Four Poems Translated by Steven Heighton

The following poems are translations by Steven Heighton. The first, "Like a Man", is from The Address Book.  The other three are from his collection Patient Frame.

Enough of this useless moping, Catullus,
it’s over, write it off.  Back then
when she was yours, the sun always shone
and you were on her like the sun,
insatiable, as she was, and she’ll
never have it so good again.
Always at her heels, her side, or
inside her, Catullus, and that was
fine, whatever you wanted she wanted
and the sun—there’s no denying it—
always shone.
                       Now she’s changed, gone cold,
and you’ll have to be the same—
not pitiful, like this, no whiner, idler,
sorry stalker, tavern fixture.
Take it like a man.  So here’s so long.
When Catullus makes up his mind, girl,
that’s it.  He won’t come haunting
your doorway, nights, like love’s hunched
beggar . . . but then again, who will?
Your nights will be as cold as his!
How will that suit you for a life?
Who’ll come to see you then?  Who
flatter you on your looks, give you
what he gave you all the time, and
take you around, kiss you,
be your fan?  And you, girl—
who are you going to kiss, 
yes, and bite. . .? 
                              Ah, Catullus,
enough, you know it’s over.
And you’re taking it like a man.

Jorge Luis Borges

I stand guilty of the worst sin any man
can commit.  I’ve failed to be happy. 
Let the glaciers of oblivion
bear me off and bury me—no pity.
My parents gave me breath so I could leap     
bare into life’s daring, gorgeous game, and savour
the earth: its rivers, winds and anthered fire.     
I’ve defrauded them.  I wasn’t happy.  The hopes
of their joining lie squandered, my mind given
to such sterile symmetries as these careful
lines—High Art, weaving trifles from trifles.
They bequeathed me courage.  I was craven.
Yet I’m not alone, for it’s always close by me,
this shadow of having been a man of sighs. 

J. E. Villalta

When I came
without Senna, her name
surprised me, surging from
my throat and tongue—

how I loved the shadows under Senna’s eyes.

And her thighs
clamped round my ears
so that her flesh, for an hour,
shut out the world, I

loved the shadows under Senna’s eyes.

And our mutely sung
duet of tongue
on tongue, not in staved
harmony but unison—how I loved

the shadows under Senna’s eyes!

Now with Senna gone, my mind feigns
calm, but body runs
in sleep to find her,
as if not yet resigned, nor ever—
how I loved the shadows under
Senna’s eyes!

Gale-borne toward new shorelines forever
in the harbourless night, without pause, washed away—
on this ocean of ages, why may we never
         drop anchor for a single day?

Now the crewmen sit to their oars in order and slip
the cable from the bollard hole and heave backwards
so their oarblades chop at the swell and churn up water
while over the captain sweet sleep irresistibly
falls so fathomless and sound it might almost be the sleep  
of death itself.  And the ship like a team of stallions
coursing to the crack of the lash with hoofs bounding
high and manes blown back foamlike off the summits of waves
lunges along stern up and plunging as the riven
rollers close up crashing together in her wake
and she surges on so unrelenting not even a bird
quick as the falcon could have stayed abreast. . . .
So she leaps on splitting the black combers bearing
a man who has suffered years of sorrow and turmoil
until his heart grew weary of scything a path home
through his enemies, or the furious ocean. . . .

A song I can shape you—           my story of sailing
and travel sing truly—           how often outlasting
struggle and hardship,             heart-straining days
I bitterly abided              and bore, in my sorrow,
full cargos of cares.              I’ve known my hull cumbered
while surf in its seizures            clawed at the ship’s prow
so I on the nightwatch           was often tormented.
As we pitched athwart cliffs             I, fettered by hoarfrost
and clamped to the deckboards,              my feet in ice shackles,
felt only my heart hot            with fear seething round it
while hunger gnawed outward            consuming both body
and seawearied soul.          
                                              Landsmen know little
of their luck not to sail here,             to rest on the shoreline,
while I, raked by sorrows           on the icewater sea,
must outweather winters            in regions of exile,
by kin uncompanioned,           where icicles dangle           
and hail drives like iron,           with nothing to hear except     
seas in their heaving              and the glacier wave.    
At times the swan’s wail
I hold to my heart now;             in lieu of men’s laughter
the clangour of gannets             and curlew for laughter;         
the mewing of seagulls          for the drinking of mead.

At sea, storms hallowed my night-watches with joy;
lighter than a cork I danced over waves known
as the unceasing rollers of drowned men, ten
nights, never missing the vapid eyes of the quay-

lanterns in port.  Sweet as the tart flesh of green
apples to a child, the salt water seeped through my
pinewood hull, rinsed splotches of vomit and cyan wine
clean off me, tore my anchor and rudder away.

And ever since that time I’ve bathed in the poem
of the sea, steeped and milky with stars, guzzling
the green azures, where at times the ecstatic flotsam
of a drowned man, pale and pensive, will be sinking. . . .

But those journeys had no harbours.  As time passed
my crewmen seemed to merge with the oars—pulsing
dip and heft of oarlocked oars—their iced
or sun-seared features seeming to mirror                    
the painted prow’s stern features, while the waking
sea, athwart and astern, riled up by rudder                 
and sea-trowelling blade, gave back their likeness
too.  Man by man my Argonauts slipped to slumber,
left the benches empty.  Each now rests ashore,
his final berth there marked by his oar.

And no one remembers their names.  Justice.   


1: Alphonse de Lamartine; 2: Homer, from The Odyssey, Book XIII; 3: from The Seafarer (anonymous Anglo-Saxon), 4: Arthur Rimbaud, from Le Bateau Ivre; 5: George Seferis, from “Argonauts”.

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