Steven Reese

Poets as Translators - Steven Reese


(1) Mr. Cerrado's Secret Preference for Winter
(2) Cerrado and the Higher Powers
(3) The Red-Letter Words

(4) Roberto Manzano
(5) Henri Michaux in Transit

(6) Synergies 3
(7) Synergies 4
(8) Synergies 10
(9) Returning in the Evening
(10) The Thread
(11) Origins

(12) In The Bag
(13) The Slap Gun
(14) The Statue and I



Steven Reese

Mr. Cerrado's Secret Preference for Winter

Summers, the South
Avenue bars from the Classique to
the Coconut Grove leave their doors 
thrown open,

and the car windows are down,
the house windows up, and everyone's
business billows
out, a jukebox of curses, cries,
the hustle and stab of the voices.

And the skin, too, is outloud, exposed.
Slick and sexhungry
on the young. On the old,
slack and stained by illness;
a threadbare bonesack.

So even while he trades
with a neighbor the usual gripes about
the grip of winter--the stiff joints,
shoveling, gas bills--secretly
Cerrado loves
its shutdown and shelter, its muffled

and the way snow tones
the city back to a black and white
photograph, plain
shades of sky and millstack,
silent and severe the way time is,
or duty or death.

He can almost hear the pilot
lights flutter.
The bar doors stay shut and the skin
under wraps. When he sees
the smoking rooftops he thinks

of a town in an old war,
besieged, emptied, the flesh having
fled before
some large and mighty force whose advance
is relentless.


Steven Reese

Cerrado and the Higher Powers

What they'd sat him in a pew to learn
hit home his first time in a plane,
the earth from below rilled and peaked
like trashed paper thought twice about
and salvaged--

a heavenly host who looked down on just
such an error, a page
grace had tried to smooth flat again
but still rumpled and ridged and inked
with the red of wrongdoing.

(This he could follow, his schoolwork being
what it was. . . )

Even now, Cerrado thinks, this world offers up
more reasons than prayer
can counter
to be wadded and pitched to the abyss
the way kids used to jump-shoot
their empty lunch sacks
into the cafeteria can.

But he remembers, too, math he'd fished
from the trash out back, red
not only with ink but tomato sauce,
and how the only numbers that mattered a damn
were her seven digits scribbled in the margin,

--and how he'd called anyway
though he knew he didn't have a prayer,
not with this girl,

and this year, had she lived, would have been
their forty-fifth married.

So he figures it didn't take church to learn
love and salvation. Or to picture her
looking back down,
finding the mark that means him

on the wrinkled page.


Steven Reese

The Red-Letter Words

Plastic, and all caps, my letters. The same red
they used for licorice and cough syrup.
And my page: the hotel marquee twenty-five feet
in the air.

A twenty-foot ladder made getting up there
almost heroic, a one-handed lunge for the rail
of the catwalk, hanging free in mid-air a moment
till you swung a leg up.

It beat the other houseboy chores: setting up 
tables and chairs for a hundred Rotarians;
mopping the lobby; vacuuming hallways.
That was all beneath me

from up there. You could see Rt. 13 bend away
toward one of the lakes the Iroquois claimed
had been made when God pressed a hand 
down onto the earth,

the highway a string of tail- and headlights,
the lake a glimpse of moonsheen. Below me,
cars waited out the signal on Triphammer Road
while I spelled


and I'd stay up there awhile, the catwalk
a crow's nest, the lights of the glacier-made
valley blending with starlight, a car or two
hailing me with horns

before I'd swing back down from the railing,
find the ladder with my foot, and trade night air 
for Check-Out's interrogating light, for rags
and Pine-Sol and plungers.

At the time, my two principal interests -- sports,
and where fame came from -- were yielding
to passions for the greater mysteries: breasts
and deep space,

the breathlessly intimate and the coldly remote,
which I knew first-hand only from one night's
ride home in the car of our high school's most 
Roman Catholic girl.

I could put your name up in lights, I said,
and hardly touched her. She dumped me out
and gave me the finger, a whirling galaxy
of dust from her tires.

Not long after that, fame came to our town:
William Shatner's one-man show surveyed
the whole history of restless, heaven-gazing

adopting the voice now of Copernicus, now
Galileo, then a whole cast of stellar explorers, 
in between whom he'd speak as himself--
Captain of the Enterprise.

My brother and I went home that night awed 
by the dark we were spinning through, the dark
that little by little was taking on shape,
one unknown

behind another revealing itself to the mind,
to the telescope, the observatory, the hieroglyphs
my uncle, a NASA mathematician, used
to talk about sky.

Starstruck hardly covers it, then, when I
saw William Shatner checking out at my
hotel the next day -- a beige suit, a bag
by each foot

as he flipped through his wallet, about to go
boldly off to his next show in the next town
with that voice that had hung the planets
from a theater ceiling,

and which was now asking something about
the columns of figures on his receipt.
I leaned on my mop handle there in the lobby,
eavesdropping, eager.

When he hefted his bags and started out,
I held the door open, and he thanked me
while I stood dumb and humming inside
like a fluorescent light.

That night, I pulled myself up to the catwalk
with something big to say, like the red-letter
words in the Bible, the god stuff, the language
handed down to me.

But what? The dark was an auditorium's,
my audience everywhere, passing or just
pulling in for the night before other places
welcomed them home.


Any of which would have got me fired,
and that would have been just fine. The lobby
blared like some kind of jackpot below me,
and back of that, inside,

travelers slept soundly on the way to their lives.
They'd wake next day to a blank marquee--
since of all the words sent down from the dark,
I could make none matter



Steven Reese

Roberto Manzano

I REMEMBER MANY things about the evening when the Cuban poet Roberto Manzano read his poems at Youngstown State University in the spring of 2003. First, perhaps, was his own personal energy, which was at times so emphatic that our translator had to remind him to slow down and leave space so that she could convey his energies in English. Second was his complete sense of conviction--in writing what he'd written, in being with us to read, in delivering the poems to his audience. Third, was that audience's brand of attention, truly "undivided," right up to the last word when they instinctively and immediately rose to their feet in applause. And I remember, in a bar afterwards, a colleague of mine and an excellent poet, trying to tell Manzano (through an interpreter) that so much American poetry felt "constipated" in light of what he'd just heard that evening. As I recall, Manzano, generously and anxiously, scanned the premises for the men's room to aid his new American friend.

What my colleague meant, of course, was that Manzano's poems went beyond the traditionally circumscribed lyric, beyond the often humble and household range of so many contemporary poems. They smacked of Whitman. They outsoared anything pedestrian, even in celebrating the here and now and close-to-hand. Translating those poems, and talking with Manzano about his work, was to experience that energy and ambition at close range, too close indeed to avoid being affected by it permanently. Which is one of the great gifts of the opportunity of translating--to be changed oneself in the process of that other, impossible change: moving a poem out of one language into another.

Roberto Manzano was born in Ciego de Avila in 1949, spent much of his life in Camag�ey, and now resides in Havana. A teacher and critic as well as a poet, he is also founder of Los Talleres Literarios (the Literary Workshops). A member of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, in 1995 he received the Emilio Ballagas Prize for his essay "Mito y texto de Jos� Mart�" ("Myth and Text of Jos� Mart�"), and his other work has won or been nominated for some of the most distinguished awards in the world of Cuban letters. His books include El racimo y la estrella (Cluster and Star),Tablilla de barro (Tablet of Clay), and his most recent collection, Synergos (Synergies).

Another Cuban poet--Rafael Almanza Alonso--was to visit Youngstown State this year, but the American government felt the risk was too great and denied his visa application. But we'll be having the reading anyway, convinced--after our experience with Roberto--that the consequence of missing such a chance would be a threat to poetry everywhere.--Youngstown, Ohio, December, 2003


Steven Reese

Henri Michaux in Transit

THE LOVERS OF movement, of motion -- I'm with them. That's what Henri Michaux said, and any reader of his work is bound to be struck by how immediately stasis emerges as the villain there. If you meet a statue, the poems say, teach it to walk; if you endorse the adult, family values of patience and tolerance, the great static virtues, do it only to smokescreen the beatings you give to bores and idiots, whether you stuff them in a sack first or simply lash out with the slap-a-tat-tat of your free and rapid-fire hand. Everything in a Michaux text is energized by motion, by the crossing of moral, aesthetic (are thesepoems?), and psychological borders. My favorite figure for the first-time reader of Michaux is his own baffled and apologetic character, Plume, who finds himself inexplicably walking the ceiling and wondering how the familiar could look so suddenly alien.

By now, the etymological sense of translation as movement has become a clich�, but to "English" a Michaux poem is to feel the reality of that understanding again. This is true, I think, because a writer like Michaux emphasizes the ways in which language is already a translation of what we experience-and the ways in which language, for better or worse, has already framed what we are able to experience. Michaux is plainly obsessed and distressed and delighted with this predicament, and translators cannot help but feel that, in moving the text out of French into English, they are participating in that same distress and delight. For me, the distance over which the original text must be moved in this case feels especially great since not only the language but the whole angle of vision (and the style that results) are foreign to me and my own writing habits.

On the other hand, with Michaux's attention to-and endorsement of-movement,I feel much more at home. "Red-Letter Words," my own poem in this issue of Artful Dodge, is set at a Holiday Inn, the quintessence of stasis-in-transit. And its speaker is a young man for whom the world is happening, going past, at an ever-accelerating rate- while he seeks that momentary stay against confusion that Frost calls poetry. His precarious climb up to the marquee is an emblem (it seems to me now) of that sometimes uncertain and bewildering drive some of us have to translate experience into a shared language. I like to think that this young man, twenty-some feet in the air with no language-ladder connecting him to the world, would find a companionable presence in Plume ("Pen") walking the ceiling, his wonder and distress. --Youngstown, Ohio, December 4, 2001


Roberto Manzano

Synergies 3

I like to see certain fruits grouped like petals on the table, where they
flood the eyes, so eager for living's many colors;

but your seed-look, that pleases me, your hands in my hands, my
fingertips feeling the centered rhythm of your breasts;

feeling the rub of your belly's beautiful fruit, curved and promising,
that amazing geode your waist offers;

equidistant from everything, radiating sweet architectures, world center,
Macchu Pichu of the sky;

invisible expeditions set out from there, foamy strands of grace,
passion's fragrant phosphorous;

in your belly the spiral of your navel sings, well of Liliput, concave coin,
primary eye of life;

it closes around your middle, wraps your insides like a sash, it's a hinge
of busy eloquence;

your belly skin is like a polished ring, a shell's pink transparency, like
heaven's palate;

what's above is of a piece with it, two squint-eyed hills where the
anxious mouth hurries;

and below, your womb opens in the dark hive of the pubis, two coasts
where the lips linger;

your womb is a tender grower, everything widens and works together
toward this child building;

it swings to the planet, a liquid pendulum, turns on rapture's rhythmic

your womb swells its sides with a will like a guava's, with a comet's

I put my ear to your stomach, under your gladiolus hands, to hear
tenderness the way an Indian hears the horizon bringing buffalo.

(Translated from the Spanish by Steven Reese)


Roberto Manzano

Synergies 4

Now I feel like letting go with a howl, O Munch, a great resonant
lament, like a booming wall of China;

O Munch, on the bridge joining the two towers I would brace myself
against the gray rail to send out this huge howl;

mirror of art, that preserves the rare moment like a perfect double, how
well you give your dark colors to what is colorless;

I would pour out a long rasp, freed from anguish's clenched jaw, the
kind that exhales all the acid of pain in a single breath;

for I'm exhuming a huge pain, neither elegiac nor hymnal, not
impassive, not athletic, neither masculine nor feminine;

a pain, Vallejo, without flavor or record, lodged like a bad vertebrae in
living's dismaying successions;

Munch, to resound like this, to unstop the soul's pipes, the rail is there,
and the spirit's weight against the rail;

when they sound you and label you and declare you beyond hope, as is
usual when sorrow's honor runs out;

I would let go a cyclopean howl of outcrop rock, of thrown crystal, of
the crushed retina, of desert wind;

and it is not at all to commiserate or pardon or contribute or attack
that I ask now, this moment before the great howl;

I only want the pain to vacate me, like a death rattle that goes quickly,
separates, two visages facing each other;

then the mouth's open crater remains and the air of silence returns in
one inspiration as long as a train;

it enters in sad, consoling rings, the color of a night ember, like a
small, private celebration;

the world's immediate outlines dissolve, and the eyes, red still from
gasping, the eyes see the distance's clear palms;

and the great kingfishers cross the air while the sun rises, convalescing,
over the polished waters of the ocean.

(Translated from the Spanish by Steven Reese)


Roberto Manzano

Synergies 10

Sometimes, with the last light of evening, the dark, ramshackle trains
depart slowly from the stations;

metallic, dirty, crammed with hurried riders who fall silent while the
whistle says farewell to the platforms;

and the last scraps of newspaper scurry over concrete, under shoes, and
fall to the shining rails;

then, in the evening's slant light, its saffron and certain and sad-
smelling light, the last coaches vanish;

and I am the traveler, I am always the traveler, leaning, barely aboard
and lost in thought;

the traveler who has departed but never arrived, pursuing illusions in
train tunnels;

and then I tell everyone goodbye, and goodbye to myself, waving the
utopic handkerchief;

I have a long life behind, a great hope before, and a heart-sorrow that
sings and sings;

and sometimes I am new, always again that country boy who would
watch the small black trains of childhood;

and how is it that I am still that boy, that I have in me that same
journey of wounded nostalgia?;

in the unfolding of destinies these things are not good, a great grief in
preserving this fleeting sleep;

better to go from coach to coach joking with others wrapped in
thought, with one's distracted fellows;

better to train the eyes on the countryside already written out like a
visual psalm, like the same old familiar verse;

or plunge them into the nearby fences that quickly go by, uniting their
flowering posts, their black stumps;

or to join with the soul, slow traveler, crossing the air with its
possessions, while sparks from the rails mimic first glimmers of Venus.

(Translated from the Spanish by Steven Reese)


Roberto Manzano

Returning in the Evening

Spread the tablecloths! The fragrant evening hour
has arrived, and in the dusty river of the street
the twilight faces are coming home.
Inside, over there, the kitchens are lit,
and from over there the clatter comes wafting,
the sweet tones of utensil and aroma.
A toast to taste, and long live the tablecloth choir!
Traces of the day's to and fro
still on their shoulders, dust still on their step,
hair dried out by the heat,
but the coolness of the washtubs shines,
the towels flutter close,
earth-grimed shoes are left in corners,
and a trickle of delight grows and then unbraids
to float, aimless, under the lamps.
Unfold the tablecloths, the hour has arrived!
We have come back from the world-stuff,
from the spin of the compass, from the sweat
of our breath, the grease and the granite. Come back
from wood turned to pages, from sewing sacks,
from balancing papers, from forging souls.
We have come back along all the roads
talking briefly, stepping quickly across the dust
of our kingdom. We say goodbye in the side streets,
beneath trees wide with their red leaves,
against the red heavens,
and we go to our neighborhoods
like an army in the aftermath of victory.

(Translated from the Spanish by Steven Reese)


Roberto Manzano

The Thread

Through all things there runs a thread:
not of one color only, but of many,
and it unites everything in the mystery:
when you come to a halt, the thread stops,
and it joins you the moment you start again:
so through the flower, midday light,
through night, through time and the earth,
under your plants and over your brow,
the thread goes with you:
alone, at the very brink of death,
with others, toward the center of life,
crossing the crowded avenue
or standing on a shoreline crag,
it goes between leaves, the thread passes
through shoes by the thousands,
it passes from one thing to another, goes
from those things to you, from you to others
and then from those others again to you:
there is a thread and it travels this earth
suiting what happens to what's hoped for,
the matter to the dream, the desire to the joy:
without pause the thread goes with you,
it follows without rest while you live
and right to your death-fall, when its color
brightens at the shadow's edge.

(Translated from the Spanish by Steven Reese)


Roberto Manzano


When we hold each other, the old ones return,
the ones who loved in the distant past
between the wildflower and the cavern.
The lovers of that time, too, were joined fast.

Perhaps on the plains of some other day
Another crazed couple like me and you
Had their roll in the happy hay.
This sweet lunacy is old and new.

This fervor holding you is beyond history.
Here in my arms I gather an ancestry,
Like a seaswell, no boundaries to speak of.

From obscurity, passing to this embrace,
The others among whom we take our place--
Space, and time--all united here for love.

(Translated from the Spanish by Steven Reese)


Henri Michaux

In The Bag

I spit on my life. I want no part of it.
Who can do no better than his life?

IT BEGAN WHEN I was a child. There was an adult. A big nuisance. 
    How to avenge myself on him? I stuck him in a bag. There, I could beat him at my leisure. He cried out, but I ignored him. He was not interesting. 
    I have, wisely, preserved this childhood habit. The options for action that one acquires in growing up, aside from not getting one very far, are of doubtful use. 
    To someone in bed, one does not offer a chair. 
    As I say, I have kept this habit, and until today kept it secret. It was safer that way. 
    Its drawback-it does have one-is that because of it, I put up too easily with impossible people. 
    But I am waiting for them, I know, with the bag. And a wonderful patience comes of this. 
    I purposely let ridiculous situations go on and on and let those bloodsuckers stick around. 
    The joy I would take in actually putting them out the door is, when the chance presents itself, checked by the incomparably greater delights of putting them soon after in the bag. In the bag where I thrash them with impunity and with a vigor to wear out ten hearty men working tag-team. 
    Without this little art of mine, how would I have passed my discouraging life, often impoverished, always under somebody's thumb? 
    How would I have been able to persist dozens of years through so many trials, under so many masters, near and far, through two wars, two long occupations by a people in arms who do not like to leave a single pin standing, and through countless other enemies. 
    But the liberating habit saved me. Just barely, it is true, and I fought the despair that seemed bound to leave me nothing. Bores, zeroes, one lout whom I had managed to get rid of a hundred times, I saved them all for the bag.

(Translated from the French by Steven Reese)


Henri Michaux

The Slap Gun

IT WAS IN the family, as might be expected, that I produced the slap gun. I produced it without forethought. My anger suddenly shot out of my hand like a glove of wind, gusting, like two, three, four, ten gloves, whiffs of gloves which, spasmodically and terribly fast, threw themselves from my manual extremities, flying towards the target, toward the odious head they reached like that
    This repeated discharge from my hand was astonishing. It was really no longer just a slap or two. I am naturally reserved, and only the abyss of rage makes me lose control like this. 
    So a veritable ejaculation of slaps, cascading and convulsing with my hand remaining rigorously still. 
    On that day, I touched magic. 
    A careful eye would have noticed something. A sort of electric shadow spurting spasmodically from the end of my hand, gathered and reforming instantly. 
    To be perfectly frank, the cousin who had mocked me had just opened the door and gone out when, suddenly realizing the shame of the offense, I responded belatedly with a volley of slaps that, truly, escaped from my hand. 
    But I had found the slap gun, if I may call it that, and really nothing says it better. 
    Afterwards, I could no longer see the conceited girl without slaps like wasps flying toward her from my hand. 
    This discovery was worth putting up with her odious chatter. That is why I sometimes counsel tolerance within the family.

(Translated from the French by Steven Reese)


Henri Michaux

The Statue and I

IN MY SPARE moments, I am teaching a statue to walk. Given its unnaturally prolonged immobility, it is not easy. Not for it. Not for me. Great distance divides us, I am aware of that. I'm not so foolish as to not understand that. 
    But one can't have all the good cards in one's hand. Well then, onward. 
    What matters is that the first step be right. For the statue, everything is in the first step. I know it. I know it too well. In that lies my anguish. And so, I prepare. I prepare as never before. 
    I get up close and copy its pose exactly, my foot lifted like its foot, and stiff as a stake driven into the ground. 
    But alas, it is never quite right. Either the foot, its arch or how it is poised, or the style, something is always missing, and so that setting forth, so waited-for, is prevented. 
    That is why I have come to be nearly incapable of walking anymore, overcome with rigidity, though ever so spirited, and my bewitched body frightens me and will no longer carry me anywhere.

(Translated from the French by Steven Reese)






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