Luis Miguel Aguilar

Kathleen Snodgrass

From Chetumal Bay: The Poetry of Luis Miguel Aguilar

Luis Miguel Aguilar was born in the southern port city of Chetumal, Quin­tana Roo, Mexico, in 1956. In 1979 he published his first book of poems, Medio de construcción, followed by Chetumal Bay Anthology (1983). Editor of several anthologies, the most recent being Poesía popular mexicana (1999), Aguilar is also a fiction writer and essayist. His selected poems, Todo lo que sé, appeared in 1990. His most recent books are Fábulas de Ovidio (2001), transla­tions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Pláticas de familia: Poemas y prosas (2007), autobiographical prose sketches and poems. Once editor and now advi­sory editor of the Mexican arts and culture monthly, Nexos, Aguilar lives in Mexico City with his wife and two children.

            I first encountered his work in the bilingual anthology of young Mexican poets, Ruido de Sueños / Noise of Dreams (Ediciones El Tucán de Virginia, 1994). Reading his selected poems, I was especially struck by the twenty-three poem cycle, Chetumal Bay Anthology. As Aguilar relates in his introduction, he found in Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology a model for poems based on his childhood memories of life in Chetumal. Aguilar’s cycle is not overshad­owed by Masters, however; in some ways he surpasses him. Free of sentimen­tality or moralizing, Aguilar’s monologuing dead are a grittier, livelier bunch whom death hasn’t taught a thing. These are characters created with both affec­tion and a steely eye for our great capacity to rationalize our most outrageous ac­tions.

      The ongoing translation challenge was in rendering Aguilar’s distinctive voices and personae. I am fortunate in having as friends several Mexican poets, not least of them Luis Miguel himself, who would read early versions and ex­plain regional colloquialisms and references. After more tinkering I put the trans­lations aside to let them get cold so as to come back with a hopefully more criti­cal eye and ear. The final revisions were all about fine-tuning the voice by changing words and rhythms. When I was fairly confident I had final versions I once again asked Luis Miguel to look at them and invariably he would explain still more subtle nuances of meaning  particular to Chetumal.

            Aguilar’s poems are also a distinct challenge because he lets his characters speak for themselves. And because they’re as clueless in death as they were in life, their emotions and motives remain muddied and contradictory. Death hasn’t smoothed their edges, given them great insights, or tamped down their angers and resentments. Aguilar has instead brought them to wonderful, and of­ten raucous, life—San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, January 5, 2007.

 

 

Luis Miguel Aguilar

Romero, Hot-Headed

 

I was born in Chiapas. I came to Chetumal

Shortly after my father died. In this town everyone talked about

How much I loved to drink. I don’t deny it.

I married the Peruvian’s daughter. The eldest.

Violeta; fair-skinned with amber eyes.

I was happy; she left me

On account of the bad luck that hounds me:

I got blind drunk once:

I ran down Orthón P. Blanco firing a pistol

I’d carry with me from time to time.

They took me off to jail; when I got out

—Still a little drunk, pissed off—

The Peruvian’s daughter insulted me,

Pointing to our son and claiming

I set a bad example.

Then I hit her for the first time

In the three years we stayed married.

The moment he learned of it,

The Peruvian’s eldest son came looking for me. He beat me,

Leaving me slumped in a bitter and humiliating corner.

The divorce came later. And my downward descent. I started drinking

With more determination than I had when my father died.

Like him, I ended up doing everything I swore

I’d never do. In Chetumal the right-minded people

Set down my fate

Saying I died of congestive heart failure. This much is certain:

Deep down, what finished me off was the booze

And the unbearable memory

Of the eyes of the Peruvian’s daughter.

 (Translated from the Spanish by Kathleen Snodgrass) 

 

Luis Miguel Aguilar

Violeta, Divorced

 

I had warned him many times

And Chetumal was on my side;

However, shortly after the divorce

The gossipy aunts came around to tell me

About Romero’s binges and disgraces

And his moaning about having lost me. I told myself

Starting over with him would be useless

And I tried to forget not the problems

But just the memory of my lying

On the bottom of a boat adrift

In Bacalar the night Romero

Opened me to come inside for the first time.

Maybe I could have gotten back with Romero

If for a while he hadn’t played

The part of the victim. His binges

Brought out Chetumal’s compassion

Until one day or another things turned around

And I was the guilty one. I don’t get it.

I ended up shoving a good boy into the grave?

(Translated from the Spanish by Kathleen Snodgrass)

 

Luis Miguel Aguilar

Gálvez, Melancholic

 

Not just any man would open the door of his house

On any murky February morning

To a bitter woman like you, my sad Rose-Helen.

Those who’ve come from the street go back to it.

When you went away, I left in place the portraits,

Your vase, your combs, the seascapes.

My head—more level than yours, that’s for sure—

Ached until I died. Although not just any man dies

Slack-jawed, on a gray bed, my sad Rose-Helen.

(Translated from the Spanish by Kathleen Snodgrass)

Luis Miguel Aguilar

Pechy, Riled-Up

 

I don’t know if it’s worth remembering

That the day I gave birth to José Antonio

(Or, really, from the time they knew about my pregnancy)

Chetumal covered me with slander and slime: that stray bullet

—They said—nobody even knows

What pistol it was shot out of. But If back then I tried hard to ignore them

I can do it now with absolute calm.

Everybody remembers Enrique Zalameda, the ears-nose-throat guy

Who was in Chetumal a year and a half

In social service practice.

Once, he tumbled me in among the sacks

In the back of Majachian’s storeroom;

Another time, on the road to Kohunlich,

And on the way to Corozal, and other places, too, lots of times.

Before he left town for good, he promised

He’d come back to marry me. He didn’t keep his promise.

Nobody does, that’s for sure.

I preferred to keep quiet about some stranger

Deflowering and abandoning me—

An idiot country bumpkin—though

All over Chetumal the gossip ran

That Pechy was already so sluttish

And brazen and dim-witted and insolent

She couldn’t point out for sure

The father of her son. Chetumal: you pay attention to me;

I’m the daughter of Hurricane Janet and of terror,

Who could hunt down your women like someone hunting chachalacas,

Killing them on the wing,

And in the time it takes their tongues to fly.

(Translated from the Spanish by Kathleen Snodgrass)

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