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. www.matangmanok.wordpress.com


“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 https://dbaplanb.wordpress.com/aktuelnost/.


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)