keeping secrets, plotting murder,

Two Old English poems translated by Elijah John Petzold

These two Old English poem come from the Exeter Book, a hefty codex which preserves a large proportion of the Old English corpus. I’ve given them new names, drawn from phrases repeated in each poem. The traditional titles assigned to them—“The Wife’s Lament” and “The Husband’s Message”—suggest a parallelism not supported by the text: there’s no explicit connection between the poems, and the narratives, vague as they are, don’t seem to match up. As with several other Old English elegies, they do, however, describe feelings of love, loss, and longing across watery expanses. As both poems present significant interpretive issues, I’ve highlighted some particularly challenging elements. 

beneath an oak (The Wife’s Lament)

            The nebulous narrative of this poem has stumped generations of Anglo-Saxonists. Although elaborate theories abound, there’s nothing close to scholarly consensus on what exactly is going on. It’s clear enough that here a female speaker laments a tumultuous romantic past, but the sequence, location, and causality of the events remain murky. First, the beloved disappears, but then, we are told, his family connives to keep them apart. It’s unclear whether their scheming led to the beloved’s departure in the first place, or whether they took advantage of his departure to reinforce their separation. No sooner do we hear about the family, however, than they are out of the poem entirely, but it seems that the speaker has gone in search of her beloved and finds him changed: morose and murderous. He imprisons her in the earthen cave from which she tells her story, suggesting perhaps that he has murdered and buried her, leaving her waking ghost to mourn. I’m not entirely convinced of this, nor of any other theory that claims to conclusively explain the text beyond what is actually said. Although translation necessarily privileges some readings over others, I’ve tried to leave narrative possibilities open, rendering a poem that feels fragmentary, abrupt, elliptical: a long, traumatic memory distorted and elided by time and repetition.

in days gone by (The Husband’s Message)

            Interpreting this poem hinges on two related questions: who is speaking?, and what is the function of the runes? I’m quite certain our speaker is a piece of wood inscribed with runes, delivering a coded message to an absent lover. More than ninety verse riddles are interspersed throughout the Exeter Book, generally written in the voice of the riddle’s solution: an animal or inanimate object. The riddle immediately preceding the “The Husband’s Message” speaks of an object that talks without a mouth, is carved by a knife and a “prince’s mind,” and passes on a message that no one else can understand. “Rune-staff” seems the obvious answer. The riddle illuminates (and perhaps anticipates) “The Husband’s Message,” particularly the cryptic runic sign-off. The runes read S, R, EA, W, and M, but these don’t render any name or word. The runes’ names may provide a clue: Sigel, “sun”; Rad, “ride/path”; Ear, “earth” or “sea”; Wynn, “joy”; and Mann, “man/human.” Runologist Ralph Elliott has us construe these ideas together to find the epitome of the poem: “Follow the sun’s path south across the ocean to find joy with the man who is waiting for you.”[1] Tempting though it seems, I’m not inclined to presume anything. By design, the runes are untranslatable except to the lovers, whose private oaths of love in bygone days decipher the code.

—Elijah John Petzold


[Ic þis giedd wrece yes bi me ful geomorre,]

Ic þis giedd wrece yes bi me ful geomorre,

minre sylfre sið. Ic þæt secgan mæg,

hwæt ic yrmþa gebad, siþþan ic up aweox,

niwes oþþe ealdes, no ma þonne nu.

A ic wite wonn minra wræcsiþa.


Ærest min hlaford gewat heonan of leodum

ofer yþa gelac; hæfde ic uhtceare

hwær min leodfruma londes wære.

Ða ic me feran gewat folgað secan,

wineleas wræcca, for minre weaþearfe.


Ongunnon þæt þæs monnes magas hycgan

þurh dyrne geþoht, þæt hy todælden unc,

þæt wit gewidost in woruldrice

lifdon laðlicost, ond mec longade.


Het mec hlaford min her eard niman,

ahte ic leofra lyt on þissum londstede,

holdra freonda. Forþon is min hyge geomor.

Ða ic me ful gemæcne monnan funde,

heardsæligne, hygegeomorne,

mod miþendne, morþor hycgendne

bliþe gebæro. Ful oft wit beotedan

þæt unc ne gedælde nemne deað ana

owiht elles; eft is þæt onhworfen.

Is nu swa hit næfre wære

freondscipe uncer. Sceal ic feor ge neah

mines felaleofan fæhðu dreogan.


Heht mec mon wunian on wuda bearwe,

under actreo in þam eorðscræfe.

Eald is þes eorðsele, eal ic eom oflongad.


Sindon dena dimme, duna uphea,

bitre burgtunas, brerum beweaxne,

wic wynna leas. Ful oft mec her wraþe begeat

fromsiþ frean. Frynd sind on eorþan,

leofe lifgende, leger weardiað,

þonne ic on uhtan ana gonge

under actreo geond þas eorðscrafu

þær ic sittan mot sumorlangne dæg,

þær ic wepan mæg mine wræcsiþas,

earfoþa fela; forþon ic æfre ne mæg

þære modceare minre gerestan,

ne ealles þæs longaþes þe mec on þissum life begeat.


A scyle geong mon wesan geomormod,

heard heortan geþoht, swylce habban sceal

bliþe gebæro, eac þon breostceare,

sinsorgna gedreag. Sy æt him sylfum gelong

eal his worulde wyn, sy ful wide fah

feorres folclondes, þæt min freond siteð

under stanhliþe storme behrimed,

wine werigmod, wætre beflowen

on dreorsele. Dreogeð se min wine

micle modceare; he gemon to oft

wynlicran wic. Wa bið þam þe sceal

of langoþe leofes abidan.



beneath an oak

The Wife’s Lament

here’s a sad one about

where i’ve been. listen:

life’s been rough, but

never worse than now.

every step stings.


first he left, slipped to

sea. i worried watching dawn,

wondering where he went.

duty called. i followed,

left. lack exiled me.


his kin conspired,

darkly, to keep us

worlds apart.

and i longed.


he made me move here.

i have no friends—nothing

but a heavy heart.

mister right, i found,

was troubled, glum,

keeping secrets, plotting murder,

smiling. we swore

nothing—only death—

could divide us. it’s all fucked now.

it’s like it never happened—

our friendship. he hates me

—my love—wherever i go.


he sent me to the woods,

to a cave beneath an oak,

an old clay hall. and i long.


mountains climb, dimming valleys;

weeds seize towns left

empty. his absence

cripples me. the world’s lovers

live and sleep together

while i pace before dawn alone

in a cave beneath an oak,

where i sit summer-long days,

crying over

everything. worry 

keeps me up,

and longing, all this longing.


he’ll always be sad,

callous. maybe

he smiles, still he suffers—

always. whether

he has what he wants

or drifts outlawed, (i bet)

my old friend sits,

dreary, under rimed cliffs

in a flooded hall, tired. yes,

he suffers, remembering days

in the city. woe to those

who long for love.

translated from Old English by Elijah John Petzold


[Nu ic onsundran þe secgan wille]

Nu ic onsundran þe secgan wille

…… treocyn ic tudre aweox;

in mec æld… sceal ellor londes

settan…… sealte streamas

…sse. Ful oft ic on bates


þær mec mondryhten min……

ofer heah hafu. Eom nu her cumen

on ceolþele, ond nu cunnan scealt

hu þu ymb modlufan mines frean

on hyge hycge. Ic gehatan dear

þæt þu þær tirfæste treowe findest.


Hwæt, þec þonne biddan het se þisne beam agrof

þæt þu sinchroden sylf gemunde

on gewitlocan wordbeotunga,

þe git on ærdagum oft gespræcon,

þenden git moston on meoduburgum

eard weardigan, an lond bugan,

freondscype fremman. Hine fæhþo adraf

of sigeþeode. Heht nu sylfa þe

lustum læran þæt þu lagu drefde,

siþþan þu gehyrde on hliþes oran

galan geomorne geac on bearwe.

Ne læt þu þec siþþan siþes getwæfan,

lade gelettan lifgendne monn.

Ongin mere secan, mæwes eþel,

onsite sænacan, þæt þu suð heonan

ofer merelade monnan findest,

þær se þeoden is þin on wenum.


Ne mæg him worulde willa mara

on gemyndum, þæs þe he me sægde,

þonne inc geunne alwaldend god

þæt git ætsomne siþþan motan

secgum ond gesiþum s…

næglede beagas; he genoh hafað

fædan goldes …

geond elþeode eþel healde,

fægre foldan   …….

holdra hæleþa, þeah þe her min wine…….

nyde gebæded, nacan ut aþrong,

ond on yþa gelagu ana sceolde

faran on flotweg, forðsiþes georn,

mengan merestreamas. Nu se mon hafað

wean oferwunnen; nis him wilna gad,

ne meara ne maðma ne meododreama,

ænges ofer eorþan eorlgestreona,

þeodnes dohtor, gif he þin beneah.


Ofer eald gebeot incer twega,

gehyre ic ætsomne .ᛋ.ᚱ. geador

ᛠ.ᚹ. ond .ᛗ. aþe benemnan,

þæt he þa wære ond þa winetreowe

be him lifgendum læstan wolde,

þe git on ærdagum oft gespræconn.

in days gone by

The Husband's Message

now i’ll speak to you, apart.

i’m a twig, sprig, tree’s kid.

a man’s son somewhere else

set words on me, sent me

over salty streams. in boat’s

breast, i go

where my lord sends me,

across the deep. now i’m here,

off the ship, to hear,

in your heart’s heart, do you love

my lord? you’ll find—i dare swear—

faith rooted deeply there.


he carved this wood and had me bid

you, bejeweled, open thought’s box,

remember oaths

sworn in days gone by,

when you called the city home,

lived in one place, had your

friendship. bad blood

banished him. now follow him

—i’m to say—row ripples

when you hear cuckoo sing,

sad in the hillside grove.

let no one, no living soul,

change your path, check your course.

seek the sea, gulls’ domain,

board a ship ’til you find

your prince, south

overseas, expecting you.


he has one wish

—he told me so—nothing more:

that god almighty bring

you together,

sharing gifts, spangled rings

among friends. he has enough

polished gold.

he found home abroad,

good land,

and friends, but arrived

needy. eager, he launched,

into stormy seas,

followed ships’ road alone:

oars whisked seas. his woe’s now

done. he’ll lack nothing

noble in the world

—horses, cash, joy—

if he’s with you, princess.


about those old vows between you,

i think ᛋ with ᚱ, along with

ᛠ, ᚹ, and ᛗ swear this oath:

long as he lives, he’ll keep

love’s vows and oaths

sworn in days gone by.

translated from Old English by Elijah John Petzold

[1]Ralph W.V. Elliott,  Runes: An Introduction (Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1989), 90.

Finally then—but not until then

Two poems by Bragi Ólafsson translated by K. T. Billey


by Bragi Ólafsson

Loks þá – en ekki

fyrr en þá – í lok sumars,

þegar gröfurnar, sagirnar, borarnir og há-

þrýstidælurnar voru þagnaðar,


var hægt að fara út í garð

og setjast niður, eins og

upphaflega hafði staðið til

þegar við keyptum húsið. En þá var þegar


tekið að glitta í haustið,

sólin ekki eins hátt á lofti

og í byrjun júní,

þegar borarnir fóru af stað, þegar gröfunum


var ekið inn í garðana í nágrenninu,

sagirnar ræstar og háþrýsti

dælurnar stilltar

á hæstu stillingu.

The Silence

by Bragi Ólafsson

Finally then—but not

until then—at the end of summer,

when the excavators, saws, drills and high-pressure

pumps were silenced,


were we able to go out in the yard

and sit down, as we had

originally planned

when we bought the house. But then already


fall was beginning to settle in,

the sun not as high in the air

as in early June,

when the drills were switched on, and excavators


driven into the neighboring yards,

saws started up and high-pressure

pumps set

on the highest setting.

translated from Icelandic by K. T. Billey


by Bragi Ólafsson

Skip siglir frá landi.

Það fjarlægist eins og maður fjarlægist

mann: það verður minna

en það var


þegar það lá við höfnina,

og alltaf minna og minna

eftir því sem höfnin stækkar

og himinninn þrengir að því.


Svo lítið er það orðið

þegar hafsröndin mætir því

að hafi það haft einhverja von

er sú orusta töpuð – og það sekkur.

The Deep

by Bragi Ólafsson

A ship sails from land.

It moves away like people drift

apart: it becomes smaller

than it was


when it lay in the harbour,

and smaller and smaller still

as the harbour expands

and the sky narrows in.


So little has it become

when it meets the horizon

that if it ever had any hope

that battle is lost—and it sinks.

translated from Icelandic by K. T. Billey


Your dress soughs softly
On the spiral stairs

Four poems by Georg Trakl translated by Jay Hopler.

Im Herbst

by Georg Trakl

Die Sonnenblumen leuchten am Zaun,

Still sitzen Kranke im Sonnenschein.

Im Acker mühn sich singend die Frau’n,

Die Klosterglocken läuten darein.


Die Vögel sagen dir ferne Mär’,

Die Klosterglocken läuten darein.

Vom Hof tönt sanft die Geige her.

Heut keltern sie den braunen Wein.


Da zeigt der Mensch sich froh und lind.

Heut keltern sie den braunen Wein.

Weit offen die Totenkammern sind

Und schön bemalt vom Sonnenschein.


In the Autumn

by Georg Trakl

The sunflowers shine by the fence.

The invalids sit quietly in the sunshine.

The singing women work in a field,

Into which are chiming cloister bells.


The birds tell you tales of far-off places

Into which are chiming cloister bells.

From the courtyard, a violin is heard.

Today, they press the brown wine.


In autumn, man is blithe and balmy.

Today they press the brown wine.

Wide open are the chambers of the dead

And full of the most beautiful sunshine.

translated from German by Jay Hopler


by Georg Trakl

Am Abend schweigt die Klage

Des Kuckucks im Wald.

Tiefer neigt sich das Korn,

Der rote Mohn.


Schwarzes Gewitter droht

Über dem Hügel.

Das alte Lied der Grille

Erstirbt im Feld.


Nimmer regt sich das Laub

Der Kastanie.

Auf der Wendeltreppe

Rauscht dein Kleid.


Stille leuchtet die Kerze

Im dunklen Zimmer;

Eine silberne Hand

Löschte sie aus;


Windstille, sternlose Nacht.




by Georg Trakl

In the evening, in the forest,

The cuckoo’s complaint grows quiet. 

The wheat leans more deeply,

The red poppy. 


Thunderheads threaten

Over the hill. 

The old song of the cricket

Dies in the field. 


Ever still, the leaves

Of the chestnut tree. 

Your dress soughs softly

On the spiral stairs. 


Silently, the candle

In the dark room shines;

A silver hand

Snuffs it out. 


Windless, starless night.

translated from German by Jay Hopler


by Georg Trakl

Der schwarze Schnee, der von den Dächern rinnt;

Ein roter Finger taucht in deine Stirne

Ins kahle Zimmer sinken blaue Firne,

Die Liebender erstorbene Spiegel sind.

In schwere Stücke bricht das Haupt und sinnt

Den Schatten nach im Spiegel blauer Firne,

Dem kalten Lächeln einer toten Dirne.

In Nelkendüften weint der Abendwind. 



by Georg Trakl

Black snow spills from the rooftops. 

A red finger pokes into your skull. 

Blue glacial ice melts into an empty room,

The lover’s dead mirror. 

Or is it, the dead lovers’ mirror? 

The brain breaks into heavy pieces

Just thinking about it.  The reflection

Of that blue ice in the mirror

Is like the cold smile of a dead tramp. 

The evening wind wails,

Reeking of carnations.

translated from German by Jay Hopler


by Georg Trakl

Mönchin!  schließ mich in dein Dunkel,

Ihr Gebirge kühl und blau!

Niederblutet dunkler Tau;

Kreuz ragt steil im Sterngefunkel.


Purpurn brachen Mund und Lüge

In verfallner Kammer kühl;

Scheint noch Lachen, golden Spiel,

Einer Glocke letzte Züge.


Mondeswolke!  Schwärzlich fallen

Wilde Früchte nachts vom Baum

Und zum Grabe wird der Raum

Und zum Traum dies Erdenwallen. 



by Georg Trakl

Mother Superior, lock me up in darkness,

Yours!  Your mountains so cool.  So blue—.  

The gloom-dimmed dew blooms down into the earth. 

A cross rockets Heavenward.  Star-spark and star-shine. 


In a shabby backroom, a liar takes one

In the kisser and his split lips swell. 

I hear laughter growing fainter,

Shining like a dying bell. 


Mooncloud!  At night, when the ripe fruit falls

From the trees so bitterly,

Our every room a tomb becomes. 

What a waste the world is.

translated from German by Jay Hopler

our one small lamp struggles against the wind

Ten late poems of Du Fu translated by George Life.

These quatrains are part of a projected two-volume translation of the late poems of Du Fu. The first volume, from which this selection is drawn, covers the last period of his life (769-770) when he was traveling on the Xiang River in present-day Hunan province; the second covers a period just before this (766-768) when he was living in and around the city of Kuizhou on the banks of the Yangzi River at the mouth of the Three Gorges.

The project emphasizes aspects of Du Fu’s late poems often commented upon by scholars but rarely carried across by translators. These include structural features such as sequentiality, segmentivity, fragmentation and disjunction that convey below the level of content the deep volatility and uncertainty that mark the poems. It is as though in these poems Du Fu splits the root of the Chinese language, opening the way for the radical experiments in form and tone that would follow in the Mid and Late Tang. 

What Du Fu reveals in his language I hope to reveal in his poetry by taking the couplet rather than the poem as the primary unit of translation. These quatrains, in other words, are formed by the juxtaposition of two independently selected and translated couplets. My preoccupation with Du Fu’s late work—what drew me to it, and what I aim at in translating it—is not a matter of completeness, either at the level of the poem or in terms of his entire oeuvre, but resonance. I hope by this approach, combining the processes of selection, juxtaposition, and constellation, to arrive closer to that split root.

—George Life


by Du Fu








[everyone I meet is struck by how I've aged]

by Du Fu

everyone I meet     is struck by how I’ve aged

and everywhere I go     I’m offered cups of wine



I’ve eaten little     no more than a bird would


approached favor     as wisely as Yang Zhen

translated from Chinese by George Life


by Du Fu







[relief spreads through the humid lowlands]

by Du Fu


relief spreads     through the humid lowlands

after the wind rushes      over Dongting Lake  



please pay a visit     to Wei Tiao of Shaozhou

just yesterday     he sent me these new poems

translated from Chinese by George Life


by Du Fu







[for ten long summers I wore the cloth of Shu]

by Du Fu


for ten long summers     I wore the cloth of Shu

three winters     heard washing blocks of Chu



once an advisor     honored in the governor’s tent

now only a wanderer     unable to return home

translated from Chinese by George Life

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and after sessions luxurious and tender

Three poems by Idea Vilariño translated by Jesse Lee Kercheval


by Idea Vilariño

Yo vengo por la calle

compro pan

entro en casa

hay niebla y vengo triste

tu amor es un ausencia

tu amor digo mi amor

amor que quedó en nada.

Subo las escaleras

repasando esa historia

y me quedo en lo oscuro

tras de la puerta


pensando no pensando

en tu amor

en la vida

en la soledad que es

única certidumbre.



by Idea Vilariño

I come down the street

buy bread

enter the house

there is fog and I arrive home sad

your love is an absence

your love, I say, my love

love that came to nothing.

I climb the stairs

reviewing this history

and I stop in the dark

behind the bitter


thinking not thinking

on your love

on life

in the solitude that is

the only certainty.

translated from Spanish by Jesse Lee Kercheval


by Idea Vilariño

Es otra

acaso es otra

la que va recobrando

su pelo su vestido su manera

la que ahora retoma

su vertical su peso

y después de sesiones lujuriosas y tiernas

se sale por la puerta entera y pura

y no busca saber

no necesita

y no quiere saber

nada de nadie.



by Idea Vilariño

There is another

perhaps there is another

the one going to recover

her hair her clothes her manners

the one that now measures again

her height her weight

and after sessions luxurious and tender

she goes out the door whole and pure

and does not seek to know

does not need or want to know

anything about anyone.

translated from Spanish by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Me pregunto

by Idea Vilariño

No pensarás a veces

no volverás los ojos

a aquel estante al libro

que volví a su lugar

a aquella mesa de café en Malvín

ya tarde

al aire libre

conmigo y los muchachos

o tal vez al café pajarería

de donde huíy dejé que me alcanzaras.

No te acordás


de mi puerta entreabriéndose

a las dos de la tarde

y tú con un sombrero

que por fin regresabas.

No te acordás


no sabés que una noche

te esperé y fue una noche

de amor

y no viniste

y fui feliz vagando por la casa

escuchando la escalera


Hubo también las noches

—torpe de mí

te odiaba—

en que llamabas


cómo ordeno esta serie

es mejor esto o esto—

y esa otra en el suelo

con luna y mis retratos

tirados por ahí que todavía

tienen manchas de vino.

O la noche terrible en que tú estabas

llorando en el teléfono

nunca lloré decías

y yo mi amor mi amor

—te había echado

había muerto

y yo mi amor

mi amor

y yo estaba con otro. 

I Wonder

by Idea Vilariño

Will you not think sometimes

will you not return your eyes

to that shelf to the book

that I returned to its place

to that table in the bar in Malvin

already late


with me and the boys

or perhaps at the café like a bird cage

from which I fled and left you to catch up with me.

You don’t remember

I suppose

my door half-open

at two in the afternoon

and you with a hat

finally returning.

You don’t remember

I am sure

don’t know that one night

I waited for you and it was a night

of love

and you did not come

and I was happy wandering in the house

listening at the stairs

waiting for you.

There were also nights—

clumsy with my

hating you—

when you called

Tell me

how to order this sequence

is it better like this or like this

and this other one on the floor

with the moon and my portraits

thrown around that still

have wine stains.

Or the terrible night when you were

crying on the telephone

I never cried you were saying

and me my love my love—

I had thrown you out

I was dead

and me my love

my love

I was with another.

translated from Spanish by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Should we stop to breathe
as we open a parenthesis in the dream

 Four poems by Kepa Murua translated by Sandra Kingery. 

Escribir el Cansancio

by Kepa Murua

Porque tan díficil es desentrañar

lo que dentro sentimos como único,

nos encontramos abatidos en un vivir

donde no se celebra nada

más que el abandono.

Porque tan díficil es explicar

lo que solo a nosotros nos pasa

el cansancio acumulado nos vence

frente a la alegría de los otros.

¿A qué se debe esa incontinencia

por las palabras pronunciadas,

los gestos exagerados

y los abrazos múltiples?

¿Es que nos hemos vuelto locos

al querer ser felices a todas horas?

Es este modo de vida

que nos agota en el trabajo.

Que nos mata en casa.

Que nos aleja del mar como del amor.

De la lluvia fina como de la ternura.

De la hierba como de la esperanza.

De un beso que se da a primera hora

como del cielo por la mañana.

Es este modo de vida rastrero

donde no se celebra nada más

que el abatimiento sereno

y el impertérrito aniquilamiento

de lo que nos rodea

el que nos lleva a escondernos en casa

y desaparecer en un mapa

donde el rastro de los hombres

sigue la estela perdida de los animales.

¿Para qué marcar un territorio

que nunca será nuestro?

¿Por qué dibujar una casa

con una chimenea y un caminito

que nos lleva a la escuela?

¿Un árbol que nos da sombra,

un sol que nos ilumina,

un pájaro que canta?

Y ¿para qué decir finalmente

esto es mío, esto es tuyo,

si no podemos salir de una senda

donde mirarnos a los ojos

como lo hace un gato a un punto fijo

o un tigre a un punto más cercano?

¿Volveremos a pasear de un lado a otro

de la jaula, de un lado a otro de la celda,

por sentir la necesidad del aire libre

en un espacio que se abre a nuestros pasos?

¿Deberemos detenernos a respirar

como abrimos un paréntesis en el sueño

que persigue la vida que queremos

mientras es el cansancio el que escribe

del amor que se confunde con el deseo,

la necesidad con la esperanza

o el miedo con el abandono?

Es el dibujo de los días de la infancia

al no ver el verdadero significado

de lo que nos llama la atención.

El grito liberador de la juventud

al no entender lo que sucede

a nuestro alrededor.

El no encontrar las palabras precisas

—en el momento preciso—

eso que sentimos como único.

Y que solo a nosotros nos pasa.


Writing Fatigue

by Kepa Murua

Because it is so difficult to unravel

what we feel inside as unique,

we find ourselves despondent in a life

where nothing is celebrated

except abandon.

Because it’s so hard to explain

that which only happens to us

accumulated fatigue conquers us

in the face of others’ happiness.

What causes this lack of control

over spoken words,

exaggerated gestures

and multiple hugs?

Have we gone crazy

wanting to be happy at all times?

It’s this way of life

that exhausts us at work.

That kills us at home.

That distances us from the sea and from love.

From fine rain and from tenderness.

From grass and from hope.

From a kiss that’s given at first light

and from the morning sky.

It’s this servile way of life

where nothing more than serene dejection

is celebrated

and the undaunted annihilation

of all that surrounds us

which leads us to hide at home

and disappear into a map

where the route of men

follows the lost trail of animals.

Why mark a territory

that will never be ours?

Why draw a house

with a fireplace and a little path

that takes us to the school?

A tree that gives us shade,

a sun that lights our way,

a bird that sings?

And why say finally

this is mine, this is yours,

if we cannot leave a path

where we look each other in the eyes

like a cat does at a fixed point

or a tiger with a point that is closer by?

Will we once again stride from one side of the cage

to the other, from one side of the cell to the other,

because of the need for fresh air

in a space that opens at our feet?

Should we stop to breathe

as we open a parenthesis in the dream

which pursues the life we want

while it is the fatigue that writes

about love that’s confused with desire,

need with hope

or fear with abandonment?

It is the sketch of the days of childhood

when not seeing the true meaning

of what attracts our attention.

The liberating shout of youth

when not understanding what’s happening

around us.

Not finding the precise words

—at the precise time—

that which we experience as unique

and that only happens to us.  

translated from Spanish by Sandra Kingery

Escribir el Aniversario

by Kepa Murua

Si todas las fechas

son un número en el calendario

no todos los días pasan iguales

como no pesan lo mismo

una lágrima sincera

y un falso jadeo.

Creíamos haberlo vivido

o creíamos haberlo olvidado

pero pasada la tormenta

la vida persigue el recuerdo

cuando se cruza una persona

y se dispara el corazón

en un suspiro certero.

Este era un día como otro.

Un día sin importancia.

Pero se envolvía de una luz

efímera en la que creíamos

y con la que brindábamos

para no desfallecer

y seguir adelante.

Y lo hacíamos con un beso

y dos copas que chocaban

muy suave.

Se diría que era eterno.

Se podría decir

que así como nadie

daba un duro por nosotros

nadie se atrevería a romperlo.

Pero, ya ves, la vida tiene esa doblez

que nos espera entre los días

que se marcan o se borran en la pared

para guardar los momentos felices

como se intenta enterrar en la memoria

los que tanto daño nos hicieron.

¿De qué estamos hablando?

¿Del amor?, ¿de la ternura?,

¿de la amistad hecha añicos?

¿De algo que fue real y no queda?

¿Y de qué hablábamos mientras tanto

cuando los números pasaban

a nuestras espaldas su peso vacío

y las palabras en minúsculas

las escribíamos más grandes

para que se dieran importancia

y nos escucharan un poco más lejos?

Escribir del aniversario no es fácil.

Escribir del ritual que como títeres

nos lanza al centro del calendario

no es sencillo. Algunos lo relacionan

con la muerte de sus seres queridos.

Otros con pérdidas que se confunden

con hallazgos. Pero unos y otros

—como los días que se borran

o aquellos que se marcan en rojo—

no pueden volver a vivirse

por más que una persona nos recuerde

un día señalado que nos parecía

más importante que la propia vida.

En una fecha así donde ya no queda

aquel sentimiento que nos hace chocar

contra todos —a veces suave

y otras muy duro—

habla el cuerpo entregado

a un tiempo imposible de olvidar.


Writing the Anniversary

by Kepa Murua

If all dates

are a number on the calendar

not every day passes by the same

just as a sincere sob  

and false breathlessness    

do not signal equivalence.  

We thought we had lived it

or we thought we had lost it

but once the storm passed

life pursues memory

when you cross paths with a person

and your heart pounds

in an unerring sigh.

This was a day like any other.

A day without importance.

But it was wrapped in an ephemeral

light in which we believed

and with which we toasted

so as not to collapse

and to continue onward.

And we did so with a kiss

and two glasses that clinked

very softly.

You could say it was eternal.

You could say

that just as no one

believed in us

no one would dare break it.

But, as you see, life has that duplicity

that awaits us between the days

that are marked or erased on the wall

to save the happy moments

as we try to bury in our memory

those who caused us so much damage.

What are we talking about?

About love?, tenderness?

friendship smashed to bits?

About something real that no longer remains?

What were we talking about in the meantime

while the numbers passed

their empty signal behind our backs

and we wrote

the lower case words bigger

so they were given more importance

and we would be heard a bit farther out?

Writing an anniversary isn’t easy.

Writing the ritual that throws us

against the center of the calendar like puppets

is not easy. Some relate it

to the death of their loved ones.

Others with losses that are confused

with discoveries.  But all of them

—like the days that are erased

or the ones marked in red—

cannot be lived again

no matter how much a person reminds us

of a noteworthy day that seemed

more important to us than life itself.  

On a date like that when there is no longer

that feeling that makes us collide

against everyone—sometimes gently

and others very hard—

the body that is dedicated to a time

impossible to forget resounds. 

translated from Spanish by Sandra Kingery

Escribir el Recuerdo

by Kepa Murua

Estoy sentado sobre mis recuerdos.

La colcha azul de la cama.

La alfombra roja y el silloncito

también de color azul

al lado de la ventana con dos puertas

que miran al balcón.

El lugar ha cambiado tanto

que no lo reconozco.

No encuentro el camino del colegio.

No encuentro la entrada del cine.

Por no encontrar no encuentro

ni el número ni el nombre de la calle.

Parece un ojal en el bolsillo de la chaqueta

la casa que se esconde.

Debería, tal como lo hace él

a la hora de vestirse, llamar

a alguien y pedir ayuda.

Preguntar por dónde queda

la fábrica de dulces.

Por dónde la plazoleta.

Por dónde la callejuela

que da a la vía.

Todavía puedo escuchar

el ruido del tren en mi cabeza

y sentir cómo a su paso

se mueven los objetos de la casa.

Cómo se desliza la lámpara

o cómo cruje el suelo con su peso

en aquella caja de zapatos

tan cerca de los raíles.

Pero como se anuda una corbata

después de veinte años

he de recordar más:

el ruido de las escaleras en mi habitación

cuando alguien bajaba a saltos

hasta llegar al portal.

El cielo blanco del invierno.

O el azul íntimo del verano.

Y la primera langosta que me enseñó mi madre

o el primer gato callejero que se me acercó

en la terraza.

Los rosales de la terraza.

Un viejo coche a pedales con el número trece.

Siempre me ha gustado este número

creo que me da suerte.

Recordar mientras se viste

tiene esas cosas:

suena el reloj de la salita.

Está cerrada la tapa del piano

pero la vida sigue su rumbo

en medio de la muerte

que nos espera a la vuelta de la esquina.

Ojalá cuando llegue me encuentre vestido

soñando que recuerdo

esas cosas que creía olvidadas.

Ojalá me encuentre dormido

aun con la memoria perdida.


Writing Memory

by Kepa Murua

I am sitting upon my memories.

The blue bedspread.

The red carpet and the chair

that was also blue

next to the window with two doors

that look upon the balcony.

The place has changed so much

I don’t recognize it.

I can’t find the street to the school.

I can’t find the entrance to the cinema.

I find so little I can’t even find

the number or the name of the street.

The hidden house

looks like a buttonhole on the pocket of a coat.

I should, like he does

when it comes to getting dressed, call

someone and ask for assistance.

Ask where

the sweet shop is.

And the little plaza.

And the alleyway

that leads to the avenue.

I can still hear

the sound of the train in my head

and feel how things move at home

when it passes.

How the lamp slides over

or the floor creaks with its weight

in that shoebox

so close to the rails.

But as one knots a tie

after twenty years

I must remember more:

the sound of the stairs in my room

when someone was bounding

all the way down to the entrance.

The white sky of winter.

Or the intimate blue of summer.

And the first lobster my mother showed me

or the first alley cat that approached me

on the terrace.

The rose bushes on the terrace.

An old pedal car with number thirteen.

I’ve always liked that number

I think it makes me lucky.

Remembering while you get dressed

has those things:

the clock in the sitting room sounds.

The piano lid is closed

but life continues on

in the midst of the death

that awaits us around the corner.

I hope when it arrives it finds me dressed

dreaming that I remember

those things I thought forgotten.

I hope it finds me sleeping

with my memory still misplaced.



translated from Spanish by Sandra Kingery

Escribir de Pie

by Kepa Murua

Escribir de pie

es escuchar una música

mientras balanceas el cuerpo

de un lado a otro.

No se puede caminar rápido.

No se puede descansar al máximo.

No se puede mirar a los ojos

ni tocarse con la mano

la barbilla desde el pecho.

Es olvidar lo que tienes entre manos.

Pasear por las voces del desierto

en las arenas de la duda.

Decir es así la vida

que nos mantiene pegados al suelo.

Escribir del amor

cuando piensas en el abandono.

Del abandono

cuando piensas que cada día que pasa

estás más solo.

Es no hacer muchas preguntas

y responder con tus ojos

a lo que ves alrededor

como un viaje inacabado

a cámara lenta.

Es sentir el frío

en medio del verano.

Cubrirte con un sombrero

que oculta los rayos de luz de tus ojos

y dibujar un sol

en medio del océano

que baña con tus pies

y en una milésima de segundo

lo que queda del desierto

en la palma de la mano.

Es pasear por las arrugas de la piel

como se hace en la arena

con los pies descalzos muy lento.

Retocar sus venas

si escribes del amor

y no lo vives de lleno.

Aligerar las penas.

Liberar sus candados

con el orgullo de ser el mismo

aun pareciendo distinto.

Escribir de pie

es como hacerlo dormido

sin saber que estás vivo.

Como dejar el enredo del mundo

en el fondo de los sueños.

Pero es hacerlo

con la cabeza alta

y diciéndole a la vida

que aunque disfrace su belleza

en melancolía y aspereza

tú estás allí

para descifrarla

con el fin de pasear por sus calles

con una invisible bicicleta

en el fondo de una canción

que se escucha desde una ventana abierta.

Es hablar diferente

mientras se corre despacio.

Escuchar de otra manera.

Sentir lo que se vive muy dentro.

Sentirse libre.

Y quitándose la venda de la cabeza

volar muy alto.


Writing While Standing

by Kepa Murua

Writing while standing

is listening to music

while swaying your body

from side to side.

You can’t walk quickly.

You can’t rest fully.

You can’t look into someone’s eyes

or touch with a hand

your chin from the chest.

It’s forgetting what you have in your hands.

Strolling through the voices of the desert

upon the sands of doubt.

Saying life’s like that

that keeps us glued to the ground.

Writing about love

while thinking about abandonment.

About abandonment

when you think that every day that goes by

you’re more alone.

It’s not asking many questions

and answering what you see around you

with your eyes

like a partial voyage

in slow motion.

It’s feeling the chill

in the middle of summer.

Covering yourself with a hat

that hides the rays of light from your eyes

and drawing a sun

in the middle of the ocean

that bathes with your feet

and in a millisecond

what remains of the desert

in the palm of your hand.

It’s walking along the wrinkles of the skin

like one does in sand

very slowly with bare feet.

Touching up its veins

if you write about love

and don’t live it fully.

Lightening the sorrow.

Freeing its chains

with the pride of being the same

even while appearing different.

Writing while standing

is like doing so sleeping

without knowing that you’re alive.

Like leaving the muddle of the world

in the depth of your dreams.

But it’s doing it

with your head held high

and telling life

that even if it disguises its beauty

in melancholy and brusqueness

you are there

to decipher it

in order to stroll down its streets

with an invisible bike

in the depths of a song

that you hear from an open window.

It’s talking differently

while running slowly.

Listening in another way.

Feeling what is lived very deep inside.

Feeling free.

And after taking the blindfold off

flying very high. 

translated from Spanish by Sandra Kingery

Thirst, its golden circumstances

11406459_910571338991780_8962253701621530478_oDobel_HeadshotFive poems by Carlos Pintado translated and introduced by Hilary Vaughn Dobel. 

Reading Carlos Pintado’s Nine Coins (winner of the Paz Prize for Poetry from the National Poetry Series; available from Akashic Books) in its original Spanish is an almost otherworldly experience. The poems have a timeless quality, mixing formal sonnets with free verse and prose, addressing universal themes: love and wanting, light and dark, dreams and sleepless nights. They are beautiful machines that make you feel things.

And so I fell in love with the poems, with their meaning and their music. The meaning, I think I was mostly able to bring across into English. The music, though, was difficult. Because English is so rhyme-poor and because many of Carlos’ poems are rhymed sonnets, I worked instead with meter and settled for occasional slant rhymes and sight-rhymes. Even if you’re not a Spanish speaker, I urge you to read through the originals just to get a sense of their sound.

There were other times during the translation process when, despite the deeply emotive quality of the poems, I almost felt that voice of the poet had become depersonalized, like an oracle channeling something larger than the self. I hope I was able to bring this oracular nature across, as well—to capture that same feeling of a prophetic “I” speaking somewhere out of time. 

—Hilary Vaughn Dobel

Postal para Elizabeth Bishop

by Carlos Pintado

where the shadows are really the body



He tenido en un sueño las horas de la noche:

sus altas horas siempre, sus ruinosos silencios,

sus ecos, sus penumbras, sus fatales contornos

he tenido. La noche ha hecho en mí su casa.

He soñado mi cuerpo como una sombra entrando

en otra sombra, cuerpo de mí o de la noche,

como un fuego en tinieblas despacio devorándome.

He soñado mi muerte como un país lejano,

como un anillo de oro hundiéndose en el agua.

Acaso el sueño acerca inevitablemente

al muerto con su muerte, al vivo con su espejo.

Yo he sentido ese horror que ciega y me confunde

con la imagen del otro: una sombra que en mí persiste,

animal de la noche rompiéndose en la noche. 

Postcard to Elizabeth Bishop

by Carlos Pintado

where the shadows are really the body



I’ve been dreaming of the night and all its hours:

its small, late hours, of course, its crumbling silences,

its echoes, and its half-light; its deadly contours,

I’ve dreamed as well. The night has made its home in me.

I’ve dreamed my body like a shadow entering

another shadow, my body or else the night’s,

devouring me slowly like a fire in the dark.

I’ve dreamed my death like some far-off land, like

a golden ring as it sinks into water. 

Perhaps the dream will come inexorably close

to dying with its death; to life with its mirror.

And I have known the horror that blinds and bewilders

with the image of the other: a shadow that persists in me,

a creature of the night gone to pieces in the night. 

translated from Spanish by Hilary Vaughn Dobel

Other World, M.C. Escher

by Carlos Pintado

Otro mundo me espera: soy la forma

que, en el cuadro sin centro, busca un ciego

orden de cosas que es también trasiego,

donde no hay ley, ni causa, ni hay la norma.

Otro mundo me espera: los flotantes

cuernos perduran, giran, se deshacen.

¿Sabré yo acaso con qué metal se hacen,

si mientras más cercanos, más distantes?

Otro mundo me espera: la ventana

en su mitad se alza, y mi prodigio

será quedar del lado de las cosas.

Otro mundo me espera: la mañana,

como un umbral de luz, hará el litigio

de la noche que muere con las rosas.

Other World, M.C. Escher

by Carlos Pintado

Another world awaits me: I’m the form

that, in the picture with no center, seeks

an order, blind but also bustling,

where there is no law or cause, no norm.

Another world awaits me: the buoyant

horns persist and linger, turn and shatter.

Can I learn what metal makes them,

whether they draw closer or more distant?

Another world awaits me: the window

lies half-open, and my miracle will be

to stay here in the realm of the material.

Another world awaits me: the morning,

with the dawning of the light, will stand

against the night that dies with all the roses. 

translated from Spanish by Hilary Vaughn Dobel

Paisaje con sombra y casa
que da a la noche

by Carlos Pintado

Huid, niños, de la muerte.

Jueguen. Apártense de mí.

No quisiera yo compartir la infinitud de una plaza,

ni la risa que abre en el aire su más deseable rosa.

Enfermo de enfermas cosas estoy.

Soy una casa oscura

que da a la noche, una casa

habitada tan sólo por los muertos.


Huid de mí, niños de la muerte.

Soy yo quien cierra una ventana a ustedes.

Soy yo quien pasa como un cadáver

ante el asombro de todos.


Yo esperaba al ángel de ojos afilados.

Yo esperaba al ángel.

Y las ventanas se abrieron a la noche,

y yo no fui más.

Yo no fui


Landscape with Shadow and House
Overlooking the Night

by Carlos Pintado

Fly, children, from death.

Play. Keep back from me.

I would not want to share the infinity of a plaza,

nor the laughter that unfurls its most coveted rose

into the air.

I am sick with sick things.

I am a darkened house

that overlooks the night, a house

where none dwell but the dead.


Fly from me, children of death.

It is I who bar a window against you.

It is I who walk about like a corpse

to the astonishment of all.


I was waiting for an angel with keen eyes.

I was waiting for an angel.

And the windows opened to the night,  

and I was no more,

I was not


translated from Spanish by Hilary Vaughn Dobel


by Carlos Pintado

Deambulo por tu sueño y soy

tu propio sueño, dormido.

Bestias de la noche, venid a mí.

Ángeles hermosos, bebed mi sangre.

Yo he sido breve

al cruzar por los espejos,

breve como un golpe de sol

sobre las aguas muertas.

Yo he sido breve.

Largo es el camino

y mis pasos breves.

¿Qué amor me habrá salvado?

¿Qué labio injurió al viento

como si fuera mi nombre

el susurro levísimo de la mies en los campos?

¿Soy yo el que regresa?

Soy yo? 



by Carlos Pintado

I wander through your dream and I

am your own dream, asleep.

Creatures of the night, come to me.

Gorgeous angels, drink my blood.

I have been brief

on crossing through the mirrors,

brief as sun striking

on dead waters.

I have been brief.

Long is the road

and my steps are brief.

What love can save me?

What lip tarnished the wind

as if my name

were the softest whisper of grain in the fields.

Is it I who returns?

Is it I?

translated from Spanish by Hilary Vaughn Dobel


El desierto

by Carlos Pintado

Doradas circunstancias de la sed

figuran los baldíos espejismos

donde todo perece; en ese abismo

un hombre muere solo con su sed.

Los sucesivos rostros de la luna

han de otorgarle un único consuelo:

soñarse devorado en aquel suelo

y en aquel suelo despertar. Ninguna

salida habrá: el mar de las arenas

repetirá incesante la figura

de un muerto que recorre la llanura

que los dioses negaron terminar.

Porque también eterno es aquel mar

de polvo, sueños, soledades, penas.

The Desert

by Carlos Pintado

Thirst, its golden circumstances,

renders vain mirages where all

must perish; a man in that hell

may die alone with just his thirst.

The moon’s successive faces have

bestowed this single solace: to dream

oneself devoured by the ground

and on that ground awaken. Nothing

will have gone: the endless sea of sand

will still repeat a dead man’s shape

as it travels through the plains—plains

the gods refused to end. For it, too,

goes on forever, that sea of dreams

and dust, of solitudes and shame.

translated from Spanish by Hilary Vaughn Dobel

that which flies, flaps, beats

Four poems by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez, translated by Wendy Call.


JAEM2011 (1)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 ewendy callmail. 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

—Wendy Call



by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


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.


by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


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

Palabras Hechas de Arena  

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


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. 

Words Made of Sand

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


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 en Su Plenitud

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


La mar se desborda en sí misma.

Agobiada de su inmensidad

Procura desatar sus orillas

Y burlar el acecho de las olas

Y perderse,

Como aquel barco,

En el horizonte. 

The Sea at Its Apogee

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


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

Enhorabuena la Luz

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez



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

¿A qué?

A vivir.

Congratulating the Light

by José Alfredo Escobar Martínez


It’s true.

Light happens inside the eye:

At this dawning hour

It dives into iris brine

Casts out the drowned

Onto the fringes of day

Drawing near.

In the depths of its gaze

It penetrates the eyelids’ halo

Signs appear

Giving life to senses

And invites us

To what?

To live.

translated from Spanish by Wendy Call

Do not try to fool me with purity.

Three poems by Liu Xia, translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern.

These poems are forthcoming in Empty Chairs: Selected Poems from Graywolf Press, November 3, 2015. Read more about Liu Xia and her work at PEN America.


by Liu Xia





























by Liu Xia

Van Gogh’s ear sends me an urgent message

that the earth is about to collapse.


Beware of the white-washed night sky

the flowers in full bloom on the dining room table  

the orderly lines of sentences in a book

the weather forecast on TV

and Kafka’s crazy eyes.


Guard the last ray of fire

like farmers guarding the only sorghum

left in a field after a natural disaster.


I am the poison of this world.

I can see a rotting corpse, the earth,

covered in snow

and I can see wriggling maggots.

Do not try to fool me with purity.


Do not hide death.

Do not build an artificial paradise.

The warm look from the eyes of a fake angel

is worse than the glory of straw yellowing

or a cigarette burning out.



translated from Chinese by Ming Di & Jennifer Stern


by Liu Xia



































by Liu Xia

In the dusty ancestral hall,

a lingering shadow

doesn’t want to leave.

Is that blurred face you, grandfather?

For years, through my myopic

eyes, I’ve tried to seek your hands, to touch

the years I had never passed through.

In dreams, only, I arrive at your house.


I know you exist.

Your yellowed youth in old photos

looks alien in this

southern green.


When I’m alone, I often see you

holding my hand. Together

we walk through book

after book,

which fills me with chilling grief.

Nobody shares the details

of your life, as if you lived

before the ice age. It’s impossible

for me to become an archaeologist.


I can only put my whole self

into giving you back

to these thin, frail words.

In your old house, do you feel

a flash

of fresh air,




translated from Chinese by Ming Di & Jennifer Stern


by Liu Xia






























To Lin Zhao

by Liu Xia

Like this, I look into your eyes,

and keep looking while

I gently take the cotton out of your mouth.  

Your lips are still soft,

your tomb is empty,

your blood burns my outstretched hands.

Death, cold and cruel, makes me sit alone

in the September sun,

incapable of feeling sad.


Any kind of tomb

will seem frivolous

to freedom-loving you.


Mid-autumn, every year,

lanterns float on the river,

but they can’t call your soul back.

Your eyes cold, you sit

on the nether-boat that sails under Kafka’s pen  

looking out at the absurd world.

The toasts for the centennial of Peking University

make you laugh and sneer.


Drink drink drink,

this is blood,  

you say in the darkness.



translated from Chinese by Ming Di & Jennifer Stern

Underneath all of this there’s a song

Three poems by Luis Chaves, translated and introduced by Julia Guez and Samantha Zighelboim

Every Sunday for the last twenty-four months, our task as translators has been to keep up with the hyper-caffeinated imagination of Costa Rican poet Luis Chaves, rendering each image in his remarkable new collection of poetry in a way that orients the reader and provides a moment’s stasis and clarity before “the waves come and the waves erase it.”

In Equestrian Monuments, dialogue from The Exorcist co-exists with lines from the Latin Kyrie, Rex. The stately figure of a former president, Leon Cortés, is counterbalanced by a cast of mock-heroic or non-normative foils: a transvestite, a cripple, a singleton, homunculus, thief and gardener.  Sweeping statements about entire generations, continents and genres find a basis in the most intimate details of home-life.  The intersections are uncanny, sometimes hilarious, often sad and unsettling.

In the original, Chaves contains complex thoughts and feelings with the simplest diction.

La maleza crece
cuando dejamos de mirar.
Los años se acumulan
mientras nos ocupamos de la maleza.
Aprender esto nos tomó
más tiempo del que hubiéramos querido.

Economy of syntax and style is something we’ve worked hard to maintain, while keeping with the ease, colloquialism and play of the Spanish. At the same time, we’ve liberally modulated some of the music in the translation to mirror what is happening in the shape-shifting original.  That’s often a question of controlling the cadence of a line by way of enjambment or punctuation.

The weeds grow
when we’re not watching them.
Years accumulate
while we worry about the weeds.
Learning this took
longer than we would have liked. 


Luis Chavez

Monumentos Ecuestres was a gift, given to Guez the first time she and Chaves met for Imperial and espresso at the Hotel Costa Rica, sitting on the patio across from the Teatro Nacional, before making their way to the Librería Duluoz nearby.  She was in the country on a year-long grant from The Fulbright Commission. This allowed her to spend half of her time in Vargas Arraya—where she and her fiancée rented a small white-walled room in a guest house across from a grocery called Perimercado (which, for years after the name had officially changed, everyone still called Super Cindy).  So close to the Universidad de Costa Rica in San Pedro, she wasn’t far from some of the presses—Lanzallamas, Espiral and Germinal—whose work she was there, in part, to research.

After taking in as many readings, salons and festivals in and around the capital as she could, Guez spent the rest of her time living in the small town of Delicias where, half-way up a massive hill, she rented the second story of a house overlooking the Gulf of Nicoya.  It was there, on the balcony, that she made the first of three attempts to translate Equestrian Monuments on her own.

She would tinker with individual words and phrases for days.  Once satisfied with the literal rendering of a line, weeks and months were then spent bending the overall tone of the translation closer to the original’s.

The project of successfully re-creating the experience of reading Luis Chaves really began to come together when, over drinks at Mercadito in New York City’s East Village, Guez invited Zighelboim into the process of co-translating the collection.

Guez-Roeder-2013 (Color) - Smiling

Julia Guez

Our paths crossed for the first time at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. A handful of conversations about poetry we exchanged in 2010 set Guez up to introduce Zighelboim’s work at the annual Thesis Reading that spring.  It also gave us a window into one another’s sensibility, what we were reading, writing and translating at the time, and the extent to which we could trust and admire one another’s eye and ear.  Most importantly, that small-scale collaboration hinted at the kind of ambition, humor, integrity, persistence and care that would allow us to do some extraordinary work together on a much larger-scale.

Ever since that drink at Mercadito, we have been meeting at one of our two apartments or a café close by almost every week.  Beginning with the literal translation, we engaged in a five-part process with each piece.

In the first phase, our aim was simply to be generative.  We wanted to come up with as many counterfactuals as we could.  All of the options we could create for a given word or phrase were lined up, one after another, separated only by a back-slash.  This was our divergent phase, and it was the most playful one.

In our second phase, we wanted to narrow the options down.  The trimming would literally halve the size of our drafts.  This was our convergent phase, and, of them all, it was the most straightforward.

Then, the goal was to narrow the field of our focus even further (and, at this point, we weren’t tinkering with any of the options we had come up with before). If something didn’t work—even if it was completely accurate, and even if we couldn’t put our finger on why it didn’t attain what Kierkegaard (by way of Walter Lowrie’s translation) called a “primitive lyrical validity” in English—it was highlighted and removed from the list we had bracketed-out before.


Samantha Zighelboim

In the fourth phase of our work, the aim was to create enough distance between ourselves and the text, enough time and space to be able to come back and see everything with new eyes. Sometimes a few minutes—to prepare another gourd of mate or smoke a cigarette outside—would be sufficient.  Then we could come back to a passage we had been struggling through, or toggle over to another piece in the collection.  Other days, we would take several hours off—to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner, eat, drink then begin again.  Several weeks and months would pass between drafts of the trickiest poems in the collection.

In the final phase of our work together, our aim was to dilate moments in the text that simply didn’t sound right to us.  Unsatisfied with the options we had generated so far, we gave ourselves greater permission vis a vis inserting or eliding something in the English to protect the flow of a line (without altering its meaning and, likely, only adding to its plausibility).

“The waves come and the waves erase it” is one example.  We repeated the word, “waves,” to maintain the lilt of the phrase, (“y las olas vienen y la borran”), and to convey the sense of ritual and repetition that is at the heart of this particular section of the poem. At this phase of the process, raindrops were finally “veining” the window.  The crickets “came on,” after “the fog cleared.”  And “the sky’s own white stone path” was chosen in lieu of cloud-like rolling stones (which, every way we attempted to render up to this point, was clichéd, distracting and allusive in the English in a way the Spanish didn’t mean to be).  By the end of this phase, we had worked through the most important decision-points in the text.  Everything we had pressure-tested, memorizing, reciting and tinkering with for months, still pleased us; it still worked, even though it didn’t always feel perfect.

In the introduction to Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis explains that she didn’t read any other translations until after she finished a first draft of her own.  “In the second draft, I had ten others on hand, eventually an eleventh, the most recent.  I made extensive comparisons in difficult passages, curious to learn what ingenious solutions might have been found to the various cruxes.”

Our admiration for one another as writers and as people, the trust we have for one another as co-translators and friends, our commitment to question every choice we have made, to consider and reconsider it almost compulsively, has allowed us to do what Davis was doing (in virtual conversation with other translators) in real-time.  And it has helped us land on solutions to the various “cruxes” we’ve encountered in the course of co-translating Equestrian Monuments that neither one of us could have come up with on our own.

In our own translations then “provincia” has become “suburb”, and “Acetaminofén” is “Tylenol.”  “La Virgen Criolla,” however, is still “La Virgen Criolla.”  There are slippery, strange or foreign references in the original, and we attempt to make them feel the same way in our translation.  That is part of a mystery we don’t, in any way, intend to clarify or solve for in this text: a necessary strangeness.

—Julia Elizabeth Guez & Samantha Zighelboim


by Luis Chaves



Si vieras.

Dos semanas de temporal

borraron la huella ocre

de las macetas.


Revuelta en la lavadora,

ropa blanca y de color.


Una casa reducida a cajas de cartón

la tarde que gira sobre el eje de la lluvia.

El mentolado falso

de un Derby suave + una Halls.


Ese color de la plasticina

cuando se mezclan todas las barras.




El mundo da tantas vueltas

que parece no moverse.

Pensé decirlo

pero preferí, de copiloto,

verte manejar en círculos

por el estacionamiento.




Las hormigas vinieron

en las cajas de la mudanza.

El apartamento nuevo

empieza a parecer una casa. 

De otro, pero una casa.




En el departamento nuevo,

el albañil pica la pared buscando

dónde está la fuga de agua.


No es desorden lo que se ve,

es un orden disparejo.



Bolsas plásticas,

cartones con cursiva en pilot

Cocina / libros / baño

Si otro, en este momento, entrara,

no sabría si alguien llega o se va.




Envuelto en la nicotina

de la inmovilidad,

se ablanda el cerebro

y se endurece el corazón.


Sin camisa me veo más viejo,

pensé decirlo pero preferí

recordar la vez que fui tu copiloto

y manejabas en círculos

por el estacionamiento.




Francisca, silenciosa,

se mueve por cada ambiente.

Para allá con la escoba,

para acá con el balde.

Dentro de esa boca,

siempre cerrada,

brilla un diente de oro.




Un pausa que amenaza

con convertirse en otra cosa.


La ropa sin tender,

el gusto del falso mentol,

el espacio libre

donde finalmente parqueaste.




Rodeando latas de cerveza,

los amigos discutían

cuánto dura la juventud.

Pensaste en voz alta

“qué me importa, si nunca fui joven”.


Luego se agitó el borrador de la niebla.

Luego irrumpieron los grillos.




Aquí tendría que ir una frase decisiva

pero se destiñe la camiseta

de la tarde que hablábamos

mientras crecía el pasto

y sin darte cuenta

usabas mis muletillas

cada seis palabras.


Lo que no se va a secar,

lo que brilla sin elección,

un período equivocado para la mudanza,

el cerebro: masa de plasticina,

el corazón: dos puertas de carro

que sólo saben cerrarse.




Debajo de esto hay una canción,

aunque no se escucha ni se ve.


Las promesas de la casa nueva

quedaron en la casa vieja.


Del temporal va quedando ese color

de todas las barras de plasticina

que se mezclan se mezclan,

el martilleo que silencia

la tenacidad de una fuga, 

esas gotas de lluvia

como las venas de la ventana.

Y el canto de los grillos

crece como otra niebla.


Debajo de esto hay algo mejor.



by Luis Chaves



Picture this:


How two weeks of rain

have washed away all the flower pots’

ochre rings.


The whites and darks mix

in the same washing machine.


A house reduced to cardboard boxes.

The afternoon spinning on the rain’s axis.

The false menthol

of a Derby Light + a Halls.


The color plasticine bars make

when they’ve been kneaded together.




The world is turning so fast

it appears to be standing still.

I thought about saying so

but, as your copilot, preferred

to watch you circle

the parking lot.




Ants came in

the moving boxes.

The new apartment

begins to feel more like a home.

One belonging to someone else, but still—a home.




In the new apartment,

the handyman hollows out a wall

searching for the leak.

This isn’t disorder per se,

but order of another kind.


Plastic bags, Sharpie

on boxes, in cursive:


If someone else were to walk in at this moment,

they wouldn’t know if we were moving in or out.




Inert, enveloped

in nicotine,

the brain goes soft;                        

the heart hardens.


I look older without a shirt on.

I thought about saying so, but preferred

to remember the time I was

your copilot as you kept

circling the lot.




Without a sound, Francisca

moves through each space—

here with the bucket,

there with the broom—

inside that mouth,

always closed,

the glint of a gold tooth.




A pause that threatens to become

something else entirely.


Clothes we haven’t unpacked,

the taste of false menthol,

that spot where

you finally parked the car.




Over a few rounds

some friends argue about

how long we can keep calling ourselves young.

What does it matter,

you think aloud,

if I was never young to begin with.


Then the fog clears. Then

the crickets came on.




Here’s where a decisive phrase should go

but the t-shirt I was wearing

that afternoon we’ve been talking about

fades while the grass grows,

and without realizing it,

you begin to use some of my own verbal tics

every six words.


What in this weather will never dry;

what shines whether we like it or not;

the wrong time of year to move—

the brain: a lump of plasticine,

the heart: two car doors

that only know how to close.




Underneath all of this there’s a song,

even if it can’t be seen or heard.


The promise of a new house

stayed behind in the old one.


What remains of the rainy season is a blend

of all the plasticine bars—

what will be kneaded together is kneaded

together, hammering that quiets

the tenacity of a leak,


veining the window.

And the crickets’ song

swelling like another fog.


Underneath all of this there is something better.

translated from Spanish by Julia Guez & Samantha Zighelboim

Playa Santa Teresa, 2006

by Luis Chaves

Unos días con sus noches en Malpaís y Santa Teresa. Vi los pelícanos, los cocos asesinos, vi pizotes, ballenas, iguanas, garzas y unos peces azules minúsculos y fosforescentes nadando en las pozas que se forman en las rocas cuando baja la marea. También las gaviotas que nos seguían en la terraza del ferry para que las alimentáramos con snacks ultraquímicos. Vi amigos, vi a los hijos de los amigos. Vi a los amigos y a los hijos de los amigos encender una fogata en la noche y así cumplir con ese ritual que nos acompaña desde no sabemos cuándo. Vi el mar cada noche antes de dormirme y lo vi también cada mañana al despertarme. Vi una cometa multicolor inmóvil contra el cielo limpio, vi que la cuerda invisible que la sostenía llegaba hasta mis manos. Vi caricacos de todos los tamaños rodeándome mientras meaba en la arena. Vi, en el fondo de la mochila, el lomo de la novela de Dos Passos que ni siquiera llegué a abrir. Vi los objetos que el mar deposita en la orilla: una piedra con forma de cassette, una rama con forma de linterna, una lata de birra con forma de lata de birra. Una tarde cerré los ojos y vi muchos viajes ya borrosos del pasado e imaginé paseos futuros en esta misma costa. Es así, la vida se puede reducir a una lista breve.

Santa Teresa, 2006

by Luis Chaves

A few days and nights in Malpaís and Santa Teresa. I saw the pelicans, the threat of falling coconuts, I saw coatis, whales, iguanas, herons and some fish—blue, miniscule and phosphorescent—swimming in pools that form among the rocks at low-tide. Also the seagulls who followed us onto the deck of the ferry so that we’d feed them highly-processed snacks. I saw friends, I saw friends’ children. I saw friends and friends’ children light a bonfire in the night and fulfill this ritual that’s been with us for who knows how long. I saw the ocean each night before I’d fall asleep and I saw it each morning when I’d wake up. I saw a multi-colored comet still against the clean sky, I saw the invisible string that seemed to sustain it reach almost to my own hands. I saw hermit crabs of all sizes surrounding me while I pissed on the sand. I saw, in the bottom of the backpack, the spine of a Dos Passos novel I hadn’t even gotten around to opening. I saw objects the sea deposits on the shore: a stone in the shape of a cassette tape, a branch in the shape of a lantern, a beer can in the shape of a beer can. One afternoon I closed my eyes and saw the blur of so many past trips, imagining future visits to this very coast. This is how it is. Life can be reduced to a short list.

translated from Spanish by Julia Guez & Samantha Zighelboim

Falsa Ficción

by Luis Chaves

Pero hay un intento de reconstrucción

con pocos elementos,

una sombra que sale de escena,

el olor a laca y el rótulo

–pero es otro– de gaseosa Goliat

atrapado con el rabo del ojo

desde el bus que se adentra

en la masa maleable

de julio del 2004.

El de aquel invierno sudaca

sin calefacción.


Se cuenta hasta diez

con los dedos,

empezando por el meñique

o el pulgar.

No es lo mismo aunque parece,

ni es lo mismo, a las 3 a.m.,

afuera de la cantina, parqueado,

nuestro carro con el árbol de navidad

atado al techo.


Aquí pasó agua debajo del puente,

huimos de un lugar

que apestaba a World Music,

que hedía a New Age.

Aquí no hay cuatro estaciones:

por encima de la línea del Ecuador /

por encima de la línea de flotación.

Nueve meses de lluvia

nos han enseñado a nadar

a consumirnos de cabeza,

en el confort del verso libre.


Un ejemplo,

por toda la casa me siguen

mi hija, la gata y la perra.

Son mi sombra buena.


Huele a gas también,

y trabajan a full los aleros.

El metrónomo del goteo

divide el día en fracciones.


El año va dando señales:

esto casi mejora,

la perra se enrosca

con la calma de la evolución.


Es fácil saberlo,

para terminar lo que falta

no nos necesitan.

False Fiction

by Luis Chaves

Here’s an attempt at reconstructing

everything with only a few elements:

a shadow leaving the stage,

the smell of lacquer and the ad

—not the same one—for Goliat soda

caught out of the corner of my eye

from that bus entering into

the malleable masa

of July, 2004.

The one from that South American winter

when we didn’t have heat.


You count to ten

on your fingers,

beginning with the pinky

or the thumb.

It’s not the same although it would seem to be,

nor is it the same, at 3am,

outside the bar, parked, our car

the one with the Christmas tree tied on

to the roof.


Here’s where it was all water under the bridge,

when we abandoned a place

infested with World Music,

reeking of New Age.

There aren’t four seasons here:

above the equator

above the waterline.

Nine months of rain

have taught us to swim,

to lose ourselves,

in the comfort of free verse.

For example, all over the house

I am followed

by my daughter, the cat and the dog.

They are my good shadows.


It smells of gas again,

and the eaves are working overtime.

The metronome of that slow drip

divides the day into fractions.


The year goes on giving signs:

this almost gets better.

The dog curls up

with evolutionary calm.


It’s easy enough to see,

they don’t need us

to figure out the rest.

translated from Spanish by Julia Guez & Samantha Zighelboim