Home > Poetry > Mandelstam Street and Other Apocryphal Territories
Translated from the Spanish by Cynthia Steele
Published: Mon Oct 25 2021
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 94 Journeys Politics Loss
Mandelstam Street and Other Apocryphal Territories

to Roberta Bacic Herzfeld,
dear teacher and pilgrim

to Diego Sebastián Amaru,
travel companion and guide on this journey


Foreign languages will be my envelope. . . .
     —Osip Mandelstam


But the poet is no more than a man,
simply a man,
and the most ordinary things must happen to him,
the most typical and common things
for his country and era,
that which awaits us all
and every one of us.
Not brilliance and horror
over individual destiny,
but that simple road
in droves and in herds.
     —Nadiezhda Yákovlevna Hazin


You aren’t saved from the abyss by the song
reflected in the stagnant waters.
The terse sky of night
is no refuge for your flat eyes.
If you’re walking down this street today
it is due to a simple error in the stars.
That radiance will erase your shadow
and one day you will no longer be mistaken.

You pinch the finger of your heart
and an island of blood spurts out,
a drop in the night staining
the transparent cough
of children at war.
You pinch your coppery finger
with the broken needle
you use for sewing flags.
Then your father
and mother come home
and feed you
the clouded meat of the cold.
The fever of time
brings warmth to your shadow,
while you search lying down
for stealthy justice on earth.

You haven’t yet died, you
are not yet alone.
The homeland of exile is a bush
growing slowly
under the sun of another planet.

We feel winter in the belly,
no longer able to bite
—with vain, polished pride—
the grass, bark, and rocks
along the harsh roads of the diaspora.
Poetry has left
wrinkles around our eyes and on our tongues,
a tiny egg wrapped in a handkerchief,
and smoke from the train departing
toward the gray snows of Revolution.
But growing old is nothing new
and traveling alone is a way
—among so many others—
of imagining fresh landscapes,
while tall guardians escort us
down long, chilly platforms
toward a new happiness.

To conserve the poet, isolate poetry.
To conserve mourning, isolate cemeteries.
To conserve the body, isolate the scar.

Where are the stars sinking to
out of that vanquished blue sky?
Into the wound in your eyes
or into the vile ocean rain?
You’re forever holding a
half-smoked cigarette
and a notebook nibbled
by mice at night.
There are no more dead men here
for you to regale with your dreams.
The foundations of this house
are words without roots.

We have no more work, only fog
obscuring the turrets
of the afternoon.
We have no more guards, only specters
harvesting the moans
of insomniacs.

The ice that slows thinking
still cannot suspend
the deliberate white flight
of the cranes.

We have survived the cloning of terror,
we have survived the muse of fear
melting the snow and warming the nests
of hungry blackbirds.
Still we are left with long years
of tranquil misery, of one-way journeys
to an empty cave without fires or shadows.
We know for now—as we have always known—
that in the mobile home of the outlaw poet
the tutelary gods of ruin and the cross
stand guard serenely, in waking and in sleep.

On the green chalkboard of the dead is written
the sonorous surname of your Jewish lineage.
The bereaved are now listening to your poems,
bored to death
with official acts.

There may be nothing worse
than someone who seeks fame and glory
by writing poetry.
Dandies may be worse,
aroused by the destruction of the world,
contemplating it with delight
in modern works of art.
But no, no one can compete with
the disgruntled rhapsode
reading to us aloud
from his impassioned manuscripts,
at the olympic radiance of his words,
apparently ready
to assume his place of honor
in the luminous morgue
of eternity.

Behold, in the camps, patiently,
the storks flying over the snow,
headed late at night
for the red firmament in the east.
Listen to the mice in the tundra
mating in the frost-bitten weeds,
their eyes kindling hope
like suns devouring themselves.
Do not fall asleep now, prisoner,
keep watch on the steppe of insomnia
and sing to the future,
which lies there like a fossil
beneath ice hardened by the light.

Trees and poems will pass by
without a twinge of sorrow,
without a hint of glory,
just as the dead shooting stars
pass by us now
in the infallible night
of the polar desert.

The wind of a dying people
has more light
than the swift Kolymá River
fleeing from the snow.

We kill time, fending off cold and hunger
by whistling, in the shady afternoon,
untarnished military hymns
to no one’s triumph, to no one’s defeat.

There’s a book eroded by the sea
in the memory of your eyes.
In it albatrosses,
squawking over the cold radiance
of distant buoys, are laying their eggs.
A book that stains with its words
the stormy silence of waves,
while in your dream
hot whisperings of death
melt like clouds under the May sun.

Miracles of hunger in the prisoners’
fevered dreams
and an eye that bleeds
and scars over
in the darkness.

Those who were once frostbitten
will have a father caressing a tree.
Those who got lost in the snow
will find a river leading to new roads.
Those who have died of truncated love
will see birch trees lit up by the moon.
Those who tripped over their shadow
will pass through death
as if through a flower.

Pallid children come
and take shelter in my silence,
as if at the foot of a rainbow
beyond the southern hills.
There are no songs for you,
I murmur to them,
only the flight of the magpie
from the forest to your heart.

Someone should tremble before the fury
of that woman soaked by rain,
followed by lights that illuminate her
from invisible security booths.
Someone should notice
her worn white gloves, her overcoat,
red like a pubescent apple
under autumn’s futile sun.
Watch: the fog ripples her eyelashes,
dread blackens her long hair,
while crammed streetcars pass by
headed for the city’s north pole.

Poets and the truth
don’t come out in photos.
There’s a fog hiding them,
another light blurring them.
Poets and the truth
are swallowed up by clouds
and the torrential thaw
of angular lenses.
Don’t ever have
your photo taken with poets,
all you will find is dust
in the murky exposure
of museums and academies,
walls and cantinas,
forever lit in sepia
by an occasional sun.

I don’t know why
you’ve decided
you should be happy,
if the lily isn’t happy,
or the bird, or the cloud,
much less the rock
or the river water.
You walk down the nocturnal
street of the poem,
speaking to windows
and streetlights,
which only bear news
of other people’s happiness.
Keep calm,
light your cigarette,
and learn how to run around
your homeland of sweat,
fatigue, and sleep
with your senses trembling.

We’ve already spoken too much
about death,
now we need to let
the cemeteries warm up,
let the light play its part
amid the gravestones and fallen leaves.
For years we have sought consolation,
the least sign
amid the memorial flowers.
Swollen with memories
and with tears,
we have barely registered the news
of new births.
The children have grown up,
become adults
walking tirelessly
through the canyons of the world.
And suddenly they’ve returned
expecting to find a place
in the deep roots
of our eyes.
Our ancient memory
has opened its doors.
We have seen moss in the windows,
horses grazing in the weeds,
the moon passing
over frozen puddles.
Time, compassionate,
has formed a new torrent
in the wide, gentle
mountain streams.

You grew up like everyone else,
turning, day and night,
toward your mother’s shadow,
fleeing like a wolf
from your father’s
burning hand.
Then you took the city by storm,
claiming its women,
killing small, unsleeping animals
with your weapons.
The blood ran under the bridges,
its light inebriating
the few fish
that still swam there, without ever touching
the cold, cruel sand.
You have lashed bell towers
to the wings of birds.
You have turned time into
a naked stone,
then sold it
to the highest bidder.
Now you are growing old
thinking about nothing,
watching the bald
dancing hills.
I creep into your house
in the afternoons
and watch you sleeping,
the solitary flower of dementia
growing endlessly
out of your dreams.

I emerge from this dream
as if from a storm,
soaked by the countless years
when birds
twittered for no one.
Do you know where the thrush goes to die,
the gray pigeon,
the blackbird of swift darkness?
They collapse into the lines of my hands,
erasing my luck
and my destiny.

Pay no attention to my praise,
beloved, memorious one,
don’t listen to bald complaints
flung at the night.
I should know, I wrote them
on the way from city to city,
during intervals left by exile
in my heart.
My whole horizon
was that secret book,
read against the smoke
of an imperial convoy.
The snow, ever vigilant,
and the faithful gaze of the people
sealed our love story
of prison and old age.
Not for a second
should you accept my words
written with what is left
of a white nation.
Now there is no song capable
of offering us a new home
when the poem trembles
from panic and from thirst.
And if my soul now
plows through your tongue, wounding it,
let it finally rest
in air devoid of light.

A woman fallen into disgrace
should safeguard her beauty
however she can.
That’s what I do, day by day,
with my eyes,
with my hair, veteran
of a thousand deportations,
with my skin blushed
by February’s frost.
I am the goldsmith of my body,
in the name of pain and justice
giving my relative’s memory
the indestructible face of love
in the blind Beyond.
No matter if I dress
in foul-smelling rags,
or if my braids
no longer shine
as in my graceful youth.
My face still must be
my hands a paragon of softness,
my voice the territory
of truthful, gentle words
like stork feathers
falling on the rooftops
of the snowy city.
A woman in disgrace
does not reconcile
love with harsh heroism
or with the victims’
pure, solemn arrogance.

She remains trapped
in the crimson of her lips,
in the fresh polish of her fingernails
and in her still pupils reflecting
the negated orchid of the future
after suffering and dying.

We offer coins to the blind
to pay for the spring sunshine
that makes us happy.
Flowers grow old cheerfully
on their way to the cemetery
and the dead believe they forget us
like children losing their toys
in the festive parks
of the great city.

To justify the day
filled with threats,
with pacts and love
merging with the wind.
Lord of paradise,
regardless of time and place,
justifying the day
under the sun or the cross.

No one here
knows how to read epitaphs anymore.
The clouds have been decrypted,
smoke from the ovens
offers a thousand visions
of dreams and prayers
traveling through the night
toward the Big Dipper.
The tombs are swept
toward the channel by snow
while woodcocks
squawk indifferently
in the southern desert.
No epitaphs are
read or
The frozen iris,
the subdued tongue
lead to guilt.

Yes, you never stilled
the genius of your hand,
the seed and the shadow,
delirium of the sun.
War is just a game
for children, you murmured,
music bestowed by
stones on the lute.
You slept like a pale
wolverine in the camps,
dreaming in your corner
about a sip of vodka.
Or perhaps with the crazy
girl who lent you
the air of a poem
in old Moscow.
They robbed you of a century
of apples and rain
and gave you wheat
sprouted in the snow.
Oh, goldfinch leaning
your head and your flight
toward monasteries
bereft of bells or flocks.

The workings of death are useless,
as goldfinches can attest,
coming through combat unscathed,
concealing in their throats
the words we spend day and night
writing for eternity.
Extinction is terrible and momentary.
Chickens are lost beneath bombs,
men on battlefields,
children in their parents’
horror stories,
brides’ love on the demented tail
of a falling star.
But everything is rebuilt amid the rubble,
time and again,
especially the words
of whispers and chants,
like invincible mushrooms
on the tongues of time and space,
like happy damnation amid laughter and tears,
in the clouds, in the peat,
in the beautiful, tireless eyes
of that infinite sweet
faithful death.

I meander down the Street
of the Falsifiers,
hoping that this time
will finally be freed of me.
I continue down the Path
of the Madmen and Assassins,
barely hanging onto
expansiveness and reason.
My destiny, as you warned me,
is infamous and distracted,
though on this red corner
the only thing falling is gray rain.

What will we be in the end, if not two
wild and wiry
masters of exile?
Every aim and every goal
like a warm afternoon.
Beyond this tense
and layered gloom,
you can make out another village
down the road.
That’s where you and I are headed,
like rats through a frozen forest
hotly pursued
by the invisible
feral beast.

I sing to the frog, caterpillar, stork,
I speak of the spruce tree swollen with squalls,
I dream about sexes, bridges, multitudes,
I fall into deep latrines of light.
I wander over ports, moors, steppes,
I dream in taverns, trains, hospitals,
I leave my footprint in village mud puddles,
I erase my tracks in the fields of the south.
I suck on my bones, marrow, cartilage,
I sip the blood of mad animals,
I lie on the hidden tongue of the flesh,
I offer still eyes to the fury of God.
I swallow saliva beside the cinerary,
I scrape my soul against the cathedrals,
I lift up my prayers in the wake of processions,
like unleavened bread before the cross.
I call on the worm, the cricket, the dove,
I swim in the dark river of their minds,
I caress the bones of the suffering horse,
I smell on him the urine of ancient kings.
I open the deserted book of history,
I peruse its broad black scriptures,
I step on the bones of the lean streets,
I burn my hands in the vain sun.

When mortal terror thickens
over the veiled earth,
we sing impotently
to our faithless native land.

The languages of the earth
spin painlessly,
dragged without glory
toward the insatiable graves
of the future.
Over the grass and in the wind,
wounded by the sullen brilliance
of the morning spotlights,
we learned how to crawl.
There is neither water nor meat,
not even tendon broth
in the broad camps
of liberation.
Like dark sentinels,
crushed by the snow
and the weight of our weapons,
we watch the morning stars.
There is no honor among us now,
neither on journeys
nor in poetry.
The world, comrades,
is too small
for the ardent, ferocious
fantasies of men.

See what's inside AGNI 94
Self-Portrait as Desert
Online 2024 Journeys Loss Translating
Letters to Omma—Reunion
Online 2023 Nature Loss Journeys
Tiger Mom
Online 2023 Journeys Family Loss
What Youth
Online 2023 Loss Journeys War

Jaime Luis Huenún, born in Valdivia, southern Chile, is an award-winning Mapuche-Huilliche poet whose six books include, most recently, La calle Maldestam y otros territorios apócrifos (2016) and Crónicas de la Nueva Esperanza / Chronicles of New Hope, forthcoming in a bilingual edition from Lom Ediciones in Santiago, Chile. He has won, among other awards, the Pablo Neruda Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Chilean National Council on Arts and Culture’s Best Work of Literature 2013, for Reducciones. He has also edited several anthologies of Mapuche and other Latin American Indigenous poetry, including Epu mari ülkatufe ta fachantü: 20 poetas mapuche contemporáneos (Lom, 2003). Two of his books are available in English translation: Port Trakl (Diálogos, 2008) and Fanon City Meu (Action Books, 2018). Huenún lives in Santiago, where he works in the Chilean Ministry of Culture’s Department of Intercultural Studies. (updated 10/2021)

Cynthia Steele’s translations include Inés Arredondo’s Underground Rivers and Other Stories(University of Nebraska Press, 1996), José Emilio Pacheco’s City of Memory and Other Poems (City Lights, 2001), and María Gudín’s Open Sea (Amazon Crossing, 2018). Her translations of Latin American authors have also appeared in Chicago Review, Gulf Coast, AGNI, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She is professor emerita of comparative literature at the University of Washington, Seattle. (updated 10/2021)
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