Egon Schiele: Ich bin Mensch, ich liebe / Den Tod und Liebe / Das Leben. “I am a Human Being – I love Death and Love – They are alive.”

ZP_Egon Schiele_Selfportrait_Male nude in profile_facing left_1910ZP_Egon Schiele_Selfportrait_Male nude in profile, facing left_1910


Strange Austrian “wunderkind” Egon Schiele was the son of a railroad station-master in Tulln and a mother from Krumau in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia). Schiele began to draw at the age of 18 months, and was disturbingly precocious when it came to early explorations of his own sexuality.  Schiele’s paintings and drawings are always – unmistakably – his, and the artist died on this day (October 31st) in 1918, at the age of 28.  One of the many millions who succumbed to the ineptly-named “Spanish Flu” pandemic which began in January 1918 – before the end of what was then known as The Great War – and lasted until December 1920 – Schiele’s art had had, even before the War, so much of Death about it – and yet also of Eros, and of Love. One of the artist’s own poems – and he did write a handful of them to accompany several canvases – states simply: Ich bin Mensch, ich liebe / Den Tod und Liebe / Das Leben. “I am a human being – I love Death and Love – they are alive.” Schiele’s wife Edith, six months pregnant, died of the “Spanish Flu” on October 28th, 1918, and Schiele, himself already extremely ill, made several sketches of her as she lay dying. He was gone just three days later.


Translators Will Stone and Anthony Vivis wrote, in an issue of The London Magazine: “In one of his untitled poems Schiele talks of a bird where ‘a thousand greens are reflected in its eyes’. That this was written by an artist of Schiele’s calibre infuses the image with added significance. Who but he could know the shade created by a thousand greens and hold it long enough to record? What matters is not literally that a thousand greens reflect in the bird’s eye, but the possibility that they could. The green of the eye is so overwhelming that in his determination to see truth above all else the precocious poet-artist has glutted himself with a thousand variations within a single colour. While admitting the impossibility of capturing the reality of nature – like a translator faced with a text which appears to defy intra-linguistic interpretation – Schiele takes up the challenge nevertheless. It is a microcosm of the artistic calling: proceeding with creation and conceding defeat at the same moment. The sense of precariousness, the constant wavering of the boundary between lucidity and excruciation, is perhaps why Schiele’s paintings score so deeply into us even today [April 2012].”


The Viennese, bourgeois-art-appreciating public had found Schiele’s un-pretty style and colour palette – often there were grey-green hues for skin, as if the living were putrefying – and his candid, awkward-limbed sexuality / unflattering poses / the angst *of his nudes – difficult to look upon. Yet he was really a protoExpressionist who was leading the way for Expressionism** – that most powerful German artistic movement of the first quarter of the 20th century. Schiele’s influences were Vincent Van Gogh, “Art-Nouveau”, and Gustav Klimt – all from his boyhood – but it’s the poets, not visual artists, of the decade from 1910 forward, that explored – like Schiele was doing – similar discomfiting emotional and psychological “territories”. And so, we have placed a selection of their verses alongside poems of and images of paintings and drawings by Egon Schiele.


* Angst is a great-sounding word. It reached German – and English – via the Danish language and an 1844 treatise by the philosopher Kierkegaard. Angst means Existential anxiety or fear.

** German Expressionism – a definition from Ruth J. Owen:

A Modernist mode, mainly in the second decade of the 20th century; perspective of angst and absurdity; disturbing visions of downfall and decay; pathological world of the crippled and insane, and images of the city and war. ‘Aufbruch’ (an awakening or departure from) becomes ubiquitous – a new era; dislocated colour, shrill tone; the grotesque, deathliness and dissolution.”

.     .     .

Egon Schiele (1890-1918)

Ein Selbstbild” / “Self-Portrait” (1910)


Ich bin für mich und die, denen
Die durstige Trunksucht nach
Freisein bei mir alles schenkt,
und auch für alle, weil alle
ich auch Liebe, – Liebe


Ich bin von vornehmsten

Der Vornehmste

Und von Rückgebern

Der Rückgebigste


Ich bin Mensch, ich liebe

Den Tod und Liebe

Das Leben.

.     .     .

Egon Schiele



High vast winds turned my spine to ice
and I was forced to squint.
On a scratchy wall I saw
the entire world
with all its valleys, mountains and lakes,
with all the animals running around
shadows of trees and the patches of sun
reminded me of clouds.
I strode upon the earth
and had no sense of my limbs
I felt so light.

.     .     .



Hohe Grosswinde machten kalt mein Rückgrat
und da schielte ich.
Auf einer krätzigen Mauer sah ich
die ganze Welt
mit allen Tälern und Bergen und Seen,
mit all den Tieren, die da umliefen –
Die Schatten der Bäume und die Sonnenflecken erinnerten
mich an die Wolken.
Auf der Erde schritt ich
und spürte meine Glieder nicht,
so leicht war mir.

.     .     .

Egon Schiele

Music while drowning”


In no time the black river yoked all my strength
I saw the lesser waters great
and the soft banks steep and high.
Twisting I fought
and heard the waters within me,
the fine, beautiful black waters –
then I breathed golden strength once more.
The river ran rigid and more strongly.

.     .     .

Musik beim ertrinken”


In Momenten jochte der schwarze Fluss meine ganzen Kräfte.
Ich sah die kleinen Wasser gross
Und die sanften Ufer steil und hoch.
Drehend rang ich
und hörte die Wasser in mir,
die guten, schönen Shwarzwasser –
Dann atmete ich wieder goldene Kraft.
Der Strom strömte starr und stärker.


Egon Schiele’s poems: translations from the German © Will Stone and Anthony Vivis

ZP_Egon Schiele_Selfportrait with arm twisted above head_1910ZP_Egon Schiele_Reclining male nude_1911ZP_Egon Schiele_Composition with three male figures_Selfportrait_1911ZP_Egon Schiele_Male nude with a red loincloth_1914

.     .     .

Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945)

Oh, let me leave this world”


Then you will cry for me.
Copper beeches pour fire
On my warlike dreams.

Through dark underbrush
I crawl,
Through ditches and water.

Wild breakers beat
My heart incessantly;
The enemy within.

Oh let me leave this world!
But even from far away
I’d wander – a flickering light –

Around God’s grave.

.     .     .

O ich möcht aus der Welt”


Dann weinst du um mich.
Blutbuchen schüren
Meine Träume kriegerisch.

Durch finster Gestrüpp
Muß ich
Und Gräben und Wasser.

Immer schlägt wilde Welle
An mein Herz;
Innerer Feind.

O ich möchte aus der Welt!
Aber auch fern von ihr
Irr ich, ein Flackerlicht

Um Gottes Grab.

.     .     .

ZP_Egon Schiele_Sitzender weiblicher Akt_Female nude sitting_1914ZP_Egon Schiele_Death and the Maiden_1915ZP_Egon Schiele_Sitzende frau mit hochgezogenem knie_The model was Wally Neuzil born 1894 died 1917_Neuzil was a former model for Klimt and she became a Shiele model muse and loverZP_Egon Schiele_Reclining woman with green stockings_Adele Harms_1917ZP_Egon Schiele_Embrace_Lovers II_1917ZP_Egon Schiele_Edith  sterbend_Edith dying_October 28th 1918_the last drawing by Schiele

.     .     .

Gottfried Benn (1886-1956)


Braun wie Kognak. Braun wie Laub. Rotbraun. Malaiengelb.
D-Zug Berlin-Trelleborg und die Ostseebäder.
Fleisch, das nackt ging.
Bis in den Mund gebräunt vom Meer.
Reif gesenkt, zu griechischem Glück.
In Sichel-Sehnsucht: Wie weit der Sommer ist!
Vorletzter Tag des neuenten Monats schon!
Stoppel und letzte Mandel echzt in uns.
Entfaltungen, das Blut, die Müdigkeiten,
die Georginennähe macht uns wirr.
Männerbraun stürzt sich auf Frauenbraun:
Eine Frau ist etwas für eine Nacht.
Und wenn es schön war, noch für die nächste!
Oh! Und dann wieder dies Bei-sich-selbst-Sein!
Diese Stummheiten! Dies Getriebenwerden!
Eine Frau ist etwas mit Geruch.
Unsägliches! Stirb hin.’ Resede.
Darin ist Süden, Hirt und Meer.
An jedem Abhang lehnt ein Glück.
Frauenhellbraun taumelt an Männerdunkelbraun:
Halte mich! Du, ich falle!
Ich bin im Nacken so müde.
Oh, diser fiebernde süße
Letzte Geruch aus den Gärten.

Gottfried Benn

Express Train

Brown as cognac. Brown as leaves. Red-brown. Malayan yellow.
Express train Berlin-Trelleborg and the Baltic Sea resorts.
Flesh, that went naked.
Tanned to the very lips by the sea.
Deeply ripe, for Grecian pleasure.
And yearning for the scythe: how long the summer seems!
Almost the end of the ninth month already!
Stubble and the last almond thirst in us.
Unfoldings, the blood, the weariness,
The nearness of dahlias confuses us.
Man-brown hurls itself upon woman-brown:
A woman is something for a night.
And if it was good, for the next night too!
Oh, and then again this being by oneself!
These silences! This letting oneself drift!
A woman is something with fragrance.
Unspeakable. Dissolve. Reseda.
In her the south, shepherd and sea.
On every slope a pleasure lies.
Woman-light-brown reels towards man-dark-brown:
Hold me, dear; I’m falling.
I’m so weary at the neck.
Oh, this feverish sweet
Last fragrance blown from the gardens.



Translation from the German © Michael Hamburger

Gottfried Benn

Vor Einem Kornfeld

Vor einem Kornfeld sagte einer:
Die Treue und Märchenhaftigkeit der Kornblumen
ist ein hübsche Malmotiv für Damen.
Da lobe ich mir den tiefen Alt des Mohns.
Da denkt man an Blutfladen und Menstruation.
An Not, Röcheln, Hungern und Verrecken—
kurz: an des Mannes dunklen Weg.

Gottfried Benn

Before a Cornfield

Before a cornfield he said:
The fabled fidelity of cornflowers
is a fine motif for women painters,
but I prefer the profound opera of the poppy.
It makes you think of blood clots and menstruation.
Of suffering, spitting up, going hungry, kicking the bucket—
in short: of the murky path of man.



Translation from the German © SuperVert


Georg Heym (1887-1912)

Umbra vitae”


Die Menschen stehen vorwärts in den Straßen
Und sehen auf die großen Himmelszeichen,
Wo die Kometen mit den Feuernasen
Um die gezackten Türme drohend schleichen.

Und alle Dächer sind voll Sternedeuter,
Die in den Himmel stecken große Röhren.
Und Zaubrer, wachsend aus den Bodenlöchern,
In Dunkel schräg, die einen Stern beschwören.

Krankheit und Mißwachs durch die Tore kriechen
In schwarzen Tüchern. Und die Betten tragen
Das Wälzen und das Jammern vieler Siechen,
und welche rennen mit den Totenschragen.

Selbstmörder gehen nachts in großen Horden,
Die suchen vor sich ihr verlornes Wesen,
Gebückt in Süd und West, und Ost und Norden,
Den Staub zerfegend mit den Armen-Besen.

Sie sind wie Staub, der hält noch eine Weile,
Die Haare fallen schon auf ihren Wegen,
Sie springen, daß sie sterben, nun in Eile,
Und sind mit totem Haupt im Feld gelegen.

Noch manchmal zappelnd. Und der Felder Tiere
Stehn um sie blind, und stoßen mit dem Horne
In ihren Bauch. Sie strecken alle viere
Begraben unter Salbei und dem Dorne.

Das Jahr ist tot und leer von seinen Winden,
Das wie ein Mantel hängt voll Wassertriefen,
Und ewig Wetter, die sich klagend winden
Aus Tiefen wolkig wieder zu den Tiefen.

Die Meere aber stocken. In den Wogen
Die Schiffe hängen modernd und verdrossen,
Zerstreut, und keine Strömung wird gezogen
Und aller Himmel Höfe sind verschlossen.

Die Bäume wechseln nicht die Zeiten
Und bleiben ewig tot in ihrem Ende
Und über die verfallnen Wege spreiten
Sie hölzern ihre langen Finger-Hände.

Wer stirbt, der setzt sich auf, sich zu erheben,
Und eben hat er noch ein Wort gesprochen.
Auf einmal ist er fort. Wo ist sein Leben?
Und seine Augen sind wie Glas zerbrochen.

Schatten sind viele. Trübe und verborgen.
Und Träume, die an stummen Türen schleifen,
Und der erwacht, bedrückt von andern Morgen,
Muß schweren Schlaf von grauen Lidern streifen.

.     .     .

Georg Heym

Umbra vitae” (The Shadow of Life)


The people stand forward in the streets
They stare at the great signs in the heavens
Where comets with their fiery trails
Creep threateningly about the serrated towers.

And all the roofs are filled with stargazers
Sticking their great tubes into the skies
And magicians springing up from the earthworks
Tilting in the darkness, conjuring the one star.

Sickness and perversion creep through the gates
In black gowns. And the beds bear
The tossing and the moans of much wasting
They run with the buckling of death.

The suicides go in great nocturnal hordes
They search before themselves for their lost essence
Bent over in the South and West and the East and North
They dust using their arms as brooms.

They are like dust, holding out for a while
The hair falling out as they move on their way,
They leap, conscious of death, now in haste,
And are buried head-first in the field.

Yet occasionally they twitch still. The animals of the field
Blindly stand around them, poking with their horn
In the stomach. They lie on all fours
Buried under sage and thorn.

The year is dead and emptied of its winds
That hang like a coat covered with drops of water
And eternal weather, which bemoaning turns
From cloudy depth again to the depths.

But the seas stagnate. The ships hang
Rotting and querulous in the waves,
Scattered, no current draws them
And the courts of all heavens are sealed.

The trees fail in their seasonal change
Locked in their deadly finality
And over the decaying path they spread
Their wooden long-fingered hands.

He who dies undertakes to rise again,
Indeed he just spoke a word.
And suddenly he is gone. Where is his life?
And his eyes are like shattered glass.

Many are shadows. Grim and hidden.
And dreams which slip by mute doors,
And who awaken, depressed by other mornings,
Must wipe heavy sleep from greyed lids.




Heym translation © Scott Horton

.     .     .     .     .

ZP_Egon Schiele_photographed at the age of 24 by Anton Josef Trcka_1914ZP_Egon Schiele_photographed at the age of 24 by Anton Josef Trcka_1914


Images (paintings and drawings) featured here:

Egon Schiele_Selfportrait_Male nude in profile, facing left_1910

Egon Schiele_Selfportrait with arm twisted above head_1910

Egon Schiele_Reclining male nude_1911

Egon Schiele_Composition with three male figures_Selfportrait_1911

Egon Schiele_Male nude with a red loincloth_1914

Egon Schiele_Sitzender weiblicher Akt_Female nude sitting_1914

Egon Schiele_Death and the Maiden_1915

Egon Schiele_Sitzende frau mit hochgezogenem knie_The model was – possibly –  Wally Neuzil (1894 – 1917).  Neuzil was a former model for Gustav Klimt and she became Schiele’s model / muse / lover before his marriage to Edith Harms.

Egon Schiele_Reclining woman with green stockings_Adele Harms_1917

Egon Schiele_Embrace_Lovers II_1917

Egon Schiele_Edith sterbend_Edith dying_October 28th 1918_the last drawing by Schiele

.     .     .     .     .

Pumpkin-carving in Toronto / Hallowe’en’s origins in Samhain

ZP_Tallando calabazas en Toronto 1ZP_Tallando calabazas en Toronto 1A

Hallowe’en, in its contemporary North-American manifestation, owes as much to pop-culture notions of corpses, cannibals and zombies in B-movies – and to Michael Jackson’s 1983 music video for his “monster” hit-song Thriller – as it does to the murky past. So it can be difficult to recognize Hallowe’en as a festival that evolved out of a pre-Christian Celtic seasonal ritual – SamhainSamhain means, in Old Irish, “Summer’s end”. Around about October 31st all the harvest would’ve been gathered in, and the darker half of the year was beginning. The folk belief was that on that night of Samhain all spirits traveled easily back and forth between “our” world and the “other side of the veil” – making spiritual activity, including ‘visits’ from dead ancestors, and appearances by Aos Sí or “fairies” – who might enchant you or make malevolent mischief – particularly lively. The Aos Sí were respected and feared, and people appeased them with offerings of food and drink and with a portion of the crops. Pleasing the capricious Aos Sí meant that people and their livestock would survive the coming winter. The souls of the dead were also said to return to their homes, and so a place would be set for them at the board and a stool put for them by the fire. Ritual bonfires were built out of doors, and the flames allowed to go as high as they could go, in a kind of “imitative or suggestive magic”: that of the Sun and its power for growth and for keeping at bay the darkness and decay of winter. Flame, smoke and ash were believed to have both cleansing and protective strength. Candles were lit and placed on the window ledge and a hollowed-out turnip, magelwurzel or beet with a candle within would be set at the threshold to one’s cottage or hut.  By the 16th century “guising” began to appear in Scotland and Ireland. “Guising” meant going from house to house “in disguise” or in costume, and reciting verses or singing songs in return for food and drink – or a blessing; the origin is clear there for what we now call “trick or treating”. Many guisers went disguised as malevolent spirits or fearsome beings – both in imitation of the Aos Sí and to “frighten them back”. Some carried a candle-lit turnip with them in the dark – what we now might call a “jack-o-lantern”.  The Roman-Catholic Church in Ireland did – over the centuries – attempt to “disappear” Samhain into the religiously-sanctioned All Hallows Day which falls on November 1st, but, as academic folklorist Jack Santino has written: “The sacred and the religious are a fundamental context for understanding Hallowe’en – [certainly] in Northern Ireland – but there, as throughout Ireland, an uneasy truce exists between customs and beliefs associated with Christianity and those associated with religions that were Irish before Christianity arrived.”

19th-century Irish immigrants to the USA began to use that beautiful Native-American autumn vegetable – the pumpkin – for their jack-o-lanterns, and this made a brilliant adaptation of an old custom to a superior material!

ZP_Tallando calabazas en Toronto 2ZP_Tallando calabazas en Toronto 3ZP_Tallando calabazas en Toronto 4ZP_Tallando calabazas en Toronto 5ZP_Tallando calabazas en Toronto 6ZP_Tallando calabazas en Toronto 7ZP_Tallando calabazas en Toronto 8

Fearsome or funny, our pumpkins will frighten approaching spirits or charm them into laughter.  And so:  Kind spirits, come!  Baleful ones,  A-WAY!   Hard stone eyes, garlic eyes, drink-can tab eyes, money eyes:  these’ll do the trick.  Now let’s roast those pumpkin seeds!

Alicia Claudia González Maveroff: “Verdun”

ZP_Hojas de otoño_Toronto_Octubre de 2013

Alicia Claudia González Maveroff


And now that I’m going, now that I depart,
now that autumn will be my spring;
yes, now that I’m going, I know that for always

I will carry within me

this river, and this autumn red

in the pupil of my eye.
Well, now that I go, knowing that
tomorrow I journey through another river,

perhaps seeking that “bonanza” of calm

that rivers just don’t have because

they “walk fast – and keep moving…”;

in my soul the memory remains –

of the river, road, bridge;
those autumn colours – red, yellow –
painted among the trees.

had already loved before, long before,

many landscapes, blue skies, other trees…

But – here today –

I loved this river, this bridge and this road;

these trees – red and yellow –

painted by autumn.


(Toronto, Canada, 21-10-2011)

ZP_Hojas de otoño_Toronto_el 20 de octubre 2013

.     .     .


Y ahora que me voy, ahora que parto,
ahora que el otoño será mi primavera,
ahora que me voy, sé que por siempre,
seguro llevaré este río en mi memoria
y el rojo del otoño en mis pupilas.
Bien, ahora que me voy, sabiendo
que caminaré mañana en otro río,
tal vez lo haga buscando yo “la calma”
que el agua de los ríos no la tiene,
porque “caminan fuerte y siempre pasan”.
Más quedan en mi alma, los recuerdos,
el río, el camino, el puente
el rojo y amarillo del otoño,
pintado entre los árboles.
Yo ya había amado antes:
amé muchos paisajes, hace tiempo,
amé cielos celestes y otros árboles…
Pero hoy aquí, yo amé:
este rió, este puente, este camino
y estos árboles de rojo y amarillo
pintados en otoño…

(Toronto, Canadá, 21-10-2011)

.     .     .

Preguntamos al poeta: Que es el significado del título del poema?

Y ella nos dijo:

Te comento que el poema se llama “Verdun” por el barrio de Montréal, Québec.  Allí viví cuando visité Canadá y me enamoré de este país.  El poema lo escribí en Toronto, mientras paseaba, para dejárselo a la amiga que visité.  Esta es la historia de porque el nombre.  Caminábamos cerca del río San Lorenzo, en Verdun, mirando el río, pasábamos por un puente rojo y gris y los árboles otoñales estaban pintados de rojo y amarillo, como describo en el poema.  En el final del mismo dice “…yo ya había amado antes: amé muchos paisajes hace tiempo, amé cielos celestes y otros árboles…”

Aquí hago referencia a otro sitio, en la otra punta del mapa; hablo de otro río – el “Bug” en Polonia, donde he estado muchas veces (es uno de “mis sitios en el mundo” – y tengo algunos otros en mi corazón.)  Allí también caminaba junto al río, en la campiña polaca, cerca de hermosos bosques y con bellos cielos, casas campesinas con techos negros de paja (algo bellisímo), diferente para mí que vivo en Buenos Aires, en el “Fin del Mundo” (como dice el Papa Francisco.)  Pero ya entonces mis amigos polacos me decían que yo venia “del fin del mundo”, aunque al estar allí en Polonia, yo en broma les decía que yo estaba visitando “el fin del mundo…”  Te confieso que no he encontrado el fin del mundo, por más que recorro no logro hallarlo.  Curiosamente, el nombre de este río polaco que llega desde Rusia a Polonia quiere decir Dios, tal vez sea Él quien me lleve por estos lugares…¿?  Lo cierto es que son lugares que están en mí por lo que he podido experimentar…

.     .     .

We asked the poet to talk about the name of her poem – Verdun. Here’s what Alicia told us:

Verdun is after the Montreal borough of the same name. I lived there when I visited Canada – and fell in love with the country. The poem itself I wrote in Toronto, while passing through, to leave for the friend I’d visited. … So, in Montreal (Verdun) we were walking alongside the St. Lawrence River and we passed by a red and grey bridge, and there were autumn trees with leaves all yellow and red. After seeing this there came into my mind these words: “I had already loved before, long before, many landscapes, blue skies, other trees…” I was thinking then of another place, another point, on the map, and another river – the River “Bug” in Poland. I’ve been there many times – it’s one of my special places in this world – and I have a few others, too, in my heart. So I was walking along the “Bug”, in the Polish countryside, close to lovely woods, and a pretty sky overhead, and the rural houses with their black straw roofs – something so beautiful – and quite different for someone like me who lives in Buenos Aires (at “the End of the Earth”, as Pope Francis says.) I confess that I’ve yet to encounter “the End of the Earth”; as much as I’ve traversed the globe I haven’t attained such a feat! Oddly, the name of that Polish river – “Bug” – that flows between Russia and Poland – is supposed to mean “God”…and maybe it’s He who carries me to all these various places…? One thing’s certain: these places are “within me”, too, and I’ve been able to experiment with them…”

.     .     .

Translations from Spanish into English:  Alexander Best

ZP_Hojas de otoño en Toronto

.     .     .     .     .

Norval Morrisseau – Shaman-Artist: Armand Garnet Ruffo’s “Man Changing into Thunderbird (Transmigration), 1977”

Norval Morrisseau_Man Changing into Thunderbird_1977_panel 1 of 6

ZP_Norval Morrisseau_Man Changing into Thunderbird_1977_panel 1 of 6


I am a Shaman-Artist. My paintings are icons. That is to say: they are images which help focus on spiritual powers generated by traditional beliefs and wisdom.”   (Norval Morrisseau)


In the course of writing Man Changing Into Thunderbird, a book about the life of the acclaimed Ojibway artist Norval Morrisseau, I found that his art moved me in such a manner that a natural and spontaneous response to it was to write poetry. Initially, I thought that I would write a few ekphrastic poems based on some of the paintings that I admired most and I thought gave insight into the artist. And because the poems are based on specific paintings, which for the most part are dated, I also figured that the inclusion of the poems would provide a time frame that would help ground potential readers. However, as I learned more about Morrisseau’s life and immersed myself in the paintings, more poems appeared. What did these paintings mean to him, and what do they mean to us, the viewers? My plan was to include all the poems in the one book, but as the poems increased I realized that due to length there were far too many to include them all. I also realized that I had a complete book of poetry. The Thunderbird Poems includes all the poems that I wrote during this period of study and contemplation on the art of Norval Morrisseau. The piece below, “Man Changing Into Thunderbird (Transmigration), 1977”, is excerpted from The Thunderbird Poems.


Armand Garnet Ruffo

.     .     .

Norval Morrisseau said that for the longest time he dreamed of doing something great. In 1976 he joins the Eckankar “new age” movement in an attempt to stop drinking, and moves to Winnipeg. While there he plunges into a six panel painting with complete confidence that speaks to his genius.

Man Changing Into Thunderbird (Transmigration), 1977

Though he has had no idea how to squeeze the essence of the story onto canvas from the first time he hears it he wants to paint it. But how to go about it? The question haunts him, dangles in front of him, gets caught in the dream-catcher web of a spider, escapes through a hole in the night sky and slides down a path of owl feathers into the world of myth and creation.


The story says there were seven brothers. One day

the youngest Wahbi Ahmik

went hunting and met a beautiful woman

named Nimkey Banasik.

They fell in love at first sight

and the young warrior took her home to his wigwam

where they lived as man and wife

and were happy.

All the brothers cherished her except one

Ahsin, the oldest,

Who felt only hatred for her.


The idea grows inside him the way a butterfly grows inside a chrysalis. Except it is not about a butterfly, it is about a thunderbird and, more, about a whole way of being, about perception and belief. When it finally cracks open, or rather he cracks it open, the idea is so large he knows instinctively it will be one of his most important paintings. Not junk commercialism done for a quick buck. Not twenty paintings pinned to a clothesline, jumping between them like a jackrabbit. Not another set of nesting loons or another multi-coloured trout. Not something he can paint in a half-closed eyelid stupor. This time his eyes are wide open and burning with possibility as though giant talons were digging into his memory and stirring imagination. As though they were clamped onto his shoulder muscles with the steady beat of locomotive wings and were lifting him high above the ground.


One day Wahbi Ahmik returned from hunting

and discovered the campfire near his wigwam

stained in blood.

Panic stricken he rushed to his wife

but discovered her gone.

Knowing what his brother Ahsin felt for her

he stormed into his tent

And demanded to know what had happened.

I see a trail of blood leading into the forest.

What have you done?


By this time he is again showing at Pollock Gallery in Toronto but hardly under Jack Pollock’s tutelage, their relationship strained by their personalities. His home in Red Lake is now far behind him, and he is lapping up the good life like a saucer of cream. Though it isn’t cream he is drinking. By this time his art little more than a means to an end, more commerce than calling. He will sell it to buy the basics like cigarettes and groceries (though he eats little for a man his size), shoes or a shirt when he needs it. Though more often than not he simply trades for whatever he wants: a week’s rent in a flop house, a bottle, a meal, an English Derby plate, a Spode teapot, a blowjob, a fuck, everything and anything. The moment: the only thing that matters.


Ahsin was not afraid of his younger brother’s anger.

You brought this woman Nimkey Banasik to our village.

We were all happy together before she came.

Now she is gone for good.

When you left this morning I sent our other brothers away

to be alone with her.

Then I saw her cooking for you

and I got out my sharpest arrow

which found its mark in her hip.

I would have chased her down and killed her

if not for the roar of thunder

that filled the sky

and frightened me.


As for Pollock he is still smarting from the Kenora court case a couple of years earlier when he was sued for stealing several of Morrisseau’s paintings. (Though he knows it wasn’t instigated by the artist himself, and after it was over Morrisseau gave him a big bear hug like he was cheering for Pollock all along.) Furthermore, by this time Pollock’s gallery and personal life are in shambles, his blatant honesty and vanity making him persona non-gratis in what he calls Toronto’s bitchy art scene. His own life of flirting with excess, his hot and horny appetite for cocaine and sex scarring his body and mind. (So honest and vain Pollock admits it all in a book printed in England where nobody knows him personally, admits that if he were to drop dead tomorrow the single most important thing he would be remembered for is the discovery of Norval Morrisseau. “Damn it,” he says, as though reading a crystal ball, knowing it as the truth.)


Oh Ahsin! my foolish brother, cried Wahbi Ahmik.

Even though I am mad enough kill you

I pity you.

Did it not ever cross your mind who Nimkey Banasik was?

You must know her name means Thunderbird Woman.

I would have told you

if not for your blind hatred.

I would have also told you

she had six sisters.

Can you not imagine the power our children would have had?

What it would have meant for all of us.

For this woman was a Thunderbird

in human form.

And now it is too late.


To say that Morrisseau is Pollock’s cash cow and he is only in it for the money would not be fair unless one put it in perspective and said that Morrisseau is everybody’s cash cow. (For this reason he is never alone.) No, safe to say there is something more between them. For Morrisseau their initial meeting is no accident. There is no room for accidents, or luck for that matter, in his belief system.


I am leaving to never return until I find this woman

Wahbi Ahmik said, as he turned his back on his brother

and followed the blood trail

that led far into the great forest.

For many moons he traveled until he came to a huge mountain

that reached over the clouds and beyond.

And he began to climb higher and higher

Until the earth disappeared and he reached the summit.

And there before him on a blanket of cloud

stood a towering teepee

shooting forth


and thunder

across the sky.


To be sure, whatever their frailties, together they are magnificent. It is as if together they walk on clouds. Pollock reads Morrisseau’s mind like a cup of tea leaves and reminds him of his purpose and stature, prodding and coaxing to get the best out of him.


From the majestic edifice came the laughter of women

which suddenly stopped.

For they felt his presence.

Then the teepee flap opened and there stood Nimkey Banasik

looking more beautiful than ever.

With concern she asked why he had follow her.

Because you are my life, he answered.

She smiled upon hearing his words

And beckoned him forward.

Come inside, she said,

And we will give you the power

to walk on clouds.


Pollock knows the painter can handle scale, which he proved in My Four Wives and Some of My Friends, both of them an impressive 109.8 cm x 332.7 cm. What he doesn’t know is that Morrisseau has also done sets of paintings, diptyches, like Merman and Merwoman, and has played with perspective in The Gift where he divided the canvas into two panes. The problem is that Morrisseau is living in Winnipeg, and this makes it nearly impossible for Pollock to keep track of him. He knows the artist is up to his old tricks of selling his work to the first person that approaches him with a few dollars rather than go through the trouble of bundling up the work and sending it off. The temptation of a quick money fix has always been one of his greatest failings. “Something the bastards are quick to seize upon,” Pollock says. The challenge is therefore not to keep him painting, which he does naturally, but to make sure he sends what he does to the gallery.


Inside the wigwam were seated two old thunderbirds

in human form.

Light radiated from their eyes

Suggesting a presence full of power and wisdom.

Immediately they saw Wahbi Ahmik’s hunger

and offered him food.

In an instant a roar of deafening thunder erupted

As they stretched out their arms and changed into thunderbirds

and flew away

To return with a big horned snake with two heads and three tails.

They offered it to Wahbi Ahmik to eat

but he quickly turned away from writhing mass of flesh.

The next morning they again asked him if he needed food.
and the thunderbirds returned with a black snake sturgeon

and later with a cat-like demigod.

And Wahbi Ahmik grew weaker

and weaker.


Pollock flies back and forth between Toronto and Winnipeg, making sure that Morrisseau is not going astray, and takes whatever paintings the artist has finished. Bob Checkwitch of Great Grassland Graphics is also working with the painter during this time doing a series of prints and helps to keep him in check. Through meetings, telephone calls and letters Morrisseau and Pollock discuss the concept for Man Changing Into Thunderbird and after much discussion Morrisseau decides to translate the story into a series of panels. Like Pollock, Morrisseau knows this will be his greatest work to date.


Finally the old woman who feared that Wahbi Ahmik was starving

told her daughter to take him

to her great medicine uncle

Southern Thunderbird

whom she knew would have strong medicine for the human.

They laid Wahbi Ahmik on a blanket of cloud

softer than rabbit fur and wrapped him gently

so that he would not see.

And with the thunder suddenly erupting

Wahbi Ahmik felt his nest of cloud move.

After what seemed like a mere moment

They stopped

and his wife Nimkey Banasik

removed the cloud from around him .

And there in front of Wahbi Ahmik

perched on a cloud

stood a great medicine lodge.


Three weeks before the opening, which is scheduled for August 10that 2:00 pm, Pollock receives four panels, but he can see that the series is incomplete. Another two weeks pass and he starts to become anxious. He telephones Winnipeg and Morrisseau assures him that he will bring them to Toronto with him. Pollock warns him that he needs time to prepare the paintings. They have to be stretched and framed. Again Morrisseau tells him not to worry.


Nimkey Banasik looked around him and saw many lodges

the homes of many different kinds of thunderbirds

All in human form.

Entering the great medicine lodge

Nimkey Banasik brought her uncle greeting from her mother

And beseeched him for help.

My mother said that you would have medicine for my husband

so that he may eat as we do

And perhaps even become one of us.
The old thunderbird stood in silence pondering the love between them

and the consequences

of such an action.

Let it be known that if this human takes my medicine

He will never return to earth

but will become a thunderbird forever.

Then the medicine thunderbird took two small blue medicine eggs

mixed them together

And advised Wahbi Ahmik to drink it.


On Friday, August 9th Morrisseau saunters into the gallery about lunchtime. Under his arm is the roll that Pollock is expecting. Everyone breaks off installing the show and gathers around to see the last few panels. Morrisseau grins as he unrolls two blank canvasses. As Pollock tells it, he is stunned. It’s the last straw, and he barks and growls at the artist who calmly assures him that the pictures will be finished in time for the show. Pollock exclaims that the other panels are still at the framer’s and he won’t be able to use them for reference. No problem, Morrisseau says, unmoved by the calamity that Pollock foresees.


The moment the potion entered Wahbi Ahmik

he felt a strange power surge throughout his body.

Looking at his hands and feet he saw

they were no longer human

but of the claws and wings of a thunderbird.

With the next drink the change was complete.

He was now a thunderbird.

His human form, the wigwams, the great medicine lodge

All disappeared.

Everyone was now a thunderbird

inhabiting the realm of thunderbirds.

And so Wahbi Ahmik and Nimkey Banasik

thanked Southern Thunderbird

and flew home together

where Wahbi Ahmik feasted

on thunderbird food

and lived out his life with this beloved wife Nimkey Banasik.


Morrisseau purchases ten brushes and twenty tubes of paint from Daniel’s Art Supplies up the street from his hotel. For the life of him Pollock cannot fathom how he is going to execute the paintings, how he can possibly carry in his head the complete chromatic palette of the first four panels. As he is leaving the room Morrisseau tells him to come back at one o’clock in the morning and he’ll have the paintings ready for him. Not knowing what to expect, Pollock returns at the exact hour. Morrisseau swings open the door to his room, and there they are laid out on the floor. He has finished the series with two more panels. The moment Pollock sees them it becomes clear to him that the artist has not only successfully recreated the colours of the first four panels, but he has somehow managed to keep in his head both their composition and scale. They are exactly like the originals. He is stunned. With the canvasses still wet, Pollock carries them back to the gallery in his outstretched arms and takes them for framing the moment they are dry. The show opens on time with Morrisseau touching up the new panels with daps of paint on the tip of his right index finger. Within one hour the complete set of six panels is sold. Everyone who is witness to the work is awestruck.


And the people who remained below

in the world of humans

generation upon generation

remember Wahbi Ahmik

as the Man Who Changed


A Thunderbird.

.     .     .     .     .


Norval Morrisseau_Man Changing into Thunderbird_1977_panel 6 of 6ZP_Norval Morrisseau_Man Changing into Thunderbird_1977_panel 6 of 6


Norval Morrisseau is considered by art historians, critics and curators alike as one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. Among his awards and honours were the Order of Canada and the Aboriginal Achievement Award. Referred to as the “Picasso of the North” by the French press, he was the only Canadian painter invited to France to celebrate the bi-centennial of the French Revolution in 1989. A self-taught painter, Norval Morrisseau came to the attention of the Canadian art scene in 1962 with his first solo and break-through exhibition at Pollock Gallery in Toronto.  This sold-out show announced the arrival of an artist like no other in the history of Canadian art. In the first ever review of his work, Globe and Mail art critic Pearl McCarthy declared him a “genius.” Born in 1932 in the isolated Ojibway community of Sand Point in northwestern Ontario, and having lived a tumultuous life of extreme highs and lows, Norval Morrisseau died in Toronto in 2007.

Drawing initially on the iconography of traditional First Nations sources, in particular the sacred birch-bark scrolls and the pictographs (prehistoric ‘rock art’) of the Algonquin-speaking peoples, Morrisseau went on to incorporate a wide array of contemporary influences in his art, ranging from the techniques of modernist painters and the imagery of comic books and magazines, to ‘new age’ philosophy.  Continually evolving as a painter, he quickly eschewed the label “primitive artist”, becoming renowned for his daring experiments with imagery, scale, and colour. Following on the heels of Morrisseau’s success, a younger generation of painters, both Native and non-Native, followed in his style, becoming known as the “Woodland School of Painters,” the only indigenous school of painting to emerge in Canada.


ZP_Norval Morrisseau's name written in Ojibwe syllabicsZP_Norval Morrisseau’s name written in Ojibwe syllabics

ZP_Norval Morrisseau in 1977_photograph by Dick Loek_Toronto Star newspaperZP_Norval Morrisseau in 1977_photograph by Dick Loek_Toronto Star newspaper


Armand Garnet Ruffo draws on his Ojibway heritage for much of his writing.  Born in Chapleau, northern Ontario, with roots to the Sagamok Ojibway First Nation and the Chapleau Fox Lake Cree First Nation, he currently lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and teaches in the Department of English at Carleton University.  His works include Grey Owl: the Mystery of Archie Belaney (Coteau Books) and At Geronimo’s Grave(Coteau Books). His poetry, fiction and non-fiction continue to be published widely. In 2009, he co-authored “Indigenous Writing: Poetry and Prose” for The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature, and, in 2013, he co-edited An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English for Oxford University Press. In 2010, his feature film “A Windigo Tale” won Best Picture at the 35th American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.

The Thunderbird Poems will be published by Insomniac Press in 2014.

.     .     .     .     .

Rosario Castellanos: “With the other – humanity, dialogue, poetry, begin.” / “Con el otro – la humanidad, el diálogo, la poesía, comienzan.”

ZP_Rufino Tamayo_Mujer llamando / Woman calling_1941ZP_Rufino Tamayo_Mujer llamando / Woman calling_1941


Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974)

“The Other”


Why speak the names of gods, stars,

foams of a hidden sea,

pollen of the farthest gardens,

when what hurts us is life itself, when each new day

claws at our guts, when every night falls

writhing, murdered?

When we feel the pain in someone else,

a man we do not know but who is always

present and is the victim

and the enemy and love and everything

we’d need to be whole?

Never lay claim to the dark,

don’t drain the cup of joy in a single sip.

Look around: there is someone else, always someone else.

What he breathes is your suffocation,

what he eats is your hunger.

Dying, he takes with him the purest half of your own death.

.     .     .

“El otro”


¿Por qué decir nombres de dioses, astros,

espumas de un océano invisible,

polen de los jardines más remotos?

Si nos duele la vida, si cada día llega

desgarrando la entraña, si cada noche cae

convulsa, asesinada.

Si nos duele el dolor en alguien, en un hombre

al que no conocemos, pero está

presente a todas horas y es la víctima

y el enemigo y el amor y todo

lo que nos falta para ser enteros.

Nunca digas que es tuya la tiniebla,

no te bebas de un sorbo la alegría.

Mira a tu alrededor: hay otro, siempre hay otro.

Lo que él respira es lo que a ti te asfixia,

lo que come es tu hambre.

Muere con la mitad más pura de tu muerte.

.     .     .



I am growing on a woman’s corpse,

my roots wrap themselves around her bones

and from her disfigured heart

a stalk emerges, vertical and tough.


From the bier of an unborn child:

from her womb cut down before the harvest

I rise stubborn, definitive,

brutal as a tombstone and sad at times

with the stony sadness of the funeral angel

who hides a tearless face between his hands.

.     .     .



Sobre el cadáver de una mujer estoy creciendo,

en sus huesos se enroscan mis raíces

y de su corazón desfigurado

emerge un tallo vertical y duro.


Del ferétro de un niño no nacido:

de su vientre tronchado antes de la cosecha

me levanto tenaz, definitiva,

brutal como una lápida y en ocasiones triste

con la tristeza pétrea del ángel funerario

que oculte entre sus manos una cara sin lágrimas.

.     .     .



Time is too long for life;

for knowledge not enough.


What have we come for, night, heart of night?


All we can do is dream, or die,

dream that we do not die

and, at times, for a moment, wake.

.     .     .



Para vivir es demasiado el tiempo;

para saber no es nada.


¿A qué vinimos, noche, corazón de la noche?


No es posible sino soñar, morir,

soñar que no morimos

y, a veces, un instante, despertar.

.     .     .



Body, belovéd, yes; we know each other, you and I.


Perhaps I ran to meet you

like a cloud heavy with lightning.


Ah, that fleeting light, that fulmination,

that vast silence that succeeds catastrophe.


Whoever looks at us now (dark stones, bits

and pieces of used matter)

won’t know that for an instant our name was love

and that in eternity they call us destiny.

.     .     .



Cuerpo, criatura, sí; tú y yo, nos conocimos.


Tal vez corrí a tu encuentro

como corre la nube cargada de relámpagos.


Ay, esa luz tan breve, esa fulminación,

ese vasto silencio que sigue a la catástrofe.


Quienes ahora nos miran

(piedras oscuras, trozos de matería ya usada)

no sabrán que un instante nuestro nombre fue amor

y que en la eternidad nos llamamos destino.

.     .     .



He looked at me as one looks through a window

or the air

or nothing.


And then I knew: I was not there

or anywhere

nor had I ever been or would be.


I became like one who dies in an epidemic,

unidentified, and is hurled

into a common grave.

ZP_Rufino Tamayo_El grito / The shout_1947ZP_Rufino Tamayo_El grito / The shout_1947




Me vió como se mira al través de un cristal

o del aire

o de nada.


Y entonces supe: yo no estaba allí

ni en ninguna otra parte

ni había estado nunca ni estaría.


Y fui como el que muere en la epidemia,

sin identificar, y es arrojado

a la fosa común.

.     .     .



I held you in my hands:

all mankind in a walnut.


What a hard, wrinkled shell!


And inside, the simulacrum

of the two halves of the brain,

which obviously aspire not to work

but to be devoured and praised

for their neutral, unsatisfying taste

that endlessly demands,

over and over and over, to be tried again.

.     .     .



Te tuve entre mis manos:

la humanidad entera en una nuez.


¡Qué cáscara tan dura y tan rugosa!


Y, adentro, el simulacro

de los dos hemisferos cerebrales

que, obviamente, no aspiran a operar

sino a ser devorados, alabados

por ese sabor neutro, tan insatisfactorio

que exige, al infinito,

una vez y otra y otra, que se vuelva a probar.

.     .     .

“Speaking of Gabriel”


Like all guests my son got in the way,

taking up space that was my space,

existing at all the wrong times,

making me divide each bite in two.


Ugly, sick, bored,

I felt him grow at my expense,

steal the colour from my blood, add

clandestine weight and volume

to my way of being on the earth.


His body begged for birth, begged me to let him pass,

allot him his place in the world

and the portion of time he needed for his history.


I agreed. And through the wound of his departure,

through the hemorrhage of his breaking free,

the last I ever felt of solitude, of myself

looking through a pane of glass, also slipped away.


I was left open, an offering

to visitations, to the wind, to presence.

ZP_Rufino Tamayo_Pregnant Woman_1976ZP_Rufino Tamayo_Mujer embarazada / Pregnant Woman_1976


“Se habla de Gabriel”


Como todos los huéspedes mi hijo me estorbaba

ocupando un lugar que era mi lugar,

existiendo a deshora,

haciéndome partir en dos cada bocado.


Fea, enferma, aburrida

lo sentía crecer a mis expensas,

robarle su color a mi sangre, añadir

un peso y un volumen clandestino

a mi modo de estar sobre la tierra.


Su cuerpo me pidió nacer, cederle el paso,

darle un sitio en el mundo,

la provisión de tiempo necesaria a su historia.


Consentí. Y por la herida en que partió, por esa

hemorragia de su desprendimiento

se fue también lo último que tuve

de soledad, de yo mirando tras de un vidrio.


Quedé abierta, ofrecida

a las visitaciones, al viento, a la presencia.

.     .     .

“Meditation on the Threshold”


No, throwing yourself under a train like Tolstoy’s Anna

is not the answer,

nor hastening Madame Bovary’s arsenic

nor waiting for the angel with the javelin

to reach the parapets of Avila

before you tie the kerchief to your head

and begin to act.


Nor intuiting the laws of geometry,

counting the beams in your cell

like Sor Juana. The answer is not

to write while visitors arrive

in the Austen living room

nor to lock yourself in the attic

of some New England house

and dream, the Dickinson family Bible

beneath your spinster’s pillow.


There must be some other way whose name is not Sappho

or Mesalina or Mary of Egypt

or Magdalene or Clemencia Isaura…


Another way of being free and human.


Another way of being.

.     .     .

“Meditación en el umbral”


No, no es la solución

tirarse bajo un tren como la Ana de Tolstoi

ni apurar el arsénico de Madame Bovary

ni aguardar en los páramos de Ávila la visita

del ángel con venablo

antes de liarse el manto a la cabeza

y comenzar a actuar.


No concluir las leyes geométricas, contando

las vigas de la celda de castigo

como lo hizo Sor Juana. No es la solución

escribir, mientras llegan las visitas,

en la sala de estar de la familia Austen

ni encerrarse en el ático

de alguna residencia de la Nueva Inglaterra

y soñar, con la Biblia de los Dickinson

debajo de una almohada de soltera.


Debe haber otro modo que no se llame Safo

ni Mesalina ni María Egipciaca

ni Magdalena ni Clemencia Isaura.


Otro modo de ser humano y libre.


Otro modo de ser.

ZP_Rufino Tamayo_Mujer alcanzando la luna / Woman reaching for the moon_1946ZP_Rufino Tamayo_Mujer alcanzando la luna / Woman reaching for the moon_1946

“Poetry Is Not You”


Because if you existed

I’d have to exist too. And that’s a lie.


There is nothing more than ourselves: the couple,

two sexes reconciled in a chile,

two heads together, not contemplating each other

(so as not to turn either one into a mirror)

but staring straight ahead, at the other.


The other: mediator, judge, equilibrium

of opposites, witness,

knot in which what was broken is retied.


The other, muteness that begs a voice

from the one who speaks

and demands the ear of the one who listens.


The other.  With the other,

humanity, dialogue, poetry, begin.

.     .     .

“Poesía no eres tú”


Porque si tú existieras

tendría que existir yo también. Y eso es mentira.


Nada hay más que nosotros: la pareja,

los sexos conciliados en un hijo,

las dos cabezas juntas, pero no contemplándose

(para no convertir a nadie en un espejo)

sino mirando frente a sí, hacia el otro.


El otro: mediador, juez, equilibrio

entre opuestos, testigo,

nudo en el que se anuda lo que se había roto.


El otro, la mudez que pide voz

al que tiene la voz

y reclama el oído del que escucha.


El otro. Con el otro

la humanidad, el diálogo, la poesía, comienzan.

.     .     .

“Livid Light”


I can only speak of what I know.


Like Thomas, my hand is deep

inside a wound. And it hurts both the other and myself.


Cold sweat of agony!

Convulsion of nausea!


No, I don’t want comfort of oblivion or hope.


I want the courage to remain,

to not betray what is ours: this day

and the light that lets us see it whole.

.     .     .

“Lívida luz”


No puedo hablar sino de lo que sé.


Como Tomás tengo la mano hundida

en una llaga. Y duele en el otro y en mí.


¡Ah, qué sudor helado de agonía!

¡Qué convulsión de asco!


No, no quiero consuelo, ni olvido, ni esperanza.


Quiero valor para permanecer,

para no traicionar lo nuestro: el día

presente y esta luz con que se mira entero.




Translations from Spanish into English © Magda Bogin

.     .     .     .     .

Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska (born 1933) has said of Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974) that her 1950 UNAM thesis on “la cultura feminina” was the intellectual starting point for the liberation of Mexican women. Writer José Emilio Pacheco wrote of that period, the early 1950s, that “at that time, no-one in this country [México] was so clearly aware of her double status – as a woman and as a Mexican – nor did anyone else make of this awareness the very material of her writing, the central thread of her work.” And: “Our sight was obscured by conventional notions; we were on guard in defence of our privileges…Naturally we did not know how to read her.”

Castellanos was intensely feminist yet self-critical – she wrote unsparingly about her circumstances and her limitations. There was a kind of raw heroism in this, and it earned her the misunderstanding and mockery of a primarily male literary world. Her poem “Speaking of Gabriel” would’ve shocked readers with its grudging acquiescence to Motherhood that then surprises in the final verse with a beautiful fragile spirit. “Poetry Is Not You” – its title a direct contradiction to Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s famous 19th-century Romantic poem, Poesía eres tú (Poetry is You!), begins with the words “Because if you existed I’d have to exist too. And that’s a lie.” – indicating that this will be no doving-and-coo-ing couple to be described – and then, like “Speaking of Gabriel” – surprises with a powerful change by poem’s end – that of recognizing that a woman, as too her husband, does not wish to be turned into a “mirror” rather to be understood, hard as that is to do, as “the other”. “With the other, humanity, dialogue, poetry, begin.”


As a neglected yet keenly observant child of a coffee plantation family in Chiapas, Castellanos would come to the realization by the mid-1950s that “everything she had once accepted as the natural order of things stood revealed in its true light, and as a result of that discovery she saw that certain moral and intellectual attitudes were required of her.”  The substantial acreage of coffee lands she’d inherited she then returned to the very Indios (Tzotzil Mayans) who’d tilled it for her family; and she went to work for the National Indigenous Institute in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Two of Castellanos’ novels – Balún Canán and Oficio de Tinieblas – deal sensitively with Native-American “characterization” and culture.  Eventually she re-settled in México City where she wore a variety of writerly hats, including penning newspaper columns for Novedades, ¡Siempre!, and Excélsior.


The poem “Nocturne”, with its elliptical last verse – “All we can do is dream, or die, dream that we do not die and, at times, for a moment, wake” – follows very closely the Náhuatl (Aztec language) ideal of the moyolnonotzani (a person who knows how to converse with her own heart) and the hayoltehuani (the artist who is able to introduce the symbolism of the divine into things).  The loneliness that gripped Castellanos  throughout her life – even her marriage to Ricardo Guerra in 1957 was defined by feelings of profound loss (two miscarriages before the birth of their son, Gabriel);  and depression caused by the strictures of her “role” as wife and mother (divorce was to be the outcome) – nonetheless made for perceptive, nuanced poetry which, in the above translations by Magda Bogin, from 1988, at last became available to English-language readers.

(With biographical notes / quotations cited from Cecilia Vicuña)

.     .     .     .     .

Jaime Sabines: “Message to Rosario Castellanos” / “Recado a Rosario Castellanos”

ZP_Rosario Castellanos

Jaime Sabines (Chiapas, 1926 – México City, 1999)

Message to Rosario Castellanos”

(Translation from Spanish into English: Paul Claudel and St.John Perse)


Only a fool could devote a whole life to solitude and love.

Only a fool could die by touching a lamp,

if a lighted lamp,

a lamp wasted in the daytime is what you were.

Double fool for being helpless, defenceless,

for going on offering your basket of fruit to the trees,

your water to the spring,

your heat to the desert,

your wings to the birds.

Double fool, double Chayito*, mother twice over,

to your son and to yourself.

Orphan and alone, as in the novels,

coming on like a tiger, little mouse,

hiding behind your smile,

wearing transparent armour,

quilts of velvet and of words,

over your shivering nakedness.


How I love you, Chayo*, how I hate to think

of them dragging your body – as I’m told they did.

Where did they leave your soul?

Can’t they scrape it off the lamp,

get it up off the floor with a broom?

Don’t they have brooms at the Embassy?

How I hate to think, I tell you, of them taking you,

laying you out, fixing you up, handling you,

dishonouring you with the funeral honours.

(Don’t give me any of that

Distinguished Persons fucking stuff!)

I hate to think of it, Chayito!

And this is all? Sure it’s all. All there is.

At least they said some good things in The Excelsior*

and I’m sure there were some who cried.

They’re going to devote supplements to you,

poems better than this one, essays, commentaries

how famous you are, all of a sudden!

Next time we talk

I’ll tell you the rest.


I’m not angry now.

It’s very hot in Sinaloa.

I’m going down to have a drink at the pool.


*Chayito / Chayo – nicknames for the name Rosario i.e. Little Rosary/Rosa/Rosie

*El Excélsior – a México City daily newspaper

.     .     .

Recado a Rosario Castellanos”


Sólo una tonta podía dedicar su vida a la soledad

y al amor.

Sólo una tonta podía morirse al tocar una lámpara,

si lámpara encendida,

desperdiciada lámpara de día eras tú.

Retonta por desvalida, por inerme,

por estar ofreciendo tu canasta de frutas a los árboles,

tu agua al manantial,

tu calor al desierto,

tus alas a los pájaros.

Retonta, re-Chayito, remadre de tu hijo y de ti misma.

Huérfana y sola como en las novelas,

presumiendo de tigre, ratoncito,

no dejándote ver por tu sonrisa,

poniéndote corazas transparentes,

colchas de terciopelo y de palabras

sobre tu desnudez estremecida.


¡Como te quiero, Chayo, como duele

pensar que traen tu cuerpo! – así se dice –

(¿Dónde dejaron tu alma? ¿ No es posible

rasparla de la lámpara,

recogerla del piso con una escoba?

¿Qué, no tiene escobas la Embajada?)

¡Cómo duele, te digo, que te traigan,

te pongan, te coloquen, te manejen,

te lleven de honra en honra funerarias!

(¡No me vayan a hacer a mi esa cosa

de los Hombres Ilustres, con una chingada!)

¡Como duele, Chayito!

¿Y esto es todo? ¡ Claro que es todo, es todo!

Lo bueno es que hablan bien en el Excélsior

y estoy seguro de que algunos lloran,

te van a dedicar tus suplementos,

poemas mejores que éste, estudios, glosas,

¡qué gran publicidad tienes ahora!

La próxima vez que platiquemos

te diré todo el resto.


Ya no estoy enojado.

Hace mucho calor en Sinaloa.

Voy a irme a la alberca a echarme un trago.

.     .     .

Rosario Castellanos poet, author, essayist – was born into a “Ladino” (Hispanicized Mestizo) landowning family in Chiapas.  From her mid-teens onward she lived in México City, where she would gradually become one of the so-called “Generation of 1950” – post-War writers of Latin America. Throughout her life – cut short by a freak domestic electrical accident involving a lamp while she was leaving her bath in Tel Aviv – where she had been posted as Mexican ambassador – she wrote with passion and precision about what now we would call “cultural and gender oppression”.  Her 1962 novel Oficio de Tinieblas(The Book of Lamentations in its English translation) is an empathetic yet trenchant imagining of the conflicts between Tzotzil Mayans and “Ladinos” leading up to agrarian reform in her ancestral Chiapas.  Castellanos is important today for opening the doors to a Mexican Feminist world-view through her frank and insightful poetry, novels, and newspaper essays.

.     .     .

Rosario Castellanos – poeta y novelista – nació en la Ciudad de México en 1925.  Su infancia y parte de su adolescencia la vivió en Comitán y en San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.

Dedicó una parte de su obra y de sus energías a la defensa de los derechos de las mujeres, labor por la que es recordada como uno de los símbolos del feminismo latinoamericano.  A nivel personal, su propia vida estuvo marcada por un matrimonio infeliz y depresiones múltiples que la llevaron en más de una ocasión a ser ingresada.

Su obra incluye la novela Oficio de Tinieblas (1962) – trata de reforma agraria y tensiones sociales entre los tzotziles y los ladinos en el campo de Chiapas – también el poemario Poesía no eres tú (1972).

En 1971, Castellanos fue nombrada embajadora de México en Israel, desempeñándose como catedrática en la Universidad Hebrea de Jerusalén, además de su labor de diplomática. Falleció en Tel Aviv en agosto de 1974 – a consecuencia de una descarga eléctrica provocada por una lámpara cuando acudía a contestar el teléfono al salir de bañarse. Sus restos fueron trasladados a La Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres (ahora La Rotonda de las Personas Ilustres) en la Ciudad de México.

.     .     .     .     .

Jaime Sabines: “Before the ice of silence descends on my tongue…” / “Antes de que caiga sobre mi lengua el hielo del silencio…”

Hojas de otoño 1_octubre de 2013_Toronto.

Jaime Sabines (Born in Chiapas, 1926 – died in México City, 1999)

.     .     .

On Hope”


Occupy yourselves here with hope.

The joy of the day that’s coming

buds in your eyes like a new light.

But that day that’s coming isn’t going to come: this is it.

.     .     .

De la esperanza”


Entreteneos aquí con la esperanza.

Es júbilo del día que vendrá

os germina en los ojos como una luz reciente.

Pero ese día que vendrá no ha de venir: es éste.

.     .     .

On Illusion”


On the tablet of my heart you wrote:


And I walked for days and days,

mad and scented and dejected.


De la ilusión”


Escribiste en la tabla de mi corazón:


Y yo anduve días y días,

loco, aromado, y triste.

.     .     .

On Death”


Bury it.

There are many silent men under the earth

who will take care of it.

Don’t leave it here.

Bury it.


Hojas de otoño 2_octubre de 2013_Toronto

De la muerte”



Hay muchos hombres quietos, bajo tierra,

que han de cuidarla.

No la dejéis aquí –


.     .     .

On Myth”


My mother told me that I cried in her womb.

They said to her:  he’ll be lucky.


Someone spoke to me all the days of my life

into my ear, slowly, taking their time.

Said to me:  live, live, live!

It was Death.


Del mito”


Mi madre me contó que yo lloré en su vientre.

A ella le dijeron:  tendrá suerte.


Alguien me habló todos los días de mi vida

al oído, despacio, lentamente.

Me dijo:  ¡vive, vive, vive!

Era la Muerte.

.     .     .

If I were going to die in a moment, I would write these words of wisdom:  tree of bread and honey, rhubarb, coca-cola, zonite, swastika.  And then I would start to cry.


You can start to cry even at the word “excused” if you want to cry.


And this is how it is with me now.  I’m ready to give up even my fingernails, to take out my eyes and squeeze them like lemons over the cup of coffee.

(“Let’s have a cup of coffee with eye peel, My Heart”).


Before the ice of silence descends on my tongue, before my throat splits and my heart keels over like a leather sack, I want to tell you, My Life, how grateful I am for this stupendous liver that let me eat all your roses on the day when I got into your hidden garden without anyone seeing me.


I remember it. I filled my heart with diamonds – they are fallen stars that have aged in the dust of the earth – and it kept jingling like a tambourine when I laughed.  The only thing that really annoys me is that I could have been born sooner and I didn’t do it.


Don’t put love into my hands like a dead bird.

Hojas de otoño 3_octubre de 2013_Toronto

Si hubiera de morir dentro de unos instantes, escribiría estas sabias palabras:  árbol del pan y de la miel, ruibarbo, coca-cola, zonite, cruz gamada.  Y me echaría a llorar.


Uno puede llorar hasta con la palabra “excusado” si tiene ganas de llorar.


Y esto es lo que hoy me pasa.  Estoy dispuesto a perder hasta las uñas, a sacarme los ojos y a exprimirlos como limones sobre la taza de café.

(“Te convido a una taza de café con cascaritas de ojo, corazón mío”).


Antes de que caiga sobre mi lengua el hielo del silencio, antes de que se raje mi garganta y mi corazón se desplome como una bolsa de cuero, quiero decirte, vida mía, lo agradecido que estoy, por este higado estupendo que me dejó comer todas tus rosas, el día que entré a tu jardín oculto sin que nadie me viera.


Lo recuerdo. Me llené el corazón de diamantes – que son estrellas caídas y envejecidas en el polvo de la tierra – y lo anduve sonando como una sonaja mientras reía.  No tengo otro rencor que el que tengo, y eso porque pude nacer antes y no lo hiciste.


No pongas el amor en mis manos como un pájaro muerto.

ZP_Jaime Sabines_ I take pleasure in the way the rain beats its wings on the back of the floating city...ZP_Jaime Sabines_Me gustan los aletazos de la lluvia sobre los lomos de la ciudad flotante...

I take pleasure in the way the rain beats its wings on the back of the floating city.


The dust comes down.  The air is left clean, crossed by leaves of odour, by birds of coolness, by dreams.  The sky receives the city that is being born.


Streetcars, buses, trucks, people on bicycles and on foot, carts of all colours, street-vendors, bakers, pots of tamales, grilles of baked bananas, balls flying between one child and another: the streets swell, the sounds of voices multiply in the last light of the day hung up to dry.


They come out like ants after the rain, to pick up the crumb of the sky, the little straw of eternity to take away to their dark houses, with cuttlefish hanging from the roofs, with weaving spiders under the beds, and with one familiar ghost, at least, in back of some door.


Thanks be to you, Mother of the Black Clouds, who have so whitened the face of the afternoon and have helped us to go on loving life.

.     .     .

Me gustan los aletazos de la lluvia sobre los lomos de la ciudad flotante.


Desciende del polvo.  El aire queda limpio, atravesado de hojas de olor, de pájaros de frescura, de sueños.  El cielo recibe a la ciudad naciente.


Tranvías, autobuses, camiones, gentes en bicicleta y a pie, carritos de colores, vendedores ambulantes, panaderos, ollas de tamales, parrillas de plátanos horneados, pelotas de un niño al otro:  crecen las calles, se multiplican los rumores en las últimas luces del día puesto a secar.


Salen, como las hormigas después de la lluvia, a recoger la migas del cielo, la pajita de la eternidad que han de llevarse a sus casas sombrías, con pulpos colgando del techo, con arañas tejedoras debajo de la cama, y con un fantasma familiar, cuando menos, detrás de alguna puerta.


Gracias te son dadas, Madre de las Nubes Negras, que has puesto tan blanca la cara de la tarde y que nos has ayudado a seguir amando la vida.

.     .     .

Before long you will offer these pages to people you don’t know as though you were holding out a handful of grass that you had cut.


Proud and depressed of your achievement you will come back and fling yourself into your favourite corner.


You call yourself a poet because you don’t have enough modesty to remain silent.


Good luck to you, thief, with what you’re stealing from your suffering – and your loves!  Let’s see what sort of image you make out of the pieces of your shadow you pick up.

.     .     .

Dentro de poco vas a ofrecer estas páginas a los desconocidos como si extendieras en la mano un manojo de hierbas que tú cortaste.


Ufano y acongojado de tu proeza, regresarás a echarte al rincón preferido.


Dices que eres poeta porque no tienes el pudor necesario del silencio.


¡Bien te vaya, ladrón, con lo que le robas a tu dolor y a tus amores!   ¡A ver qué imagen haces de ti mismo con los pedazos que recoges de tu sombra!


You have what I look for, what I long for, what I love – you have it.

The fist of my heart is beating, calling.

I thank the stories for you.

I thank your mother and your father and death who has not seen you.

I thank the air for you.

You are elegant as wheat,

delicate as the outline of your body.

I have never loved a slender woman

but you have made my hands fall in love,

you moored my desire,

you caught my eyes like two fish.

And for this I am at your door, waiting.

.     .     .

Tú tienes lo que busco, lo que deseo, lo que amo – tú lo tienes.

El puño de mi corazón está golpeando, llamando.

Te agradezco a lo cuentos,

doy gracias a tu madre y a tu padre,

y a lo muerte que no te ha visto.

Te agradezco al aire.

Eres esbelta como el trigo,

frágil como la línea du tu cuerpo.

Nunca he amado a mujer delgada

pero tú has enamorado mis manos,

ataste mi deseo,

cogiste mis ojos como dos peces.

Por eso estoy a tu puerta, esperando.

.     .     .

From:  Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines:  Pieces of Shadow

Translations from Spanish into English © W.S. Merwin (1995)


.     .     .

Jaime Sabines (1926-1999) was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the state of Chiapas, México.

At 19 he moved to México City, studying Medicine for three years, then switching to Philosophy and Literature at UNAM (University of México). He published eight volumes of poetry, including Horal (1950), Tarumba (1956), and Maltiempo (1972), receiving the Xavier Villaurrutia Award for the latter. He was granted the Chiapas Prize in 1959 and the National Literature Award in 1983. He also served as a congressman for Chiapas. Octavio Paz called Sabines one of the handful of poets that comprised the beginning of Modern Latin-American Poetry. For such poets the aim of the poem was not – as before – to invent, rather to explore. In a 1970s interview Sabines observed: “No subject matter can be forced upon the poet. He must be a witness to his times. Must discover reality and recreate it. He should speak of that which he lives and experiences. I feel that a poet must first of all be authentic; I mean by this that there must be a correspondence between his personal world and the world that surrounds him. If you have a mystical inclination – why not write about it? If you live alone and are afflicted by your solitude – why not speak about it, if it is yours? Poetry must bear witness to our everyday lives.”


La obra de Jaime Sabines (1926-1999) representa, dentro de la poesía mexicana contemporánea, una isla que se vincula con la realidad a través de puentes inexorables: la muerte, la inquietud social, la angustia por la existencia, la presencia o la ausencia de Dios y – fundamentalmente – el amor. El amor es – en un poema de Sabines – no sólo un sentimiento sino también una herramienta – un clave personal – para comunicarse no sólo con la mujer sino con el mundo. Sabines fue el más notable precursor de la poesía coloquial en América Latina.  (Mario Benedetti, 2007)

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