James Richie translates Víctor Cabrera

Pandora’s Box Blues

Things are not often what they appear to be    

this box 

for example, 

whose script advertises 

                                    250 FRESH EGGS

In reality contains

40 dust-ridden books 


in their turns

thousands of pages

or rather

millions of words 

which must settle into

verses in heaps of meters

like arranging a room’s furniture, 

until everything finds its ideal place: 

the exact point for encountering the universe.

To instate the semblance of an order

everything dons its name as armor 

giving the world certainty and consistency 

(from ambiguous “a” all the way to “z”). 

What if everything were a fleeting order, 

chaos but in a different manner 

for populating the closet with frying pans, 

planting shrubs or ties in kitchens, 

or making the literary Hydra’s heads grow? 

What if every box

is Pandora’s box,

a nest where a language

can hatch fresh eggs? 


Pandora’s Box Blues

Las cosas no suelen ser lo que aparentan:

esa caja, 

por ejemplo,

cuya leyenda anuncia

                                    250 HUEVOS FRESCOS

contiene en realidad

40 libros polvorientos

que ostentan 

a su vez

miles de páginas,

o sea,

millones de palabras

que en versos de múltiples medidas

habrá que acomodar,

como se mueven los muebles de una sala,

hasta encontrar el sitio ideal de cada cosa,

el punto exacto en que transcurre su universo.

Cada cosa acorazada por su nombre

para instaurar un orden aparente

(desde la ambigua A hasta la zeta)

y dar al mundo certeza y consistencia.

¿Y si todo fuera un orden transitorio,

el caos pero de un modo diferente,

para poblar de sartenes los roperos

para sembrar en las cocinas arbustos o corbatas

o hacer crecer cabezas a la hidra del librero?

¿Si cada caja es

la caja de Pandora,

el nido en que un lenguaje 

empolla huevos frescos?


Supplication against the Rooster

Enemy of sleep 
Rival of dreamers. 

You herald 
the gray backstage,
the light’s atole
advancing, thickening
and everything spoils in the stiffness
of eight gravestone columns.
Foolish soup
mondongo, revoltijo 
the thick broth in which we come back to life 

Master of restlessness: 
leave the bed where lovers sleep
the cloud where Mariana breathes 
far from this world.

Lord of insomnia: 
you and your ilk reign over 
the basilisk and the cockatrice.
don’t be a beast. 
grant us some rest.  

Give us at least a while 
five more minutes
delay the morning 
cease your singing!
Chicken hearted
third-rate feathered tenor 
Shut your beak!   


Plegaria contra el gallo

Enemigo del sueño,
rival de los que sueñan.

Lo que anuncias:
entretelones de grisura,
el atole de la luz
que avanza espesa
y todo lo corrompe en el rigor
de sus ocho columnas lapidarias.
La sopa boba, 
el mondongo, el revoltijo:
el caldo gordo en que volvemos a la vida.

Patrón de la vigilia:
aléjate del lecho en que duermen los amantes
y de la nube en que respira
Marianna ajena al mundo.

Señor de los desvelos:
tú que prohíjas en tu estirpe
al basilisco y al cocatrix,
no seas bestia,
concédenos reposo.

Regálanos al menos otro rato,
cinco minutos más,
retrasa la mañana.
Detén tu canto,
corazón de pollo,
Emplumado tenor de poca monta,
¡cierra el pico!


Translator’s Note:

The element that I continue to find most striking about Cabrera’s poetry is his ability to put concepts, experiences, and works of art from seemingly different universes (that is to say parts of the world, traditions, languages, and levels of social prestige) into dialogue with one another. In the two poems included here, everyday occurrences, like the crowing of a rooster or a stack of books being placed in a box labelled as eggs, serve as gateways for a range of emotions from metalinguistic and metaliterary reflection to existential angst. In each poem, ordinary domestic life (like arranging furniture while moving or waking up in the morning) engages in conversations with mythology, philosophy, religion, and linguistics. 

In addition to Cabrera’s wide breadth of conceptual dialogues, his poems are also extremely well-crafted and detailed. In my translation of “Pandora’s Box Blues,” I evoke Cabrera’s rhyme scheme at times, while deviating from it in some sections. Specifically, I maintain the rhyme scheme when the poem shows how language can be used to establish order, and I drift away from the rhyme scheme when the poem shows how language can also create chaos. In “Supplication against the Rooster,” I highlight the elevated register and humorous tone of the poem. In addition to the juxtaposition of unlikely ideas and references, Cabrera’s humor is another one of my favorite elements in his poems. 


Víctor Cabrera is a poet and editor originally from Arriaga in the Chiapas State of Mexico. He is the author of many volumes of poetry including Signos de traslado (2007), Wide Screen (2009), Un jardín arrasado de cenizas (2014), and Mística del hastío (2017). Cabrera edited and wrote the introduction to the collected edition David Huerta: Poesía moderna (2019). Cabrera is a recipient of the Fondo National para la Cultura y los Artes (FONCA) scholarship. He works as an editor for the university press (Dirección general de publicaciones) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). 

James Richie holds a Master of Arts in Language, Literature, and Translation from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His translations have appeared in the Journal of Italian Translation, Four Centuries: Russian Poetry in Translation, and [Sic] a Journal of Literature, Culture, and Literary Translation. His academic writing has appeared in Translation Review and Vernacular: New Connections in Language, Literature, and Culture. He is currently pursuing his PhD with the Department of Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville.