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Los verdaderos poemas son incendios. La poesía se propaga por todas partes, iluminando sus consumaciones con estremecimientos de placer o de agonía.

Vicente Huidobro

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Thursday, April 10th, 2014

🦋 Flesh, Spirit

Reading "Canto de guerra de las cosas" last week I was struck again by the epigraph and decided to read the 8th chapter of Romans. Here are two poems (one I started writing in Spanish and finished in English, and one I started writing in English and finished in Spanish) based on a few verses from that.

The Ways of Flesh and Spirit

by J Osner

2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:
4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
Romans 8

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Psalm 23

I will not walk forth
in the ways of the flesh
but in the ways of the Spirit. I will not
subject myself to the law of sin
and of death. For both
are of the flesh, which is not I --
though I'm living now, this moment,
in a lump of flesh. I'll walk
my pathway of the Spirit
of life in Christ Jesus, this lump
will come along for the ride.

I'm flesh which must follow
the law of sin and death --
would be no question
of walking
in any other ways
but the ways of the flesh,
for I am flesh. Will fear
no evil, for you will be with me.

And so we'll walk forth together
flesh and Spirit,
side by side
--indeed inside!--
along our separate paths
of Self and Other.

Romanos 8

por J Osner

Carne, te estoy adentro de vos
Tus sensaciones y reacciones
Son las mías. Cuando eructás
Soy yo el que me debo excusar.
Distraeme por tu hambre
Y por tu satisfacción.
Intimidame por tus anhelos;
No los voy a reconocer. Voy
A andarme conforme al Espíritu
De vida en Cristo Jesús y me retraeré
De vos y tu concepción asquerosa
Del mundo, tu valle
De la sombra del Mal
y del Muerto.

posted evening of April 10th, 2014: Respond
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Saturday, March 8th, 2014

🦋 Canto funebre

from Funeral oration, at the death of Joaquín Pasos

by Carlos Martinez Rivas
tr. Jeremy Osner

The drum beat echoing across
the little parade ground,
as if we were at the funeral of some Hero:
that's how I'd like to begin. And just
as must be done, in these Rituals of Death, I'd like
to forget his death; to look to his life --
to the lives of all the heroes now extinguished,
heroes who just like him lit up the night down here --

for many is the young poet who has died in our time.

Across the centuries they call out and we hear
their voices blazing, their distant canticle --
from the depths of the night they call out and reply.

There's not so much that we can know of them: that they were young,
that their feet strode upon this earth. That they knew how to play some instrument.
That they felt the ocean breeze across their forehead,
and looked up to the hills. They loved some girl,
and scribbled all this down til late at night, and crossed lines out,
and one day died. And now their voices blaze in the night.

posted morning of March 8th, 2014: Respond
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Sunday, October 6th, 2013

🦋 Soñando caminos: We change the language by what we say.

(with thanks to Leilani for the lovely restatement of Machado's theme)

Wanderer, these your steps
make up the path, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no path:
you make the path by walking.
By walking you make the path,
and turning back your gaze you see
the trail you'll tread upon no more.
Wanderer, there is no path:
just wake upon the sea.

— Antonio Machado: Proverbs and poems ⅩⅩⅨ

I've had this poem on my mind quite a bit recently. I thought I would spend a little time writing about it — I'd like to examine its face-value meaning, the metaphor of the poem, and the value of the metaphor, how it speaks to me; and incidentally I'd like to put a little effort into defending my translation, which is fairly different from the standard translation of Betty Jean Craige, in Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, 1979. I think (obviously I think) it is an improvement on Craige's translation; it seems worthwhile to elaborate on why I think that way — how my translation speaks more clearly than Craige's. But that should be a secondary point really; what I really want to talk about is how it is that I find this poem to speak to me so clearly. It is nice as well to get a chance to quote a couple of poems that I've translated and written over the past few years. I think it will make worthwhile reading, see what you think.

Let's reread Machado's first lines. Your steps make up the path, and nothing more. (The "path" dang it, not the road — roads are engineered and built by crews of men over the years, not "made by walking". And a wanderer is hardly confined to the roadways.) A path is a most personal thing. And what Machado's metaphor here is, is the path of one's life: it's not mapped out before one but made up of one's footsteps, the trail one leaves through life. Which one will tread upon no more. The obvious question here to ask is, "But isn't that pretty obviously true?" and yes, of course it is, and has been pointed out before; but an obvious truth that seems perennially to need restatement — one that comes to me at least as a revelation every time I hear it expressed, and doubly so when it is expressed so elegantly as Machado puts it here.

I came to this poem pretty early in life. I can't remember what group it was but I seem to recall its having had an anthemic quality in some vaguely lefty/artistic circles I had some contact with in my teen years — possibly I remember it from Peace Camp, though in what context is not quite clear.* It has an elemental feel to it, something so clearly correct and valuable that it is hard to know where to begin. (And this quality is, obviously, so strong that it shines through a slight roughness of rendering like Craige's, which is the poem I remember from my youth. It was not until I was talking about it with a friend last year and he brought up the objection vis-a-vis roads that I realized a better translation was needed.) I heard it again recently in Oaxaca, a man played guitar and sang it prior to a poetry reading.

Machado's clarity of voice as he addresses you, asks you to reexamine the ground you're walking on, gives you the reader a new point of perspective. Likewise another restatement of this metaphor, this obvious truth — poems of a slightly different form but closely related theme are a few of Pablo Antonio Cuadras's about el maestro de Tarca. The first and eighth poems in his series both feature el maestro sitting up on la Piedra del Águila, telling his disciples what is fitting and just. The maestro's seafarer plays much the same role here as the wanderer (in the desert?) of Machado.


Seated up on Eagle Rock
el maestro de Tarca told us:

It is fitting
it is just
that the seafarer
should grasp
all things by their name.
In times of danger
the things without names
are the ones that harm.


Seated up on Eagle Rock
el maestro de Tarca told us:

It is fitting
it is just
that the seafarer
should leave to the waters
his adventure.
     Wake formed
     time lived
     Wake dissolved
    time erased.

One thing I love about Machado's treatment of this universal truth is how easily it can be parodied, and how the parodies can ring clear, can bring out new shades of meaning in the original. What at first seems paradoxical can with a slight twist of the lenses be made to appear blindingly, obviously the case. Take for instance Leilani Hagberg's line in the title of this piece, or my expansion on it:

Cuentista, son tus palabras
la idioma y nada más;
cuentista, no hay idioma,
se hace idioma al hablar.
Al hablar se hace la idioma,
y al recordar las sílabas habladas
se oye el relato que nunca
se ha de volver a narrar.
Cuentista no hay idioma
sino espuma sobre las aguas.
Storyteller, it's your words
that make up language, nothing more.
Storyteller, there's no language;
by speaking you create the language.
Language is built by speaking,
and the memory of syllables uttered
is the sound of a story
You'll never get to tell again.
Storyteller, there's no language,
just foam upon the waters.

For language (while it is of course a facility created over hundreds (or tens?) of thousands of years by all of humanity in concert) has as highly personal a quality to it when considered in the particular case as does one's path. A sillier (and a fun, and rewarding, to be sure) parody, and one that indeed suffers from the same symptom of misunderstanding as does Craige's version, is:

Jugador, son tus apuestas
el casino y nada más;
Jugador, no hay casino,
se hace casino al apostar.
Al apostar se hace el casino,
y al lanzar las fichas en el fieltro
se oye el dinero que nunca
se va a poder recuperar.
Jugador no hay casino
sino monedas en la mar.
Gambler, it's your wagers
that make the casino, nothing more;
gambler, there's no casino:
we make the casino by gambling.
By gambling we make the casino,
and tossing down your tokens on the felt
you hear money that you'll never
get to pick back up.
Gambler, there's no casino,
just coins dropped into the sea.

Let's look at another fragment of Machado's concerned with paths and wanderers; this one from "I keep dreaming of pathways":

I keep dreaming of pathways
evening's pathways —The hills,
the golden hills, the green green pines,
dusty holm oak trees!...
And where does this pathway lead?
I keep singing, oh wanderer,
you at the end of the pathway...
–now evening is falling–.

And let's let evening fall.

Not quite sure how to bring out what it is that I find so compelling about the central metaphor these pieces all have in common, why it rings so clear to me and (I hope) to the reader. (—Not to take any unwanted liberties.)

* Also Ellen reminds me to mention Myles Horton and Paolo Freire's book We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change (1990).

posted morning of October 6th, 2013: 3 responses
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Sunday, July 31st, 2011

🦋 Sussurating

The hiss of the cicadas in the trees behind our house is at its peak this evening -- really reverberating through our entire second floor. (It's a sound I love, for which small mercy I give thanks.) As I was listening to the buzzing just now a new approach hit me to a problem of tense that I'd been batting around a few weeks ago:


by Pablo Antonio Cuadra
Thus spoke el maestro
de Tarca:

Catch the cicada
by its wing
At least
you're holding in your hand
its song.

I believe this is both truer to the source and better sounding, more poetic, than what I had previously.

posted evening of July 31st, 2011: 1 response
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Monday, July 11th, 2011

Two more poems from the "el maestro de Tarca" series:


Con el oído atento
al fragor de las olas
y los vientos
el Maestro de Tarca
nos decía:

En el rencor del Lago
me parece oír
la voz de un pueblo.


His ear turned, alert
to the clamor of the waves
and to the wind
el Maestro de Tarca
would tell us:

In the rancor of the Lake
I seem to hear
the voice of a nation.


El maestro de Tarca
aconsejó al marinero:
Si tu pensamiento
alcanza menos
que tu corazón,
piensa dos veces:
La nave tiene
la vela a pájaros
y la quilla a peces.


El maestro de Tarca
gave counsel to the sailor:
If your thoughts
cannot reach
as far as your heart,
then think two times:
Your ships possess
a sail, like birds
and a keel, like fish.
The four I have not yet made a stab at are going to remain untranslated for the nonce: #2 is a series of couplets about sailing conditions betokened by different cloud covers (after the manner of "Red sky at night, sailor's delight") -- I would not know where to begin with it. #5 warns of a tiny fish called La Pepesca, which will invade a sailor's body via his asshole and devour his innards. (Can't find any evidence pointing to this being a real thing? A couple of sites refer to the tetra astyanax fasciatus as "la pepesca" but they don't mention it being dangerous, which you'd think they would mention...) #6 is a long, attractive poem with advice for what to hunt and to cook during the summertime. #10 is similar to #2, but concerns sailing at night.

Besides these, the maestro makes a brief appearance in one of the final poems of the book, "The Islands", which is dedicated to Ernesto Cardenal. Here he is telling the people of the Lake a legend of a once and future king:

-- En Solentiname,
archipiélago de las codornices
pereció Tamagastad
contra los escollos de la Venadita.
Allí lloró la tribu a su héroe.
Allí todavía lloran los que pasan
esperando una antigua promesa.
Allí dice la leyenda
que ha de volver a su pueblo
con una palabra nueva.
-- In Solentiname,
archipelago where quails nest
Tamagastad bled out his life
on the reefs of Venadita.
His tribe wept there for its hero.
And all who pass by there still weep;
they're waiting on an ancient promise.
For legend tells us there
that he must come back to his people
bearing a new word.

posted evening of July 11th, 2011: 1 response
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Sunday, July 10th, 2011

🦋 La piedra del Águila

The first and eighth poems in the "el maestro de Tarca" series both feature el maestro seated on Eagle Rock, telling his disciples what is fitting and just.


Sentado en la piedra del Águila
el maestro de Tarca nos decía:

Es conveniente
es recto
que el marinero
tenga cogidas
las cosas por su nombre.
En el peligro
son las cosas sin nombre
las que dañan.


Seated up on Eagle Rock
el maestro de Tarca told us:

It is fitting
it is just
that the seafarer
should grasp
all things by their name.
In times of danger
the things without names
are the ones that harm.

Carlos Mejía Godoy sings
about grasping all things by their name


Sentado en la piedra del Águila
el maestro de Tarca nos decía:

Es conveniente
es recto
que el marinero
olvide a las aguas
su aventura.
Estela hecha
tiempo vivido
Estela deshecha
tiempo borrado.


Seated up on Eagle Rock
el maestro de Tarca told us:

It is fitting
it is just
that the seafarer
should leave to the waters
his adventure.
Wake formed
time lived
Wake dissolved
time erased.

posted morning of July 10th, 2011: Respond

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

🦋 The links of Tarca

Here are a few resources for the "el maestro de Tarca" poems and more broadly, Songs of Cifar and of the Sweet Sea. I will add to this list over the coming weeks if I find more that seem worth including.

  • Sergio Ramírez, a member of Nicaragua's Academia de la Lengua, delivered a paper on El maestro de Elqui: la narrativa de Pablo Antonio Cuadra when he entered the academy in 2003. It is online at Ramírez' home page. A shorter version of the same paper is at La Prensa Literaria. Ramírez also has a short piece in Ancora from 2002, in which he seems to indicate that el maestro de Tarca is Cuadra himself.
  • Folk musician Carlos Mejía Godoy recorded his album "Cantos de Cifar" in 1992. A few tracks are online at YouTube, and I found "El maestro de Tarca" (the first poem in the series) online at Radio La Primerísima.
  • The full text of the book is online at

posted afternoon of July 9th, 2011: Respond

🦋 Lo desconocido

In the third "teachings of el maestro de Tarca" poem, the customary introduction is reversed: here Cifar is speaking to the teacher. This suggests to me that the other poems in this series, where el maestro is speaking "to me" or "to us", are told from the POV of Cifar.

The two main difficulties for me in translating this poem were the conditional tense of "juraría" and the parallelism in the final two lines. I'm not really sure what conditional tense does -- from its name it sounds like it has a similar function to subjunctive. Schulman translates "juraría" as "I would swear", which sounds ok, but makes me ask what the condition is. I am going with "I could swear" which sounds a little more natural to my ears. (As a weak bonus, "I could swear it" scans the same as "juraría" -- though in the rest of the poem, I am not doing much to preserve the metric pattern.)

The last two lines, el maestro's response to Cifar, are the koanic element of this poem. In the original there is a strong parallelism: "Lo conocido/ es lo desconocido." I am going with a literal rendering to preserve this parallelism even though I think it mangles the meaning of the words slightly. Schulman uses the wordy "That which is known/ is the unknown", which I think is slightly closer to Cuadra's meaning, but not nearly as pleasant to read.


Maestro, dijo Cifar,
seguí tu consejo
y crucé el Lago
buscando la isla desconocida.
Fui con viento benévolo
a la más lejana, virgen y perdida
que yo conocí esa isla
que su sonoro acantilado
devolvió mi canto un día
que era la misma mujer
la que allí me esperaba
casi lo juraría!
Sonrió el maestro y dijo:
Lo conocido
es lo desconocido.


Maestro, said Cifar,
I followed your counsel
and crossed the Lake
in search of the unknown island.
I sailed with a gentle wind
to its farthest point, untouched and lost
I knew this island
I could swear it!
her echoing cliffs
had once already returned my song
I could swear it!
it was the same woman
who was waiting there for me
I could almost swear it!
El maestro smiled and spoke:
The known
is the unknown.
The fourth poem in the series is a sweet little gem.


Dijo el maestro
de Tarca:

Coge la cigarra
del ala
Al menos
llevas en la mano
el canto.


Thus spoke el maestro
de Tarca:

Seize the locust
by its wing
At least
carry in your hand
its song.
(I am tampering with the voice of the verb "llevas" in the next-to-last line -- Schulman renders it as "you carry" which is true to the original; whereas "coge" is imperative, "llevas" is indicative.) (Update: here is a better idea.)

posted afternoon of July 9th, 2011: Respond
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🦋 La Alegradora

Scattered throughout Cuadra's Songs of Cifar and of the Sweet Sea are eleven short (even "koanic") poems titled "El maestro de Tarca" -- these seem different from the rest of the text. They are printed in italics, and they all begin with the phrase "El maestro de Tarca was telling us" or "was telling me" or similar. I think these poems might be the framework around which the rest of the book is built... Not sure, but that is anyway an interesting idea. Tarca is not known to Google Maps; other Internet sources suggest it is on the island of El Carmen, off the western shore of Lake Nicaragua. Schulman translates "maestro" as "master"; it could also be translated "teacher". My impulse is to leave the phrase "el maestro de Tarca" untranslated.

I'm interested this morning in the ninth poem of this series, one which Schulman and Zavala do not include in their edition. It presents a few challenges for the translator; key among them is the term "La Alegradora". "Alegrar" is "gladden", so "alegradora" would be "someone who makes you happy" -- span¡shd! gives it as an archaic term for "jester". This is pretty clearly not the meaning intended in the poem; a little digging around with Google* turns up a blog entry from No-Nan-Tzin [you will get an adult content warning when clicking this link, you can safely ignore it], who tells us that "alegradora" is the Spanish rendering of the Nahuatl term "tlatlamiani", a prostitute in pre-Columbian Mexico.

Well: "prostitute" works semantically in the poem; but why did Cuadra not use "La Prostituta"? Was "alegradora" still idiomatic in 20th-Century Nicaragua? Is the usage intentionally archaic, hearkening back to ancient times (this seems likely)? I believe the Aztec empire included Nicaragua; so this is my working assumption, and I am going to leave "La Alegradora" untranslated. But if a Nicaraguan reader would recognize it immediately as meaning "prostitute", this may be a poor choice.


El maestro de Tarca
me decía:

La Alegradora
con su cuerpo da placer,
no con su recuerdo.
Con la mano hace señas
con los ojos llama,
no con su recuerdo.

La Alegradora
es el puerto
la tierra
que sólo es del pobre
en la noche.


El maestro de Tarca
was telling me:

La Alegradora
gives you pleasure with her body,
not with her remembrance.
With her hand she beckons
with her eyes she calls you hence,
not with her remembrance.

La Alegradora
is the port
is the land
which the poor man only knows
by night.

* The same round of searches also brought to my attention this ode by Aztec prince Tlaltecatzin, who praises his love as a "precious toasted huitlacoche". The original Nahuatl is here.

posted morning of July 9th, 2011: 3 responses

Monday, July 4th, 2011

🦋 Brandished back against the lances of the sun

Source material for a poem I posted today in comments at Dave Bonta's Morning Porch -- this is from Pablo Antonio Cuadra's Songs of Cifar and of the Sweet Sea (which, happy day, I discover Tony Bigras of has uploaded in full). Translation is my own, with reference to that of Grace Schulman and Ann McCarthy de Zavala.

Caballos en el Lago

Los caballos bajan al amanecer.

Entran al lago de oro y avanzan
-- ola contra ola
el enarcado cuello y crines --
a la cegadora claridad.
Muchachos desnudos
bañan sus ancas
y ellos yerguen
ebrios de luz
su estampa antigua.
-- la oreja atenta --
el sutil clarín de la mañana
y miran
el vasto campo de batalla.
Entonces sueñan
-- bulle
la remota osadía --
se remontan
a los días heroicos,
cuando el hierro
devolvía al sol sus lanzas
potros blancos
escuadrones de plata
el grito
lejanísimo de los pájaros
y el viento.

Pero vuelven

es el tiempo)

Al golpe
enfilan hacia tierra
-- bajan la frente --
y uncido
al carro
el sueño
el viento.

Horses in the Lake

The horses come down at daybreak.

They enter into the golden lake, and on
-- wave after wave
the long arched necks, the manes --
into the blinding clearness.
And naked boys
are bathing their haunches
drunk with light
they're lifting up
their ancient image.
They listen
-- ears perked up --
to the morning's subtle trumpet
and they gaze
on the enormous field of battle.
And then they dream
-- and glimpse
remote effrontery --
rising back up
to the days of glory,
when steel met
the sun's proud lances
stallions white
and squadrons silver
the cries
of distant birds and
of the wind.

But they return

the whip of time)

And struck
move slowly back to land
-- they bow their heads --
they're yoked to
the wagon
the dream
the wind.

posted afternoon of July 4th, 2011: Respond

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