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Chad Sweeney

from Wolf Milk: the Lost Poems of Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre
Translated from the Spanish by Chad Sweeney

 

from the Translator’s note

Little is known about the life of Juan Sweeney de las Minas de Cobre. He grew up between Andalusia, Ireland, Oklahoma and Bolivia, lived centuries ago and has yet to be born. Vicente Huidobro wrote in a letter to Sweeney, “Reading these poems, one desires annihilation and love in equal measures. One tastes metal, as of an asteroid belt of old trains passing overhead.” Juan Sweeney preferred riding on the backs of trains to being seated inside; he loved cheese and whiskey and has often been compared to the troubadour poet, Cavalcanti, for his lifestyle of iconoclasm and intrigues with women of court.  From what can be gathered, Sweeney’s books included Instructions to My Translator, Wet Book of the Otter, The Iconoclast’s Secret Window, and Shouts from the Copper Mines. All that remains of Sweeney’s production are the fragments contained here. Nearing the time of Sweeney’s disappearance, he burned all personal copies of his books, and in the years following, his books were mysteriously removed from the world’s major libraries. Sweeney famously claimed that he thought in English but wrote in Spanish, so that the executioners of the Inquisition and the future fascists of the Spanish Civil War would “choke to death” on his poems. For this reason, I have committed to translating Juan Sweeney’s poems back into English, the language of his thoughts. Admittedly, I do not like his poetry much and have tried to improve on it when possible.

 

22.

 

I’m sad today

for everyone who will die,

 

one third by plague,

one third by famine,

 

but each an individual terror,

a last wet blinking

 

of the iris,

one third by war, one third by

 

suicide,

and one third

 

for lack of imagination.

I’ve been accused of egotism—

 

yes, well, look at these feet of mine!

Even my bloodshot eye is

 

prophecy.

I can feel the dead

 

passing into the earth.

My ribs come down

 

to wrap them

protectively, paternally.

 

There’s a fox’s shadow up ahead

on the road, but the fox is

 

nowhere in sight.

 
 

 

24.

 

The sky was busy with angels and martyrs.

The sky foamed like sheep’s blood

 

poured over ivory. All eyes

were on the tight rope walker

 

balanced between two towers,

the show-off son of a bitch,

 

his little toes pointed like rats!

 

No one noticed me grab the rope

to shake him out of his silhouette.

 

No sooner had I touched it

than it was I teetering on the rope,

 

and he was my killer.

To confuse the crowd I fell up

 

into legend,

adding one letter to the alphabet. 

 

 

25.

 

I think in English but I speak in Spanish.

I smoke in Catalan but I dream in French.

 

The spaces between languages

are the spaces between pine needles.

 

From the wolves I learned love.

From the stars I learned forgetting.

 

I drink in Gaelic but I kiss in Portuguese.

I bargain in Greek but I curse in Russian.

 

The space between catalpa leaves

is the first forest. The space between

 

languages is the true language.

From the mockingbird I learned to listen.

 

From the ox I learned patience.

No, I never learned patience.

 

 

39.

 

All its silver mines in disrepair, tonight,

its canyons filling with the cries

 

of extinct birds,

the moon

 

hangs bracelets of thin light

in the mangroves,

 

traces circles on the waters

like a distracted widow.

 

My skeleton is exactly the right size

for my body. My skeleton

 

follows me everywhere

like an old dog.

 

I know a tailor who stitches love letters

onto the bottoms of her feet.

 

I know a man who collects illnesses 

as one would collect river stones. 

 

A rash beneath his collar wilts and blooms.

 

He wears a sweater on the inside 

to keep his kidneys warm.

 

 

41.

 

The grass has asked too little of me

in this life. Clouds over Montserrat,

 

faceted like blue topaz,

have not sought my origins.

 

And even while making love to me,

 

though you come like an earthquake

that shakes the dahlias and the skulls

 

in the gardens, 

you leave my doors unlocked—

 

you do not force them open

 

to find an orphan swaddled in snow

to find the king of field mice

 

presiding at funerals.

Perhaps I’ve not loved you

 

well enough. Perhaps, I’ve been too busy

with my little ironies.

 

But the Landlord is coughing at the window,

and the shadow of a sickly fig tree

 

grows long and dry across the floor,

so I must pursue you

 

even into memory,

even into language.

 

 

43.

 

Leeches gather in patches of shade

to drink blood from the walls

of the house.

 

Unbelievable! This old house

has more blood in it than an elephant!

 

I grit my teeth and lift

with my whole weight up

and out of my taxonomy.

 

I sip from my sorrow

in secret

when the town props

are in for repair.

 

Questions sprout at the borders of light,

black orchids, white turtles,

but the questions aren’t about me,

my face of a green painting with seven eyes,

 

cubist self-portrait in a future of machines.

 

The snow is falling

and its falling is falling

 

making a forest of the air

vertical meadow

 

where oxygen bulges among thistle down.

Every so often I forget to be afraid.

 

 

55.


Then my green old couch drifts out 

 

the window and into the market 

where a goat is masticating

a blind man’s apples, the Count 

buys wigs for his nephew, Pietro, 

and the mayor is pick-pocketing 

a pilgrim returned from Canterbury.

 

Oh, please, all of you, 

come back from Canterbury!

 

St. Peter’s bones have been sold! 

 

The factory that made the bones 

has been sold—the factory’s owner, 

a hunger artist from Gdansk, 

has been sold. 

 

The dogs, set loose at last, 

are hunting their ancestral master 

tracking his footprints back 

through millennia, through the pastures 

of Ilium and the red tassels of wheat. 

 

But the dogs are much older 

than he is, there is 

no such master.

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