“Look at this fellow! He wanted to live
forever, but the very moment he sat down,
sleep swirled over him, like a fog.”
I love the light on Saturdays, in the morning,
when I would walk the streets of San Fernando,
which were both streets and the banks of the Apure River.
Suddenly, the city’s cement design
was abruptly cut off,
had, as its only cardinal point,
a diffuse green line
over a thick, quick brushstroke,
brown in color.
In those places,
where San Fernando flowed into its river’s water,
there were ports and little jetties,
ramps for the arrival of steamers and canoes.
At the feet of these boats I saw the golden body
of an enormous fish for the first time,
stretched out on a plank
between twenty kilo panes de quesos
with salty crystals
of shining quartz on their crusts.
Paso Apure, Guasimito, El Picacho, La Defensa:
ports where it was possible
to take the river’s pulse,
place a hand on our wrist,
that if the Apure were a great river, it was so
because it was a trace carved into clay
where its history is strung
and it is sheathed by a dark wood
providing the stage where things play out
over a land as flat
as a sheet of paper,
and whose acts I would like, now, to relate:
On Tuesday, the 4th of January, 1910,
El Nuevo Diario of San Fernando reported on
a scuffle at one of the riverside bars.
Nights in the ports were lit
by the flash and first blood of these encounters.
A musician walked into a dive called
The Two Gaiters with his tuning key
and pulled the blanket off his harp.
The floor, the air, grew gelatinous and violet
as he sang a joropo
gently, with kindness:
Marshlands of the Apure
knowing how to sail
can be crossed in seven days
The barroom was small:
six tables set apart by vice
and some oil fires, placed in metal hoops,
crisscrossed the atmosphere.
It’s a lie that we listen attentively to another’s music,
It’s a lie that we listen attentively to another’s music:
because a dark frown suddenly appeared
on the dancers’ faces.
A thwack snuffed out the oil lamp,
those that followed smashed the harp.
And since the musician wept over his instrument’s demise
they beat him to death, too.
Outside the dive
the monotonous wails of the boats reigned,
the heart absent
and the roads swept by storms.
That same year, Camilo Ceballos committed suicide.
An edition of Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled
had come via a steamship, The Refuge,
crossing the river’s diseased slime
right up to his house’s sandy patio.
Between rough columns
of reinforced concrete,
under the moldings of arches,
the initiates read.
At that hour
the birds sang a song
of erres and erres under the sun.
Camilo Ceballos was a backlit glass of water,
trembling and meek,
trapped by his desire to taste
the silent sense of the heart.
In spite of everything, the San Fernando nights
were like Danaë in Titian’s painting,
receiving the golden rain,
reclining on the fabrics
sold at the Lleras Codazzi family store.
Camilo Ceballos walked
toward that commercial establishment
after visiting the port and watching
the departure and docking of the selfsame ships.
Before acting on his calm determination,
he sent his neighbor this letter:
Sr. Antonio A. Ceballos,
Last night I dreamed that, on the banks of the Apure River, I met with Agustín Lleras Codazzi and Abraham Farache, theosophists. Together, we could see Isis standing in a reed canoe, a bronze rattle in one hand, her boat laden with pottery and alabaster. On that red, drowsy afternoon I went into the water, among the shore’s mud and hyacinths and, raising my arms, I prayed to her: Oh, Mother! Be gentle with me. Permit me to look upon your beauty. Agustín has asked me to come with him, to live the good life on the astral plane. I have therefore firmly resolved to follow him. I will make a home in the air.
Camilo went behind the stone door and put on the shroud
he dreamed of being buried in.
The poem thus far has come from his blossoming words.
Agustín Lleras Codazzi
had died the year before,
alone on the main street.
had strange philological tastes
and was murdered
over a discussion in the local press
about the etymology of the word vulture.
The encounter with the other man,
the lawyer Rafael del Castillo,
happened on Calle Comercio,
which ran along the river.
At that hour, the water reflected
the desolate stilts of a river house.
Agustín had only time to wave some kids away
before he heard the exact shots.
The red of the ground and the new green
of the just-sprouting hay blazed.
I always associated that moment with a poem
I read in a newspaper, El Industrial Apureño,
published in 1905 by Liberty Pharmacy.
The text, by an unknown poet, D. V. Blanco,
ended with the following lines:
A ship appears
herons flap wings
and a reptile emerges
from the basin’s depth.
It’s a fine image of death.
*Trees pulled down by rivers that intertwine and overhang each other in the shallows of riverbeds.
Translated by Brandon Homquest.
Brandon Holmquest coedits the (now) online translation journal Calque with Steve Dolph and works as a line cook at a mediocre restaurant in Queens, New York.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation.