Juan Gelman: From “The Poems of Sidney West”

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:37 AM
Translation from Spanish by Katherine Hedeen and Víctor Rodríguez Núñez

[The following is from a work created by Juan Gelman and presented in Spanish as a presumed translation from an otherwise unknown American poet. The translation of Gelman’s translation into English is therefore the creation as well of the "original" poem and poet. The complete work, both English and Spanish, appears in The Poems of Sidney West, Salt Publishing, 2009, along with Hedeen’s and Rodríguez Núñez’s essay, “Juan Gelman or Translation as Fidelity,” also excerpted below.]

La traducción, ¿es traición?
La poesía, ¿es traducción?
Po I-Po

Translation, is it treason?
Poetry, is it translation?
Po I-Po

lament for the death of parsifal hoolig

it began to rain cows
and in light of the prevailing situation in the
     country
the agronomy students sowed disorder
the engineering professors proclaimed their
     virginity
the philosophy janitors oiled the staples of
     intellectual reason
the math teachers verified crying the two
     plus two
the language learners invented good bad
     words

while this was happening
a wave of nostalgia invaded the country’s
     beds
and the couples look at each other as
     strangers
and twilight was served for lunch by
     mothers and fathers
and the pain or the hurt slowly dressed the
     little ones
and the chests fell off some and the backs
     off others and to the rest nothing fell
     off at all
and they found God dead several times
and old men flew through the air holding
     tightly to their dried testicles
and old women hurled exclamations and
     felt painful stitches in their memory
     or oblivion
and various dogs approved and toasted
     with Armenian cognac
and they found a man dead several times

near a carnival Friday ripped from the
    carnival
under an invasion of autumnal insults
or over blue elephants standing on Mr.
     Hollow’s cheek
or close by the larks in sweet vocal
     challenge with summer
they found that man dead
with his hands openly gray
his hips disordered by the events in
     Chicago
remains of wind in his throat
25 cents in his pocket and its still eagle
with feathers wet from infernal rain

oh dear ones!
that rain fell years and years on the
     pavement of Hereby Street
without ever erasing the slightest trace
     of what had happened!
without dampening one of the humili-
     ations not even one of the fears
of that man with hips scrambled tossed
     in the street
late so his terrors can mix with water
     and rot and end!

and so died parsifal hoolig
he closed his silent eyes
kept the custom of not protesting
was a brave dead man
and while his obituary did not appear in
     the New York Times and the Chicago
     Tribune paid no attention to him
he did not complain when they picked him
    up in a truck from the city
him and his melancholy look

and if someone supposes this is sad
if someone is going to stand up and say it
     is sad
know this is exactly what happened
nothing else happened but this
under this sky or vault of heaven

lament for chester carmichael’s bird

all the young girls sing in Melody Spring
all the young boys dance in Melody Spring
and the old women knit the old men smoke
     their sea foam pipes in Melody Spring
all except chester carmichael dead in the fall of
     1962

previously he had lost his leaves as a tree
feathers winds pieces of memory falling all
     around him
the last to fall was a woman or what was left
     of a woman
semi-gnawed chewed dry and even
     phosphorescent
who illuminated chester carmichael night after
     night
and still could not be extinguished and shines
     where the southern road begins

he is dark:
not so much because of earth and death
time reworked his face as a small angel
and now he is naked without alternatives
     decadences furies
among smooth roots and the rest of his
     seasonal companions

chester carmichael was finished
he left with a spikenard in his hand accom-
     panied by one hundred thousand monkeys
who danced and sang as the young girls and
     boys of Melody Spring
there were no sobs screams flowers over his
     heart
only a beautiful bird who would stare at him
and now watches over his head

oh tiny bird!
every so often it bends over chester carmichael
     and hears what he is giving back
calm as the sun

[final poem] errata

where it says “he escaped from himself as
     from a prison cell” (page such and such
     verse whatever)
it could say “the tiny tree grew and grew”
     or some other error
as long as it has rhythm
is certain or true

and so sidney west wrote these lines that
     will never love him
in the freshness of a dry dark well
on top of a world blinded by sun
or alone alone alone

where it says “if we were or we were/as
     human faces”
(page such and such verse whatever) it is
     as the ox that ploughed there
not rotted by pain or fury
disguising much of the time in solitude

ah sidney west! here ends (hopefully)
your wretched aspimos leanings
what tiny bit round this man
and what animal within

all those birds that knew how to invent ate
     sidney west
ponina and nino especially
greedy from their state and passion
open sweet as useless

where it says “one day the following happened”
     (page such and such verse whatever)
sadness had happened by before
and that is fatal for the poet
or it was fatal for west’s pain

hey tiny bugs horseflies brilliances greeting
     in the Oak’s cemetery!
there they put sidney west let him sleep
where it says “let him sleep sleep sleep” (page
     such and such verse whatever)
it should say let him sleep and nothing more

and so when west with his first love
headed for sidney sailor
sidney the last in history
spun with west as a water wheel’s donkey

let him sleep and nothing more should be said
     (page such and such verse whatever)
and nothing more let him sleep and nothing
     more
let him sleep sleep sleep
let sidney west sleep sleep sleep

until his feets grow wings please
let sidney west sleep
until we love one another well
let him sleep sleep sleep

the father breathes it if he really wants to
     breath it
here they lie as before
but let him sleep sleep sleep
let sidney west sleep

where it says “curtains with birds so morning
     enters singing” (page such and such verse
     whatever)
sidney west should turn himself off in the
     morning
let him sleep sleep sleep

TRANSLATORS’ NOTE
On Juan Gelman and Sidney West
Translation as Fidelity

Juan Gelman is the most significant, contemporary Argentine intellectual figure and one of the most read and influential poets in the Spanish language. Son of a family of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, he grew up like any other porteño, among soccer and tango, in the populous neighborhood of Villa Crespo. He was initiated into reading by his brother Boris, who would often recite Pushkin’s verses to him in Russian. He also received from Boris the works of Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other modern and contemporary classics. At 11, he published his first poem in the magazine Rojo y negro, and in the 1950s formed part of the group of rebel writers, El Pan Duro. He was discovered by Raúl González Túñón, among the most relevant voices of the southern country’s poetic avant-garde, who saw in the young man’s verses “a rich and vivacious lyricism and a principally social content […] that does not elude the richness of fantasy.” ...
     The use of translation as a tool for poetic creation that distinguishes Juan Gelman’s work, reaches its apex with The Poems of Sidney West. María del Carmen Sillato has stressed how this device, along with heteronomy and intertextuality, is “an expression of alterity by recognizing the other-author, the other-text, and the other-language as co-participants in the elaboration of a textual universe.” As for us, we only have left to mention that these translations of Gelman’s translation have been carried out under the most rigorous accuracy. It is this, upon conveying the poetic subject’s message, which makes beautiful expression possible. There is much in these texts that is truly untranslatable, just as surely there was in the imaginary American’s originals. Something must have gotten lost in the translation, and something must have remained, for the whole maintains its power, humanity, lucidity. In sum, we hope this translation is not treason but, on the contrary, an act of fidelity. ...
     The Poems of Sidney West offers us only one clue about when these accounts take place, yet it is significant: chester carmichael “dead in the fall of 1962.” The space is even more precise and determined, always within the real or imagined United States. This territorial emplacement, beyond Argentina’s borders, constitutes a frank questioning by Juan Gelman of the nationalism and populism on the rise during the era. According to this decolonizing political gesture, what is being challenged is not only individualist romanticism but also the collectivist realism promoted by Stalinism and deferred to with its variants by Latin American coreligionists. Ultimately, both this romanticism and realism are based on a voluntarist and thus idealist conception of social movement, which produces a distorted representation of reality. What is sought here is the destruction of the self, a redefinition of the poetic “I” that, like these stories’ characters, experiences a metamorphosis, de/composes to achieve the com/position of the subordinated other.

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