three barricades three barricades and one dark night

Language: Spanish
Poet: Julia Ferrer
Translator: Brandon Holmquest

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three barricades three barricades and one dark night

Five poems by Julia Ferrer with an introduction and translations by Brandon Holmquest

In 2009, tired of hearing me complain about my translation projects constantly being derailed by various copyright issues, my friend Renato Gómez (poet and psych-rock musician from Peru, currently a resident of Barcelona) gave me a small pile of books he’d been involved in publishing back in Perú. He said something like, “Here, shut up and translate these. All the writers are dead, their heirs are chill and they just want the work out there.”

The first thing that caught my eye was a tiny little book, bright blue cover, called Gesto, by Julia Ferrer. It caught my attention because of the color, yes, and also (I sheepishly confess) because the photographs of her revealed one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. The quality of the poems, however, soon put such things far out of mind.

I know almost nothing about Julia Ferrer. She was born in Lima in 1925, and died in 1995. She taught theater in universities and had a very hard time publishing, seeing only two books printed in her lifetime, in 1958 and 1966. Gesto, which contains excerpts from both books as well as material drawn from magazines and unpublished manuscripts, came out in 2004, in an edition of 309 copies. In a way, she barely existed as a poet, lacking the kind of official status granted by a growing shelf of publications, regular public readings, invitations to conferences and so on. Presumably also lacking the odd way such things have of convincing the people in one’s life that the habit of writing is a legitimate pursuit, as opposed to a waste of time better spent on other things. On first read, this seemed rather sad to me, this liminal status, but after two or three trips through the book it became something I found perfectly suited her poetry.

There is a quietness in Ferrer’s work which I hoped to make my translation reflect. I used a lowercase “i” instead of the usual capital vowel meaning “self,” and consistently chose the shortest, simplest English word from among the acceptable options. Ferrer had a way of using repetition to produce rhythm through the length of a poem, and a reliance on an idiosyncratic kind of romanticism in her images.

The question of why Ferrer lived such a marginal life as a writer is an open one. It may well have been by choice. She may have simply not known the right people in the Perú of her era. It almost certainly had something to do with the fact that she was a woman, but I suspect that the nature of her work had a lot to do with it, too. She’s not exactly avant-garde, but also sort of is, in addition to being a bit of a Romantic, with a touch of surrealism. It remains as difficult to pin Julia Ferrer down as a poet as it is to get one’s head around any one of her poems, which remain, somehow, slightly inexplicable. A reader or a translator can literally disassemble her work looking for that which makes it function as it does, and find nothing, no single technique, nothing in the language itself that adds up to the effect of the whole. Her poems are nearly always significantly greater than the sum of their parts. In the end, it is most likely this which is her great strength as a poet.

—Brandon Holmquest

Julia Ferrer (1925–1995) was born in Lima, Peru. In her lifetime she published only two books and had a few poems in small magazines. She also wrote theatrical works for stage and radio, and taught theater at the university level.
Brandon Holmquest edits the poetry and criticism sections at Asymptote and writes poems and translates things, usually poems.

[24 pasos en el mismo sitio]

24 pasos en el mismo sitio
24 suspiros en el día
24 llantos 24 besos

24 pasos en el mismo sitio
24 colores en el día
24 blancos 24 negros

24 pasos en el mismo sitio
24 angustias en el día
24 niños 24 muertos

24 pasos en el mismo sitio
24 bostezos en el día
24 caras 24 espejos

24 pasos en el mismo sitio
24 intentos en el día
24 malos 24 buenos

24 pasos en el mismo sitio
24 trayectos en el día
24 cielos 24 infiernos

24 pasos en el mismo sitio

[24 steps in the same place]

24  steps in the same place
24  sighs in a day
24  sobs  24  kisses

24  steps in the same place
24  colors in a day
24  whites  24  blacks

 24  steps in the same place
24  agonies in a day
24  children  24  dead men

24  steps in the same place
24  yawns in a day
24  faces  24  mirrors

24  steps in the same place
24  attempts in a day
24  evils  24  goods

24  steps in the same place
24  journeys in a day
24  heavens  24  hells

 24  steps in the same place

de Imágenes porque sí

tres barreras tres barreras
y una noche oscura

salté una barrera

dos barreras dos barreras
y una noche oscura

salté una barrera

una barrera una barrera
y una noche oscura

salté una barrera

from Images because

three barricades three barricades
and one dark night

i jumped one barricade

two barricades two barricades
and one dark night

i jumped one barricade

one barricade one barricade
and one dark night

i jumped one barricade

[ayer tuve una cita]

ayer tuve una cita
con una mujer
vestida con gasas grises
toda       toda

hoy tengo una cita

con una mujer
vestida con gasas verdes
toda       toda

mañana tendré una cita

con una mujer
vestida con gasas blancas
toda       toda

[yesterday i had a date]

yesterday i had a date
with a woman
dressed in grey gauze
entirely    entirely

 today i have a date

with a woman
dressed in green gauze
entirely    entirely

tomorrow i’ll have a date

with a woman
dressed in white gauze
entirely    entirely

[el agua]

el agua
            rueda
                     resbala
                                           cae

tan sabiamente
hace y deshace sus surcos

tiene pies esmaltados
multicolores
danzarines
con cascabeles que van repicando

y nunca retroceden

a veces muere
pero renace al instante
y canta
canta
y sigue danzando
muriendo
cantando

semeja
el agua
mujer transparente
de orejas de cierva
de grupas de nácar

que huye y se entrega
volviendo en la huida
huyendo en la entrega
su sangre nos baña
nos nubla los ojos
nos hunde

nos pierde

sus senos de escarcha
refrescan mis sienes

y voy tras de ella
en ella

me llama
me arrastra
me lleva

sus crines de plata
su boca de vidrio
sus grupas de nácar
me envuelvan
me ciegan

y ella
va
cantando
riendo
llorando
muriendo
danzando

mujer transparente
de patas de garza
de orejas de cierva
de senos de escarcha

[the water]

the water
             rolls
                         slips
                              falls

so wisely
makes and unmakes its furrows

has enameled feet
multicolored
dancerly
with bells that ring out

at times dies
but is reborn right away
and sings
sings
and goes on dancing
dying
singing

 

the water
resembles
transparent woman
with doe ears
with mother-of-pearl haunches

who flees and surrenders
returning in flight
fleeing in surrender
her blood bathes us
her eyes cloud us
sink us

lose us

her breasts of frost
refresh my temples

and i go behind her
in her

she calls me
she drags me
she carries me

her mane of silver
her mouth of glass
her mother-of-pearl haunches
envelope me
blind me

and she
goes on
singing
laughing
crying
dying
dancing

transparent woman
with heron legs
with doe ears
with breasts of frost

[la garza de espuma]

la garza de espuma
de encaje de luna
inmóvil vigila

los duendes
las hada y brujas
los sueños lascivos
de la laguna

con su ojo de nácar
el ángel maligno

contempla
la garza de espuma
de cuello infinito
de ojo de nácar
contempla la diosa
dormir
la laguna

la nombra en silencio
la siente venir de su sueño
la acecha
la hiere
la tiñe de sangre

la ama
la siente
la ve con su ojo de nácar

la besa

se vuelve a dormir la laguna
de encaje de luna
inmóvil vigila
la garza de espuma

[the sea-foam heron]

the sea-foam heron
from moon lace
keeps motionless watch over

the duendes
the fairies and witches
the lascivious dreams
of the lagoon

with its mother-of-pearl eye
the malignant angel

considers
the sea-foam heron
with infinite neck
with mother-of-pearl eye
the goddess considers
the sleeping
lagoon

names it in silence
feels it wake from sleep
lies in wait for it
wounds it
stains it with blood

loves it
feels it
sees it with the
mother-of-pearl eye

kisses it

the lagoon goes back to sleep
from moon lace
keeps motionless watch over
the sea-foam heron