Water for Days of Thirst
Threnody for Joaquín Pasos
Carlos Martínez Rivas
In translation, I seek another country, another world. I long to not only read translation to be translated, which in Latin means carried across. A great translation does this, simultaneously carrying the poet to the reader’s world and carrying the reader into the poet’s world. It’s rare but there’s nothing I love more. Roger Hickin accomplishes this, not once but twice, in his masterful versions of Carlos Martínez Rivas’ Threnody for Joaquín Pasos and Blanca Castellón’s Water for Days of Thirst from Cold Hub Press. These books bring two stunning poets into English for the first time and give voice to the vital and under-represented Nicaraguan literary tradition.
Threnody for Joaquín Pasos is an overview of Carlos Martínez Rivas’ career in twenty-five pieces. Rivas’ style brings to mind Lorca, Rimbaud, and Verlaine in its worldly innocence and brave experimentation. I found my head nodding as I read as if he were a jazz trumpeter and I was following the rise and fall of his improvisations which swirled and eddied around a central theme without losing it. He moves deftly between themes personal, sexual, national, and religious without losing the progression and bringing his reader along for the ride.
I was particularly transported read “Paradise Regained,” “a poem in three steps with a prolog.” He begins with a wide view of the continent and zooms into the particular, meeting a girl and falling in love at the airport.
And I, at a loss what to do
with my love, turned it
into a song.
A good one I thought. And to amuse myself
and perform it for a bunch of friends,
who on occasion asked me to recite,
I committed it to memory.
It goes like this…
And so, it begins. A quote from Paradise Lost sets up the first awareness of fallenness to wide-eyed innocents as they leave the shelter of Eden. In lieu of Eden, love becomes the promised land, a transport to unreal realms of air and eventual paradise. Rivas mixes the mundane and ineffable, the sacred and secular in lines like, “the fountain where lichen dreams its cathedrals” and “this girl who plays ping pong, who smiles, / and at age fifteen becomes an apple.” The narrator leads the girl on his journey of love, “from comet to comet, and beyond.” And I followed breathlessly in the lovers’ wake to that paradise of poetry, “where our hearts ripen / when, on this brand new air, / we hang once more the branch, / the bird, the apple, the star.”
Both Castellón and Rivas share a rich literary tradition, life experiences which included oppressive dictatorships and violent national strife. Born thirty-four years after Rivas, Castellón carries the torch of the previous generation of Nicaraguan poets (including Rivas) with a spartan and spare modern style. Sometimes this take the form of short poems, like “Bad Management:”
“I’m squandering the silence / left to me by the dead.” In longer poems, there is still a sense that only the absolutely necessary words have been cut, as in the sixth part of “Outside Times Ten and One Within.”
there’s no cozy bed
no sheets without stains
no eye pure in its seeing
no easy distances
outside is a landscape
of forgotten letters
Castellón’s lines have a level of independence within the poem that I’ve rarely witnessed. Her long poems “Flotations” and “Genuflection” are collations of relatedly independent lines. Even in more traditionally arranged poems, lines are unusually excerptable, poems within poems. I kept writing lines down in my notebook; each seemed its own poem. Here are some.
As you devour me spare a thought for your teeth
We go through summer with autumn on our shoulders.
Angelina Jolie recently had her breasts removed
a preventative measure.
Tonight I want to try out the laugh
I gave you on your birthday
wake up in time for
These lines then, which read like koans, like haiku, are in imagistic synecdoche maps to a world of an archipelago. This theme is set up in “Map,” the book’s first poem,” Castellón writes,
A turbulent sea
circling the desert
that is me.
Lonely as the world may be, it is a beautiful one.
Both books are well worth a read, not only for the exquisite poetry but also the skilled translation. Even a reader with my limited Spanish can see (aided by the parallel text of the poems) the faithfulness of Hickin’s translations. He has balanced rendering the voices two very different authors with conveying a sense of Nicaraguan literary tradition. He writes with a strong poetic that feels native while still carrying the cultural weight of the original context.
Hickin has done a service to the English-speaking world by making these two poets available in translation. From the knife blade edge of Blanca Castellón’s verse to the lush garden of opulence in Carlos Martínez Rivas, these are books to read and reread. You can find them here and here and explore the rest of Cold Hub’s excellent catalog here.