Shireen Hamza translating Ali Abdeddine

Revelations of Withdrawal – من وحي العزلةA Return to Rain

A thick fog obscured the view, and
changed the rhythm of life. A Trojan poet
renounced his share of loss, the dregs of
failure remaining in his heart. There can
be no despair when it rains.
And I am as well as can be expected, with
merely a shudder in the muscle of the
imagination, insignificant cracks west of
my left shoulder.
Language is safe from all harm.
It will traverse the distance of this
damaged moment.
And this time, there will be no tale of loss,
even as the echo dismounted, ancient,
hoarse, rotting, and fumed at me.
I will forget the fog, smoke tobacco and
memories rolled in oblivion,
I will fill an urn with my hoarse voice, give
it to the wind to spite the clouds that may
not rain. I will fold up my bones, tuck
them into seats for the everlasting wait. 
I will remove the hat of my longing, put it
aside, and recite the psalm of autumn,
“As we created the first failure, so we will
retrieve it.”

From “Letters to a woman unseen”

عود على مطر

ضباب كثيف حجب الرؤية و غير إيقاع
الحياة. الشاعر الطروادي تنازل عن حصته
من الخسارة لما تبقى من الخيبة في إناء
،القلب، لا يأس مع المطر… أنا على ما يرام
مجرد ارتجاج في عضلة المخيلة، شروخ
طفيفة غرب ذراعي اليسرى، اللغة سالمة
من أي أذى، ستواصل هذا المدى في ساعة
الحاضر المعطوبة…  سوف لن تكون هناك
حكاية للعدم هذه المرة، حتى الصدى ترجل
عن حصانه، شاخ، بح صوته، تهرأ مزاجه
واستشاط غيضا مني، سأضرب صفحا عن
الضباب، سأدخن التبغ والذكريات لفائف
للنسيان، سأملأ للريح جرارا من صوتنا
،المبحوح نكاية بالسحابة التي قد لا تمطر
سأطوي عظامي في مقاعد للانتظار
الأزلي، وأضع قبعة الحنين جانبا، ثم أتلو
صلوات الخريف، كما بدأنا أول خيبة نعيدها
“من “رسائل إلى سيدة لا ترى

Waiting for the Poem

The night announced its mourning for the
pain sitting cross-legged on the hearts of
the forgotten. Perhaps I will only concern
my imagination with silence and the
passing grief of the soul. Perhaps I will
wrap myself in blue and die, hugging the
Poem’s body. Nothing can justify joy while
the heart leans on emptiness and
confusion. I frantically seek out those
turns in the road which are unstuck
from the mire of things. I approach the
page, wielding my pen. I announce my
imaginary war with the demeanor of a
philosopher, who has corrupted
everything. The rhythm of sentences does
not concern me; I care only to retrieve the
freedom of things. My complete freedom
from falseness and delusion. 
There is nothing quite like death on the
body of the poem. There is nothing like
receding from the falseness of
attachment. I belong to nothing but the
Poem. I carry the guitar of orphanhood,
that I may embroider its clothing. How
sweet are the drops of love pouring from
the face of the Poem, as it kisses me! It is
enough to wail over the wound I cradle.
I caught a glimpse of Rimbaud, hiding in
the African brush, surrendering to
temptations, leaving his Poem to sail
eternally. I saw Darwish’s beloved,
hanging the oppressors with cherries of
defeat, bemoaning the afflictions of her
people and her life. I saw the Poem,
freeing itself from Plato’s curse.
I discovered that life without the Poem is
lusterless shadow, or, at least, it is for me.
It behooves me to put everything in order,
as I wait for it. I transgress borders and burn
doors. I clean my room and the
bedsheets of longing. I polish the window
glass. I clear the darkness from Narcissus’
vision. I air out my jacket from the stench
of prose. I pour the wine, filling two
glasses. I banish the clamorous fly,
submerge the honeybee of dreams in the
lake of my Soul. I recall the dreams of
Shahrayar, and banish Shahrazad. I ally
myself with Imagination. And I allow for
the spilling of blood of all things. I
embrace death with a surging gentleness.
I dig a grave. I betray my lover and grant
the Poem my pillow. I idolize thought and
sensation. I free myself from the gargling
of meaningless chatter and the banalities
around my neck. I bury my inspiration in
the dirt of my heart, and plant dream-
trees around it. I sanctify the tree and the
statue. I hang the feral cats of politics,
wrench the wheat of the poor from their
ribs. I liberate the caged childhood. I fill
the dungeons with ravens and the
enemies of Freedom. These are dynasties
deserving of disgust.
Waiting for the poem, I long to be myself
and no one else. I wish to loosen the binds
of hidden desires, to free the Buraq of
madness from Myth’s prisons. Perhaps I
have become who I wish myself to be,
waiting for the Poem.

 في انتظار القصيدة

  يعلن الليل الحداد من أجل الوجع الذي
يتربع على قلوب المنسيين. يمكن أن أفرد
مخيلتي للصمت وللكآبة العابرة للروح. يمكن
أن أتلحف الأزرق وأموت عانقا جسد
القصيدة. لاشيء يبرر الفرح عندما يتعمد
القلب بالخواء والتيه. أبحث جاهدا عن
منعطفات بريئة من وحل الأشياء. أقترب من
الورقة، شاهرا قلمي. أعلن حربي الوهمية
بمزاج فيلسوف أتلف كل شيء. لا يهمني إيقاع
.الجمل ما يهمني استعادة براءة الأشياء
.براءتي من الزيف والوهم

،لاشيء يضاهي الموت على جسد القصيدة
،ولاشيء يماثل الانحلال من زيف الارتباطات
لا أنتمي إلا للقصيدة. أحمل قيثارة اليتم كي
أطرز ثوبها. ما أحلى قطرات العشق التي
تندلق من ثغر القصيدة حين تقبلني. يكفي أن
.أنتحب على الجرح الذي أحضنه

،لمحت رامبو يختفي في الأدغال الإفريقية
مستسلما للغوايات، تاركا قصيدته تواصل
إبحارها الأزلي. رأيت حبيبة درويش تشنق
الطغاة بكرز الهزيمة. تنتحب جرحها القومي
والإنساني. رأيت القصيدة تتخلص من لعنتها
،اكتشفت أن الحياة دونها، مجرد ظلال باهتة
على الأقل حياتي أنا. يتعين علي أن أرتب كل
شيء في انتظارها. أخترق الحدود وأحرق
الأبواب. أنظف غرفتي وشراشف الحنين
ألمع زجاج النافذة. أفرك الغبش عن عيون
.النرجس. أتخلص من رائحة النثر في معطفي
أصب نبيذا أصيلا وأملأ كأسين. أطرد ذباب
الصخب.  وأغمس نحلة الأحلام في بحيرة
الروح. أستعيد أحلام شهريار. وأطرد
.شهرزاد. أنصر المخيلة. أستبيح دم الأشياء
.أحضن الموت بحنان جارف. أحفر قبرا
أخون حبيبتي وأمنح القصيدة وسادتي. أوثن
الفكر والحواس. أتحرر من غرغرة الثرثرة
والتفاهات في حلقي. أدفن ملهمتي في تربة
قلبي. أغرس حولها أشجار الأحلام. أقدس
،الشجرة والتمثال. أشنق قطط السياسة
وأستخرج من أحشائها حنطة الفقراء. أحرر
الطفولة السجينة. وأملأ الزنازين بالغربان
.وأعداء الحرية. إنهم سلالات تستحق الغثيان
في انتظار القصيدة أحرص على أن أكون أنا
لا أحد غيري. أحب أن أطلق الغرائز الكامنة
من عقالها، وأحرر براق الجنون من قيود
الأسطورة. ربما صرت أنا الذي أريد أن
.أكونه في إنتظار القصيدة

The Forgotten Man’s Room

A person is forgotten, disappeared,
leaving behind him a pile of things which
remained to announce his death. A grey
sweater hung on the wall, an overturned
cup on scattered books, a layer of dust
atop well-read stories, a painful image, an
old notebook of memories, a broken
pencil, an eraser nibbled by longing.
This is how he found this room when he
returned, not knowing where he was. He
could have asked himself, but he didn’t;
the explanation of this myth seemed ever
more trivial than the myth itself. The room
itself awoke feelings aroused by the things
the dead leave behind. Maybe he is dead
somewhere, but here he is now, proudly
celebrating the experience. A little
sadness, and a lot of disdain for these things,
enjoying more longevity than their
owner. But feelings like these arrive and
depart suddenly.
The scent of books, wood, moisture,
coffee, bodies, perfume, dreams,
loneliness, being orphaned, being far from
home, panic, pain and forgetting…
The pallor of the cold chair, the dim light,
the toothbrush on the ground, the broken
glass of water, the dirty window, the wall
clock frozen at four, stopping time as it
waited for him. He sank into a chair,
thanked his things which remembered him
and waited for him in his absence, freed
his senses, submitting to the inner
Those who hurry, fuel the machine of
death. But those who tarry can become
sand disrupting the speeding machinery of
time. Remember that popular proverb:
“you rush, you die.”
He became intoxicated with the thought
of oblivion.
Water leaks from holes in the imagination;
he drowned in his thoughts… He packaged
oranges and fish for the hungry, spent the
night conversing with the marginalized
and forgotten on the edges of the city,
banished the shrieking raven to the
streets, the bars and the tops of trees, he
called out, screamed, cursed, but no one
hears the forgotten. He will never again
appear the way he was. He has become
nothing more than a wounded letter,
wrapped in bandages.

غرفة المنسي

ويختفي، تاركا وراءه
،ركام أشيائه التي قد تعلن الموت بعده
معطف رمادي معلق على الجدار، كوب
مقلوب فوق الكتب المبعثرة، قصاصات
ملاحظات علاها غبار، صورة الأم، دفتر
،الذكريات القديم، قلم الرصاص المكسور
ممحاة قضم منها فأر الحنين.. هكذا وجد
الغرفة بعد عودته، لا يدري أين كان؟
بإمكانه أن يسأل نفسه، لكنه لم يفعل لأن
شرح هذه الأسطورة يبدو أتفه منها. وحدها
الغرفة كانت توقظ تلك المشاعر المماثلة
للتي توقظها مخلفات الموتى، ربما كان
ميتا في مكان ما، وها هو الآن يحتفي بتلك
التجربة بفخر، قليلا من الحزن ومزيدا من
الكراهية للأشياء التي تتمتع بديمومة
أكثر من صاحبها، لكنها أحاسيس تأتي
وتذهب فجأة . رائحة الكتب والخشب
والرطوبة والبن والجسد والعطور والأحلام
والوحدة واليتم والغربة والضجر والألم
والنسيان.. شحوب الكرسي البارد، الضوء
الخافت، فرشاة الأسنان على الأرض، كأس
الماء المكسور، زجاج النافذة الداكن، ساعة
الحائط التي تجمد عقربيها عند الساعة
الرابعة، توقف الزمن في انتظاره، استرخى
على الكرسي، شكر أشياءه التي
تذكرته وانتظرته في غيابه، حرر حواسه
مستسلما للمونولوج الداخلي. المستعجلون
هم وقود آلة الموت، أما المتمهلون فبوسعهم
ان يكونوا رملا يحول دون حركة آلة
الزمن السريعة، تذكر المثل العامي: “اللي
زربوا ماتوا “. وانتشى بفكرة النسيان التي
.يقبع داخلها

تتسرب المياه من ثقب المخيلة، يغرق في
الأفكار.. يعبئ صناديق البرتقال والسمك
للفقراء الجائعين، يسامر الغرباء والمهمشين
المنسيين في ضواحي المدينة ، يطرد
الغربان الناعقة في الشوارع والحانات
وفوق الأشجار، ينادي، يصرخ، يلعن، لا
،أحد يسمع المنسي، لم يعد يرى كما كان
صار مجرد رسالة جريحة تلفها ضمادات

Translator’s Note

Shireen Hamza hails from Woodridge, a suburb of Chicago. She studied at an Islamic seminary in Karachi, where she memorized the Quran, and then at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, where she studied literature and cognitive science. She is currently a doctoral student in Harvard University’s History of Science Department, studying the history of medicine in the Islamic world. She has been involved in organizing and performing at slam poetry venues with the Verbal Mayhem Poetry Collective, a space founded by Black and Latinx artists in the Rutgers and New Brunswick communities.

Ali Abdeddine was born in the south of Morocco, in the small town of Anguizem, in the region of Essaouira, where he memorized the Quran. For the past two years, he has taught Arabic language at the American Arabic Language Institute in Meknes. He has a master’s degree in Arabic literature from Moulayy Ismail University in Meknes, where he studied under the renowned literary critic, Benaissi Buhamala (بنعيسي بوحمالة). Ali is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in Amazigh literature at the Faculté des lettres et des sciences humaines Ain Chock, in Casa Blanca. His doctoral research focuses on the work of Muhammad Mustawi (محمد مستاوي).

Samuel Martin translating Jean-Christophe Bailly

Amid the Mounting Ugliness

Amid the mounting ugliness
            the resistance of flowers is strange, is amazing
            “say it with”
            say it,
            simply: I see them: such
            and in their numbers
along the lines the Cherubinic Pilgrim set down
for all time (immer) in his notebook:
            Die Rose ist ohne warum
            “The rose is without a why”
            (we don’t know it, we forget it)
no one’s rose: Niemandsrose: yes
            but iris and peony just as well
and these branches decked in white flowers
forming a luminous explosion in spring
: burning bush, Spiraea

two characteristics are especially striking:
            1. the ephemeral nature of these lives
            2. their distance from ours
            (they are our world, we live with them
            but they know us not)

I’ll develop 1, then 2

1. on the ephemeral nature of plant occurrences
and flowerings first of all
rhetorical flowering is known and frequent
but over flowers is always cast the shadow of human time
floral itself by comparison, they say
along with the refrain “a rose, she lived as roses do…” (which is ugly)
yet it’s not in these terms that one should judge the brightness
envisage what appears,
what can be seen
 – they are series of states in constant flux
leaning evolutions, bearings
curved wonders, and “wonders” is already going too far
if what takes place – what is – behaves that way,
in other words naturally, in other words without intention
: we pass within, in this world without intention that bears us
in this world that bears us and is not turned toward us
with the morning dew, for instance, and each one is perfect
even those already wilted
(the most spectacular wilt being that of the iris:
in place of fading eyelashes the color
of veritable rotting flanks, and sticky)
how much time, how much time, how long do they last,
flowers, how long do you last?
a few days at most, a rising of sap in glory
then the end, quite sudden, and this verb: they wither
none of the tiny units of meaning released this way says anything
a few queens or an entire people
like Mechlin lace, and that’s all: it was thus
but there is – and our knowledge of this is vague – there is
a heritage for these passers-by, lineages, dynastic forms
they come back
and so it is that these forms swallowed up by time become
the mark of time itself
time, in other words the seasons
as they happen, as they come
late, now and then, one announcing another or carrying its train
and flowers hardly stand to the side of this endless succession
for they are themselves the journey,
always journeying, carried away, whisked away,
whisked away without cause in their pure finery of effects
with which, as we know, a scent can mingle, a fragrance faint or strong
and delicious depending on the case
that is to say, the most heady and volatile thing of all
: a signature, but borne in the air and soon dissolved
hence a quiver of time and the very emission of transience,
of the unenduring
“dissipates,” that’s what they say, and we find ourselves in the shrouded night
and in the light of day, and that’s no doubt why
it’s after dusk (when night falls on day, darkens it, augments the visible
with a veil it was waiting for and welcomes, but so calmly,
like that which has been so long awaited)
after dusk that it trembles most, and rises, gently,
it’s this word, “gently,” that perhaps does not belong,
for it’s more than gentle, sunk into itself and drifting away
like the “vanishing sound” of Chinese music, remaining suspended
in the air around things, yes, the paradox of continuous vanishing
such would be the sendoff, the flight, the falling back.

2. What comes, where they are, are they?
in the forests, meadows, gardens, a rumor of echoes spread
in other words a noiseless mist, each flower come down a notch
in the silence: the without-a-why returns to us and is itself
astonished: “the ever-receding world of flowers,” wrote
Novalis, and with him we could go down the length of the catalog
each name withdrawing its name in an endless fall out of meaning
there where they came in the first place, there where we picked them
the hardest thing being to think of this as a cascade
in which we are immersed
which is not, cannot be, the way in which they come, leave
and return, it is strangeness to us, entirely,
without eyes, outside the law of blood, floating, without thickness,
fractal surfaces unfolded, opening out in space
like so many points or nodes
they go their way, they’re outward bound, always
in clusters or by themselves, we see them,
they have no words, they carry their names
outside the field of words
say it with flowers they used to say and so it’s a language
although silent and it’s as such that at the end they accompany us
in sprays and swaths over the dead I remember
an ocean of garlands and wreaths flooding
the crematorium steps
although captive there like the creatures in the zoo
and like them condemned to visibility
they continue to rebel against this capture
precisely as if, open, they were closing:
and the dead go their way flanked by the gentle fury of this silence.

Dans l’enlaidissement aggravé

Dans l’enlaidissement aggravé
            la résistance des fleurs est étrange, est énorme
            « dîtes-le avec »
            simplement : je les vois : telles
            et dans leurs quantités
selon le mode que le pèlerin chérubinique, pour toujours (immer)
a consigné dans son cahier :
            Die Rose ist ohne warum
            « La rose est sans pourquoi »
            (on ne le sait pas, on l’oublie)
rose de personne : Niemandsrose : oui
            mais aussi bien iris ou pivoine
et ces branches couvertes de fleurs blanches
formant une explosion lumineuse au printemps
: le buisson ardent, les spirées

deux caractéristiques sont particulièrement frappantes :
            1. le caractère éphémère de ces vies
            2. leur éloignement par rapport à la nôtre
            (elles sont notre monde, nous habitons avec elles
            mais elles ne nous connaissent pas)

Je développerai 1, puis 2

1. sur le caractère éphémère des occurrences végétales
et premièrement des floraisons
la floraison rhétorique est avérée et nombreuse
mais toujours porte sur les fleurs l’ombre de la durée humaine
florale elle aussi par comparaison, disent-ils
selon le refrain « et rose elle a vécu… » (qui est moche)
or ce n’est pas à cette aune qu’il faut mesurer l’éclat
envisager ce qui paraît,
ce qui se voit
– ce sont des successions d’états qui ne s’installent jamais
des devenirs penchés, des allures
des prodiges courbés et prodiges est déjà bien trop dire
si ce qui a lieu – ce qui est – se conduit de la sorte,
c’est-à-dire naturellement, c’est-à-dire sans intention
: nous passons dedans, dans ce monde sans intention qui nous porte
dans ce monde qui nous porte et qui n’est pas tourné vers nous
au matin par exemple avec la rosée et chacune est parfaite
même les déjà flétries
(le flétrissement le plus spectaculaire étant celui des iris :
en lieu et place d’un évanouissement de cils dans la couleur
de véritables hampes pourries, et qui collent)
combien de temps, combien de temps, quelle est leur durée,
fleurs, quelle est votre durée ?
quelques jours tout au plus, une montée de sève et en gloire
puis la fin, très vite, et ce verbe : elles se fanent
aucune des petites unités de sens ainsi libérées ne dit rien
quelques reines ou tout un peuple
comme celui de la dentelle de Malines et c’est tout : ce fut
mais il y a – et nous en avons un obscur savoir – il y a
pour ces passantes un héritage, des lignées, des formes dynastiques
elles reviennent
et voici que ces formes avalées par le temps deviennent
la marque du temps lui-même
le temps c’est-à-dire les saisons
comme elles se font, comme elles viennent
avec retard, parfois, l’une annonçant l’autre ou en emportant la traîne
or de cette suite sans fin les fleurs ne s’exilent pas
puisqu’elles sont elles-mêmes le voyage,
en voyage, toujours, les emmenées, les emportées,
les emportées sans cause dans leur pure parure d’effets
où se mêle parfois, on le sait, un parfum, une odeur forte ou ténue
et délicieuse selon les cas
soit ce qui est le plus entêtant et le plus volatil
: une signature, mais portée dans l’air et aussitôt dissoute
c’est donc du temps frémi et l’émission même de l’éphémère,
du sans durée
« se dissipe », c’est ce qu’on dit, et là nous sommes dans la nuit du cache
et en plein jour et c’est pourquoi, sans doute,
c’est au soir (quand nuit tombe sur jour, l’assombrit, augmentant le visible
d’un voile qu’il attendait et qu’il accueille, mais si calmement,
comme ce qui a été tant attendu)
au soir que ça tremble le plus, et s’élève, doucement,
c’est ce mot, « doucement », que peut-être il ne faudrait pas,
car c’est plus que doux, enfoncé en soi et s’en allant comme
le « son disparaissant » de la musique chinoise, tout en restant en suspens
dans l’air autour des choses, oui, le paradoxe d’une disparition continue
tels seraient l’envoi, l’envol, la retombée.

2. Ce qui vient, où elles sont, le sont-elles ?
dans les forêts, les prés, les jardins, rumeur d’échos propagée
c’est-à-dire une brume muette chaque fleur descendue d’un cran
dans le silence : le sans pourquoi nous revient et c’est lui-même
qui s’étonne : « éloignement infini du monde des fleurs » a écrit
Novalis et nous pourrions descendre avec lui le long du catalogue
chaque nom retirant son nom dans une chute infinie hors du sens
là où elles sont venues tout d’abord, là où nous les avons cueillies
le plus difficile étant d’y penser comme à une cascade
où nous serions immergés
ce qui n’est pas, ne peut pas être, la façon dont elles viennent, partent
et reviennent, c’est l’étrangeté pour nous, entièrement,
sans yeux, hors de la loi du sang, flottantes, sans épaisseur,
surfaces fractales dépliées s’ouvrant dans l’espace
comme autant de points ou de nœuds
elles s’en vont, elles sont en partance, toujours
en grappes ou isolées, on les voit,
elles n’ont pas de parole, elles emmènent leurs noms
hors du champ des paroles
dîtes-le avec des fleurs disaient-ils et c’est donc un langage
quoique muet et c’est comme tel qu’à la fin il nous accompagne
en gerbes et en jonchées sur les morts je me souviens
d’un océan de guirlandes et de couronnes envahissant
les marches du crématorium
quoique captives alors comme les animaux du zoo
et comme eux condamnées à la visibilité
elles demeurent rétives à cette capture
exactement comme si ouvertes elles se fermaient :
et les morts s’en vont bordés par la furieuse douceur de ce silence.

Bailly’s poem originally appeared in issue 7 of the journal Hippocampe, April 2012, on pp. 115-117.

Translator’s Note

The title of a recent collection of texts by Jean-Christophe Bailly, L’Élargissement du poème (2015), sums up the task he has now been pursuing for over 40 years: that of expanding the poem, broadening its horizons while freeing it from outmoded generic constraints. After all, the verb élargir, besides meaning to widen, can also mean to release a prisoner – and “Amid the Mounting Ugliness” attempts one such rescue, plucking flowers from the syrup of poetic cliché. For all its imitation of an academic exercise, there is nothing clichéd or conventional about Bailly’s poem, down to the sparsely punctuated flow of some lines that may recall in passing the verse of Guillaume Apollinaire. (Bailly has a fond memory of being given a dictation from Apollinaire’s Alcools as a schoolboy, and his sense of exhilaration – not to say relief! – at the lack of punctuation.) Apollinaire’s irregular sonnet “Les Colchiques” (“Autumn Crocuses”) uses a similarly disrupted prosody to alert the reader that all is not what it seems, yet even with its bitter irony, the poem’s conceit – comparing a woman to a flower – tends toward the kind of anthropomorphism that “Amid the Mounting Ugliness” rejects. Bailly draws instead on a triad of German-language writers, namely Angelus Silesius, Novalis, and Paul Celan, all of whom invoke the irreducible distance between the realm of flowers and that of humans. These references already crop up in Bailly’s botanical musings from 1997’s Le Propre du langage, a book that revels in the evocative power of common nouns. “Amid the Mounting Ugliness,” meanwhile, leans more on its verbs, emphasizing the astoundingly active existence of the flowers that, once we unlearn the tired reflexes of lyric sentimentality and commercial appropriation, we may yet come to contemplate for what they are.

Samuel Martin teaches French at the University of Pennsylvania. His translations have appeared in The Adirondack ReviewDoublespeakVisions International, and Jacket2. His interview with Jean-Christophe Bailly, “Sillages de l’éveil,” was published in the March 2015 issue of The French Review.

Jean-Christophe Bailly is increasingly recognized as one of the major voices of contemporary European literature. Pushing the rich legacy of German Romanticism into the 21st century, his work lies at the confluence of numerous genres and disciplines, including poetry, philosophy, theater, art history, urban and animal studies. Among his recent books are Le Dépaysement: Voyages en France (winner of the Prix Décembre, 2011), Le Parti pris des animaux (2013), and L’Élargissement du poème (2015).

Hélène Cardona translating Maram Al-Masri

Ten Poems from Maram Al-Masri

What do you do, my sisters

                   15 March 2013: 5,000 women in Syrian prisons.

What do you do, my sisters,
when your breasts swell
and harden from pain?

When suffering
your belly

when sorrow floods you

and the blood
flowing between your legs
darkens and hardens.

What do you do with the smell? 

What do you do, my sisters,
when your period starts
in cold dark

in prisons where they shoot and torture
in prisons where you are

From Liberty Walks Naked by Maram Al-Masri (Elle va nue la liberté, Éditions Bruno Doucey, 2013)

Arms falling

Arms falling
hands slightly open to the sky
like someone who hasn’t found even in God
answers to his questions.

I think he turned
on himself a thousand times
for despair
struck him like lightning.

killed him.
The way bombs
killed his children.

From Liberty Walks Naked by Maram Al-Masri (Elle va nue la liberté, Éditions Bruno Doucey, 2013)

Wooden crates, wooden crates

Wooden crates, wooden crates
rise lightly
as if made of air.
They turn, turn…
Men dance with them,
they sing
songs that burst in the sky,
melt mountains of pain.

Wooden crates turn, turn
as if on wings,
fly in the dance
from shoulder to shoulder, ascend, ascend,
and fall…

Bare crates
austere as the death of the poor.
With wooden, stifled cries,
dreams whose eyes closed,
smiles that no longer see lips.
With wooden wet faces,
kisses of a bereaved mother.

Caskets, caskets,
expensive gifts
for liberty’s wedding.

From Liberty Walks Naked by Maram Al-Masri (Elle va nue la liberté, Éditions Bruno Doucey, 2013)

In a sordid hospital room

In a sordid hospital room
a wounded man lies on a dirty bed.
A man with a pen and notebook
approaches and asks,
was it the army of outlaws
that shot you?
No, says the wounded.
The man continues:
You must sign here that it was the outlaws
who shot you.
No, says the wounded.
A gun closes on his temple:
sign here!
No, it was the government army.

A gun goes off.

From Liberty Walks Naked by Maram Al-Masri (Elle va nue la liberté, Éditions Bruno Doucey, 2013)

In a small Suzuki van

In a small Suzuki van
he laid his dead wife,
neatly arranged her clothes
as if she slept.

On the seat,
the bag of bread
she went to fetch
for her starving children
so her death
might not seem meaningless.  

From Liberty Walks Naked by Maram Al-Masri (Elle va nue la liberté, Éditions Bruno Doucey, 2013)

We exiles

We exiles
survive on painkillers.
Our country became Facebook
it opens us to the sky
closed before our faces
at the border.

We exiles
sleep pressing our cell phones
against ourselves.
Under the lit
screens of our computers
we fall asleep full of sadness
and wake up full of hope.

We exiles
lurk around our distant homes
the way the enamored
lurk around prisons,
hoping to spot the shadow
of their lovers.
We exiles are sick
with an incurable disease:

Loving a country
put to death.

From Liberty Walks Naked by Maram Al-Masri (Elle va nue la liberté, Éditions Bruno Doucey, 2013)

Liberty’s children

Liberty’s children
don’t dress in Petit Bateau.
Their skin quickly gets used to rough cloth.
Liberty’s children
wear used clothes
and oversized shoes.
They don the naked air or soil.

Liberty’s children
don’t know the taste of bananas
or strawberries.
They eat stale bread
soaked in the water of patience.

At bedtime,
liberty’s children
don’t take a bath
they don’t blow soap bubbles.
They play with tires, stones
and the debris
of bombs.

Before sleep,
liberty’s children
don’t brush their teeth.
They don’t wait for magical tales
of princes and princesses.

They listen to the sound of fear and cold.
On the sidewalks,
in the front doors of their demolished homes,
in the camps of neighboring countries
in tombs.

Liberty’s children
like all the world’s children

From Liberty Walks Naked by Maram Al-Masri (Elle va nue la liberté, Éditions Bruno Doucey, 2013)

War rages

War rages in Rwanda
and I eat
War rages in Yugoslavia
and I smile
War rages in Palestine
and I sleep

but since they’ve taken you away
war rages within me

From The Abduction by Maram Al-Masri  (Le Rapt, Éditions Bruno Doucey, 2015)

Far from my arms

Far from my arms
you sleep in a bed that is not yours
you no longer see my face
nor my eyes looking at you with such love
you no longer take my hands
as was your habit
before falling asleep

at night you wake
to say Mommy
to a woman who is not me

far from my eyes
you will grow
go to school

and I won’t wait for you by the door
you’ll be sick
and I won’t be by your side

I won’t know your face or voice
I won’t know your smell
or the size of your shoes
you will remain in my memory
the eighteen-month-old child
kidnapped from me

From The Abduction by Maram Al-Masri  (Le Rapt, Éditions Bruno Doucey, 2015)

Under the bed

Under the bed
I found the teddy bear
you clasped and covered with kisses
the one you talked to, eyes wide open
waiting for the angel of sleep to come to you

do you remember how it stopped
the storm of your cries
when I waved it at you
the night of your eyes glistened
and even the Niagara Falls
stopped falling

you tore it from my hands
clutching it against you
it was your companion
to face the night
your silent friend
the one you neglected when busy
the one you looked for when sad

the teddy bear and angel of sleep
keep looking for you

From The Abduction by Maram Al-Masri  (Le Rapt, Éditions Bruno Doucey, 2015)

Hélène Cardona is a poet, literary translator and actor, whose most recent books include Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves (both from Salmon Poetry), and the translations Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, White Pine Press), winner of a Hemingway Grant, Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux, Éditions du Cygne), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb. She contributes essays to The London Magazine, co-edits Plume and Fulcrum: An Anthology of Poetry and Aesthetics. She holds a Master’s in American Literature from the Sorbonne, has worked as a translator for the Canadian Embassy in Paris, and taught at Hamilton College and LMU.

Maram Al-Masri was born in Lattakia, Syria, and moved to France following the completion of English Literature studies at Damascus University. She is the recipient of many prestigious literary prizes, including the Prix d’Automne 2007 de Poésie de la Société des Gens De Lettres, the Adonis Prize of the Lebanese Cultural Forum, the Premio Citta di Calopezzati for the section Poésie de la Mediterranée, Il Fiore d’Argento, and the Dante Alighieri Prize. Al-Masri’s sixteen books include Je te regardePar la fontaine de ma boucheLa robe froisséeElle va nue la libertéLe Rapt, and Cerise rouge sur un carrelage blanc.

Megan Berkobien translating Joan Todó


Just like every month, the postal clerk will hand you a pile of mail for the houses on the outskirts of town. You’ll stash it in your bag, hop on your bike, and set off on your way. It’s a route full of somersaults and roundabouts you worked out yourself. The only goal: that her house be the final stop. You’ll ride through residential streets settled by well-off, foreign retirees from the capital, many of them there only for the summer. But She lives there all year long, so you’ll drop off magazines, postcards, catalogues in every mailbox—turning and spinning like a bee nears a flower—with her letter, postmarked from a far-off place, saved for last.    

And like always, you’ll leave your bike in the shade beneath the carob tree and walk up to the country house, studying the outside wall, rusted and wild, now overrun with ivy. When you ring the doorbell the maid, Gertrudis, will answer, looking from side to side as if afraid someone might see. You’ll follow her into the unkempt garden with its overgrown grass and weeds, the weeping willow twisted into one big tangle, the palm trees drooping, the empty pool filled with brackish tree buds, and you’ll enter the house, the grand entrance hall, moving through hallways while the old woman mutters, like always, that this’ll be the last time, she doesn’t intend to participate in such sinful things, that this never happened when the senyor was a boy and his parents were still around. When you reach the inner patio opening onto the garden, toward the Montflorit forest, she’ll order you to sit in the velvet armchair and wait for the senyora, then quickly vanish, like always, through a door that, for an instant, will seem straight out of one of those songs your parents used to listen to.

You’ll rest there, on your own, among the roses and orchids. A few minutes will go by, and you’ll make good use of them by pulling out the letter, beginning to open it, giving it a quick once over before She arrives: fair skin, chestnut locks falling over slim shoulders, her eyes enormous and cheekbones high, pale lips, a delicate chin, shapely contours beneath her silken robe. Like always, She’ll be wearing barely anything and She’ll look at you with disdain, not saying a word, with a tripled contempt that She, since marrying so happily, has shown for people like you, the people from town, for workers like your father, for foolish eighteen-year-old kids like you. She’ll stretch out on the chaise-longue, right there before you, looking at you with a certain sorrow, requesting the letter; She’ll give it a quick glance and, like always, hand it back with anxious eyes, tormenting you with those long, long eyelashes. She’ll order you to read it:

            My love,

just how every letter starts. You’ll clear your throat while She closes her eyes and rests her head, revealing her pale neck, soft, lowering her head to her breast, only to raise it once more while you continue

the days pass, they slip by without ever having started, identical to one another, and all the while I cannot stop thinking of you

and She’ll always open her eyes saying, no, start over again but slower this time, and louder. And you’ll ask yourself why you, much as you’re the nephew of a postman—who offered you the job of delivering these distant letters for a little pocket change, he’s already getting old and doesn’t have children and trusts that you’ll follow in his footsteps—why you, if you, much as you’re one of few people who knows how to read and write in this little town, if you don’t like speaking, you’re soft spoken, you don’t enunciate the words well, you aren’t especially . . . But you’ll do it, you’ll begin again, pausing for a long time at every comma, concentrating on every sound, singing it almost, realizing that the words form chains in a current floating above the rustle of the nearby sea and seagull shrieks and her agitated breath while you read

I miss you all the time. The weather is possessed; it rains day and night and when it is not raining, the mosquitos come out to feed. I am constantly covered in sweat. What is this war in the heart of the jungle? I am drenched in sweat all day long, like a second skin. It is eating me up inside. Idleness devours me whole. Some of my men have fallen ill. But I am well, as well as can be expected.  I am hoping something will happen, but the wait is wearing me thin. It seems the enemy is closer each day, but never comes.  Much like Achilles nearing the tortoise, only now the tortoise—the tortoise is I—never moves. Members of the landing party grow bored and despair. I learned that when night falls, they offer bits of glass to the natives, as if they were jewels, in exchange for carnal knowledge. At times they offer provisions. I should detain them but feel incapable of doing so; I cannot lose them, I do not possess the necessary strength, and sooner or later every man will be indispensable. On the other hand, I understand them: I myself dream every day and night of you, my love! Dearest, you’ll never know how much I miss your body.

And like always, you’ll catch a sigh, you’ll stealthily lift your gaze and see how her hand, with its milky skin, moves slowly down the blood-red silk, caressing her belly, her eyes closed, mouth half-open, and for a moment you’ll think it’s as if you’re the one doing it, as if that transfiguring of flesh was by your absent hand, and she commands you not to stop

In fact, you are already famous: I have hung up your picture on the wall in the cabin that serves as my bedroom and office, and everyone has seen you: everyone praises your beauty. It comforts me to have you here. In the thick of this hell, it helps me to remember you, to relive your kisses, your voice in my ear, your tongue brushing against my earlobe, those first days as husband and wife in the village tower.

It’ll be like always, how your heart leaps when out from the corner of your eye you notice how She, stirring some, has pushed up her dress, moving her hand below and starts stroking, grabbing her breast with the other. Your voice will tremble like always, but as it’s not the first time, now that you’ve already come twice to deliver those first missives from her husband, when they invited you in, made you read the third letter, and She did the same thing, and you stopped reading, frightened and fascinated all at once, the sight of her pink nipple, haloed by her areola and hard between her fingertips, when she noticed and shrieked furiously, she wanted you to keep reading, you pervert

Frankly, I have too much time on my hands. We live in tense calm while the enemy approaches. I spend my days awaiting news that arrives in bits and pieces. Hardly anything every happens here. I study maps and walk about, trying to familiarize myself with the terrain. It will be two weeks now since we caught a spy. I shut him up in a wooden cage, where he could neither sit nor lie. I know that the other natives secretly gave him food, but you can never know which ones. They hate us: we freed them, but they hate us. I interrogated him. I tortured him. He didn’t say a thing. Bastards: they possess the discipline that my men lack. I decided that, at the very least, it would be useful to make an example of him, a public punishment. We tied him upside down in the middle of the village square, and with his legs wide open, naked, we castrated him and left him there to bleed . . .

You’ll know that her fingers will slide between her legs, between curled hairs and thick nectars, fragrant, a scent that comes to you mixed with flowers, her weak moans; that her fingers tangle up in those blackish coils, shiny, and then descend, separating those swirls, discovering a pinkish slit, silky, that unfolds effortlessly like petals bursting through

. . . for an entire day. We made clear that such a destiny is what awaited the rebels. Those who attack civilization. But I am not quite sure: the indigenous are obdurate, irrational. They do not understand us, nor do they want to. My soldiers drink, fight amongst themselves, fornicate every night. They have become abominable; I resist them all, taking refuge in music and reading. I never grow tired of playing Bach on the violin, or of reading Verdaguer. I do not know what I would do without them. I make a speech from time to time. I attempt to improve morale. But the intense heat has wearied us . . . every night I myself think of your mouth atop mine, your lips around me, the nights when we went down to the beach to take a dip and your skin all salty and the color of moon

Like always, you’ll have a painful erection, unbearable; but She’ll already be on her knees, coming toward you, naked, her eyes dim, blind with desire. You’ll have to raise the sheet of paper while She, beneath you, pulls down your pants and underwear, and after staring at your member, fascinated, she passes over it with her left hand, warm, she’ll kiss it one, two times, tenderly almost, and she’ll take you into her mouth. But you know that even so you’ll have to keep reading.

What’s wrong is that the soldiers’ behavior is undermining our relationship with the locals, who are tired of their fighting and singing at late hours of the night, of the thievery, the rape (of women, girls, and, I shudder to admit, of a little boy). So far I have succeeded in holding them back. I’ve offered every excuse: that they stop slandering my soldiers, for example. But I can’t pretend any longer. I need reinforcements, but the commanding officers refuse to help. I need men in order to be rid of these rotten apples. Because when the natives begin feeling more anger than fear . . . But better not to think about that now, we can’t have you worrying. This is war, and we already knew that, right?

She commands you not to stop, before climbing on top of you, putting her back to you as she lowers herself little by little, fitting around your tapered member, moving up, moving back down, her buttocks there before you, balmy, all of it mixed with that sweet, warm aroma. You won’t extend your hand to touch the softer skin in the shade of her breast, like you did once before, when she turned around and screamed, just what are you thinking, and you learned once-and-for-all what your role in this game was

You cannot know how I miss that house in the country, and Gertrudis’ scolding when we spent all morning in bed, rolling around or sleeping, exhausted from those first nights. How I yearn for those midday breakfasts, those evenings we spent resting in the garden. I hope everything remains the same as before: that beautiful landscape, those simpletons you cannot tolerate.

You’ll read on between gulps that cut your breath, before She drags you to the floor and turns, positioning herself on top of you, sporadically moving her legs that now you can hold onto, now you can touch her breasts that hang trembling, while she puts her hand in front of your face, as if intending for you not to see her, or as if she doesn’t want to know who you are, because she’s no longer there, now she’ll only cry out, cry out a name that isn’t yours, and all of a sudden you’ll realize that you already came, that it’s over, and a heavy weariness attacks. You should read the end of the letter, but; She will demand it, like always, after pushing you out of her, your bodies separating, and you’ll read the last sentences while she cries, covering her face with her hand—in that moment you’ll think she seems younger—before telling you to leave, for you to collect the money on the table by the door, for you to not tell anyone about this.

It’ll be one of those days, like always, that you can’t take it anymore and instead of the letter you wrote imitating his careful handwriting, you’ll read the official letter from the Ministry that arrived six months earlier to inform her that Colonel Puigdellívol had fallen in a nocturnal ambush.

Though I do little here, as I have told you, things remain so disturbing that there is no possibility of my returning home for a few days; otherwise, it would have already been done. You cannot know how I long to touch you, my little pink thimble. But more pressing obligations call for my presence here.

I love you,


Translator’s Note

“Letters” is the kind of story that creeps up on you, like the roving ivy that covers old houses in Catalonia where author Joan Todó was born and raised. Our eighteen-year-old protagonist, a xitxarel·lo with little life experience of his own, delivers mail to the rich, often foreign, residents on the outskirts of town. Unlike his fellow postmen, however, he has been charged with a special errand: reading out a young commander’s letters to his wife while he’s away at war in colonial Africa. And acts of reading and warring and yearning and fucking tangle the bodies together in both anticipated and disorienting ways.

But there’s no sentimentalism here. No moral of the story. Todó isn’t offering us respite from the anxieties of war with a series of romantic or sexual fascinations. Instead, his disquieting eroticism allows us to imagine the tragic ironies of European imperialism as they might have played out in the most ordinary of worlds. And, in the end, it’s the ordinary that terrifies; it’s the ordinary that speaks out of turn.

Megan Berkobien is pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers and The Offing, and her translations from Spanish and Catalan have been published in Words without BordersAsymptote, and Palabras Errantes, to name a few. When she’s not translating or teaching, she’s working on a dissertation about the politics of reproduction in nineteenth-century Catalan periodicals and museums.

Joan Todó (1977) is a writer and translator. To date, Todó has published four collections of poetry and short fiction, and his first novel, L’hortizó primer, was recently published by the prestigious press L’Avenç. A butxacades, the collection from which the story “Letters” sprawls out, is a sort of literary time machine, offering artifacts from across time and space. Todó’s literary criticism has appeared in several leading Catalan-language publications, including L’AvençCaràcters and Reduccions, and his most recent translation, a collection of Mark Strand’s poetry, came out earlier this year.

Matthew Landrum and Sámal Soll translating Katrin Ottarsdóttir


a house
six outside doors
seventeen inside doors
twenty-three keyholes

so many doors to lock
so many doors to kick
and slam open or shut
only one of them was permitted to do that
only she
not he
and not the child

so many keyholes
so many near-identical keys
and the child didn’t know which was which
only she
and sometimes he

doors leading to wailing and gnashing of teeth
heady impotence echoing through the keyholes
cursing of feet against a rickety hollow core door
nights full of pent up sounds from doors
but no keys

so many doors
still he had to climb through the basement window
the same window every time
under the stairs where nobody could see him
after all it was a disgrace

and the child was left behind


eitt hús
seks úthurðar
seytjan innihurðar
trýogtjúgu lyklarhol

so nógvar hurðar at læsa
so nógvar hurðar at sparka
og bresta upp og aftur
men tað slapp bara ein
ikki hann
ikki barnið

so nógv lyklarhol
so nógvir næstan sama slag lyklar
men barnið kendi ikki lyklarnar
bara hon
onkuntíð hann

hurðar inn til grát og tannagrísl
ørandi máttloysi ekkóandi gjøgnum lyklarholini
syngjandi leysir hurðaklædningar fullir av forbannilsum
nætur fullar av innistongdum hurðaljóðum
men ongir lyklar

so nógvar hurðar
álíkavæl mátti hann fara út gjøgnum vindeygað í kjallaranum
sama vindeygað hvørja ferð
undir trappuni har ongin sá
tað var jú skomm

men eftir stóð barnið


hope sits in the walls
of the house
where tears
hold sway

joy is an outlaw here
together with stiff smiles it stamps out the rhythm
of a mad dance in darkened room
snight and day
so that children become adults before the sun rises
and adults lose faith in themselves again

despair is best friends with fatigue
added together they make impotence
which mercilessly takes its seat in the house
so that he and she
no longer can bear to see the child
sitting in the walls waiting for them


vónin situr í veggjunum í húsunum
har tárini
hava valdið

gleðin er friðleys
saman við stívnaðu smílunum trampar hon rútmuna
í ørliga dansinum í myrku rúmunum
nátt og dag
so børn gerast vaksin áðrenn sólin rísur
og vaksin aftur missa álitið á sær sjálvum

vónloysið er besti vinur hjá møðini
saman skapa tey máttloysi
sum uttan náði fær sær sess í húsunum
so hann og hon
ikki longur orka at síggja barnið
sum situr inni í veggjunum og bíðar eftir teimum


numberless doors
that forced him
to climb out the window
when he wanted out
all the way out

implacable doors
between him
and her and joy
and then the child
that damn child

doors to pass through
and never return
back through
empty handed when the world sticks out its tongue
and spreads its legs for you
and wants to be taken right then and there
and people are starving
and getting murdered
and can’t afford keys or salt

so the child thought
looking out the window
for footprints
in long since melted snow

doors to lock
with jangling keys that came at a price
that never fit into a child’s small pockets
because doors lock both ways
every way
from the inside and outside
backwards and forwards

to come to a locked door
meant something in that house

can we go now
asked the child
if the door lets us
he answered

she didn’t reply
because the keys were so loud
and in that moment
the lord was no longer lord of the keys

once the child left
and almost couldn’t find the way back


óteljandi hurðar
sum noyddu hann
at fara út gjøgnum vindeygað tá hann vildi út
heilt út

hóttandi hurðar
millum hann
og hana og eydnuna
og so barnið
á hatta ólukksáliga barnið

hurðar at fara út ígjøgnum
og aldrin koma aftur
sum av torvheiðum tá verðin gálvar og gleivar
og vil verða tikin her og nú
og menniskju svølta og verða dripin
og ikki hava ráð til lyklar og salt

soleiðis hugsaði barnið
og hugdi út gjøgnum vindeygað
eftir fótafetum í kavanum
sum langt síðani var horvin

hurðar at steingja
við illsintum dýrgoldnum lyklum
ið aldrin passa niður í smáar barnalummar
tí hurðarnar steingja báðar vegir
allar vegir
inneftir og úteftir
frameftir og aftureftir

at koma á stongdar dyr
hevði ein serligan týdning í hesum húsinum
fara vit nú
spurdi barnið
um hurðin vil
svaraði hann

hon segði onki
tí lyklarnir larmaðu so illa
og beint tá
var harrin ikki harri yvir lyklunum longur

einaferð fór barnið
og mundi ikki funnið aftur


they embrace on the kitchen floor
and she
her fury has passed for now
the quarrel seeps through the walls
and into the floor

the child just stands there
holding their breath
is allowed a goodnight hug
wants to
doesn’t want to
play the game anymore

at any moment fatigue will come
and the game of ludo beneath the kitchen lamp
where darkness holds sway
on the red wax tablecloth

they let their thoughts keep an eye on each other
the game is more than a game
an entirely different game
a dangerous game
no longer a game of ludo
but a deadly game of reality set to explod

ea look
a tic
a breathless yawn
a father’s fragile eyes almost smiling
a childish giggle that lasted too long
or too briefly
can send it all to hell so that doors slam again

and make things break
around them
inside them

so here they sit again
he and the child
sick to their stomachs
as the night laughs


tey klemmast á køksgólvinum
og hon
øðin er uppi fyri hesa ferð
klandrið seyrar út gjøgnum veggirnar
niður í gólvið

barnið stendur bara har
heldur ondini
sleppur álíkavæl upp í klemmið í nátt
vil ikki
spæla spælið longur

um eina løtu kemur møðin
og ludospælið undir lampuni
har náttin ræður
á reyða voksdúkinum

tey lata tankarnar ansa eftir hvørjum øðrum
spælið er ikki bara spæl
eitt heilt annað spæl
vandamikið spæl
ikki ludospæl
deyðiligt veruleikaspæl sum hvørja løtu kann bresta


do they use copper pipes anymore
or are they banned because she used them
to terrorize him

anyone can learn to use copper pipes to terrorize someone

beg god for a two-story house
a man who locks himself in the basement
looking for fugitive rest in a narrow bedroom
that’s right beneath the kitchen

don’t forget the copper pipes

the man doesn’t dare count the darkened hours
because the banished sun will surprise him again
and you must always be ill-tempered and insomniac

when the fight is finished and you yet again
have beat him into himself
or have attacked him with a knife
and he wounded in body and soul has gone to sleep in the basement
turn on all the taps
let the water creak its dizzying angel song through golden copper pipes
and don’t forget to flush all the toilets at the same time
so that the heavenly demon will gurgle in the cisterns

the kitchen is the highlight
let the tap sharpen its glass-shard spear on the steel sink
please don’t turn it up too much
let the water stream spine-snappingly sharp
so it becomes unbearable
just over the head of the man
who is still fumbling for a pitiless sleep

the chair’s restless metal feet are waiting too
drag them across the floor
teeth-grindingly against the linoleum
again and again
and again
all night

do it all night long
which you’re more than capable of

the stage is set
your heavenly stage
it’s all up to you now
and the endless yards of thin copper pipe
inside the walls
and beneath the floorboards of the house
to set the balance
make the water sing just the right
ominous tune
so lovely
so endlessly sad to the ears
his ears
as he lies awake staring at the ceiling
just below you and the kitchen
with his big dry eyes
unable to ask
as they sink into a stiffened resin flux on the wooden ceiling
and forget any thought of the child
who is lying alone in between the copper pipes
singing so it will remember



brúka tey koparrør longur
ella blivu tey bannað tí hon brúkti tey
at terrorisera hann við

øll kunnu læra at terrorisera við koparrørum

bið guð um eini hús í tveimum hæddum
ein mann sum læsir seg inni í kjallaranum
leitandi eftir friðleysari hvíld í einum trongum kamari
sum altíð má liggja beint undir køkinum

gloym ikki koparrørini

maðurin torir ikki at telja myrkaløgdu tímarnar
tí bannsetta sólin fer enn einaferð at taka hann á bóli
og ringa lagið má vera á tær sum aldrin fer í song

tá bardagin er av og tú enn einaferð
hevur sparkað hann inn í seg sjálvan
ella hevur lagt á hann við knívi
og hann særdur uppá likam og sál er tørnaður inn í kjallaranum
koyr so allar kranar frá
lat vatnið gnísta sín ørandi einglasang í gyltu koparrørunum

gloym heldur ikki at skola øll vesini niður í senn
so himmalski demonurin kann surkla í sisternum
uttan íhald

køkurin er hæddarpunktið
lat kranan hvessa sítt spíska glarspjót móti stálvaskinum
koyr endiliga ikki ov hart
frá lat vatnstráluna vera akkurát so mønustingandi hvassa
at hon verður mest óúthaldilig
beint yvir høvdinum á honum
sum enn trilvar eftir náðileysu hvíldini

metalbeinini á stólunum bíða ótolin
drag tey aftur og fram eftir gólvinum
tannapínugríslandi móti linoliinum
umaftur og umaftur
og umaftur
alla náttina
endiliga alla hesa friðsælu nátt
sum tú orkar so væl

Translators’ Note

Rare sunlight lit the green fields and grass roofed houses of the valley below and pooled in rectangles on the wood floor of my co-translator Sámal Soll’s kitchen floor. We riffed back and forth on idioms and phrasing and debated meanings trying to suss our way through Katrin Ottarsdóttir’s poetry collection, Are there Copper Pipes in Heaven. In it Ottarsdóttir pries back the screen of privacy to reveal the dark and dysfunctional private life of a home where a mentally unstable, drug abusing mother terrorizes her weak husband and neglects her daughter.

This book is the most confessional and auto-biographical poetry ever published in Faroe. In a country that is also a small town and no one is farther than a degree or two of acquaintance or relation, a country where poetry sells just as well as novels, this style is controversial. When I told people I was translating Are there Copper Pipes in Heaven, I got a mixed response. Quite a few people said something to the effect of, “she’s very talented but I don’t know about her writing about this.” A few said, “my parents knew her parents and they don’t see the situation the way she writes it.” It wasn’t the controversy or the shock—which comes through even to an English speaker accustomed to confessional poetry— that drew me in. It was the spare sparse language and the overarching vision of the Ottarsdóttir’s verse. I sank into it and tried to put myself there, a fly on the wall of that house.

Sámal and I got through half of the manuscript that day. We went back and forth and
tense issues, idioms, and biblical references. One thing that kept tripping us up is gender transference. In Faroese, all children are referred to with the pronoun “it” since child is a neuter word. In English, this brings to mind the book A Child Called It. Though this book is about domestic abuse, that gives the wrong sense. We opted for referring to the child as “she” but were later corrected by the author who explained that he (the father), she (the mother), and it (the child) represent a trinity. She was insistent that only the mother had the right to the pronoun “she.” It’s this give and take between the original language and the target language where the impossibility of translation becomes apparent. It’s also where translation becomes the most fun – how to solve the puzzle in the best way possible, even when the pieces won’t fit perfectly? Those sunlit hours translating poetry in the islands of fog were almost hypnotic. And that liminal space of light and language and conversation is to me what translating is all about.

When we’d finished the day’s work and had dinner, I asked Sámal to point out my way home to downtown Tórshavn. “This may sound a bit Holmesian,” he said, “but look down toward the black falls. Do you see that man in a black trenchcoat? Follow the trail he’s on.”

Matthew Landrum holds and MFA from Bennington College. His translations from Faroese have recently appeared in Asymptote Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, Image Journal, and Modern Poetry in Translation. He lives in Detroit.

Sámal Soll is a Faroese writer and translator. His first short story collection titled Glasbúrið was published in 2015. He has an MA degree in English Language and Literature from Aalborg University in Denmark and has just completed a degree in Faroese Language at the Faroese University in the Faroe Islands. He is currently working on a translation of Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time. You can read more about his work at

Katrin Ottarsdóttir is a pioneer in Faroese filmmaking and has made several feature films, documentaries, shorts etc., e.g. the award winning feature films Atlantic Rhapsody (1989), Bye Bye Blue Bird (1999), and LUDO (2014). Born 1957 in Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, she studied film directing at the National Danish Film School. She debuted as a writer in 2012 with the poetry collection Are Copper Pipes In Heaven (awarded the Faroese Litterature Award 2013). In 2015 she published the poetry collection Mass For A Film, and in 2016 a collection of short stories, After Before.

Jeanette Geraci translating Rainer Maria Rilke and Elvia Ardalani

She’s Written To Him Five Times In Two Years

After Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Panther”

Looks for nothing but his reply every time

she sifts through her mail. 

He’s been silent
as a stillborn baby, but she could swear
she feels him
dreaming.  He’ll come back. 

Like her own pulse, this certainty
drums dumbly on
inside her.   

Sometimes, she shivers awake

alone.  I was inside his body. 
He was falling; I felt him

hit the ground. 
I Could Not Follow After Elvia Ardalani’s “Nadie En El Último Momento”

Tell me, Dad –

Did night, an enormous wave, come down
on you all at once?

Did my baby-face flash before your eyes
when the tide crashed
against your heart, sick
of rising?

This is what you wished for: 

A body, unmoored;
The kind of silence that assails,
glues deep sleep
onto the insides of your eyelids.

Night arrived; nothing stayed

When you left,
you left me behind.

When The Heart Stops Ticking, The Soul Does Not Change Shape

After Elvia Ardalani’s “Muerto Eras Pesado y Dócil”

Only the body remembers
stillness – relaxing without wanting
or waiting for seasons to end.

[Underground, the body erupts
into bloom.]

Someday, you will cease
to worry about frizzy hair, missed
periods, or too little sleep.

Someday, you will abandon yourself
without resistance.

[Love, like evil, switches form.
Love, like God, is in everything.]

Translator’s Note

Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Panther” was originally published in German in the early twentieth century.  While crafting my translation of “The Panther,” my objective was to capture the original poem’s tonal/thematic essence, and then render it in a fresh, unique way – to use a different subject (a woman, instead of a panther) and different language to depict a moment similar to the moment Rilke depicts.

Elvia Ardalani’s “Nadie En El Último Momento” and “Muerto Eras Pesado y Dócil” appear in her Spanish-language collection, Miércoles de Ceniza.  I wanted my translations to retain Ardalani’s poems’ tonal and thematic essence.  In some instances, I borrowed her language––pulled words and even direct phrases from her poems, and then reordered them/couched them between my own words.  The result: Love children that are neither wholly Elvia Ardalani nor wholly Jeanette Geraci, but resemble both of us.  There’s a mysterious magic about the fact that––even in moments when I was working with another poet’s language––I ended up unconsciously playing with rhythm and sound in a way that’s typical of my habits as a writer.  I guess this is an example of the strange, beautiful merging process that other translators have told me about!

Jeanette Geraci graduated from Florida Atlantic University’s MFA Creative Writing program in Spring 2017. Her creative nonfiction, flash fiction, and original poetry have appeared/are forthcoming in Room Magazine, 3Elements Literary Review, Blue Fifth Review, Lunch Ticket Literary Magazine, Lingerpost, Compose Journal, and numerous other publications. Jeanette received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2016. She currently lives and works in South Florida. This is her first published translation.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) was a Bohemian-Austrian German-language poet and novelist. His poetry, creative prose, and collected letters continue to inspire readers around the world.

Elvia Ardalani is a contemporary Mexican poet who has published four collections (including her most recent, Miércoles de Ceniza) and currently teaches Creative Writing and Spanish literature at the University of Texas-Pan American.

Eugene Ostashevsky translating Elisa Biagini

La gita / The Outing

Un vento che m’impasta
col soffione, che mi
fonde le suole mentre
faccio la mia
cernita: quale sasso
ti ricorda, il suono
di quale sirena.

Adesso è il tempo della
miniera della terra
che mi sfiora il capo,
del parlare indurito,
della lampada spenta.

Scale dentro la roccia
grattano il fondo, dove
si sudano sassi e il cuore

Ci scendiamo in miniera,
seguendo briciole di
pirite, ci si scende
con gli occhi, coi ginocchi,
ci si scende a cercare
la traccia, la goccia
che ha segnato la pietra
col cadere, che fa la
memoria traboccare.

(ci sciogliamo
col caldo, goccia
a goccia, ci
al mare.
ci ritroviamo,
nodo nella

Dentro ascolto il
legno del sostegno,
conto le micce che
aprono alla vista,
ci raduno prima
della volata,
                  ci cerco
nel buio e nel calore.

Ci cerco, a noi due:
tu nube di memoria,
io che mi sfuggo
come di mercurio,
tremito di termometro
che ingoio, vetro e tutto.

(Un treno dal buio,
un piede per binario,
un occhio accecato che
ti cerca,
            un treno
nel buio, che t’aspetta.)


È il crepito
al respiro
ad annunciarti,
tutta la polvere
infilata negli
alveoli, ora
carta vetrata.

È il bagliore
di cerino dentro

(la polvere che scende
dalle mine s’è
intrecciata al polmone e
ad ogni piano la
sacca è piú lisa,
piú pesa.)

in galleria (ancora febbre)

macchina che va a vuoto
e surriscalda,
l’affanno accelerato di chi
sente sfuggirsi,
lampadina che
sfrigola e svapora.

sfilarti il filo
rosso dalla scapola,
seguirti nelle
ossa della
       oltre il confine
del labbro,
rimossi dalla luce.

questo è un lavoro
di taglio e riempimento,
poco importa se sasso o

se parola.


A wind that kneads me
 with hot gas, that melts
my soles while
I pick: what stone
recalls you, the sound
of what siren.

Now is the time
of the mine, clay
grazing my head,
hard language,
lamp gone out.

Stairs in the rock
claw the bottom, where
skin sweats stones,
gurgles the heart.

We go down the shaft
along a trail of pyrite
crumbs, go down
with our eyes, knees, go
down to trail
the trace, drop
by dropping, making
memory overflow.

(we melt with
the heat, drop by
drop, we knead
back into the sea.
we meet again,
knots on

I listen inward
to the support beams,
count the fuses
that open the view, I
amass us
for the flight,
                  look for us
in the dark, in the heat.

I look for us two:
you, a cloud of memory,
me, fleeing
myself like mercury, that
tremor of a thermometer
I swallow, glass and all.

(A train from the dark,
a foot on each track,
an eye, blinded, that
looks for you,
a train
in the dark, that waits for you.)


It is the crackle
of breath
that announces you,
all the dust got into the
alveoli, now sandpaper.

It is the glow
of a match within
the eye.

(dust comes down
from the mines,
interlaces with lung, at
each floor the sack sags,
gets more threadbare.)

in the gallery (fever still)

a car running on
empty, overheating,
fast breath of the one that feels
that one flees, a light bulb
sizzles and goes out.

pulling the red
thread from your shoulder
blade, following you
in the earth
beyond the frontier
of the lip,

removed from light.

This, the labor
of cutting and filling,
what matter whether with stone

or word.

Previously published in “Da una crepa”, Einaudi, 2014, and forthcoming from The Plant of Dreaming (Chelsea Editions/Xenos Books).

Translator’s Note

The first thing about “La Gita” is that it probably should be called not “The Outing” but “The Inning,” since the journeys, or gite, it plots are inward: one, that of descending into a mine; the other, that of descending into a yours, which is also mine. Descent into the earth for a Florentine poet like Elsa Biagini has only one possible, but also inescapable, literary map, that of the Inferno, and in this very personal poem about her grandfather, a mining engineer also named Dante, the way through the claustrophobic insides of the mine is also the path of the soul against the current of time into memory, perhaps a memory that is not an unmediated, individual memory: a mine for me that itself is not mine. The soul proceeds through it feelingly.

I co-translated most of “La Gita” with the author. Some of the translation is the author’s English version lightly edited, some of it is me working from the Italian. The original was published in 2014 in Da Una Crepa, Elisa’s third collection with Einaudi, one of Italy’s most influential publishers, based in Turin. Material from the previous two Einaudi collections was translated for The Guest in the Wood, published in 2013 by Chelsea and the winner of the Best Translated Book Award for poetry.   

Eugene Ostashevsky is the author of, most recently, The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi, and the translator of The Fire Horse: Children’s Poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, and Daniil Kharms, both available from New York Review Books, here.

Elisa Biagini lives in Florence, Italy, after having taught and studied in the US for several years (Ph.D. Rutgers University). She has published seven poetry collections, most recently Da una crepa (2014). Her poems have been translated into many languages, and she has published editions of her poetry in Spain and the US (The Guest in the Wood, Chelsea editions, NY 2013 won the 2014 Best Translated Book Award). A translator from English (of Alicia Ostriker, Sharon Olds, Lucile Clifton among others), she has published an anthology of contemporary American poetry, Nuovi Poeti Americani (Einaudi, 2006) and  she has been invited to the most important international poetry festivals. She teaches Creative Writing-Poetry, Travel Writing, Literature, and Art History in Italy and abroad.  

Ilana Dann Luna translating Giancarlo Huapaya

Selections from Taller Sub Verso / Sub Verse Workshop


The curtain is a collage of home videos and clothes used by hustling sex workers. On the canvases the sonorous poets are moaning: s/he breaks the drums on spilled things like dance, s/he slides and rolls around in the spilled things: splashing what is delicious over the delicate, like an idiophone community of spillways conceives itself: s/he photocopies Polaroids and wrinkles them like their astronomical deterioration bellows with brilliant movement: s/he silences because s/he tenses like a cylindrical similar to nerve firing: s/he glances her tongue over the crystal edge since the note is venal: coherent is the machine that regulates the volumes of the speeches like the gang in a schizoid curation
Iniquitous, the symphonic tongue
because of the accents of its censures. We are all pornostars.
sometimes as is the adverb of renunciation
of the abuse of the disillusionment of speed.
The recording screams amateurism and evolution. Use the strangest thing you all can see to illustrate your amusements.


We are the dissolving of candy. An in-style limbo. Let’s split the verse with cruelty. Copyleft. Criminal micropolitics surgically operate methods of discipline. Let’s diminish masculinity without increasing the feminine. The mine embeds the tear, in italics one craves psychotropic amulets against the melancholy of sulfur. They are the curves of anthologies in aerosol, post-graffiti stickers from amusement parks. We are curves of contaminating red tape, almost autonomous, among arts.

Icicles are hung above unstable corrugated iron roads. Ventilation that motorizes the balance of fatalities impregnated by lovers negates the slight possibility of rehearsal. A semi-desiccated hedgehog speaks with its surgeon, it tells him that it sees g-spot fireworks on sad, seared retinas. The soup is divvied up inside the tunnel of hung-up audiences that sorrow the shadow. An enormous mug turns with intimate dishonesty in the cupola of an abandoned factory. My childhood runs between the bosoms of transgenic crops. The end of the fallible speeches is refined. You all are records of scenes of contagion and dependence among fragrant branches dedicated to impertinent deities.


Spin the letter each time you finish. The clock is the optical illusion of the monument. Look for a response in the prostates of lit candles. The perpendicular esses that gravitate bionic in their waning moons while I yell at the grasshoppers ruins of constellations, now they stick to the clouds like bursts of memories, tonight the stories will end in the disgrace of those sentenced. You will mutilate harlequins of unsolved crimes, with the remnants you will name and attack each other. In your lymph nodes there exist craters of devastating lava dreams.

That S will traverse the vowels of your howls, the velvets. It will suppress the first letter of your name, will walk it on a leash, will order it to lick the phlegm and to feed it from its own mouth. Receive the instructions to stay in the background scene. Destruction of your vanities thanks to the licking of your almonds. Voracious flying kick in the wind. Hide your yet undeciphered codes in the indiscreet reader. Fleeting matches will bellow against darkness.

That S is also the whip that will fall heavy on your destiny. The animals will fornicate in the graffiti while the silk marks the inside of your teeth. The hills are the curves of erotic bodies of a guerilla cumbia.

Translator’s Note

Giancarlo Huapaya’s book Taller Sub Verso (Sub-Verse Workshop) is constructed like an Abecedary, in which each letter is a space where processes and performances are developed, involving bio-political relations, micro-economies, neo-mythologies, sexual technologies, hybrid esthetics, and elastic concepts that are activated through mechanisms of evolution and mutation. This selection highlights three of the poems that, though not united by a theme, share the same swirling, heady, corporeal atmosphere that links the collection as a whole, at the interstices of essayistic argumentation, the fragmentation of poetry, and the dynamics of performance.

My approach to translation varies with each text that I confront. That is, I believe that translation is first and foremost an act of listening. Though “fidelity” to a deep sense or meaning is an important criterion for translation, it is certainly not the only one. I believe that each text, especially each poetic text, offers its interlocutors its own unique key with which to open it. In some poems, this will be the cadence, the rhythm, or the sonorous urgency that takes the lead. In other poems it is the playfulness among words and concepts, the exchange across space and time, or the volley between opposing conceptual courts that begs to be highlighted. In some cases, there are multiple levels of meaning, and my goal is to capture as much of this polyvalence as possible in the translated language, and in others, the goal is to preserve the original ambiguity. What makes this particular collaboration especially fruitful is the fact that the author, Giancarlo Huapaya, and I have been able to work side by side.

I was excited to work with Giancarlo because his poetry vibrates, it crackles, and it allows me to fully move across the visceral and cerebral planes, back and forth, always circling in towards a core of human experience, a painful or beautiful truth about the nature of humans as political, sexual, sanguine beings. Such collaboration has allowed me to interrogate, to understand veiled references, to bring these to the fore. Together we made choices based on sonority, significance and, at times, we sought the sensation of strangeness in a precise word usage or turn of phrase. I see the translation of contemporary work an act of transcreation in which translation is a dialogic process that allows me to breathe a different life into the poetry, capturing, too, the spirit of the times in the new language while honoring the source language and its linguistic and cultural particularities.

Ilana Dann Luna holds a Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she graduated with an emphasis in literary translation. She is an assistant professor of Latin American Studies at Arizona State University. Her book Adapting Gender: Mexican Feminisms from Literature to Film (forthcoming SUNY Press) meditates on one aspect of translation: the adaptation of literary text to film. Recent translations of Mexican poet Ignacio Ruíz Pérez have appeared in the Houston Poetry Festival Anthology and Askew, and translations of Peruvian poet Paul Guillen appeared in Hostos Review/ Revista Hostiana.

Giancarlo Huapaya (Lima, Peru) is Founder and Editor of Cardboard House Press. He is author of the books Estado y Contemplación/ Canción de Canción se Gana, Polisexual and Taller Sub Verso, and the editor of the anthology Pulenta Pool: Peruvian Poets in the United States (Hostos Review, 2017). He will soon present an exhibition of the past fifteen years of Peruvian visual poetry at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Previously, he was the advisor of the editorial and music industry policies of Cultural Industries of Lima, and he was the director of the Lima Poetry Festival during its first three years.

Brendan Riley translating Juan Gómez Bárcena

Good Intentions

Every morning Mom wakes me up with her shouting and through her tears asks me where Dad is. Our little farce commences in that very moment––while I dress or bathe her I tell her any old thing that comes to mind. That Dad will be right back in a few minutes or maybe that he already died, many years ago.

Mom has that strange look on her face when I answer her, that way of saying yes and no at the same time. But in the end she always nods––even on the days when I’m only her nurse––and with her eyes half-closed she asks me where my bathrobe is. She always says yes because there’s no reason for her to stubbornly cling to saying no, no flimsy memory that denies that we’re at war or that her other daughter––your little girl, Mom, don’t you remember––was finally devoured by cancer.

She has long white hair, a thin pale mane that takes me a long time to untangle. And I use those empty minutes to tell her some story about the past, weaving a truth that might be any truth, because any one is just as good as another––whatever ours was, I forgot it a long time ago. She listens in silence, staring at me, her eyes round with astonishment. She asks no questions. No question is possible when nothing is certain. She doesn’t even open her mouth to complain when the comb gets snagged in her hair, because I just repeat to her that pretty little girls don’t cry when they get their hair pulled.

Sometimes I remember Mom’s dreams, the ones she had before she got sick, before she forgot all those things she would have liked to have been. And I repeat them to her in every detail. I tell her that she was a scholarship student, that she didn’t get married so young, that Dad never said all those things. I tell her that the world outside is doing much better than she thinks. But the fact is that Mom doesn’t think at all and she simply stares at the closed venetian blinds, shrugs her shoulders, and smiles. She doesn’t think of anything because it’s enough for her to know that I graduated first in my class or that I’m about to close a business deal somewhere so far away that I need a plane ticket to get there. And then there are also those lucky days when we win a million dollars in the lottery and we’ve got so much money that we could buy any old thing we like, except today is Sunday and all the shops are closed.

Mom smiles on any of those days when everything is perfect. But there are also days that begin differently. Days when I wake up with a strange taste in my mouth or I get another one of those tremendous migraine headaches. And suddenly things just don’t seem quite so easy to me. Something prevents me from inventing another story about the past that sounds just the way Mom would have liked it to be. Something that seems a lot like rancor or envy. Envy for that comfortable existence that consists in waking up fresh each day, always ready to hear anew what a success your life has been. The same beauty again and again ad infinitum. After all, my real life, that life I sometimes remember, was never easy or wonderful. It’s then when I feel that unbearable migraine that I can’t do anything about. Mom shouts from her room, crying for Dad, asking where he is all over again, and I surprise myself by telling her that she threw him out of the house years ago. Or that he died, or that he’s in the room next to hers and doesn’t want to see her. Or that I’m his mistress and it’s me whom he really loves.           

Of course I love Mom; and I sympathize with her condition. But it’s not easy to take care of her day after day with the same spirit as if nothing were going on, as if time didn’t exist and we were back inside her photographs of a forgotten childhood. What I mean is that every time my migraine surges back I know it’s going to be a hard day for us, that I’m going to say some terrible thing that I’ll regret later on, or simply that our past will be unbearable all over again. Maybe I was never really born. Maybe my mother’s whole family died in some bloody war whose name I invent. Maybe Mom never met Dad: you think you remember that you did, but it’s not true, Mom; it’s only another one of your dreams. And she stays silent in that way she does when she believes absolutely everything. Also, when I tell her but of course you love mashed potatoes, Mom, and while she makes an effort to choke them down, I feel how she trembles and struggles with herself, with her revulsion, with her traitorous tastebuds. Or I point to her sick leg and I tell her nothing’s wrong with your leg, and I make her walk up and down the hallway while she grits her teeth and tries not to show any sign of the agonizing pain. The next day she wakes up with her leg all purple from the effort. Her exhaustion is the perfect excuse to tell her that everything really is pointless, that the accident that killed Dad many years ago also left her crippled. Mom looks at me again in that strange way, because she tries to remember but her memory is nothing but the same blind wall without any windows.

Sometimes the game consists of precisely the opposite: in not doing, in not saying absolutely anything. First thing in the morning I hide from her and pay no attention when she shouts and cries. Even when she drags herself out of bed and ends up with bloody gashes on her wrists. With great effort, she totters all around the house but nobody’s there and she doesn’t recognize a thing. Her most recent memories are thirty or forty years old, so I smile when I think about how each new piece furniture forces her to confront a painful, incomprehensible oddity, like a strange artifact from a science fiction movie. Her favorite place is the bathroom. The fixtures are old, probably at least as old as those memories of hers, and the bare pipes are even made of lead. There she hugs the toilet bowl or the sink and, pressing her forehead against the marble, screams until she loses her voice. Sometimes she cries out for Dad; sometimes she remembers my name or her own mother’s name. I deliberately leave a calendar next to the mirror. A calendar that might be current or perhaps, as necessary, one from the past, or even a fake one showing some unbelievable date from the distant future. Mom reads 2374 and repeats it to herself again and again while she clutches the sink weeping, because she understands that she surely must be dead already. At some point she falls asleep, fainting from hunger or thirst: her anguish must surely be immense. Later she wakes up in some part of the house and then I appear, her savior. I help her sit up and I say to her, Mom, you fell asleep, and after you told me that you’d help me peel the potatoes this time.

Other days I lower all the blinds and switch off the electricity. I enter her room in the dark, clapping my hands all the while. Time for school, I tell her, time for school, get dressed now or you’ll be late. I try to make my voice sound different, but it doesn’t really matter, because as I’ve already said, Mom accepts everything I tell her. Who are you, she asks me, and I reply very casually that I’m Mom, why aren’t you getting up. She takes a few moments to answer, because my mom is no idiot and she must remember vaguely that her mother died when she was a very little girl. But I don’t give her time to think. I caress her white hair, her wrinkles, and her flaccid breasts, and I say to her, Darling, you’re going to be late for school, get up now I’ve already prepared your breakfast for you. She doesn’t know what to say. She vaguely murmurs something about my father, about her daughter, but I leave her no room for doubt, and I tell her here you go again with that absurd nightmare about your husband and your daughter. Finally she accepts the fact that I’m Mom and she’s seven years old. Then she kisses me. She calls me sweet names that make me laugh. She also tells me that she has a math test at school that day. I give her a kiss and then I sit up, switch on the lights, and raise the blinds. I hold a mirror up to her face.

But I love Mom. What I mean is that I want the best for her. Especially those days when my head isn’t killing me. I know that I love her because sometimes I’ve listened to her cry––maybe I told her that she has cancer or that her little girl drowned in the bathtub; the little girl in her head who must surely be me––and when I’ve heard her crying I feel like something inside me is breaking. It only happens very, very rarely, but when it does I can’t stop hugging her and I need to be sincere. I need to tell the truth for once, because I’ve repainted the past so many times that it’s now like we never had any or, on the contrary, that we had every past you could imagine. So I look her in the eyes and I tell her everything. I tell her about my migraines, about her illness, the reason why I lower the blinds and why I don’t answer the phone or the doorbell when they ring. I tell her that some days I invent a perfect past for her and on other ones I feel like I’ve got to make her memory a living hell. I also explain that I surely must seem cruel, but in the end it’s not all my fault: that in a certain way it’s the past that chooses me, that calls to me each morning. I tell her that in these years I’ve learned that the truth doesn’t exist, that the truth has to be reinvented every day––and that sometimes the truth surges up from one simple headache, or from a hopeless whirling nausea in my stomach.

Mom doesn’t say anything. She only listens in silence and smiles or half-closes her eyes. She looks at me in a completely different way than usual. For the first time she doesn’t believe me. It’s strange to realize how sometimes the truth is harder to accept than a lie. At first she doesn’t believe me, and she lolls her head because everything is absurd, but suddenly something changes in her expression. It’s a look of horror or surprise. Perhaps it’s because at last she remembers, that she suddenly sees something in my face that that startles her, something she had never seen before. For a moment she looks me in the eyes, and in her gaze I see certain memories that I promised to never name again. In an instant her expression is more terrible, more unhinged than on the days when, with tears in her eyes, she hears me explain how the Cold War finally erupted and we’re the only survivors left on Earth. And then it happens. For a moment her strength returns to her body. She pulls away from my arms, she flails at me until she manages to claw at my face or my breast; she scratches me, spits at me, and screams horrible things at me that she might never have imagined before getting sick, none of which I take seriously because I pity her condition. She bites me with her toothless mouth or she simply goes running down the hallway; she runs despite her bad leg, in spite of her big heavy shoes and the trembling in her knees; she runs to the door that’s bolted shut or clutches wildly for the telephone. The poor thing doesn’t remember that it’s been disconnected all these years.

Mom pounds on the door over and over again. She screams things that no neighbor will ever be able to hear. She slowly starts to understand that the phone is disconnected and the door is locked tight. Sooner or later she’ll forget everything that I’ve told her. She keeps banging on the door but her energy is spent, along with her hope, and when she’s finally overcome by the pain in her leg she lets herself slide down to the floor. There she cries long enough to forget what she’s doing there on the carpet. And when I see that that moment has arrived I slowly count to twenty and then I go to her side, I caress her head and sweetly ask her why are you crying, Mom, and with her voice raspy from screaming and crying she answers I don’t remember, and keeps on crying. Then I wrap her in my arms, I hug her tightly and I forgive her for all those things I don’t remember and that perhaps I invent. It’s as if I suddenly feel an infinite compassion for her bad leg and I can’t help starting to cry myself. We cry together. We cry in silence for days gone by: for all our yesterdays, and for tomorrow as well. And for a moment I fold my hands together and I wish with all my might that tomorrow will be a different kind of day. A day without migraines or bad tastes in my mouth. A day when there is one single truth that we can confront face to face. And that truth can be any lie properly told. After all, knowing that something was true never really did us much good anyway.

Translator’s Note

Juan Gómez Bárcena’s “Good Intentions” is a powerful, melancholy, darkly comical story of family entrapment in the face of aging and senility, and a daughter’s weakness against the temptation to enact revenge for past wrongs both remembered and perceived as she struggles, alternately, between being her crazy mother’s caretaker and tormentor. And while the narrator wryly confesses the mental cruelty she routinely visits upon her mother, the story is much more than its masque of black humor; akin to the bleak meditations of Beckett and Pinter, “Good Intentions” is about humans’ unenviable, Sisyphean labor to maintain clarity and make peace with the reality of corporeal decay and its attendant physical suffering while confronting the shibboleth of truth. It is an excursion into the quagmire of subjectivity famously explored by Thomas Hobbes in Chapter II of Leviathan, “Of Imagination”: “imagination and memory are but one thing, which for divers considerations hath divers names.”  For some readers, the story may also resound as a very dark echo of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” But where Capote’s famously poignant tale features two people––a young boy and his older, female cousin––essentially alone together, bound by mutual affection, and protecting each other’s souls from the spite of unloving relatives, Gómez’s nightmarish narrative memorably imagines the weird, disturbing solitude of mutual entrapment and the perpetual battle it engenders, something akin to what William Faulkner in his tragic tale “Barn Burning” laments as “the old fierce pull of blood,” the humbling, horrifying, sometimes fatal, truth that we are born into an inexorable, lifelong confrontation with our gene pool, forever groping between who we think we are and how our family defines us.

Translating a story like this one entails dwelling a while, willingly, inside its house of horrors. To a certain degree, familiar territory. I grew up in a very large, spooky old pre-Civil War era house. Ghosts? Unquestionably. But ever more powerful is the effect that large, old, open, lonely inner spaces have on the mind and memory because they provide an almost infinitely interchangeable set of interconnected spaces through which to move and imagine, searching and being followed at the same time. Add, to many echoing, dusty, high-ceilinged rooms, various attics and a labyrinthine basement once used as a stop on the Underground Railroad and, well, when you encounter a story like “Good Intentions” it feels like stepping through the front door after baseball practice, familiar environs, that is; but actually inhabiting that unhappy place for a while is not not always easy because this is someone else’s intimate creation and, as translator, I have to explore it rather closely and allow myself, authorize myself to write down words, phrases, emotions, scenes that are seriously disturbing; it’s a process of discovery and revelation, and of coming to terms with all that; writing something, and having to write it clearly, deliberately, precisely, and then revisiting it, something that I would probably never have thought of or written myself, can be an odd feeling; revealing all that, committing to having a relationship with that text and then putting my translator’s byline on it. All a bit surreal.                      

In terms of actually translating, after the initial reading, it’s a process of gradual and increasing familiarity, building up the translation sort of like the way forensic model makers add layers and bits and pieces to a skull in order to create a bust, and trying to recreate the face of a person whom they will never really see, working through several drafts, checking for errors, reading aloud, listening to the voice come to life, trying to feel that it’s convincing until the time comes to surrender it, and then wait to hear back after other eyes and ears have taken a crack at discovering its character.

This is the only story by Juan Gómez Bárcena that I’ve translated, and I can’t speak to his immediate influences. Nor can I pinpoint codified or canonical precedents but it certainly reminds me of, and unnerves me like quite a few other stories I’ve read from the world of Spanish-language literature. I think of the spiraling claustrophobia of Borges’ detective story “Death and Compass” with its pathological relationship between Eric Lönnrot and Red Scharlach, and Antonio Ungar’s novel Tres ataudes blancs (Three White Coffins). I think of the cruelty that saturates and defines the relationship between a father and son in Ana María Shúa’s knife-edged novel Death as a Side-effect.  Finally, I think of the coldness of Albert Camus’ Mersault (obviously from French literature, not Spanish) and the ludicrous, terrifying closed-house scenarios found in some stories by Julio Cortázar, such as “Bestiary,” where children try to survive in a house where a tiger sometimes roams free, and the fascinating but disturbing and inescapable möbius strip of “Continuity of Parks.”

Brendan Riley holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. An ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, he has also earned certificates in Translation Studies from U.C. Berkeley, and Applied Literary Translation from the University of Illinois. Riley’s translations include Álvaro Enrigue’s acclaimed Hypothermia, and Juan Filloy’s 1937 modernist epic novel Caterva, as well as the travelogue Sunrise in Southeast Asia by Carmen Grau, and The Bible: Living Dialogue, a religious and spiritual roundtable by Pope Francis, Marceloa Figueroa, and Abraham Skorka. Recent translations include Carlos Fuentes’ The Great Latin American Novel, an expansive, nonfiction survey of the genre, and Antagony–Book I: Recounting by Spanish novelist Luis Goytisolo, both published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Spanish author Juan Gómez Bárcena (b. Santander, 1984) holds degrees in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature, Philosophy, and History. His 2014 novel El cielo de Lima (Translated as The Sky Over Lima, by Andrea Rosenburg) won the Ojo Crítico de Narrativa prize from Spain’s Radio Nacional. His 2012 book of short stories Los que duermen was named one of the best literary debuts of 2012 by El Mundo’s El Cultural magazine, and also received the Premio la Tormenta al Mejor Autor Revelación award. He also edited the anthology Bajo treinta, a collection of short stories by young Spanish writers.