Fleeting Moments of Balance: Poems by Enrique Servín Herrera

poems by Enrique Servín Herrera
translated by Robin Myers and Katherine Silver

Poet, translator, polyglot, and scholar, Enrique Servín Herrera (Chihuahua, Mexico, 1958–2019) was one of the greatest linguists and defenders of indigenous culture in Mexico. As director of the Department of Ethnic Cultures and Diversity for the state of Chihuahua, he worked to protect and support more than eleven indigenous languages of his region, as well as Quiché Maya. His poems are lyrical, sensitive ruminations on the natural world, attuned to human injustice; they focus on the age-old tragedies and absurdities of our history as a species while still finding ways to praise the splendor—or at least moments, flashes of splendor—of our life on Earth.

What follows is a conversation between Robin Myers and Katherine Silver on co-translating Enrique Servín Herrera’s poetry, and three of these poems in translation.


Katherine Silver: I’ve never translated collaboratively. My practice has always been a dialogue between two languages, two texts, two writers—those of the original and of the translation. This collaboration with Robin, with Enrique’s work, is a broader conversation. Enrique was a friend and a colleague, a translator extraordinaire from dozens of languages, and a truly remarkable human being. And there’s a quality in his poems, a poetic voice, that resonates in me in a way that would have made the intimacy of dialogue too painful, the loss too strongly felt.

Robin Myers: Part of what feels especially poignant about translating these poems is Enrique’s own reticence about spotlighting them. As a defender of indigenous languages and cultures, Enrique devoted his life to uplifting the work and struggles of other people; as a poet in his own right, he was intensely self-effacing. His poems often sound to me as if they’re circling themselves: at every turn, the speaker offers a piercing, loving attention to the world around him, and yet he remains firmly rooted in his place as observer. The poems step out, then step back in. In translating this “voice” with Katie, I often feel as if we’re trying, together, to let what’s most direct about that voice shine out, while also honoring its circumspection.

KS: The image of a seesaw comes to mind, the kind you rig up on the seashore with driftwood—splintery, uncertain, the weights and distances never firmly fixed. Robin and I bring different ballast to the game, and yet we continue to find fleeting moments of balance as we alternately rise and fall in relation to the fulcrum of the poem. It’s quite astonishing how lightly his poetic voice carries the weight of his deep and broad erudition; this, too, is part of his reticence, his generosity. The observer is, as Robin says, firmly rooted, then turns its attention on itself, initiating a secondary and different retreat: the humility of the wise.

RM: Fleeting moments of balance, yes—within the poem itself, and between Katie’s and my approaches, our instincts. They teach me (and Katie teaches me) so much about the dance of decisions that is translation itself. Just to say a little about our process: first, each of us comes up with a first draft of several poems. Then we share our initial versions so the other can make comments, suggestions, queries. The first-drafter gets the text back and incorporates the changes she feels good about, and then we swap once again. It’s felt wonderfully natural, this volleying. At the same time, it’s also helping me demystify what’s “natural”: I learn that what sounds completely “right” to my ear may not do the same for Katie’s, and what might initially give me pause about her phrasing may evolve in my ear as a lovely, convincing solution I never would have come to myself. I say “ear” because that’s a lot of what poetry is about for me: an equilibrium—another fulcrum-balance—between intuition and meticulousness. I love listening to Enrique with my co-translator, learning what she hears.


See Original Language See Translation

Elegy

Every evening a young man plays his Tarahumara violin
in his room. Jesús Hielo. Jesus Ice.
My sister remembers him, in Cerocahui.
—Outside the world grows, concrete and vast,
the hills, endlessly trees, conifers.
The sown fields, grasses, sands, stone.
He died today.
He was mestizo, they tell me.
He has very indigenous features, I answer,
then have to correct myself: had.
How sad, that first time, to use the past tense
when speaking of someone.
The living, solid verb gives way in the end:
he spoke, he said, he had, he was.

Hielo used to play his violin in the mountains.

 

Illegal

I’m in another country, or so say the maps,
history, or some other detail—
strange faces, laughter laughing
in a foreign accent.

It’s true,
this couldn’t be my city.

But if I stick a shovel in the ground,
the ground, winter-dampened,
splits open as it does there, and the worm
writhes stateless, in love with life.

And the very same flies also alight
on piles of garbage.

And the reed beds and the cold
speak a language I understand.

 

Prayer of the Ostrich

If I could be spared the noise, O Lord—
the hum of things that split and spoil,
the unbearable sound of things collapsing.

And if I hear it, let
me slip into my house
and hide.

And if I can still hear it
through the cracks in doors and windows,
let me take cover in the bathroom.

And if the echo seeps into the drains,
then let me shut my eyes and fall asleep
to keep the clamor out.

And if I close my eyes,
then let the noise not flood or overwhelm
my perfect dark.

Elegía

Un hombre joven toca su violín tarahumar
todas las tardes en su cuarto. Jesús Hielo:
Mi hermana lo recuerda, en Cerocahui.
—Afuera crece el mundo, concreto y vasto.
Los cerros, interminablemente árboles, coníferas.
Los sembradíos, pastos, piedra, arenas—.
Hoy murió.
Era mestizo, me dicen.
Contesto que es de un rostro muy indígena
y debo corregir, —era.—
Es triste esa primera vez, al hablar de alguien
usar el imperfecto.
El verbo vivo, firme, cede al fin:
hablaba, decía, tenía. Era.

Hielo tocaba su violín en la sierra.

 

Ilegal

Estoy en otro país, eso dicen los mapas
la historia, o algún otro detalle
caras extrañas, risas que se ríen
con acento extranjero.

Ésta, es cierto
no podría ser mi ciudad.

Pero si clavo una pala en el suelo
el suelo, húmedo por el invierno
se abre como allá, y la lombriz
se revuelca sin patria, porque ama la vida.

Y las moscas, idénticas, se paran
también sobre montones de basura.

Y el carrizal, y el frío
hablan lengua que entiendo.

 

Oración del avestruz

Que yo no escuche el ruido, Señor
—este rumor de cosas que se agrietan, se degradan
el ruido insoportable de cosas que se derrumban—.

Que si lo escucho
pueda entrar en la casa
y esconderme.

Que si se alcanza a oír
por las rendijas de puertas y ventanas
yo me encierre en el baño.

Que si el eco se filtra por las cloacas
pueda cerrar los ojos y dormirme
para olvidar el ruido.

Que si cierro los ojos
el ruido no me inunde ni se adueñe
de mi perfecta oscuridad.

Published on June 3, 2021

2021-06-03T15:39:09+00:00