Schevchenko – The sun sets


The sun sets, coal-black mountains;
a bird, the fields fall silent.
People enjoy their relaxation but
I watch . . . and from my heart I fly
through dark forests to Ukraine.
I fly on and on, with the poem I make,
and it seems my soul is set free.
Night falls over the land, woods and hills
and stars appear in the still blue sky.
O stars! star after star—and tears
fall. Have you risen in Ukraine yet?
Do brown eyes seek you out
against the sky? Or fail to do so?
If they forgot or fell asleep, at least
they’ll not hear about my sorry life.

Taras Shevchenko
Version by John Lyons

Taras Shevchenko was born into serfdom in 1814. A political dissident, an artist, he is now considered the national poet of Ukraine. He died in St. Petersburg in 1861 and is buried by the Dnipro River in Kaniv, Ukraine.


The other door

the other door

     The other door, John Lyons (40 x 40 cm, oil on canvas)

This is the other door

that nobody sees

that nobody chooses
the other door

to which other paths
never reach

this is the other door
behind which

another life lurks
the door untested

the door untried
the alpha the omega

to the moon and stars
that promise love

John Lyons

Wake to a white world

Wake to a white world
inlaid with deep frost
the green fields covered
with this frozen manna
the dense air clouded
by our breath in the cold
winter silence

on such mornings
love longs for
the warm touch
of supple fingers
for subtle words
from lips prepared
to kiss the day

John Lyons

Julio Cortázar – If I have to live

CortázarKnown as one of the most accomplished prose writers of the so-called Latin American Boom in fiction, Julio Cortázar was also a consummate poet. The poem translated below is taken from the last of his works to be published during his lifetime. Born in the Argentinian embassy in Brussels in 1926, Cortázar lived for most of his adult life in Paris, though he never lost his close identification with his homeland nor with Latin America in general. Famous for his wit and humour in his novels and short stories, Cortázar’s lyrical voice is endlessly inventive.

If I have to live

If I have to live without you, let it be hard and bloody,
the soup cold, my shoes tattered, or that in the midst of opulence
let the dry branch of the cough rise up, barking out to me
your misshapen name, a foam of vowels, tearing at my sheets
with its fingers, so that nothing brings me peace.
Not even from that will I learn to love you more,
but cast out from happiness
I’ll know how much joy you once gave me just by being near.
I believe I understand this, but I’m wrong:
it will require frost on the lintel
for the person sheltering in the doorway to understand
the light in the dining room, the milk-white tablecloths and the smell
of the bread thrusting its brown hand through the slit.

So far from you now
as one eye from the other,
from this assumed adversity
the look you deserve will finally be born.

Julio Cortázar

(translation by John Lyons)

Aldo Pellegrini

Aldo Pellegrini: The subversive effect of poetry

aldo-pellegrini_bwThe Argentinian poet, Aldo Pellegrini (1903-1973), was the founder of the first Surrealist group among Spanish-speaking writers. In his writing he called for a poetry “free from the schemes of reason, free from social norms, free from prohibitions, free from prejudice, free from canons, free from fear, a poetry free from its own preconceptions.” 

Below, along with two poems dating from 1952, I have translated the first two paragraphs of an essay he published in Buenos Aires in 1965 which outlines his poetic manifesto.

Aldo Pellegrini: The subversive effect of poetry (extract).

There is a force in man, that comes from the simple fact of living, it conditions his destiny fatally. This force is visible at every turn through the manifestations of love, which tends to transcend the individual in communion with the whole, has its own laws that are irreducible to rational schemes. Poetry appears as an expression of that impulse toward fulfilling a vital destiny, and the inevitability of that fate is revealed in poetry as an indisputable fact. Poetry is not, therefore, an amusement or luxury, but a necessity, just as love is. All other needs, even the most urgent, are subordinate to those two, which ultimately are the two aspects of the same primordial energy that gives true meaning to life. If we penetrate deeply into the meaning of the old saying “Man does not live by bread alone,” we will see that the lucidity of popular wisdom reaches a similar conviction. To go without poetry would be to renounce life.

Considered thus, the poetic exists not only in words; it is a way of acting, a way of being in the world and existing with people and things. Poetic language in its different forms (plastic form, verbal form, musical form) merely objectifies in a communicable manner through the appropriate signs of each particular language, the expansive force of the vital. As a result, the poetic world is in everyone, to the extent that every individual is an integral being. Lautreamont’s clear slogan, “Poetry should be made by everyone,” has no other meaning. Whoever ignores poetry is a mutilated being, as is whoever ignores love.

No subject

He who sings out of not knowing
he who saturated with ignorance
runs along the belly of the dark Fridays
he who throws fingernails into the street
and hides his life in corners
who enraged chews on silence
seeks his subject.

A subject
a subject that changes
a subject that changes with the steam of digestions
a subject illuminated by the glow of parched tongues
a subject pursued by the rumble of empty eyes
the subject of luminous hunger, the subject of the cry of ecstasy
the subject of resounding brows
the subject of ears where words are liquefied.

The eyes out of their sockets
a shaft of light that causes the gaze to bleed
staring in the direction of microscopic subjects
hands outstretched
that reach the final disintegration of subjects.

Subject that changes in a man who doesn’t change
in the cave of subjects, unchanging man
I am condemned by the time of times
to be myself.


The spiders’ feast

O so you’ve woken up?
a prodigious morning opens wide the windows
last night’s tree has left a mark
on the skin of your forehead.

Yes, you’ve woken up
shaking off your mantle of cobwebbed sleep
You’ve put to flight the crowd of blind rats
that gnawed at you as you slept.

You’re awake, where you off to now?
you abandon your night wealth for the great void of day
and with pale weakness you build your aimless march.

You’re awake, let’s mount
the narrow stairs to the end of time
there to surprise the lost minutes
life escapees.

a sudden discouragement holds you back
before a heavenless space where terrified mists
of inexplicable gentleness
transform those who advance into wind.

Marine algae of hope
pointless hours lurk behind the golden door
words chained to a deep secret
diamond discouragement shines inwardly
those who dare to smile lose their place in the world.

Where’re you off to without me? looking for your solitary feast
your drunkenness of signs and cataracts
your cage of freedom
where unknown friends sup your fluid gestures
and poison glares at you with phosphorescent eyes.
Prepare for your feast
the feast of hands that crush each other
the feast of creaking sweat
there where the lethargy of your flesh
throws itself into a dark dance.

Your feast is the feast of spiders
that ferociously devour your night wealth
to feed their endless misery
there submerged in boundless oblivion
you’ll buy reasons to laugh
You’ll purchase a roar to fill your silence

Aldo Pellegrini

(translation by John Lyons)

Sous la nuit

The absent ones blow greyly and the night is dense. The night’s the colour of the dead man’s eyelids.

All night I’m on the run, I channel the pursuit and flight, I sing a song for my misfortunes, black birds upon black shrouds.

I scream mentally, the demented wind rebuts me, I confine myself, I pull away from the twitching hand, I don’t want to know anything other than this clamor, this howl in the night, this wandering, this not being found.

All night I make the night.

All night you abandon me slowly as water falls slowly. All night I write to find who is looking for me.

Word by word I write the night.

Alejandra Pizarnik

Translation by John Lyons

pizarnikAlejandra Pizarnik (April 29, 1936 – September 25, 1972), an Argentinian poet, greatly respected and supported by such writers as Octavio Paz and Julio Cortázar, had a long and ultimately unsuccessful struggle against depression. The intensity and intimacy of her poetry places her firmly in the tradition of Emily Dickinson, whose verse she greatly admired. In her “Notes for an article”, written in 1964, she states : “Intense need for poetic truth. It demands the freeing of visionary energies while maintaining, simultaneously an extraordinary aplomb in the handling of this energy. I’m not sure if I’m talking about poetic perfection, freedom, love or death.”

When you no longer love me


When you no longer love me
and there’s nothing left for us to harm
because there’s nothing left living
worthy of our trust

When you have left
                                   and I have left
and the musicians have gone
and the doors have been closed
and the locks have been bolted
and the candles extinguished
though the wicks smoulder on

When you no longer love me
When in the social round your eyes
on meeting mine no longer say
« Be patient my dear
             you know my heart
                          belongs to you »  

When you no longer love me
and I no longer fear you

When in the next phase
of your incessant search
                              you love another
and bare your feet
             beneath the shadow
                           of another’s sceptre
and I cheerfully dismiss
the loneliness and the bitterness
I myself will have forgotten
when you who once loved me
no longer love me

We will say
              something has been lost
Not much
                   It’s never much

Though something essential
               a cult
                          a language
                                       a ritual
will have been lost
        when you no longer love me

Carlos Martínez  Rivas

Translated by John Lyons

Close your eyes and see

Close your eyes
and say what you see
in the light of the darkness

the light stored
in our reflections
in our memories

the light that brought us
through the day and
into the night

your body built
from golden light
that moved your muscles

that pursed your lips
into the pout
of a long sweet kiss

say that the light
never dies
the energy

that drove your life
part of which you shared
part of which

remained secret
love was the gift
you granted

love was the life
you eventually

sorry amounts
to nothing more
than words

and words
will not do
not now or ever

John Lyons

Rilke – Offering


O how my body blooms from every vein
more fragrant since I met you;
behold, I grow thinner and straighter,
and you just stand by-: who are you then?

Behold: I feel as though I’m fading away
how leaf by leaf I shed my age.
Only your smile endures like stars
above you and soon above me too.

Everything that through my childhood
gleams nameless and water-like,
I’ll name for you at the altar,
that is inflamed by your hair
and gently enwreathed by your breasts.

Rainer Maria Rilke
(Revised translation by John Lyons)


O wie blüht mein Leib aus jeder Ader
duftender, seitdem ich dich erkenn;
sieh, ich gehe schlanker und gerader,
und du wartest nur-: wer bist du denn?

Sieh: ich fühle, wie ich mich entferne,
wie ich Altes, Blatt um Blatt, verlier.
Nur dein Lächeln steht wie lauter Sterne
über dir und bald auch über mir.

Alles was durch meine Kinderjahre
namenlos noch und wie Wasser glänzt,
will ich nach dir nennen am Altare,
der entzündet ist von deinem Haare
und mit deinen Brüsten leicht bekränzt.