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The Elephants

Four Poems

José Asunción Silva trans. Robert Fernandez


Carnal pleasures: relish. Caresses
And kisses: savor. And love
With the full length of your being:
Surface. Waste yourself for me.

Should a prophylactic
Deliver you from malaria,
Ataxia will see you filleted
Once you hit your prime.

The cups that hold
Obliterating nectar
Will dissolve your senses
Drop by drop.

Toil endlessly, fight, sweat,
Sell your life for gold:
You’ll die alone on a toilet
Before you reach retirement!

You’ll have clay
And pebbles in your guts,
Ringing your limbs like a towel
As you gaze on your pretty balance sheet.

Art’s work is threshing,
Polishing, sculpting, breaking,
Sacrifice! So, to the work that kills you—
Canvas, bronze, poems—

Affix your nerves, your soul, your life!
Or don’t, for today your work,
Which seems like a piece of forever,
Is tomorrow yesterday’s news.

Or become a believer,
And prostrate your reason
At the feet of the absurd:
Pay the fare to a fool’s paradise!

You’ll pay with your loves. (And your faith will slur!)
Now pray, meditate, plead. When death comes
You’ll still ask: But once above can’t I keep
The rich calligraphy of my sin?

Or, distaining pleasure
And sewing yourself into the pages
Of philosophy, whose threads
You lovingly brush to the find truth,

Compare religions and
Kabbalas to Stuart Mill,
Glean symmetries between
Spencer and Wundt, scholarly

Method and occult mysteries.
Entranced by such abysses,
You’ll dredge up a gorgeous result:
You can’t even trust yourself.

To hell with idle comforts:
In the end, isn’t the single stationary fact
In this immense maelstrom of life
The inner face’s shining eye?

Then forget study and pleasure;
Abandon art’s dull struggle;
And, like Çâkia-Muni, dissolve yourself
Into Nirvana, a golden bouillon cube!

Flee life’s endless disappointments,
And, at last alone, legs tangled
Around your head, be a senile yogi
And blissfully pass the years.

Or you can lift the little drawbridge
That connects you to the world,
Gathering in the friends who keep
Your mirrored kinship ring dancing.

But take note: When you reach your end,
Your final stop on earth,
You’ll feel a dread that can kill you
At having done nothing.


(To Antonio J. Restrepo)

Have kisses,
Hot candies sucked
On impossible nights,
Extinguished their mad excesses?

Are living prayers
And humble dawns
Locked in cells, adorned
With just a cross and bones?

No! Infinity’s divers,
Flesh’s cry sheathed
In ringing depths:

Let them savor life
Before they are swallowed
By the black earth.

Untitled [Cuando hagas una estrofa…]

When you cut a furrow of verse,
Do it with such uncanniness
It seeds the future with new forms:
Faces bright as Carrara marble,
And shoulders thick as the pediments of temples.

To the Hatred of the Reader

Their hatred wasn’t passion,
Just a vague tenderness,
As along the breasts of sick children—
Bruised remembrances of nights lost.

Life’s flame
Only unfolds in song:
When love’s violence summons it,
It surges up, shines, retreats, and is gone.

True passion begins like this.
Just so, reader, in a better time
These poems might have been written
Not in stanzas but life’s tears.

José Asunción Silva (1865-1896) is Colombia’s most celebrated poet and, along with Rubén Darío, Delmira Agustini, Julián del Casal, and others, one of the founders Latin American modernismo, a movement that transformed Hispanic literature. Gabriel García Márquez has written that Silva was “by nature and family sturdy and good-looking, but ghostly pale, of exquisite manners, great human and artistic sensibility, a lucid intelligence, a seductive verbal fluency, and an armoured dignity.” The child of a wealthy Bogotá merchant, Silva suffered a number of personal and familial hardships, among them the loss of his beloved sister, Elvira. He took his own life at the age of thirty. Silva is also the author of a novel, De Sobremesa.

Robert Fernandez is the author, most recently, of Scarecrow (Wesleyan) and Pink Reef (Canarium), and is co-translator of Azure (Wesleyan), poems by Stéphane Mallarmé.

This originally appeared on December 27, 2017