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