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Olga Orozco, Argentine poet (1920-1999)

Olga Orozco, Argentine poet (1920-1999)

I once told a friend whose work I translated that the experience felt like crawling through his veins—slowly, on my elbows, with very little wiggle room. Reaching the end of one long poem, in particular, I felt a kind of muscular expulsion that landed me, freshly oxygenated and stunned into some bright new place. I could still feel his poem on the surface of my skin. It felt the way you would expect, recently flung from an aorta or a birth canal.

Prior to that poem, I had told my friend that I didn’t want to translate anymore. I’d done three or four, and the experience was just too weird, too…can-opening. He kindly agreed to my decision, asking only that I take a look at two more. Reading them, I could decide whether or not to continue. If I said no, there would be no hard feelings. So I translated the long one and the rest, as they ought to say, is mystery.

In translating Olga Orozco, I felt something similar, only the passages weren’t veins but caverns. They were immense, echoing and subterranean with shadows that milled about like guests at a muffled cocktail party. I could stand in Olga’s poems, but I couldn’t rush. I knew there was an end, but I wasn’t sure of getting out. Every time I finished a translation, I’d think, holy crap, that’s enough, then creep back in to try again.

If it weren’t for Melanie Nicholson, who wrote the elegantly researched Evil, Madness, and the Occult in Argentine Poetry, I would never have found or ventured toward Olga Orozco. Descended from Basque, Irish, and Sicilian immigrants, Olga spent her entire life in Argentina. She frequented a Buenos Aires gathering of writers who called themselves “the Generation of 40”, referring to the decade. Most of the members were men, their names unfamiliar to me. In the few photos I’ve seen, Olga looks happy enough with her fellow poets, though one also gets the sense that she observed them deep, profoundly so, beneath their skin without their realizing. And that’s only one explanation for the poem, “Cartomancy”, that I’ll be sharing in this post. (Cartomancy, a word I had to look up, means fortune telling by way of cards.)

Olga Orozco was no carnival psychic. She was a lifelong student of gnosticism, Swedenborgianism, and the hermetic philosophies. She accredits Nerval, Rimbaud, and Beaudelaire as her greatest poetic influences. Olga and “The Generation of 40” were among a dying breed who viewed poetry as the ultimate “dangerous game”. They tapped into its roots as a prophetic and creative function, poetry as sacred, the Logos that makes worlds. Not the kind of stance that endears you to dictators, bishops, or tea parlour ladies.

The second, and final, translated poem is called “When Happiness Dies”. Despite this title and the overall tone of Olga Orozco’s work, I remain convinced that she was, by nature, optimistic. To read her poems the first few times is spooky; it is also kaleidoscopic. Venture in again, and the shards have shifted. Light beams differently. To say that she was sometimes speaking directly to her beloved Argentina may be a stretch, but my blood cells don’t disagree. Olga Orozco, poetess unlaureate, creatrix of new worlds where we all thrive. And, now, her poems:


Hear the barking dogs investigate the origin
of shadows,
hear them tearing at the fabric of presage.
Listen. Something is advancing
and the woods crunch beneath your feet as if
you were fleeing without end and arriving without end.
You sealed the door with your name inscribed on
the ashes of yesterday and tomorrow.
But someone has arrived.
And other faces blow on you, the face in the mirrors
where you are nothing more than a shredded candle,
a moon invaded beneath the waters by triumphs
and combat,
by bracken.

Here is what you are, what you were, what is coming,
what may come.
Seven responses you have for seven questions.
Your chart bears witness that is the sign of the World.
At your right the Angel,
at your left the Demon.
Who calls? But who calls from your
birth until your death
with a broken key, with a ring
that was buried years ago?
Who glides above your own steps
like a flock of birds?
Stars illuminate the sky of enigma.
The more you want to see cannot be seen
face to face
because your light is of another realm.
And it’s still not your time. And there will be time.

What matters more is to decipher the name of who enters.
His chart is that of Madness, with his patient net
for hunting butterflies.

He is the eternal guest.
He is the hallucinated Emperor of the world that inhabits you.
Do not ask who he is. You know him
because you have searched for him under every stone
and in all the abysses
and together you’ve kept vigil over pure advent of the miracle:
a poem in which everything was all plus you
—something more than that whole—
But nothing has arrived.
Nothing more than these same sterile
And it may be growing late.

Let’s see who sits.
She who is caught up in twine and caws
spins unspinning her sheet
has the black butterfly for a heart.
But your life is long and her chord will snap
very far away.
I read it in the sands of the Moon where
the journey is written,
where the house is drawn in which you sink
like a pale striation
in the night spun with great webs
by your weaver Death.
Be more cautious of water, love, and fire.

Beware of the love that stays.
Today, tomorrow, and after tomorrow.
Beware because he shines with a shine
of tears and swords.
His glory is of the Sun, much as his furies
and his pride.
But you will never know peace,
Because your Strength is the strength of torments
and Temperance cries with her face against the wall.
You will not sleep beside happiness,
because in all your steps there is an edge of mourning
that presages crime or goodbye,
and the Hanged Man announces to me the horrific night
that was destined for you.
Do you want to know who loves you?
He who departs at meeting me comes from your
own heart.
Masks of clay shine on your face, and beneath your skin
runs the pallor of all loneliness.
A courtship of lives and deaths came to live
in only one life.
He came to learn the horses, the trees, the stones,
and remained crying over every shame.
You lifted the wall that covers him, but without
your meaning to, the Tower closes him in:
a silken prison where love rattles
keys of the unbearable jailer.
Meanwhile the Chariot awaits the signal to leave:
the apparition of the day dressed as the Hermit.
But it’s not time yet to convert blood
into a memorial stone.
You are still lying in the constellation
of Lovers,
that river of fire that’s devouring the belt
of time that devours you,
and I daresay that both of you belong
to a race of shipwrecks that sank without salvation
and without consolation.

Cover yourself now with the breastplate of power or forgiveness,
as though you were unafraid,
because I’m going to show you who hates you.
Do you listen now to your heart beating like a shadowy wing?
Are you not watching with me for the arrival, bearing a dagger
of frost at your side?

She, the Empress with your broken dwellings,
she who melts your waxen image for sacrifices,
she who buries the dove in darkness to obscure the air in your house,
she who hobbles your steps with branches of a dead tree,
with waning fingernails, with words.
She wasn’t always the same, but whoever she may be
is the same,
anyway her power is nothing other than your other being.
Such is her sorcery.
And although the Croupier rolls the dice over
the table of your destiny,
and your enemy knots your name three times on the
adverse hemp,
there are at least five who know that the game
is in vain,
that her triumph is not triumph
but only a scepter of misfortune conferred upon
the uninhabited King,
an ossuary of dreams where the phantasm of love that doesn’t die wanders.

You’re going to stay in the dark, you’re going to stay alone.
You’re going to stay outside of your chest
to smite who kills you.

Do not invoke Justice. In his desert throne
the serpent was granted asylum.
Don’t try to find your talisman of fish bones,
because there is much night and much of your executioners.
His purple has muddied your thresholds
since dawn
and has marked three unlucky signs on your door
with swords, with gold and with clubs.
Within the circle of swords cruelty enclosed you.
With two disks of gold the deception of
scaly eyelids annihilated you.
Violence drew with his staff of clubs
a blue lightning bolt on your throat.
And above all tended for you the carpet of embers.
Behold the Kings have arrived.
They come to fulfil the prophecy.
They come to inhabit the three shadows of death
that will escort your death
until you stop spinning the Wheel of Fortune.

While Happiness Dies

I have seen happiness lose its way
crying out through a shadowy and lonely woods
where its last day was passed, silent,
forgetting mankind like the spent leaves
that a slow season clings to.

Never again, disdainful between afternoons,
its golden mask,
luminous hands conducting dreams
to a thirsty life,
the fugitive cloak,
its deceiving reflection in the ivy that
memories guard like a lost king.

Oh, the sorrowful repose of earth!
Someone is still waiting with the indecisive river
that blood holds:
he who in his obscurity strikes vainly at walls
pursuing a shadow taller than its nights,
and the terse ash barely looks at dawn and some
flower withers on his chest;
and over there the others
those who search for that corner of air prepared to form
like the anterior body that it inhabited
in remote ages.

They want to seize a path in the dust,
to detain in light their poor paradises made of slow,
laborious talents,
but that puff suffices,
it barely shudders the oscillating branches,
to barter peace for death,
for a sluggish habit of desires.

Because man lives undefended in his happiness
and only then, while his vain melody dies
in the distance
do our faces recover our invincible aura.


© Elaine Stirling, 2014
Translation Copyright, 2014

“Cartomancia” and “Mientras muere la dicha” can be read in the original Spanish here.