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Translated by Richard Prins


Oa, so you will be hitched, and used to having a wife.
Oa, with your pupils fixed, and your eyes open wide.
Oa, the waves white as milk, within the withdrawing tide.
Oa! this is married life; who in the world won't marry?

Oa, since you're a swimmer, and used to having a swim.
Oa, don't put on blinders; just keep those eyelids open.
Oa, be a begetter, as you were once begotten.
Oa! this is a union. Who in the world won't marry?

Oa, the fresh spring water, perfect for having a rinse.
Oa, eyes shouldn't shutter; you might miss the suspense.
Oa, bridesmaids of splendor, come see their resplendence.
Oa! this is the event; who in the world won't marry?

Oa, in the well-water, commingled with the rainfall.
Oa, look in the mirror, then take it down off the wall.
Oa, what grace and honor, a lady quintessential.
Oa! these are nuptials; who in the world won't marry?

Oa, come out of the bilge; bailing has kept you busy.
Oa, in the ocean-swell, if the lake should be empty.
Oa, we have heard it all; this topic's old and weary.
Oa! it's matrimony; who in the world won't marry?

Oa, and we will unwind, unwind and then be merry.
Merry in the mounting pain, pain of feeling painfully.
Pain the flesh with pleasure pangs; pleasure is panging to please.
Tingle that comes unforeseen; who in the world comes early?

1 – In 19th century Mombasan Swahili, “oa” was a homonym that could mean “marry”, “bathe” or “look”.


Original Swahili text of “Oa”

Oa, kwamba u muozi, uzuoeleo kuowa,
Oa, mato maolezi, na mboni ukikodowa;
Oa, maji maundazi, meupe kama maziwa,
Oa, Sizi ndizi ndowa. Asokuoa ni yupi?

Oa, ndiwe mulezi, uzoeleo kuowa,
Oa, sifumbe maozi, maninga uchiyavuwa;
Oa, uzaze uzazi kama ulivyozaliwa.
Oa, Sizi ndizi ndowa. Asokuoa ni yupi?

Oa, maji t'imbeti'mbe, mema ya mt'u kuyoa;
Oa, maozi sifumbe nawe utafurahiwa;
Oa, uole wapambe wako uliopambiwa.
Oa! Sizi ndizi ndowa. Asokuoa ni yupi?

Oa, maji ya kisima yatengenywe na mvuwa,
Oa, ukijitezama, kioo ukichanguwa.
Oa, mwanamke tama, mtukufu wa sitawa.
Oa! Sizi ndizi ndowa. Asokuoa ni yupi?

Oa, watoka ngamani ulipo ukiifuwa.
Oa, majini ya p'wani umeyakosa ya ziwa.
Oa, ni hizi zamani tulizo tukiambiwa.
Oa! Sizi ndizi ndowa. Asokuoa ni yupi?

Oa, unoweze nami, unowezapo t'akoya
T'akoya saya maumi maumi ya kuumia
Umia nyama za nyemi nyemi za kunyemenyea
Nyea kutombonekea ambonekae ni yupi?

Minnow, Lion of the Sea

I'm a sticky suckerfish, the killer of the ocean.
I am a catcher of flesh; when I hold fast I fasten.
I have bested all the rest, that's why I won't be eaten.
Minnow, king of the ocean; better know me if you don't!

When the tide is on the rise, and winds begin to vary,
Blowing back on every side, I'm hunter of my quarry.
Deep into the depths I dive, where no clipper will carry.
Minnow, lion of the sea; better know me if you don't.

When I go off a-hunting, I go like it's a journey,
Free of sorrow and longing, and scared of nothing scary.
No one can be so cunning, encountering fine ladies.
Minnow, lion of the sea; better know me if you don't.

All my charm and elegance, by the Lord I was given.
And when I am on the hunt, I show no imperfection.
I let the boats be buoyant, or let the water sink them.
Minnow, king of the ocean; better know me if you don't.

Kiwiji Simba wa Maji

Original Swahili text of “Minnow, King of the Ocean”

Ndimi t'aza nembetele, Majini ndimi mbuaji
Nishikapo nishikile, nyama ndimi mshikaji
Ndipo nami wasinile, nimewashinda walaji
Kiwiji simba wa maji: msonijua juani!

Maji yakiaa tele, huandama maleleji
P'epo za nyuma na mbele, nawinda wangu windaji.
Huzamia maji male, male yasofika mbiji.
Kiwiji simba wa maji, msonijua juani.

Nawiapo mawindoni, nenda kama mwenendaji
Nisi hamu na huzuni, sitishwi ni watishaji
Welevu siwezekani, k'utenepo na wambuji,
Kiwiji simba wa maji, msonijua juani.

Shani yangu na urembo, nipeweo ni Mmpaji
Sina t'ua wala k'ombo, hiwa na wangu wandaji
Ndimi muolesha sambo, nakuzua maji mbiji
Kiwiji simba wa maji, msonijua juani.


My heart is telling me Speak! But speak no one's privacy.
My heart is telling me Seek! But seek no one's property.
My heart is telling me Lick! But don't lick sparks; too fiery.
My heart desires ivory, but it's on the elephant's head.


Original Swahili text of “Heart”

Moyo wanambia, “Kwamba, jambo la mt'u usambe!”
Moyo wanambia, “Omba, k'itu cha mtu siombe!”
Moyo wanambia, “Ramba, t'et'e ya moto sirambe!”
Moyo watamani p'embe ili na ndovu kitwani.

Translated by Jolene Armstrong


The hall was alive with dancing, but in the murky smoking room, sat some men who were not dancing. The young men had white flowers in their buttonholes; the older ones were wearing insignia. In a corner of the sofa sat a man a bit by himself; he sat quietly and smiled as one who had just swallowed a happy dream. His face was tanned, but his forehead was white. He was dressed as properly as anyone else, and he also had a white flower in his buttonhole. But his left hand, which hung down over the sofa’s arm, was tattooed with a blue anchor.
Actually, there hadn’t been a ball; there had been dining, and they danced afterwards.
A man wearing decorations stopped in front of him:
-Not dancing, Herr Fant? He said.
Fant replied:
-I just danced with Miss Gabel.
But when he said this, he could feel himself blush. Why ever would he say that: with Miss Gabel? It made no difference with whom he had danced. Now, when he felt that he had said something stupid, he got angry with the man to whom he had said it, and he began to stare at his insignia without saying anything. Since it was a most outlandish faux pas, the man became embarrassed and coughed dryly and went away.
Fant stayed and stared into a mirror on the wall diagonal from him. But, it was not himself that he saw in the mirror. It was the flood of the dance hall light and the curved lines of women. Silently they seemed to move to the music's pace. He could see their red mouths, their arms making white inflections…
There she was again. For the third time she glided past, over the mirror glass. It was the cousin that she danced with. A boy, just a student—for now.
No, he could not sit still; he could not look at it anymore. It meant nothing that she danced with her cousin, but he could not see it; he got up and walked out of the room.
Someone asked:
--Who is this Mr. Fant?
--He has invented something, a gas burner, I think. He is already on his way to becoming wealthy.
--But have you seen, said the man with the foreign insignia, have you seen that he has a blue anchor tattooed on the one hand?
They suddenly burst into laughter.


He drifted to and fro through the rooms. He came out in the hall. A couple of Vasa Knights sat on the wood box and talked about business, while gesturing with two large cigars, upon which they had let the bands remain. They fell silent when he walked past.
He came into a little murky, greenish room. From the ceiling hung a narrow twisting lamp with a single light bulb, whose light was obscured by blue and green bead tassels. On a mirrored dresser, with a green stone top sat a porcelain Chinese figure of an old man asleep with his legs crossed.
--How strangely distant the music sounded—somehow from underneath, from below—
He put the Mandarin’s head in motion with a little flick of his little finger. Two mirrors repeated, in an endless series, the pale head’s nodding, as if in a sleeping sickness.
--Now the music was silent--
Suddenly she stood there, in the middle of the room. He had not heard her when she arrived. She stretched both her hands towards him, he took them and pulled her to him in a kiss, but she freed herself almost immediately:
--Someone is coming, she said.
They listened. Voices approached and went away again.
When it was quiet around them, she pressed against him in a long kiss. And he thought while she kissed him: This is life. This is eternity.
Far away, in a green dusk, the Mandarin’s pale head nodded.
--You kiss like no one else, he murmured.
--You kiss like many, she said smilingly.
And he thought to himself: she smiles, so that I will understand that she is joking, and that she has never kissed anyone else.
While he caressed her small hands in his, he noticed that she was looking at his left hand.
--You are looking at the anchor, he said. It's true, it's not pretty. And it never goes away.
She took his hand and curiously examined the blue dots which formed an anchor. But she said nothing.
--It was in Hamburg, that it was done, he said. I was a ship's boy on a steamer. We had disembarked and entered a tavern by the harbor. I remember it all so well, the fog and the numerous masts in the harbor and how it smelled briny. My companions were tattooed, both hands and arms and body, and they thought that I too should get myself tattooed. I could not refuse or else they would have thought that I was afraid of the pain, for it was painful. But I also thought it was the thing to do; I was only fourteen years old.
--Are you tattooed elsewhere on your body too? She asked.
He replied, smiling and a little reluctantly:
--Yes, on the chest, I have a boat and a bird, which is supposed to be an eagle. But it's more like a rooster.
She looked long into his eyes, slowly lifted up his hand to her lips and kissed the blue anchor.


It had been years; one day Richard Fant said to his wife, when they were about to dress to go out to dinner:
--See, I believe that the blue anchor is beginning to fade. It is perhaps disappearing altogether.
--Oh, that would be too good to be true, she said.
Her thoughts were really elsewhere. She was thinking of her cousin, Tom Gabel, who was an attaché with the embassy in Madrid. He had been home for a visit for a few months now, and he had promised to come and fetch them for dinner; they would all go together.
--Hurry now, she said, so Tom need not wait for you.
--I'm already ready, he said.
He was sitting in a corner in the shadows, fully dressed. She turned and surveyed his outfit.
--You have forgotten your insignia, she said.
--I do not want my insignia, he said.
--Richard! Will you really be so rude toward Tom, who has acquired them for you?
He went to retrieve his insignia. It was not one of the very worst, not the Order of the Knights of Our Lord Jesus Christ or Nichan Iftikhar. It was a middlingly good order, a fairly good one. And he attached it to the chest of his tailcoat with a feeling that he really did need it, because he had a blue anchor on his left hand.


There was dancing after the dinner, but Fant remained sitting in a corner of a sofa in the smoking room. At his side sat the man whom he had formerly upset by staring at his foreign insignia. They had become good friends and addressed each other informally when they said something to each other, but they said nothing. They just sat in each corner of the sofa and smoked big cigars with bands and understood each other perfectly.
Doctors had forbidden Fant to smoke strong cigars, because he had a bad heart. But he had just lighted his third one after dinner.
In the mirror on the other wall, opposite, he saw the swirls of the dancing and the flood of light from the room. He had often wondered over how it came about, that they seemed to dance as if on a blanket or a lawn, soundless. He understood now that it was because he saw it in the mirror. Since the picture hit him from a different direction from the roar and music, he didn’t put them together, and over the floorboards, which the mirror reflected, the dance seemed to continue without noise. See the young girls' white dresses; see their panting breasts…
He recalled that he had once seen her, now his wife, float past like those young girls in their simple white dancing dresses. She was dressed differently now.
See, there she was with him, the cousin. She remained standing for a moment in the doorway, erect, slender and willowy as always. She seemed bare-naked underneath the stiff, variegated silk piece in which she had wrapped her body, which was held together only by some straps at the shoulders and waist. And they bowed their heads at the same time and whispered.
No, he has to move around a little…move his legs …It is not good to sit still for too long after a rich dinner and smoke three black cigars.
He lit the fourth and began to drift to and fro through the rooms.
He came out into the hall. Three young men with white flowers in buttonholes sat on the wood box with cigarettes in the corners of their mouths and talked about the ladies; but they fell silent when he walked past. He opened the door to the little green room and went in. It was empty. He put the Mandarin’s pale head in motion with the flick of a knuckle and went to the window.
The window glass was breathing frost and winter cold. He blew on the window until an aperture emerged between the frostwork, put his eye to the glass and looked out. The sky was black and sparkling with stars. At the top was the Big Dipper upside down with the handle up.
It was late, then.
He could not bring himself to leave the room, because he felt a bitter and caustic longing for his wife and the kiss of yore, the kiss in the blue-green light from the beaded tassels of the lone bulb, a kiss that the Mandarin had witnessed in his nodding half slumber. If only she wanted to come now, right now? Nobody could kiss like her, no one. He had kissed other women, since she did not love him anymore, but he had forgotten them all, he would not have recognized them now if he met them on the street. If only she wanted to come! Yes, even if she came to meet the other one, even then, he would take her forced and elusive kiss for luck, even then…
He listened. He heard whispering voices outside the door, but they fell silent at once, and were gone. He felt something strange in his heart, he felt that within a few seconds he would lie stretched out on the carpet, without consciousness, but he held himself upright yet, and suddenly he heard from the hall, where the young men smoked cigarettes in the wood box, a very clear voice saying:
--Well, it is the logical conclusion, naturally. One cannot ask her to be in love with a person who has a blue anchor tattoo on one hand.


The coffin stood in the middle of the room. The black-clad woman went to and fro, to and fro.
--No, he will not come…
When he finally arrived, he said:
--Forgive me, my love. I was delayed by a person who came to visit…
She nodded stiffly. She did not believe him, because he did not kiss her.
And he said, when he found that they both had been standing silent too long:
--I have to travel tomorrow. I have received a telegram from the Minister. But I swear to you, I will come back, he added, with slightly lower voice, as if he didn’t want the dead man to hear it.
She knew he was lying and that he never intended to see her again. And she nodded:
--Farewell, she said.
When he was gone, she walked up to the dead man's pillow and looked at him, without thinking any further, because she was too tired. But while she stood there, she remembered suddenly that she had loved him. She had also loved other men; but it seemed to her now, as if she had loved him the most. And at this thought, she felt the tears rise up from the far bottom of her heart; she took his left hand, the one with the blue anchor, and wet it with her kisses and her tears

”Det Blå Ankaret” från Främlingarna (1903)

Hjalmar Söderberg

I Salen gick dansen; men I det halfskumma rökrummet sutto några herrar som icke dansade. De yngre hade hvita blommor i knapphålen, de äldre hade ordnar. I ett soffhörn satt en man litet för själf; han satt helt tyst och log som åt en lycklig dröm. Hans ansikte var brunt, men hans panna var hvit. Hans frack var lika korrekt som någon annans, och han hade också en hvit blomma i knapphålet. Men vänstra handen, som hängde ned öfver soffkarmen, var tatuerad med ett blått ankare.

Egentligen, var det ingen bal, det hade varit middag, och man dansade efteråt.

En man med en orden stannade framför honom:

--Ni dansar inte, herr Fant? sade han.

Fant svarade:

--Jag, danasade nyss med fröken Gabel.

Men då han sade detta, kände han att han rodnade. Hvarför skulle han också saga: med fröken Gabel. De kunde ju vara likgiltigt hvem han hade dansat med. Då han nu tyckte, att han hade sagt en dumhet, blef han ond på mannen, som han hade sagt den åt, och satte sig att stirra på hans orden utan att säga något. Och emedan det var en utländsk skojarorden af värsta slag blef mannen generad och hostade torrt och gick sin väg.

Fant satt kvar och stirrade in i en spegel på väggen sndet öfver. Men det var icke sig själf han såg i spegeln. Det var danssalens ljusflod och kvinnornas buktande linjer. Ljudlöst tycktes de röra sig i musikens takt. Se deras röda munnar, se armarnas hvita böjningar-- -- --

Där var hon åter. För tredje gången gled hon förbi öfver spegelglaset. Det var kusinen hon dansade med. En pojke, nyss student—nå.

Nej, han kunde icke sitta stilla, han kunde icke se på det mera. Det betydde ju ingenting att hon dansade med sin kusin, men han kunde inte se på det, han reste sig och gick ut ur rummet.

Någon frågade:

-- Hvem är den där herr Fant?

-- Han har uppfunnit något, en gasbrännare, tror jag. Han är redan på väg att bli förmögen.

--Men har ni sett, sade mannen som hade en utländsk orden, har ni sett, att han har ett blätt ankare tatueradt på ena handen?

De brusto plötsligt i gapskratt.


Han dref af och an genom rummen. Han kom ut i tamburen. Ett par vasariddare sutto på vedlåren och talade om affärer, medan de gestikulerade med två stora cigarrer, på hvilka de hade låtit maggördlarna sitta kvar. De tystnade då han gick förbi.

Han kom in i ett litet grönaktigt och halfskumt rum. Från taket hängde på en smal snodd en enda glödlampa, hvars ljus fördunklades af blå och gröna pärlfransar.På en spegelbyrå med grön stenskifva satt en kinesisk porslinsgubbe sofvande på sina korslagda ben.

--Hur underligt aflägset musiken ljöd—liksom nedifrån, underifrån –

Han satte mandarinens hufvud i rörelse med en liten stöt af sitt lillfinger. Två speglar upprepade i en öandlig serie det gula hufvudets bleka och sömnsjuka nickningar.

--Nu tystnade den, muisken— —

Plötsligt stod hon där, midt i rummet. Han hade icke hört henne, då hon kom. Hon räckte bägge sina händer emot honom, han tog dem och drog henne till sig i en kyss, men hon gjorde sig lös nästan strax:

--Det kommer någon, sade hon.

De lyssnade. Röster närmade sig och drogo sig åter bort.

När det var tyst omkring dem, tryckte hon sig intill honom i en lång kyss. Och han tänkte medan hon kysste honom: Detta är lifvet. Detta är evigheten.

Långt borta, i en grön skymning, nickade mandarinens bleka hufvud.

--Som du kysser ingen, mumlade han.

--Som du kysser många, svarade hon leende.

Och han tänkte för sig själf: hon ler, för att jag skall förstå att hon skämtar och att hon aldrig har kysst någon annan.

Medan han smekte hennes små händer mellan sina, märkte han att hon betraktade hans vänstra hand.

--Du ser på ankaret, sade han. Det är sant, det är inte vackert. Och det går aldrig bort.

Hon tog hans hand och betraktade nyfiket de blå prickarna, som bildade ett ankare. Men hon sade ingenting.

--Det var in Hamburg de gjordes, sade han. Jag var skeppspojke på ett fartyg. Vi hade gått i land och kommit in på en krog vid hamnen. Jag minns det så väl alltsammans, dimman och de många masterna i hamnen och hur det luktade från fletherna. Mina kamrater voro tatuerade, både på händer och armar och på kroppen, och de tyckte att jag också borde tatuera mig. Jag kunde icke neka. Eljes hade de trott att jag var rädd för smärtan, ty det gjorde mycket ondt. Men jag tyckte också att de var stil på det: jag var ju bara fjorton år.

--Är du tatuered på kroppen också? frågade hon.

Han svarade leende och litet motvilligt:

--Ja, på bröstet har jag ett fartyg och en fågel, som skall föreställa en örn. Men det är mera likt en tupp.

Hon såg honom länge in i ögonen, lyfte långsamt upp hans hand till sina läppar och kysste det blå ankaret.


Det gick år; och en dag sade Richard Fant till sin hustru, när de höllo på att kläda sig för att gå bort till middag:

--Ser du, jag tror att det blå ankaret börjar blekna. Det är kanske på väg att försvinna helt och hållet.

--Å, det är nog inte så väl, svarade hon.

Hon hade egentligen sina tankar på annat håll. Hon tänkte på sin kusin, Tom Gabel, som var attaché vid beskickningen i Madrid. Han hade varit hemma på besök ett par månader nu, och han hade lofvat att komma och hämta dem till middagen, de skulle åka tillsammans.

--Skynda dig nu, sade hon, så att inte Tom behöfver vänta på dig.

-- Jag är redan färdig, svarade han.

Han hade satt sig i en vrå i skuggan, fullt klädd. Hon vände sig om granskade hans dräkt.

--Du har glömt din orden, sade hon.

--Jag vill inte ha min orden, svarade han.

--Men Ricahrd! Tänker du verkligen vara så ohöflig mot Tom, som har skaffat dig den?

Han gick efter sin orden. Det var icke en af de allra sämsta, icke Kristiorden eller Nichan Iftikar. Det var en medelgod orden; en rätt bra orden. Och han fäste den på sitt frackuppslag med en känsla af att han kanske verkligen behöfde den, eftersom han hade ett blått ankare på vänstra handen.


Det blef dans efter bordet; men Fant blef sittande i ett soffhörn i rökrummet. Vid hans sida satt den man, som han fordom hade förargat genom att stirra på hans utländska orden; men han var nu kommendör. De hade blifvit goda vänner och kallade hvarandra för du, när de sade något åt hvarandra; men de sade ingenting. De sutto blott i hvar sitt hörn af soffan och rökte stora cigarrer med maggördlar och förstodo hvarandra fullkomligt.

Läkarna hade förbjudit Fant att röka starka cigarrer, ty han hade ett dåligt hjärta. Men han hade just tändt den tredje efter middagen.

I spegeln på andra väggen, midt emot, såg han de dansandes hvirfvel och ljusfloden från salen. Han hade ofta undrat öfver hur det kom sig, att de tycktes dansa liksom på filt eller på en mjuk gräsplan, ljudlöst. Han förstod nu, att det berodde på att han såg det i spegeln. Emedan bilden träffade honom från ett amnat håll än larmet och musiken, ställde han dem icke i samband med hvarandra, och öfver de golftiljor, som spegeln återgaf, tycktes dansen gå utan buller. Se de unga flickornas hvita klädningar, se deras flämtande bröst— – —

Han erinrade sig att han en gång hade sett henne, som nu var hans hustru, sväfva förbi som de, i en ung flickas enkla hvita dansklädning. Hon var annorlunda klädd nu.

Se, där var hon ju med honom, kusinen. Hon blef stående ett ögenblick i dörröppningen upprätt, spenslig och smärt som alltid. Hon tycktes alldeles naken under det styfva, brokiga sidenstyckte, i hvilket hon hade svept in sin kropp, och som blott hölls tillsamman af några spännen vid skuldrorna och midjan. Och de böjde hufvudena samman och hviskade.

Nej, han måste röra på sig en smula...räta litet på benen... Det är inte bra att sitta för länge stilla efter en stark middag och röka tre svarta cigarrer.

Han tände den fjärde och började drifva af och an genom rummen.

Han kom ut i tamburen. Tre unga herrar med hvita blommor i knapphålen sutto på vedlåren med cigarretter i mungiporna och pratade om fruntimmer; med de tystnade då han gick förbi. Han öppnade dörren till det lilla gröna kabinettet och gick in. Det var tomt. Han satte mandarinens gula hufvud i rörelse med en stöt af en fingerknoge och gick fram till fönstret.

Fönsterglaset andades rimfrost och vinterkyla. Han blåste på rutan tills det blef en glugg mellan isblommorna, lade ögat till glaset och såg ut. Himlen var svart och gnistrade af stjärnor. Högst uppe stod Karlavagnen på ända med stången i vädret.

Det var sent, allstå.

Han kunde icke förma sig att lämma rummet, ty han kände en bitter och frätande längtan efter sin hustru och efter kyssen från fordom, kyssen under det blågröna ljuset från den ensamma glödlampans pärlsnodder, kyssen, som mandarinen hade bevittnat i sin nickande halfslummer. Om hon ville komma nu, just nu? Ingen kunde kyssa som hon, nej ingen. Han hade kysst andra kvinnor, sedan hon icke älskade honom längre, men han hade glömt dem alla, han skulle icke känna igen dem om han mötte dem på gatan. Om hon ville komma! Ja, om hon också kom för att möta den andre, äfven då skulle han taga hennes tvungna och bedrägliga kyss för en lycka, äfven då— — —

Han lyssnade. Det hördes hviskande röster utanför dörren, men de tystnade med ens och blefvo borta.

Han kände något besynnerligt åt hjärtat, han kände att han inom ett par sekunder skulle ligga utsträckt på mattan, utan medvetande, men han höll sig ännu upprätt, och plötsligt hörde han från tamburen, där de unga herrarna rökte cigarretter på vedlåren, en mycket tydlig röst som sade:

--Nå, det är ju för resten naturligt. Man kan inte begära att hon skall vara kär i en person som har ett blått ankare tatueradt på ena handen.


Likkistan stod midt i rummet. Den svartklädda kvinnan gick af och an, af och an.

--Nej, han kommer inte— —

Då han ändtligen kom, sade han:

--Förlåt mig, min älskade. Jag blef fördröjd af en person som kom på besök...

Hon nickade stelt. Hon trodde honom icke, eftersom han icke kysste henne.

Och han sade, när han fann att de båda hade stått alltför länge tysta:

--Jag måste resa i morgon. Jag har fått telegram från ministern. Men jag svär dig, att jag skull komma tillbaka, tillade han med litet lägre röst, som om han icke ville att den döde skulle höra det.

Hon föstod att han ljög och att han aldrig ämnade återse henne. Och hon nickade:

--Farväl, sade hon.

Då han hade gått, gick hon fram till den dödes hufvudgärd och betraktade honom, utan att tänka på något vidare, ty hon var alltför trött. Men medan hon stod där, erinrade hon sig plötsligt att hon hade älskat honom. Hon hade också älskat andra män; men det föreföll henne nu, som om hon hade älskat denne mest. Och vid denna tanke kände hon gråten stiga upp långt nedifrån hjärtat; hon tog hans vänstra hand, den med det blå ankaret, och vätte den med sina kyssar och sin gråt.

Translator’s note:

Hajlmar Söderberg’s collection of short stories, entitled Främlingarna was first published in 1903. It contains five short stories and two short novellas. It was published on the heels of his first successful novel, Martin Bircks ungdom (1901), and just before his internationally accalimed novel, Doktor Glas (1905), although I suspect that some of the stories were written earlier in his career and reflect his more youthful mindset. In any case, in this collection, one can trace Söderberg’s development and working- out of some of his ideas about his society in transformation. Throughout, Söderberg grapples with class mobility, and its illusions/delusions. I have tried, throughout the translation, to maintain the tension between not only the class divide that is its prominent theme, but also the way in which the divide was inevitably collapsing. I also sought to maintain the original cadence of the Swedish, its sparseness in words, but richness in ideas. So much is said with so few words, and English often demands wordiness, and therein was the particular challenge. The emotional weight of the story is found between the lines, in what is left unsaid, unspoken, suggested through the fog of cigar smoke, a single beaded lamp and a reflection in a mirror.

Another challenge was communicating the stiffness of the dialogue. It is awkward and cold. None of the characters are at home in the tense social millieu demanded by the competitive class mobility of the time. But that stiffness threatened to render the translation as sounding poorly translated, so where possible, I tried to smooth it somewhat so that the sparse dialogue captured the constraint demanded by the social norms without sounding too artifical in English, and this demanded some mild liberty with the original text and punctuation.

Escorting a story from over 100 years ago into the present is always a challenge; there are words, and actions that just simply do not exist anymore, as modern as this text is, as the characters are and were for their time: how does one make relevant the social importance of insignia, let alone, those that are unnearned, purchased? How to impress upon the reader the social tabboo of sporting a tattoo, when tattoos cut through social boundaries now and have aquired far different meanings in our present age? I felt that I was not just translating a language but an era, a peculiar era for its affectations that even the players knew were falling by the wayside. And yet, the particular problems that the characters face, as much as they are tied to a time and place, also transcend their provenance. Therein are to be found the undercurrents of nostalgia and yearning that underwrite and carry the story, and which ultimately make the story universal in any language and time period.

Author Bio:

Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941) is a beloved Swedish author, whose fame inside of Sweden is on par with August Strindberg. His best-known works include Förvillelser (1895) Doktor Glas (1905), Martin Bircks ungdom (1901), and the play Gertrude (1906). In addition to novels and plays, Söderberg published several collections of short stories. His works are filled with unconventional characters who grapple with modernity and its pressures, the changing landscape of class and custom, and the unwillingness of the next generation to play the same social games as their parents’ generations. His characters are love-lorn flaneurs, fully immersed in the ennui of what it means to enter the 20th century without the comforts and assurance of class.

Translator Bio:

Jolene is a professor of Comparative Literature and Literary Studies at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada. She is an avid learner of languages and lover of literature, an artist, poet and photographer. She likes to collect odd, beautiful, shiny things and people. In her spare time, she assembles in images and words the shimmering, sometimes terrifying, ephemeral beauty that marks our collective existence on this blue planet. She lives and works in amiskwaciy-wâskahikan treaty 6 territory (Edmonton).

Translated by Genia Blum

Why do (adult) people (who were once adolescents themselves) always say Puberty is a difficult time (for adolescents) because they’re having an “Identity crisis,” an "exciting time" and “Upheavals" and don’t know their bodies?

All that isn’t true

It’s a psychologists’ Fairy tale the adult lobby has bought into it in order to stay in power.

On the contrary, humans going through Puberty feel lousy because they’re more & better informed about themselves & lay claim to individuality but at the same time still live at home with their unworldly parents who hallucinate that they need to tell you that fruit is healthy after 4 years of Biology at the end of compulsory state-stipulated schooling that you should dress warmly in winter etc. degrading the intelligence of their own child with their own fear-of-loss obfuscating hanging-on-in-desperation-idiocy

Besides young people feel lousy because the Love-shit has started

Even if you're lucky enough to be "cool" have a perceptible face that doesn’t dissolve into sebum when you get slammed in Dodgeball by the dodge-ball in front of HIM or HER, in front of everyone, you still have your parents. during Graduation Ceremony you have to pray they’ll keep it together and don’t bury your dignity in the ground, finding them "embarrassing" is cutting the cord, it’s normal! you have no flat no even halfway decent Privacy you have to go to the park to take drugs or have Sex or wait until you have the place to yourself in order to breathe for a moment you’re financially dependent you have to play pretend if you don’t want conflict or conversation. If you’re having a lousy 5 minutes you have to conceal it or they’ll worry for 2 years

I didn’t have a Problem-of-notknowing “my body" I just found it inadequate and ugly, that’s normal

Later you simply get used to things can’t do anythin about

Anyway, people who say that, have it wrong. No teenager I know/knew describes their Inner Life that way.

They should actually know it they were Teens themselves once. (but probably Teens as we know them today are a more recent manifestation from the 20th century, industrialization, pop culture .. I don’t know)

They just don’t get it that you no longer need them as badly, basically they’re just Afraid of Dying alone

That you’re becoming more independent have your own life no longer listen to their opinions notice their mistakes and they’re losing control over you they slip further and further inexorably into the position where you have contact with them on a voluntary basis and it’s decided contingent on their behavior whether they’re an Authority for you or not it finishes them off that one changes it finishes them off

but to accept that & to pronounce "my Child is breaking up with me” it’s slipping away from me

is psychologically too hard for them, it is hard. and it's Classic to label people "crazy"somehow because they don’t do what you want. which is why they blame everything on “Hormones" that are “playing” “crazy" on you being uninformed, disabled somehow, having a difficult phase during which you need “Sympathy”

Who needs Sympathy

I hate Sympathy

(for the sake of convenience in this status i’ve given autocomplete a lil-bit of precedence hence the bent Upper lower case etc. in part, hope that everything here is generally not too bad)


There’s a polar bear baby on TV on Universum it’s so cuuute and soo: ><small!

Everyone loves sweet little things and they don’t kill babies because they’re blind helpless and weak

(No one eats them anyway because there’s nothin on ‘em ..)

Because people are so supportive inside, or because they are sadists inside I don’t know


Penguins likewise.

Everyone likes penguins simply because they can’t walk normally :(


If you still want to reach anyone in this world with anything, like with a boredomTheme like for e.g. ENVIRONMENTALISM

then you should probably do it like this guy, he thinks we’ll soon be unable to procreate for some plastic-reason, I always switch off at some point with this kind of stuff, when this Indignation sauce about every 0.4° C increase in temperature and every threatened cockroach is dumped on you and it’s been an uninterrupted 40 years of Nature’s 11th hour ever since television exists, how do you even respond. You get used to media wanting to be catchy to vie for our attention and botoxing yourself against it dulls you. Nevertheless Beyond that there’s also Dramaturgy.

In any case, to say, though not as emphatically as I do now: WE WILL DIE OUT 4real because garbage will make us sterile (however farfetched) is more motivating than molten ice on a magnetic pole, where there's no internet no relatives no friends no school no bus no infrastructure no pop music




In puberty one has a short clear timeframe after which you return to primitivism & individual hedonism, so i can state that when i grow up i too want to live in a 2hectare living room with gilded curtains mahogany-marble floors in ?bauhaus, baroque candlesticks in american low-income housing with an integrated museum where the vienna ring street 1:1 is included like a room here in columbo’s house

i’d really like to be in America

buying shoes

but here i am, in the Old World full of psychoanalysis and sexual insanity trapped in bizarre Gothika


(male) penguins are sick assholes

they even rape chicks, who die in some cases.

and then they “defile” the corpses further (ok that's only bad if you imagine it, in the face of them fucking kids to death. i mean when godless people masturbate with vegetables and simultaneously eat meat then who gives a fuck if they bang an immature penguin ..)

the penguins wait on purpose until their females are back from fishing and are done and then they rape them.

please can’t someone send in some kind of troops or something?

this is an actual real catastrophe happening.

(maybe it’s just sensationally rehashed pseudo-information) i don’t know what "normal" sex is for penguins or animals. maybe rape is just sex for them, and the image gallery folks simply mean to convey that penguins don’t grow colorful feathers and perform dances around their object of lust and knock down rivals in the bushes, but simply get on with it.

maybe it's hypersensitive pro-vanilla-sex and gender-war female scientists who say that.

though maybe it’s sadistic, perverted scientists who write that, who’d like to depict rape in the human world as “naturally” explicable, as usual. everything bad brought into the world by men is a kind of biologically explicable dyslexia. it’s not a disease and you have to condemn the act itself but it’s a fairly different perspective you have to assume in order to work on it. Abuser vindicators always want to appease. the entire world as a protected montessori workshop in which we’re supposed to patiently train wankers & men (i know there are probably psycho-women too somewhere and that’s not sufficiently appreciated, but between us, just because it “yes also” exists that doesn’t mean absolution, right? “i did something wrong, but only because someone else also did wrong. i shit on pleading for forgiveness, reparations” + “I’ll just continue doing this) praising them, stroking and tossing them goodies when they “manage” to simply REFRAIN once from committing a single shitty deed and dare to take responsibility, which is tremendous progress for them because usually that’s hard for them and their buried inner child is more damaged than that of people with integrated brains, which is why they have to be so vile, automatic self-protection, in any case you can’t demand too much .. in small steps in 4,000 years we’ll have equality everywhere for the time being and in 10,000 years true civilization. he’ll get better. let me put it this way .. at least there’s hope. because we’re going to die before we ever find out.

when you’re dreaming, let’s meet in the prefrontal cortex and i’ll snuff you out


when i'm sick i don't want the doctor giving me something and then the illness is just gone, instead i want to be involved. i want to sense my illness and experience my body how the fever goes up, and how it goes down again i want to feel the pain and be able to make my own decisions and get a sense of what i should be doing with the pain, examine it for myself: do i want to lie down now or eat something or break dishes & scream myself free from the pain see what’s good for me check if i might want to drink some juice, fresh juice that i press out over myself with my own hands and let it run down i want to lick my own blood and smear it over my entire body smell it and smell it, let it dry and paint the process of how it crumbles and gather it up and hoard it to give it to my children with love when they’re at that point in their journey to get to know it I love my blood. It is my Life and it represents my Life

i don't want to have poison shot intravenously into me by my doctor, which rushes in immediately and relieves me instead i want the shit that’s above it in "status" fever is a positive impulse every fever degree brings me closer to triumph


I would like to have a God

a God who loves me

who hates everyone else & loves me

who protects me from them and avenges me

i mean if he’s protecting me then he doesn't have to avenge me haha

who wakes me up in the morning and pulls me up by a cord on a hoist and flies me around the world wherever i need to go

far above where the sun is where pigeons don’t shit on your head but eagles gore you

The Aura-psychic-reader on the street was good

but not that good

The 2. thing was pretty far out and fundamentally wrong there was the proffered dream of an immediate Swanlake life for a one-off 80 euro consultation, which then goes as smoothly as an ice rink crash

a. you regained full consciousness, fumbling with a karabiner hanging off a barren rock face without the time of day


i just want a functioning television display with corresponding sound, a functioning shower and freedom


Translator's Note

Puneh Ansari’s genre-defying book Hoffnun’, published by mikrotext Berlin in 2017, originated in critical and humorous texts the author first posted on social media. Transforming the book’s unconventional German into an English version was an arduous process—but the most fun I’ve had as a translator, and as gratifying as solving an entire collection of tricky brain teasers.

Hoffnun’ means “hope” in German, with the last letter “g” dropped. The English title Hopin’ is, of course, also missing its final letter. The Austrian-born author with Iranian roots misplaces characters from the alphabet on almost every page, and is as inventive with punctuation as she is with diacritics, special characters, and grammar and syntax. Her intentional mistakes, which only appear haphazard, add to the tone of furious urgency. The liberties Ansari has taken with language complicated my research, especially into misspelled Austrian vernacular and, particularly, obscure Viennese slang. Finding suitably “wrong” English proxies added to a feeling that I was amusing myself, passing time with impenetrable riddles, even though some equivalents were simple enough to determine—in order to convey the irritation caused by a disregard for the German convention of capitalizing all nouns, I’ve mixed up a number of upper- and lowercase first letters of proper and non-proper nouns in my English translation,

The German press has called Ansari “the copywriter of civilization fatigue.” In furious outbursts and absurd vignettes, stream-of-consciousness lyricism and brief, one-sentence observations, she commutes between generations and cultures, memories and imagined futures. Traveling from the mundane to the bizarre to the apocalyptic, her voice can be angry or sorrowful, but she never abandons fragility and tenderness, nor hope.

Puneh Ansari and her German publisher Nikola Richter of mikrotext have supported and encouraged me during the entire translation process. We are hoping that Hopin’ will appear soon in print.

Translator's Bio:

Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian writer, translator, and dancer. Her work has been anthologized, published widely in literary journals, and received numerous Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. “Slaves of Dance,” based on excerpts from her memoir in progress, was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. Her website is

Puneh Ansari


is an Austrian-born writer and artist with Iranian roots. She studied Theater, Film and Media, and is based in Vienna. Her book, Hoffnun’, was published by mikrotext (Berlin) in 2017 and was adapted into a play that premiered March 2022 in Vienna's Kosmos Theater, accompanied by a bilingual reading with the author and her translator Genia Blum. Ansari’s second book is forthcoming in 2022.

paper texture

Translated by Geoffrey Brock

Translator's Note

Sandra Santana—a Spanish poet, translator, critic, and professor of philosophy—is the author of four books of poems, most recently La parte blanda (“The soft part,” 2022), and two critical volumes, most recently La escritura por venir: Ensayos sobre arte y literatura en los siglos XX y XXI (“Writing to come: essays on art and literature of the 20th and 21st centuries,” 2021). Her translations include books by Ernst Jandl, Karl Kraus, and Peter Handke. She currently teaches Aesthetics and Theory of Art at the University of La Laguna on Tenerife.

The poems presented here are translated from her 2014 chapbook Y ¡PUM! un tiro al pajarito (And BANG! Someone Shot at the Bird), which opens with two epigraphs that prefigure its concerns: “The poem traces a world that does not exist” (Ernesto Carrión) and “Come, give me your hand / What hand?” (Juan Eduardo Cirlot). Already, then, we are in the presence of absence, and Santana herself has called the volume “a book of exercises for thinking about absence… about those absences that we fill with imagination, that we fill with fantasy. It might be the absence of desire, the absence of the beloved, or the absence of the word itself.”

But it was their appearance on the page that first drew me to them. I’ve said elsewhere that they put me in mind of “little monochrome Rothkos”: dark, heavy blocks of text hovering squarely above lighter blocks, set against and framed by the white page. And indeed the titles turn out not to be titles in any traditional sense but rather the first parts of two-part compositions in which the two blocks of text echo and counterpoint and extend each other in various ways. Their inherent duality contributes to a sense of instability or unresolvability and reflects what Santana has described as her “search for an always precarious and always provisional understanding of the world.”

Author Bio:

Sandra Santana is the author of four books of poems: Es el verbo tan frágil (Pre-Textos, 2008), Y ¡PUM! un tiro al pajarito (Arrebato, 2014), Marcha por el desierto (Pregunta Ediciones, 2004/2020) and La parte blanda (Free Poetry of Russia, 2020; forthcoming from Pre-Textos in Spain). Translations of her poems into various languages (including English, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, Romanian, Armenian, and Chinese) have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Forrest Gander's Panic Cure: Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century (Shearsman, 2013, UK; Otis Books, 2014, US). She's also the author of the critical volume El laberinto de la palabra: Karl Kraus en la Viena de fin de siglo (Acantilado, 2011) for which she received the City of Barcelona Essay Prize. Her translations include books by Ernst Jandl (Si no puede hacer nada por su cabeza, al menos arréglese la gorra, Arrebato, 2019), Karl Kraus (Palabras en versos, Pre-textos, 2005) and Peter Handke (Vivir sin poesía, Bartleby Ediciones, 2009), and others. In 2019, her poems were selected by Jenny Holzer to be projected in an installation at the Bilbao Guggenheim. She currently teaches Aesthetics and Theory of Art at the University of La Laguna on Tenerife.

Translator's Bio:

Geoffrey Brock is the author of three books of poems, the editor of The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, and the translator of numerous books of various genres, most recently Last Dream by Giovanni Pascoli (World Poetry Books, 2019) and Allegria by Giuseppe Ungaretti (Archipelago, 2020). He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Translation at the University of Arkansas.

Translated by Alex de Voogt

Translator's Note:

From 1915 until 1929, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), wrote a series of eighteen poems using hemistiches with a set number of syllables per half-line. In these poems Cavafy created intricate enjambments between lines and half-lines for different lengths of poems and for a variety of themes and topics. In my translation of his poetry, I adhered to the rules of this unique verse form, using hemistiches with the same number of syllables. I also followed his punctuation as in later poems the half-line is sometimes interrupted with periods, colons or em-dashes in the middle of a hemistich.

The verse form continued to intrigue me after I had completed the translations. The half-lines of similar length and meter appeared to me as obvious building blocks for a cento. In cento poetry lines from different poems are combined into new poetry, celebrating the work of a poet or, sometimes, several poets. Instead of lines, these particular Cavafy poems offered half-lines to create new poems.

The making of a cento using only eighteen poems by the same author required a specific process. The half-lines were split up and I coded them so I could easily trace the poem from where they were taken. Collating recurring elements was the first part of the process of making centos. Pronouns, the names of young men or the various types of clothing became the inspiration or starting point of a cento. When building the cento, I occasionally used an entire line from a poem but more commonly reused several half-lines of the same poem in different parts of a cento, sometimes combining them into a new line. The centos became new narrative poems, recombined stories with a different set of players. The reference to a city, “she”, now referred to a young lover, and “they” became the many young men mentioned in Cavafy’s poetry. The centos came quickly as if they were already hiding in the half-lines. At some point I chose to look for a half-line that was not part of any group of words or associations, one that was left on its own, perhaps too awkward to fit in. It was a reversal of my process of grouping and looking for themes. I took one half-line, “dangling in the water”, which referred to a young man’s leg, and made that the starting point. It became the only cento where I reused the same half-line multiple times.

While I thought I had an intimate knowledge of the poems that I had translated, I frequently looked up a half-line to remind me of the context. The enjambments required careful grammar in the translation and I realized that making a cento in the original Greek would have very different possibilities and outcomes.

The centos have an extra layer of enjoyment when the lines are seen in their original context. In lieu of presenting all eighteen poems, three poems are added here in translation. They each have several half-lines used in the centos but with different roles.

Kimon of Learchos, 22 years old, student of Greek literature (in Cyrene) is one of the three longest poems that Cavafy composed using hemistiches. It is a poem that appears in every cento. In one case an entire line is used and in another two half-lines from different parts of the poem are combined into one line. The half-lines do not merely fit the centos but leap off the page bringing the original into new surroundings. When I translated the original poem, it did not stand out from the other poems. At first I was not even aware that I had used it in each cento, but now it made me appreciate the original poem in new ways.

The days of ancient Greece is used in three centos and one half-line was used in two different contexts. In one case it is part of a full line taken from the original but now referring to a young woman while in the other it refers to the city as it does in Cavafy’s original poem.

Finally, Days of 1896 is another poem present in every cento. But unlike the previous two examples, the chosen phrases do not seem specific to any particular poem. Instead they may offer the reader a sense of an aesthetic that permeates all of Cavafy’s poetry as well as these centos.

Each cento uses on average about ten different Cavafy poems and all eighteen hemistich poems by Cavafy can be found in at least one cento. The centos celebrate Cavafy with his careful phrasing and his specific themes but they also honor a verse form that he created and that became the basis for cento poetry.

Translator's Bio:

Alex de Voogt is an associate professor at Drew University. He studied African Linguistics at Leiden University, the Netherlands, and finished his MFA Poetry-in-Translation at Drew University in 2020. He has published English translations of Constantine Cavafy and Muyaka bin Haji as well as occasional Dutch translations of English-language poems.

Translated by Michael Favala Goldman

Hanne was only seven, but she already possessed a great deal of formless anxiety. She always wanted to be somewhere other than where she was at that moment. When she sat in the nursery with her little brother, who was completely absorbed with playing, she would listen for her father’s and mother’s steps downstairs and do what she could to follow their strange conversation. They spoke differently with each other when they were alone than when she was listening. Her mother’s voice went delicate and quiet, which made her own belly feel both nice and bad – mostly bad – and her father laughed at what her mother said almost all the time. If Hanne came jumping or sneaking down the stairs, they went completely quiet. Then her mother might say, ‘How about going out to play, honey?’ And if Hanne walked over to her, she didn’t put her on her lap or tell her stories, but went kind of stiff, so Hanne herself became nearly immobile, feeling her father’s expression wrap a dark cloak of anxiety around both of them. Then her mother said, without looking at her, ‘How about going back up and playing with your little brother? Your daddy’s tired.’ But that wasn’t true at all, because he could just go to bed and sleep, like other people did when they were tired, and he wasn’t even the one who said it. He never said much to Hanne, and when he did, he just asked what two times twenty was, or if she had learned to read yet, but he didn’t always listen to how she answered.
Still, he was a nice daddy, because he had never hit her or yelled at her at all, and she knew he went to work every day to earn money for clothes and food for all of them, and it would be the most horrible thing if he left them. Her mother had explained this to her one day when Hanne suddenly said, ‘Oh, Daddy is so stupid,’ when she saw him turn in through the garden gate on his bicycle, just as they were having such a cozy time, she and her Mommy.
There was so much to be afraid of and to be careful about. First and foremost, she had to watch her little brother, who could get strangled in his baby carriage harness or who could grab a few matches and set himself or the whole house on fire. Hanne could never relax except when she was sleeping at night, when she was relieved of her anxiousness. Not because she would be so heartbroken if her little brother died, but her mother would be so terribly sad and she would cry for days and days, just like back when Hanne’s real father left them, and everything was so cheerless until they got a new one.
When they had guests, her mother laughed while she told the story of Hanne running up to window cleaners and different men she saw to ask them if they would marry her mother. Hanne didn’t think it was funny, because without a daddy in the house, they would die of hunger. And she had no interest in dying and going down in the ground with no blanket over her at night. Evidently you turned into an angel and could fly up to God, but what if he came too late with your wings because there were too many others who died just at that moment, and he had to take care of all of them himself, just like her mother, since now they didn’t have enough money for a nanny.
Her little brother was sleeping, and Hanne lay scratching the paint off her bed’s blue rails. She never fell asleep before she heard her mother and father go to bed, and sometimes not until they had stopped talking in their bedroom and she was sure they were sleeping, so nothing could change during the course of the night.
They were still talking, down in the living room. Their quiet alone-voices, with her father’s laughter and long pauses in between, made her head hurt, like when her little brother dumped all his blocks down on the floor at once. Maybe they were kissing one another, because that was part of being married, but not when the children are looking, because it’s not good for them. ‘Wait until we’re alone,’ her mother said once. ‘It would be a sin for the child to see us.’ Why would it be a sin? Sin had something to do with God and bedtime prayers.
Hanne lay down on her back and folded her hands on top of the comforter. Then God was in the room, but you couldn’t see him, even if you turned on the light. Hanne imagined that he looked like her real father, who was the biggest and strongest man in the whole world. She closed her eyes and whispered the best of all bedtime prayers:

Now I lay down in my bed

close my eyes and bow my head

Dear Lord, please look down with grace

upon our shabby rented place.

Then she sighed, sleepy and serene, until her thoughts came streaming back like hungry birds to a spring garden bed.
If only they would come upstairs soon. Hanne’s eyes were starting to smart. The day after tomorrow was Sunday, and she was going to visit her real father and his new wife, who was much prettier than her mother, but still repulsive. Goodness knows her father didn’t really love her, because they didn’t have any children, and people only had children if they loved each other very much, like her mother loved her new father, back when she had her little brother. But luckily that passed, because after that there were no more babies who could be strangled by their harnesses or who could set the house on fire. Loving someone couldn’t be helped. It came and went like whooping cough. But it was no use if only one person was the loving one, and that was a good thing, because Hanne loved her math teacher and her real father and her mother of course, and of the three she was only certain that her father loved her back. And she couldn’t marry her father since he was old, like she would be when she grew up and got breasts and things like that, and you couldn’t get married before then. If only she had been just as big as her father’s new wife, whom she was supposed to call Grete-mom, when she stayed with them. But her father just called her Grete. Boy, was she dumb. And she had so many fancy dresses, a lot more than her mother. ‘Don’t worry about that,’ her mother said. ‘Only dumb people concern themselves with dressing up all the time.’ But that her father, who was so smart, liked to kiss and be nice to such a dummy! Even though she had those long curls and eyes that always looked damp, as if she had just been crying. And she always laughed at everything, even when Hanne misbehaved. Last time she was there, Grete had put on a long silk gown with nothing on top, and spun around in front of Hanne and said, ‘Don’t you think I look pretty?’ And Hanne had borrowed a joke from her limited, newly acquired vocabulary from school: ‘Yes! From behind and in the dark!’ But then they had both laughed so much that Hanne ended up crying and had to be comforted on her father’s lap like a little baby, and she drew out her crying until Grete-mom stopped laughing. Served her right!
Hanne sniffled and pulled her handkerchief out from under her pillow. She blew her nose and rubbed it afterward, which she wasn’t supposed to do, because then her nostrils would get big and open and the rain would go right in them. ‘I don’t care,’ she said aloud, like when she hurt herself and didn’t cry. She meant it about a lot of things. There were lots of things you could say ‘I don’t care’ about. About Grete-mom, about if little brother got strangled, about her new father who mustn’t leave them, about if he did leave, about if they got a new one –
Suddenly she sat up in bed with her heart pounding. There was a new voice in the living room. A loud, happy, loving and familiar voice, which sounded just the same whether you were there or not. But it couldn’t be. Why would he come here? She listened. It was really him. He had come to chase out the new father and marry her mother again. Grete-mom must have died. Then her mother would get all her pretty dresses. She jumped out of bed and pulled up on her nightgown and raced down the stairs. ‘Daddy!’ she shouted, seeing nothing but him as, blinded by the light, she ran right into his tall body and let herself be enveloped in his familiar smell and touch in a blessed, all-shielding embrace. Then she blinked her eyes and looked at her father and mother who slowly solidified into two stiff, distant figures outside her world.
‘Your daddy wants you to go with him now,’ said her mother with a slight unfamiliar quaver in her voice. ‘Go upstairs and get dressed, Hanne, but be careful not to wake up your little brother.’
There were three coffee cups on the table, and the living room seemed smaller than usual.
Her father straightened up, still with one hand on the girl’s neck. She bored a finger into one of his buttonholes and spun it around. Her whole body felt warm, as if she had just been in a bath.
‘Aren’t you going to stay here, Daddy?’ she whispered anxiously, staring up in his big bright eyes.
Then her new father stood up and violently pushed in his chair.
‘Couldn’t this have waited until tomorrow?’ he said in a thin, sharp voice. ‘Who tears a child out of bed at this time of night?’
Her father didn’t answer, but bent down again and pulled her close. ‘Wouldn’t you like to go on a trip with Grete-mom and me?’ he asked. ‘She’s out in the car.’
Then Hanne went as stiff as her mother. ‘Isn’t she dead?’ she asked, her mouth going dry.
‘But Hanne, dear,’ said her mother. ‘Don’t talk like that. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.’ And her father released her suddenly, as if he had burned himself. For a moment he stood there alone, not knowing what to do with his hands or his eyes. Then her new father took her hand and started leading her up the stairs, while the silence behind them hurt just as much as his hard, unfamiliar grasp. She didn’t want to cry before she was in bed. No, she wasn’t going to cry; she wasn’t even going to bed. She was going on a trip and she was going to sit on her father’s lap the whole way.
‘Let me go!’ she yelled, twisting her hand out of the man’s grip and running back into the sharp light, where her mother sat, looking pitiful, and where there was a father too many. Something unmerciful, a totally new anxiety, kept her from seeking the most comforting shelter she knew. She stood hanging her head in front of her father, who had put on his hat, as if his work here was finished. She felt cold and shrugged her spindly shoulders and stepped hard on her own toes, as she gazed helplessly and imploringly at her mother, who was looking up at the man on the stairway with an anxious, pleading expression, as if it were she who had said something wrong.
He walked down the stairs with hard, deliberate steps. ‘Let’s get this over with right now,’ he said tersely. ‘Are you coming or not, Hanne?’
She looked down at her father’s feet. Her forehead was burning with confusion, shame, and defiance. She took the difficult steps toward him, but he didn’t touch her. His clothes smelled of distant, lost things. The whole way she could sit and sleep with her nose buried in his smell with her back to Grete-mom.
‘I – want to come,’ she begged, humbled with defeat.
When the girl went upstairs to get dressed, three people watched her lonely little figure. None of them could help her, and they didn’t dare look at one another.

Translator Bio:

Michael Favala Goldman (b.1966) is a poet, jazz clarinetist and translator of Danish literature. Among his sixteen translated books is Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen, which made the New York Times Best 10 Books of 2021 as book three of The Copenhagen Trilogy. Michael’s five books of original poetry include Small Sovereign, which won the Los Angeles Book Festival in the poetry category. His work has appeared in dozens of publications including The New Yorker, Rattle, and The Harvard Review. He lives in Northampton, MA, where he has been running bi-monthly poetry critique groups since 2018.

Tove Ditlevsen


Tove Ditlevsen (1917-1976) was one of the most notable Danish literary personalities of the twentieth century. She enjoyed great popularity as a writer of both poetry and prose. She used her poor upbringing, her fragile psyche, and her long-standing problems with relationships and narcotics as sources of inspiration for her writing. The result was a long list of unique, honest, uncompromising works with which countless readers have identified. Ditlevsen wrote more than 30 books, including the memoirs of The Copenhagen Trilogy, and the short story collection The Trouble with Happiness, recently published in translation by Penguin Classics and FSG. Since their English publication, Tove Ditlevsen’s writing has been sold to over 30 countries and is being translated and read all over the world.

paper texture

Translated by Alani Hicks-Bartlett

Translated by Jack J.B. Hutchens

“Like the beautiful bodies of those who died young,
tearfully interred in a grand mausoleum
with roses by their heads and jasmine at the feet–
so seem those desires that have passed A
without fulfillment; without a single night
of pleasure, or one of its radiant mornings.”
Desires by Constantine P. Cavafy1

I got a telegram from Palestine from my brother. My hopelessly ill mother wanted to see me before she died.
The telegram helped me get a passport quickly, as well as permission from the Palestinian Mandate authorities to go there.
I took the train to Romania. We set off from Constanta on the ship “Nason” in bad spring weather. The wind was battering us. The passengers fell ill. I felt fine. I didn’t vomit, but I was filled with fear at every wave that tilted the boat. After seven days we approached the shores of Israel. The storm stopped. The brave old “Nason” safely pulled into Haifa.
Jakub was not expecting my visit. My brother and his wife greeted me and drove me to Karkur.
Mother nodded to me. Her thin, dark yellow face was frightening.
“Mother,” I whispered. I lifted her dark hands to my lips.
Markus’ wife wiped away tears with a handkerchief.
“Do you remember?” mother said in a soft but clear voice.
“Yes, mama, I remember.”
“Are you here to stay?”
“I’ll stay.”
Mother let out a sigh. She stretched out her hands to touch my face, then kissed my forehead.
“Do you go to your father’s grave?”
“Have you finally said Kaddish?”
“Have you come to stay?”
“Do you pray?”
“Every day?”
“Do you remember?”
I remembered a childish vow I had made to never kneel and pray.
Mother closed her eyes. We quietly left the room.
The next day we found her body. She had died in her sleep.
Markus was afraid that the scandal I had perpetrated at father’s funeral would happen again at mother’s. When they were lowering father into the grave, I had not recited the Kaddish. I would not refuse this time, I assured my brother. I was no longer a communist, and I was never an atheist. I believed in God because I could feel how much He was punishing me. But what was I guilty of? God is like the world He created. Is the world not righteous?
Jakub didn’t come to the funeral but sent his condolences.
After the strict seven days of mourning, I decided to go to Jerusalem. Markus drove me. He knew Jakub’s address.
“Don’t wait for me. Go on back home. This visit is going to take a while. Maybe I’ll stay the night.” I hoped that the dam of silence would finally be broken: “The air of the Promised Land makes a man wiser.” I put some of my published books into a briefcase as a gift for Jakub.
It took a long time for the door to open. It was finally answered by a dwarf of a woman with a monstrously ugly face and a large head covered in hair rollers.
I asked if there was a gentleman who lived there. Maybe I had gotten the wrong house number. I gave my name. There was no mistake. She asked me to come in.
Meeting Jakub wiped away all my resentments, those that had festered for a long time, and those I had more recently imagined. Now, the void was instead filled with compassion. But a compassion that was contaminated, like all emotions. I was seeing the wrong Jakub, whose image I had cherished in hatred. The old man, who had decayed prematurely, got up from his chair and started shuffling his soft slippers over the carpet. He moved step by step towards me. I ran up to him. We fell into each other’s arms. A suppressed sob bubbled in his chest. I led him back to the armchair.
“How did this happen?” I asked.
The maid answered for Jakub, her monstrously ugly face taking on a strangely human expression. She put her finger to her lips and pleaded for understanding and pity with her eyes. I unexpectedly found myself in an atmosphere of silence. It brought back the resentment I had felt in my youth, even though I was all too aware that this silence was different, not like the silence between us, but this was his alone, an unhappy silence.
“Jakub,” the maid said, in a way maid’s do not speak, “I’ll help you sit back down.” She spoke in Hebrew. “You mustn’t stand so long. We were waiting with dinner.” She helped Jakub back into the armchair. She put three plates on the table and went into the kitchen.
“Is someone else coming? Who’s the third place set for?” I asked.
“Lea, my wife.”
The monster brought a tureen with soup.
“Lea, introduce yourself to my friend. He’s a translator.”
The man most punished by fate loses everything but his envy. I could not stand it.
“I brought you some of my original works, not translations.”
“You are a good translator,” Jakub corrected himself. He turned to Lea. “You were curious to meet him. He’s my best friend. My only friend.”
The monster was his wife. Divine punishment. The monster nodded her head. She rolled the armchair up to the table. Lea showed me to the seat next to her. She began with broth and noodles, that age-old staple “lokshen mit youch.”
Jakub’s hands were shaking. Lea intervened, wiping her husband’s shaved chin with a napkin. She had also prepared a boneless chicken breast for him. The third course was an apple compote. I was unable to eat. It’s a recurring symptom of my nervousness. Maybe I exaggerate. Maybe Jakub no longer thought about his rival from his younger years, and he considered a “translator” and an author the same thing. I had a bit of the soup, and drank the compote, but didn’t touch the meat.
Lea took my full plate to the kitchen.
“You haven’t eaten anything,” said Jakub.
“I was lost in thought. I was remembering Saturday dinners at mother’s.”
“Lea was offended, but she’s good at hiding it.”
“You know what…” I could not help myself.
“She was offended. I get the feeling you don’t like her. ‘It’s not the pitcher,’ said one of our wise men, ‘but what’s inside it.’”
“Did you have an accident?”
“Yes. I don’t want to talk about it. I owe my life to Lea.”
“You couldn’t have told your best friend?”
Lea came in, bringing with her the smell of coffee and onion cakes.
After coffee, Jakub lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, smoking like a chimney.
“Are you married?” he asked.
“Since when do you smoke?”
“Are you married?”
“I asked you how long you’ve been smoking.”
“Since I came back from the other world.”
“Tell me, what you saw there.”
“I don’t remember everything. Just one thing: a sign. And that’s why I started smoking. It was a poem by a great poet: ‘so seem those desires that have passed without fulfillment; without a single night of pleasure, or one of its radiant mornings.’”
“A beautiful quote,” I said.
“And do you know who it’s from?”
“Maybe Dante.”
“A similar background—Mediterranean, but six centuries later. The Greek, Cavafy.”
I kept silent. I didn’t want to admit that this was the first time I had heard of him. Jakub surprised me. His comment had been aimed specifically at me, at my supposed asceticism.
“Are you married?” his question came back like a boomerang.
“How do you handle your affairs?”
“There are various methods.”
“Like what?”
“What kind?”
“Such as the Lord God commanded.”
“I’m sorry. I used to hate it when people use impolite language.”
“You’re a godless person. An atheist?”
“I haven’t made up my mind on faith and unbelief. I doubt I ever will. It’s in limbo. God won’t be offended by me, or surprised. I’m certainly no exception.”
“You are the exception. At least you want to be. And you don’t hesitate to insult God. I hated your ambiguities, your hypocrisy. Now, when I ask about your well-being, you can’t honestly answer my questions.”
“I have no answers.”
“I asked you how you take care of your erotic affairs. You answer with a lot of bravado and cynicism. I’ve known about you since you were almost a child. And don’t think that you’ve managed to hide it from others either. People know everything. We only think we’re able have secrets from others.”
“Why did you stay silent? You made a suit of armor for yourself. And you’ve stayed so clean. Unassailable. And now you demand that I not be silent, that I reveal myself. What’s your point? What do you need that for? You want to cure me. Nonsense! You’re no doctor. I’ve been to a psychiatrist. I didn’t even reveal myself to him. I realized there was nothing in his power to do. Doctors lie, but he told the truth. So leave me alone. The god you so fervently believe in knows what he’s doing. You’re wiser than I thought, and you certainly know people like to dress up their vanity and idle curiosity in dignified robes. Our ideals are just parodies. And at the bottom of nobility there hides a worm. I will say nothing. An object does not exist until we name it.”
“You’ve dumped a bucket of cold water over me. It’s pessimism and a lack of faith. In rabbinical seminaries, young Hasidic Jews try to break with orthodoxy by hiding German books of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer under their kapotas, but they don’t understand that this is the legacy of Koheleth2. German philosophy is indebted to its pessimism, its ‘futility.’”
“Nietzsche paid with madness. Which is something I have to worry about too.”
“No candidate for the madhouse would reason like that.”
“What are you talking about?” Lea walked in. She had been eavesdropping the whole time. “Have a glass of Caramel wine each and your foolish thoughts will pass.”
Lea poured wine into three glasses. We clinked glasses, repeating
“l’chaim, l’chaim, l’chaim.” Even as sick as he was, Jakub could hold his drink. After a couple of glasses, I felt like a changed man. Lea put down the empty bottle and another appeared. Even around monstrous women and the seriously ill one can still feel happy. I wanted to dance, but I recalled dancing in my unzipped cape on stage and the bright flash of teeth. I sang songs from our Hashomer days and Jakub accompanied me with his masculine voice:

“Yesh li gan uv’er yesh li”

I have a garden and a well too,
And a bucket hangs over the well;
Every Sabbath my beloved comes,
To drink pure water from my jug.
Hush! - the whole world sleeps
Both the apple and the pear;
My mother slumbers, my father too has fallen asleep,
Only my heart and I are awake.

Tears silently fell down Jakub’s face. He intoned a different song about how good and how nice it is to sit together as brothers.
I didn’t sing. I was sorry for Jakub. I loved him so.
“I want to forget about everything. And I’m asking you to forget, too. I’ll be leaving soon and who knows if I’ll ever see you again. I won’t come back here again. I’m glad this meeting has reconciled us. You were so much more than a friend to me.” I was close to tears.
“As you were to me.”
“I brought you some of my books. I left a briefcase in the hall. I’ll just go get it.”
Jakub told Lea to get out some cloth-bound books. “These are your works. I had them custom bound for you.”
“I’ll walk you to bed. You can sleep a little and talk again after a rest.” Lea patted her husband on the head.
“I don’t want to,” Jakub insisted, banging his cane on the floor. “We still have so much to talk about. I asked you for those cloth-bound books.”
Lea took a couple of thin volumes out of the bookcase and put them on the table.
“That can’t be everything,” I said.
Lea opened the drawer of the stylish chest of drawers with the key.
“Leave it!” shouted Jakub.
But a folder was already lying next to my books. I didn’t dare look into it.
“Look, look!” Jakub stretched out his hand for the folder. “Hand it to me. I’m talking to you, Lea. Take it from her,” he said turning to me.
There were loose sheets of paper, newspaper clippings, all in Hebrew. I ran my eyes over them. I laughed. Just speeches from meetings. A letter from Jabotinsky. Notes in a calendar. March 2 was underlined, my birthday, and the inscription “loner.” I tore my cloudy eyes away for a moment. My poor man! Who are you? To me you were the measure of all things. Your silence was a pretense. An empty balloon. A torn spider’s web. I am liberated. I turned pale. The red wine drained from my face. A letter fell out of the notebook. My only letter, written after my high school graduation, about our separation. Like two lovers. And our class photo. On the back was my graduation date and one word written on the back... I sobered up. I could not believe my eyes.
“Give it back,” Jakub said calmly holding out his hand.
Lea put the papers back in the folder and locked the drawer.
“Come, Jankiel,” Lea took his hand, lifted him out of the armchair and led him to the bedroom where the bed was made up.
I heard footsteps. Lea was running down the stairs. I stopped.
“My husband told me to give this to you.”
It was the penknife. The instrument of my crime. I still didn’t know if I had killed the duck or just wounded it. Why did I not ask Jakub? So many unnecessary and misguided thoughts went through my head.
“Please give it back to your husband. It’s a memento of our great friendship.”
I walked down to the ground floor on unsteady legs. I had never in my life been so dizzy. And the times it seemed like I was, I was pretending more than anything. Under the protection of drunkenness, I expressed forbidden, political views. I never betrayed myself. I stood at the gate. I felt nauseous. I took a few deep breaths. I felt so much relief. If the air of the Promised Land makes a man wiser, then Jerusalem makes a man breathe freer. I was rid of the fear. I had freed myself from a hundred-pound burden.
At the gate a stranger began following me. My heart was pounding, it was feeling such happiness. He followed me, like, as Lec once said, “the long shadow of a pederast3.”
I pulled him along behind me like on a string. We turned into the narrow streets of the old city. My stranger kept at a respectable distance. He was a careful hunter. I took pity and stood in front of an Arab store window.
“What are you looking for?” the shadow asked in English.
“I am looking for a gift for a friend.”
“What does he look like?”
“Tall, blond.”
“Was that his place you just left? You were excited, like you’d been drinking.”
“What kind of gift do you want to buy… for this the second friend?”
“My first one. Maybe not quite the first.”
“Young? Old?”
“Just right.”
“That’s real lucky.”
“You think so?”
“Let’s go inside. I’ll help you pick out the most beautiful gift. Tell him it’s from another tall blond guy.”
We went inside. We did indeed find a very beautiful tie.
“I’d like to invite you for a drink.”
“Thank you, but I’m in a hurry.”
“The tall blond guy will wait.”
“He’s far away... maybe he’s thinking about me.”
“I’m pretty tall and blond.”
“There can only be one tall blond.”
“You’re married? How’d you accomplish that? Which church?”
I gave no answer. We walked on in silence.
“I’ll drive you back,” said my stranger.
“To Lviv?”
“You can show me the way.”
“How did you know?”
“We don’t need much. The heart starts beating hard. So hard it wants to burst. Don’t you get those signals? Pleasure and fear are often the same feeling.”
“Like before a crime?”
“Like before sin.”
“’A bed of husbands.’ My ancestors, thousands of years ago, would punish it by stoning,” I said. My fears were quite apparent.
“The world has barely moved on since then. The same barbaric laws rule us. If there is progress, it’s usually for the worse.”
“How do you feel in the Holy City?”
“Same as anywhere, until I find someone for love.”
“Love? Is that what you call it?”
“Meeting you for sure. I recognized it right away. I already told you.”
“Yes, you did. But not like that. Not so cold.”
“Doesn’t your heart flutter when you find a partner?”
“I’m in a hurry.”
“I have a car. I’ll get you there in no time. I’ll take you wherever you want to go. I’m a good driver.”
My stranger took me to his car. I got in.
“Where to?”
“On the map, it’s not far. Unfortunately, our country is small, short like a sigh. That’s the Damascus Gate. Would you like me to stop at the Wailing Wall?”
“I’ve already seen it. When my brother was driving me here. He went back alone. I thought I’d be staying with my friend for the night.”
“Why didn’t you stay?”
“Because I didn’t want to.”
“Will I be able to visit you?”
“We,” I used the word with difficulty, “don’t live in Karkur, but in Lviv. And Lviv is not in Palestine, but in Poland.”
“A plane can go anywhere.”
As we left Jerusalem, the car picked up speed.
“Should I slow down? Your hands are trembling.”
I said nothing. The question was treacherous. It had another sense. My hands were trembling when I got in the car. How would I act if he tried something? I had taken Marian's hand off my knee with two fingers, like I'd been disgusted.
“You’re lost in thought.”
“I was looking at the landscape. It’s my first time in Palestine. It was the first time I had ever left Poland.”
“There are great opportunities in Poland. Like in Germany.”
“Hunting. We have a forest where they hunt bison. Have you heard about that? They come from all over to hunt them.”
“I was just thinking about it.”
“Poles are very hospitable. Especially to the English.
“You as well?”
I laughed.
“You’re right. If there were someone else here instead of you! My God. You wouldn’t be talking about, oh, what did you call those animals? You used a Polish word. But there’s only cold blowing off of you. I don’t understand it. Explain it to me. This is the first time this has happened to me. I don’t understand. What are you afraid of?”
“I’m a special case. I don’t understand myself. A difficult case.”
“Did something happen to you as a child?
“Nothing happened to me.”
“Have you ever been to a Freudian doctor?”
“I’ve never felt the need.”
“You don’t trust me. Drop the mask. I’m a writer. Tell me about yourself.”
“You want to write about me? Instead of love?”
“Finally, a human response.”
“Because I’m a writer too. Maybe not a professional writer, more like a translator. Because I don’t know how to make things up.”
“I’ll tell you what you are: a whimsical little girl.”
“Someone’s already said that to me. He wrote it in our break up letter.”
“Were you involved with him?”
“Absolutely. He was my torturer.”
“What, like, masochism?”
“You said that with disgust.”
“No, I just suddenly got it. Now it’s all cleared up. Your impulses have been deadened in the most transparent of deviancies. When nerves become visible to the naked eye, thirsty for pain and tense with terror.”
The car stopped.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“We’re getting out.”
“You’re kidding,” I said in English.
My stranger laughed as if at a young punk.
“You’ve driven me out to the desert. Are you throwing me to the wild animals for dinner?”
“Yes, sir. But for now, I’d like to invite you for a drink. At this roadside pub. That’s where our conversation will begin.”
We didn’t go inside. We sat under an umbrella.
“What would you like to drink?”
“Orange juice.”
My stranger ordered two orange juices and two whiskies.
“So, masochism?” I began.
“Are you laughing?”
“My torturer would laugh too.”
“You’re acting like a juvenile delinquent. He confesses, then takes it back.”
“And you’re the judge. A judge is a bad writer.”
“We know the most important thing about each other. Everything else is superfluous. It doesn’t matter.”
“You don’t know anything.”
“I know you’re fending off attacks and you’re attracted to indifference, resentment. That’s also masochism.”
“Do you have some kind of encyclopedia of stereotypes?’
“That’s the way it is with us. We’re all the same. That’s been my experience anyway. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a worker or an academic, rich or poor, an Englishman or a Jew. It’s like we’re all from one factory production line. Because it’s the same malady.”
“Maybe we should go.” I knocked down the rest of the whisky.
“Let’s talk a bit more. It’s nice here. Driving in the car is distracting. And you seem fuzzy. Tense. You’re on your guard. And the adventure ends sooner. Maybe a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Never to be repeated. Don’t you get that feeling?”
“We’re young. There are many things waiting for us in life.”
“I’ll be sorry to see you go.”
“Maybe we’ll meet again.”
My stranger shook his head.
“I’ll think of you. I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. I thought you knew more about me than I did about you,” I tried to comfort him.
“When you came out of the gate, you were so nervous. I immediately thought, ‘That’s him. I must meet him!’ You had a strange look on your face.”
“I’d just won.”
“Congratulations. What kind of victory, if you don’t mind?”
“A huge one.”
“You remind me of Hamlet when he pretends to be insane.”
“Yes. Shakespeare.”
“One of our own.”
“Who confessed and let the world know.”
“And I put my boys in dresses like Proust.”
“And yet he was genuine. And great,” I added.
“And we’re talking like we’re being censored. This is the first time this has happened to me. I didn’t even dare use our nice, innocent phrase: ‘Let’s fuck.’”
“By all means, talk however you like.”
We were silent for a long time. My stranger ordered two more glasses of whisky.
“My name’s John.” I told him mine.
There were no ceremonial kisses.
“If it wasn’t masochism, what was all the torture about?”
“About silence.”
“You mean disapproval?”
“Silence can mean a lot of things. It can mean much more than disapproval. For example, it can mean love.”
“Maybe a man’s love.”
“Let’s call it a masculine love.”
“And what did you feel?”
“Stefan Zweig wrote a story called ‘Vervirrung der Gefühle.’ It’s not the same, but close. Anyway, Zweig was a very honest if naïve writer. He wasn’t familiar with these things. He had an inkling that it was something very complex and dark. He didn’t know that it was a mixture of conflicting feelings: love and hate, desire for both slavery and freedom. To free yourself, you go to brothels. I wanted to marry a prostitute. Sex with a woman was for me pure mechanics. Like masturbation.”
“And what about the ‘bed of husbands?’”
“You disarmed me. Your kindness and gentleness.”
“You’re such a woman.”
“Don’t say that!”
“I’m sorry,” John kissed me. “We’re all women to a lesser or greater degree. We love real men the most. You have no idea how many real men succumb to us.”
“Maybe there are no real men.”
“That’s an exaggeration.”
“It’s not an exaggeration,” I insisted.
“Your eyes are lit up now and your face looks like a conqueror’s, like when you came out of the gate.”
“You’ve poured me too much whisky.”
John poured me another glass from the bottle. I have no idea when it appeared on the table.
“Maybe we won’t go, John?
“You want to sleep with me?”
“Are you crazy!”
“Your voice has softened. Come on.”
“When are we going?”
John took me by the hand and led me to a room with two beds.
“I’ll help you undress.”
“No, no!” I cried out, all the while undressing myself.


“Is it far?” John started the engine, and the car took off.
“I don’t know.”
“Are you angry?”
“I’m not angry,” I said after a long silence. “I was thinking about Marian the whole time.”
“Who’s Marian?”
“The tall blond. My friend.”
John looked at me askance.
“Are you angry?” I smiled.
“That’s not the experience I had.”
“Neither did I.”
“My dear, why do you have to do things differently?” John got out of the car.
“What’s going on?
“You’re scared. Please get out. You’re going on foot the rest of the way.”
“Are you joking? Did I offend you? I’m sorry.”
“Get out.”
“I’m not getting out.”
“You’re scared.”
“It’s dark. It’s dangerous out here. I apologize, John.”
“The ride is over.”
“Fine. I won’t forget this.”
“Exactly. It worked.”
I started walking. The car followed me slowly, the headlights lighting my way.
I recognized the first small houses of the Karkur settlement. I stopped at the post office. I wrote a telegram to Marian, then tore it up. I had no address. In my rush, I had left it with the cab driver when I was on my way to his place to say goodbye. I threw the form into the garbage can. Anyway, he probably had not gotten back from Sweden yet...
The car was waiting for me outside.
“What were you doing at the post office?” John asked.
“I was sending a telegram.”
“To whom?”
“To Marian.
“Maybe I should try to meet him.”
“He’s your type.”
“Get in,” John opened the door.
“This is actually my brother’s house. Goodbye.”
“I’ll see you soon,” he said in English.
“I hope so,” I replied.
We embraced each other.
John drove off. Through the open window his hand waved back like the wings of the dove Noah released from the Ark. The dove disappeared into the darkness, the red taillights vanishing around a turn that I hadn’t anticipated.


Constantine Peter Cavafy/Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis (1863-1933) was a Greek poet and journalist. For more about his work, especially the importance of his homoerotic poetry, see Maria Margaronis, “Mixing History and Desire: The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy,” The Nation, July 15, 2009,


Kohelet Rabbah or Ecclesiastes Rabbah is an aggadic–that is, a non-legalistic exegesis– commentary on Ecclesiastes, included in the collection of the Midrash Rabbot.


Stanisław Jerzy Lec (1909-1966) was a Polish aphorist and poet. See Stanisław Wygodzki, “Lec, Stanislaw Jerzy,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica Vol.12 (2007) 593.

Translator's Note

Julian Stryjkowski was born Pesach Stark in 1905 in the shtetl of Stryj in what was then Austrian controlled Galicia. He took the pseudonym Stryjkowski after he fled to the Soviet Union from the invading Nazis at the start of World Warr II. His life was marked by paradoxical extremes. He grew up in a religiously Orthodox home but went to a Polish school. He began his studies in Hebrew but switched to Polish. At the age of twelve he ran away from home to join the Zionist organization Hashomer Hatzair, then later became a member of the Communist Party of Ukraine and remained one until the party’s liquidation by Stalin in 1934. From the end of the war until 1966 he was a member of the Polish United Workers Party, then left in protest after the expulsion of Leszek Kołakowski. As a young man, he refused to say kaddish at his father’s funeral because of his communist beliefs—a moment he revisits to narrate fictionally in several of his works. He spent the war in Moscow, where he heard of the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and immediately began writing his first important work Głosy w ciemności [Voices in the Dark] (1946).  After the Holocaust, most of Stryjkowski’s writings, especially his so-called “Galician Tetralogy” became an attempt to memorialize the lost Jewish community of Poland, often being referred to as an epitaph or “headstone” over it.  Yet despite his concern with the destruction of Jewish Poland, he refused the many appeals by family and friends to move to Israel. Through the story of Silence, published when he was 88, he first came out as a gay man, just three years before his death in 1996. While the work is, as he called it, an attempt “tear the mask away” from his sexuality, it also reflects his stubborn determination to maintain his Polish, Jewish, and communist identities, despite the many pressures he faced from various communities to renounce the others. In the end, Silence proves to be his loudest work.

Julian Stryjkowski


Julian Stryjkowski was born Pesach Stark in 1905 in the shtetl of Stryj in what was then Austrian controlled Galicia. He took the pseudonym Stryjkowski after he fled to the Soviet Union from the invading Nazis at the start of World Warr II. His life was marked by paradoxical extremes. He grew up in a religiously Orthodox home but went to a Polish school. He began his studies in Hebrew but switched to Polish. At the age of twelve he ran away from home to join the Zionist organization Hashomer Hatzair, then later became a member of the Communist Party of Ukraine and remained one until the party’s liquidation by Stalin in 1934. From the end of the war until 1966 he was a member of the Polish United Workers Party, then left in protest after the expulsion of Leszek Kołakowski. As a young man, he refused to say kaddish at his father’s funeral because of his communist beliefs—a moment he revisits to narrate fictionally in several of his works. He spent the war in Moscow, where he heard of the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and immediately began writing his first important work Głosy w ciemności [Voices in the Dark] (1946). After the Holocaust, most of Stryjkowski’s writings, especially his so-called “Galician Tetralogy” became an attempt to memorialize the lost Jewish community of Poland, often being referred to as an epitaph or “headstone” over it. Yet despite his concern with the destruction of Jewish Poland, he refused the many appeals by family and friends to move to Israel. Through the story of Silence, published when he was 88, he first came out as a gay man, just three years before his death in 1996. While the work is, as he called it, an attempt “tear the mask away” from his sexuality, it also reflects his stubborn determination to maintain his Polish, Jewish, and communist identities, despite the many pressures he faced from various communities to renounce the others. In the end, Silence proves to be his loudest work.

paper texture

Translated by Yvonne Kendall



Bio: The graffiti artist of the 21st century. His is a gentle irony of the masses, his guinea fowl, an ingenious phrase on Twitter that you'll retweet twenty times. People criticize anonymity, but is anything more intelligent than becoming a millionaire, without anyone recognizing you in the street?

Buy a good priory
and three Dutch skies
—streets you've walked a million times,
conversations you've heard a million times—
buy a red greenhouse,
a strawberry, a polaroid collar,
and today paint all the tomorrows and the everafters.


El grafitero del segle XXI. La seva és una ironia suau, de masses, la seva pintada com una frase enginyosa a Twitter que et retuitejaran vint vegades. La gent li critica l'anonimat, però hi ha res més intel·ligent que fer-te milionari sense que al carrer et conegui ningú?

Comprar un bon priorat
i tres cels holandesos
—carrers passejats mil vegades,
converses mil vegades sentides—
comprar un vermell hivernacle,
maduixot, coll polaroid,
i pintar d'avuis tots els demàs i els sempres.

Cy Twombly

Bio: All his life he'd made dark paintings, with the scrawl of an indecipherable signature, until one day, already old, he discovered colors. From then on, his paintings exploded and his colored scribbles gilded him. Along with Gerhard Richter, the last great abstract painter of recent years.

I like to find that one, that specific painting, the one that
leaves me breathless for a while, so that, for a few seconds, I am the
white canvas with my pain exploding red.

Cy Twombly

Tota la vida havia fet quadres foscos, amb guixades d'una cal·ligrafia inintel·ligible, fins que un dia, ja de vell, va descobrir els colors. A partir de llavors, els seus quadres esclaten i els seus gargots acolorits el van fer d'or. Al costat de Gerhard Richter, l'últim gran pintor abstracte dels últim anys

M’agradaria trobar la pàgina, aquell quadre concret. Que em
deixés sense alè uns moments, que per uns segons jo fos aquell
llenç blanc i el meu dolor aquell vermell esclatant

Mark Rothko

Bio: The abstract expressionist par excellence if Pollock seems excessive and heavy-handed. He fills his canvases with layered clouds of color floating over other shades. Blacks over reds, greens over yellows, oranges over lilacs. There's nothing else. Any attempt to agree on it sinks into pomposity. The magic, in my opinion, is in the simplicity and the excess: they are so big that they swallow you, leaving you in shock. In a way, that phrase from the play is true: in the end, the black will swallow the red.

All but time is missing,
Scenery without inquiry.

Saying “there's no there there”
when it's literal
and omnipresent.

Mark Rothko

L'expressionista abstracte per excel·lència si Pollock us sembla excessiu i barroer. Omplia els quadres de capes núvols de colors flotant damunt d'altres tons. Negres sobres vermells, verds sobre grocs, taronges sobre liles. No hi ha res més, qual-sevol intent d'aparaular-los cau en l'ampul·lositat. La màgia, al meu entendre, és en la simplicitat i la desmesura: són tan grossos que se t'empassen i et deixen bocabadat. En certa manera, la frase de l'obra de teatre és certa: al final, el negre es va cruspir el vermell.

Tot és absent menys el temps,
paisatges sense preguntes.
El “no hi ha color”
quan és literal
i omnipresent.

John Cage

Bio: Inexhaustible musician. The one who washed the dishes.

Weeks of closet basics
synthetic silences
Scraping loose strings
delayed by poetry.
Forevering interludes,
Old hits play, but never mine.

John Cage

Músic inescoltable. El que rentava els plats.

Setmanes de fons d'armari,
silencis sintètics
Fregar cordes fluixes,
arribar tard per poemas.
Aquest interludi per sempre,
que sonin hits vells i mai posin la meva.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

Specialist in creating parallel worlds, like the
concept, from which she manages to recreate the atmosphere of a tropical jungle in the middle of Germany. With four insignificant details she transforms the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion of Barcelona into a mysterious Chinese hut from the future.

We're at the now of each day
And all its growing plants and greenery.

As always, you've turned away from me
Just one meter farther, the exact distance
That makes it all such a domestic mechanism.

There's no cry, exaltation, hyperfeeling.
It's just toxic
The levels of pollution
and life expectancy.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

Especialista en crear móns paral·lels, com a través del concepte tropicalizació, a partir del qual aconsegueix recrear l'atmosfera d'una selva tropical al mig d'Alemanya. Amb quatre detalls insignificants va transformar el pavelló Mies van der Rohe de Barcelona en una misteriosa cabana xinesa del futur.

Som a l’ara de cada dia
i tot són plantes i vegetació que creix.

Tu has tornat a separar-te de mi com sempre,
només uns metres enllà, la distància exacta
que ho fa tot tan electrodom stic.

No hi ha crida, exaltació, supersentiments.
Només toxicitat, nivells de pol-lució
i d’esperança de vida.


Chinese philosopher from the year of the gadfly. Skeptical and meticulous, lover of jokes and paradox.

You dream that you dream and you wake and all is as before and you wake and all is just as it ever was.


Pensador xinès de l'any de la picor. Escèptic i perepunyetes, amant de la broma i la paradoxa.

Somies que somies i et despertes i tot és com abans i et despertes i tot és com sempre.

Translator's Note:

Ultracolors: Coloring Outside the Lines of Albert Forns' Catalan Poetry Barcelona literary critic, journalist, and award-winning novelist Albert Forns and I met in New York City. He had a fellowship with the Institute Ramon Llul, an organization dedicated to supporting Catalan culture worldwide, while I was taking a sabbatical from my music professorship, finishing a certificate in Columbia University's literary translation program. Two other Columbia students and I translated a selection of poems from his 2013 volume, Ultracolors, into English and read them aloud alongside Albert's recitations in the original Catalan at the KGB Bar and Literary Society. We kept in touch.
Ultracolors is a collection of brief poems, some haiku-like, some epigraphic, each dedicated to one artist. Widely diverse creators such as pop phenom Banksy, conceptual artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, painters Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko, composer John Cage, and philosopher Zhuangzi all make fleeting appearances in the snapshot view of Forns' attentions. In fact, it is their dense brevity that is the principle challenge in translation.
The telescopic nature of these "flash" poems, not to mention the phantasmagorical language including "created" words demonstrates a unique poetic vision, requiring an almost obsessive precision. Additionally, centered beneath the artist's name, I translate the micro-biographical prose sketches Forns has drawn. Like the poems, the biographies vary in style and length, but retain a singular literary voice of their own.
Given my background as a historical musicologist, the translating process had to begin with some research on the artists, even those who were known to me. Having lived in Houston for over a decade, minus a semester in Barcelona years ago for musicology research, my familiarity with Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly is well-established, since Rothko has a chapel there, in which I have performed, and Twombly has an entire museum dedicated to his work. For the Rothko bio, Forns quotes dialogue from Red, a play by John Logan about Rothko's life and art: “in the end, the black will swallow the red.”
Red is also the focal color in the Twombly poem, evoking an almost Pavlovian response in those who have seen his works. As is sometimes the case, Forns ties the art he witnesses to the personal issues he experiences. These tiny references serve as brilliantly painted Easter eggs, not the end unto themselves but marking the path to a greater prize.
As a musician, my path had crossed with John Cage through my studies and even witnessing him in live performance. Much of Cage's music explores the power of silence asking that we rethink the definition of music. One startling piece, 4'33”, has the performer enter the stage, sit at the piano with six blank pages of music manuscript paper, and remain silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. This allows the audience to enter the soundscape of the auditorium— the breathing, shifting in seats, ventilation system... The poem addresses these “synthetic silences.” But I wasn't previously aware of the reference to washing dishes found in Forns' microbio. Cage once had a job washing dishes at a tea room in Carmel Valley, California before beginning his journey toward a macrobiotic diet.
Working with the Cage poem, I stepped outside the poem into Forns' world of word creation. One line, “Aquest interludi per sempre [these interludes forever],” is changed to “Forevering interludes.” The idea for this word creation came from one of the first of his poems I had translated. Finding a definition for the word “hypersentiment” had driven me crazy until I admitted defeat and contacted Albert who was back in Barcelona. That's when he admitted he'd made it up and forgotten to mention it. Good thing we were an ocean apart. Forns was delighted that one of his poetic techniques for one poem became one of my translation techniques in another.
“Hypersentiment” had come from the poem about Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, a French artist born in 1965, an artist unknown to me. Research into her work provided a contextual forest in which the word-trees became increasingly vivid. Using media as widely different as film, spatial installations, and plant life, she has worked with and been inspired by influences as varied as rock stars and Balenciaga, Sci-Fi novels and dreams. One of her abiding interests cycles around the ravages humankind wreaks on nature. The poem, reacting to her work while connecting it to the ravages humankind can wreak on their own relationships, seems related to her series of nature-based installations entitled “cronotypes and dioramas.”
For the bookends of this mini-collection from Ultracolors, Banksy and Zhuangzi pose separate challenges. The Banksy poem gathers random images from his work into a bouquet. It provides the opportunity to join the worlds of fantasy and surprise that flourish in the works of both Banksy and Forns through a creative translation of “sempres” [always] into “everafters,” reflecting those illusory worlds. The word “mil” caused the most angst. Although it means “thousand,” the temptation was strong to use “million” as an aural if not content cognate. In fact... As for Zhuangzi, the lack of punctuation allowed a Zen-like cadence to surface, ending the volume in calm. Just as it ever was. Just as it ever was.

Translator's Bio:

Yvonne Kendall is a Stanford-educated musicologist whose work has swerved into translation. Among others, her translations have been published in Alchemy: Journal of Translation. Ultracolors is a poetry collection by award-winning Catalan writer, Albert Forns. These flash poems, some haiku-like, some epigraphic, each dedicated to one artist, move beyond the borders of poetry into the prose of his biographical sketches. Introduced to Albert as part of Literary Translation At Columbia, a program she completed alongside a 2014 MFA in Creative nonfiction, her engagement with his collection of vignettes about a variety of performers, painters, composers, and philosophers continues.

Albert Forns


Albert Forns is an award-winning Catalan writer. His novels Jambalaia (2016) and Albert Serra (la novel-la, no el cineasta) (2013), won the Anagrama Books First Prize and the Documenta Narrative Prize, respectively. In addition, to poetry and journalism, he held a fellowship from the Ramon Llul Institute in New York and in 2013, his poems were read in the original and in translation at KGB Literary Bar and Journal in Manhattan. Ultracolors is a collection of flash poems, each dedicated to one artist, each moving beyond the borders of poetry into the prose of his often wry artist sketches.

paper texture

Translated by Amy Newman

The Sunken Bell

Through my bad eyes,
a transparence of false sky,
cut in with false pines.
From one temple to the other,
hung at a tension taut as violins,
a swaying of varying intensity,
broken by deep rumbles.
In the soul,
no compelling motif:
few uncoupled and rippling notes

Milan 26 April 1929

La campana sommersa

Per i miei occhi malati,
una trasparenza di falso cielo,
dentellata di falsi pini.
Da una tempia all'altra,
sospeso a una tensione acuta di violini,
un dondolio d'intensità diverse,
rotto da scrosci fondi.
nessun motivo costringente:
poche note sgranate e increspate

Milano, 26 aprile 1929

Alpine Flower
for A. M. C.

I would like to give you this edelweiss.
Look at it: it’s large and soft. On the paper,
it looks like a bloodless, abandoned hand.
It emerged from the cracks of a rock,
or on gravel, or off the edge of a ravine,
there it whitened in the purest light.
Take it: it’s unsullied. This gift
can’t hurt you, because the heart
today has the color of spring gentians.

Pasturo, 18 July 1929

Flora alpine
ad A.M.C.

Ti vorrei dare questa stella alpina.
Guardala: è grande e morbida. Sul foglio,
pare un'esangue mano abbandonata.
Sbucata dalle crepe di una roccia,
o sui ghiaioni, o al ciglio di una gola,
là si sbiancava alla più pura luce.
Prendila: è monda e intatta. Questo dono
non può farti del male, perché il cuore
oggi ha il colore delle genzianelle.

Pasturo, 18 luglio 1929

Terrace at Pincio

From the avenues, running into the open space:
a bitter aroma of oleander.
Rome, immense, gradually darkens,
glazed with chimes. Not a face,
not a voice, not a gesture, do I take in:
only your spirit, only my love,
whitened by your purity. In a moment,
in the muted sky of endless expectation
there will burst forth a swarm of stars.

Palermo, 27 July 1929

Terrazza al pincio

Dai viali, a fiotti, corre sullo spiazzo
una fragranza amara d’oleandri.
Roma, immensa, s’abbuia a poco a poco,
sfiorata di rintocchi. Non un volto,
né una voce, né un gesto, afferro intorno:
solo l’anima tua, solo il mio amore,
sbiancato dalla tua purezza. In breve,
nel cielo smorto di sfrenata attesa
proromperà un rimescolio di stelle.

Palermo, 27 luglio 1929


Soul, be like the pine:
that all winter stretches
his flourishing arms
into the white empty air
and does not yield, doesn’t yield,
not even if the wind,
bringing from the woods
the sound of all the fallen leaves,
whispers to him words of abandonment;
even if the snow,
burdening him with all the weight
of its cold whiteness,
sacrifices the leafy branches, and pulls them
violently towards the black ground.
Soul, be like the pine:
and then spring will come
and you’ll hear it coming from afar,
with the groaning of all the bare branches
that will suffer to become green again.
But in your living branches
the divine spring will have the voice
of all the birds singing
and at your feet
the dirt you cling to
in the days of peace as in the days of weeping
will blossom with primroses and blue hyacinths.

Soul, be like the mountain:
that when all the valley
is a great purple lake
and the tolls of the bells arrive
like white waterlilies of sound,
she alone, above, stretches herself out
to a silent conversation with the sun.
The band of shadow closing in
around the her snowy forehead
seems a thick head of hair
that spills over her,
holds her back from leaping into the air towards her love.
But the sun’s love
surrounds her passionately
with a supreme splendor,
its rays fiercely kissing
the rising clouds.
They climb free, slow,
released from the shadows,
beyond all darkness,
the way thoughts of the everlasting soul
rise towards undying light.

Pasturo, 10 April 1931


Anima, sii come il pino:
che tutto l'inverno distende
nella bianca aria vuota
le sue braccia fiorenti
e non cede, non cede,
nemmeno se il vento,
recandogli da tutti i boschi
il suono di tutte le foglie cadute,
gli sussurra parole d'abbandono;
nemmeno se la neve,
gravandolo con tutto il peso
del suo freddo candore,
immolla le fronde e le trae
verso il nero suolo.
Anima, sii come il pino:
e poi arriverà la primavera
e tu la sentirai venire da lontano,
col gemito di tutti i rami nudi
che soffriranno, per rinverdire.
Ma nei tuoi rami vivi
la divina primavera avrà la voce
di tutti i più canori uccelli
ed ai tuoi piedi fiorirà di primule
e di giacinti azzurri
la zolla a cui t'aggrappi
nei giorni della pace
come nei giorni del pianto.

Anima, sii come la montagna:
che quando tutta la valle
è un grande lago di viola
e i tocchi delle campane vi affiorano
come bianche ninfee di suono,
lei sola, in alto, si tende
ad un muto colloquio col sole.
La fascia l'ombra
sempre più da presso
e pare, intorno alla nivea fronte,
una capigliatura greve
che la rovesci,
che la trattenga
dal balzare aerea
verso il suo amore.
Ma l'amore del sole
appassionatamente la cinge
d'uno splendore supremo,
appassionatamente bacia
con i suoi raggi le nubi
che salgono da lei.
Salgono libere, lente
svincolate dall'ombra,
al di là d'ogni tenebra,
come pensieri dell'anima eterna
verso l'eterna luce.

Pasturo, 10 aprile 1931


Like a cargo boat,
at evening,
when bad weather comes on the lake—
if it’s not in its port,
it lifts anchor
and prepares to go back—
and coasts for a long time,
while onboard a man
pushes off from shore
with the boat’s spar
an old man, hooded—because
it’s raining by now—
rounds up the cable
to its end –
by now the boat’s
no longer visible—
It’s like that, right,
you know
what your village is, your house is,
when the rain surprises you
in a foreign harbor—
and darkness.

25 September 1933


Come una barca
da carico, a sera,
quando il maltempo viene sul lago –
se non è nel suo porto
toglie l'áncora
e si accinge a tornare –
e a lungo costeggiando va,
mentre un uomo, da bordo, contro il fondo
la sua pertica spinge e dalla riva
un vecchio, incappucciato – perché già
piove –
accompagna la gomena
fin ch'è doppiata
la punta –
ed oramai la barca
non si vede –
così tu sai –
non è vero –
quale è il tuo villaggio, la tua casa,
quando ti colga la pioggia
in un porto straniero –
e la notte.

25 settembre 1933

The Earth

Dead star, at your edges
clouds of dream and clusters of words
turn in the skies.

I watch night fishermen
setting boats on the seabed
tracing garlands of yellow daisies
on their keels.

Across the ice I see
saints' faces open wide at dawn
on stable walls:

and at noon the stooped old man approaches,
sings on the cobblestones and to the gathered women
with the sound of his silver drum:
The bamboo has flourished, after a hundred years.
On the shores of all the seas it will die.
In autumn the leaves wither,
to the east flow streams of blood,
I saw the arms of thousands slain
dangling over the western abyss.
Clouds of sorrow and clusters of delirium
twist at your edges
O Earth.

November 1st 1937

La terra

Stella morta, ai tuoi orli
nubi di sogno e corolle di parole
volgi nei cieli.

Vedo per fondi mari
pescatori notturni metter barche\
e sulle chiglie tracciare ghirlande
di gialle margherite,

vedo in fronte ai ghiacci
volti di santi spalancarsi all'alba
sui muri delle stalle:

e a mezzodì s'avanza il vecchio gobbo,
canta sui ciotoli e per le donne accorse
fra i trilli del suo timpano d'argento:
«È fiorito il bambù, dopo cent'anni.
In riva a tutti i mari e ne morrà.
Coll'autunno si secca la foglia,
a oriente scorron fossati di sangue,
vidi le braccia di migliaia d'uccisi
penzolar sull'abisso
ad occidente.»

Nubi di pianto e corolle di deliri
si torcono ai tuoi orli
o Terra.

1° novembre 1937

Sogno dell'ultima sera

Per l'ultima sera il vento
a carezzare la mia montagna
che prona, in alto, numera le stelle.
Per l'ultima sera il vento
a donare a ciascun albero un pianto
tormentoso di fronde,
perch'io m'illuda d'ascoltarne un addio.
Poi, nella stanza, a fianco
del mio piccolo letto,
io a togliermi di dosso le mie vesti,
per ogni nodo sfatto dicendo:
è l'ultimo, è l'ultimo, è l'ultimo,
nella mia casa, a fianco
di questo piccolo letto...
Più tardi, come ogni sera, il sonno
a premere con mani grige il mio capo
e tu, mamma, a riporre
silenziosamente le mie robe,
piangendo, piangendo, piangendo.
Ed ecco io sogno: sono
nel sogno, mamma, un cercatore d'oro,
che va, che va per un'ignota landa
e mai non trova,
mai non trova il suo oro.
La terra è gialla, intorno: poca acqua
stagna qua e la, fra i giunchi.
Ma che fare
dell'acqua, mamma,
se non ho del pane?
Io non ho se non questo sacco lieve
che tu m'hai dato; dentro vi rimane
solo un tuo dolce piccolo ritratto
di quand'eri fanciulla e ricamavi,
esile e bianca, presso la finestra.
Ora poiché non ho
più speranza di vita,
ora poiché non so
se non morire
in questa atroce terra,
mamma, io voglio
baciare il tuo ritratto.
E sfaccio il nodo che serra
questo piccolo sacco
e vi affondo le mani...
Mamma, che sono
questi grani leggeri che mi sfioran le dita,
che mi gonfian le palme,
che mi coprono i polsi?
Briciole sono!
Briciole bianche, briciole di pane!
Mamma, mamma, ma sono
le tue lacrime, queste, le tue lacrime
che fioriscon così, per la mia vita!
Mamma, ma è il tuo
povero pianto, questo, tutto il pianto
che hai versato per me, l'ultima sera!
tutto il tuo pianto, divenuto pane.

Repton, 12 luglio 1931

Dream of the Final Evening

For the last evening, the wind
to caress my mountain
that, overhead, counts the stars.
The last evening, for the wind
to give the leaves on each tree a tormented cry,
so I delude myself that they’re saying farewell.
Then, in the room, next to
my little bed,
I take off my clothes,
saying, at every loosening knot:
it’s the last one, it’s the last one, it’s the last,
in my house, alongside
this little bed…
Later, like every evening, sleep
pressing on my head with its gray hands
and you, mama, silently putting away my stuff,
crying, crying, crying….
And here I dream: In the dream, mama,
I’m a seeker of gold,
who goes, who goes to an unknown prairie
and never finds,
she never finds her gold.
The earth is yellow, around: little water
stagnates here and there, among the rushes.
But what to do with water, mama,
if I don't have bread?
I have nothing but this light sack
you gave me; inside there remains
only a sweet little portrait of you
when you were a girl, and embroidered,
slim and pale, near the window.
Now since I have
no more hope of life,
now since I don't know
other than to die in this terrible land,
mama, I want to kiss your portrait.
And I undo the knot that tightens
this little sack
and I sink my hands into it ...
Mama, what are these light grains
that touch my fingers, that swell my palms,
that cover my wrists?
They’re crumbs!
White crumbs, bread crumbs!
Mama, mama, but these are
your tears, your tears
that bloom like this, for my life!
Mama, but it’s your
poor weeping, this, all the tears
you shed for me, on this last night!
All your tears, becoming bread.

Repton, 12 July 1931

Translator's Note:

Context is crucial to many translators. Translating Pozzi’s letters and biographies has given me insight to many of her poems. For example, “La campana sommersa” seemed to me to be one of Pozzi’s more abstract poems. When she addresses affliction it is often of the heart, or the spirit, so it was surprising to see the reference to “i miei occhi malati.” Most often, she writes personally, with a lyric “I”; the persona poem is less common, even rare. I had been translating her letters from that time, and there is no mention of an eye problem. Of course anyone familiar with opera might also recognize the title as it relates to Ottorini Respighi, whose four-act opera, based on the story by Gerhart Hauptmann, premiered in 1927.  Respighi’s main character Enrico, is injured by a bell that has been hurtling into a lake, dazed and unable to see. As I worked down the lines in the poem, I recognized sounds: “deep rumbles,” “rippling notes/releasing,” which could refer to a bell, but it remained unclear.
I turned to Pozzi’s letters of that time. “La campana sommersa” is dated 26 April 1929; About 2 1/2 months later, on the 13th of July, she writes her tutor (and love interest) Antonia Maria Cervi: 

"From this table, last year, I never thought about God. This year I'll think about it. In Carnisio, I studied a lot: calmly, without worry. I'm happy. I’m doing pretty good. Before writing to you, I played  “Fontane di Roma” to soothe my soul."

This reference to Respighi’s  symphonic poem helped me to confirm that Pozzi would have certainly been familiar with his work. And in a letter dated less than a month later (August 5th) Pozzi writes to her friend Lucia Bozzi from Madonna di Campiglio, a mountain resort area where Pozzi enjoyed hiking and climbing. As always, her descriptions are particular:

"As soon as I can, I wander through the pine forest craving for childhood: I paint my lips with the ink of blueberries. On the walls of the dining room there is a fresco of wonderful alpine flowers, interspersed with small paintings and figurines: above my table there is one of a dark cliff with a bearded dwarf at the bottom, pointing. Beyond, there is a little fairy caught in a waterfall that reminds me of Rautendelein.  Why do I tell you these silly things? I don't know."

It was a delight to come upon this mention of Rautendelein, the fairy child of Respighi’s”La campana sommersa,” who nurses the injured Enrico back to life. There is little doubt of Pozzi’s interest and affection for not only in Respighi’s art, but this particular opera.
And how I wished context had been on my side with “Fiora alpina.”  Pozzi describes her alpine flower looking like “a bloodless, abandoned hand” when one considers it “sul foglio.” Though it easily translates to “on the paper” or “against the sheet of paper,” I wanted it to be otherwise. Because foglio is close to foglia, which I know to be leaf, I wondered: could she have written foglia? Perhaps it mistake in transcription, changing the a to an o? She is asking her reader/listener (who in this case is Cervi, the dedicatee) to observe the flower, and I wanted the two to be together in this moment. I searched the available letters and couldn’t discover anything to indicate that Cervi was with her in Pasturo around this time, and instead found a fragment of a letter to Cervi, from four days previous to the dating of the poem. It wasn’t long before I realized that it was my desire that she and Cervi share this moment in person that was affecting my translation. It’s obviously foglio, and she is sending (or imagining sending)  the flower to him through a letter.

Please note:

The copyright for the poems of Antonia Pozzi belongs to the Carlo Cattaneo and Giulio Preti International Insubric Center for Philosophy, Epistemology, Cognitive Sciences and the History of Science and Technology of the University of Insubria, depositary and owner of the whole Archive and Library of Antonia Pozzi.

About the translator:

Amy Newman is the author of five poetry collections, most recently On This Day in Poetry History (Persea Books). Her translations of the poems and letters of Antonia Pozzi appear or are forthcoming in Poetry, Michigan Quarterly Review, Delos, Blackbird, Bennington Review, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the The John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation from Poetry, and teaches in the Department of English at Northern Illinois University.

Translated by Shan Xiaoming and Wang Zhen

After Yiping Le finished his story of the Spring Festival, his friend sighed and commented with the word “pathetic”. However, Yiping Le negated it, saying it is such an unfitting word. Sure, it is an apt word given his four visits to the hospital, three to the mortuary, two to the cemetery, and one to the crematorium during the Spring Festival. He understood that his friend meant well to feel sympathetic towards him and make such an emphatic comment, so he placated him by saying, “For this Spring Festival, everyone I met said the word ‘pathetic’ to me, but I was only fulfilling my filial duty. In this world, who isn’t pathetic? For everybody, life is hard. This is life. We need to be callous-hearted to laugh at all hardships in life.”

The mobile phone began to ring cheerfully early in the morning. Cheerful as the ring sounded, Yiping Le wasn’t cheerful at all. Most middle-aged people with aged parents were afraid of such “cheerful rings” at midnight or in the small hours. Often, the rings made them break into cold sweats. The rings sounded like orders for them to follow. Pulling up his trousers and slipping on his shoes, Yiping Le scrambled to get his cellphone that was charging in the corner of the room. “Is this the family of Aunt Meng?” At the other end of the phone a gravely sounding strange voice asked in a flat and deep tone. Yiping Le realized it was the time. It was going to happen, sooner or later, no matter what. It was the destiny. On the early morning of the eve of Spring Festival, he came to see fully what this particular festival meant to him.

The car was speeding toward the north of the city. Yiping Le was surprisingly sober. What happened the day before flashed across his mind, scene after scene, like the trees moving backward out of the car. Like everything, one’s life span is predestined. People’s lives are always determined by their fates. Yiping Le had already resigned to life. The older he grew, the greater his sense of compromise with fate. For more accurate update of his mother-in-law’s condition, he and his wife Yu’er went back to his mother-in-law’s home on the eve of the Spring Festival so that they could decide accordingly what to do in the Spring Festival. A Chinese old saying goes, “While one’s parents are still living, one should not go far away from home.” However, nowadays even if one is hundreds of kilometers away from home, one can get back home promptly because it only takes about two hours to travel hundreds of kilometers. So, they were not very much worried even if they were far away from home. It was their mother’s condition that they worried more than anything. They just needed to get ready for anything emergent. The car roared and rushed forward. There were only a few cars on the road. The mist, combined with the residues of the night, burdened them with heavier hearts.

This impending fear started to haunt him three months before, or to be exact, when one day his mother-in-law’s nanny said Auntie’s “vitality” had disappeared. By “Auntie”, the nanny was referring to Yu’er’s mother. She made the comment matter of factly, but Yiping Le, along with the other family members, was shocked by the comment. The shock was so disturbing to him that he couldn’t help checking his own physical existence with a glance at his shadow on the ground and a pat on the head. The family relied very much on the nanny. Over the past years, Yu’er’s mother had been repeatedly in critical conditions, and each time was saved thanks to the nanny’s meticulous care. To Yiping Le, the nanny was very mysterious. First of all, he was certain that she was not an ordinary person. She was from Southeastern Guizhou Province, with a weird name, Ji Tu. It was not an ethnic name because the nanny denied that she was Miao ethnic people. She knew a smattering of medicine, and often gave acupuncture treatment to Yu’er’s mother to relieve her pain, all sounding genuinely “unfathomable” to Yiping Le. Ji Tu, the nanny, was not a clear-headed woman. She often seemed to be confused and made apocalyptic remarks that stunned them all. “Aunt’s soul has already left” was one of the latest. In ancient times, traditional Chinese witchcraft and medicine were inseparable. Southeastern Guizhou province is an area of ethnic residences with dense mountains and forests, and is relatively backwards. The area Miao people live in is famous for the legend of Gu (a poison made with poisonous insect, worm and beetle). After a year’s contact with the nanny, Yiping Le was confirmed that Ji Tu must have known some witchcraft as evidenced by her shocking and frightening prophecy.

The day before, Yiping Le’s mother-in-law’s condition was like what it had always been in the last six months. She had come to the end of her life. The community doctor had come to see her and said there was no need for any treatment. Every organ of her body was failing rapidly. When the last bit of life in her was exhausted, she would go. Like a lamp, when the oil burns out, the light goes out, too. While Yiping Le and Yu’er understood the situation perfectly, they were immensely comforted when the doctor said that their mother might go in her sleep because they considered a natural death as the biggest blessing in life. The doctor asked Yiping Le and his wife to watch for their mother’s condition and meanwhile be prepared for the funeral. He knew what the doctor was implying, but he refused to think further about it. He felt it was too early to talk about his mother-in-law’s funeral.

The last night, Yiping Le watched his mother-in-law for a long time. She breathed evenly. He didn’t see anything unusual. Human beings are emotional creatures. Although most people often claim to be materialists and scoff at superstitions, they can’t help wishing for God’s blessing at critical moments.

Half a year before, Ji Tu told Yiping Le mysteriously that people who were dying were nostalgic. She suggested he find a doll that the whole family adored to make Auntie linger for a longer while. This was quite beyond Yiping Le, but he was inclined to believe in her when there were no better suggestions. Yiping Le asked Yu’er to go and get one of her mother’s favorite dolls and put it on the bed. Yu’er nodded understandingly and then found a doll that her mother liked very much in the past half year. It was also Yiping Le’s daughter’s favorite. When her daughter was young, she told him that the doll’s name was Ponyo and it would spray water when it got angry. Yiping Le and his daughter used to play with Ponyo together, a shared memory for both of them. Later, Yiping Le learned that Ponyo was the protagonist in “Ponyo on the Cliff”, a Japanese animation directed by Miyazaki Jun.

Yiping Le searched the internet for the relevant information about the progression of his mother-in-law’s illness to get himself prepared for any emergency. He intended to learn from other people’s experiences. There were a lot of accounts on the topic, and most of them were quite “specific”. The issue was that the specific accounts were not quite applicable. He had become more confused. One account said that the wrinkles on his parent’s face disappeared prior to his death but it made no mention of how exactly it was. He stared at his mother-in-law’s affectionate face for a long time and didn’t have any clue since his mother-in-law had very few wrinkles. Another account had it that the officials of netherworld would take old people’s shadows away two days prior to their deaths, exactly like what happened in a horror film. Le Yigping was upset with such an account. It was heartless to spread rumors about people who were dying.

Yiping Le was not dubious that Ponyo was the emotional link between the three generations. Perhaps the doll would reveal something to them. He had read a lot about the doll. Small dolls are a kind of psychic medium. Souls are believed to reside in such dolls, giving rise to many mysterious events. Yiping Le remembered a Japanese doll named Kikuko, the namesake of its owner. The owner loved the doll very much. After she died, her parents put the doll beside the tomb to accompany her. Miraculously, the doll’s hair began to grow slowly, and her lips parted like she was grinning. Maybe Ponyo can also demonstrate this kind of spirituality, as long as it is profusely loved.

The night before, Yiping Le stayed up late, searching for relevant information on the Internet. One account was quite credible because Yiping Le could feel the man’s genuine filial piety to his parent. The man said that he tended to his aged parent the last three days prior to his death. Since his parent’s hands and feet had become so fragile that they were unfit for infusion. He had to beg the doctor to give him a little fluid in the crus. The doctor had told him to prepare for the funeral but he couldn’t bring himself to do anything accordingly. He held his parent’s hands in the last two days and felt warmth receding from his parent’s fingertips. Yiping Le was deeply touched by the account and from it he learned about what he should do with his mother-in-law.

The car rolled on towards Beijing. Despite all his anxieties, he remained calm. After driving through a section of road under construction, Yiping Le asked Yu’er to call 999. Although Yiping Le was not sure about his mother-in-law’s latest condition, he considered it safe to call an ambulance in advance, following the advice of the people who had similar experiences.

The past experiences had taught Yiping Le that Chinese family relations were very complex. Although everyone agreed that it was the best for his mother-in-law to pass away in sleep quietly, it was impossible for her to die such a quiet death, given the complex emotional connections of the large family like theirs.

An inquiry from any member of the big Chinese family would disturb the quiet. Chinese people value filial piety very much. When people failed to send their sick old parents to hospital, they would be criticized by relatives and friends. They had to take consideration of many irrelevant people even when they were making decisions about their own family matters.

At the other end of the line, an operator asked and answered questions professionally and explicitly, slightly relieving Yiping Le’s anxieties. The car slowed down. In anticipation of any emergency, Yiping Le had made all preparations. The day before, Yiping Le asked Yu’er to go to the community health center to consult for the procedures needed after old people died in the community. According to their latest observation, their mother was in a lethargic state and could not feel much pain. The doctor from the health clinic agreed with them and predicted that their mother was most likely to go in her sleep.

To die in sleep is a blessing to most people. However, in reality, it is problematic. For one thing, the clinic had never been reported about such a death so they didn’t know if they were the right people to give the death certificate. Besides, Yiping Le’s father-in-law hoped that some medical efforts should be made, a mentality Yiping Le understood as what the proverb said, “Man proposes, God disposes.” Additionally, Yiping Le had to admit internally that the last medical efforts could be used as their defenses when there was any criticism from the relatives. Honestly, he believed that the medical efforts were no better than physical tortures.

Ji Tu left two months before. When she said she was leaving, the whole family was surprised. She had tended to their mother for more than a year. She had gone through hard times, giving their mother the most meticulous care for three months when she was hospitalized. It was inexplicit why she wanted to quit now that everything was going steady. Yiping Le looked at Ji Tu’s face and could see calm as well as firmness on it. Yiping Le instantly understood her decision. Of course, Ji Tu’s leave would not change anything in the family. She would soon be replaced by a new nanny.

The family had reached the consensus that the medical efforts should be made as long as anyone of them wasn’t emotionally ready for the death. The emergency ambulance would arrive in time and take their mother to the hospital to oblige her descendants. This was a perfect solution to the three issues that had obsessed the couple: the rescue issue, the death issue, and the death certificate issue.

Later, Yiping Le looked up the regulations on issuing death certificates for the death of residents at home. It provided that “residents must hold the ID card, the household registration, medical records, and the certificate of the residential committee to apply for the death certificate at the community health service center”. But during the Spring Festival, when everyone was reunited with their families, how could Yiping Le get ready these certificates to meet the rigorous procedure requirements? His mother would never rest in peace without a “death certificate”.

Just as expected, when Yiping Le arrived at home, the ambulance had already arrived. Grateful that they are still working during the festival. First aid was carried out step by step, such as ECG, oximeter, and oxygen. When the old woman was carried into the ambulance, all the people in the family knew that she would never make it. As the ambulance sped along the road, as expected, the indicators of life disappeared one by one. The old woman looked as affectionate as before, suffering from no pain, no disturbance. She left the world without bidding a farewell.

Ponyo was dropped down from the bed when the old woman was put on the stretcher. In the mess, no one paid any attention to it while they were rushing into the ambulance with the old woman. Yiping Le felt melancholy at his mother-in-law’s death. He looked at the sky. The sky was so overcast that he felt crushed and suffocated. Yiping Le was at loss of what to do next.

He was then reminded of what Yu’er said to him in the morning about the sky. “It’s a sign of death.” Yiping Le felt his legs were heavy. Something seemed to be tugging at the legs of his trousers. He knew what it meant to his mother-in-law when she was sent to the hospital this time. Involuntarily, he looked back at the bed she had been lying all these years and saw Ponyo under the bed in the distance. That misty little figure seemed to beckoning at him with a small hand. Yiping Le was suddenly dawned that life and death were not very different from each other at all. Sometimes life can reside in a small object, and an object can be endowed with spirituality by people, making the object personified. Ponyo was one example. It was endowed with feelings of three generations, and turned into a figure with a soul.

Everything outside the window became blurred. Yiping Le became fazed. Their mother was lying in front of them. They sat beside her, like two obedient children, incapable of any independent judgment.

This was the frame of mind that Yiping Le was very familiar with because it had repeated many times in the past three years. For quite a few times, the old woman had been lying over there just like this time and similar procedures had been carried out. Nevertheless, this time it was fundamentally different. The old woman was a believer of Buddhism, and was a registered Buddhist. She must have different conceptions of death and life. Yiping Le did not think the old woman had any fear of death. Up to the moment, he had never heard a word of complaint or fear from his mother-in-law. What a formidable heart she had.

The car stopped right in front of the mortuary according to the decision they had made after they had had a talk with the doctor about their mother’s situation. On the way to the hospital, the doctor of 999 said solemnly to Yu’er, “The patient has completely lost her vital indicators. Accept the death. Even if you cannot accept it and insist on emergent treatment, she is going to be sent here anyway.”

A mortuary is always in the most inconspicuous corner of a hospital. White walled, it was so ghastly that it never failed to elicit fear from people. On various occasions, Yiping Le had been to this place. He had felt that this was the quietest place in the hospital. There was only one mortician, whose face was invariably expressionless, which was very much in keeping with a profession that was utterly lifeless. However, Yiping Le was impressed with the mortician’s conscientiousness. Everything was well organized. The dressing, the makeup, the selection of coffin, the pick of a casket, the vehicle, all were included in one package. He knew very well that such formidable service wasn’t possible without hearts of love.

Yiping Le’s mother-in-law was lying quietly in the center of the morgue. A while ago, the mortician came and said to Yiping Le and his wife with great sincerity that he had rarely come across a face as serene as the old woman’s. He suggested that there was no need of makeup because it was beyond his professionalism to make the old woman look better on her way to heaven. Yiping Le and Yu’er were so touched with his words that they had the impulse to kneel down before the mortician and the old woman. The mortician, however, remained undisturbed and unaffected as he always was.

Yiping Le believed the old woman deserved such a serene face. He had read something on the internet, saying that up to one’s youth, one had a face one was born with and that the face changed accordingly when one grew older and eventually had the face they deserved. Looking at his mother-in-law, Yiping Le said to himself that she deserved such a beautiful face even after her death.

Yiping Le and his wife were often advised by his mother-in-law to feel content with life. They never took her words seriously. How could they feel content in the era of competition? Well, Yiping Le knew his mother-in-law herself was discontented with something in life. When she was seriously ill, she missed very much some people but they scarcely turned up. She had to comfort herself by saying, “One visit is better than none.” Yiping Le could hardly imagine their endless shame when they were informed of her death.

Yu’er went to pay the bill, leaving Yiping Le alone in the morgue. The place was again silenced. The dense gloom, combined with the mysterious noise from the big refrigerator, tightened Yiping Le’s scalp. Is it the noise of Freon, or the dead who have been sent to the morgue earlier? Yiping Le couldn’t help thinking of the incident of “feigned corpse” he had heard of when he returned to his hometown to attend his neighbor, his fourth grand uncle’s funeral. The so-called “feigned corpse” turned out to be a false alarm. What happened was that someone shouted “feigned corpse” in the funeral procession, and then people scattered in all directions. Later it was said that it was just a prank.

He remembered that what terrified him most was not the “feigned corpse”, but the utter fear with which the women screamed and fled. Nothing could be more terrifying than the twitched and distorted expressions on their faces. Suddenly, a flicker of light flashed and brought him back to reality. He did not dare to make a move so he stood there quietly.

The ritualized process was most comforting. The service of the mortuary was meticulous and flawless, endowing the deceased great dignity. From time to time, Yiping Le and Yu’er felt waves of warmth. Something was triggered inside Yiping Le; he became reminiscent and nostalgic.

When he was a child, he loved horror stories. Despite that at night he was often too frightened to go to sleep, he was never disheartened to listen to more of them. Most of the horror stories took place in mortuaries. The story “Your teeth are blue” made him sleepless for many nights. The story went that at a hospital mortuary, the corpses were often torn apart and gnawed at at night. In order to find out the culprit, the director of the hospital developed a chemical preparation and applied it to the corpses so that the teeth that had gnawed at the corpses would turn blue. To everyone’s surprise, it was found that the director’s teeth turned blue. Chum, chum, chum chum. Yiping Le’s reminiscence was interrupted by the footsteps sounding from far to near. A new arrival of the deceased.

Just like the funeral in his hometown, shrouds, quilts, crowns, and boots were used when Yiping Le’s mother-in-law was put into the icebox. She had a pearl in her mouth and pieces of silver were stuffed in her hands. Yu’er lighted the funeral light and put it on the incense table. With trembling hands, she held three incense sticks. She bowed deeply, her head touching the ground. She did it three times to express her greatest grief. Yu’er was the only family member who was present. Her grief was so great that her crying cracked. But Yiping Le knew better. What grieved her more was how the fussy elder members of the family would judge her performance.

Literally with great agitation, the couple returned home. They did not know since when it had become so hard to return home. When Yu’er was just about to open the door, she hesitated and withdrew her hand from the door knob. Yiping Le knew very well what she was afraid of. It was more “reasonable” for the son instead of the daughter to be the decision-maker in the patriarchal society. Even when the son was absent and she had to take over, all the decisions she made needed to be approved by the sons. Yiping Le impulsively stepped forward and opened the door for her. He was not a member of Yu’er’s family, so he was not afraid of any criticism. Besides, he had done his best, which gave the rest of the family no pretexts for criticism.

He was shocked the moment he entered the room. What he saw was akin to a grand trial where he saw the most relatives in his wife’s family in the past 30 years. His eyes swept the room and he saw his father-in-law sitting in a corner. Where else can he sit?

Yiping Le’s father-in-law was from Jiangxi Province. Before the liberation, he came to Beijing as a poor university student for an indefinite reason. In his thirties, through a friend’s introduction, he married his mother-in-law and became a member of the family. In the past decades, he had to rely solely on his wife’s family. Understandably, the old man could make no decision of whatsoever. Most of the time, his eldest son made decisions for him.

“Yu’er, How is the funeral? Is everything OK? Nothing unpleasant? Tell us everything about it,” someone asked nonstop. Yu’er could hardly get in a word. The man spoke in a pinched tone, with a tilting ending, typical of the aristocrats in the ancient Beijing city.

Yu’er made no reply. She bit her lips and lowered her head. Yiping Le knew by instinct that the youngest uncle of the family was asking the question. He was never absent from any important occasion, a necessary posture on his part.

The youngest uncle was never an ambitious person. He spent most of his life carrying a birdcage around. He got married when he was young, but the marriage ended when his wife fell in love with someone else. However, he seemed to be not affected in the least. He insisted on having wine and meat at every meal and being driven around wherever he went. Yu’er had always been contemptuous of him. She once joked to Yiping Le, “If you were my uncle, I would not only divorce you but also forbade our daughter to call you dad.”

As a part of the plan they made on their way home, Yiping Le answered all the questions for Yu’er. The moment he entered the room, he grabbed a chair and seated himself among the family members, a psychological vantage position that would not make him feel like he was being interrogated like a criminal.

He said, “As you all know, it has been three years since my mother-in-law was first reported to be in a critical condition. The doctor said that when she had exhausted herself, she would die. That’s what happened this morning. We called the emergency, but it was too late.” The youngest uncle nodded his approval. Facts were so explicit that they didn’t need any explanation. Seizing the opportunity, Yiping Le took a look at him. He was just like when he was young though he was now in his seventies. He was 1.75 meters tall and weighed 70 kilograms, wearing silk Chinese-style jacket and shoes. He must have been a very fashionable person when he was young.

Yiping Le understood that the youngest uncle wasn’t the hardest. The eldest brother-in-law was their greatest headache. In comparison, the youngest uncle was a more remote family member. As a matter of fact, the eldest son of his mother-in-law was the one to make the final decision for all the family matters. In an instant, they have swapped their roles. When the youngest uncle finished his work of inquiries to make sure the funeral was properly conducted, the eldest brother-in-law stepped in, making the couple literally sweat.

The funeral turned out to be quite smooth. Nothing unexpected, which was quite out of Yiping Le expectation. In retrospection, he considered that it was attributable to their full preparation, in addition to the fact that they had a very different outlook on life from the eldest brother-in-law.

The eldest brother-in-law used to be the backbone of the family and make every critical decision in the family. It was nothing extraordinary because back then the children in poor families had to grow up fast. Yiping Le’s mother-in-law adored the eldest son because he could manage everything well and had brought the greatest respect to her. Just as she was about to entrust the eldest son with everything, he left without any explanation at the age of 30. Yiping Le’s mother-in-law fell seriously ill when she failed to intercept him. Since then, the eldest son came back only on New Year’s Day. It was said that he had gone to Shenzhen to start a new business.

Rumor had it that he had left because his company was in trouble. Another version had it that the woman he was courting was living in the south. It was also said that he had confided in someone saying he hated the family. Yiping Le couldn’t tell which was true, but he was certain the eldest son of the family had snice drifted further and further away from the family.

The elder brother-in-law had returned to Beijing in recent years. According to himself, the business in Shenzhen was too restrictive, so he decided to move back to Beijing. Now that he had returned, everybody expected him to be more responsible in the care of his aging parents. To everyone’s disappointment, he made fewer visits to his parents. Yu’er couldn’t help complaining, “It is rare for the eldest son of the family to return home less than five times a year. As the eldest son of the family, he has hardly done his duties. Some day he will be punished for this.”

In the previous year, Yiping Le’s mother-in-law was hospitalized. Three months later, she was recovered. However, both the eldest and youngest son refused to let her leave the hospital. They said that the hospital was the ideal place for their mother, with all the doctors and nurses tending to her. Once she was discharged from the hospital, they wouldn’t ensure her a safe and healthy life. How can the hospital be the ideal place for a recovered patient? Not surprisingly, only the eldest son turned up with all the reluctance at the news of his mother’s death.

The eldest brother-in-son’s different outlook on life explained off his detachment from his parents. In his view, he would have fulfilled his duty well as long as he could arrange a presentable funeral.

“Needless to say, the funeral should be arranged according to conventions,” drawled the eldest brother-in-law. It was so typical of him to talk this way, saying something totally different from what Yiping Le would consider as decent remarks. He talked in a way that was authoritative, official and final. How could he have totally forgotten that his father was also in the room.

In this “room of a court”, Yiping Le glanced at the eldest brother-in-law with infinite disdain. What a grandiose statement. Filial as it sounded, it was obvious that he was not going to shoulder any responsibility. Yiping Le couldn’t help cursing him internally, “Son of bitch. Such a scoundrel. Just like the youngest uncle, always ready to shun any responsibility.”

Yiping Le exchanged glances with his wife, Yu’er. He raised his voice, “Dear senior members of the family,” Yiping Le intentionally mentioned all of the people in the room except the eldest brother-in-law, to make him feel the disrespect. Yiping Le glanced at him and said, “Thank you all for your attendance of my mother-in-law’s funeral. We have taken over since she has passed away so suddenly.” Yiping Le paused for a moment and looked at the youngest uncle, who indistinctly realized something when he caught his eyes. The youngest uncle’s eyes immediately lit up and he was again who he was. He responded unwaveringly, “Dear nephew-in-law, just go ahead. I will back you to arrange the best funeral ever.”

This was exactly what Yiping Le wanted. In fact, Yiping Le had already read his mind. The youngest uncle wouldn’t care anything as long as his position in this family was secure. After all, the youngest uncle was the uncle, hierarchically senior to the eldest brother-in-law. Additionally, though the youngest uncle himself was often problematic, he always expected other people to be impeccable. He had always looked down upon the eldest son of the family. The eldest brother-in-law looked discouraged. He made an effort to defend himself but came up blank. He waved his hand instead. “It is up to Uncle.” His voice sounded pinched, like he was helpless and terribly wronged.

Everything became explicit to Yiping Le. In his understanding, the eldest brother-in-law should be obsessed with his mother’s funeral. However, he didn’t plan to do anything and he cared about nothing more than appearing as filial as possible. Yiping Le felt greatly relieved and no longer uneasy about what he was going to do about the funeral.

“We feel obliged to arrange the funeral since my uncle and my brother gave us the assent.” Yiping Le raised his voice slightly. “Mom died in her sleep this morning. It is such a blessing to herself and us. As for the funeral, I think it should be arranged accordingly. It should not be too cheap nor too extravagant. I have discussed the funeral with Yu’er in the morgue and have arranged everything.”

Yiping Le paused and look around, expecting responses from the rest of the family members. Yiping Le knew very well what kind of responses there could be. Some were silent because they had already made their responses. Some were totally absorbed by what was happening. Their eyes wide open, they were listening with great relish. Some appeared uninterested since they had experienced enough to bother to say a word. They were either blinking or closing their eyes for a rest, waiting to be treated with a meal.

Yiping Le cleared his throat and continued, “The funeral includes such things: the shroud, coffin, casket, vehicle, and crematorium.”

“We chose the color blue for the shrouds. Traditionally, for people over 80, red is used. Mom is 79, so we have to choose blue. There is not a lot of choices as far as the style of coffin is concerned. The coffins are made of wood of different quality, the best, the medium and the ordinary. We chose the medium.” At this point of time, he was interrupted by a young man in the family. “Isn’t it a cremation? How come there is a coffin?”

This is indeed an issue. Yiping Le remembered that some cemeteries used improved paper coffins. He didn’t know why wood coffins were used at this place. Yu’er chimed in, “This is not the coffin in the traditional sense. It is just a container for removing the body before the cremation.” Yiping Le said, “The casket we chose is made of teak wood, with pictures of plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum engraved on all sides. It looks very solemn and elegant. Mom liked to draw these plants and flowers when she was alive. She often said they were unique because they have the quality of a gentleman. We booked a large van to carry Mom to the crematorium, so more relatives could accompany her. Finally, about the cremator.”

Yiping Le was so absorbed in his introduction of the funeral that he was given a big fright when the eldest brother-in-law interrupted him. “Brother, you have been talking a while and it is almost the time to go to the crematorium. You haven’t yet mentioned the time when we should go and say goodbye to Mom. Is there any arrangement for us to say goodbye to Mom? Have you made reservation of a farewell room? You should allow us the last moment of grief with Mom.”

A most becoming question. Yiping Le had thought that the eldest son-in-law had no interest in his mother’s funeral. He said with greater seriousness, “Yu’er and I have given it a careful thought. We have two options: one is to rent a farewell room in the hospital, and then transport the body to the crematorium. Or we can bid farewell to Mom at the crematorium. There are two types of service: ordinary and luxurious. To cater to most families, the luxury service provides a place for farewell just in front of the furnace.

“We need to transport Mom to and fro. if we do the farewell at the hospital, so it is better to do it at the crematorium to save some troubles for Mom and all of us.” Yiping Le had made very considerate arrangements for the funeral so that it was convenient for everyone attending the funeral. He looked around and added, “If there is something inappropriate, just let me know.”

In the afternoon, Yu’er told Yiping Le a story about the custom of lighting a funeral lamp. After a busy day, they finally had time to sit down and relax. Yu’er looked listless. She wasn’t talking specifically to Yiping Le, more like to herself. She mumbled, “It is a beautiful story in my hometown about lighting a lamp for the deceased family members. It now has become a custom.”

The story said that in the distant past, there were a mother and a daughter, relying on each other. After the mother died of illness, the daughter could not accept the mother’s death. She missed her mother so much that she had the illusion that her mother had not died. In her illusion, her mother had just gone to travel, and her soul had stayed with her to guard her. At night, the daughter lit a lamp for her mother, hoping to light up the way home for her mother. The daughter told the villagers that she was very happy because every night her mother came back to see her. Since then, the custom of lighting a funeral lamp started and had lasted hundreds of thousands of years in memory of the deceased family members.

In Beijing, the funeral should be on the third, fifth, or seventh day after the death. The time of Yiping Le’s mother-in-law’s death was on New Year’s Eve, so the funeral should be on the third day of the lunar new year.

Finally, the youngest son of the family made his appearance. Yu’er once lamented on the youngest brother to Yiping Le, saying that it was ironic that a genteel family like theirs should have brought up a son as spoilt as the youngest brother. Yiping Le made no comments. Instead, he chuckled. In his knowledge, her family was typical of the Chinese families of the baby boom. Most of the youngest children were spoilt, even in less well-off families.

Yu’er had little contact with the youngest brother. After graduating from high school, the youngest brother stayed at home, sponging off his parents. After several setbacks, he learned some lessons of life and found a job at the age of thirty. Two words could be used to summarize the youngest brother: lazy and irresponsible. It had been five days since his mother died that he turned up. And he didn’t bother to pay a visit to his father. He was indeed a horrible person beyond most people’s imagination.

Bidding farewell was a big occasion. It was remarkable that Yu’er’s two brothers, conscience stricken, uncharacteristically knelt in front of their mother.

Her two brothers reminded Yu’er of what her mother had said to her a month before she died. Late at night, Yu’er was sleeping by her mother’s side because the nanny had left. She suddenly felt someone pushing her arm. She woke up and found it was her mother. There was a rare luster in her eyes and they were so gentle. Something triggered inside Yu’er and she felt like crying.

Her mother stroked her and murmured, “Yu’er, did you hear of the story, the Sighing Bridge?” Yu’er was baffled. In the dim light, her mother sighed and continued, “When I was a child, I heard many stories about how people looked for a home after they died. I will soon die. I’d like to tell you about my wishes after my death.”

Her words devastated Yu’er. She pressed her mother’s mouth with her hand. Her mother took her hand and steered it to her chest and said, “It is said that after people die, they would be on the Yellow Springs Road, which would lead them to the netherworld. There is a river on the road. The river is scarlet. It is infested with lonely and wild ghosts who are unable to be reincarnated. The river is called the River of Forget. There is a bridge on the river, called the Sighing Bridge. Granny Meng is said to be standing in front of the bridge, delivering Granny Meng’s soup to the people who have come her way. Once people drink the soup, they will forget both the past and present, both the ones they loved and hated.” Her mother couldn’t help crying when she came to this part. When she went on to say she felt very sorry to leave Yu’er and her father behind, Yu’er became inconsolable.

Waking up from her reverie, Yu’er saw, in front of her, her mother was lying quietly on the platform. Her two brothers in sight, her mother’s words were echoing in her ears. “The Sighing Bridge did a fair job. There are indeed things in this world that should be forgotten. Let’s just forget and forgive. After a bowl of Granny Meng’s soup, everything will be forgotten and we will feel sorry for nothing. In our next lives, we will never know what happened in this life and we will never recognize each other as mother and daughter when we meet.” Her mother sounded resigned. Yu’er knew exactly what she wanted to forget and understood how she was feeling when death was approaching. Having forgot everything, her mother was relieved, was no longer troubled by anything. At night, her mother died in sleep.

Supported by Yiping Le, Yu’er was moving forward slowly on the path of the cemetery, holding her mother’s ashes in her hands. She had snatched the casket from her two brothers. She did not think that only the sons in the family should be holding the casket. For three years, Yu’er had taken care of her mother, so she thought she had every right to hold the casket and accompany her to finish her last lap of journey.

Yu’er’s father bought the grave a few years before. Yiping Le visited the grave the first year after it was bought. When he returned to discuss his mother-in-law’s death with Ji’tu, he learned from her that although witchcraft was superstition, it had the comforting effect and therefore valuable in terms of hospice care. For example, summoning the soul of the dead can be comforting to the living. Although the dead cannot be resurrected, their souls are immortal to the people who love them.

Nowadays, many traditional rituals had been suspended. Since the funeral reform in the city, the funerals had been ultimately simplified, leaving nothing for families to release their sorrow and sadness. Ji Tu told him that in her hometown, the funeral rituals included reading the Book of Heaven, begging the master to lead the way, and killing three chickens. Besides, strips of cloth were tied to the deceased. After the burial, the strips were retrieved and tied to the descendants, insinuating the continuation of the family line.

One night, Yiping Le talked about the rituals with Yu’er. She totally bought it. She said with some bitterness, “It never occurred to me that the family line should last forever. However, I do wish I could have the white strips of cloth so that I could always be connected with my mom.”

A mountain breeze wafted. A group of people stood in front of the grave, expressionless. They were waiting for the instruction. After years of ritual revolution, very few people knew how a decent funeral should be conducted. The funeral was boring because it was empty of any meaningful rituals except for the white strips Yu’er had tied in advance to the casket. Yiping Le untied the white strips and handed them to Yu’er when the casket was put into the grave. With trembling hands, Yu’er handed out the strips to the brothers and sisters of family. She asked them to tie the strips around their wrists. Then Yu’er knelt down before the grave. She had never knelt to her mother. The kneeling down filled her with great sensation, bringing her back to her childhood. How she wished that the moment was eternal.

The funeral proceeded like it had been rehearsed. At the moment when the casket was to be interred, it vexed Yu’er to see there was nothing else in the grave except for the casket. Yu’er searched herself for something that could be buried together with her mother as a token of her love. She found nothing. She looked back at Yiping Le, who seemed to have received a signal and then beckoned at their daughter who was standing in the distance. This was a secret arrangement the father and daughter had made to express their condolence at the very moment of funeral.

Their daughter Yunzhao always had delicate feelings. She was distressed by Grandma’s death. One night, she brought Ponyo to Yiping Le and said she was going to put it beside Grandma’s casket. She said she would make Ponyo accompany her grandma on her behalf. Yiping Le was silent for the initial seconds, and then blurted, “This little doll is psychic.” His daughter answered, “Dad, I have psychic power, too. I can be in touch with grandma, and I’ll relay the messages to my mom.” Her words made his eyes red-rimmed.

Ponyo leaned quietly against the side of the casket. Yu’er felt reassured as she watched people cover the grave with a stone lid. Meanwhile, Yun Zhao took her father’s hand and said that she saw Ponyo blinking at her with tears in her eyes. The sun was moving in its trajectory of the noon. Although it was early spring, it was still chilly. Rays of sun-shine were reflected on the mountain ridges. In the cracks of the rocks, undaunted small grass greeted people. Yiping Le couldn’t help marveling at the grass. They returned persistently in spring every year.

The third seventh-day was the day when the great ceremony of sacrifices was to be implemented. It was a rare fine day. The sky was unsullied azure. The cemetery, surrounded by mountains and rivers, was like always, quiet with the evergreens like pines and cypresses. Yiping Le had the impulse to howl for a while to vent the depression accumulated during this Spring Festival. The happy festive atmosphere had been sadly dampened by the funeral. After this, he hoped that everything would be on the right track again. The thought pleased him. He stopped to pat on the tombstone beside him.

Yiping Le lagged behind Yu’er. Looking at his wife’s profile from behind, he could see that she was much thinner than at the funeral. Early in the morning, Yu’er kneaded a dough and made dumplings for her mother. Prior to that, she had pickled Laba garlic, which she said was her mother’s favorite. This is a big sacrifice. No need of any fancy foods. Just her favorite foods.

Yiping Le learned from Yu’er that her mother was from the north, and like most people in the north, she loved dumplings, as well as Laba garlic. Her father was from the south and was meticulous with what he ate. In the most difficult times, even though the whole family virtually had nothing to eat, her father could have a bowl of rice. When they had a better life, they were already too old to eat too much. They had no appetite for any good foods. When her mother craved for dumplings, she would make a dozen for herself. Yu’er understood her mother very well. After she married Yiping Le, she often invited her mother to come over and made dumplings for her as a return for her mother’s hard work in the past.

Rays of sun-shine were sprinkled on the tombstone, bringing a weird sense of life to the symbol of death. Yu’er poured the steaming dumplings on a plate, then put some vinegar and Laba garlic on another small plate. It was a great shame her mother left the world on the eve of the Spring Festival. Yu’er hoped this could be a good compensation.

The fierce mountain wind was blowing. Yiping Le and Yu’er sat on the curb of road, trying hard to stroke down their disarrayed hair. The cold wind penetrated the thick winter clothes, causing a shiver to Yiping Le. They looked into the distance. There were traces of disappointment in Yu’er’s eyes. What was the point of having children? For the memorial? Yu’er was confused. Her two brothers were not likely to turn up on this big occasion. Yiping Le stood up anew and cast a wad of paper money skywards. The paper money flew with the wind towards the depth of the mountains.

Translation Notes: A Chinese Funeral

I teach Creative Writing and Literary Translation to MTI (master of translation and interpretation) students at China University of Petroleum (Beijing Campus). I attempt to apply my creative writing experiences with the practice of translation of Chinese literature. Each year three or four students choose to translate short stories from Chinese to English and submit the translation as a part of their master thesis. After they finish the first drafts of translation, I make substantial revisions of the drafts. Usually, the drafts are revised more than three times before they are submitted for oral defenses. The translation is not final until it is carefully revised again and submitted for publication. The Chinese short stories translated are usually the prize-winning short stories of the year written by both the most famous writers and emerging new writers in China. “A Chinese Funeral” was written by the Chinese writer Shengshan Wang, who has published many short stories and essays in various Chinese literary journals. In a similar process, we have translated Tong Su’s short story “Saturdays”, which appeared in Nashville Review in 2019.

Translators Bios:

SHAN Xiaoming is a Chinese English teacher who writes stories in English in his spare time. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in, Best Fiction, Red Lightbulbs, SNReview, Elohi Gadugi Journal, Blue Crow, Constellation (nominated for Pushcart Prize), The Chaffin Journal and the anthology Rigorous Mortis. His translation of Chinese literature appeared in Nashville Review. His stories have won several honorable mentions from Glimmer Train. His MFA is from City University of Hong Kong, with distinction. He is one of the very few Chinese writers who write in English from within China.

WANG Zhen is an MTI graduate of China University of Petroleum

Shengshan Wang


Shengshan Wang is a native of Beijing. He graduated from the Department of History of Beijing Normal University in 1990 and was transferred to the Beijing Writers' Association in 1990. He started publishing his literary works in 1996 and joined the Chinese Writers' Association in 2007. He has published many short stories and essays in various Chinese literary journals.

paper texture

Translated by Katarzyna Szuster

one crocodile, two crocodilians

he can’t breathe because the pasta’s choking his throat
he feels sadness and rememberizes how the sun infected him
he’s bored of washing the spaces between his fingers puts on a helmet
so the floor doesn’t hit him on the head asks why
a lion has such a big lamp on his head and does a bat foodies on
flies and he wants a new-fashioned helicopter
and a spatial rocket and this future pig pharmer
unfortunately has only good news for you
because after thisday he may be died and it’ll be a joke.
today I’ve met all my strangers he says
one peacock, two peascock

jeden lew, dwa lewy

nie może oddychać bo makaron zadławił mu gardło
czuje smutność i przypamiętuje sobie jak słońce go zaraziło
znudziło mu się mycie pomiędzy palcami zakłada kask
żeby podłoga nie uderzyła go w głowę pyta dlaczego
lew ma na głowie taką dużą lampę i czy nietoperz ożywia się
muchami i chce mieć staroczesny helikopter
i rakietę kosmonocną i ten przyszły hodowlak świnek
niestety ma dla ciebie same dobre wieści
gdyż po tym dzieniu już chyba umarnie i to będzie taki żarcik.
dzisiaj spotkałem wszystkich swoich nieznajomych mówi
jeden paw, dwa pawy

a spaceship

on this planet, my eyes are frozen like two ray craters.
the screen shows a body that jumped off a bridge.
a girl with a radio voice sends all the guys
to the island of idiots. no clarity from the bar either: foam on the lips
the screams of a feeding horde. it’s a wonder anyone asks politely about the toilet.
the first rumble is in the air. the bartender rubs his hands together saying
there’ll be severed ears and, with any luck, live blood. only
real men come in here. but apart from the creature
sleeping on the bar till dawn, nothing happens.

statek kosmiczny

na tej planecie mam oczy zastygłe jak dwa kratery smugowe.
ekran wyświetla ciało które skoczyło z mostu.
dziewczyna o radiowym głosie wysyła wszystkich facetów
na wyspę idiotów. brak jasności również z baru: piana na ustach
krzyki żerującej hordy. aż dziw że ktoś grzecznie pyta o toaletę.
pierwszy dym wisi w powietrzu. barman zaciera ręce mówi że
będą urwane uszy a przy odrobinie szczęścia żywa krew. tutaj
przychodzą prawdziwi mężczyźni. ale oprócz istoty
śpiącej na barze do świtu nie zdarza się nic.

little white mice

she spends her days poring over a piece of paper.
tries on the words. her son explains to her

the complexities of existence: few girls
have long hair and few have short hair

that’s how she tries to approach it.
nothing else opens up in her.

białe myszki

całymi dniami ślęczy nad kartką.
przymierza słowa. jej syn tłumaczy

zawiłości istnienia: nieliczne dziewczyny
mają włosy długie a nieliczne mają włosy krótkie.

tak stara się podchodzić.
nic więcej się w niej nie otwiera.

nothing is mutually exclusive

now the question of faith is secondary
on the internet I look at pictures
two wrinkled smiling women
are posing for a picture with a handsome young
fellow two thousand years older

nic się nie wyklucza

teraz kwestia wiary jest drugoplanowaw
internecie oglądam zdjęcia
dwie pomarszczone uśmiechnięte kobiety
pozują do zdjęcia z młodym przystojnym
starszym o dwa tysiące lat kolegą

Wroclaw ? Berlin 1:10 pm

we’re still seen by the lizards
for whom we obscure the sun.

a baby’s cry like the scream
of a bird outside the windowpane. equal for a moment
before they exceed each other in shades of blue.

the baby needs to be distracted.
it’s best to poke the screaming bird
in its eye.

Then they bring out the drinks
and everyone starts to feel light.

Wrocław ? Berlin 13:10

widzą nas jeszcze jaszczurki
którym przysłaniamy słońce.

płacz dziecka jak krzyk
ptaka za szybą. przez chwilę na równi
zanim się przekroczą w odcieniach błękitu.

dziecku trzeba odwrócić uwagę.
najlepiej wbić mu krzyczącego ptaka
w oko.

potem rozwożą drinki
i wszystkim robi się lekko.

Translator's Note

Readers familiar with American poets such as Dan Chelotti, Lisa Jarnot, and Frank O’Hara will recognized threads in the work of Hanna Janczak, although inflected with a very Polish sensibility. Janczak’s poems deploy casually reconfigured grammar, minimal punctuation or capitalization, and shifts of perspective––that of a child or a lizard, for example––to recalibrate the quotidian: “today I’ve met all my strangers.” or “a baby’s cry like the scream / of a bird outside the windowpane.” These seemingly small tweaks in register, spelling, and neologistic plurals allow Janczak’s syntax to reverberate as well as envelope the reader in a more intimate exchange with the poem’s speaker.

A good example is a poem like “jeden lew, dwa lewy”––literally, it would be something like “one lion, two lionses”––which uses a litany of Polish grammatical errors typical in childhood as an engine to propel the poem forward. In our e-mail exchange, Janczak admitted she was wondering how I would render that particular linguistic sprain. Hewing too closely to the original lost some of the energy and efficiency in the original poem, but, inspired by the docuseries Tiger King, I settled on “one crocodile, two crocodilians.” It was a personal choice which might be hard to defend except that I wasn’t going to let that stand in the way of my using this charming name of the animal order. These are the translator’s prerogatives: if something feels right, it stays.

Another line I enjoyed is “few girls / have long hair and few have short hair,” which echoes the philosophical insights of my four-year-old son, who occasionally likes to remind us that “robots exist, but they also don’t exist.” The complexities of existence, indeed.

In a word, Janczak’s poems are whimsical but also rooted in earth, uncontrived. They draw from our commonplace experiences as humans and parents, which are brought into closer focus––or on the contrary, blasted far away––so we can see that there’s something uncanny about them; we’re lucky to have a front-row seat to these experiences, even if it may not always feel like that from a typical perspective at the time.

Translated by Laura Valeri

A tiny spore that looks like a sun with all its flares. A being that encysts and is capable of remaining inactive for decades, or even centuries. The anthrax bacillus is in appearance harmless. Inert matter. Dormant.
But when the right conditions arise, if it feels at home in its environment inside a suitable host organism, then it awakes from its long slumber, its metabolism becomes active as if by enchantment, and it secretes its mortal venom - which does not manifest right away, but rather, to work its devastating and lethal effects, allows itself be carried by some harmless substances necessary for its activation. The deadly substance attaches itself to a protein molecule of the host cell, paralyzing it, and eventually killing it but, to ensure best effects, it uses two other non-lethal protein molecules to divert antibodies.
Such is its nature.

No one would be able to tell, looking at this child-like and smiling face, that this elegant vessel, this sturdy and agile body of mine that I exercise with half an hour of jogging every morning and forty minutes at the gym every other evening, hides inside it a seductive and sticky venom, more aggressive and lethal, therefore. Unfortunately, I know. But it’s my nature, and I can’t do anything about it.
I have a beautiful voice; I know that it’s sweet, and that my smile is captivating. I like this about me because it reminds me of when I was a child.
My mother, my aunts, I knew that I could clench them in my fist with that smile. It’s the same smile I use today with people.
Not incidentally, I deal in politics - environmental projects - or that I have become a leader in the party. My voice, my smile, are my winsome weapons. So I know how to use them on others.
Especially with lady others. The feminine universe, especially the feminine body, are the only things that make me feel good.
When I’m inside the body of a woman, all my paranoid thoughts fall away; I finally feel a calm that is difficult for me to find otherwise. Perhaps, a sense of controlled vigor.
What I now define as my paranoia has poisoned my existence. All my life, I have suffered from a dread that I cannot explain. Maybe I should reflect on it more. I should try to understand where these terrors come from, these sensations that paralyze me. But I am this way. It’s useless to waste time feeling bitter over life.
At times, when it feels like my head will explode with anxiety, I can’t settle down except with a few hours of jogging or with a good fuck.
I am sorry to use that word. But it’s the only word that feels appropriate. Often, women think that I will fall in love with them when I sleep with them. Maybe because the way that I make love is full of tenderness.
I have never fallen in love, if by love we mean losing the head, losing control. That unconditional surrender to another person. I always thought it intolerable.
I don’t have time for love. At my age, at fifty, there are far more exciting things in life. Power, for example. And that, I know how to get and keep. Of course, it has a cost, and the price is stress.
For love, I have no time.
But a female body settles me.
I don’t know why that is, to be honest; it’s not as if I like women all the time. To the contrary, when I’m done I feel repulsed. I know it may seem absurd. It feels absurd to me as well. But I can’t help it. Especially when I’m feeling anxious, when I’m in the middle of a meeting, or at a conference, right before I’m about to present myself to the public. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of women. I can find as many as I like willing to come to bed with me. I don’t see why I shouldn’t take advantage of that. It’s just that afterwards, all I want is to run from them. What earlier seemed desirable, even necessary, later almost sickens me.
The fact is that beautiful women bore me at this point. They’re all the same, all of them so sure of themselves. They play at being coy, when they know just as well as me that it’s just a question of time.
I always say it right upfront that I have never fallen in love and that it will never happen. So, I’m honest, no? After I’ve made that clear, what else is there to say?
But they don’t believe me. They think they can change me. Every one of them thinks that they will accomplish that miracle. Then, when they understand that I’m not like that, they say I’m selfish, immature, a Peter Pan who used them. The same old story. Boring at this point…
I don’t understand them. Maybe it’s their nature. Although, I do understand what attracts them; I am someone, and they like my power. I don’t have to try hard.
So, the thing at this point had become a bother. I even started to have difficulties...well, yes, you understand, right?
I was looking for something different...something that would give me the intoxicating feeling of a conquest. Something challenging, in other words. But, aside from the occasional post coitum tantrum when the lady of the moment figured out that there wasn’t going to be another occasion, all I ever felt was tedium.

A few months ago I went to London, for a convention, and I took advantage of it to stay a few extra weeks for a full immersion course in English. I did this on my own, without telling anyone, except a friend who works for the Embassy.
I was eager to stay away from that nauseating ordinariness. I wanted to detoxify from the power games and the political intrigues. Not because they bother me - I am excellent at making deals with my adversaries and work behind the scenes- but so that I could go back to it with a clear mind. A sort of spiritual retreat, in other words. And I could jog undisturbed in Hyde Park. There, I can be anonymous, and I like that.
Once I’d be back, I would have to prepare for the election campaign, and I wanted to be in shape for my voters. I know well that the idea of voting for the best candidate makes people feel good about themselves and reassures them about delegating their lives to me. So, why not gift them that feeling? After all, I owe them my power. And these people are not difficult to persuade.

They say that if two Englishmen are shipwrecked on a desert island, if they have never been introduced, they won’t share a word. They will ignore each other. Maybe the English have changed at this point - well, not maybe - still, this is what Elspeth was like for me.
I saw her for the first time at that convention. She was one of the simultaneous translators. English-Italian.
I noticed her because she looked like a woman outside of time. I saw her and I wanted to laugh. She went on, so primly, as if the work she was doing was the most important thing in the world. An air of sharpness about her. Or spikiness, I should say.
Then, when somebody introduced us, I thought that name, which sounded almost like an insult, fit her like a glove.
She was the stereotypical English spinster that Henry James described in his novels. One of those museum models crafted from Madame Tussaud’s wax.
Espeth might have been thirty five or thirty six, maybe, but it was hard to say what age she really was. Thick hair, dull brown, parted in the middle, straight at each side of her face in two perfect bandeaux, and gathered at the back of her head in a tight, low knot.
Her skin slightly reddened by rosacea, rough, with tiny pimples visible in the light, and flaking at the corners of her nostrils. A long nose, ending in a fleshy bulb. Watery eyes of an indefinite color, lips thin and always set tight.
I was having fun noticing these particulars during the boring moments of the convention. I, who, of a woman, only ever noticed the body.
I, who, when it came to women, was no longer noticing anything.
Elspeth always came dressed in skirts that reached to her ankles, and large cardigans or jackets, but with blouses with lace collars, and shoes like Mary Poppins. I think in England they call those Mary Janes.
Frankly, ridiculous. But that’s exactly why she drew my interest. At home, we would never see anyone looking like that, I told myself.
I had tried to establish a simple conversation in my halting English, but she had practically ignored me. I believe she didn’t understand who I was. So, one day, during a break, I asked someone to introduce us.
When I explained that I am Italian, she suddenly became loquacious. She began to chat in her anglicized Italian. And I don’t know why, but she told me quite a lot about herself. Maybe because of my interest in the environment. The English really love that kind of thing.
In addition to working occasionally as an interpreter, she was a college librarian and she dabbled in watercolor reproductions - but of course, how did I not think of it? - of the rare flowers and plants at the Kew Gardens.
Every year, she and her mother, who lived in Surrey, went to the Chelsea Flower Show to admire - her actual words - “the charm of the new hybrids, the mystery of the grafts, and the competition roses…” I swear, that is how she said it.
She talked and talked, and I looked at her, almost rapt by her ugliness.
But then, she wasn’t all that ugly. In the squalor of her dull looks, there was a sort of stale grace. I studied her as if I were analyzing uncharted territory. She was a type of woman that I had in fact never had the occasion to engage. And this made me curious. I would say that it almost...excited me.
But the thought seemed so absurd to me, almost obscene, that I immediately dismissed it.
When the convention ended, I had plenty of time, and I discovered that the school where I was taking English lessons wasn’t far from her library. So I studied her schedule and I pretended to find myself by coincidence in front of the exit during her lunch break. Elspeth intrigued me.
It felt to me like she was happy to have run into me, even if she did not show it at all, but she did agree to get something to eat with me at the cafeteria.
Little by little I transformed this “casual” encounter into a routine, and she did not pose the least objection. I believe that to spend so much time with a man was rare for her. She was certainly grateful that an important man dedicated his attention to her.
I decided to talk very little. I preferred to observe her. That, for me, was a rare thing.
She was so pathetic when she talked, with such serious, haughty airs that she probably thought were the proper distance to keep.
I don’t know if during that stage she asked herself the reason for my interest in her. For me, it was fun to watch this woman, aged and sort of ugly, wrangle with a man like me. It was fun, but it also produced new sensations in me, feelings long forgotten. Because, how much time had it been since I’d looked at a woman with so much attention? Let’s forget the fact that my interest wasn’t in her looks or in the possibility of an immediate…(I shiver at the sole thought!) fruition of the objective behind my attention.
During these lunch breaks of hers, Elspeth kept me entertained by enumerating the wonders of the most famous botanical illustrators, and I must say - aside from the fact that she would have certainly mistook my wrapt silence for an interest in the topic- the girl really knew her subject.
“Have you ever heard of The Botanical Magazine? These days it’s called Kew Magazine. It’s the oldest botanical review. It was founded in the 18th century in response to the intense rise in explorers’ expeditions and discoveries of the Royal Navy.”
“Yes...I think so…” I said distractedly, studying her skin, which in the excitement of the conversation was reddening more and more, evidencing her blemishes.
“Ferdinand Bauer was the official botanical illustrator of Matthew Flinder’s eventful explorations of Australia...Oh, he is my favorite artist. Francis, his brother, was no lesser artist. And also Ehret. Have you seen any of Ehret’s work?”
“No...I don’t think so…” But my vague responses had no effect on dampening her enthusiasm. Still, my voice, though used sparingly, was ever so sweet, accompanying the most winsome of my smiles.
It’s not the meaning of what is said, but the way in which it is said that matters. The medium is everything. I am living proof. My voters are the most sparkling evidence.
“Oh, if you could only see his Hibiscus Manihot! Such refined traits, and the Theobroma Augusta! Good grace, those blue-gray hues on the leaves! And the butterflies! Do you know that when I first saw the Odontoglossum Grande by Walter Fitch, those lush, fleshy orchids...Byron’s verses! Yes, it’s so. I thought of Byron!” Her boldness made her blush, I thought.
Elspeth always talked with exclamation points, even as she kept - I don’t know how she managed it - her lips set tight and her eyes half closed. Her face looked unmoved. Only the color of her skin changed.
But, aside from Italian Renaissance art - subject of her university studies - and her love for botany, which were the only topics that she ever discussed, she avoided any personal subject and seemed to have no other passion. And that seemed odd to me. Where was her weakness?
So, we began to see each other every day, within the limited time of her lunch breaks.
That English girl, so insipid and old, for whom the daily practical things of life seemed to slide like droplets of steamed water on a foggy glass, who looked as if she lived planted inside some art illustration as if it served as the background for a portrait, one of those still portraits of Pisanello’s - she fascinated me. The same way that a monstrous botanical species can be fascinating or some awkward and odd-looking rare beetle.
Elspeth seemed impervious to any sexual longing. But I understand women quite well, and I knew that such a thing wasn’t possible.
So then, during one of those perverse sadistic urges that sometimes crosses my brain - oh, yes, I know what they are, but I am powerless to stop them - I put it in my head to seduce this Elspeth.
It was only an experiment, truly. I did not mean to hurt anyone. I persuaded myself that she wasn’t completely asexual, like she pretended to be, but rather that she was armored with hard defensive layers as thick as a mountain. A healthy puritan repression elevated to maximum potency.
But she was a woman, wasn’t she? And women have never opposed me without much resistance. The only problem here - and truthfully, also the most exciting part for me - was which strategy to adopt. After all, I had never before dealt with a similar piece of antique, unique rather than rare, even for her own country.
From my cautious exploration of her private life - a topic that she constantly glided over - I had gleaned precious little information, but I thought I understood that she’d only had one platonic affair with a man much older than her, and maybe not so inclined towards feminine graces.
My god, it was so perfect that it felt made up. Not even the Brontë sisters would have created a character like her, for fear they might be accused of having a runaway imagination.
Nonetheless it was best not to underestimate her armor.
One thing I knew for sure: with the slightest false move, the merest forced gesture, the fly would take off before touching my spiderweb. That was the part that was most fun. To calculate. To move ahead as little as seemingly allowable, and then to stop myself. Appearing to retreat. To reconsider. But that little allowable was growing day by day. All the same, I was far from the end goal, and time was running out.
It delighted me immensely, the thought of causing a little turmoil in that starched soul stitched with Sienese primitives, Brunelleschian arches, Giotto frescoes, botanical watercolors and similarly absurd escapes from sanguine reality.
And the more I contemplated her unsalvageable dullness - the more I considered how her oversized cardigans smelled so intensely of mothballs - the more this “imp of the perverse,” this venom of mine, was pushing me to find a breach that would let me penetrate her.
Why didn’t Elspeth fall at my feet? Why wouldn’t she invite me up to her apartment, like I had once cautiously suggested, in a casual voice? After all, it was obvious that she liked me. I knew very well that she liked me.
She had then told me that her landlady would not allow men to visit. This seemed too much, even for someone like Elspeth. Nor would I have allowed her to come to the little two-room apartment near St. James that I had rented for my stay. Out of the question!
An idea. I needed an idea. But what?
Then, one day, the idea came. Genial, I’d say. I told her that, browsing the many antique book stores scattered around Museum Street, I had made an incredible discovery. I’d found a small set of three original illustrations by Francis Bauer, Ferdinand’s Brother. Elspeht had told me about him. She had told me that the commercial value of his works was less than his brother’s, but she believed that in terms of artistic quality, the two were equals. So, why couldn’t I have found something like that from some print dealer somewhere?
Elspeth could not believe it when I told her. I purposely went to give her the news one evening around five thirty, by the entrance of the college.
Elspeth looked at me incredulous. Then, her watery eyes lit up.
“You found a treasure, do you realize? Oh, if only I could see them, touch them. I have never held such a thing in my hands outside the library in Kew Gardens. But what types of works are these? Drawings or watercolors? Plants or flowers? What? I cannot believe it...Will you allow me to see them, Valerio?” Her voice had new life in it, almost agitated.
The excitement had made her language shift inadvertently from the formal to the informal. Already, a point in my favor.
We began walking together, for the first time, crossing Portman Square, heading towards Marble Arch, where she took her bus to go back home, and the whole time, she could not stop talking.
“Why don’t we turn into Baker Street, where there is that quaint tea room?” I asked her suddenly. “Why don’t we have something before you take the bus?”
Elspeth stopped, hesitant. She seemed uncertain, but then she said no, that she absolutely could not. Though she did hesitate for a moment. And that for me signaled a step forward. Before this, she would have said no decisively, without thinking about it. But she soon recovered, observing with a renewed coldness: “For us, tea rooms are not quaint! Maybe for you they are!”
I smiled.
In the days that followed, she persistently asked me about those works of Bauer’s but, so as to tighten the rope and entice her, I was evasive, I changed the subject, I assured her that in no time I would show them to her, one day or another. Very soon. But she knew that I was set to leave any day.
In fact, for two days, I didn’t go to see her at all. It’s always a good tactic to disappear without explanations.
When I thought it was enough, I showed up at the college’s front entrance. As soon as she saw me, I read on her face a vortex of contrasting emotions. The surprise, the happiness, the uncertainty, the doubt. Maybe even a shade of reproach.
I gave her no explanation for my absence. Logic dictated I owed her none. After all, between us there was nothing, no? Only a routine born out of silent accord. Routines can change, no? And she was too prideful to ask.
“Ciao Elspeth, how are you?” I greeted her with the most natural expression in the world and with my best smile. But I was careful not to look her in the eyes. My glance was distracted.
“Oh, so you’re not mad at me, Valerio? I was worried I’m so happy that…” she burst, betraying herself. But she stopped.
“Listen, I’d love it if you came over this afternoon and gave me your expert opinion over these illustrations of Bauer’s. You know that I think a lot of your opinion, and I can’t say for sure that these are authentic. What do you say?”
Strangely, but maybe not so much, she did not hesitate this time. She looked at me almost gratefully, and I’d say - if this expression could be used for Elspeth - that she was moved.
“Fine. But I don’t want it to get late. I don’t want to get home when it’s dark.”
“Don’t worry. It’s not going to take long. Besides, I can take you home myself. Don’t worry.”
“Oh, no, there’s no need,” she answered with too much eagerness.

It seemed impossible that she had given in so easily. But I knew women well, and after all she was a woman, no? They all have a weak spot, even the ones who seem most difficult and resistant. The important thing is to find it.
Now I ask myself why…
Why is it important to find that weak spot? Important for what? For victory? For domination?
I could have stopped then. Of course I could have. But I didn’t.
How could I possibly? It’s my nature.
Instead, I felt like laughing. The desire to see those illustrations was stronger than any fear, resistance, or taboo. That old trick of the Chinese prints works all the time. Or maybe it works only for the likes of Elspeth, stuck in a world that doesn’t exist anymore. I almost felt tenderness for her. In that moment, I saw her as an innocent child, and I think it was exactly this candor, this sudden loss of defenses that triggered my last mechanism. I silenced a dislikable sensation that I’d never felt before. Something that was unknown to me, that I might describe as remorse. After all, if she had built up all those defenses, she may have had a reason for it? And it had to be a painful one. But it was too late to pull back. I couldn’t at that point.
So then the question arose: once home, then what? Because, those illustrations, I didn’t even know what they should be, obviously. I had never bought anything from any print dealer.
So. I had fun turning over some drawers, making a mess here and there, and leaving wide open the back window that overlooked the enclosed courtyard and the fire escape. That is to say, I set up a burglary. So as to facilitate things. I would despair, and she would console me - or so at least I hoped - and then...and then we’ll see, I told myself.
That is exactly how it went. And that confirms my belief that the simplest tactics are also the most effective.
Never underestimate the gullibility of an adversary.
I even overdid it a bit. I choked back a scream as soon as we walked in when, quick as a flash, I headed for the drawer where the precious illustrations were supposed to be and I found it empty, on the floor.
Elspeth, who at first turned to stone, was moved when she saw me so desperate, and she let me hug her when I sought her comfort.
In short, I told her that I had fallen in love with her since that first moment...that those conversations had revealed to me that she possessed a refined and composed femininity, etc. etc. The same old things that any woman believes if you tell her.
She let me kiss her without posing the least resistance, rather, with so much abandon that I thought I had in my arms a dead body. Then I noticed that I was affecting her a lot more than I’d have imagined. It was a long and passionate kiss, as the saying goes. I did not expect it from her, and in the end, I did not mind it, even if the whole time I could not avoid noticing how her neck was covered with red spots and her skin was rough with a rash of tiny pimples. Poor Espleth…
But for someone like her, a kiss like that meant union for life. Therefore I stopped. I did not want to encourage her. I pretended to want to be alone.
“I am upset, Elspeth. Forgive me. The burglary, this nasty surprise, the confession of our feelings for one another...everything is so unexpected. You, so sensible, so dear, I feel confused. Forgive me. But I need to be alone. I will call you a taxi. I beg you to listen and understand.”
Elspeth, went from that paleness she had become to red as if on fire. Her face became covered with spots of a much more intense color. She was not herself, hair undone, with a strand that hung loose from the tight bandeaux, and looking entirely confused.

So then you lost your aplomb, dear old Elspeth, I thought, while she left silently to hail a taxi.

I decided not to show myself for a couple of days. I did not answer the phone and luckily she never came to look for me.
My experiment was a success. In any case, she would have recovered soon. After all, I gave her a few days of excitement. Certainly, that had never happened to her before.

Two days prior to my departure, however, I went to see her.
I don’t know why. After all, I could have avoided this, too. But I was curious to see if she would again wear her armor, and also - I have to say it - I wanted to make sure that she had calmed down. To leave without saying goodbye would have been inelegant, and inelegance is not a fault that I possess.

So I happened upon the exit at the hour of her lunch break.

When she saw me not a muscle in her face moved. But she went pale. She was almost a cadaver, as if the blood had suddenly drained from her face all at once. She had regained all her self control. More than control, it was hardness. A hardness that I did not know. Then I thought I read in her face a sort of contempt.
Not that. I could not stand that. I cannot allow anyone to feel contempt for me. For that reason - I think - I did it. I believe it was that, her rejection of me, that made me do it. Because in fact, I liked Elspeth, and in a way I had some affection for her. But I was unable to hold back.
“It was all a joke,” I told her. “It was just a joke. You are so stiff, so impervious to emotions, that I wanted to test you. You see, nothing personal. It was all in good fun. I just wanted to see if you’d let yourself go, that’s all. Those illustrations I told you about, they never existed. Wasn’t it fun? When we entered my home, the drawers, the mess… funny, no? You couldn’t possibly have thought that we could have an affair. Come on, seriously? You’re not my type. Nor I your type, I’m sure. But, let me say it again, nothing personal. It was all good fun in the end. We had a good time, no? You’re a smart girl. I’m sure you’ll understand, and then you will also have a laugh.”
I’ll be honest; I said it with a hint of rage. That expression on her face bothered me. After all, I’m a man who has a very specific role in the world and I lost so much time with her, and it seemed she hadn’t even realized it. Yes, I put meanness in those words.
I was expecting any sort of reaction, any sort of reply. Instead, she kept staring at me unmoved. She looked as if she had turned to stone. She said absolutely nothing, and then she left. Like an offended damsel.
I don’t understand, because they say that the English have a sense of humor, but evidently she has none, is what I thought then.

A few days later, right before leaving, I passed by the Embassy to say goodbye to my friend. I had neglected him during the time I was playing that silly game with Elspeth and I wanted to tell him the story. Omitting the real ending, of course. It would hardly be appropriate to let him know that I’d gone back to look for her that last time. He had seen her at that convention and he’d have had a good laugh at my expense. He would have shared that story with everyone.
But as it turned out, I didn’t tell him about it. We talked about the proceedings of the convention and all the things I had promised myself I would do as soon as I got back to Italy, having been gone far too long. The political commitments, the interviews - in other words, my thoughts were already elsewhere.
The only thing he knew, along with a few other people from the Embassy, was that I had stayed in London incognito. Then, as he was telling me about the ripples from the convention, almost casually, he asked me if I had read that morning’s newspapers. I hadn’t.
“Do you remember that goofy girl - that woman, rather - the one who was an interpreter at the convention? I think her name was Elspeth something or other. Last night she threw herself under a train on the Picadilly line. They say her motives are unknown.``
Elspeth? I felt like death.
“What’s wrong? You didn’t know her. You’re so pale. I didn’t make you out to be so sensitive. To think we call you the Ice Man.”
How could he have understood?
Elspeth? Under a train? Suicide?
I muttered something over an urgent matter, things to sort out before my departure, and I dismissed myself in a hurry.

I am a broken man. I cannot find peace. What have I done? Why have I done it? I don’t know. It’s my nature and I cannot overcome it. But why?
For god’s sake, she overdid it! How could she possibly have imagined that, it could have never happened. The whole idea is absurd.
And yet, I did feel something for her. She was the only woman who has never made me want to fuck her, and now I realize that for the whole time that I was with her, I never felt any of the usual anxieties. My paranoia...gone in those few days I spent with her. Could this be love?
And what if she loved me? After all, she did this for me, and that’s a sign, right?
Therefore, just as I suspected. Passionate. How could I have missed it.
It’s my nature...

È una piccola spora che sembra un sole con le sue fiammate. Un essere che si incista ed è capace di rimanere inattivo per decenni, forse secoli. Il bacillo dell’antrace è apparentemente innocuo. Materiale inerte. Dormiente.

Ma quando si verificano le giuste condizioni, se si sente nel suo ambiente, all’interno di un organismo adatto ad accoglierlo, ecco che si risveglia dal suo lungo sonno, il suo metabolismo si attiva come per incanto e secerne il suo veleno mortale. Che non si manifesta subito, ma si fa veicolare, per agire in modo devastante e letale, da alcune sostanze non pericolose, ma necessarie per la sua azione. Si lega, questa sostanza mortifera, con una proteina della cellula che lo ospita e la paralizza fino a ucciderla. Ma, per poter meglio agire, distrae l’attenzione degli anticorpi con altre due proteine non letali.

È la sua natura.

Non si direbbe, vedendo il mio viso un po’ infantile e sorridente, che dentro questo contenitore elegante, vigoroso e agile che è il mio corpo e che tengo in esercizio tutte le mattine con mezz’ora di jogging e a sere alterne con quaranta minuti di palestra, non si direbbe che vi si nasconda un veleno suadente e vischioso. E per questo, tanto più aggressivo e letale nei suoi effetti. Purtroppo lo so. Ma è la mia natura e non posso farci nulla.

Ho una bella voce; so che è dolce, e il sorriso accattivante. Mi piacciono perché mi ricordano quando ero piccolo.

Mia madre, le mie zie, lo sapevo di poterle tenere in pugno con quel sorriso. Era lo stesso che uso oggi col mio prossimo.

Non sarà un caso se mi occupo di politica – progetti ambientali - o se sono diventato un capogruppo di partito. La mia voce, il mio sorriso sono le mie armi vincenti. Dunque so come usarle con gli altri.

Soprattutto con le altre. L’universo femminile, ma in particolare il corpo di una donna, sono l’unica cosa che mi fa stare bene.

Quando sono dentro un corpo di donna, mi passano tutte le paranoie; provo finalmente una calma che mi è difficile ritrovare altrove. Forse un senso di controllato vigore.

Quelle che definisco le mie paranoie mi hanno avvelenato la vita. Avverto da sempre un’angoscia che non so spiegare. Forse dovrei riflettere di più. Dovrei cercare di capire da dove vengono certi terrori, certe sensazioni che mi paralizzano. Ma io sono così. È inutile perdere tempo ad amareggiarsi la vita.

A volte, quando la testa pare mi scoppi per l’ansia, non riesco a calmarmi se non con qualche ora di jogging o una bella scopata.

Mi dispiace usare questo termine. Ma è il solo che mi pare appropriato. Spesso le donne pensano che io mi innamorerò di loro, quando me le porto a letto. Forse perché il modo in cui faccio l’amore è pieno di tenerezza.

Non mi sono mai innamorato, se per amore si intende quel perdere la testa, il controllo. La resa incondizionata a un’altra persona. Ho sempre pensato che fosse una cosa intollerabile.

Non ho tempo per l’amore. Alla mia età, cinquant’anni, ci sono cose molto più eccitanti nella vita. Il potere, per esempio. E io quello so bene come ottenerlo e mantenerlo. Certo, costa parecchio e il prezzo è lo stress.

Per l’amore non ho tempo.

Però un corpo femminile mi calma.

Non so come mai, ad essere sincero, anche perché non è che mi piacciano sempre queste donne. Anzi, quando ho finito, provo un senso di repulsione. Lo so che può sembrare assurdo. Sembra assurdo anche a me. Eppure non so resistere. Soprattutto quando sono nervoso, quando sono nel pieno di una riunione o a un congresso, prima di parlare in pubblico. Tanto non è che le donne mi manchino. Ne trovo finché ne voglio di quelle disposte a venire a letto con me. Non vedo perché non dovrei approfittarne. Solo che dopo ho solo voglia di scappare. Quello che mi era apparso prima desiderabile e anzi irrinunciabile, poi mi dà quasi un senso di nausea.

Il fatto è che le donne belle ormai mi annoiano. Sono tutte uguali, tutte sicure di sé. Fanno le preziose, quando poi sanno quanto te che è solo questione di tempo.

Io lo dico sempre in anticipo che non mi sono mai innamorato e che non mi accadrà mai. Dunque sono onesto, no? Quand’ho chiarito questo punto, che altro c’è da dire?

Eppure non mi credono. Pensano che mi cambieranno. Ciascuna di loro pensa che compirà il miracolo. Poi, quando capiscono che non è così, dicono che sono un egoista, un immaturo, un Peter Pan, che le ho usate. Le solite storie. Noiose ormai…

Io non le capisco. Ma forse è la loro natura. Però capisco cosa le attira; io sono qualcuno e a loro il mio potere piace. Non devo fare alcuna fatica.

Così, la cosa ormai mi era venuta a noia. Avevo persino cominciato ad avere delle difficoltà… sì, insomma, capito?

Cercavo qualcosa di diverso… qualcosa che mi desse l’ebbrezza della conquista. Una cosa difficile insomma. Ma, a parte qualche scena di disperazione post coitum, quando la signora di turno si rende conto che non ci sarà un seguito, non provavo ormai altro che tedio.

Alcuni mesi fa sono andato a Londra, per una convention, e ne ho approfittato per rimanere qualche settimana per un corso full immersion in inglese. Per conto mio, senza dirlo a nessuno, tranne a un amico che lavora in Ambasciata.

Avevo voglia di starmene lontano dalle nauseanti mondanità. Voglia di depurarmi dai giochi di potere e dagli intrugli politici. Non perché mi diano fastidio – io sono bravissimo a intrecciare accordi con gli avversari e a lavorare sott’acqua – ma per poter poi ripartire a mente libera. Una sorta di ritiro spirituale insomma. E poi potevo fare jogging indisturbato in Hyde Park. Lì si può mantenere l’anonimato e la cosa mi piaceva.

Al mio ritorno c’era da preparare la campagna elettorale e volevo essere in forma per miei elettori. So bene che l’idea di votare il migliore li fa sentire a posto con se stessi e li convince a delegarti la loro vita. Quindi perché non regalare loro questa sensazione? In fondo devo a loro il mio potere. E non è gente difficile da convincere.

Dicono che due inglesi, se naufraghi su un’isola deserta e che non siano stati presentati, non si rivolgano la parola. Si ignorino. Forse anche gli inglesi sono cambiati ormai – anzi, senza forse – ma questo fu in un certo senso quel che Elspeth fece con me.

La vidi per la prima volta alla convention. Era una delle traduttrici simultanee. Inglese-italiano.

La notai per il suo aspetto fuori dal tempo. La notai e mi venne da ridere. Passava, molto efficiente, come se il lavoro che stava facendo fosse la cosa più importante di questo mondo. Aria compunta. Appuntita, direi.

Poi, quando qualcuno ci presentò, pensai che quel nome, che quasi suonava come un insulto, le calzasse a pennello.

Era lo stereotipo della zitella inglese come la descrive nei suoi romanzi Henry James. O uno di quei personaggi da museo delle cere di Madame Tussaud.

Elspeth avrà avuto forse trentacinque o trentasei anni, ma non le si riusciva a dare una qualunque età. Capelli folti, castani, un po’ opachi, spartiti da una scriminatura centrale, che le scivolavano ai lati del viso in due perfetti bandeau, per raccogliersi poi dietro in un nodo basso e molto stretto.

La pelle lievemente arrossata per la couperose, non liscia, con minuscole bollicine in rilievo, tendeva a squamarsi ai lati delle narici. Il naso lungo terminava in una punta carnosa. Gli occhi chiari, di un colore poco definito, le labbra sottili e sempre serrate.

Mi ero divertito a notare tutti questi particolari nei momenti di noia della convention. Io, che di una donna guardo solo il corpo.

Io che di una donna ormai non guardo più nulla.

Elspeth arrivava sempre vestita di gonne alla caviglia e grossi golf o giacche, ma con camicette dal collo di pizzo e scarpe alla Mary Poppins. Mi pare che in Inghilterra si chiamino Mary Jane.

Francamente ridicola. Ma proprio per questo mi aveva incuriosito. Da noi una così non la si vedrebbe mai, mi ero detto.

Avevo tentato di instaurare un minimo di conversazione nel mio inglese stentato, ma lei mi aveva quasi ignorato. Credo non avesse capito chi sono. Così un giorno, durante una pausa, chiesi a qualcuno di presentarci.

Quando le spiegai che ero italiano, divenne improvvisamente loquace. Si mise a parlare nel suo italiano anglicizzato. E, non so perché, mi raccontò parecchio di sé. Forse per via dei miei interessi ambientali. Agli inglesi queste cose piacciono molto.

Oltre a fare l’interprete in alcune occasioni, era bibliotecaria in un college e si dilettava a riprodurre ad acquarello – certo, come non ci avevo pensato? - i fiori e le piante rare di Kew Gardens.

Ogni anno andava con sua madre, che viveva nel Surrey, al Chelsea Flower Show, per ammirare – sue testuali parole – “l’incanto dei nuovi ibridi, il mistero degli incroci, le rose da concorso”… così disse: giuro.

Lei parlava, parlava e io la guardavo, quasi rapito dalla sua bruttezza.

Ma poi, non che fosse così brutta. Nello squallore del suo aspetto spento, c’era una sorta di grazia ammuffita. La studiavo come se stessi analizzando un territorio sconosciuto. Era un tipo di donna che infatti non mi era mai capitato di incontrare. E questo mi incuriosiva. Direi che quasi… mi eccitava. Ma questo pensiero mi era parso così assurdo e quasi osceno, che l’avevo subito cancellato.

Conclusi i lavori della convention, tempo ne avevo e scoprii che la mia scuola, dove si tenevano le lezioni di inglese, non era distante dalla sua biblioteca. Così studiai i suoi orari e finsi di trovarmi per caso di fronte all’uscita quando lei aveva l’intervallo per il pranzo. Elspeth mi incuriosiva.

Mi parve che fosse contenta di avermi incontrato, anche se non lo mostrò affatto, però accettò di mangiare qualcosa con me alla caffetteria.

Un po’ alla volta trasformai questo incontro “casuale” in un’abitudine e lei non oppose la minima obiezione. Credo che le capitasse raramente di intrattenersi con un uomo per tanto tempo. Ed era certamente grata del fatto che un uomo importante le dedicasse la sua attenzione.

Io avevo deciso di parlare poco. Preferivo osservare lei. Cosa per me davvero rara.

Era così patetica quando parlava, con quell’aria seria e sussiegosa, che probabilmente le dava la sensazione di mantenere le giuste distanze.

Non so se in quella fase si sia chiesta il perché del mio interesse per lei. Per me era divertente guardare quella donna avviata verso la maturità e bruttina alle prese con uno come me. Era divertente, ma mi dava anche delle sensazioni nuove, o dimenticate da tempo immemorabile. Perché, quanto tempo era passato da quando avevo osservato una donna con tanta attenzione? Lasciamo stare il fatto poi che il mio interesse non fosse suscitato dal suo aspetto o dalla possibilità di un’immediata…(rabbrividivo alla sola idea!) fruizione dell’oggetto della mia attenzione.

Durante queste sue pause-pranzo, Elspeth mi intratteneva elencandomi le meraviglie dei più famosi illustratori di piante e devo dire – a parte il fatto che lei avrà sicuramente scambiato il mio silenzio attento per curiosità nei confronti dell’argomento – che la ragazza se ne intendeva.

<<Lei ha sentito parlare del Botanical Magazine? Ora si chiama Kew Magazine. È la più antica rivista botanica, fondata nel 18° secolo, in seguito all’intensificarsi delle spedizioni esplorative e delle scoperte della Royal Navy.>>

<<Sì… mi pare…>> rispondevo distrattamente, fissando la sua pelle che nella foga della conversazione diventava ancora più rossa e i puntolini ancora più evidenti.

<<Ferdinand Bauer è stato l’illustratore botanico ufficiale della fortunosa esplorazione di Matthew Flinder in terra australiana….oh è il mio artista preferito. Francis, suo fratello, non era da meno. Ma anche Ehret. Ha mai visto nulla di Ehret?>>

<<No…non credo…>>. Ma le mie vaghe risposte non parevano frenare il suo entusiasmo. Tuttavia la mia voce, pur usata parcamente, era ancora più dolce e si accompagnava al più suadente dei miei sorrisi.

Non è il senso di ciò che si dice, ma il modo in cui lo si dice che conta. Il veicolo è tutto. Io ne sono la prova vivente. I miei elettori ne sono la prova lampante.

<<Oh, se lei vedesse il suo Hibiscus Manihot! Che raffinatezza nei tratti, o la Theobroma Augusta! Santo cielo, quelle sfumature azzurro-grigie sulle foglie! E le farfalle! Ma sa che quando ho visto per la prima volta l’Odontoglossum Grande di Walter Fitch, quell’orchidea lussureggiante e carnosa…? i versi di Byron! Ecco. Ho pensato a Byron!>> Mi parve che arrossisse per la sua audacia…

Elspeth parlava sempre col punto esclamativo, pur mantenendo, non so come ci riuscisse, le labbra stirate e gli occhi socchiusi. Il suo viso pareva immobile. Le si alterava solo il colore della pelle.

Ma, a parte l’arte del Rinascimento italiano – oggetto dei suoi studi universitari – e l’amore per la botanica, unici argomenti di cui parlava, evitando ogni discorso personale, pareva non avere altre passioni. Il che mi suonava strano. Dov’era il suo punto debole?

Così prendemmo a vederci tutti i giorni, nello spazio confinato della sua pausa-pranzo.

Quella ragazza inglese, insipida e attempata, su cui le cose quotidiane della vita pratica parevano scivolare come gocce di condensa su un vetro appannato e che sembrava vivere trapiantata dentro delle illustrazioni d’arte, come se fossero lo sfondo di un ritratto, uno di quei ritratti immobili alla Pisanello, mi affascinava. Come può affascinare una mostruosa specie botanica, o un qualche goffo e strano coleottero raro.

Elsepth sembrava indifferente a qualsiasi richiamo sessuale. Ma io di donne ne capisco eccome e sapevo benissimo che non poteva essere così.

Allora mi misi in mente, per uno di quegli istinti perversi e sadici che a volte mi attraversano il cervello – oh sì, lo so che li ho, ma non sono in grado di arrestarli – di sedurre questa Elspeth.

Era solo un esperimento in fondo. Non volevo far male a nessuno. Ero convinto che non fosse del tutto asessuata, come voleva far credere, ma che fosse corazzata da strati induriti di difese spessi quanto una montagna. La sana repressione puritana elevata alla massima potenza.

Ma era una donna no? E a me le donne non hanno mai opposto troppa resistenza. L’unico problema qui – e in fondo anche lo stimolo maggiore per me – era quale tattica adottare. In fondo non avevo mai avuto a che fare con un simile pezzo d’antiquariato, più unico che raro ormai persino nel suo paese.

Dalle mie caute esplorazioni sulla sua vita privata – argomento sul quale lei sorvolava costantemente - avevo ricavato ben poche informazioni, ma mi pareva di aver capito che avesse avuto un unico amore platonico per un uomo molto più anziano di lei e forse non molto incline alle grazie femminili.

Mioddio, era così perfetta da sembrare inventata. Nemmeno le sorelle Brontë avrebbero osato descrivere un tipo come lei, per timore di essere tacciate di eccessiva fantasia.

Ma non era il caso di sottovalutare la sua corazza.

Di una cosa ero certo: alla mia minima mossa falsa, alla minima forzatura, la mosca sarebbe volata via prima ancora di sfiorare la mia ragnatela. Era la parte più divertente. Dosare. Avanzare quel minimo che mi pareva consentito e poi arrestarmi. Retrocedere apparentemente. Misurare. Ma le proporzioni di quel minimo crescevano di giorno in giorno. Tuttavia ero molto lontano dalla meta e il tempo stringeva.

Mi divertiva moltissimo l’idea di creare un po’ di scompiglio in quell’animo inamidato e costellato di primitivi senesi, di archi brunelleschiani, di affreschi giotteschi, di acquarelli botanici e simili assurde fughe dalla sanguigna realtà.

E più contemplavo il suo irrimediabile scialbore, più constatavo quanto di naftalina sapessero i suoi golf oversize, più questo “demone della perversità”, questo veleno, mi spingeva a trovare la breccia per penetrare dentro di lei.

Perché Elspeth non mi cadeva ai piedi? Perché non mi invitava nel suo appartamento, come una volta le avevo cautamente chiesto, in tono distratto? Alla fine era chiaro che le piacessi. Sapevo benissimo di piacerle.

Allora mi aveva detto che la sua padrona di casa non ammetteva visite maschili. Ma questo mi era parso eccessivo persino per una come Elspeth. Né lei avrebbe mai acconsentito a venire nel piccolo bilocale vicino a St. James’s, che avevo affittato per il mio soggiorno. Figuriamoci!

Un’idea. Dovevo farmi venire un’idea. Ma quale?

Finché un giorno l’idea venne. Geniale direi. Le dissi che, rovistando fra le numerose librerie antiquarie che si trovano intorno a Museum Street, avevo fatto una scoperta eccezionale. Addirittura un piccolo gruppo di tre fogli originali di Francis Bauer, il fratello di Ferdinand. Elspeth me ne aveva parlato. Mi aveva detto che il valore commerciale delle sue opere era inferiore a quelle del fratello, ma lei riteneva che da un punto di vista artistico i due si eguagliassero. Dunque, perché non avrei potuto trovare qualcosa del genere da qualche mercante di stampe?

Elspeth non pareva capacitarsi quando glielo dissi. Andai appositamente a comunicarle la notizia una sera verso le cinque e mezza, all’uscita dal college.

Elspeth mi guardò incredula. Poi, i suoi occhi acquosi si accesero.

<<Ha un tesoro, si rende conto? Oh se potessi vederli, toccarli. Non ho mai tenuto in mano una cosa simile, se non nella biblioteca di Kew Garden. Ma che soggetti sono? Disegni o acquarelli? Piante, fiori? Cosa? Non posso crederci… me li farai vedere Valerio?>> La voce aveva un’animazione nuova, quasi concitata.

L’emozione l’aveva fatta passare inavvertitamente dal lei al tu. Era già un punto a mio favore.

Ci incamminammo insieme, per la prima volta, attraversando Portman Square, diretti a Marble Arch, dove lei prendeva il suo autobus per tornare a casa e per tutta la strada non fece che parlare.

<<Perché non giriamo per Baker Street, dove c’è quella sala da tè così caratteristica?>> le chiesi a bruciapelo. <<Prendiamo qualcosa prima che tu salga sull’autobus.>>

Elspeth si fermò esitante. Era indecisa e poi disse di no, che non poteva assolutamente. Però aveva avuto un attimo di esitazione. E per me questo significava un buon passo avanti. Prima avrebbe detto di no con decisione, senza nemmeno riflettere. Ma si riprese e osservò con ritrovata freddezza: <<Da noi le sale da tè non sono caratteristiche! Da voi forse!>>


Nei giorni seguenti mi chiese continuamente dei fogli di Bauer ma io, per tendere la corda e incuriosirla, ero evasivo, cambiavo discorso, le assicuravo che senza meno glieli avrei mostrati, un giorno o l’altro. Molto presto. E lei sapeva che sarei partito di lì a non molto.

Anzi, per due giorni non andai affatto ad aspettarla. È sempre una buona tattica sparire senza dare spiegazioni.

Quando pensai che fosse sufficiente, mi presentai all’uscita del college. Come mi vide, sul viso le lessi un turbine di emozioni contrastanti. La sorpresa, la contentezza, l’incertezza, il dubbio. Forse anche un’ombra di rimprovero.

Non le diedi nessuna spiegazione per la mia assenza. A rigor di logica non gliene dovevo. In fondo tra noi non c’era nulla, no? Solo un’abitudine nata da un tacito accordo. Le abitudini si possono cambiare, no? E lei era troppo orgogliosa per chiedere.

<<Ciao Elspeth, come va?>> le dissi con l’aria più naturale del mondo e col mio miglior sorriso. Ma badai a non guardarla negli occhi. Il mio sguardo era distratto.

<<Oh, ma allora non sei offeso con me Valerio? Io temevo che… no. Sono così contenta di… >> disse di getto, tradendosi. Ma s’interruppe.

<<Senti, vorrei tanto che tu venissi a casa oggi pomeriggio e mi dessi il tuo parere di esperta sui fogli di Bauer. Sai, al tuo parere tengo molto e non è detto che poi siano autentici. Che ne dici?>>

Stranamente, ma non poi tanto, non ebbe esitazioni questa volta. Mi guardò quasi grata e direi – se questo termine si poteva usare con Elspeth – commossa.

<<Va bene. Però non voglio fare tardi. Sai, non vorrei tornare a casa col buio.>>

<<Ma no, non ti preoccupare. È solo questione di poco. Poi ti posso riaccompagnare io stesso. Stai tranquilla.>>

<<No, no. Non ce n’è bisogno>>, mi rispose con eccessiva foga.

Mi pareva persino impossibile che avesse ceduto così presto. Ma conoscevo bene le donne e in fondo donna lo era anche lei, no? Hanno sempre un punto debole, anche le più difficili e resistenti. L’importante è individuarlo.

Ora mi chiedo perché...

Perché sia importante individuarlo. Importante per che cosa? Vittoria? Dominio?

Avrei potuto fermarmi allora. Certo che avrei potuto. Ma non l’ho fatto.

Come sarebbe stato possibile? È la mia natura.

Invece mi venne da ridere. Il desiderio di vedere quei fogli era più forte di qualunque paura o resistenza o tabù. Il vecchio trucchetto delle stampe cinesi funzionava sempre. O forse funzionava solo con una come Elspeth, rimasta ferma a un mondo che non esiste più. Mi fece quasi tenerezza. In quel momento la vidi come una bambina ingenua e credo sia stato proprio questo suo candore, questa improvvisa mancanza di difese a farmi scattare la molla finale. Misi a tacere un’antipatica sensazione che non avevo mai provato. Qualcosa che mi era sconosciuto e che potrei definire rimorso. In fondo, se si era costruita tutte quelle difese, un motivo doveva pure averlo, no? E doveva essere un motivo doloroso. Ma ormai non potevo più tirarmi indietro. Non a quel punto.

Ora si poneva la questione: e una volta a casa? Perché io quei fogli non sapevo nemmeno che cosa fossero, ovviamente. Non avevo mai comprato nulla da nessun mercante di stampe.

Ecco. Mi ero divertito a rovesciare qualche cassetto, a mettere un po’ di disordine, a spalancare la finestra che dava sul cortiletto interno e sulla scala antincendio. Insomma, a inscenare un furto. Il che avrebbe facilitato le cose. Mi sarei disperato, lei mi avrebbe consolato – o almeno così speravo – e poi… e poi vedremo, mi ero detto.

Andò esattamente così. Il che conferma la mia convinzione che le tattiche più semplici sono sempre le più efficaci.

Mai sottovalutare la credulità dell’avversario.

Esagerai persino un po’. Soffocai un grido quando, come un fulmine, appena entrammo, mi diressi al cassetto dove si sarebbero dovuti trovare i fogli preziosi e lo trovai vuoto, gettato a terra.

Elspeth, che in un primo momento era diventata di pietra, al vedermi così disperato, si commosse e lasciò che l’abbracciassi per avere il suo conforto.

Insomma, le dissi che mi ero innamorato di lei, che fin dal primo momento…. che le nostre conversazioni mi avevano rivelato una femminilità raffinata e composta, ecc ecc. Le solite cose a cui qualunque donna crede quando gliele dite.

Si lasciò baciare senza opporre la minima resistenza, anzi, con un tale abbandono che mi parve di tenere fra le braccia una morta. Ma poi vidi che la cosa la coinvolgeva più di quanto avessi immaginato. Fu un bacio lungo e appassionato, come si usa dire. Non me lo sarei aspettato da lei e in fondo non mi dispiacque, anche se per tutto il tempo non potei evitare di vedere il suo collo chiazzato di macchie rosse e la pelle ruvida disseminata di piccoli brufoli. Povera Elspeth…

Ma con una come lei, un bacio così significava uniti per la vita. Dunque mi fermai. Non volevo illuderla. Finsi di voler restare da solo.

<<Sono sconvolto, Elspeth. Perdonami. Il furto, la brutta sorpresa, la rivelazione dei nostri sentimenti… tutto così inaspettato. Tu, così sensibile, così cara, mi sento confuso. Perdonami. Ma ho bisogno di rimanere da solo. Ora ti chiamo un taxi. Ti prego di capire e comprendere.>>

Elspeth, da pallida che s’era fatta, divenne rossa come il fuoco. Il suo viso si coprì di macchie di un rosso più intenso. Era fuori di sé, spettinata, una ciocca di capelli pendeva sciolta dallo stretto bandeau, in confusione totale.

Allora hai perso il tuo aplomb, cara vecchia Elspeth – pensai, mentre usciva silenziosa per prendere il taxi.

Non mi feci vedere per qualche giorno. Al telefono non risposi e per fortuna lei non venne mai a cercarmi.

Il mio esperimento era riuscito. E comunque si sarebbe ripresa presto. In fondo le avevo dato alcuni giorni di ebbrezza. Di certo non le era mai successo prima.

Due giorni prima della mia partenza però, tornai a cercarla. Non so perché. In fondo potevo evitare anche questo. Ma ero curioso di vedere se avesse indossato nuovamente la sua corazza e anche – devo dirlo – per assicurarmi che si fosse tranquillizzata. Partire senza un saluto sarebbe stato poco elegante ed è un difetto, quello della mancanza di eleganza, che non ho.

Così mi feci trovare all’uscita, durante la pausa per il pranzo.

Quando mi vide non mosse un solo muscolo del viso. Ma impallidì. Era quasi cadaverica, come se il sangue le fosse defluito tutto insieme dal viso. Aveva recuperato tutto il suo controllo. Ma più che controllo, durezza. Una durezza che non le conoscevo. E allora mi parve di leggere sul suo viso una forma di disprezzo.

Questo no. Non posso sopportarlo. Non permetto a nessuno di disprezzarmi! E fu per questo – credo – che lo feci. Credo fosse per questo, per questo suo rifiuto di me, che lo feci. Perché in fondo Elspeth mi era simpatica e mi ci ero in un certo senso affezionato. Ma non riuscii a trattenermi.

<<E’ stato tutto uno scherzo>>, le dissi. <<Solo uno scherzo. Sei così controllata, impermeabile alle emozioni, che volevo fare un esperimento con te. Sai, niente di personale. Solo una cosa innocente. Volevo vedere se ti saresti lasciata andare, ecco tutto. I fogli di cui ti avevo parlato, non ci sono mai stati. Non è stato divertente? Quando siamo entrati in casa, i cassetti, il disordine… buffo, no? Non potevi davvero pensare che avremmo avuto una storia. Dai, ti immagini? Non sei il mio tipo. Né io sono il tuo, ne sono certo. Ma ripeto, nulla di personale. In fondo sono stati dei giorni piacevoli. Siamo stati bene insieme, no? Sei una ragazza intelligente, sono sicuro che capirai e poi ti farai anche tu una bella risata.>>

Sarò onesto; lo dissi con una punta di rabbia. Mi aveva dato fastidio quella sua espressione. In fondo io sono un uomo che ha un suo posto ben preciso nel mondo e avevo perso tanto tempo con lei e lei pareva che non se ne fosse resa conto. Sì, ci misi della cattiveria in quelle parole.

Mi aspettavo una qualunque reazione, una qualche replica. Invece seguitò a fissarmi senza espressione. Sembrava diventata di pietra. Non disse assolutamente nulla e se ne andò. Come una dama offesa.

Non capisco, perché si dice che gli inglesi abbiano il senso dell’umorismo, ma a lei evidentemente manca – riflettei.

Due giorni dopo, prima di partire, passai in Ambasciata per salutare il mio amico. Lo avevo un po’ trascurato nel periodo in cui mi ero perso dietro quel giochino cretino con Elspeth e volevo raccontargli questa storiella. Senza il finale, s’intende. Non era il caso che gli facessi sapere che ero andato a cercarla quell’ultima volta. L’aveva notata anche lui alla convention e si sarebbe fatto una risata a mie spese. L’avrebbe raccontato a tutti.

Però non gliene parlai. Parlammo dei risultati della convention e di quanto mi ripromettevo di fare appena tornato in Italia, da cui ero mancato anche troppo. Gli impegni politici, le interviste, insomma, già la mia testa era altrove.

Lui solo sapeva, insieme a qualche altro membro dell’Ambasciata, che ero rimasto a Londra in incognito. Poi, mentre mi raccontava dell’eco che la convention aveva avuto, quasi casualmente mi chiese se avessi letto i giornali quella mattina. No, non li avevo letti.

<<Ti ricordi di quella buffa ragazza – insomma di quella donna – che faceva da interprete alla convention? Pare si chiamasse Elspeth qualcosa. Ieri sera si è gettata sotto un treno della metropolitana, sulla Piccadilly line. Dicono che non se ne conoscano le cause…>>

Elspeth? Mi sentii morire.

<<Ma che hai? Non la conoscevi mica. Sei così pallido. Non ti facevo tanto sensibile. E pensare che ti definiscono l’uomo di ghiaccio.>> Come avrebbe potuto capire?

Elspeth? Sotto il treno? Suicidio?

Farfugliai qualcosa su una faccenda urgente, cose da regolare per la partenza e mi congedai in fretta.

Sono un uomo distrutto. Non so darmi pace. Che ho fatto? Perché l’ho fatto? Non lo so. È la mia natura e non posso contrastarla. Ma poi, perché?

Però lei, che diamine, ha esagerato! Come poteva pensare davvero che io… ma no, non sarebbe stato possibile. La sola idea era assurda di per sé.

Eppure qualcosa per lei ho provato. È stata l’unica donna che non mi abbia fatto venire voglia di scoparla e ora mi rendo conto anche che, per tutto il tempo che sono stato con lei, non ho provato nessuno dei miei sensi di angoscia. Le mie paranoie… sparite in quei giorni con lei. Che sia questo l’amore?

E se lei mi avesse amato? In fondo l’ha fatto per me e questo è un segno, no?

Dunque come avevo sospettato. Una passionale. Come avrei potuto sbagliarmi.

È la mia natura…

Listen: Bacillus Anthracis (read in Italian)

Translator’s Notes: Diano’s “Bacillus Anthracis”

I first met Francesca Diano while I was on a fellowship at the Cini Foundation, in Venice. I was researching Diego Valeri, a poet of the Italian Novecento who is also a great-great uncle. I learned that Francesca had known him when she was a child. I emailed, then Skyped, and when I finally got to Venice, I met her at an outdoor cafe. We spent two very pleasant hours chatting about poetry, gelato, and Irish folklore.

It was 2016. I had not yet tried my hand at translation. My memory on how it began is a little vague, but I do remember that Francesca asked me if I was translating Diego Valeri’s poetry. I said I wasn’t, and when I began to enumerate my reasons, she reached out to pat my hand: “No, no, no, no. You have to translate,” she cut in, “so you can improve your Italian.” She laughed a deep, warm laughter that was contagious, and I knew we were friends.

So I began to translate, first, Diego Valeri, then Francesca Diano, doing so to test my fluency with Italian, but also my writing as an American author. What I found was both disconcerting and illuminating: working with other writers’ style and voice, I had to wrestle with the nuances of the English language at a level that I would have never pushed myself to learn had I continued to write only my own work.

Language is a product of culture, and culture is a complex composite of factors involving the history of a people and how that informs their attitudes, their values, their social interactions, and more, the cadences and rhythms of daily speech, the idioms, the proverbs, or that fleeting allusion to a popular event. There is also the author’s experience, their vision and style to account for. A translator needs to convey that texture in every sentence, and make it flow as if it had been written in the translated language in the first place. It’s a process I can only describe as culture negotiation.

“Bacillus Anthracis” is ironically a story that hinges on cultural negotiations and on cultural myths. It revolves around contemporary seduction rituals that will likely seem familiar to North-American readers. But Elspeth is English and Valerio is Italian and they each carry a different set of expectations on account of their respective background. Those expectations, at least for the main character, end up becoming an excuse for appalling misbehavior.

I was interested in translating the story because of the correlation between Valerio’s seductions with the mechanism of infection characterizing the story’s eponymous virus. I was intrigued by the idea of sexual predations as a kind of contagion. I do not mean to endorse the “Italian stallion” myth, nor to stereotype sexism as a foregone Italian trait - just as there was a Silvio Berlusconi, so there was a Harvey Weinstein. However, there does still linger in the social texture of this otherwise enlightened culture the ghost of an ancient patriarchal mindset that refuses to be exorcized, more complex and nuanced than any stereotype or myth.

Valerio is certainly not typically Italian, but his value judgments of Elspeth’s style of clothes, for instance, which he obsessively revisits throughout the story, does reflect an Italian emphasis on aesthetics and style that, though not sexist per se, can nonetheless contribute to the challenge women face in being taken seriously. Valerio is not just dismissive towards women - he also devalues the English, his electorate, and his colleagues, yet those biases have a different pitch than the one he reserves for Elspeth and women in general. Embedded, as they are, in a timbre of expression or a casual turn of phrase, those nuances can all too easily be lost in translation.

I am fortunate that I am able to consult with the author in English. Francesca Diano is the official translator of Irish poet James Harpur and of Indian novelist Anita Nair. Diano’s fluency in English and experience in translation is a tremendous advantage, but it can also be a challenge. If I prioritize connotation over denotation, or idiom over literal meaning to make the translation flow, I know to prepare my case and be ready to defend it. We go back and forth, sometimes for days, over such things as whether viscous or slimy is the better word for the context. Sometimes she convinces me. Sometimes she is the one to throw up her hands. “It’s a nightmare to translate a translator’s work,” she admits, in good humor.

But what really tests my meddle is the vast, eclectic knowledge that permeates Diano’s writing. Francesca is the daughter of Carlo Diano, an illustrious Italian philosopher and critic. The people who frequented her childhood home, as she put it, were “the intellectual aristocracy of Europe” - actors, composers, politicians, archeologists…a veritable who is who of the “novecento.” As a result, Francesca published her first poems at age ten. In her twenties she studied at Oxford on a scholarship, worked as a librarian at the Courtauld Institute, and gave lectures on medieval manuscript illustrations at the Italian Institute. She eventually became a leading expert in Irish folklore and was invited to teach at the University of Cork in Ireland. These days, she curates her father’s writings for a volume published by Fordham University Press.

No wonder every story sends me searching for an architectural style, or a pattern or stitch point in Venetian needlework, for an undergarment worn by Italian noble women in the early 1800’s, for the details of a symphonic theory of composition, or for the savory treat original to Puglia. To be the translator for such an erudite mind is daunting, but also elevating. Diano is an astute observer of human character whose wisdom transcends time and geography even as her stories recreate those places in time with admirable precision. I hope that my work will successfully convey the depth and magnitude of her talent.

Translator's Bio

Laura Valeri is an award-winning author of three story collections and a book of linked literary essays on the environment. Her books have won the Iowa Fiction Prize, the Binghamton University John Gardner Award in Fiction, and nominations for Best Of the Net. Laura Valeri's most recent book is After Life as a Human, a nominee selection for a Georgia Author of the Year award in memoir. She has an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University. She is the founding editor of Wraparound South, a literary journal, and she teaches at Georgia Southern University.

Francesca Diano


FRANCESCA DIANO is a poet, writer, literary translator, and consultant for leading Italian publishers, with more than 30 book-length translations by bestselling English, Indian, Irish and American writers, and poets. She’s the official Italian translator of the Irish poet James Harpur and of the best-selling Indian author Anita Nair. In 2012 Diano was awarded the Premio Teramo, the most important Italian literary Prize for short stories. She is the author of Fiabe D’Amor Crudele, (Tales of Cruel Love) a short story collection published in 2013 with Edizioni La Gru, and La Strega Bianca – una storia irlandese, (The White Witch: An Irish Tale), published in 2016, by Carteggi Letterari Edizioni. Her short stories and poetry appear in numerous anthologies and literary journals. Her newest collection of poetry, Bestiario, is illustrated by Patrizia da Re, and was published by Nerocromo Edizioni in 2017. Francesca Diano lives in Padua, Italy, with her two daughters.

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Translated by Todd Portnowitz

What’s nice about remembering is it has no end.
Things forgotten come from all directions,
and every spatial movement contradicts
all you have to say on sleep or disappearance,
and affirms that nothing comes back as it was.

The trip you’re dreaming of is the shadow of another,
hidden or forgotten, with no trace left.
Your dreams interrogate you: were you really there?
Was that a fountain, you saw, or a city square?

Did you invent your memories?
Do you mourn invented memories?

Il bello del ricordare è che non ha mai fine.
Il dimenticato viene da ogni direzione,
e ogni spostamento spaziale contraddice
tutto quello che dici sul sonno e sulla sparizione,
e ricorda che niente torna mai uguale.

Il viaggio che sogni è l’ombra di un altro,
nascosto o dimenticato, di cui non c’è traccia.
I sogni ti interrogano: ci sei stata davvero?
C’era una fontana, lì, oppure una piazza?

Hai inventato i ricordi?
Rimpiangi ricordi inventati?

It’s true, you can’t leave it up to nature,
but nor should you disturb volcanoes.
They can, if they want, spit up
that slaver of fire they’re famous for
or a wall of mud and methane sixty feet high,
which on a good day can keep rising
and bury a family of three.
There are places that are not as they appear,
falsely harmless like these hills,
or those islands that show up
and disappear within a week,
fertile ground for fata morganas and perfect ruses.

È vero, della natura non ti puoi fidare,
ma non dovresti nemmeno disturbare i vulcani.
Potrebbero, se vogliono, emettere
quella bava di fuoco per cui sono famosi
oppure un muro di metano e fango alto venti metri
che nelle belle giornate può sollevarsi
e seppellire una famiglia di tre persone.
Ci sono luoghi che non sono come appaiono,
fintamente inermi come queste colline,
o quelle isole che compaiono all’improvviso
e spariscono dopo una settimana,
terreno per fate morgane e inganni perfetti.

I’m no longer at the story’s center
and the threads that tied me to things,
the ones I spelled out in alphabetical order—
b for book, an enormous s for sea
the dream of swimming, of starting a raging fire,
Ingrid Bergman in Stromboli, since we’re speaking of mirrors—
seemed to tie me firmly to the world
but in truth had been snapped by a stronger force
and I’m left here sleeping deeply
the deep sleep of one who’s no one anymore.

Non sono più al centro della storia,
e i fili che mi legavano alle cose,
quelle che compitavo in ordine alfabetico:
l per libro, m grandissimo mare
il sogno di nuotare, quello di accendere un gran fuoco,
Ingrid Bergman a Stromboli, visto che parliamo di specchi,
sembravano legarmi saldamente al mondo,
invece sono stati strappati da una forza più forte
che mi fa dormire profondo,
profondo come dorme chi non è più nessuno.

Having no memories has its advantages:
I can kiss you like I did the day I met you,
tell you the future and not be believed,
erase the evidence of every past that isn’t ours.

Non avere ricordi ha dei vantaggi:
posso baciarti come il giorno che ti ho conosciuto,
dirti il futuro e non essere creduta,
cancellare i segni di ogni storia che non sia la nostra.

You couldn’t even call it a sea, this oversized pond
connecting Motya to the land. More than any other island
this one belongs to the dead, and the dead advise caution.
The boat crossing it now must cross with care
on just two feet of water, it might run aground
at any moment, remember, we couldn’t protect
Bianca from the sun, and yet we were fearless,
beneath the skin of the sea we could make out the road
built for wagons—you can cross it at low tide,
and even though the water tries blurring the tracks
you can still feel what it’s like, bringing food to the dead.

Non può nemmeno dirsi mare, il tratto di stagnone
che collega Mozia alla terra. Più di ogni altra isola
questa appartiene ai morti, e i morti raccomandano prudenza.
La barca che lo attraversa deve procedere con cautela
su cinquanta centimetri di fondale, a ogni istante
può incagliarsi, ricordi, non riuscivamo a proteggere
Bianca dal sole, e tuttavia non avevamo paura,
sotto la pelle del mare potevamo vedere la strada
costruita per i carri, con la bassa marea si può attraversare,
e anche se il mare tenta di confondere le tracce
puoi sapere com’è, portare da mangiare ai morti.

With Persephone, the other characters involved
are all strong-willed. They know they’ll have no trouble
getting what they ask for. The earth is weak,
and the young girl, too, is weak. Both would like
to shirk their destiny, which is the opposite of happiness.

The earth is powerless in appearance.
Even this December day, I cross it in a hurry,
tracking the evidence down that nothing
exists here anymore, not our perfect history,
not even the heroes we knew.

In Pergusa, the lake is hidden behind a racetrack.
Even if it wanted, it couldn’t tell me the secret I’m after.

I forgot her name, the woman who could perform
the ritual and free me of the child’s curse,
giving him to me, or stripping him from me entirely.
You’ll get everything you wish for, says the evangelist,
your species will live on in eternity, even though we can’t say where.
The place we’ve always reserved for you

is bigger and more harmonious than you hoped
though don’t assume that some day all the threads
will weave together into one, and even the child
won’t say a word to you. Even if you look him in the eyes,
he’ll never tell you which way to go.

Nel caso di Proserpina, i personaggi del dramma
hanno volontà molto forti, e sanno che otterranno
facilmente quello che chiedono. La terra è debole,
ed è debole anche la fanciulla. Entrambe vorrebbero
fare a meno del destino, che è il contrario della felicità.

La terra in apparenza non ha forza.
Anche oggi che è dicembre, la attraverso in fretta
per inseguire l’evidenza del fatto che qui
non c’è più niente, non la storia perfetta,
e nemmeno gli eroi che conoscevamo.

A Pergusa il lago è nascosto da un autodromo.
Neanche se volesse, potrebbe dirmi il segreto che cerco.

Ho dimenticato il nome della donna che potrebbe farmi il rito
e liberarmi dalla maledizione del bambino,
dandomelo, o togliendomelo del tutto.
Avrete tutto quello che chiederete, dice l’evangelista,
la vostra specie vivrà in eterno, anche se non sappiamo dirvi dove.
Il luogo che da sempre vi abbiamo assegnato

è più grande e armonico di ciò che avete sperato
ma non crediate che tutte le storie si riuniranno
prima o poi in una sola, e anche il bambino
non vi dirà niente. Anche se lo guarderete negli occhi,
non vi dirà mai la direzione.

I write you from here, from a city built with toil
of which no outposts remain, no neighborhoods or villas,
only the plot of land measured centuries ago
by architects who came expressly to give life
to the dream of the perfect city. And of this aspiration
no trace remains, only contours forming a line back from the sea,
and you know that, here, perfection entrenched itself,
burying newborns in vessels and making sacrifices
for the coming of another time. Who would believe
another city once existed here, that men outdid themselves
in a race to destroy it, and that the sea has not yet
swallowed the utopia’s remains

Ti scrivo da qui, da una città costruita con fatica
di cui non restano avamposti, quartieri o ville,
ma solo la misura dello spazio tracciata secoli fa
da architetti che vennero apposta per realizzare
il sogno della città perfetta. Di questa speranza
non restano tracce adesso, vedi, solo linee che si accodano
al mare, e tu sai che la perfezione si era arroccata qui,
seppellendo i neonati nei vasi e facendo sacrifici
per l’avvento di un altro tempo. Chi crederebbe
che qui è esistita un’altra città, che gli uomini hanno fatto
a gara per distruggerla, e che il mare non ha ancora
inghiottito ciò che resta dell’utopia?

In Chernobyl, after the evacuation, vehicles
sat parked for ages in the street. Rust is in no hurry,
children grew up haphazardly, in times of war
no one can demand attention. In a matter of days
all was liquidated, a sprint to escape the cloud.
Why bother cultivating the arts of the past,
the classical modes, when the earth is dying?
There’s no consensus, though, about what to do with the ruins,
no one thought of stripping the old houses
of their furniture, the mattresses and bottles.
Wild boars and lynxes run many risks,
but they can always return to their prey,
the forest makes a silence that speaks the truth,
the animals remember man, but not precisely,
the categories were muddled in the exclusion zone,
in no time, the leaves changed their shape and color.
The world is waiting to become another world.

A Chernobyl, dopo l’evacuazione, i veicoli
sono rimasti a lungo sulla strada. La ruggine non ha fretta,
i bambini venivano su come capitava, in tempo di guerra
nessuno può pretendere attenzione. In pochi giorni
tutto è stato liquidato, una rincorsa a fuggire la nube.
A che serve coltivare le arti del passato,
i gesti classici, quando la terra muore?
Non c’è accordo, invece, su cosa fare delle rovine,
nessuno ha pensato a liberare le vecchie case
dai mobili, i materassi e le bottiglie.
Il cinghiale e la lince corrono molti rischi,
ma possono sempre tornare dalla preda,
la foresta fa un silenzio che dice la verità,
gli animali ricordano l’uomo, ma in modo confuso
le categorie si sono mescolate nella zona d’esclusione
ben presto le foglie hanno cambiato forma e colore.
Il mondo sta aspettando di diventare un altro mondo

Whatever it was, an event took place here
they brought a stone, one day
set down in the middle of the village, it cast a strange light, a sound, some said
a sound near dawn, when no one could hear it
we’ve changed, and so we left
none of us could go on bearing the weight of our shadow
the weight of being who we are, our mothers
have heavy breasts, they speak softly
at night we utter words, alone, in narrow beds
what can the healers do for us, there are so many of them here
the stone is still there, our shadow is still too dark
if we make love, nothing happens, we pair off
with others just like us, dry like us
what do they know, our mothers, about our attempts to escape
the grass grows thick at the edge of the village, there’s a waterless lake
there are manholes with no covers, there’s no water
not even the sort that could quench the thirst of frogs
we go there in the late afternoon, we wave from our cars
hoping no one sees us, the priest, the teacher
our escape plans are ready, we need only perfect them
we’ll climb over the stone, we’ll lick the salt from our cheeks
like children, we’ll leave our shadows on the ground.

A Nicolò

Qualunque cosa fosse, qui è accaduto un evento
hanno portato una pietra, un giorno
deposta in mezzo al paese, faceva una strana luce, secondo altri un rumore
un rumore verso l’alba, quando nessuno poteva sentirla
siamo cambiati, per questa ragione siamo partiti
nessuno di noi riusciva più a sopportare il peso della sua ombra
il peso di essere noi, le nostre madri
hanno seni pesanti, parlano a bassa voce
la notte diciamo parole, da soli, nei letti stretti
cosa possono fare per noi le guaritrici, qui ce ne sono tante
la pietra è ancora lì, la nostra ombra è ancora troppo scura
se facciamo l’amore non succede niente, ci accoppiamo
con quelli come noi, asciutti come noi
che ne sanno le nostre madri di quando proviamo a scappare
ai limiti del paese ci sono erbe folte, c’è un lago senz’acqua
ci sono fogne senza coperchi, non c’è acqua
nemmeno quella che potrebbe dissetare le rane
ci andiamo il pomeriggio tardi, ci strofiniamo gli uni sugli altri
ci rintaniamo in macchina, ci salutiamo dalle macchine
speriamo che non ci veda nessuno, il prete, la maestra
i nostri progetti di fuga sono pronti, dobbiamo solo perfezionarli
scavalcheremo la pietra, ci leccheremo il sale dalle guance
come bambini lasceremo le ombre a terra.

Translator's Bio:

Todd Portnowitz is the translator of Go Tell It to the Emperor: The Selected Poems of Pierluigi Cappello, Long Live Latin by Nicola Gardini, and The Greatest Invention by Silvia Ferrara, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in March 2022. He is the recipient of a Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, and a co-founder of the Us&Them reading series for writer-translators and of the Italian poetry blog, Formavera.

Marilena Renda

Marilena Renda was born in Erice in 1976 and lives in Bologna, where she teaches English. Her books include Bassani, Giorgio. Un ebreo italiano (Gaffi 2010), Ruggine ( ( press 2012), Arrenditi Dorothy (L’orma 2015), La sottrazione (Transeuropa 2015), Regali ai fantasmi (Mesogea 2017), Fate morgane (L'Arcolaio 2020) and Fuoco degli occhi (Aragno 2022). Ruggine was a finalist for the Delfini Prize in 2009 and the Carducci Prize in 2013, and La sottrazione won the 2019 Bologna in Lettere Prize.

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