Carlos Martínez Rivas (1924-1998)

translated by Anthony Seidman

Dirge: On The Death of Joaquín Pasos


With a snare-drum's rattling roll,
in the middle of a small Plaza de Armas,
as if for the obsequies honoring a hero… that's
how I would wish to commence. For just as
Death's Rite dictates that I forget his death,
I shall return to his life,–
and to those of other extinguished heroes who once
flared forth as he did down here.
For many are the young poets who have long since died.

Through the centuries they hail one another; we hear
their voices ignite, like roosters crowing then
answering from night's umbrage.
We know little about them: that they were young and tread
upon this earth. That they knew how to pluck the strings of an instrument.

That they felt the sea-breeze tousle their hair,
and contemplated the hills. That they loved a girl,
and that they clung to this fancy so tenaciously as to forget her.
That they wrote of it all, far too late, revising much
and one day died. Already their voices flame at night.


However, Joaquín, we know
much about you. I know…I travel back
to that day when in the embrace of your nanny
you suddenly became aware you existed.
And through this self-discovery you and your eyes were,
and your vision was the clearest that as yet any
being had attained. But you merely observed
with a stupefied, fateful gaze,
never retaining people for love or for hate.
(Even your small hands were more capable than others
at grasping an object, and not dropping it.)
One morning they took you to the barber's where
they solemnly sat you down; throughout the ordeal
your behavior was like a little gentleman's…
even though the customers poked fun at you,
even though the close clippers snipped your curls,
transforming you.
Later you hit the street. That other street
and other age when you scribble
a mustache across Leonardo's Mona Lisa,
when you're unkempt and uncouth…
but radiant youth soon bursts forth.
Later, we all know the rest: the toll
things took on you. The flow of beings
that pressed to meet you, each in turn
posing their questions
you had to answer with a clear
name which would resonate distinctly in their ears
among all others, just as we know
that the darkest men visited
Iaokanann in order to receive a name
so that henceforth
God could call upon them in the desert.
Thereafter, your destiny was such that you
could never gaze upon the earth,–
a nasty business, Joaquín. You learned
that before all things you paused to contemplate,
all were meted out an allotted time, and you would tremble.
That merely looking at them for
a reasonable time was enough to turn them
into something dreadful:
  the blinding flash of a lemon.
The dull weight of an apple.
The pensive face of man.
The two breasts, pale and panting, heaving
beneath the blouse of a girl who's just run.
The hand that reaches out to touch her. Even words themselves…
everything had an essence inside itself. A sense
that resided at the core, unmoving, repeating itself,
neither waxing nor waning,
always full of its self, like a number.
And this list of names, this sum total you must
calculate for the day of reckoning,
and when you complete the calculation you shall become it.
Because they too gave you a name, so that
you would fill it with all, as in a crystal goblet.
So in such a manner you would include inside of you
starry nights, flowers,
village roofs seen from the road,
and that by uttering its name you would name yourself:
the sum total of all you saw.
To accomplish which they gave you only words,
verbs and some vague rules. Nothing tangible.
Not a single utensil like those that scrubbing
has made so shiny. And so I think
perhaps–just like me at times–you would've rather been a painter.
Painters at least have things. Brushes
to clean and keep in jars
of china and clay which they've purchased.
Paint-stained artifacts and all the objects
a simple man has devised for his own consolation.
Or to be a woodworker
carving a dancing nymph on furniture so that
the air actually ruffles her cloak.
But it's certain no man
ever controlled his destiny. And that difficult
labor turned you into the most honorable
type I know. Granted,
you knew what you were getting yourself into.
You saw workers as they go to the store. You watched
how they examine tools, test blades,
finally choosing the only one among the many: the wife
for the high bed of the construction scaffold.
Such was how you chose an adjective,
a word, and how you scanned a line;
you stalked as you would an enemy.
To make a poem was to plan the perfect crime.
It was to scheme a stainless lie,
made true by dint of purity.

And now you have died. And the flow of grace along with you.
It is said God has never permitted what
burns brightly among mortals to splutter, and fade.
Because of that our hope endures.
It's difficult to fight against the muddy
Olympus of the frogs. From earliest childhood they're
trained in the practice of nothing.
It is a great toil that the rest
shall be discerned. And yet there are few who
recognize it amid the smoke and jeers.
But we shall persevere, my dear Joaquín. Never fear.
And if by dying you have committed any treason,
that's your affair;
I shall not be one to judge you,
myself a frequent traitor.
I don't raise my voice against Death.
Poor maiden, always overwhelmed by her own power,
and embarrassed by the lamentations bursting over the corpse.
Only you can know your own death.
Its enigma doesn't concern the living, only life does.
While we are alive let Her be forgotten as if we were eternal.
And let us strive.
You, rooster of the Orco, awaken us.

And just as the bees of Thebes flew–
as old Elyan tells the tale–to suck honey from young Pindar's lips,
let this song stretch, touching your pallid head;
let it light on your breasts, piercing
your mouth with its own, quenching its fire-thirst;
let it flutter around your brow, weaving an
invisible crown upon your head.
Let its wings beat with increasing force, soaring
to greater heights with majestic turns.
Let it urge forth. Once more, and again,
describing greater and greater circles
in its flight towards empyrean.

Carlos Martínez Rivas (1924-1998), author of La insurrección solitaria (1953), is one of the supreme poets from Nicaragua, and offers an interesting alternative to the poetries of
Cuadra and Ernesto Cardenal; whereas Cuadra and Cardenal offered a collage of voices from Nicaraguan society, and where Cardenal opted for the open sequence form and aesthetics of Pound in his most ambitious poems, Martínez Rivas’ voice was intensely solitary, precise with his wording, more interested in the poetry of a Dylan Thomas or a Hart Crane, in order to foment in his poetry and intellectual life a “solitary insurrection,” the title for the one collection of poetry he published in various editions, with various additions and revisions, throughout the decades. As with Paz, an admirer of Martínez Rivas, Martínez Rivas revised his poetry even after publication, and lines have been modified, added and dropped from poems,--“Canto funebre a la muerte de Joaquín Pasos” being no exception. These slight changes are maddening to any translator, and what I have done is approach the task of translation as imitation and dialogue with the poet, in a Lowell-sort of way, in order to
produce a poem that echoes the textures of vocabulary and tone in Martínez Rivas’ poetry. For example, my usage of such a word as “empyrean” is intentional, and alludes to the poet’s absorption of Milton, most strikingly in “El paraíso recobrado” (1944) and in other long poems. Martínez Rivas’ poetry, though always controlled and conceived with amazing architecture, can switch from the colloquial to a Spanish rich with allusions to the poetry of the Siglo de Oro; thus, the reader will notice my intentional usage of words such as “dirge” and “obsequies” (used also for the allusion to Crane’s playful twisting of the word in his “Chaplinesque”), alongside slang expressions such as “later you hit the street,” as well as incorporations of images and lines in contemporary North-American poetry, such as Levine’s “close clippers” from his “To A Child Trapped In A Barber Shop”. It is my “fancy,” to use a term that Martínez Rivas loved, that these eccentricities would have been pleasing to Martínez Rivas. The title of the poem, one that is both an In Memoriam and an Ars Poetica, addresses the death of Martinez Rivas’ friend and fellow poet who died young, leaving behind work that includes “Canto de guerra de las cosas,” a poem that has become widely read and is regarded as being as innovative and as important as the longer poems by Huidobro or Neruda.

Carlos Martínez Rivas © 2009
translated by Anthony Seidman © 2009