Friday, October 19, 2012


By Gabriela Mistral 

Oh, no! How could God let the bud of my breasts go dry
when He Himself so swelled my girth?
I feel my breasts growing,
rising like water in a wide pool, noiselessly.
And their great sponginess casts a shadow
like a promise across my belly .
Who in all the valley could be poorer than I
if my breasts never grew moist.
Like those jars that women put out to catch the dew of night,
I place my breasts before God.
I give Him a new name,
I call Him the Filler,
and I beg of Him the abundant liquid of life.
Thirstily looking for it, will come
my son.

The Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral(1889–1957) occupies a unique place in literary history as the first Latin American Writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature(1945).

A schoolteacher whose poetry catapulted her to early fame in her native Chile and an international diplomat whose boundary-defying sexuality still challenges scholars, she is one of the most important and enigmatic figures in Latin American literature of the last century.

Famous and beloved during her lifetime all over Latin America and in Europe, Mistral has never been known much in North America as she deserves to be. The reputation of her more flamboyant and accessible friend and countryman Pablo Neruda overshadowed hers, and she was often officially sentimentalized into a "poetess" of children and motherhood. Translations, and even selections of her work in Spanish, have tended to underplay the darkness, the strangeness, and the raging intensity of her poems of grief and pain, the yearning power of her evocations of the Chilean landscape, the stark music of her Round Dances, the visionary splendor of her Hymns of America. 

Born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga in the Elqui valley in the 'little north' of Chile, she became a schoolteacher at the age of fifteen and went on to become an educator of international renown, an architect of educational reform in Mexico, and a cultural administrator at the League of Nations. She began publishing prose and verse pieces in newspapers and reviews at about the same age. Four major collections of her poems were published in her lifetime: Desolacion (Desolation) in 1922, Ternura (Tenderness) in 1924, Tala (Felling) in 1938, and Lagar (Wine Press) in 1954, followed by Poema de Chile published after her death. 

The landscape and people of her native Chile are a constant theme in her work, even though she lived most of her adult life away from Chile, largely as a consul - unpaid for many years - in Europe, Brazil, and the U.S.A., where she died. Her great love of children, who were the main preoccupation of her life and whom she both understood and respected; motherhood, and her lack of it; loss of people she loved; religious faith, tested and at times unorthodox, are other abiding themes. Her language is direct, passionate, rooted in local usage. The whole of her work, in prose as well as in verse, is a reflection of the absolute integrity of her life.

The intense desire for motherhood has perhaps been never expressed more divinely than in this poem. The poem is notable for what could almost be called a lyrical ”physiology of faith,” and Gabriela Mistral’s intensely sensual religious style is reminiscent of poems such as "Dark Night" of the 16th-century mystic poet St. John of the Cross.  Mistral’s insistence that the body plays a crucial role in the fullness of Christian life is clearly evoked in this prayer. 

The intelligence and passion of Le Guin's translation  allow us to hear the originality, power, purity, and intransigence of this great American voice. 

Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral [Paperback]
Gabriela Mistral (Author), Ursula K. LeGuin (Translator) .University of New Mexico Press; Bilingual edition (Feb 15 2011)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Vertical Poetry 

By Roberto Juarroz

Translated by Mary Crow

Born in Coronel Dorrego near Buenos Aires in 1929, Roberto Juarroz worked as a  professor of Library Science in University of Buenos Aires. Intensely withdrawn as a person and a philosophical thinker , he was the proponent of what he himself called "explosive poetry",  seeking pastures that  goes beyond conventional limits of poetry and language. Ocatvio Paz called him  one of the most distinguished of all Latin American poets. Paz wrote:" Each poem of Roberto Juarroz is a surprising verbal crystallization: language reduced to a bead of light. A major poet of absolute moments."  This is very true about the subject and form of his poetry as his poems speak about a speaker's momentary confrontation with some quandary conveying the brevity of the immediate. Juarroz's goal in poetry is "the recuperation of the instant". Juarroz's vertical poetry is wise and luminous. As the great Argentinian novelistJulio Cortazar rightly said,  "It's been a long time since I've read poems that have extended me and exalted me as his have."

Roberto Juarroz called his entire body of verse "vertical poetry" using this phrase as the title of every one of his books, each poem a fragment of verticality yet also fragment of the whole impossible to complete. "Vertical Poetry" plunges deep and soars high. For Juarroz, verticality presupposed "to break , go beyond the flattened dimension, the stereotypical , conventional, to search for the other." It is the opposite of horizontality, the space we see extending around us of the material world. He doesn't title any of his poems which adds to the sense that the poems form part of an ongoing flow. 

His typical poems, as seen below, are aphoristic, cast as a riddle or syllogism, mixing abstraction with concrete image. One can find a rare confluence emotion, intelligence and sensitivity here.  Autobiographical elements are absent in his poems and  he doesn't follow history or politics or a particular life . He tries to speak of an experience outside of ordinary time. Juarroz's poetry expresses a despair of human condition in its idea  that in each person there's a side that opens towards the void or abyss. His poems  attempt a view of the depths and the heights playfully so that we are prevented from feeling that we are being addressed by a self-proclaimed prophet. While sometimes the subject is God or the nature of the universe, the immediate focus is almost always on something small, a leaf or butterfly , and frequently the voice that speaks to us is bemused or quizzical , even when it tells us "We have no other remedy, then/but to be paradise".

Over his lifetime, the style of this poet never changed. Austere in language and generalized in imagery, his poems employ an interpersonal tone and archetypal sentiment . They have the spareness of haiku in their economy and simplicity of language, their reliance on images from nature and their Zen like serenity or playfulness.  However, unlike the haiku, Juarroz's poems present the interior world.

Poem 1

The most beautiful day
lacks something:
its dark side.
Only to a near-sighted god
could light by itself
appear beautiful.

Beside any Let there be light!,
Let there be darkness!
should also be said.

We don't arrive
at necessary night by omission only.

Poem 2

Night shuts down sometimes
like blocks of stone
and leaves us without space.
My hand then can no longer touch you
to defend us from death
and I can't even touch myself
to defend us from absence.
A vein that springs up in that same stone
separates me from my own thought too.
Thus night is converted
into our first tomb.

Poem 3

Now I can only wear old shoes.
The road I follow
wears shoes out from the first step.

But only old shoes
don't despise my road
and only they can arrive
where my road arrives.

After that,
you have to continue barefoot.

Poem 4

An arrow pierces the universe.
It doesn't matter who shot it.
It crosses equally fluid and solid,
visible and invisible .
Trying to figure out where it's going would be
 like imagining a wall around nothing

Arrow from the anonymous to the anonymous,
from a void that isn't its origin
toward another void that isn't its destination.
movement not resembling movement
but ecstasy constantly renewed.

I find the arrow in your hand
or you find it my thought.
I can see it entering a cloud,
cutting a bird in two,
emerging from flowers and rains,
splitting a blindness,
penetrating the dead.

Perhaps its model anonymity
summons us to our own anonymity,
to be able also to liberate ourselves
from our beginning and our end.
(for Laura)

Poem 5

He drew windows everywhere.
On walls too high,
on walls too low,
on blunt walls, in corners,
on air and even on roofs.

He drew windows as if drawing birds.
On the floor, on nights,
on glances tangibly deaf,
on death's outskirts,
on tombs, trees.

He drew windows even on doors.
But he never drew a door.
He didn't want to enter or leave.
He knew one can't.
He only wanted to see: to see.

He drew windows.

From : Vertical Poetry: Last Poems by Roberto Juarroz. Translated by Mary Crow. Publisher - White Pine Press

Sunday, August 12, 2012


by Jaime Sabines

Jaime Sabines was  one of Mexico's most outstanding poets. Jaime Sabines Gutiérrez was born in 1926 in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, to a Lebanese immigrant father who arrived in Mexico from Cuba, and a Chiapan mother.  He came to Mexico City in 1945, where he studied philosophy and letters at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Beginning with the slim volume Horal in 1950 and concluding with Otros poemas sueltos (Other Assorted Poems) (1973-1993), Sabines published ten collections of poetry that have been translated into many languages and that earned him widespread critical acclaim and virtually all of his country’s major literary awards and honours. 

Curiously, though, for a poet who shunned publicity and studiously avoided conventional intellectual circles, Sabines was a wildly popular figure in his native Mexico, where his rare public appearances drew hundreds of readers, prompting Elena Poniatowska to declare that “he brought poetry to the streets.”  Émile Martel, Canadian author  and Sabines translator (into Québécois French)  describes an experience of witnessing the poet perform at the Guadalajara Book Fair in 1995: “During the fair, Sabines had a reading; there was such an overflowing crowd in the lecture hall that the reading was broadcast on large screens and hundreds and hundreds of people gathered to watch him. I remember distinctly mouths moving when he read ‘Los amorosos.’ A living classic, I thought.” As a further indication of Sabines’s popularity, “Los amorosos” (“The Lovers”), the title of perhaps his most celebrated poem, also provides the title for a  Mexican movie inspired by the poet’s work and set in his beloved Chiapas. 

This enormous popular appeal derives in part from his ability to communicate universal truths in an original and accessible, authentically Mexican colloquial utterly without pretensions. By contrast, the poetry of Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz, while attractive to fellow intellectuals, is regarded by many Mexican readers as abstruse and esoteric, the product of a tenured mind. Dubbed “The Sniper of Literature” by Cuban poet Roberto Fernández Retamar, Sabines writes verse that is shockingly direct, often sardonic and irreverent, at times brutal: “There is a way/ for you to make me/ perfectly happy,/ dearest: drop dead.” He can be morbid, and autobiographical to the point where the reader senses instinctively that Sabines the poet and the man are in fact one and the same person. In his Introduction to this book in the original Spanish, the Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti writes: “Sabines opens his intimacy, reveals his contradictions without false modesty...This pleases and shocks the reader...Sabines is almost shameless in his sincerity. His contradictions are not pretences but vital paradoxes, junctions where he confronts heart and soul. This is why they affect us so deeply, why they call to us and give rise to doubts, why they become intersections and perplexities that we feel as our own.” 

Sabines wrote about everyday themes (love, death, social unrest, existential anxiety), people (us—the lovers), and places (hospitals, bars, parks, rooming houses, brothels). For over two decades he earned his living selling cloth in his brother Juan’s store in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. He later sold animal feed to buyers in Mexico City before being elected to the federal legislature from 1976 to 1979 and again from 1988 to 1991. But if the quotidian struggles of working life coloured and informed his poems, strangely, for a two-term politician who identified with the ideals of the Cuban Revolution and thought capitalism had failed, he wrote few overtly political poems, and saw no contradiction between his working and his writing lives: “Poetry happens like an accident, a mugging, a love affair, a crime; it happens every day, when, alone, a man’s heart begins to think about life.” 

Beyond being a truly popular poet, he received almost universal critical acclaim for his work. “One of the finest contemporary poets of our language,” Octavio Paz said of him as early as 1972; and in 1983, when Sabines received the National Prize for Literature (Mexico’s highest literary award), the Nobel laureate added, “His intense personal opus is in my view among the most important in Latin America and the Spanish language.” José Emileo Pacheco, himself one of Mexico’s foremost poets, counted Sabines’s poems “among the finest of his language and of his times,” while Mario Benedetti regarded him as “one of the indispensible poets, not merely of Mexico but of all Latin America and the Spanish language.”

Given below are two different translations of his famous poem "The Lovers". Carberry's translation captures the spirit of the Sabines better than Merwin .


Translated by Colin Carberry

The lovers fall silent.
Love is the finest, the most shuddering,
the most unendurable, silence.
The lovers seek,
they are the ones who relinquish,
those who change, who forget.
Their hearts tell them that what they look for,
what they seek, they will not find.

The lovers go around like lunatics
because they are alone, alone, alone;
yielding, giving themselves up at every turn,
crying because they can’t hold on to their love.
Love obsesses them. The lovers live
for today; knowing little else, it’s all they can do.
They are always going,
forever heading elsewhere.
They wait—
for nothing, but they wait.
For what they know they’ll never find.
Love is a perpetual prolongation,
always the next, no, the following, step.
The lovers are incorrigible,
those who always—good for them!—have to be alone.

With serpents for arms, the lovers
are the hydra of the tale;
their neck-veins, too, swell up, serpent-
like, in order to throttle them.
The lovers cannot sleep,
for if they did the worms would devour them.

They open their eyes in the darkness
and terror seizes them.

They see scorpions beneath the sheets
and their bed floats as though on a lake.

The lovers are mad, stone mad,
forsaken of God and Satan.

Trembling and famished,
the lovers come out of their caves
to hunt ghosts.
They laugh at those who know everything,
at those who love forever, heart and soul,
those who believe in love as in a lamp filled with inexhaustible oil.

The lovers play at gathering water,
at tattooing smoke, at going nowhere;
they play the long, sorrowful game of love.
You don’t have to give in;
no one has to give in, they say.
The thought of conforming with anything mortifies them.

Hollowed out (picked clean from one rib to the next),
Death gradually distills behind their eyes,
and they cry and wander, adrift, until daybreak,
when trains and roosters bid their painful farewell.

Sometimes, the smells of damp earth, of women
who sleep, soothed, a hand between their thighs,
of trickling water, and of kitchens, reaches them,
and the lovers begin to sing between pursed lips
a song never learned.
And they go on crying, crying for
this beautiful life.


Translated by W.S. Merwin

The lovers say nothing.
Love is the finest of the silences,
the one that trembles most and is hardest to bear.
The lovers are looking for something.
The lovers are the ones who abandon,
the ones who change, who forget.
Their hearts tell them that they will never find.
They don't find, they're looking.

The lovers wander around like crazy people
because they're alone, alone,
surrendering, giving themselves to each moment,
crying because they don't save love.
They worry about love. The lovers
live for the day, it's the best they can do, it's all they know.
They're going away all the time,
all the time, going somewhere else.
They hope,
not for anything in particular, they just hope.
They know that whatever it is they will not find it.
Love is the perpetual deferment,
always the next step, the other, the other.
The lovers are the insatiable ones,
the ones who must always, fortunately, be alone.

The lovers are the serpent in the story.
They have snakes instead of arms.
The veins in their necks swell
like snakes too, suffocating them.
The lovers can't sleep
because if they do the worms eat them.

They open their eyes in the dark
and terror falls into them.

They find scorpions under the sheet
and their bed floats as though on a lake.

The lovers are crazy, only crazy
with no God and no devil.

The lovers come out of their caves
trembling, starving,
chasing phantoms.
They laugh at those who know all about it,
who love forever, truly,
at those who believe in love as an inexhaustible lamp.

The lovers play at picking up water,
tattooing smoke, at staying where they are.
They play the long sad game of love.
None of them will give up.
The lovers are ashamed to reach any agreement.

Empty, but empty from one rib to another,
death ferments them behind the eyes,
and on they go, they weep toward morning
in the trains, and the roosters wake into sorrow.

Sometimes a scent of newborn earth reaches them,
of women sleeping with a hand on their sex, contented,
of gentle streams, and kitchens.

The lovers start singing between their lips
a song that is not learned.
And they go on crying, crying
for beautiful life.

From: Love Poems (Biblioasis International Translation Series) [Paperback]
Jaime Sabines (Author), Colin Carberry (Translator). Introduction of the poet is drawn from Carberry's preface.

Pieces of Shadow: Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines [Paperback] Jaime Sabines (Author), W. S. Merwin (Author, Translator), Mario Del Valle (Introduction). Publisher: Marsilio Pub (April 1996)

Saturday, August 11, 2012


By San Juan de la Cruz

Translated by Willis Barnstone


  On a dark secret night,
starving for love and deep in flame,
  O happy lucky flight!
  unseen I slipped away,
my house at last was calm and safe.

  Blackly free from light,
disguised and down a secret way,
  O happy lucky flight!
  in darkness I escaped,
my house at last was calm and safe.

  On that happy night—in
secret: no one saw me through the dark—
  and I saw nothing then,
  no other light to mark
the way but fire pounding my heart.

  That flaming guided me
more firmly than the noonday sun,
  and waiting there was he
  I knew so well—who shone
where nobody appeared to come.

  O night, my guide!
O night more friendly than the dawn!
  O tender night that tied
  lover and the loved one,
loved one in the lover fused as one!

  On my flowering breasts
Which I had saved for him alone,
  he slept and I caressed
  and fondled him with love,
and cedars fanned the air above.

  Wind from the castle wall
while my fingers played in his hair:
  its hand serenely fell
  wounding my neck, and there
my senses vanished in the air.

  I lay. Forgot my being,
and on my love I leaned my face.
  All ceased. I left my being,
  leaving my cares to fade
among the lilies far away.

San Juan de la Cruz or John of the Cross (1542-91) is one of the towering saints in Christian history and often considered, even by secular poets and scholars, to be the loftiest Spanish-language poet ever. Jorge Luis Borges in his "This craft of verse" extolled him as the greatest of all men who used Spanish language for the purpose of poetry. He is also regarded as Catholicism’s “greatest mystical theologian” and his prose works display a remarkably wise understanding of various extremely subtle nuances of psychological and spiritual development. It is said that “no other writer has had greater influence on Catholic spirituality.”

St. John was born in a small community near Ávila. His father died when he was young, and so John, his two older brothers and his widowed mother struggled with poverty, moving around and living in various Castilian villages, with the last being Medina del Campo, to which he moved in 1551. There he worked at a hospital and studied the humanities at a Society of Jesus (Jesuit) school from 1559 to 1563.

John was ordained a priest in 1567, and then indicated his intent to join the strict Carthusian order, which appealed to him because of its encouragement of solitary and silent contemplation. Before this, however, he travelled to Medina del Campo, where he met the charismatic Teresa de Jesús. She immediately talked to him about her reformation projects for the Carmelite order, and asked to delay his entry into the Carthusians. The following year, on 28 November, he started this reformation and John, still in his 20s, continued to work as a helper of Teresa until 1577, founding monasteries around Spain and taking active part in their government. These foundations and the reformation process were resisted by a great number of Carmelite friars, some of whom felt that Teresa's version of the order was too strict.

On the night of 2 December 1577, John was taken prisoner by his superiors in the calced Carmelites, who had launched a counter-program against John and Teresa's reforms. John was jailed in Toledo, where he was kept under a brutal regimen that included public lashing before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell barely large enough for his body. He managed to escape nine months later, on 15 August 1578, through a small window in a room adjoining his cell. In the meantime, he had composed a great part of his most famous poems  including  "Dark Night" published here. His harsh sufferings and spiritual endeavors are reflected in all of his subsequent writings.

After returning to a normal life, he went on with the reformation and the founding of monasteries for the new Discalced Carmelite order, which he had helped found along with his fellow St. Teresa de Ávila.He died on 14 December 1591, of erysipelas. His writings were first published in 1618, and he was canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726.

While a reader may identify the stages of the mystical experience in "Dark Night", which is San Juan’s most coherent allegory of it, he may  read the poem simply as an erotic love poem, where the lovers join in sexual union (The spiritual  marriage) , a poem which because of its intense drama, beauty, and rapture brings us, at least emotionally, to a level of ecstasy which is implicit in the mystical experience. But this is secular, not religious, mysticism, if we must use the word ‘mysticism.” In "Dark Night", perhaps the greatest of San Juan's poems,  the text alone does not provide us with certain basic characteristics of the mystical experience, such as total self-detachment from the senses, a rising toward the godhead, a dying in life from time and space; these attributes are stated in his minor poems. A spiritual reader  cannot read this poem without being aware of San Juan’s spiritual intention—the darkness and light are there and they enhance the total effect; at the same time the darkness, light, and union of lovers are presented so faithfully that the immediate meaning of the words dominates their allegorical intent. "Dark Night" is a glorification of human love of the divine as much as an intimate description of sexual union and the beauty of human tenderness of two lovers.

 From: The Poems of St. John of the Cross [Paperback] Willis Barnstone (Translator). Publisher-New Directions(January 17, 1972). ISBN-10: 0811204499