Eight Poems

 

Reina María Rodríguez receives the Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Award from Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile, in 2014.

Children’s Story

The hollow-eyed hen
laid the greatest egg in the world:
the fine white lines of her claws
grip the ground in devotion
as she clucks, and they seem to pop.

She’s a hard worker.
First comes “setting up house,” she says.
Sweep away the trash
(yellow feathers from the rooster who 
sailed across the sea toward another henhouse).

The hen is stubborn.
She knows she can’t keep the fence closed
where her chicks grow up
and escape, which interferes with her job
of clucking.

That’s how the hen became owner of the patio,
owner of the family,
wet and dry
according to the weather in a small place
where by night
lost in her dream of grandeur
the hen clings to her old roost by her claws
and lives on
though she might look dead,
neglected on her perch.

 

The roof

...and the sky is blue as when everything comes to an end.
Ives Bonnefoy

And where to place my poems?
And where to place my teacups
when rain comes
to shatter them all?
Securing the windows
with a length of red tape
and a length of black tape
will not protect us!
The hurricane came
to stay
and spike nails through ants
risking it all in the ruins.
To keep salt from caking,
ceramics 
will not be enough.

This is my house:
a garden parched
by the summer sun
and the winter wind
(with their bad weeds
and bad words)
which tend to grow
and throw what shade they can.
The yellow bird who got away
left a message in shit on the wall
another warning
should another bird venture
to survive on rice husks
with no grains inside.
    
I remember how our migrating birds once
took advantage of the storm
to escape
—years of covering them at night with a white cloth
and uncovering them with a dark one later
at dawn
working against our national
insomnia.
When will we quit sleeping
and believing?
Our old calendar turned 
with the subtle motion
of sheathing poverty, 
its routine, every day
until the next one arrived.

Now where do I make the place for the place?
For the anxiety about a place impossible to situate
or sustain?
For the meager grains, so they won’t get saturated
or stolen by someone else?
For the flowerpots
that couldn’t take so much moisture?
—receptacles made more to catch leaks
than to hold soil,
flowers, or springtimes.

At this point
I go back to my house
to remove its roof
and take the lid off Pandora’s box
—its cruelty—
(the surviving crickets
murmur obsolete slogans
in this disappearing place).
How many nights did they help me
to forget?
Will there be a new sky to shield
us from these elements?
Will I be able to preempt storms
in order to weaken them,
in order to conceal
the blend of darkness and oil
that enveloped me
for all these years?

How do I wipe it off?

The tanks of contaminated
water
can’t do it
nor can the flies
—capable of anything—
soaring over clotheslines, against the wind, 
jeering at my desire for shelter
they will ask:
“old lady, can you still feel 
indifferent
when another roof sways over the horizon 
and farther out?”
The house across the street, for example,
that looks like it’s for pigeons
but isn’t,
makes its tin creak when children
scattering feathers left from lunch
arrive.

Where will it be, my little gray chick?
And my cats:
Diotima, Daedalus, Donatello,
Djuna, Dinesen, will they come back?
What roof do I need to cover the losses
and cut other timbers
that won’t be so vulnerable
or indifferent,
not like this wood from before,
timbers to last longer than the pinotea
—the casket boards
above my eyes
like coffins—
rafters stolen one Sunday at the carnival,
hearses loaded with desires,
joys, sorrows, and words
to shield some feeling, a roof
sinking lower and lower
toward the floor
stuffing and stuffing the poems
full of coaldust
where termites (so knowing) buried their evil
little wings too?

And the light?
Can I have an 
immaculate new roof
with the same light this old one filtered
through all its cracks?
Rays from sun, from lust, from friends,
from fireflies
who brought a word as a sealant
—a continuity or consolation—
to cover the stars,
taking them down one by one
like in Darío’s princess tale?
How do you make a normal roof now?
For whom?
For the people we used to be?
Those phantoms who travel 
through empty rooms
and remember
a sky shaded in Carmelite
a sky shaded in blue
“as when everything comes to an end.”
A sunflower of skies
a rainbow that won’t withstand another storm
or the indifference.
How can I get prepared for the lie
that lets others see the truth?
But “do it, do it,” I hear the ants insisting.
The cats purring it
from “the beyond.”
They don’t know what it costs to remove and replace a roof.
A sky.

 

An apple core and a mouse

It is that thing, it is…
Peter Handke

Some days you
see and what you see
as in that Russian film 
is a husk   a trunk
and an apple core
on your path.
A mouse who pops out of the toilet
and lands on you
bringing no sign that you’ll win the lottery
or other consolations.
But an apple core
always presupposes a mouth,
someone who came before
with their ration,
and that aftertaste,
the marks of other teeth.

II

A mouse lands on you.
Though we may live 
in some modern city,
this shows the truth about the sewers,
the offal, 
the avarice anyplace,
when you bite an apple
and throw it
so someone else will know
you ate the flesh
not husks or deceptions
even if you lose the lottery
and the mouse dies
if it disappears into the game
like us on our trajectory
toward another city vaguely 
illuminated by night,
in error.

III

But it is not that sound
from the seals under
the ice, either,
trying to break through
(the promise)
from a corner with
a bus depot
a park
a bar,
the defiance of any old
gas station,
that untrue repetition
of the corners,
and the lost opportunities,
if you’re looking for
assurances.
It is that thing, it is…
what once was,
what will not come to be.
Herzog’s Antarctica,
your illusion that you’ve arrived
and belong to some cove,
to some cordillera,
to the moment in that irredeemable
anywhere.

 

Undertow

Nature sounds in the breeze but resounds in the soul.

When the Malecón first overflows,
piano keys fall to the sidewalk,
handpainted flowers float away
not as decoration but as sorrow.
Time doubles back, it floods, 
I need that reversibility in order to exist.
The noise of its waves doesn’t soothe me
between bars of music, even the ones I won’t 
regret, though I regret finding no octave
in the right proportion 
for my hand to reach its horizon.

The quiver of a string,
vibration of an air column
free of obstruction
through which I’d wager:
that a return is always an insertion of the self
between new waves
—high notes, low notes, half steps between—
a chord progression protecting some style
to defend us against defenselessness,
a chorus that can’t take away our fear
of the gale but calms us.

The ocean’s fierce beat today
and then a devious tranquility
that doesn’t swirl into other sounds
or protest. It obliterates.
I will have drowned in the beat so many 
repetitive and variant times
that I learned to float cautiously, chorus
between my teeth!
To convince my self alone of my incapacity
(my absolute confidence)
watching it 
roughen into a fury
then calm, 
its gray line
over the loosed bridge moving 
against the keel
of some instrument that sounds
across the whole of the tempo, the total time it lost
between two waters.

 

the cold

the bitter cold ended
and the days of March returned.
their southern dust rises with storming leaves.
days for staying to live eternity inside the oscillation;
days in which nothing more than inactivity
rattles some windowpane at ordinary noontime.
if I were permitted
to stay here, inside this fault line in time,
just to receive its new moon and not to move on
—not to stay—to sit down there on the
merry-go-round and revive its pause
that thumps against my skin and softens it
like a blind archer.
and to think that you can come back to yourself as a child!
if the spirit chooses to return to itself,
a little disoriented after exiting
the excess of happiness and pain;
we’re never safe from the meaninglessness of this day
that doesn’t claim intelligence or reason
that doesn’t allow your beauty
to age with earthly wear and tear
and forces you to look up at the sky through the walled-in pause
imposed by its serenity.
as for you, recently arrived through whatever destiny runs 
counter to the ecstasy of being here, with me, in this day,
I ask you to come back later.
a little later, when the day’s splendor begins
to dim with night.

“The cold” © Reina María Rodríguez, translation © Kristin Dykstra, from The Winter Garden Photograph (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019)

 

He has spots

There is a cat with black spots. There is a cat, there was a cat. I see him through the peephole, and he has spots (but he could be a dog, some other animal, or a skunk). Animal distorted by the lens. Denissen went away, a ghost cat came. The other cats around here smelled him and peed. I heard his cry of return, but when I went to the door, nothing. Mud from a cat. Will the same thing happen now? Denissen tried to come in, and here he is. I take a peek and see nothing behind the door, but the dream of finding a lost animal excites me. And when I heard that animal screech from the other side, I knew that Denissen and earlier cats came in too. They are here (the new cats), they know. Afterwards we never heard him again, but they knew and were prepared not to forget, prepared to keep going. The thing is not to forget, they were saying, and their whiskers urged each other onward. That is what it’s about.

 

time’s arrest

Falcón

is it true that on a higher plane everything can be eternally coexistent? is it true, that it’s only the consciousness, our consciousness, the thing that experiences the passing of time, true that in dreams time doesn’t exist, and cause and effect become confused? you believe that the unconscious mind coexists with the universe and that the simultaneity is nothing more than a mystical regression. and I appear in the tower, in that prison. many have spoken of the arrow of time, in contrast, you want to know about the things that endure, something like that —as you were calling it— the circle of time: the arrow is in the flowing river, without which there’s no change, or creation; but the circle is there too, the succession, in the sense of instants. maybe this isn’t especially interesting for the physicists and their practical applications, but that dilemma of determinism, it’s implicit in simultaneist thought and also in existentialism: for me it’s the memory of the water and now I know that the water has memory (Paris 1988) … and that I’ll never free myself from my habit of following the water … I toss a stone into the ocean, into the stream, into the smallest puddle and out go circles, circuits, spirals, mirrors: and in the depths you can ponder the forms and steal them out of the water. you look at them, you want to possess them, but they escape to the bottom. you’ll only have them for an instant, the instant when you open up their depths to see. the water is transparent and it fools you, not everything that you drop into its forms is oblivion. how in in The Waves, Virginia’s book, human nature changes, only seeming to be transformed, like particles of water moved by a wave. then I throw a stone at the sea and if I’m a simultaneist, the stone already will have hit and it will have sunk before falling and if I follow Zeno, I’ll never get to the bottom, because I’ll never get to the water. sometimes, I want to throw stones without thinking about it anymore —knowing that it’s inane and doing it, because that’s how you do inane things. someone said that our model of the cosmos must be inexhaustible: neither pure sequence nor pure unity to explain it. and like you, I want a complexity that doesn’t just include duration, but also creation; not just being, but becoming; not just geometry, but ethics. we aren’t looking for an answer, we’d rather have the obscurity, the obsession with that question, is it true that time can be suspended? … and I choose to throw stones without thinking about it anymore and then you hide, you hide, you fall asleep. but you aren’t you, you’re the idea of many others who’ve slept before. when you sleep, I look at them and touch them with my eyes, the ones who already died inside you once, many times. you sleep, and in spite of the levity of that instant, I go on without knowing —here I resort to Shakespeare— “what is your substance, whereof are you made, that millions of strange shadows on you tend …” and, when your great moving mouth opens and everything seems to grow calm, to enter, to disappear —as if I feel that pleasure of what is happening, deep inside, under that grin— then, they can move their lips, their eyelids, they can tremble and foresee that you’ll come from another darkened side, but that isn’t true either. in reality, the process of existing has been suspended—the closest circle in the water— and it’s marvelous to know that someone is sleeping in front of you with the innocence of early death: in that moment everything depends on me, that I’m conscious and that I exist, that I can see your shoulder and the little red hairs and the rays that have entered through the window to die too, forming bands of light across your dark body … every one hath, every one, one shade, and you, but one, can every shadow lend … this is the glory, the immortality. or only time’s arrest: is it true that between Einstein and you time can be stopped? … again I remain like a purely Eleatic being in weightlessness, above the shadow and the doubt, with my legs crossed again, above the marble flowers, convinced again of immortality because I see you, I see you, I imagine you while dawn breaks and the doubts and the shadows are withdrawing inside me … and the room is growing and the light begins to win: I turn off your lamp. you stay, arrested in the time inside my hand, in the figure that I make of you at the edge of the void, from the hiding place where I’m curled up in a ball, where I can see what’s happening in your eyes: they’re changing from green into yellow, into a great river with many tributaries … and I start to sweat, to tremble, the tremor is wet, in it waves of time go rolling past. and I bring a jug containing a hot, strange drink for us to share, with a strong burnt flavor that we’ll learn to recognize and quickly forget, seated and unique in the center, where the smoke burns my mouth, my nose: I’m extraordinarily thin, I unravel like a thread of smoke.

Translation, “Time’s arrest,” © Kristin Dykstra from La detención del tiempo / Time’s Arrest, second edition (Factory School, 2005).

 

Passage of Clouds

Noon (18 September 1994)

Noah’s Ark: great embarkation in which Noah and his family, and a certain number of animals, were saved from the deluge. Wooden box; receptacle for collecting water; receptacle for safeguarding tablets of the law; crate or space in which various things are enclosed...

Here too various things are enclosed. Destinies. Possibilities. Temples and palaces. Columns and obelisks; pyramids and ziggurat blurring toward choppy water. Baptisms (iconographies), another art of a form—as in ancient sculpture—from beyond the island city of Argos. Their motion appears ungainly. Reliefs that filled reality, or the walls (a man semi-reclining in the sand); the reclining statue of a Meroitic man. The pyramid is a pyramid of boats. One raft carries a doll leaning on the oars. And at the coastline a horse waits to see whether the tide will rise or not this time. He sees them moving away into the distance, the size and dimension of their figures    expanding as they get farther away, disappearing into the horizon’s confine. The children have always played by rafts, which capsize and resurface as the weight of their hands pulls away. But this time, the rafts rise and evade the arm that attempts to restrain them—and as if all the white water were about to fly out in spilling foam, a cloud adheres to the arm of the boy seeing them off. Some boats will sink for good between the sand and the undertow; others will touch up against the line of limitation. We’ll always have our suspicions about the one that ran aground, the one that came back, the one that made land. This is an Island; the children grew up playing with its rafts. Many people soaked up to the chest with water are praying on the island. I see the girl’s eyes, the floating carousel where her brothers have gone, the desolation. My favorite doll is gone too. And that raft—shroud at the center, with an old man whose back is always to my camera, who doesn’t want to turn his feet to leave—it’s the grandfather. Boats of wood, asphalt and Styrofoam. Christ at the front of the caravan—a realist painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus—at the bow. Or this other one, a cross made of sticks for a mast, passes by, off to confront the rolling of the void in the wind. Sides of zinc and rubber, melted tire. A boy and a cloud—and a horse, who approaches to drink from a brackish sun—have seen how all the others go off, lost behind some vague boundary.

“Passage of Clouds” © Reina María Rodríguez, translation © Kristin Dykstra, from Other Letters to Milena / Otras cartas a Milena (University of Alabama Press, 2016).

Translated by Kristin Dykstra

 

Kristin Dykstra is principal translator of The Winter Garden Photograph, by Reina María Rodríguez, Winner of the 2020 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She co-edited Materia Prima, an anthology of poetry by Amanda Berenguer (Uruguay), Finalist for the 2020 Best Translated Book Award. Previously the U. of Alabama Press published four of Dykstra’s book-length translations of Cuban poetry, by Rodríguez, Juan Carlos Flores, Ángel Escobar, and Marcelo Morales. She also translated Tina Escaja’s Destructivist Manual. Selections from her new poetry manuscript appear in Lana Turner, Seedings, La Noria (with Spanish translation by Escaja), and the website for The Hopper.

Languages

LALT No. 18
Number 18

In our eighteenth issue, we feature the work of beloved Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez alongside that of João Cabral de Melo Neto, renowned Brazilian poet and third Latin American winner of the Neustadt Prize. We also highlight Latin American women poets, indigenous literature from Brazil, new works in translation, and a return to the essay through the words of Mariano Picón Salas.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Reina María Rodríguez

Dossier: João Cabral de Melo Neto

Fiction

Poetry

Essays

Interviews

Brazilian Literature

Indigenous Literature

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

On the Essay

Nota Bene