Anthony Seidman translating Salvador Novo



We have twelve destinations
to spend the seasons:
summer can be spent in June,
Fall's most often spent by December.

Time guides us
through its houses: each of four floors
and seven rooms.  A living room, two bedrooms,
dining rooms, patio, kitchen
and bathroom.
Each day closes a door
we will never see again,
then opens another window of surprise.

A gust knocked down
two rooms from the topmost floor
of February.

The wind turns serene,
and we continue searching for a home.

The scythe of the minute-hand
established its very center
in the center of our belly.
For the mailboxes of life
we required rubber stamps stating:  Certified.

Address your mail to street and number.
And we're here already, to the last available post-office,
without finding the trace of a smile
in either December or March.

Our navels
will be peeled off by stamp-collectors!
Wrinkled, covered with scars, 
and stuffed with old news, 
we'll be returned to sender. 

Still Early

White soapsuds foam
and scud along the watery sky.
The city dries its faces
with frayed washcloths of mist,
then opens eyelids of steel.

Though it’s astoundingly early,
sleeping until noon turns my stomach,
like some hook-up
still snoring in my bed.

City, overcast and chilly,
I hadn’t foreseen such
changes in cast and scenery. 

The soul’s full of haste,
a tourist
about to bid farewell to his past
gathered on the railroad platform.
Trains run on time.

Night’s been rubbed from all eyes,
and a sense of duty vies for attention:
studying, teaching, working…
touch and taste have died,
yet it seems I still have a heart.

Oh, it’s morning! But why,
why choke it with the day’s first cigarette?


All plants wither when I touch them,
when I toy with mud and build rivers
or snap branches from the trees,
I adorn them with flowers
and I plant an orchard at random along the road.

Water continues on its course through my hand,
the prairie perfectly suits both mountain and star,
but my trees
fold their branches.

I have moistened my fingers in their blood,
I have seen how they stretch,
how they extend their arms, scale the walls,
or even flex like great,
muscular athletes.

They honor themselves by pinning on the medals
of transient blue-bells
or the out-of-reach, fragrant fruit
from which they are reborn into sweetness.

But only the earth and weather,
sun and rain,
make it so their blood doesn’t die in my hands
when I play with them at being the river,
the road, the mountain, the orchard.

Translator's Note

Still Contemporary…the Poetry of Salvador Novo

Salvador Novo (1904-1974) presents a wildly nonconformist and energetic counterpart to the other poetic voices of his generation, those who loosely organized themselves as a group called los Contemporáneos—which fellow member José Gorostiza ironically referred to as el grupo sin grupo. Whereas Gorostiza proved his merit in one long, hermetic poem entitled Muerte sin fin (1939), and Xavier Villaurrutia crafted a verse that was metallically precise, eerie and homoerotic in the celebrated volume Nostalgia de la muerte (1938), Novo created an abundant body of poetry unlike anything in Mexican letters. Eschewing the heavy—and often, excessive—Gallic tone of his nation's poetry, Novo found much to emulate from the poetry of the United States. Readers familiar with Edgar Lee Masters or Carl Sandburg can find correlatives to their dramatic monologues in such poems as Epifania, La Escuela, or the sailor's monologue—written in English—from the second section of Seamen Rhymes (1933); Novo, in fact, was the first to translate Sandburg into Spanish. Other poems mix urban landscapes and surreal imagery, and even anticipate the tone of some of the Beats.

The poems included in this selection come from two early collections, XX Poemas (1925) and Espejo (1933). Temprano, translated as Still Early, contains perhaps the most memorable line in 20th century Mexican poetry: ¡Ay, la mañana!, por qué / ahogarla en el primer cigarillo? (Another contender may be Gorostiza's exclamation: ¡Anda, vámonos al diablo!) Buoyancy and originality abound in the poems' imagery; in order to try to reproduce some of the poems' freshness, I opted for some contemporary slang, and imagined how these American-influenced poems would have been written had they been composed by a North American poet writing today. Lacking all knowledge of translation theory and critical apparatuses, I look to Villon by Jean Calais, or Bunting's Overdrafts as guidance and inspiration with regards to the treachery of translating, or as Nabokov quipped, transfiguring.

Most importantly, I translated these poems by Novo as a way of reading them ever-more closely. They have accompanied me for sixteen years or so, from when I was living in Ciudad Juárez. In downtown, a short walk from the ruinous Mercado Cuauhtemoc, there used to be a book vendor who sold used paperbacks on the sidewalk. For a few pesos I purchased Nuevo amor y otras poesías one blazing summer day and commenced reading it immediately while sipping a Carta Blanca nearby at El Recreo. (Ice-cold beer and poetry have been constant companions ever since!) The famous frisson froze me there and then. I hope to get non-Spanish readers in on a bit of that experience now in these English versions.

Salvador Novo

Salvador Novo (1904-1974) was one of the leading members of the Contemporáneos, a group of poets and writers centered in Mexico City, who sought to reinvigorate Mexican poetry during the decades following the Mexican Revolution by introducing styles and theories from contemporary French, English and American poetry. Novo was also a superb translator of North American poetry, an art critic and the author of such collections as XX Poemas (1925) and Espejo (1933). His poetry continues to be a source of inspiration for poets writing in Spanish.