Four poems by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez, translated by Wendy Call.
I first discovered the work of indigenous Zapotec poet José Alfredo Escobar Martínez in a Mexico City literary journal. I had lived for several years in the region he calls home, southern Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but had not encountered his poetry. In a special 2004 issue of Generación featuring more than a dozen Isthmus Zapotec writers, I found a single poem by Escobar Martínez. That poem flew off the page and followed me; it became the first poem I translated.
The Zapotecs have long been some of Mexico’s most celebrated writers, perhaps because their language was the first in the Americas to be written down. (The Maya probably got the idea of carving glyphs on stones from the Zapotecs.) Some anthropologists argue that the Zapotecs invented a complex iconography, not a complete writing system. Whatever it was, it arose about 2,500 years ago and endured until 800 CE. Linguists and archeologists are still trying to rediscover the mysteries of those glyphs, but Zapotec literary culture lives on, rendered in a transliterated Latinate script.
Four years after Escobar Martínez’s single poem in Generación entranced me, I finally made contact with the poet via email. Three years after that, we met in person for the first time, in his hometown of Espinal. Before that meeting, José Alfredo sent me a new cycle of poems, called Ripapa. Escobar Martínez writes in Spanish, including Zapotec words in his work. He explains the Zapotec title, Ripapa, as “que vuela, se agita, late.” In Mexican Spanish, as spoken on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, latir does not just mean “to beat” – as a heart or a pair of wings does, but also to have a hunch or a feeling about something. A sort of truth pulsing through one’s veins.
Translation is all about having hunches. Feelings about things. Just as I’d had about Escobar Martínez’s poetry from that first poem I saw on the pages of Generación.
His hometown, Espinal, is not a coastal village, but the image of the sea recurs in his poems. Only 120 miles separate the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans at the Mexican isthmus. This quirk of geography has impacted the region’s history and culture since long before the conquest. As with many Zapotec writers and artists, the relationship between the natural environment and the human psyche is paramount in Escobar Martínez’s work. In Zapotec cosmology, there is strong distinctions between the spheres of wild and tame. Human beings exist between the spheres of wild and tame, constantly feeling the tension between them
En el aire flota una sustancia
Que en el Istmo
Conocemos como ripapa
Da sustento a los pájaros
Y el que lo aspira le brotan alas.
A su solo nombre
Las muchachas casaderas se persignan
Ya que hace el corazon
*En zapoteco del Istmo: que vuela, se agita, late.
A substance floats in the air
That in the isthmus
We know as ripapa.
It sustains birds
And whoever inhales it sprouts wings.
Its mere name makes
Single young women cross themselves
Since it even migrates
To the heart.
*In Isthmus Zapotec : that which flies, flaps, beats.translated from Spanish by Wendy Call
En la soledad de las dunas
No es tanto lo que la palabra dice
Sino lo que calla.
Cuando digo mar
Callo las clorofilas del azul
Y la sombra del pez que me guarece.
En esta soledad de arena que es el mar Muerto,
Me da miedo nombrar la palabra,
No sea que me espine la lengua.
In the solitude of dunes
It is not so much what a word says
But what it silences.
When I say ocean
I silence the chorophylls of blue depths
And the fishy shadow that shelters me.
In this sandy solitude that is the Dead Sea,
I fear naming the word,
For my tongue might sting me.translated from Spanish by Wendy Call
La mar se desborda en sí misma.
Agobiada de su inmensidad
Procura desatar sus orillas
Y burlar el acecho de las olas
Como aquel barco,
En el horizonte.
The sea overflows its own shore.
Overwhelmed by its vastness
It strives to break past its shoreline
And mock threats of waves
And lose itself,
Like that ship,
On the horizon.translated from Spanish by Wendy Call
Dentro del ojo sucede la luz:
En esta hora del alba
Bucea en le agua salada del iris
Para arrojar al ahogado
En las orillas del día
Que se aproxima.
En las profundidades de su mirada
Penetra la aurora de los párpados
Asoman los anuncios
Que le dan vida a los sentidos
Y nos invitan
Light happens inside the eye:
At this dawning hour
It dives into iris brine
Casts out the drowned
Onto the fringes of day
In the depths of its gaze
It penetrates the eyelids’ halo
Giving life to senses
And invites us
To live.translated from Spanish by Wendy Call