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.