Poems (PDF)

Introduction and Translation, Rose Shapiro
The Peruvian poet Carlos Germán Belli enjoys an international reputation today, although the difficulty of his poetic language has delayed the translation of work into English (there have a few poems published in journals and one anthology, and those several years ago). The poems included here are from the recent bilingual edition of his work, Carlos German Belli: Selected Poems (Lima: Editorial de la Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2008).

Belli is a fascinating voice in the Latin American scene —and he will be new for North Americans. He often writes in the Spanish of the Golden Age, and his poetry is a compelling blend of past and present, envy and nostalgia, suffering and elegance. Belli is a truly innovative poet, one whose work is immediately recognized and whose work has been honored many times with a variety of prestigious awards and, most recently, a Nobel nomination.

Belli’s poetry is characterized by several features, and his work is easily recognized once these features are understood. While in his earlier volumes he experimented quite a bit with a number of styles and forms (composing poems from nonsense or near-nonsense syllables, for instance), he has in the main developed an increasingly complex formalism based on what he calls plagio: plagiaristic appropriations, especially from the late medieval Italian tradition (Dante and Petrarch) and, predominantly, the Spanish Golden Age (Góngora, Quevedo, and a host of minor poets). The rhetoric of plagio as it is developed over the course of several volumes provides provocative theories of authorship, originality, and textuality. In the forms themselves of his poetry we see this “poor amanuensis of Peru” wrestling with (or bowing down to or digesting or copying) European literary tradition. He has worked extensively with forms like the silva, the canzone, and the sestina, not only inhabiting the form but also often remaining faithful to the original thematic premises (of Dante, Petrarch, Góngora, etc.). He takes other thematic inspiration from sources as diverse as the pastoral tradition, the street language of Lima, and a sort of utopian science fiction mostly of his own creation. Despair is often the guiding emotion of these wanderings; but we also find anger, pettiness, envy, annoyance, thwarted desire. In recent work his poetic voice is more expansive and even celebratory, but the spirit of the amanuensis is always with us.
Much of his poetry centers on the body, its functions and dysfunctions, its pleasures and pains, its strangeness and crudity. The body in his poetry is often deformed (maimed, crippled, cross-eyed) or preformed (the miserable fetus appears in his work with regularity, as it does in the illustrations of Beardsley and with much the same aspect). His landscape is populated with hybrids, freaks, and failures. In fact, the persona’s own failure and his own sense of smallness and inadequacy lend him a special understanding of the world of misfits he has created. He is also obsessed with digestion and defecation, and understanding the semantic range of these terms in his work helps the reader to trace the development of a sort of theory of influence. For instance, he employs the elegant and tortuous syntax of Golden Age poetry in several poems that purport to praise the bolo alimenticio, the mass of chewed but undigested food that is at the beginning of its journey through the alimentary canal. The bolo sometimes signifies accumulated knowledge that the amanuensis is not able to use to enrich himself or to improve his circumstances. There are many such examples of startling juxtapositions. As Belli is a master of meter and has an unerring ear for sound combinations and the elegance of the line, these sometimes grotesque subjects are explored in very elegant poems indeed, poems that bring together feces, deformed characters of the pastoral tradition, and unrelenting descriptions of endless labor.
We follow the difficult and strange road down which his poems travel because we sense that there is something unutterably true and even timeless in all that difficulty and strangeness. I only hope that these translations can approximate that sense of discovery among English-speaking readers.


(after Pedro de Quirós)

Not once have they been envied:

my humble home, your oak tree,
my love, yours,
my lute, your song;
oh my turtledove!— is it thus with you,
so brief, so envied,
so great, so scorned?

Rather than take sweet human form,
why did my elders not exist
as a stone, an elm tree, or a stag,
which, it seems, are not plagued by sense
and never to the other say:
“do not stray from this safe grove,
in which you understand
whence the bitter north wind blows, and whither the south.”

A mysterious voice once said to me:
“you shall not lie with Phyllis, shall not, in the field,
if with forceps they pull you out
of your luminous cloister, fetus mine”;
and now, finding myself here
in these crude quarters, year upon year,
I ask why I was not flung down
from the highest peak
for being a stutterer or a cripple or maimed or cross-eyed.

To My Brother Alfonso

In equal measure the timber and the crude iron

of the stocks cruelly subjugate you;
and they make of your body a single organ
reaching from your neck down to the soles of your feet,
not only over your poor hide
but also in the bone, your deepest marrow;
so they leave you like an oyster here
firmly rooted in the surface of the world;
and the subtle flight
which the bird in cerulean cloister plies
more swiftly than the warm south wind—
when at last will it come for you?,
while you below in the fold, alone,
do not move a single bone
nor agitate your clumsy tongue
to mouth words into empty air;
for in the world all comes and goes,
blown about by the breath of life,
which comes with lavish grace
for many and which for no fewer others comes
harsh, in vain, or as nothing for ever.

Know this, my parents, oh know it well:
an insect cannot be translated as a man,
but a man is indeed translatable as insect!;
perhaps you didn’t think much of it when
here on earth, without meaning to, you killed
some poor insect,
who had, in distant woods, in the furthest, safest spot,
stayed tucked away in the darkness there
to elude the human eye,
by light of day or under cover of night,
—didn’t you think, I ask you, that in time
a few of your beloved sons
would become just so, insects defenseless and meek,
despite even your thousand pains
to guarantee that at all times
they would have the weight and measure of human things?

Your shinbone as it left your mother’s womb
possessed not even a splintered bit
of foot, nor your speechless throat
a splintered bit of tongue,
yet why did others from the womb possess
both nimble foot and golden tongue
with which to walk, to speak?
How many stumbles have you witnessed
among the firm shinbones of passers-by,
as between sharp whistles the swift stag races,
faster even than the wind that goads him;
and how many gossipy tongues
wagging, though their owners may not mean to,
day and night, for no reason at all,
and you burn up, you roast beneath your skin
seeing that for some sweet shepherdess your throat
won’t cough up a single word.


Even as I’m collapsing on the floor, panting,
exhausted to the bone, all broken down,
still, all day long, I toil, moving mountains
from here to there, heaving and coughing,
my tongue hanging out a hundred thousand lengths,
falling to pieces just as my poor parents did;
and all this, in fact, because of my barren brain
and the stock market and draft board and mean boss-men—
they march on, leaving me stuck at the bottom of the heap;
so I am stuffed to the gullet and can do no more,
bent with shame at my daughters’ feet,
just a poor amanuensis of Peru.

The Stocks of Lima

Like a rooster’s cockscomb chopped off,
a long, grainy flap of skin
dangles obscenely from my throat;
and beneath my two chicken-feet I find
debris, not of plaster but of flesh,
like the melancholy ruins of a fallen house.
Why do these mounds of rubble heaped
and this sagging skin plague me so
when I am not a scrawny, hunchbacked old man?
Your stocks do this, oh Lima, I know it well;
as much a cradle as a perpetual tomb
for whoever here is born, lives, and dies.

Sestina: mea culpa

Forgive me, Dad, Mom, because my error
was the birthplace of your unnamable damage,
since that time when first my brains
wove the knotted mesh of deeds
with the twisted ropes I found in the back,
this hole where I lie captive ‘til my death.
Like a hot-air balloon released upon my death,
swollen with the bitter gall of errors,
my conscience will rise up from out back,
for to die like this, fenced in by so much damage,
is in all the world the most wretched deed,
not the fate of a sophisticated brain.
But this is the nonsense of a bewildered brain,
not to be revived, not even in death,
and in truth it is an unendurable deed
that the soul devote itself to committing errors
until, brought low by all the damage,
the body turns to dust, stuck in the back.
With my love life and career consigned to the back
of the line by exclusive design of my brains,
I am left like this by all the deadly damage,
even at the threshold, at the moment of death,
which itself was wrought in welding errors
to the heavy ingots of my life’s deeds.
Dad, Mom, your sweetest deeds—
how I soured them, just languishing in the back,
lost in the forest of errors;
and so distressed you were by my poor brain—
hounded by firebrands in the lair of death,
trapped beneath the flood of all that damage.
Because error engages the wheels of damage,
upon erring I damaged you, such an ugly deed,
pitching you so early to your death,
and all the while I lay unmoving in the back,
a slave to the will of my rat’s nest of a brain,
crude origin of the deadliest errors.
If my brain stays stuck, Mom, Dad, in the back,
may this be its last deed in the face of death:
to compensate the damage and to purge the errors.

Walking Meditation

I always take a daily walk
upon the surface of the sublunary world
to preserve my health,
and I prefer to do so in a park,
where plants and tiny animals
live side by side in harmony;
and happily there I stroll
without stopping to consider that, unwittingly,
I might tread upon some beings,
who, just like me, are fully alive.
And, in truth, how fit I feel,
though I’m mass-murdering
those who lie beneath me,
torn between heaven and earth,
unable to avoid death,
which befalls them so suddenly
when someone comes along and in two great strides
with the sole of his heavy shoe
without further ado annihilates
the humblest son of God.
I have before me the multitude of ants
who take their last breath,
crushed by the thousand footsteps
of an average walker
turned homicidal
without intending it, no doubt;
but such are the circumstances
when a human giant kills
an invisible little animal,
unarmed, defenseless against another’s passing.
It is most inexplicable
and, what’s more, absurd
that someone, trying to stay in shape
— just as I do, every day —
with a swift blow cuts short the life
of one who never hurt another creature,
not even the merest mite;
just so may the heavens fall
like a house of cards
upon me one ill-fated day. So be it.