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

Friday, August 10, 2012

Three Poems of T'ao Yuan-ming (T'ao Ch'ien)

Translated by  Burton Watson

The great Chinese poet T'ao Yuan-ming (365-427. Also known as T'ao Ch'ien ) , the extoller of the delights of country life, was  one of the finest of all Pre-Tang Chinese poets.

He represented both the old and new in an era of China that saw years of war and chaos. He lived in the period of disunity  known as six Dynasties, when northern China was in the hands of non-Chinese leaders, and south, where T'ao lived , was ruled by a succession of weak and short lived dynasties that had their capital at the present-day city of Nanking. Tao Chien was well educated in the classics of Confucianism and Taoism, and later in life he may have befriended a local Buddhist figure long before Buddhism was significant in China. But T'ao Ch'ien is chiefly remembered not for his breadth of knowledge but for his unique voice as a poet of transition and reclusion.

T'ao's career as a "scholar-gentleman" or government official, clashed with his propensity for solitude, and he became a recluse in the Chinese manner, in a rural area with his family. As a poet he projects warmth, humanity, and personal vulnerability. His poems also reflects the unease and anxiety that beset Chinese society at that time.  Unlike most of his contemporaries and predecessors, whole poetry was marked by ornate diction and elaborate rhetorical devices, he wrote in plain and simple style.

The details of T'ao Yuan-ming's  life are simple. The family was poor but well-educated. His mother died when he was very young. He began a career in government bureaucracy and eventually quit to return home, refusing many later calls to an alternative post. T'ao Yuan married, had children, and determined to pursue a life of self-sufficiency as a recluse and farmer. But after a fire destroyed his ancestral home, poverty dogged him. Farming was exhausting work and he grew thin and sickly. Still Tao refused job offers from old government acquaintances. For a while he gave in and served a military post, then a brief stint as town magistrate. But this did not last long. T'a Yuan's  two episodes of withdrawal from service are described in his most celebrated poems, "Return Home" and "Returning to Live in the Country," the latter a series of five poems on reclusion. 

Many of his poems describe the quiet joys of country life, though others speaks of famine, drought and similar hardships. The Taoist side of the poet's nature no doubt told him he should be content with such a life of seclusion, but his dedication to Confucian ideals kept him longing for the less troubled times of the past when virtue prevailed and a scholar could in good conscience take an active part in affairs of state. There is overall ambiguity in his poetry-exclamations upon the beauties of nature and the freedom and peace of rustic life, set unceasingly alongside confessions of loneliness, frustration, and fear, particularly fear of death. He was at once loyal to friends and family, skeptical philosophically, a realist about daily life and its hardships, but also rueful and wistfully romantic in his struggle to be worthy of the hermits and sages of the past. He sought solace in his lute, his books, and above all in wine, about half of his poems mentioning his fondness for "the thing in the cup". though in one of his poems he wrote depicting his own funeral, he declares that he was never able to get enough of it (See Poem in the Form of a Coffin-Puller's Song, No.1).

Given below are three poems of T'ao Yuan-ming .

Returning to my Home in the Country, No. 1

In youth  I couldn't sing to the common tune;
it was my nature to love the mountains and the hills.
By mistake I got caught in the dusty snare,
wet away once and stayed thirteen years
The winging bird longs for its old woods,
the fish in the pond thinks of the deeps it once knew.
I've opened up some waste land by the southern fields;
stupid as ever, I've come home to the country.
My house plot measures ten mou or more,
a grass roof covering eight or nine spans.
Elm and willow shade the back eaves,
peach and plum ranged in front of the hall.
Dim dim, a village of distant neighbors;
drifting, drifting, the smoke from settlements.
A dog barks in the deep lanes,
chicken call from the top of mulberry trees.
Around my door and courtyard, no dust or clutter;
in my empty rooms, leisure enough to spare.
After so long in that cage of mine,
I've come back to things as they are.

(PS: Thirteen years refer to his official career . mou is land measure)

Reading The Classics of Hills and Seas

(1st in a set of thirteen poems)
Start of summer, grass and trees grow tall;
their leafy branches wrap around my roof.
Flocks of birds delight to find a place to rest,
and I in like manner love my hut.
I've finished plowing , done the planting too;
time now to return to my books.
A cramped lane far from the deep wheel tracks,
but once in a while an old friend turns his carriage here;
we talk together happily, dipping spring wine,
while I pick some greens from my garden.
A fine rain comes from the east,
pleasant breezes along with it.
I browse enough the tale of the Chou king,
let my eyes wander over pictures of hills and seas.
In the space of a nod I've toured the universe-
how could I be other than happy?

(PS: The Classics of Hills and Seas, an early Chinese book on geography containing legends and accounts of strange creatures. AS we see in the poem , T'ao's edition included illustrations. Tale of Chou King was an early work describing the fantastic travels of the ancient KIng MU of the Chou dynasty)

Poem in the Form of a Coffin-Puller's Song, No.1

What has a life must have a death;
an early end doesn't mean the lifespan's been shortened.
Last evening I was the same as other people;
this morning I'm listed in the roster of the dead.
When soul and breath scatter, where do they go,
when the wasted form's consigned to hollow wood?
My little boy, wailing, searches for his father;
my close friends caress me and mourn.
I know nothing now of gain or loss;
how could I distinguish right from wrong?
A thousand autumns, ten thousand years after,
who'll know if I lived in glory or disgrace?
I only regret that while I was in the world
I never got to drink enough wine!

From : The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry [Paperback] Burton Watson (Editor) Columbia University Press (April 15, 1984). ISBN-10: 0231056834

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Love After Love

By Derek Walcott

 Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott is the recipient of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature. Born in Castries, Saint Lucia, the West Indies, on January 23, 1930, he  published  his first poem, "1944" when he was fourteen years old, and consisted of 44 lines of blank verse. By the age of nineteen, Walcott had self published two volumes of poetry.. He later attended the University of the West Indies, having received a Colonial Development and Welfare scholarship.

In 1957, he was awarded a fellowship by the Rockefeller Foundation to study the American theater. Since then, he has published numerous collections of poetry, most recently White Egrets (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010).

About his work, the poet Joseph Brodsky said, "For almost forty years his throbbing and relentless lines kept arriving in the English language like tidal waves, coagulating into an archipelago of poems without which the map of modern literature would effectively match wallpaper. He gives us more than himself or 'a world'; he gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the language."

"Love After Love" by Derek Walcott is about something that's become very pop-culturish, loving yourself after a break-up. It  is beautifully written and it has an affirming quality without being sentimental. It is about meeting 'self'. Everyone has  a self that he  presents to the world, his  persona I guess, but he has  also ' a true self'. This real self  lies beneath the masks that we put on to lead our public life. In the hectic humdrum life we lead , we forget that these masks that we put on for other people are not our true versions at all. This poem is about rediscovering our true selves. When we finally encounter our true selves in all its nakedness,  we will greet ourselves with elation. it is only then that we can truly be ourselves. We can sit and feast on our lives, look with love admiration and without judgment on our lives, on ourselves. Because when we meet our true self , we go past ego, we can just simply Be. The poem inspires the lost souls to regain themselves, for life is not over. 

It is a poem that calls for self-appreciation over loving another. The first lines themselves should not be interpreted in a completely literal way, after all, the idea that a person would invite their own carbon copy over for dinner is not only odd, but disturbingly creepy. Instead, these lines should be read as full of metaphors. For instance, the "door" that a person might greet themselves at might be the door to their soul, or the door to their mind, rather than a literal front door. It could also be a door to new beginnings, following the traditional saying: "when one door closes, another one opens."

The "mirror" that a person owns represents not only a literal mirror (staring and appreciating the mirror image), but also the "mirror" to a person's soul. In addition, mirrors can be two-sided, and so for those who stare too long at one side (or one "love"), Walcott beckons to look into the other, thus giving proper attention not only to one's self but to another if possible. Moreover, appreciating the self more than others can in some senses create a two-way mirror between a person and their own image, enhancing the appreciation even further. Finally, it could be that a person used to stand in the way of one's "image", but now that they are "out of the picture" (to sprout another overused phrase), the "mirror" is clearer than ever.

In the second stanza, Walcott continues this fantasy of dining with one's own self: "and say, sit here. Eat. / You will love again the stranger who was your self. / Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart / to itself, to the stranger who has loved you" (6-9). The mention of wine and bread at this dinner is important because they can be viewed in a religious sense. Since the bread and wine can represent the body and blood of Jesus, Walcott's use of them here can be read as fulfilling one's self. That is, Walcott encourages these dishes at the dinner with one's self, because they are imbued by Jesus, they are spiritually fulfilling, and thus the imbiber is fulfilling themselves.

In addition, Walcott's emphasis on the "stranger who was" warns readers that loving another can break down the appreciation a person has for themselves, and thus the title becomes a bit clearer. With the idea of "Love after Love", this piece is just as much about forgetting a previous love, or "getting over" them, as it about loving one's self (as a method of forgetting and as another form of love).

The fourth and fifth stanzas capitalize on this idea: "Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, / the photographs, the desperate notes, / peel your own image from the mirror" (12-14). Walcott urges readers to not only figuratively forget previous flames (by devoting time to one's self), but to also literally go through the process of forgetting a past relationship by removing memories or symbols of the person (notes and photographs). Walcott then states that readers are to symbolically re-capture their lost "stranger" (self) from the "mirror" of the previous lines. 

Walcott finishes his piece by declaring that it is best to: "Sit. Feast on your life" (15). The imagery of the self for Walcott is not only a useful tool for overcoming past relationships, but it is an actual method of sustenance. Perhaps this poem is an expression of Walcott's lost love and recovery. It expresses his belief that people look for affection outside of themselves for so long that they forget that true solace can be found by turning to oneself and having faith in oneself. In his opinion, it is vital that we look within ourselves to find contentment, otherwise life will be filled with hurt and grief.  It could, of course, express also the post-colonial experience of rediscovering one's cultural identity. So many of us have put our lives on the backburner and even when there no longer is any need to do so, continue to exist in that mode. Some will go through the elation of 'greeting' themselves again. Like all good poetry, this one spans the personal and impersonal; the finite and the infinite.

Along with the spiritual sustenance from bread and wine, Walcott views the self as fulfillment and a proper method to regain vitality after a love is lost. Overall, Walcott has a truly inspirational piece here, offering not only benefits for the "stranger" who is forgotten, but also for the one who has forgotten the stranger. Finally it is about our resiliency to find ourselves after being lost or in great pain and the joy of knowing you are once again yourself.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Two Poems of Olga Orozco

By Olga Orozco

Translated by Mary Crow

The Stranger 

He passed among you,
people kindly as the fire's warmth in a neighboring hut.
But what was your accent except a jagged dagger quivering
     in the depth of his breast? He watched you pass,
days drowsy as beasts in humble pastures.
But what was your peace except sand burning under his eyelids?
Far away the wind blew leaving no cheeks salty.
Far away a place exists for his shade beside the fresh shades
     of his ancestors. 
Far away he will be the absent one less absent now.
Oh, dry your tears 
that do not quench the thirst of the stranger.
Keep your prayers:
he didn't ask for love or any other heavenly exile.
And let earth lift up its lullabies like an insulted stepmother:
"I bear a heart as harsh and angry as the leaf of the fig tree."


Sometimes it was only a call of sand on the windows,
grass in the still meadow suddenly trembling,
a transparent body that softly passed through the walls
leaving an icy glow in my eyes,
or sometimes only the sound of a stone rolling
    over midnight’s unspeakable darkness;
sometimes, only the wind.

I recognized in these things distant messengers
from a land submerged with the world
under my forehead’s high shadows.
Perhaps I had loved them under another sky,
but solitude, ruins, and silence remained always the same.
Later, in the growing night,
I looked from above at the bent head of a woman dressed in sorrow
who walked through all her ages as if through a garden
formerly loved.

At path’s end, before the sleeping plains began,
a memorable shimmer, barely a pale and cruel color,
hid her goodbye;
and, beyond, she recognized nothing.

Who were you, woman lost among foliage like earlier springtimes,
like someone who returns from time to repeat her cries,
desires, slow gestures with which yesterday she half-opened her days?

My soul, only you.

You appeared in my life as if in a distant music,
forever enveloping,
suspended from who knows what wall of tender homelessness,
listening to the leaves’ stifled murmur over my sleepy youth,
and you chose the sad, the hushed, all that is born beneath oblivion.
In what corner of yourself,
in what deserted corridor do the clamorous steps of a happy season
murmur of water in some meadow prolonging the sky,
hopeful song with which dawn ran to meet us,
and also words, no doubt as distant from the special place,
and in which the impossible was dying?

You don’t respond at all, because any answer from you
  has already been given.

Perhaps you’ve lived everything, that burned,
leaves only dust of undying sadness,
or greets in you, through memory,
an eternal home simultaneously welcoming and abandoning us.

You don’t ask anything, ever, because there’s no one to answer you now.

But, over the hills,
your sister, memory, a young branch still in her hands,
tells once more the unfinished story of a misty country.

Olga Orozco (1920-1999) (real name Olga Noemí Gugliotta) was an Argentine poet born in Toay, La Pampa. She spent her childhood in Bahía Blanca until she was 16 years old and she moved to Buenos Aires with her parents where she initiated her career as a writer.

Orozco directed some literary publications using some pseudonymous names while she worked as a journalist. She was a member of so-called «Tercera Vanguardia» generation, which had a strong surrealist tendency . Her poetic works were influenced by Rimbaud, Nerval, Baudelaire, Miłosz and Rilke. She died in 1999 in Buenos Aires at the age of 79.

OIga Orozco’s poetic voice is as recognizable and unique as a fingerprint. No other poet anywhere in the world has a voice which sounds like hers. In a language that is a torrent of words, passionate and yearning, stumbling and pleading, Orozco’s poems pour out an image-laden vision. Her poems seem to be called forth by shaman powers, out of a magical realm where primitive ritual, fairy tale, chaos, and nightmare mingle. Elements of the modern world float with fragments of dreams and tags of childhood recollections, making readers feel both dizzy and at home. Hers is a search for meaning and identity. Written in free verse, Orozco’s poetry maintains as Jil Kuhnheim has  said “a quality of ceremonial orality, making it a kind of ritualization of speech”.  

Olga Orozco was one of the most obsessive of contemporary poets, returning again and again to certain themes, images, and words, and mulling over the significance of her experience as if she were a cabbalist reading the book of life and giving us her interpretations. Embedded in these interpretations we discover many events from Orozco’s life even though her poems appear focused on a cosmic rather than a human realm. Simply put, Orozco was a thoroughly human poet in her suffering and in her passionate complaints and celebrations. As Venezuelan poet Juan Liscano has noted, “She’s standing at the limit where night and day are confused, when it’s dawn or dusk that’s growing blue, as if an apparition from the beyond were drawing near, or a character from close by were stealing away.”

But where she is “standing” in her poems is less a physical place than an interior space with the abyss around it, a place that is only one of the reoccurring “realities” in Orozco’s poems. Another reality is the speaker’s alternation between self as subject and object, or the dual selves in the poems, often wrestling with each other as she speaks through the “I” of the poem and also to a “you” who is beside or inside the “I.” At times this struggle is located in the body, which is presented in Orozco’s poetry as fragmented, inadequate, and with a will of its own which the “I” has difficulty directing. At other times the struggle seems to move out into the invisible world.

Or, again, Orozco locates the struggle in language which slips and slides in its torrent of several levels of meaning; it is a language that is veiled, embodying secrets and labyrinths. Thus, the intelligence speaking in a poem is confronted by many kinds of difficulties as she addresses her own internal split, the unknowable nature of the world she occupies, her sense of the fragmentation of her body, and her struggle to create meaning with words that may be decorations or signals or signs. Nonetheless, the poems, embedded in a dense imagery based in the phenomena of the physical world but giving rise to the visionary, represent the courage of the speaker’s ongoing struggle and her plunge into that abyss where the struggle takes place and where poems arise.

The above poems are representative of her interior landscape.

 From:Engravings Torn from Insomnia  By Olga Orozco. Translated by Mary Crow. BOA Editions, Ltd Rochester

Sunday, August 5, 2012


By Cesare Pavese

Cesare Pavese-poet,novelist,diarist-was among the greatest Italian writers of the twentieth century. Pavese was born in 1908 on his family's farm in the small community of Santo Stefano Belbo. His father was a judge in nearby Turin, a man of probity and some distinction who died while Cesare was six and still too young to have strongly felt his intellectual influence. The mother was inured to loss, having seen her first three children die in infancy. She brought up Cesare and his older sister, Maria, with unflinching discipline and devotion but she was not a demonstrative woman. This lack of warmth, of tangible affection in his early years, had a lasting effect on the tense, withdrawn boy who sought all his life--and without success--for a woman's love he could call his own.

He was a lean, dark-haired boy with prominent features and observant, questing eyes. An inherited eye weakness plagued him and he resented the fact that his waking hours had to be spent behind thick glasses. He also suffered acutely from asthma. Even as a child, he was shy and at times sullen. He spoke little, loved the outdoors, and read voraciously whether in town during the school year or in the country, at Santo Stefano, during vacations where he was to spend two crucial years of the Second World War.

During the school year, he attended the Liceo Massimo d'Azeglio and then went on to study literature at the University. In his last year in school, two of his closest friends killed themselves and Pavese's already heightened sense of the impermanence of man upon the earth received firsthand confirmation that shook his sensitive nature profoundly. He was literally obsessed with suicide from the age of eighteen, as the many entries in the Journal show. There are also many references to man's right to take his own life in his  many novels

After University, Pavese threw himself into all manner of literary work, from producing his own poems, stories, and novels, to translating and editing English literature. While at the University, Pavese had become close friends with Professor Leone Ginzburg, teacher, writer and anti-Fascist journalist, and with the writer and editor, Giulio Einaudi, who founded the Einaudi publishing firm in 1933. Denied an outlet for his creative powers by Fascist control of literature, Pavese translated many 20th-century U.S. writers in the 1930s and ’40s: Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner; Herman Melville (one of his first translations was of Moby Dick); and the Irish novelist James Joyce. Pavese often plunged into the writings of mid nineteenth century America for sustenance and inspiration. His doctoral dissertation was on Whitman and, though politically a tactless choice, the work attracted the highest praise.

In spring, 1935, Pavese's rooms were raided by the Fascist police--their superiors having been incensed by the quietly explicit attacks on the regime he published in the review, La Cultura, which he had edited for some months. He was given a summary hearing and convicted. Sentenced to a year's imprisonment, he was released after ten months and, on his release, he found a position waiting for him as editor in Einaudi publishing firm. He was to hold this post until his death and he became an exemplary editor in the best American tradition.

In 1949,  Pavese met and fell in love with Constance Dowling, an American actress, but after a year their time with each other was clearly at an end. In 1950 Pavese stood at the zenith of his literary career, widely lauded on all sides and acclaimed as one of the two greatest living Italian authors, and awarded the Strega Prize  in June; two months later, on August 27, he was discovered dead in his hotel room, having administered to himself a fatal dose of sleeping pills. His diary, which he apparently intended for posthumous publication, indicated that he had been devastated by his failure with Dowling, and took it as a sign that he would never find happiness in marriage, or among people under any circumstances. He was two weeks away from his forty-second birthday.

I have posted below  a beautiful poem translated by two eminent translators. The atmospheric creation that Pavese slowly builds in this one immerses us in it  and one can  visualize the fog invading the city from the River Po in Turin. The descriptions are set against an evanescent background of mist and many things are felt behind the scenes and incidents treated in a broadly naturalistic manner.The poem also dwells on the therapeutic power of nature with a tone of nostalgia.


 Translated by  William Arrowsmith

Today's the day the fog lifts from the river

in the beautiful city among its fields and hills,

blurring it like a memory. The haze fuses

every green thing, but women in lively colors still

go strolling by. They pass in that white penumbra,

smiling: anything can happen on the street.

At times the air intoxicates.

                                                   The morning

will suddenly open wide on a spacious silence,

muffling every voice. Even the tramp,

who has no home, no city, drinks in that air, inhaling it

like a glass of grappa on an empty stomach.

Whether you're hungry or have been betrayed by the sweetest

mouth, it's worth your while just to go walking in that air,

feeling your faintest memories quicken as you breathe.

In that fog every street, every simple corner of a house

keeps a shiver from the past, an old trembling.

Once you feel it, you never forget it. You can't give up

your calm intoxication, made of things that come

from your germinating years, discovered by meeting

a house, a tree, an unexpected thought.

Even the workhorses plodding down the street

in the dawn fog will speak to you of then.

Or maybe a boy who ran away from home comes

home today – today when the fog lifts

across the whole river, and he forgets his whole life –

the hardships and the hunger and the broken promises –

as he stops at a corner to drink the morning air.

It's worth your while, coming home, even though you've changed.



Translated by Geoffrey Brock


This is the day the fog rises up from the river

into the beautiful city, surrounded by fields and hills,

and blurs it like memory. In this haze, all green

melts together, but still the bright-colored women

go walking. They walk through the white penumbra

smiling: anything’s possible here on the street.

You might get drunk on the air.

                                                    The morning

will burst suddenly open into a wide silence,

muffling each voice. And even the beggar,

with no home and no city, will inhale it,

like a glass of grappa on an empty stomach.

It's worth being hungry, worth being betrayed

by the sweetest mouth, if it gets you out into that sky,

where breath can bring back the slightest of memories.

The streets, the pure lines of the houses,

retain, in this fog, an ancient tremor:

you can't once you feel it, give up on yourself. You can't

give up the gentle intoxication that comes

from the things of a pregnant life, things discovered

as you meet a house, a tree, or a startling thought.

Even  the big horses, who will have passed,

at dawn, through the fog, will speak of it.

Or maybe a runaway boy will return

this very day to his home, as the fog rises

to cover the river. May be he'll forget his whole life,

the hard times, the hunger, the betrayals of trust,

as he stops on a corner, to drink in the morning.

It's worth going home-maybe everything's different.


                                   Pavese with Constance

From: Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950 (English and Italian Edition) [Paperback]
Cesare Pavese (Author)  Geoffrey Brock (Translator).Copper Canyon Press; 1St Edition edition (June 1, 2002). ISBN-10: 1556591748
Hard labor: Poems. Cesare Pavese (Author) . Arrowsmith, William (Translator). Grossman Publishers (1976)