Two Poems by José Asuncíon Silva

BOMB 74 Winter 2001
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One night

                 One night
One night heavy with the scent of perfumes, with murmurings
                                                                    and music of wings,
                 One night
As phantasmal fireflies flickered in humid, nuptial shadows,
We walked together, slowly, our bodies close, and you,
                 Silent, pale,
As if a presentiment of infinite pain and sorrow
Had shaken you to the most secret depths of your being,
Came strolling along the garden path through
                 Fragrant gardens,
                 And in the indigo
Of the vast, farthest heavens, the full moon shed its unearthly light,
                 And your shadow,
                 Languid, mellow,
                 And my shadow,
Lengthened by the moonbeams falling upon
The path’s somber sands
Were blending,
                 Forming one
                 Forming one
Forming one long, lonely shadow!
Forming one long, lonely shadow!
Forming one long, lonely shadow!
                 
                 Tonight,
                 Alone, my soul
Overflowing with the unfathomable grief and agony of your death,
Separated from your being by shadows, by time and distance,
                 By the infinite darkness
                 No mortal voice can penetrate,
                 Alone, silent,
                 I walked that lonely path,
And somewhere far away dogs were barking at the moon,
                 At the pale moon,
                 And frogs were
                 Shrilly croaking,
I felt cold; it was the chill of the chamber where you lay,
The cold of your cheeks and temples, of your beloved hands
                 Among the snowy folds
                 Of mortuary sheets,
It was the icy chill of the tomb, it was the chill of death,
                 It was the chill of nada …
                 And my shadow,
                 Lengthening by the falling moonbeams,
                 Walked alone,
                 Walked alone,
                 Walked alone through the deserted garden!
                 And your slim, supple shadow,
                 Languid, mellow,
As on that warm and humid night of springtime death,
As on that night filled with sweet perfumes, with murmurings
                                                                    and music of wings,
                 Appeared and walked with mine,
                 Appeared and walked with mine,
Appeared and walked with mine … O shadows entwined!
O shadows that seek each other, blending together on nights
                 Of tears and black despair!
 
—Written circa 1895, published posthumously in El libro de versos, 1923.

 

Tropical Landscape

The river spills its soporific magic
Into the journey’s calm monotony,
And in the distance vistas are erased
As shadows lengthen toward infinity.

A lone thatched hut slips past, glimpsed
Through a matted jungle tapestry
That casts designs of tangled leaves and vines
Worked in tones of dusk’s variety.

Venus comes to life in purest space,
Below, a native hollowed-out canoe
Grooves the drowsy current, swift and sure,

As in the west, the fiery setting sun
Forges a second green and rose-tinged sky
In the lazy river’s liquid mirror.

—Published in El libro de versos, 1923

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden.

Margaret Sayers Peden is a translator living in Columbia, Missouri. Among her translations are the works of Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Jose Emilio Pacheco. Her most recent publications include Iasbel Allende’s Paul, Aphrodite and Daughter of Fortune.

 

—The history of poetry abounds with tragic legends, but the story of the Colombian poet José Asunción Silva, who shot himself in the heart in 1896, is difficult to surpass. Born into a wealthy family, Silva died broke, having been sued by dozens of his creditors. The year before his death, the boat in which he was returning to Colombia from Europe sank and with it vanished two collections of stories, two volumes of poems and a short novel. Suva’s reputation is based on a novel, De sobremesa, which he reconstructed. Of the surviving poems, the haunting and melodic Nocturno (published here as One Night) became the most beloved Colombian poem of all time, and one of the most influential poems in Latin American literature. Today, José Asunción Silva is recognized as Colombia’s national poet, and the house where he died in Bogota, Casa Silva, is a museum and meeting place of Colombian poets. The face of the poet who killed himself to get away from his creditors adorns Colombia’s five-peso coin.

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Originally published in

BOMB 74, Winter 2001

Featuring interviews with Damiela Eltit, Alavaro Musis, Carmen Boullosa, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Vega, Gunther Gerzso, Valeska Soares, Pedro Meyer, Marisa Monte, Cubanismo!, and Ned Sublette.

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