Situation to Break a Spell
as if you were going to die
or give birth to yourself.
the slope of the years
in the dark.
Arrive at the threshold
pass through it / submerge yourself
in the deep, narrow, stairway of oblivion.
Tell me what you see.
Confront it / confront
who you were even before memory.
Do you recognize yourself?
Yes, now you recognize the road
that has brought you here.
Its clarity reveals it
—a blue dream that is projected on the blue screen of time
and begins making sense.
Do you see yourself?
Ask why and accept it
–whatever the answer is
–I have come to say goodbye to you –respond.
Don’t say more than this
without any rancor.
It will try to make you stay
to answer once again what you already know
what you have already heard it say
perhaps in another way.
Lower your eyes and create
–with the gaze only–
a path on the ground
–a groove of wet earth and ash.
You will see a fire rising
a wall of fire
–a cold fire–
between you and your failure.
Turn your back to it.
Resume the road
the blue dream against the blue of time.
Ascend the steps of the deep, narrow stairway.
Arrive at the threshold
pass through it and descend
the dark slope of the years.
Return to your body
do you feel it? –a pain in your womb or in your chest
as if something of yourself has been torn from you
alerts you that you have beaten it.
The pain will go
you will remain with yourself.
(The memory of the hollow
will follow you wherever you go.)
Situación para romper un hechizo
como si fueras a morir
o a darte la luz.
la cuesta de los años
en lo oscuro.
Llega al umbral
traspásalo / sumérgete
en la honda, estrecha, escala del olvido.
Dime qué ves.
Enfréntalo / enfréntate
a quien eras antes aun de la memoria.
Sí, reconoces ahora el camino
que te ha traído hasta aquí.
Su nitidez lo delata
–un sueño azul que se proyecta en la pantalla
azul del tiempo y va cobrando sentido.
Pregúntale por qué y acéptala
–cualquiera sea la respuesta
–He venido a decirte adiós –responde.
No digas más que eso
sin rancor alguno.
volver a responder lo que ya sabes
lo que ya le has oído
quizás de otra manera.
Baja los ojos y crea
–con la mirada solo un reguero en el suelo
–un surco de tierra húmeda y cenizas.
Verás alzarse un fuego
una pared de fuego
–un fuego frío–
entre tú y tu fracaso.
Dale la espalda.
Vuelve a tomar el camino
el sueño azul sobre el azul del tiempo.
Remonta los peldaños de la escala honda, estrecha.
Llega al umbral
traspásalo y desciende
la pendiente oscura de los años.
Vuelve a tu cuerpo
¿sientes? –un dolor en el vientre o en el pecho
como si algo de ti te hubiese sido arrancado
te anuncia que has vencido.
El dolor se irá
tú quedarás contigo.
(La memoria del hueco
te seguirá adonde vayas.)
Avenida Paseo Colón y Cochabamba
F told me about this place, the night half-excavated underneath the autopista. The guidebook does not mention it. He’s in his studio, painting a boy he knows, the curse or spell of beauty. He waits for the face to dry and then paints over it with white. I hold a brush in my outstretched arm, a mirror or a magnifying glass. The guidebook falls asleep. I ask each passerby to pass it over me, until I’m gone enough. The paper bodies of the detained begin to climb the beams. What holds the traffic in place? There is no cover from the sound of it, the smell of diesel, the vibration of these passages. The light shocks them out of shadows and glues them to the wall. They are photocopies of photocopies. An officer is here to guard them. I ask him what it means. In his orange vest, he sways back and forth on the ground beneath his definition. It has something to do with magic, he says, like to get a girl to fall in love with you. There is a softness in his throat, but I sway on the uniform beneath his uniform, the half-excavated night. There is no cover from the sound of them, the curse or spell, plastered on the wall.
Perú y Cochabamba
A mouth opens in the concrete. I think of the rubble behind its grid of metal teeth, the words formed before they are spoken, the heaviness in direct proportion to the waiting. I want to give my gravity away. I ask a stranger what it means. It’s to put yourself up on something, he says, like a bicycle or a horse. I think of him, up there on his infinitive, throwing away the clocks and pronouns, covering the sidewalk like confetti. In the beginning, the first person climbed on top of the second hand. I think of this when I am alone at night. It is the only thing that keeps me from floating to the ceiling. He walks a few feet away and stops to look at me – in fact he is dismounting – in order to be here, as if the street unzipped itself.
Humberto 1° y Bolívar
She knows the sound but not the definition – maybe it’s a wall, like this one, covered in graffiti, the opposite of how to tell me. I run my hands over her shadow, hoping my skin will hear something. I want to stand all day, here against this wall, until someone offers to take my place. The color behind our stillness will change. Our collective refusal will be a painting. I want to stand against my scrawling, my ever almost happening. I want to throw it, this how, up against the wall, until it breaks, until it’s not a poem anymore. An older man walks by and I ask him what it means. He points to the flat rectangle of marble, chipped in the left hand corner, at the entry of a door. How can a door about to be written or erased be the same thing as graffiti? I want to walk through the hole inside the scratching, the aerosol. I want to walk through the blown-up photograph of a boy, his naked torso. A paper diamond, as if released only seconds ago, floats just above his howling. I want to stand inside the moment right before it leaves his lip, but I cannot get a foothold.
Humberto 1º y Balcarce
On the face of the no longer patronato, the word for childhood is covered with weeds. In the broken window hangs a photograph of ice. The elsewhere of a continent, a translucent advertisement. The word for Antarctica is Antarctica. It swings back and forth in the aftermath of glass. They say photography is the coldest continent, but I can tell that people are squatting here. Their clothing illuminates the string between the empty buildings. I pluck it with my question. A woman walks by and answers me with homophones. It’s a motorbike, she tells me, or that you and I, as if she knows me, we have good energy between us. Across the street is the Registro Nacional de las Personas. I empty my pockets in search of the breath of former inhabitants. A person is a string between the homophones. A person is a continent at the bottom of a continent, a window at the bottom of a window, broken from a name.
Avenida Independencia y Perú
What does it mean to walk between one word and another without stopping? The words I seem to know are see-through. Their letters fall from the dictionary, disappearing before they hit the sidewalk. Clarity, a stranger tells me – bien claro – and then what it’s not – oscuro – and some in-between word I do not know. Perhaps darkness is umbilical, perhaps forgetting is the first ingredient of memory. I am always looking across the street to see the ground where I am standing, as if the traffic were a camera in reverse. I want to see my body disappearing before it hits the photograph. There is a ghost falling out of the parking lot. Perhaps forgetting is the first architect. A fragment of continuous brick, a bruise that outlives the body. The color falls out of paint, leaving just the signature, Grupo Muralista del Oeste. There is evidence of circular scraping on the furthest wall, now exposed to the day. A tree grows out of its center, some in-between word, an umbilical cord.
Avenida Independencia y Perú
When tree is moving imperceptibly, tree appears to be tree. It presses into, and then disappears from, the wall outside this gomería. If I am still enough, I can see the names of the previous shops, paint beneath the paint. A worker steps out to light a cigarette. I tug on the smoke between us. It rises to the strips of cloth above me – just now I notice them, tied around the branches. Who put them here, the names and ages of who and why?
How like leaves they are, translucent, written on the day. A young man smiles and stops for me. I put the word inside his hand. Before he unfolds it, he asks my name. I appears to be I. Is my question a plea to be a name, evaporating in his hand? The sky inside the tree begins to shake. He tells me it’s an intervention. When the light is slow enough, it strikes me as a kind of writing. He says it refers to a truth that’s hidden, for example, something political. The names continue to shake. In my country, an activist from Code Pink stands up inside the Senate: “178 children killed by drones in Pakistan. And Mr. Brennan, if you don’t know who they are, I have a list. I have a list with all the names and the ages.” The sky unfolds its loneliness and sends it off to hover. It catches fire from the inside.
Avenida Independencia y Chacabuco
He puts his hands in front of his face, the little square he draws with his thumbs and index fingers, as if he is holding up the air, the us that floats between him and me. Us is not the sum of singular pronouns, only the between. The L of his left hand and its backwards brother seem to bow, and I think, which one of us is me? Closer than touching is the gap in which a word goes. If I were to actually look inside it, would I see the sound it makes? Accidentally, I give him two copies of this door I am trying to make out of someone else’s window. He returns with the extra one and what is the difference between translation and a screen. I put my hands where his had been. I lean my back against his before. I bow my head and the cracks in concrete appear to me as chlorophyll, a photograph holding its breath inside a tree.
The pigeons are still enough to be my shadow. It is winter here, after all, even if I am elsewhere. In what I call my elsewhere, I lean my back against the present tense, a season and its backwards brother. I want to tell you, dear reader, I get lost and lost inside the screen, inside the never ending elsewhere, but the truth is, I cannot enter it. There is no one here to hold it still for me. There is only the machine, and the tracelessness of the air between the pronouns. My cartographer says I should invite you to come and live with me. I can hold my breath, I can bow my head, I can be still enough to be your shadow. Closer than touching is the gap in which a word goes. I want to close my eyes and tell you this as you type it into my computer. I want to turn off the light so you unscrew the bulb and put it in my hand. I want to hold it there until it stops burning, the us that floats between us.
Avenida 9 de Julio y México
The seeds of the palo borracho fall through the notwithstanding winter. What is it to be prior? Like a tuft of fur, my friend who taught me how to say so. In the photograph, he is pointing to the tree in the park that autocorrect keeps turning into “lash eras.” I see him sometimes, a little green pulse on the screen, how to say so falling through the continent. I walk on cobblestones. They cover the former rails, where loneliness continues to dress up as the word I can’t define. Soon I will come upon the past tense. This is the lash era, the widest avenue in the world. How could this be fury? The out of place falls through the fact of me.
Avenida Independencia y Solis
It’s not a word, he tells me, so I push it back against the roof of my mouth. His face is a question I have rehearsed and repeated. I reach into my pocket for the poem and he unfolds it, still wet and fluttering, in his hands. He tells me his name, and then, do you like to read? Maybe it all comes down to this. A name leads one question to another, or the pattern of these bricks, an imprint that is not a word. It’s something on the ground but he doesn’t know for sure. Maybe it is this, an unmarked path between the tongue and paper. I cross the street to where the sun can warm me. The woman begging on the sidewalk and the blank pieces of paper, still wet and fluttering, in her hand. Currency, the little erasure that is not the sun. My face is a question she has rehearsed. I reach into my pocket, but not until I am through with my translation. I take it, the unmarked path between us, and let it dissolve inside my mouth.
Avenida Independencia y Avenida Entre Ríos
In my notebook I write young woman – a mark. Who slides across the hyphen? She says that’s what it means, and here I crank the clock into a corridor I can walk through, hands against the condensation on the wall. I ask her what kind. Like a mark on the road, a path, she says, pointing to the ground. Sometimes I feel that this city is written in invisible ink. How can I walk inside it if I go? I won’t remember the ground between us, only that it sinks and sinks until we can stand on it. At my desk, it spreads inside me. Like a lover, I beg and beg the mark to leave a mark on me, a groove, erasing me with sweat and teeth. A word floats on top of a word until the road becomes an alphabet. How can I land on what happens when I go? I take a photograph of a telephone pole, painted sickly green, the twine around it holding nothing but rust. I stick out my tongue and taste it, my translation, coming through.
Combate de los Pozos y Humberto 1°
When do all the things I discard become the street that holds me? There’s a strike going on. One summer vacation, I brought home a documentary for my father about his union, but I never set foot in the factory where he worked. When does the body become the body? I walk down the street, removing one piece of clothing at a time. My cartographer walks just a few feet ahead of me, and he gives me his coat when I am finally naked. I would like to choreograph this performance, the city through us moving through it in this way. I would like to walk the city from end to end, exchanging what is fleeting with every willing stranger.
I know what you’re going to say. Ever since the invention of the microscope, human touch began to flare. Still, my love for visible geometry, like the metal scaffolding holding up this billboard from the backside. More tender and ambiguous than advertisement or warning. A handsome boy approaches, his hands in his pockets, singing, or speaking to himself. When I ask him what it means, he offers me a sentence: Hoy fracasé en arreglar el auto. He says he can’t concretize it, he cannot find a synonym, it’s not poetry but… and then his voice trails off beyond the edges of my memory. What is mine is failure unless it is briefly. At the bus stop, two people get off as if there is no synonym, a choreography from different doors.
Combate de los Pozos y Avenida San Juan
I ask the cartonero what it means and he breaks the excess syllables into chau. What is the difference between goodbye and the instruction to say so? We carry our life around in a cardboard box that we empty again and again. It has this name – say goodbye – before we even fill it. Chau, a variant of the Italian, coils around the word for slave, schiavo. Not go with God but I am yours, forcibly. I walk toward the underpass, where pigeons flutter in their small round cages beside a makeshift tent. My cartographer frees them in the night and brings me their cages. Here I am, tossing my words into the metal hollows, trying to remember the shape of wings.
Avenida Pavón y Sarandí
On the concrete slab in front of the gate: Nadie es capaz no pueden cobrar mis recuerdos. The roots of the tree tilt the sidewalk, pushing grief’s white letters to the surface. Nobody is capable and then a vine eats away at the barbed wire fence. Nature multiplies the No: they cannot take away my memories. A boy from this housing project died in January. I take a photograph of the mural, his arm stretching towards me, thumbs up, his eyes open but somehow looking back into the wall. He was not yet twenty-one. Nobody is capable. Part of his face unpainted, as if the masonry contains him. The garbage strike is still going on, and everywhere the sun gets stuck in plastic. When I reach the intersection, there’s a furniture repair shop, chairs stacked upside down. A man steps out and I ask him what it means. He says it’s something that comes out of the wall, and he runs his fingers across the moulding. I’m trying to think of how to climb a stair for which there is no railing. The little cave where dust collects, the memory.
Subterráneo Linea E, Estación Pichincha
Below the pageantry of history, people try to make a living. They will put a question mark in your hand. It will likely be made of plastic. If you refuse it, you must feel the weight of all the hands that held and did not keep it. As the train jerks its way through the tunnel, a woman is tearing her medical condition into small pieces of paper. Into my hands, her otherwise geography, she places not her body but the splinter. I hold it, the fire of uncontrollably, a single piece of paper. Her doctor has signed a statement, affirming, on the opposite side, the pain of wrong division. What is a body if not a collection of the strangers who are torn from us? I am thinking of Felix Gonzales Torres’ portrait of his lover, Ross, an installation composed of 175 pounds of candy. I take the candy in my mouth, the fact of his weight diminishing. I hold the cellophane wrapper in my hands. I look through it. What is a body if not a broken window?
I first encountered Mercedes Roffé’s work at a bookstore on Avenida Córdoba in Buenos Aires. I was immediately drawn to this poem, “Situation to Break a Spell,” because of its haunting use of impossible instructions. I had begun an experimental project of translating Argentinian poetry through somatic ritual, and I knew at that moment I wanted to translate Roffé’s work. I was interested in how a poem might be an echo of the city itself. To begin, I made a rough translation of the poem without a dictionary. I then went looking in the streets of for the “definitions” of the words I didn’t immediately recognize. I started at a memorial to the disappeared underneath a freeway in the neighborhood of San Telmo. For every word I didn’t know, I made myself walk the number of blocks corresponding to the line in which that word appeared. Once there, I would try to ask a stranger about their own associations with that word, and then take notes about our conversation. I also wrote down raw descriptions of the physical surroundings and my emotional impressions. In this way, Roffé’s poem pulled me through the streets, into unpredictable encounters with the city and its inhabitants. At my desk, I began to collage these notes into a series of poetic definitions. A selection of these appear as “Street Gloss,” following the original poem in Spanish.
Note: “Situation to Break a Spell” has also been translated by Judith Filc in Talisman. Filc is the translator of Roffé’s book, Ghost Opera, published in 2017 by co-im-press.
Brent Armendinger is the author of The Ghost in Us Was Multiplying (Noemi Press, 2015), a finalist for the California Book Award in poetry, as well as two chapbooks, Undetectable (New Michigan Press, 2009) and Archipelago (Noemi Press, 2009). His poems and translations have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Aufgabe, Bloom, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and Web Conjunctions. He is a recipient of fellowships from Headlands Center for the Arts and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He lives in Los Angeles and is an Associate Professor of English and World Literature at Pitzer College.
Mercedes Roffé is one of Argentina’s leading poets. Widely published in the Spanish-speaking world, some of her books have been published in translation in Italy, Quebec, Romania, France, England, and the United States. In the UK, Shearsman Books has published the anthology of her poetry, Like the Rains Come (2008) as well as her poetry collection, Floating Lanterns (2016, translated by Anna Deeny). Translated by Judith Filc, her book, Ghost Opera, was published in the US in 2017 by co-im-press.
She is the editor of Ediciones Pen Press, specialized in contemporary world poetry. Roffé was awarded a John S. Guggenheim and a Civitella Ranieri fellowship.