Janet McAdams translates Jeanne Karen

The Blue Glass of My Window

This poverty’s a persistent stain of motor oil I try to get off the way dogs shake water from their fur. Happiness has become a new flower on my desk and shows up each day like a notebook or an achingly cloudy sky or a snail on the blue glass of my window. The street fades away as I proceed toward nothingness. I turn the world’s last corner and the verses of Pessoa come to me just as I’m passing the Buena Vista Social Club, now out of business. Then the water spills, the chocolates are stale and metaphysics just boarded the city bus. A cab driver lets me cross, I’m getting to class early. We’ll listen to music today. Meanwhile, I’m thinking of the water jug, of the heart that seems empty or that child-god who needs love, if he were with me, I’d buy him an ice cream as if it were the only possibility for happiness, the only sure thing in his universe.


Cézanne’s Flowers

Dreams are also words. Twisted words dropping from a train, bringing my ghosts back from the future. The first comes down: black suit, breasts bare, metallic tulips the color of peaches to cover her head. And the next: long skirt, a sort of tent with curtains from different kinds of fabric, many textures for a single outfit. Another also wears a black suit and little prints of colorful seahorses travel across her back, she wears shoes that are dark and light for hurrying to the next platform. An aerial ice rink outlined by the halls’ windows. The atmosphere’s freezing but bodies bear whatever temperature. Happiness is a park of oil paintings, Cézanne’s flowers. The afternoon takes shape among muddy blues against a yellow, red, and sea-colored background. Memories of sun. Loose petals, pieces of burst, phosphorescent roses white as the naked bodies of women closing. Brown eyes blur light through the haze. Coffee shops are underwater. Traveling by sphere is enough—a couple of minutes, nothing more. Out of nowhere, a shopping mall appears, they sell coffee beans from all the islands still in existence, you don’t have to drink it: you have to feel it through your skin, varieties ranging from little electric shocks to the tongue, even an all-night entry into the special capsule, a room covered in purple tapestry where you can talk to a god who combs his hair in bed.

The garden closes early because at night everything changes: flowers might be some predatory, devouring animal, a little firefly or a family of frogs. To take away a souvenir of the place, you must have faith and space on your skin, because you can ask for a tattoo of the sun to light up your room for a week. Or maybe you’d want to get one of those sweets you put under the tongue so you regret nothing.

Backlit, the ghosts of the future are slender and change voice and body, because at some point in their civilization they realized one is never what others see, but an idea made manifest, the other’s desire. They don’t know war. Their cosmogony says they were born from a moon and in their world there’s no conflict, only creation. In their time I’m a murky figure, a state of the soul, an apparent mood, living, shining. In another mirror’s dream, I’m a mechanical sparrow, reconstructing itself. Winter’s my home. Sea eye, aperture to the life of water men. Their tears are stars from the night I died.


Translator’s Note:

These two dreamy prose poems are characteristic of the arc and themes of Jeanne Karen’s 2022 collection La vida no es tan clásica [Life’s Not So Remarkable], which I feel fortunate to be in the process of translating. Like much of Karen’s lyric poetry, these poems catalog an invented and inventive landscape, one rife with transformation, with novel logics of color, image, and sign. Where they depart is in their greater attention to narrative and storytelling, in their subtle and intricate blurring of genre lines. There’s a sense of the tale in these poems, the archetypal clever-girl-hero making her way through an uncanny landscape whose events she must decode and learn from.

Karen revises those archetypal forms by putting them into conversation with the clutter of contemporary urban existence, something evident in “The Blue Glass of My Window.” In the poem, the speaker-narrator is headed to work, bombarded by the visual tangle of city life, one in which stale chocolates and metaphysics are weighted equally, where a moment of courtesy from the cab driver who “lets me cross” and the beautiful blues of the sky and window are notable, held alongside what grounds the speaker: “that child-god who needs love,” who is with her even when he is not.

The landscape of “Cézanne’s Flowers” is much more askew, reminiscent of the territories we make our way through in nighttime dreaming. Its deft mixing of the built and the natural is extraordinary—there are coffee shops and frogs, a shopping mall and a little firefly. Karen has, in her poetry, a knack for rendering tenderness so utterly it becomes vulnerability, so much so there’s even a hint of violence. “Loose petals, pieces of burst, phosphorescent roses white as the naked bodies of women closing,” she writes, in a particularly layered and complex string of images in what is already an especially layered and complex poem. As I worked my way through this capacious and rich poem, I sought to balance its well-populated beginnings with the surprising direction the final paragraph takes—beautiful spare language from a single, decidedly solitary speaker: “Winter’s my home. Sea eye, aperture to the life of water men. Their tears are stars from the night I died.”


Jeanne Karen Hernández Arriaga, born in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, is a poet, editor, journalist, cultural activist, and columnist. Her fifteen books include, most recently, La vida no es tan clásica (Editorial Zeta Centuria de Argentina, 2022), a new edition of her 2007 collection El gato de Schrödinger (Instituto de Física de la Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, 2023), Púrpura Nao (Editorial Grito Impreso, San Luis Potosí, 2018), and Menta (Editorial Ponciano Arriaga, 2019, San Luis Potosí), which won the 20 de Noviembre Prize. Among her many honors are a grant from the Fondo Estatal para la Cultura y las Artes, the Manuel José Othón Award, and the Salvador Gallardo Dávalos Award.

Janet McAdams is a writer, translator, and scholar. A bilingual edition of her new and selected poems, Buffalo in Six Directions / Búfalo en seis direciones, (trans. Hedeen and Rodríguez Núñez) was recently published in Mexico City (Editorial Aldus) and in Patagonia (Espacio Hudson). Her translations of Bolivian poets Paura Rodríguez Leytón, Mónica Velásquez Guzmán, and Melissa Sauma have appeared in Anomaly, Kestrel, Poesía en Acción, and Poetry. In 2024, she was awarded an NEA Fellowship in Translation. She lives in Mexico.