We Were the New Era

[translated fiction]

Right at the beginning, at that very first meeting in the park, there were twelve of us, half of which I didn’t even know.

There, upon that gentle slope behind the house, you could hear the fountains splashing and the trams squealing down Kastanienallee. It was the end of June and rather hot. I’d already decided I was going to keep a low profile. If it had been up to me, we would have semi-legally occupied a couple of flats dotted around several blocks in Prenzlauer Berg in the former Soviet sector. I already had the key to one of them: the flat next door to Frank Wohlgemut, who everyone just called “Pebbles” because he came from a coastal town in East Germany. He’d been in two of my courses since the start of the semester. The Wall had fallen, Pebbles was able to study in the West and we were on the verge of becoming friends. One day, he brought me the key. His neighbours had fled via Hungary in mid ’89, less than nine months ago. “You just put your name on the door and transfer three months rent, three times 46 marks. Then you go to the housing authority with the bank receipt and they’ll give you the lease.” I’d already been out drinking with Pebbles in his neighbourhood a couple of nights and he’d shown me the best bars, not just the ones on Kollwitzplatz that everyone knew, but also the ones beyond Dimtroffstraße that the Wessis never found.

The flat that Pebbles had sorted for me was huge; two large rooms separated by the kitchen with the loo on the lower landing. And anyway, the remaining neighbours would be glad if someone moved in. Just as I was telling the others in the park about this flat with the high ceilings and describing the sound the floorboards made when you trod on them, Rachel butted in and said, “Well, I was thinking of something a bit different. Just two rooms separated by the kitchen. You couldn’t even put up a long table.”

Rachel always cut a fine figure when she spoke at meetings and I reckon that all the boys secretly fancied her. Anyway, nobody contradicted her. And strangely enough, the women generally agreed on certain points. My suggestion of several inconspicuous quasi-legal flats in Pebbles’s artists’ district was off the table immediately. Kerstin grumbled a bit but remained seated.

Then a guy wearing large, garish glasses got up and told us of a complete house in Friedrichshain, just behind Mainzer Straße where nine houses had been occupied for months. There was so much space for making music: in the basement, in the attic or in the yard. For years, he had been forced to stagger from sub-let to sub-sub-let in West-Berlin and until now he’d only ever been able to dream of practice space for his band, a band that admittedly was yet to be formed. However, we would have to be quick; the building was in a good location, not too far from Frankfurter Tor. The whole rear house was empty with space for ten to twenty people, maybe even more.

I thought that sounded good, even if I wasn’t exactly sure where it was. But then Nele got up, “No way! Everyone will think we’re in league with the Mainzer Straße lot. And we need to get along with our neighbours, right from the beginning.”

Kerstin agreed with her. “We just need to be as far away as possible from Mainzer Straße.” And so, that was also no longer an option.

“We’ll just have to see what we can find around here,” Rachel was now saying, “From Rosenthaler Platz it’s just a fifteen-minute underground ride to Kreuzberg 36.”

The two autonomists from Kreuzberg thought that was way too far and that we might as well just move to Wedding. They muttered something about the “arse end of nowhere” and left without saying goodbye. The wannabe musician with the garish glasses ran after them, and the group would have broken up if Rachel hadn’t spoken up again. “As it happens, we saw a house that would actually be quite good for us. Pretty close to here, and there’s really enough space for everyone.”

It was only later that I understood later how big our house actually was. At first, we only wanted one of the rear houses. To enter, we passed through two hallways. On the right-hand side of the first courtyard there was an abandoned cinema. A remnant from when people still went out on Rosenthaler Platz, but now empty, vacant and dismal.

“People still live in the front house,” said Nele as we crept in, and that still doesn’t appear the least bit strange to me. The second house was dark and empty while the second courtyard revealed a shed where carriages had once been kept and whose external walls were still adorned with iron rings used to tether cows and horses.

It was a strange feeling going up the stairs for the first time. Wenzel had brought a box of tools with him so he drilled out the lock and inserted a new cylinder before we even looked to see if the rooms were suitable. Then we wandered wide-eyed through the rooms, which looked as if their occupants has only popped out. The gas ovens in the kitchen still had bits of food burnt on them and towels had been placed in front of draughty windows. The doors bore the names of people who were now living elsewhere but were maybe still here in their old homes in their dreams. The floorboards were painted a dark blood red and earth-coloured paper covered the walls. We could feel where its edges had been pasted over each other and ancient newspapers with out-dated advertisements had been used as underlay. Wenzel went through the rooms holding a voltage tester to the exposed cables and the plugs beside the doors. It flashed briefly, just for a second, and then extinguished again. “That’s residual current. Leakage current,” he said knowledgeably and headed into the next room.

Now, it was important that no one else got in ahead of us. So the same afternoon, we submitted an official letter to the porter of Berlin’s municipal authority and got a stamp to confirm its receipt.

“…we hereby inform you that we, the Collective for Renewal, have actively taken the rear house building of No. 5 Badstübnerstraße into our care. We have begun establishing a centre for communication and culture, and have begun remedying the worst damage using our own means…Respectfully yours.”

Johnny, who handled our correspondence from the very first day, wanted to sign off with, with socialist greetings. However, Kerstin, the only one of us from East Germany and who’d only come to West Berlin with her mother in the early eighties, thought it was pure nonsense that only a clueless West German could think up. “The pretentious language gives you guys away as Wessis straight away,” she said and added that in East Germany only the authorities sent socialist greetings and then only in printed letters, and since the Wall had come down, they no longer sent any such greetings at all.

Someone had to sign it with their real name and give an address in East Germany. As none of us were able to, Johnny did it. His grandparents had a house in Buckow, Brandenburg. Although his part of the family were no longer on speaking terms with the branch who’d defected in the sixties and Johnny had never seen the house before, not even a photo, the surname at least could be checked: Johannes Elder, Buckow/Mark.

It didn’t worry us, not even for a second, that on paper our house belonged to someone else. Not just our house, but the whole of East Germany, lay before us as if someone had just discarded it. Ownerless belongings were strewn everywhere. At the border crossing on Chausseestraße, a full building had been abandoned and in the following weeks, we and the other squatters plundered the sinks, the windows, the water pipes, the plugs, the door handles and even the doors, all under the noses of the border guards who waved the cars through on Chauseestraße. Checks were only carried out for the sake of appearance and the guards pretended they didn’t see us. There was something defiant in their disregard: the cold anger that they were no longer feared and that all efforts to put up this border and to keep it closed amounted to nothing. The old rules were obsolete and the new ones were not yet in force.

On the first night, we all slept in sleeping bags on our camping mats in flat at the top of the house on the fourth floor. When it eventually got dark, we lit candles, drew in even closer together and told stories of our many travels. Rachel had been to Portugal where she had eaten cod in oily tomato sauce every day, Kerstin had been in the South of France during the grape harvest and Wenzel had even been to Indonesia. In El Salvador I had watched rats balance over me on wooden beams and Nele had found meteorites on a long desert walk through Algeria. After darkness fell, we could see the stars between the neighbouring houses, and even though we had secretly already chosen our rooms, on this first night we all stayed together in one room. Some of us had brought camping stoves with us. We couldn’t have guessed that the ovens in the kitchens would work and all you had to do was to turn on the gas tap. We made powdered soup from a packet, softened white bread in it and ate it all from tinware and enamel plates, washing it down with some East German beer out of green bottles, which Wenzel had brought with him.

We spoke in hushed voices, watched the bats flying round the corners of the yard at breakneck speed and stayed up until four in the morning, when the trams could be heard creaking over Rosenthaler Platz, always stalling in the same spot and then continuing with a loud whirr. As we were eventually dropping off to sleep, Rachel lay noticeably close to me and ensured that there was enough distance to Kerstin’s sleeping bag that she’d positioned across the door to the staircase.

 

 

Wir waren die neue Zeit

Ganz am Anfang, beim ersten Treffen im Park, waren wir zwölf, und ich kannte nicht mal die Hälfte der Leute.
Da war der sanfte Hügel hinterm Haus, die Wasserspiele rauschten, auf der Kastanienallee quietschten die Straßenbahnen, es war Ende Juni und ziemlich heiß. Ich war ganz entschieden dafür, unauffällig zu bleiben. Wenn es nach mir gegangen wäre, hätten wir im Prenzlauer Berg ein paar Schwarzwohnungen besetzt, verteilt auf mehrere Häuser. Zu einer hatte ich den Schlüssel, die Nachbarwohnung von Frank Wohlgemut, den alle nur Küste nannten, weil er aus Rostock war, und der seit dem Semesteranfang in zweien meiner Kurse saß. Die Mauer war weg, Küste konnte im Westen studieren, und wir waren gerade dabei, Freunde zu werden. Eines Tages hatte er mir den Schlüssel mitgebracht, seine Nachbarn waren Mitte 89 über Ungarn raus, keine neun Monate war das her. «Du klebst deinen Namen an die Tür und überweist drei Monatsmieten, drei mal 46 Mark. Mit dem Beleg gehst du zum Amt, die geben dir den Vertrag.» Ich hatte ein paar Abende mit Küste in seinem Viertel gesoffen, und er hatte mir die wichtigen Kneipen gezeigt, nicht nur die eine am Kollwitzplatz, die alle kannten, sondern auch die in den Straßen jenseits der Dimitroff, die die Wessis niemals fanden.
Die Wohnung, die Küste mir klargemacht hatte, war riesig. Zwei große Zimmer, die Küche dazwischen, das Klo eine halbe Treppe tiefer, und die übrig gebliebenen Nachbarn waren froh, wenn einer reinging. Gerade als ich dabei war, den anderen im Park den Stuck unter den hohen Decken zu beschreiben und das Geräusch, das entstand, wenn man auf den Dielen hin und her lief, fiel Rachel mir ins Wort und sagte: «Also das habe ich mir anders vorgestellt. Zwei Zimmer nur, und die Küche dazwischen, da kann man ja nicht mal einen langen Tisch aufstellen.»
Rachel machte eine ziemlich gute Figur, wenn sie vor Versammlungen sprach, und ich vermute, dass die Jungs alle heimlich in sie verknallt waren, es hat ihr jedenfalls keiner widersprochen. Und die Frauen schienen sich über bestimmte Punkte rätselhaft einig zu sein. Mein Vorschlag mit den vielen unauffälligen Schwarzwohnungen im Künstlerkiez hatte sich sofort erledigt. Kerstin maulte noch ein bisschen rum, blieb aber sitzen.
Dann stand ein Typ mit großer bunter Brille auf und erzählte von einem ganzen Haus im Friedrichshain, gleich hinter der Mainzer Straße, in der seit Monaten neun Häuser besetzt waren, und wie viel Platz dort sei, um Musik zu machen, in den Kellern, auf dem Dachboden oder im Hof. Seit Jahren sei er gezwungen, in Westberlin von Untermietvertrag zu Unter-Untermietvertrag zu hopsen, und von einem Proberaum für seine Band könne er bisher nur träumen, für eine Band, die freilich noch zu gründen sei; und wir müssten schnell sein, das Haus sei gut gelegen, nicht allzu weit entfernt vom Frankfurter Tor. Das ganze Hinterhaus sei frei, Platz für zehn bis zwanzig Leute, vielleicht mehr.
Für mich klang das gut, auch wenn ich nicht wusste, wo genau das sein sollte, dann aber stand Nele auf und sagte: «Auf keinen Fall. Da geraten wir gleich in Verdacht, mit den Leuten aus der Mainzer Straße unter einer Decke zu stecken. Und wir sollten uns von Anfang an mit den Nachbarn gutstellen.»
Kerstin stimmte ihr zu. «Bloß möglichst weit weg von der Mainzer Straße.» Und damit war auch das keine Option mehr.
«Wir müssen hier in der Gegend suchen», sagte nun Rachel, «vom U-Bahnhof Rosenthaler Platz aus sind wir in fünfzehn Minuten in 36.»
Zwei Autonome vom Heinrichplatz fanden das entschieden zu weit, moserten irgendwas von «Arsch der Welt» und dass man dann ja gleich in den Wedding ziehen könne, und gingen, ohne sich zu verabschieden. Der Musiker mit der bunten Brille lief ihnen hinterher, und die Versammlung hätte sich fast aufgelöst, als Rachel noch einmal laut wurde. «Wir haben ganz zufällig ein Haus gesehen, das gar nicht so schlecht wäre für uns», rief sie. «Ziemlich nah von hier, und es gibt wirklich Platz für alle.»
Wie groß unser Haus wirklich war, habe ich erst viel später verstanden. Zuerst ging es ja nur um eins der Hinterhäuser. Wir mussten durch zwei Toreinfahrten laufen. Im ersten Hof auf der rechten Seite war ein verlassenes Kino aus der Zeit, als man am Rosenthaler Platz noch ausging, jetzt leer und hohl und düster.

«Das Vorderhaus ist noch bewohnt», sagte Nele, als wir uns reinschlichen, und mir ist das noch nicht im Geringsten komisch vorgekommen, das Querhaus dunkel und leer, im zweiten Hof die Remise, in der früher die Fuhrwerke abgestellt wurden, mit Eisenringen an den Außenwänden, um Kühe und Pferde anzubinden.
Es war ein komisches Gefühl, zum ersten Mal die Treppe raufzugehen. Wenzel hatte den Werkzeugkasten mitgebracht und bohrte das Schloss auf, er setzte gleich einen neuen Zylinder ein, bevor wir überhaupt schauten, ob die Zimmer zu gebrauchen waren. Dann liefen wir staunend durch die Räume, die aussahen, als seien sie gerade erst verlassen worden. Da waren angebrannte Ränder an den Gasherden in den Küchen, und zugige Fenster, vor die Frottéhandtücher gelegt worden waren. An den Türen standen die Namen von Menschen, die jetzt an anderen Orten wohnten und die in ihren Träumen vielleicht noch hier waren, in ihrem alten Zuhause. Auf den Dielen der stierblutrote Lack, erdfarbene Tapeten an den Wänden, wir konnten fühlen, wo die Kanten übereinandergeklebt worden waren, unter der untersten Schicht Zeitungspapier mit Anzeigen in Fraktur. Wenzel lief durch die Räume und hielt einen Phasenprüfer an die offenen Leitungen und in die Steckdosen neben den Türen, der kurz, für eine Sekunde nur, aufflackerte und dann wieder erlosch. «Das sind Restströme», sagte er fachkundig, «Kriechströme», und ging in den nächsten Raum.
Jetzt war es wichtig, dass uns keiner mehr zuvorkam. Deshalb gaben wir noch am selben Nachmittag die offizielle Inobhutnahme, so hieß das, beim Pförtner des Magistrats von Berlin ab und ließen uns den Empfang per Stempel bestätigen.
… teilen wir Ihnen mit, dass wir, das Kollektiv zur Erneuerung, die Gebäude im Hinterhaus der Badstübnerstraße 5 aktiv in Obhut genommen haben. Wir haben begonnen, ein Kommunikations- und Kulturzentrum aufzubauen und die ersten groben Schäden mit Eigenmitteln zu beseitigen … Hochachtungsvoll!
Johnny, der vom ersten Tag an die Schreibarbeiten übernahm, wollte erst mit sozialistischem Gruß unterzeichnen, Kerstin aber, die als Einzige aus der DDR kam und erst seit den frühen Achtzigern mit ihrer Mutter in Westberlin lebte, hielt das für blanken Unsinn und für eine Idee, auf die nur ahnungslose Wessis kommen konnten. «Dass ihr aus dem Westen seid, das merkt man sofort an der gekünstelten Sprache», sagte sie. Und in der DDR hätten nur die Behörden den sozialistischen Gruß verwendet, und auch nur in Vordrucken, und seit der Wende gar nicht mehr.
Eine Person musste unterzeichnen, mit Klarnamen und Adresse in der DDR. Weil das keiner von uns konnte, tat es Johnny, dessen Großeltern noch ein Haus in Buckow hatten. Sie waren zwar tief zerstritten und sprachen nicht mehr mit dem Teil der Familie, der in den Sechzigern die Seiten gewechselt hatte, aber zumindest der Nachname war überprüfbar, Johannes Elder, Buckow/Mark, auch wenn Johnny das Haus seiner Großeltern nicht mal von Fotos kannte.
Dass unser Haus auf dem Papier andere Besitzer hatte, hat uns nicht eine Sekunde lang beschäftigt. Nicht nur das Haus, der ganze Osten lag ja da, als hätte ihn jemand einfach so liegengelassen. Überall Sachen, die keinem gehörten, am Grenzübergang an der Chausseestraße stand ein ganzes Haus leer, das wir und die anderen Besetzer in den Wochen darauf plünderten, die Waschbecken, die Fenster, die Wasserrohre, die Steckdosen, die Türklinken, ganze Türen, alles unter den Augen der Grenztruppen, die auf der Chausseestraße die Autos durchwinkten, es wurde ja pro forma noch kontrolliert. Sie taten so, als sähen sie uns nicht, und in ihrer Nichtbeachtung lag etwas Trotziges, die kalte Wut darüber, dass sie nicht mehr gefürchtet wurden und dass alle Anstrengungen, diese Grenze aufzurichten und dichtzuhalten, umsonst gewesen waren. Die alten Spielregeln galten nicht mehr, und die neuen waren noch nicht in Kraft.
In der ersten Nacht legten wir uns alle in die oberste Wohnung im Vierten, auf mitgebrachte Isomatten und in Schlafsäcke, und als es endlich dunkel war, stellten wir Kerzen auf und rückten noch näher zusammen und erzählten von den vielen Reisen, die wir gemacht hatten. Rachel war in Portugal gewesen, wo sie jeden Tag Kabeljau in öliger Tomatensoße gegessen hatte, und Kerstin war zur Weinlese in Südfrankreich, Wenzel sogar in Indonesien gewesen. Ich hatte in El Salvador zugesehen, wie Ratten auf den Holzbalken über mir balancierten, und Nele hatte auf einer langen Wüstentour durch Algerien Meteoriten im Sand gefunden. Als es dunkel geworden war, konnten wir zwischen den Nachbarhäusern die Sterne sehen, und obwohl wir uns insgeheim schon Zimmer ausgesucht hatten, blieben wir in dieser ersten Nacht zusammen in einem
Raum. Einige hatten Campingkocher mitgebracht, wir konnten ja nicht ahnen, dass die Herde in den Küchen funktionierten, man musste nur den Gashahn aufdrehen, und wir kochten Tütensuppen und weichten Weißbrot darin ein und aßen das Ganze aus Blechgeschirren und emaillierten Tellern, dazu tranken wir Ostbier aus grünen Flaschen, das Wenzel mitgebracht hatte.
Und wir redeten leise, wir beobachteten die Fledermäuse, die halsbrecherische Kurven durch den Hof flogen, blieben auf, bis morgens um vier die Straßenbahn zu hören war, wie sie über den Rosenthaler Platz quietschte, immer an der gleichen Stelle stotterte und dann laut surrend weiterfuhr. Als wir so langsam endlich einschliefen, legte sich Rachel auffällig nah zu mir und achtete darauf, dass genügend Abstand blieb zu Kerstins Schlafsack, den die quer vor die Eingangstür zum Treppenhaus gelegt hatte.

 

Translator’s Statement:

Berlin, summer 1990: the Wall has fallen, thousands of East Germans have fled to the West leaving complete apartment blocks and sometimes even whole streets abandoned while new inhabitants start to arrive in East Berlin; they are the squatters. Primarily from West Germany, the squatters set up their own communities to pursue their own political ideals, be that veganism or feminism. They reject the city council, which is struggling to form a government for reunified Berlin; they dispute the authority of the police and have established their own assembly to administer the occupied houses of East Berlin. The squatters themselves follow left-leaning ideologies and dispense self-administered justice should a Neo-Nazi, or even worse, an informant, cross their path.

This is the setting of Andreas Baum’s semi-autobiographic novel, “Wir waren die neue Zeit” (We were the new era). In this excerpt, we see the group, mainly consisting of students, take the decision to become squatters and go exploring in what appears to be the endless possibilities of empty East Berlin.

The topic and characters are slightly different to the majority of German books dealing with the post-Wall period for it does not examine how former citizens of the GDR came to terms with life in the capitalist society, but rather concentrates on a group of people who moved into the power-vacuum in order to create their own society. However, this group is no less important for the German squatters of this time were politically motivated and were not simply interested in living rent free. Some of their legacy is still present today.

 

Catherine Venner studied German and European studies at the University of Durham (England) and the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder (Germany). She has worked as a translator, primarily in the legal and commercial sector, for over eight years. She lived, studied, and worked in Berlin for seven years and has now returned to her hometown of Durham. Her translations have appeared in World Literature Today, No Man’s Land, and Brixton Review of Books.

Andreas Baum, born in 1967, grew up in Nairobi and Hesse, in Germany. He studied journalism and Latin-American Studies in Berlin and has written as a journalist for German newspapers, such as taz, Freitag, Lettre International, Deutschlandfunk, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and Frankfurter Rundschau. Since 2013, he is the culture editor and an author at Deutschlandradio Kultur. Wir waren die neue Zeit (We were the new era) is his first novel. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and another novel. He has received writing grants from two German cultural organisations.

Excuse Us & The Dead People of Mogadishu

[translated poetry]

Excuse Us

Excuse us for fleeing
the wars that you fed
with your own arms

Excuse us for getting poisoned
with the toxic waste buried
by your powerful industries

Excuse us if you’ve bled
out our land, depriving us
of any possible resource

Excuse our poverty
daughter of your richness
of your neo-colonialisms

Excuse us for being massacred
and for disturbing your vacation
with our invisible blood

Excuse us for occupying
your detention centers
with our filthy bodies

Excuse us for breaking our
backs in your tomato fields
slaves without any right

Excuse us for living in
your tin huts
stacked like beasts

Excuse us for our presence
that causes each of your crisis
and doesn’t make you live well

Excuse us if your laws
aren’t strict enough
and many of you would love the gallows

Excuse us for existing,
for breathing, for eating
even for daring to dream

Excuse us if we didn’t die at sea
and if we did, excuse us again
the impudence of informing you.

 


The Dead People of Mogadishu

Are unlike those in Las Vegas
killed by an American armed to
the teeth by his own government
the dead people of Mogadishu are shadows

figures told to be forgotten
as a teleshopping of pain
to the global rhythm of a remote control
the dead people of Mogadishu are shadows

no keyboards cry pity for them
no painted flags bloom for them
on faces flaunting fake tears
the dead people of Mogadishu are shadows

invisible ruins to indignation
nobody sings their torn apart spoils
or tells their stories, we know
the dead people of Mogadishu are shadows.

 

Scusate

Scusate se siamo fuggiti
dalle guerre che voi nutrite
con le vostre stesse armi

Scusate se ci siamo avvelenati
con i rifiuti tossici sotterrati
dalle vostre potenti industrie

Scusate se avete dissanguato
la nostra terra, deprivandoci
di ogni possibile risorsa

Scusate la nostra povertà
figlia della vostra ricchezza
dei vostri neo-colonialismi

Scusate se veniamo massacrati
e disturbiamo le vostre vacanze
col nostro sangue invisibile

Scusate se occupiamo
coi nostri sudici corpi
i vostri centri di detenzione

Scusate se ci spezziamo la schiena
nei vostri campi di pomodoro
schiavi senza alcun diritto

Scusate se viviamo nelle
vostre baracche di lamiera
ammucchiati come bestie

Scusate per la nostra presenza
che causa ogni vostra crisi
e non vi fa vivere bene

Scusate se le vostre leggi
non sono abbastanza severe
e molti di voi vorrebbero la forca

Scusate se esistiamo
se respiriamo, se mangiamo
persino se osiamo sognare

Scusate se non siamo morti in mare
e se invece lo siamo, scusate ancora
l’impudenza d’avervelo fatto sapere.

 


I morti di Mogadiscio

Non sono come quelli di Las Vegas
ammazzati da un americano armato
fino ai denti dal suo stesso governo
i morti di Mogadiscio sono ombre

numeri detti per essere dimenticati
come una televendita del dolore
al ritmo globale del telecomando
i morti di Mogadiscio sono ombre

per loro le tastiere non dicono pietà
non fioriscono di bandiere dipinte
su volti che ostentano finte lacrime
i morti di Mogadiscio sono ombre

macerie invisibili all’indignazione
nessuno ne canta le spoglie straziate
o racconta le loro storie, lo sappiamo
i morti di Mogadiscio sono ombre.

 

Translator’s Statement:

Marco Cinque is a major Italian activist poet and his poems explore themes dealing with human, civil, and environmental rights. His poetical world centers on the perspective of the “last ones” of any rank and latitude.

Cinque is a funambulist of the word and layers of meaning lie deep in each of his lines. Translating his poetry is a sort of tightrope walking exercise, moving along the rope of analogy, striving to say exactly the same thing. But, above all, I have tried to be as faithful as possible to Cinque’s voice that is the bearer of a deep, poignant message and the real core of his poems.

“Excuse Us” is a powerful poem on migrants—a topic that is very dear to Cinque—and the subject of one of his most touching books Mari e muri (Waves and Walls). The Mediterranean Sea has become over the past few years the deadliest migration route in the world and Cinque highlights the devastating reasons behind this perilous choice. His irony is clearly directed to the reader, disguised through the sense of guilt of the migrants who must excuse themselves for having fled their homeland for a variety of reasons, including to escape persecution, conflict, famines, droughts, economic instability, and lack of opportunity. The repetition of the words “Excuse us” makes the reader more and more aware of how cynic the world we live in is: victims are forced to feel guilty whereas Westerners have clearly lost their sense of humanity and pleas for help leave them indifferent and undisturbed.

“The Dead People of Mogadishu” deals with victims of terrorist attacks and how, again, Westerners react differently whether such attack takes place in Africa or in the Western world. If we cry: “The horror! The horror!” for people who have died in Las Vegas, we hardly raise our voice for the people killed in Mogadishu. These are indeed, as Cinque writes “figures told to be forgotten / as a teleshopping of pain / to the global rhythm of a remote control.”

 

Alessandra Bava is a poet and a translator from Rome. Her translations from and into English have appeared in Italian and American journals such as Waxwing and Patria Letteratura. She has edited and translated A New Anthology of American Poets (2015) and most recently Anthology of Contemporary American Women Poets (2018), which includes work by Nikky Finney, Joy Harjo, Patricia Smith, Natalie Diaz, Diane Seuss, as well as others. She is currently writing the biography of a contemporary American poet.

Marco Cinque is a poet, a photographer, a performer as well as a musician from Rome. His work has appeared in many publications both in Italy and in the States. He has been defined by San Francisco Poet Emeritus Jack Hirschman as “a social poet whose every breath is grounded in the revolutionary turning of the pages to the new tide of revelation.”

The Rapids

[translated fiction]

“Martín!”

“Ñoraa!”

“You think the river’s gone up?”

“Definitely, the snowmelt’s really letting loose down the sierra, bursting like you
wouldn’t believe.”

“Will the cows go into the woods?”

“I couldn’t hold them back even if I tried.”

“But be careful on the way back, son, the river’s treacherous.”

“The river won’t get me, mother.”

The boy had just untied the animals and was bravely driving them down a rocky path along the riverbank.

The sun had come up in the sky, lighting its radiant fire on the dense mountain snow, illuminating the whiteness of the distant fantastic landscape with its blinding morning rays. Already by the day before, the valley was clear of snow, which, now taking refuge in a few depressions along the uneven land, added a few strokes of white along the way.

The cattle, imprisoned in their pen during many days of severe weather, were diligently walking towards the fording place, longing for their tender and fragrant grazing grounds, the lush soil of the Ansar, the forested river island. Martín walked joyfully, his chest puffed out in pride next to his smooth-skinned but tick-infested cows, the most striking ones in the village. One of them, with the dappled-white coat of a foreign breed, was straggling behind the others and walking slowly. At the pebbly edge of the river, some fishermen commented on the animal’s arrogance in their usual exaggerating way, and the boy, affectionately patting its flank, said a few times, proudly, “Go on, Pinta!”

“She going to heave it soon?” they asked.

“Yes, before the full moon. Her calf is about ready to come out any minute now. . . . ”

The cows stepped into the ford, which was higher and noisier now, more turbulent from the melting ice, and the fishermen said to Martín the same thing his mother had told him: “Careful on the way back—the snow’s coming down at full speed from up there.”

The boy smiled self-confidently. “I know, I know.” And he climbed up the riverbank, at the top of which was a large plank thrown over the river, forming a makeshift bridge to the Ansar on the other side. Halfway across the teetering plank, the boy stopped to take in the majesty of that Cantabrian view with eyes that were greedy for beauty. The current, swollen and magnificent, roared out its tragic, devastating song; and the woods, turning green with glorious spring growth, gave the landscape a serene note of trust and sweetness, its smooth lawn standing out towards the wild foam and its flowered trees swaying back and forth over the furious rapids. In the distance, on the other side of the Ansar, hemming in that natural orchard was another branch of the river sparkling in the sun.

Martín didn’t want to admit how light-headed that marvelous and terrible vision made him feel, and, mockingly, smiling, he murmured as he closed his eyes over the dizzying waters, “Uf . . . what a racket you’re making!”

Then in one leap, he made it to the other bank, where the little hanging bridge known as “the alder bridge” was fixed to an alder tree. After that, the boy, somewhat shaky, turned his head to the river, and spit at it defiantly, as if to ridicule it. And, still chastising the river, he said, “Go ahead, scream, scream, show off!” And he went into the woods after his cows.

Martín was a handsome, young, agile, and strong cowherd; he was hard-working and determined. He often took the cattle out to pasture; the cattle were the pride and glory of the area, although they didn’t belong to his father outright since he was a sharecropper. From the mountains to the flatlands, Martín knew those easy roads like no one else did; he knew where the rich pastures were and where the clean watering places for the animals were. He knew that the family’s prosperity was dependent on these cows thriving, and living with the threat of poverty hanging over his tender heart, the boy kept vigilant watch over these beasts, with deep interest, at the bottom of which, by the way, was the pride of a fledgling cattle breeder and the greed of a campesino. But these sentiments were still weak in eleven-year-old Martín, and were eclipsed in that healthy little soul by a sweet fondness towards the animals, very characteristic of a good nature and a generous will.

*     *     *

The voracious cows grazed wholeheartedly, and with every bob of their heads, their cowbells added a musical note in the serenity of the woods. Martín sat on a downed tree trunk and smiled, gratified by the gentle tinkling that was the marcha real of this pastoral royalty. He entertained himself during the afternoon crafting wooden flutes, which he made by cutting young, willow stems free of knots and patiently hollowing them out. To peel off the juicy bark, it was necessary—according to the rules for Cantabrian children’s games—to accompany his methodical tapping on the flute with this tune: Squeeze out, squeeze out, crude willow stick; the crazy mule gave a big kick; the more you squeeze, the more you sing.

Martín repeated that magic spell an infinite number of times, and in his pack where he carried his meager daily meal, he now had quite a collection of sonorous flutes. He looked up at the sun and figured it must be around five. The cows were overjoyed and had had their fill; they were chewing their cud in pleasant abandon, drooling sleepily over the daisies, the graceful heralds of spring in the fields of Cantabria.

Halfway through the day now, the Witch’s Wind, which had begun at dawn with lukewarm puffs, began picking up steam. In the first days of March, only this southern wind had such strength. The river’s fearsome screaming was becoming louder, and reached all the way to the back of the woods now, where it was just a solemn whirring sound. Martín thought it was time to go back to the village; it would take the lazy cattle at least an hour to get there, and if they left now, they would arrive just before nightfall.

The boy stood up, and his high little voice interrupted the afternoon stillness and the river’s lullaby. “Let’s go, Princesa, Galana, go on, get up . . . Pinta . . . Lora, let’s go!” The animals began panting heavily, and the bells rang loudly as he tugged at their collars. The six cows began walking ahead of the boy.

After fifteen minutes of walking, Martín started to get worried; the river was roaring like a beast, much louder than in the morning. And as the boy made his way out of the dense woods, he looked at the mountaintops with terror and saw that not one tuft of snow was left from the recent storms; the sun’s fire and the stirring of the Southern Wind had done their magic.

The river must be making its bad-talk, Martín said to himself, The water is probably almost to the bridge by now, and maybe the cows will be scared to wade across. . . .

Impatient, he prodded the animals and quickened the pace. Soon, he was able to see the waters overflowing to the edge of the woods. He dashed for the bridge that would save him to see if it was still in place . . . yes, there it was! He calmed down. . . . Now it was just a matter of the cows wading across as usual. He pushed them forward; they were a little hesitant; they turned their noble heads to the boy, and in their big tired eyes, there seemed to be a flash of uncertainty. A few of them lowed questioningly.

The boy, anxious, prodded them more and more, and soon one of them went into the river determinedly. The others followed her in, meek but with confidence, all except Pinta, who, always straggling, hadn’t taken a step.

Martín pushed her forward, petting her on her back. “Go, stupid girl!”

The cow didn’t move.

The boy began pushing her insistently, but she lowed, obstinate and resisting, until finally, shaking him off with her solid frame, with an abrupt ringing of bells, she turned around and ran past the boy into the woods.

Martín was speechless and dismayed. But he didn’t hesitate for a moment—his duty was to save Pinta from this formidable flood, which would quickly inundate the entire area between the two branches of the colossal river.

The other five cows were more amenable; they were used to that route and valiantly finished wading to the other side. Martín, screaming and gesturing to them from the shore, saw them walking slowly towards the village. Then he ran in search of the stray animal, the best one of the herd, the apple of his family’s eye.

The cowbell tinkled melodically, its song as peaceful as an eclogue in the thick, dreamy woods, and, guided by the sound, the boy found the beast panting and stunned before the second torrent of the river, which was also overflowing into the woods. He tied a rope to her collar, which he had taken off his waist. He berated the beast, very annoyed, and forced her onto the right path.

Pinta did not resist—judging by the meek way she looked at her cowherd as he scolded her, maybe she regretted her insubordination.

“Can’t you see, stupid,”—he was upset but still reasonable—“we’re on an island, as they call it. Can’t you see that all this is going to be underwater any minute now? And if you drown, my father will lose at least forty duros. . . . I should have known you wouldn’t want to cross . . . you’re the fattest one of them!”

The boy’s incessant talking and the soft sound of the cowbell added a brassy note to the deep orchestra of the waters. The wind had died down; it was surely sleeping in some enormous crook of the blue mountains, under the pure, trembling evening star and the red cloud cover.

Martín’s ferocious little heart thumped every time he thought about that flimsy alder bridge.

In the time he lost chasing after Pinta, the river had widened terribly; now the foamy,
bubbling ford would not calm down.

The boy was agitated seeing that night was falling, seeing that tremendous onslaught of water. He tied the cow to a tree and climbed up to check on the bridge. But the bridge. . . . It was gone!

Stunned, Martín stood for a few minutes with his mouth open, completely dumbstruck before that irremediable, terrifying catastrophe. A veil of tears came over his innocent eyes. What was he going to do? He felt a terrifying need to scream for help, but the ominous solitude of the place and the thundering waters got the better of him as he panicked silently, overwhelmed. Automatically, he looked up to the sky, and the sudden hope of a miracle caressed his soul with a light graze, like a kiss. Maybe an angel would come and put the bridge back in its place! And the cowherd tried a few vague prayers, confusingly split between Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Anthony.

But the angel would not come; the river was still growing, and night was falling, undaunted and serene, in spite of his misfortune.

Then, grasping at his only chance for salvation, Martín went to Pinta, untied her, and caressing and caressing her with his trembling little hands, he spoke to her deliriously, begging her to wade across the river and save him. Slowly, very carefully, as he spoke, he mounted her back, gripping the rope he had used to tie her.

Martín began believing in miracles, because the obedient, obliging beast went into the water without hesitating, carrying him on its back. And the terrible incident came to its horrible, frightful climax. The animal sank in the foamy, roaring waters, and slipped and howled in a fit of fear, while the boy, with his arms around the solid mass of flesh, kissed it, sobbing, whimpering a few tremulous words, which were as much directed to God as to Pinta.

The thundering voice of the river overwhelmed that humble, crystalline little voice, when once again the cowherd’s innocent soul felt the kiss of a miracle. Rising above the noise of the water, some voices called to him insistently—there were definitely people on the other side. His parents, his neighbors had come for him. . . .

Martín knew he was saved now. He raised his head in the darkness in a movement of crazy joy, but when his arm let go of Pinta, a rush of water threw him off her and he rolled into the foamy rapids.

Still for a moment, Martín was vaguely holding on to the hope that he would live—he still had the rope in his hand that was tied to the cow’s neck. The current, with a barbaric strength, was pulling the boy down, to the abyss, to his death; and the massive cow, with the brute eloquence of its exertion and its howling, was pulling him to the shore . . . But the rapids were stronger, and now the animal was being dragged behind the boy!

Then the boy, brave and generous in that supreme moment, let go of the rope, and said with a strange, hoarse voice, “Go on, Pinta!”

And still he yelled, “Mother!” He opened his arms, opened his eyes, his mouth, and thought the whole turbid, bitter river was rushing into it; he felt how the screaming current, which had been harassing him all day, was now stridently laughing in his ears, cold and mocking like a threat that has been fulfilled; and finally, he saw how the peaceful evening star twinkled in the sky among red clouds….The rapids swallowed him instantly, helpless and defeated, that poor flower of sacrifice and humility. . . .

Pinta, finally reaching the coveted shore, looked with stupefied, gentle eyes at a group of people surrounding her, and a sad woman, who had heard Martín’s final words in the pit of her stomach, wailed in tragic reply, “I’m coming! I’m coming!”

And the poor woman ran down along the riverbank, sank into the flooded pastures, lost herself in the blackness of the night, and the depths of her pain. . . .

 

—¡Martín!

—¡Ñoraa!…

—¿Habrá crecida?

—Habrála, que desnevó en la sierra y bajan las calceras triscando de agua, reventonas y desmelenadas como qué…

—¿Pasarán las vacas al bosque?

—Pasan tan «perenes».

—Pero ten cuidado a la vuelta, hijo, que el río es muy traidor.

—A mí no me la da el río, madre.

El muchacho acabó de soltar las reses y las arreó, bizarro, por una cambera pedregosa que bajaba la ribera.

Había madrugado el sol a encender su hoguera rutilante encima de la nieve densa de los montes y deslumbraba la blancura del paisaje, lueñe y fantástico, a la luz cegadora de la mañana. Ya la víspera quedó el valle limpio de nieve, que, sólo guarecida en oquedades del quebrado terreno, ponía algunas blancas pinceladas en los caminos.

El ganado, preso en la corte durante muchos días de recio temporal, andaba diligente hacia el vado conocido, instigado por la querencia del pasto tierno y fragante, mantillo lozano del «ansar» ribereño.

Martín iba gozoso, ufanándose al lado de sus vacas, resnadas y lucias, las más aparentes de la aldea; una, moteada de blanco, con marchamo de raza extranjera, se retrasaba lenta, rezagada de las otras. Llegando al pedriscal del río, unos pescadores comentaron ponderativos la arrogancia del animal, mientras el muchacho, palmoteándola cariñoso, repitió con orgullo:

—¡Arre, Pinta!

—¿Cuándo «geda», tú?—preguntaron ellos.

—Pronto; en llenando esta luna, porque ya está cumplida…

Las vacas se metieron en el vado, crecido y bullicioso, turbio por el deshielo, y los
pescadores le dijeron a Martín lo mismo que su madre le había dicho:

—Cuidado al retorno, que la nieve de allá arriba va por la posta.
El niño sonrió jactancioso:

—Ya lo sé, ya.

Y trepó a un ribazo desde cuya punta se tendía un tablón sobre el río, comunicando con el «ansar» a guisa de puente. A la mitad del tablón oscilante, el muchacho se detuvo a dominar con una mirada avara de belleza la majestad del cuadro montañés; la corriente, hinchada y soberbia, rugía una trágica canción devastadora, y el bosque, verdegueante con los brotes gloriosos de la primavera, daba al paisaje una nota serena de confianza y de dulzura tendiendo su césped suave hacia las espumas bravas y meciendo sobre el rabión furioso los árboles floridos. Lejano, en la opuesta orilla del bosque, el río hacía brillar al sol otro de sus brazos que aprisionaba el vergel.

Quiso Martín ocultarse a sí mismo el desvanecimiento que le causaba aquella visión maravillosa y terrible de la riada, y burlón, sonriente, murmuró cerrando los ojos ante las aguas mareantes:

—¡Uf!… ¡cómo «rutien»!…

Luego, de un salto, ganó la otra ribera, en uno de cuyos alisos estribaba el colgante puentecillo, conocido por «el puente del alisal». Entonces el niño, un poco trémulo, volvió la cara hacia el río, le escupió, retador, con aire de mofa, y aun le increpó:

—«Rutie», «rutie», ¡fachendoso!…

Después, internóse en el bosque, al encuentro de sus vacas.

Era Martín un lindo zagal, ágil y firme, hacendoso y resuelto; pastoreaba con frecuencia los ganados que su padre llevaba en aparcería, que eran el ejemplo y la admiración de los ganaderos del contorno. Del monte y del llano, Martín conocía como nadie los fáciles caminos; los ricos pastos y las fuentes limpias para regalo de sus vacas. El pastor sabía que sobre la existencia próspera de aquellos animales constituía la familia su bienestar, y viviendo ya el niño con el desasosiego de la pobreza encima del tierno corazón, guardaba para sus bestias una vigilante solicitud, un interés profundo, en cuyo fondo apuntaban, acaso, el orgullo del ganadero en ciernes y la codicia del campesino. Pero inseguros estos sentimientos en los once años de Martín, aparecíanse en aquella almita sana cubiertos de simpática afición hacia los animales, muy propia de una buena índole y de una generosa voluntad.

*     *     *

Aplicadas habían pastado las muy golosas, y en cada cabeceo codicioso mecieron las esquilas en la serenidad del bosque una nota musical, mientras Martín sonreía, halagado por aquel manso tintineo que era la marcha real de su realeza pastoril; sentado en un tronco muerto, iba entreteniendo la tarde en la menuda fabricación de unos pitos, que obtenía ahuecando, paciente, tallos nuevos de sauce, cortados sin nudos. Para conseguir el desprendimiento de la corteza jugosa, era necesario,—según código de infantiles juegos montañeses—acompañar el metódico golpeteo encima del pito, con la cantinela: Suda, suda, cáscara ruda; tira coces una mula; si más sudara, más chiflara…

Martín había repetido infinitas veces este conjuro milagrero, y tenía ya en la alforjita que fué portadora de su frugal pitanza una buena colección de silbatos sonoros. Miró al sol y calculó que serían las cinco. Las vacas estaban llenas y refociladas; rumiaban tendidas en gustoso abandono, babeando soñolientas sobre las margaritas, gentiles heraldos de la primavera en los campos de la montaña.

Al mediar el día, había saltado el Sur, ya iniciado desde el amanecer en hálitos tibios, que sólo el ábrego puede levantar en los días primerizos de Marzo; iba creciendo el temeroso vocear del río y llegaba al fondo del «ansar», apagado en un runruneo solemne. Martín pensó volverse a la aldea; al paso perezoso del ganado tardaría una hora lo menos; el tiempo justo para no llegar de noche.

Se levantó el muchacho y su vocecilla aguda rompió el sosiego de la tarde, arrullada por el río.

—¡Vamos… PrincesaGalana, arre…; arriba, Pinta…; Lora, vamos…!

Hubo un rápido jadear de carne, con sendas sacudidas de collaradas y sonoro repique de campanillas; y los seis animales se pusieron en marcha delante del zagal.

Al cuarto de hora de camino, Martín empezó a inquietarse; el río bramaba como una fiera, mucho más que por la mañana. Y cuando el muchacho se fué libertando de la espesura intrincada del «ansar», vió con terror que no quedaba en las altas cimas de la cordillera ni un solo cendal blanco de la reciente nevisca; la hoguera del sol y los revuelos del ábrego realizaron el prodigio.

—Irá el río echando pestes—decíase Martín;—habrá llegado punto menos que al puentecillo, y tal vez el ganado tema vadear…

Impaciente, arreó vivo y apretó el paso; y a poco, alcanzó a ver el desbordamiento de las aguas en los linderos del bosque. Dió una corrida para asegurarse de si estaba firme su puente salvador… ¡estaba! Respiró tranquilo… Ahora todo consistía en que las reses vadearan tan campantes como de costumbre. Las incitó: estaban un poco indecisas; volvían hacia el muchacho sus cabezas nobles, en cuyos ojazos mortecinos parecía brillar una chispa de incertidumbre… Hubo unos mugidos interrogantes.

Ansioso el niño, las excitó más y más, y de pronto, una entró resuelta, río adelante; las otras la siguieron, mansas y seguras, menos la Pinta que, rezagada siempre, no había dado un paso.

Martín la arreó, acariciándola:

—¡Anda, tonta, tontona!…

La vaca no se movía.

El zagal, imperioso, la empujó; pero ella mugía, obstinada y resistente, hasta que, sacudiendo su corpazo macizo, con brusco soniqueo de campanillas, dió media vuelta alrededor del muchacho y se lanzó a correr hacia el bosque.

Quedóse Martín consternado y atónito. Pero no tuvo ni un momento de vacilación: su deber era salvar a la Pinta de la riada formidable que, sin tardar mucho, inundaría por completo el «ansar» mecido entre los dos brazos del coloso.

Las otras cinco vacas, dóciles a la costumbre de aquella ruta, acababan de vadear el río con denuedo, y Martín, hostigándolas desde la orilla con gritos y ademanes, las vió andar lentamente camino de la aldea. Entonces corrió en busca de la compañera descarriada, la mejor de su rebaño,
aquella en que la familia toda se miraba como en un espejo.

Sonaba el tintineo melódico de la esquila, con placidez de égloga, en la espesura del bosque soñero; y, guiado por aquel son, el niño halló a la bestia jadeante y asombrada delante del segundo torrente que el río derramaba en el «ansar». Le amarró el pastor al collar una cuerda que desciñó de la cintura y, riñéndola, muy incomodado, la obligó a tornar a la senda conveniente.

La Pinta no opuso resistencia: tal vez estaba arrepentida de su insubordinación, a juzgar por las miradas de mansedumbre con que respondía a las amonestaciones severas de Martín.

—¿No ves, bruta—decíale, afligido y razonable,—que estamos, como quien dice, en una ínsula?… ¿No ves que todo esto se va a volver un mar, mismamente, y que si te ahogas pierde mi padre lo menos cuarenta duros?… ¡Pues tendría que ver que no quisieras pasar!… ¡Sería esa más gorda que otro tanto!…

La charla afanosa del rapaz y el blando soniquete del esquilón daban una nota argentina a la orquesta grave de la riada. Habíase encalmado el viento; dormía, sin duda, en algún enorme repliegue de las montañas azules, sobre las cuales temblaba puro el lucero vespertino, arrebolado de nubes rojas.

El bravo corazoncillo de Martín golpeaba fuerte cada vez que el niño pensaba en el puente liviano del alisal.

Había ensanchado el río atrozmente sus márgenes en el tiempo que el zagal perdiera con la fuga de la Pinta; ahora, el vado espumoso y borbollante no remansaba.

Angustiado el niño, viendo crecer la noche en aquel asedio terrible del agua, amarró la vaca a un árbol y trepó a cerciorarse del estado del puente.

Pero el puente… ¡había desaparecido!

Martín, anonadado, estuvo unos minutos abriendo la boca, en el colmo del estupor, delante de aquella catástrofe irremediable y espantosa. Un velo de lágrimas cayó sobre sus ojos cándidos: ¿Qué hacer?… Sintió una necesidad espantosa de pedir socorro a voces; de llorar a gritos; pero la soledad medrosa del paraje y el estruendo de las aguas, le dominaron en un pánico mudo, aniquilador. Alzó maquinalmente la mirada al cielo, y la súbita esperanza de un milagro acarició su alma con un roce suave, como de beso; ¡si viniera un ángel a colocar otra vez el puente en su sitio!… Y ensayó el pastor unas vagas oraciones, repartidas, confusamente, entre la Virgen del Carmen y San Antonio.

Pero ¡el ángel no venía; el río seguía creciendo, y la noche cayó, impávida y serena, encima de aquella desventura!

Asiéndose entonces a la única posibilidad de salvación, Martín se llegó hasta la Pinta, la desamarró y, acariciándola mucho, mucho, con las manitas temblorosas, la echó un delirante discurso, rogándola que vadease el río y que le salvara. Despacio, con grandes precauciones, según le hablaba, se subió a sus lomos, asiendo siempre la soga con que la había apresado.

Martín empezó a creer en la realización del prodigio, porque la bestia, sumisa y complaciente, entró sin vacilar en el agua, llevándole encima. Y llegó a su apogeo el tremendo lance lleno de temeridad y de horror.

Hundíase el animal en el río espumoso y rugiente, y resbalaba y mugía, en el paroxismo del espanto, mientras que el niño, abrazándose a la recia carnaza vacilante, la besaba sollozando, gimiendo unas trémulas palabras, que tan pronto iban dirigidas a Dios como a la Pinta.

La tonante voz del río empapaba aquella humilde vocecilla de cristal, cuando el alma candorosa del pastor sintió otra vez el beso del milagro. Dominando el estrépito de la riada, unas voces le llamaban con insistencia: había gente, sin duda, en la otra orilla; le buscaban sus padres, sus vecinos…

Martín se creyó salvado. Alzó la frente en las tinieblas con un movimiento de alegría loca, y al soltarse del brazo que daba a la Pinta, un golpe de agua le echó a rodar en las espumas del rabión.

Todavía, por un instante, tuvo Martín asida una tenue esperanza de vivir: conservaba en su mano la cuerda que la vaca tenía atada al collar. La corriente, de una bárbara fuerza, tiraba del niño hacia abajo; hacia el abismo; hacia la muerte. La vacona, con la elocuencia brutal de esfuerzos y berridos, tiraba de él hacia la orilla… Pero, ¡podía más el rabión, que ya iba arrastrando al animal detrás del niño!

Entonces él, bravo y generoso en aquel instante supremo, soltó la cuerda, y dijo con una voz ronca y extraña:

—¡Arre, Pinta!

Aún gritó: ¡madre! Abrió los brazos, abrió los ojos, abrió la boca, creyó que todo el río se le entraba por ella, turbio y amargo; sintió cómo el vocerío de la corriente, que todo el día le estuvo persiguiendo, le metía ahora por los oídos una estridente carcajada, fría y burlona, como una amenaza que se cumple; y vió, por fin, cómo temblaba en el cielo, entre nubes rojas, el lucero apacible de la tarde… El rabión se le tragó en seguida, inerme y vencido, pobre flor de sacrificio y humildad…

La Pinta, dueña de la codiciada margen, miraba con ojos atónitos y mansos a un grupo de gente que la rodeaba, y a una triste mujer que, habiendo recibido en mitad del corazón la postrera palabra de Martín, en trágica respuesta, contestaba a grito herido:

—¡Allá voy, allá voy!…

Y corría la infeliz, ribera abajo, a la par del río, hundiéndose en los yerbazales inundados, perdida en las negruras de la noche, y en la sima de su dolor…

 

Translator’s Statement:

One of the things that makes Concha Espina’s writing so challenging to read is that, while she writes in Spanish, she intersperses her stories with certain Cantabrian words that would be unknown to the average Spanish speaker. The northern region where she is from, also known as La Montaña, is very different from the rest of Spain in terms of climate and vegetation, and it was also one of the only regions of Spain never to have been conquered by the Moors. Today, Cantabrian is classified as an endangered language.

Many of the Cantabrian words she uses have to do with rural life, and these words are very vivid. For example, ansar is the word for island. Towards the end of the story, the boy says to his cow, “We’re on an island, as they call it.” Here he uses the Spanish word.

But another, more difficult example is when the boy meets the fishermen. They say to him, in reference to one of his cows, “¿Cuándo «geda», tú?” which I somewhat unsatisfyingly translated as “She going to heave it soon?” “Gedar” means to calve in Cantabrian and “una geda” is a cow that has recently calved. This fisherman’s question in Spanish is five syllables (but the sounds can blend together so that it almost sounds like four). My translation, however, is seven syllables (or six if you say “gonna” in your head). It also doesn’t quite have that same staccato sound produced by the letters c, g, and t in “¿Cuándo «geda», tú?

The way these fisherman speak is very much connected to who they are—poor fisherman in rural Cantabria. They are “men of few words.” I see them as having that rugged, masculine quality that we also associate with the countryside in the United States.

In English, the question is not quite clear. Without any context, “heave” could mean any number of things here. But most Spanish speakers would also not know what “geda” means right away. The question is made clear by the boy’s answer.

 

Slava Faybysh was born in Ukraine and grew up in the United States. He translates from both Spanish and Russian. He is just starting out in the field of literary translation and has several manuscripts for which he is currently searching for publishers. His translations have appeared on Asymptote and Palabras Errantes.

Concha Espina (1869–1955) was a prolific author of poetry, plays, novels, and novellas. She was the first woman in Spain to be able to make her living exclusively from writing. Though she was a contemporary of the Generation of ’98 writers in Spain, her work is somewhat different from other writers of the period. Her main influences were Realism and Romanticism. Concha Espina was deeply Catholic, and although she did not identify as a feminist, much of her work does have certain feminist themes. Early in her career, she was mainly apolitical. She slowly drifted to the left by the 1920s, writing a book in support of miners. But by the time of the Spanish Civil War, she came to support the fascist Franco government. Concha Espina was a finalist for the Nobel Prize three times in the 1920s, and several of her novels were made into movies during the 1950s. “The Rapids” was one of her earliest works to be published in 1907.

The Fourth Astral Plane & We Have Arrived

[translated poetry]

The Fourth Astral Plane

We bolted from empty stores,
Army bullies,
Chernobyl,
Afghanistan,
Nagorno-Karabakh and
Happy drunkards euthanized in the snow.
We were afraid that tomorrow another curtain would fall,
And the pogrom-happy Czar would return, or the dictator, or the
terrorists,
So amidst the hot Brooklyn spring we came
To the Hasidim dressed in all black,
And to those, who stay black no matter the clothes,
We walked knee-deep in the snow
Circled the Jewish cemetery starving as if for prey
Arguing in hoarse voices about Berdyaev and Shestov,
And we ran away from dull rabbis,
Matronly priests,
And Buddhists, annoying as flies in their complacency,
But terrorists caught up with us like Karma
And we choked coughing,
And covered our mouth
When New York swelled with asbestos dust
From the rotting twin corpses.
And in the snow desert by Chicago
We listened to the howling Tom Waits
And were mocked by the everlasting
And golden San Francisco fall.
We couldn’t bear it and ripped
The shirts off our backs.
And spending our last money
We ripped across the ocean, back to the East.
In a London bar we listened
To the joking oligarch, “I drink only beer,
Where I can see the polonium better.”
And in the Berlin “USSR” bar
We opened the bathroom door
Decorated with a stolen authentic sign
“Embassy of the Soviet Union.”
I wanted to steal it back.
And when we landed in Sheremetyevo,
Boryspil and Pulkovo
At the stores pregnant with merchandise
On Nevsky, Arbat or Khreshchatyk,
We were met by frozen drunkards with hardened, happy eyes
Who welcomed us.
And the Kiev salesgirl pretended
That she knew no Russian,
And the cops frisked us for money
At the Novoslobodskaya metro
And we kissed our sleeping bride on the forehead,
Sure that we would never see her again,
And early morning we left the cozy place
On Bolshoi Karetny.
Played hide-and-seek with armored troop-carriers,
And the OMON lines
Waiting in ambush for marchers,
And when the taxi driver asked, “Where to?”
We lingered, muttering,
“To the Fourth Astral Plane.”

 


We Have Arrived

There was no one there
to meet my mother and I
at JFK airport.

2 weeks before us
my uncle came to america
and got lost on the way.

He did not know english.

In the middle of the terminal
I stood with my mother
with a fountain of bags
and no money. Our own language
not enough currency or food

to be
found
lost

in the lost world.


 
ЧЕТВЁРТЫЙ АСТРАЛ

Мы уезжали от пустых прилавков,
Дедовщины,
Чернобыля,
Афганистана,
Нагорного Карабаха и
Счастливых алкашей храпящих в сугробах,
Боясь, что завтра захлопнется
Приоткрывшаяся дверь
И вернётся Царь, диктатор или террористы
И мы приехали в жаркую бруклинскую весну
К одетым во все чёрное хасидам,
И к тем кто и без одежды полностью черный
И мы ходили по колену в снегу
Вокруг еврейского кладбища
Споря до хрипоты о Бердяеве и Шестове
И мы убежали от тоскливых ребе
Заботливых батюшек
И надоедливых как мух буддистов
И террористы настигли нас здесь
И мы захлёбывались кашлем,
Закрывая рот платком
Когда Нью-Йорк окутала асбестовая пыль
От гниющих трупов Близнецов,
И в снежной пустыне под Чикаго
Мы слушали завывания Тома Вэйтса
И нас раздражало вечная
Золотая осень Сан-Франциско
И мы не выдержали и рванули
На себе рубаху
И рванули тратя последние деньги
Назад на Восток
И слушали как в Лондоне
Олигарх в баре шутил
«Я пью только пиво.
В нем заметней полоний»
И в Берлине в баре «СССР»
Мы открыли дверь в туалет
Украшенной украденной реальной табличкой
«Посольство Советского Союза»
И когда мы приземлились в Шереметьево,
Борисполе и Пулково,
К заваленным магазинам,
На Невском, Арбате или Хрещатике
То нас встретили те же
Счастливые алкаши давно замёрзшие в сугробах
С округлившимися глазами,
Киевская продавщица сделала вид, что не понимает по-русски
Менты обыскали и забрали деньги у метро «Новослободская»
И мы поцеловали в лобик спящую невесту
Зная, что никогда её больше не увидим
И вышли рано утром из уютного дворика
На Большом Каретном,
Посмотрели на затаившийся бронетранспортёр
И роты ОМОНа
Ожидающих в засаде демонстрантов
И когда таксист спросил
«Куда шеф?»
Замедлили и сказали
«В Четвёртый Астрал»

 


Мы Прибыли Сюда Жить

Когда я с матерью прилетел в Нью Йорк
Нас никто не встретил в аэропорту
Мой дядя приехавший в Америку
За две недели до нас
Сам не зная английского
Заблудился по дороге.
Я стоял с мамой посередине
Огромного терминала с
Кучей чемоданов
Не зная языка, без денег
Потерянные в потерянном мире.

 

Collaboration Statement:

Alex wrote the original poems and rough versions of translations which were probably unreadable. Stella (“Fourth Astral Plane”) and Thomas (“We Have Arrived”), both American poets, then helped Alex polish up the poems under his guidance.

 

Poet, social worker, mama, and—perhaps by the time you are reading this—ex-wife, are among the identities of Stella Padnos. Stella’s debut book of poems and subsequently released chapbook—brightly titled In My Absence and Next to Nothing—have been published by Winter Goose Press since 2016. Stella enjoys writing about ambivalence, attraction, and general emotional discomfort.

Thomas Fucaloro is the author of two books of poetry published by Three Rooms Press, most recently It Starts from the Belly and Blooms, which received rave reviews. The winner of a performance grant from the Staten Island Council of the Arts and the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, he has been on six national slam teams. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School and is a co-founding editor of Great Weather for Media and NYSAI press. He is an adjunct professor at Wagner College where he teaches world literature and advanced creative writing. He is a writing coordinator at the Harlem Children’s Zone and lives in Staten Island.

Alex Galper was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1971. He came to America in 1990 escaping draft to the Soviet Army. Alex graduated from Brooklyn College majoring in creative writing in 1996. He still writes in Russian and is well-known in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Alex’s short stories about living in New York appear regularly in major Russian periodicals. He works for New York Department of Social Services and does acting part-time. Alex had a small part in HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero. His poems and short stories were translated into English, Swedish, German, and Georgian.

Tights & Buttons

[translated poetry]

“Tights”

She likes the taste of her knee. In the summer, she’ll eat it straight from the skin. In the winter, she’ll do so until all the cotton hair has shed on her tongue. In her head stuck on the knee, the child puts together the things she knows.

An ant rubbed between fingers smells of vinegar. A butterfly has powder. A mole has a tailcoat. You can roll gray dirt on your skin. Old people smell of beetroot soup. There’s butter under your fingernails where splinters get in. People can be hunchbacked and crazy but not dogs or birds. When sucking on the salty knee, the child knows: the only thing that separates human from the world is the skin. It prevents you from soaking into the immensity of things.

 


“Buttons”

Grandma keeps her mother in a room with half a door. (She chopped the other half off to see what the old one is up to. She kept the remaining half locked.)

Grandma turns the key, then slides it behind her bra. She won’t give it to anyone. They might let that plague out into the rest of the house.

Last week she lost sight of her for one moment: great-grandma slashed the curtains and put a bag of sugar in the fire. She thought it was coal—both hard. She gutted the closet: she was looking for her uniform because she was going to school. She’s ninety years old, she doesn’t remember her own name but she certainly remembers the school uniform with the cross back. If you don’t lock her up, she’ll turn everything upside down.

“You seem a little too quiet there, Mommy,” grandma calls to the doorframe.

“I shit myself,” a head springs above the thick line of the chopped-off door.

“You’ll have to wait, then.”

Grandma will not drop her work. She won’t burn the meat. When you live under the same roof as madness, everything else must be normal. A good meal is part of that everything else.

A sweater lands in the kitchen. It’s followed by a skirt, a slip, and a bra.

“Excuse me, ma’am, can you call my daughter for me? Because I’m standing here naked.”

“I’ll be right there. I’m your daughter.”

“That’s not true. My daughter has dark hair and is slim like a stalk. Like that,” two fingers appear above the door, grabbing a half-inch of air in pincers. “You’re gray and fat.”

Grandma is changing her mother’s diaper. Velcro closures crunch on her hips.

“I’ll die if you pay me well,” says the old infant.

Grandma brings a bag of sheet buttons. She empties it on the floor.

“Enough?”

“How should I know? I need to count them.”

I’m sitting with great-grandma on the floor. We’re counting the buttons with our hands.

“Have you ever seen so much money?” she asks.

When she’s not looking, I put them in my shoes, I pop them down my shirt, I swallow them. Let there be fewer of them. Too few to die.

 

 

„Rajtuzy”

Lubi smak kolana. Latem wyjada go prosto ze skóry, zimą przez rajtuzy, aż wylinieje na język bawełniana sierść. W głowie zatkniętej na kolano dziecko układa rzeczy, które zna.

Mrówka roztarta w palcach pachnie octem. Motyl ma puder. Kret frak. Po skórze da się toczyć szare wałki brudu. Starych ludzi czuć barszczem. Za paznokciami jest masło, w które wchodzą drzazgi. Są garbaci i szaleni ludzie, ale nie psy i ptaki. Ssąc słone kolano, dziecko wie: jedyną rzeczą, która oddziela człowieka od świata, jest skóra. Dzięki niej nie wsiąka się w bezmiar rzeczy.

 


„Guziki”

Babka hoduje swoją matkę w pokoju z połową drzwi. Połowę urżnęła, żeby widzieć, co stara wyczynia. Połowę z zamkiem zostawiła. Przekręca w nim klucz, wrzuca za stanik. Nie da nikomu. Jeszcze by wypuścił tę plagę na dom.

W zeszłym tygodniu na moment spuściła ją z oka: prababka pocięła zasłony, wsadziła torbę cukru w ogień. Myślała, że węgiel – jedno i drugie twarde. Rozbebeszyła szafę: szukała fartuszka, bo idzie do szkoły. Ma dziewięćdziesiąt lat, nie pamięta własnego nazwiska, ale fartuch, co się zapinał na krzyż na plecach, owszem. Jak się jej nie zamknie, wywróci wszystko do góry nogami.

– Coś mi tam za cicho jesteś, mamusiu – woła babka do dziury w futrynie.

– Zesrałam się – nad krechę uciętych drzwi wyskakuje głowa.

– To poczekasz.

Babka nie rzuci roboty. Nie przypali mięsa. Kiedy ma się pod dachem wariactwo, reszta ma być normalna. Porządny obiad należy do reszty.

Do kuchni wpada sweter. Za nim lecą: spódnica, halka, stanik.

– Przepraszam, czy może pani zawołać moją córkę? Bo ja tu stoję goła.

– Zaraz przyjdę, jestem twoją córką.

– Nieprawda. Moja córka ma czarne włosy i jest szczupła jak łodyga. O, taka – nad drzwiami pokazują się palce, które biorą w kleszcze centymetr powietrza. – Ty jesteś siwa i tłusta.

Babka przewija swoją matkę. Rzepy pieluchy trzeszczą na biodrach.

– Umrę, jak mi dobrze zapłacisz – mówi stare niemowlę.

Babka przynosi worek pościelowych guzików. Wysypuje na podłogę.

– Wystarczy?

– Bo ja wiem? Muszę policzyć.

Siedzę z prababką na ziemi. Liczymy na palcach guziki.

– Widziałaś kiedyś tyle pieniędzy? – pyta.

Kiedy nie patrzy, wsadzam je do butów, wrzucam za koszulę, połykam. Niech będzie ich mniej. Za mało na śmierć.

 

Translator’s Statement:

It is hard to say whether the main characters in Bronka Nowicka’s prose poems are objects or people. If we consider what she wrote in her poem titled “Tights:” “the only thing that separates human from the world is the skin,” which “prevents you from soaking into the immensity of things,” we can conclude that, indeed, the border between the human world and the world of objects is constantly questioned in Nowicka’s writing, just the like the limits of the material and the immaterial. The universe in Nakarmić kamień is that of things the child desires to learn and experience through her senses. In addition, objects are essential in our lives because they preserve the memory of our loved ones.

Nowicka’s use of language in Nakarmić kamień is striking: words are combined in unusual configurations, producing condensed sentences which are yet full of imagery and symbolism. As a reader, I often found the beautifully odd images familiar, such as tasting one’s knee through the sheer membrane of tights, feeling the hands of dead people as if they were made of wax, listening to old people talk about the War. As a translator, I realized how challenging it would be (and was) to reproduce this dense cocktail of senses and symbols into English. One of the reasons for my struggle was the form of the pieces, that is, prose poetry. In his Introduction to the first volume of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, Peter Johnson defined the prose poem as a piece of writing that “plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels” (6). In a similar way, I found myself jumping constantly from one side to another: on the one hand, I was often tempted to add words such as “because” or “since” to allow for the sentences to flow, as if in prose. On the other hand, I did not want to interfere with the staccato rhythm of the sentences which read like individual lines of a poem. I think that this tension between prose and poetry is visible in Nowicka’s work, and I wanted to recreate this complicated marriage between the two forms of writing in my translations.

Johnson, Peter, editor. “Introduction.” The Prose Poem: An International Journal, vol. 1,
Providence, Providence College Press, 1992.

Nowicka, Bronka. Nakarmić kamień [Feeding the Stone]. Biuro Literackie, Stronie Śląskie,
Wrocław, 2015.

 

Agnieszka Gabor da Silva graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she studied Lusophone literatures and cultures. Her Master’s thesis involved translating Clarice Lispector into Polish. She also holds a Master of Arts in English from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. Her research interests include modernist and contemporary Brazilian literature, translation, and Luso-African literature. She is also committed to promoting Polish literature in the US and Brazil through translation.

Bronka Nowicka was born in 1974. She is a film director, screenwriter, and poet. She graduated from the Polish National Film School in Łódź and the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. The fields of her inspiration, exploration, and creation include Intermedia, Language, Image in motion. In 2016, she received the Nike Literary Award, one of the most prestigious awards for Polish literature, for her prose poetry volume titled Nakarmić kamień [Feeding the Stone, published by Biuro Literackie, 2015].