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August 27, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Translation — Elsa Cross

Mexican poet Elsa Cross

ELSA CROSS (México, born 1946)

They say Elsa Cross was a rompecorazones, a heartbreaker, in her twenties, when with long hair and flashing eyes she rode shotgun with the first wave of Mexican jipis as they searched for magic mushrooms in the sacred landscape of Tepoztlán. Back in those days Elsa began to accumulate the poems that became Bacantes:

Nada de tus prestigios santos.

Las mujeres te esperaban como un advenimiento,

y llegaste con marihuana en los bolsillos,

el cabellos en desorden,

quién sabe de cuáles correrías salido apenas.

Y tenías algunos enigmas que responder

como a la Reina de Saba.

Te reías de verlas tan piadosas,

tus hermanas de leche,

y como Shiva en el Bosque de Pinos,

desplegando un gran falo

las sedujiste en las barbas de sus maridos,

los ascetas.

Y ellas te siguieron.

Ninguna maldición te alcanzaba,

oh Fumador-de-Hierbas-Intoxicantes.

Arriba, señales de espejos en las ramas.

La tierra quieta, esperando,

como en día de mucha fiesta.

Y allá bajaban los Concheros

con sus flautas y sus tambores tristes,

sus cascabeles de semillas secas.

Danza de espejos bajo el sol.

En el barrio de la Cruz tronaban cohetes.

De los postes habían colgado banderas de colores.

La gente ebria por las calles

iba en procesiones tambaleantes,

a punto de caer en las piedras disparejas.

A la noche luces de bengala,

tus espejos de humo.

Los cohetes retumbando como disparos.

Gente amante del fuego.

En tantos lados hallamos

cartuchos de bala enmohecidos,

quemadura de pólvora en los muros.

Los niños soplaban contra los rehiletes,

soplaban contra las flores

volando sus pétalos al viento.

Mujeres te seguían.

None of your holy pranks.

The women awaited you like the Second Coming,

and you arrived with marijuana in your pockets,

your hair all tangled,

barely escaped from who knows what jams.

And you had some riddles to answer

just like answering the Queen of Sheba.

You laughed to see them so pious,

your milk-sisters,

and like Shiva in the Pine-forest,

unfolding a big phallus,

you seduced them under the beard of their husbands,

the ascetics.

And the women followed you.

No curse could reach you,

oh Smoker-of-Intoxicating-Herbs.

The earth quiet, waiting,

as on a day of great festival.

And the Concheros were coming down there

with their flutes and sad drums,

their rattles of dry seeds.

Dance of mirrors under the sun.

Rockets thundered in the Quarter of the Cross.

They hung colored flags from the poles.

The people staggered down the streets

in drunken processions,

almost falling on the uneven stones.

Flares in the nights,

your smoky mirrors.

The rockets booming like gunshots.

People in love with fire.

Everywhere we found

rusted cartridges,

powder-burns on the walls.

The children blew against the shuttlecocks,

blew against the flowers

flying their petals to the wind.

Women followed you.

Elsa got religion from Guru-ji. She quit smoking, went to India, saw the jewel in the lotus, and became a grownup. She is now quite an elder in the ashram.  Ever since then, as a poet, she has had a double locale, like her mentor Octavio Paz, between her native Mexico and India. I translate her Mexican poems. An unfortunately monolingual English print edition was published by Shearsman last year. I am decently represented by poems from her books Jaguar and Urracas, but despite Elsa’s and my urgings there are some very clumsy versions of Bacantes by Spanish teacher Luis Ingelmo and Irish co-translator Michael Smith. Safer not to say this stuff, I know, but for instance, here’s the beginning of the poem above. Judge for yourself.

None of your blessed prestiges.

The women were anticipating your coming, like an advent

and you arrived with marijuana in your pockets,

your hair messed up,

just out of who knows what escapades.

And you had some quiries to answer

just like to the Queen of Sheba.

You laughed to see them so devout,

your milk-sisters,

and like Shiva in the Pine-Wood,

unfolding a great phallus,

you seduced them under the their husbands’ beards,

the ascetics.

And the women followed you.

Buy the Shearsman book anyway. I mean, stuff happens. The other translators were old friends already on board the project before I turn up waving authorized versions that Elsa and I had worked on for years. But still, really. None of your blessed prestiges?

Elsa and I went to Washington, D.C. in September 2008. She was specially invited to the National Book Festival as Mexican poet plenipotentiary and I was eked into the scene as her translator. “You’re her interpreter?” asked the sloshed much younger girlfriend of a well-known SoQ poet. “No, her translator,” I replied. “If Elsa were to say, Mucho gusto, encantada de estar aquí, I could say Thank you, I am very happy to be here, but she can handle that level of discourse. Translating is more like going into a closet with someone’s poem poetry and emerging ten years later with her work in English.” It took awhile for her to see the difference.

I did get to have one lovely late-night talk with incoming Poet Laureate Kay Ryan when we were the last adults left in the bar. Sunday morning, after the panels and the readings were over, Elsa and I trudged on muddily to the National Gallery — as once she and I had gone to the Museo Nacional in San José, Costa Rica — and found a room where the blazing light of morning seemed to shine in through a Monet on the wall. That’s what Elsa Cross’s poetry is like to me: translucent to the light of the universe.


One Comment

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  1. C.M. Mayo / Sep 3 2010 10:29 am

    Delightful and fascinating post, John. Elsa is a treasure. Some years ago I published some of her poems in Tameme (, translated by Patricia Dubrava. And you know I was so glad to finally publish some of your translatioms with the beautiful Jorge Fernandez Granados poems.

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