Issue 220, Spring 2017
A poem in translation,
the young man was fond of saying,
is like the dead body of a foreigner
washed up on our shores.
he usually paused to let the metaphor sink in.
Some members of the audience nodded thoughtfully.
I will now read from my translations of a little-known ancient Roman poet,
he told them,
shuffling his papers, then looking into
The dead body refused to be still. The waves
loved it too much,
pushing it onto the beach, then rolling it
And so it made its way down the beach,
alighting for a moment,
or several moments,
on the wet sand,
then bobbing out
among the American swimmers.
120 foreigners in a leaking boat
is too many,
so the ocean fills with poems. Some retain
the qualities of their original language,
but others sink blackly
into a new language.
Here I am, out here! I can see your
oil rigs glittering on the horizon,
says the young woman whom no one
listens to. Or,
she says nothing,
clinging to the side of the waterlogged boat,
where she has floated all night
among the drifting bodies.
A few of them became tangled among the oil rigs,
while others arrived
gently on our shore.
A poem that has floated some distance
from its accident
transforms—so the swimmers
ran away in horror
when at last he came to rest
on a crowded part of the beach.
You foreigners in your many-sailed ships,
come join the empire! the translator intones
from his spotlit podium,
and the audience sighs.
Here I am, out here,
says a little voice in the translation,
a voice no one,
not even the translator,
had come to hear a lecture on poetry in translation
and now the translator was going on
about the ancient Roman tendency to absorb,
and therefore transform,
their gods and foods.
Outside the auditorium, it had grown dark,
a perfect summer night.
The thousand vessels
on the great black ocean
glittered and loomed
and for days, bodies
washed up on the beach.
Now, the American workers
zippered them into vinyl bags,
which, in the translator’s metaphor,
constitutes a kind of publication.
But what is there to say
about that young woman
still clinging to the wreckage
two days into my poem?
A gentle summer rain
prickles her skin. Here I am, she says,
looking toward the oil rigs hunkering between her
and the shore.
Here I am.
She is a very fine woman
and someone should translate her.