Tuesday, July 5, 2016

#207: A Translation and a Poem by John Oliver Simon

~This poem was previously published in Cider Press Review (2010).


La joven
en la mesa se pregunta

Si la luz
de la vela es suficiente:

La sombra
de su vaso le responde

Con un sí
que se parece al viento.

—Alberto Blanco
(Mexico, 1951)


The girl
at the table asks herself

If the light
of the candle is enough:

The shadow
of her glass replies

With a yes
that resembles the wind.

—Translated by John Oliver Simon


~This poem was previously published in Poetry Flash (1993).

Isla Negra

Since there’s no way of calling up the dead
I should write you a letter on your gray fence
on the driftwood whale’s ribs stuck in the sand
between your house and the old ocean
that laughed to bust its gut to find
itself discovered by discoverers,

stout Cortez, innocent Polynesians, all
the ancient children in my classroom, and you
not first nor last among them, don Pablo
el Poeta with a capital P, accumulator
of sea-shell spirals, of escaleras secreted
by caracoles thinking of self-armored symmetry,

of wings of jaguar eyes navigating the rain forest,
Captain of sails whispered into bottles,
haunting rummage sales and shipwrecks
on every spit and cove of coast
for bare-breasted oaken sopranos that once
cleaved the salt air on a ship’s prow,

unpacking gargoyles and virgins,
well-hung ebony icons and the fiery horse
from childhood still exhaling steam
in the farthest corner of the house
forever unfinished as any Inca fortress
with no right angles out of living rock,

rocking as every wave holds its round breath
and kettledrums on granite flecked with shale
past the bar inscribed with the names of the dead
where only you could mix sinister potions
and the hassock stained green with your scribbling
and the quilts of seven continents

that drained toward sleep in the only arms
of the woman before that and after that
and the scorpion crawling down into the waves
and the walls of Communism washing out to sea
and what for, señor Poeta, why all this pyramid
of flotsam, museum or mound or house or book

of splendidly attributed trash, if it only
could be read aloud after your voice
was choked with sand, could only be seen
entirely after the jackboots hammered
on the mouths of all your doors,
could only be ignored for all your excess

of sunlight and syntax and splendor
after they carried the waxen figurine
that was your body into a hollow frozen
concrete niche with no more monument
than the name not even yours from birth
and the few remembered flames of flowers?

Here and now, where the final stones of your poems
ares smashed forever under the laughing ocean,
I let go of the hands of my own dead,
mother and brother and father and father,
I let them swim away like thoughts.
Accept them, dear Pablo, on your black island.



               New Moon / Luna Nueva and Isla Negra stem from my  many-decades involvement with the poetry and cultures of Latin America. I met Alberto Blanco in 1984, when he read in a grand Homenaje on the occasion of the 70th birthday of Octavio Paz. He charmed me by dedicating his reading “to the poets up here” (on the stage) “and the poets down there” (in the audience).  Luna Nueva is from Alberto’s first book, Giros de Faros (1979), which I translate as Circling Beacons. The book as a whole is a mandala of symmetrical pieces.  In Spanish, this little poem is structured as diptyches of  three and seven syllables.  I didn’t attempt to reproduce the syllabary literally in English, opting instead for the naked clarity of direct translation.  Alberto’s work has been widely translated into English by myself and others, with a volume from City Lights (Dawn of the Senses, 1994) but we are still looking for a publisher for  Circling Beacons.
               Isla Negra was written on my first visit to Chile in 1992. I made the pilgrimage to all three of the houses of Pablo Neruda: La Chascona in Santiago, La Sebastiana in Valparaíso, and the unforgettable Isla Negra directly on the coast.  Everywhere I was struck by the Poet’s obsessive collectionism, detailed in this poem. I was surprised to find that Neruda was rejected by the young Chilean poets in favor of the genial but comparatively negligible Nicanor Parra. Much as, I reflected, we prefer the colloquial hominess of William Carlos Williams to the larger achievement of Eliot. This poem won second prize in a contest  that Poetry Flash ran for poems about Neruda. First place was Lawrence Ferlinghetti.



John Oliver Simon is one of the legendary poets of the Berkeley Sixties who has grown by steady dedication to his calling. Published from Abraxas to Zyzzyva, he is a distinguished translator of contemporary Latin American poetry, and received an NEA fellowship for his work with the great Chilean surrealist Gonzalo Rojas (1917-2011). He is President of California Poets In The Schools, where he has worked since 1971, and was the River of Words 2013 Teacher of the Year. He is fluent in Spanish and enjoys studying the Chinese written characters. His ninth full collection of poems is GRANDPA'S SYLLABLES (White Violet Press, 2015). For his lifetime of service to poetry, the Mayor of Berkeley, California proclaimed January 20, 2015, as John Oliver Simon Day. On May 14, 2016, the Berkeley Poetry Festival presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

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