseshoe Finder,” oblivion (or amnesia) is caused by an overly strong, befuddling smell, the source of which might be the closeness of a male, or the smell of a strong wild beast’s hair, which is akin to Yeats’ “sensual music” (“Sailing to Byzantium”) of the dying generations; hence the vital power of procreation can lead to unbeing if not saved by the creativity or by the “monuments of unageing intellect.”

The image of time, which “has tried to gnaw” on ancient coins, reminds us of Bergson’s image of time where the past “is gnawing into the future.” (Matter and Memory, 52-53.) In Mandelstam’s poem, however, time “cuts me”–the lyrical hero, if not the poet himself, is literally cut by time. Thus, time for Mandelstam, who is alluding to Dezhavin’s (1743-1816) last poem, “The River of Time” [Reka vremyon] and to the theme of oblivion, is a fearful thing. The theme of Derzhavin’s poem is the flux of time which carries away all the human deeds and “drowns in the chasm of oblivion/ nations, kingdoms and kings.”

In “The Age” [Vek] Mandelstam refers to time as “a sick and dying beast,” while in “1 January 1924” the age is shown as a dying tyrant that will nevertheless “sink onto the numb arm of an aging son.” Mandelstam opposes sick time to the roaring rivers of deceptive and desolate times, alluding both to the bloody Soviet reality and to Derzhavin’s “The River of Time.” Hence, the necessity to heal or save sick time with music—even at the cost of the poet’s own life. Therefore, the theme of overcoming separation in time and isolation in civilization and culture, by thus healing or saving time, was inevitably connected in Mandelstam’s poetry with the theme of art. Here “a flute is a metonymy of art, poetry,” as was stated by the Russian scholar Etkind. Similarly, in “The Horseshoe Finder,” the theme of wandering and a spiritual quest is connected with the art of poetry.

Ian ProbsteinIan Probstein, associate professor of English at Touro College, New York, is a bilingual English-Russian poet and translator of poetry. He has published nine books of poetry and more than a dozen books of translation; in all, he has more than 450 publications credits, including work in Atlanta Review, The International Literary Quarterly, Brooklyn Rail: In Translation, and in An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature, 1801-2001: Two Centuries of a Dual Identity. Recently he published Spiritual Soil, a book of essays on Russian Poetry (Moscow: Agraph, 2014), two books of poetry: Gordian Knot (Milan: 2014), The Circle of Being (Vladivostok, Russia, 2015), and participated in the definitive edition of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas in Russian (Moscow: Rudomino, 2015).


Osip MandelstamA great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) led an unsettled life full of tribulations, wandering, and exile. After his Stalin epigram of 1934, for which the dictator, who used to say that “vengeance is best when served cold” (literally:“vengeance is a cold dish”), never forgave the poet, Mandelstam was first sent to Cherdyn’ in Siberia. Due to the protection of Bukharin, then a powerful Communist party functionary who was fond of Mandelstam’s poetry, the term was somehow softened: he had to live in the provincial town of Voronezh (deprived of the right to live in the capital and big cities) and finally was arrested again in 1937, sent to Vladivostok labor (virtually concentration) camp, where he perished in 1938. The exact date of his death is unknown; the poet has no grave of his own.

Symphony in Gray Major

The sea like a coarse mirror of silver
reflects a metallic sky of zinc;
distant flocks of cormorants tarnish
its polished bottom of pallid gray.

The sun like a glass, round and opaque,
paces to its zenith with a halting gait;
the ocean breezes settle in the shadow
making a pillow of a black clarinet.

The waves that heave their leaden bellies
under the dock all seem to moan.
Seated on a cable, smoking his briar,
a sailor is thinking about the beaches
of a vague, remote and foggy place.

He is old, that sea dog. His face is weathered
from the fiery rays of the Brazilian sun;
the rough typhoons of the sea of China
have seen him drinking his flask of gin.

The foam full of iodine and saltpeter
over time has known his ruddy nose,
his curly hair, his muscular biceps,
his cap of canvas, his shirt of drill.

There in the smoke from his pipe tobacco
the old salt sees the remote, foggy place,
where on an evening, fiery and golden,
the sails billowed on a vanishing brig.

The nap of the tropics. The sea dog dozes.
Now all is cast in the gamut of gray.
It seems a soft, enormous obscuring
of horizon could blot the boundary line.

The nap of the tropics. The old cicada
rehearses his hoarse and senile guitar,
and the cricket sings a monotone solo
on the singular string of his violin.



El mar como un vasto cristal azogado
refleja la lámina de un cielo de zinc;
lejanas bandadas de pájaros manchan
el fondo bruñido de pálido gris.

El sol como un vidrio redondo y opaco
con paso de enfermo camina al cenit;
el viento marino descansa en la sombra
teniendo de almohada su egro clarín.

Las ondas que mueven su vientre de plomo
debajo del muelle parecen gemir.
Sentado en un cable, fumando su pipa,
está un marinero pensando en las playas
de un vago, lejano, brumoso país.

Es viejo ese lobo. Tostaron su cara
los rayos de fuego del sol del Brasil;
los recios tifones del mar de la China
le han visto bebiendo su frasco de gin.

La espuma impregnada de yodo y salitre
ha tiempo conoce su roja nariz,
sus crespos cabellos, sus bíceps de atleta,
su gorra de lona, su blusa de dril.

En medio del humo que forma el tabaco
ve el viejo el lejano, brumoso país,
adonde una tarde caliente y dorada
tendidas las velas partió el bergantín…

La siesta del trópico. El lobo se aduerme.
Ya todo lo envuelve la gama del gris.
Parece que un suave y enorme esfumino
del curvo horizonte borrara el confín.

La siesta del trópico. La vieja cigarra
ensaya su ronca guitarra senil,
y el grillo preludia un solo monótono
en la única cuerda que está en su violín.


Translator’s note:

“Symphony in Gray Major” was suggested by Théophile Gautier’s poem “À Symphonie en blanc majeur.” Not only does the poem’s accumulation of images suggest a symphony of gray (a universal sadness and monotony), but its symbolist effect is augmented rhythmically, through the use of the unusual amphibrach foot which heightens the monotonous feeling that pervades the poem. In translating it, I have roughed my meter toward a four–beat line, and replicated the alternating rising and falling line endings. I’ve made free use of assonance, consonance, and even alliteration to recreate in English some similar or equivalent impact of Dario’s rhymes.

Steve Veck

Mark Wacome Stevick directs the creative writing program and the Princemere Poetry Prize at Gordon College. His plays include Cry Innocent and Goodnight, Captain White, which run seasonally in Salem, Massachusetts, and The Sheep Mysteries, which is performed regularly in New York City and in Orvieto, Italy—where Mark often gets to lead a month-long workshop on ekphrasis. His poems have recently won awards from Swink, Wild Plum, The Baltimore Review, Literal Latte, and The Shine Journal. Last summer he was a story slam winner at The Moth in Boston.



Ruben Dario

This is the centenary of the death of Nicaragua-born poet Rubén Darío (1867-1916), known as an early proponent of Modernismo. In 1888, he published Azul, and then in 1895, Prosas profanas y otros poemas, two of the most seminal works of Spanish-American modernism. His poems are still memorized by Central American children.