John Oliver Simon

John Oliver Simon


John Oliver Simon is a fifth-generation Californian born in New York City in 1942 and educated at Putney School, Swarthmore College and UC Berkeley. His books of poetry include Roads to Dawn Lake (Oyez, 1968), Rattlesnake Grass (Hanging Loose, 1976), Neither of Us Can Break the Other's Hold (Shameless Hussy, 1982), Lord of the House of Dawn (Bombshelter, 1991), Son Caminos (poems in Spanish, Hotel Ambosmundos, Mexico City, 1997) and Caminante (Creative Arts, fall 2001). Approximately 290 of his translations of contemporary Latin American poets have been published in journals and anthologies in this country. He is a former director of California Poets In The Schools and a member of the American Literary Translators Association. He is a contributing editor to Poetry Flash and Temple. His journal of travels among the Latin American poets, The Road to Iguazú, is currently seeking a publisher, as is his (auto)biography of his mother, A Lucky Woman. He is hard at work on a science-fiction novel, The Book of Raven.

Translator's Statement

Gonzalo Rojas, the seventh son of a coal-miner, born 1917, in Lebu, Chile, is often introduced as "the youngest poet in Latin America." Author of 27 books of poetry, awarded the Premio Reina SofÍa by the King of Spain and the Chilean National Prize for Literature, his work has been little translated into English. Gonzalo Rojas is a quicksilver poet, his thought a dazzling wriggle of lightning that strikes down the page in rigorous freedom. His mind is a rich symphony that turns on a dime, in "simultaneous explosion, instantaneous spin." Touch him and he's already gone. Catch up to him and he's already on to what's about to happen. "I'm just passing through here among the stars."

In March, 1996, Gonzalo Rojas and I walked along the Río Renegado, turbid with the glacial silt and volcanic sulfur of the Andes. He noticed a big, ugly branch stuck in some rocks. "Let's get it out of there!" I tip-toed out on the wet, black, unsteady stones, hoisted the ungainly thing - like the flapping arm of some immense paleozoic amphibian - and lifted it toward the bank. The poet, very strong, but not altogether steady on his feet with his eighty years, got hold of it, and together we wrestled the stick onto land. Both of us had mud on our hands and slime on our pants. Don Gonzalo looked down at the mess. "That's what I like!" he crowed. "Impure poetry!"

A hand-sewn letterpress edition of my translations of Gonzalo Rojas, Velocities of the Possible, was published in 2000 by Red Dragonfly Press, Northfield, Minnesota.

"Las Hermosas" by Gonzalo Rojas
translated by John Oliver Simon

Eléctricas, desnudas en el mármol ardiente que pasa de la piel a los vestidos,
turgentes, desafiantes, rápida la marea,
pisan el mundo, pisan la estrella de la suerte con sus finos tacones
y germinan, germinan como plantas silvestres en la calle,
y echan su aroma duro verdemente.

Cálidas impalpables del verano que zumba carnicero. Ni rosas ni arcángeles: muchachas del país, adivinas
del hombre, y algo más que el calor centelleante,
algo más, algo más que estas ramas flexibles
que saben lo que saben como sabe la tierra.

Tan livianas, tan hondas, tan certeras las suaves. Cacería
de ojos azules y otras llamaradas urgentes en el baile
de las calles veloces. Hembras, hembras
en el oleaje ronco donde echamos las redes de los cinco sentidos
para sacar apenas el beso de la espuma.


Electric and naked in burning marble out from the skin through dresses,
swelling, defiant on a quick tide,
they stomp the world, they stamp the lucky star with their spike®heels,
and they sprout up like wild plants in the street
and put out their hard aroma greenly.

Warm ungraspables of buzzing butcher summer. Neither roses
nor archangels: homegirls, riddles
to man, and something more than sparkling heat,
something so much more than these bending branches
that know what they know as the earth knows.

So light, so deep, so accurate these smoothies. Hunting
blue eyes and other urgent flares in the dance
of the fast streets. Females, females
in the hoarse surf where we hurl the net of the five senses
to come up with barely a kiss of foam.

"Costillas, Rejas del Corazóon" by Gonzalo Rojas
translated John Oliver Simon

Costillas, rejas del corazón
cuyo bombardeo vocálico es de ustedes
mucho más que el mío, por musas
-digo yo- en cuanto nunca hubo musas como ustedes, èno
será tiempo de apostar el laúd
a otro diafragma?
        ¿A un diafragma por ejemplo sacro
y músico a la vez en tiempo de jazz que vuele
como aeroplano y no como ataúd, acróbata y
encendido, tan liviano
como un ángel pero más terrestre, con
otro argumento menos clínico?
                                      Todo esto por favor
entre nosostros y en la euforia de la ducha intercostal es lo estricto que pido a
ustedes que me alojaron las siete décadas
acìsticas con tanto esmero ventilando
hasta los intersticios el motor con un cuidado
casi astrológico por el viejo acordeón paranomásico y
diastólico, del respiro
al paro.

¿Les pido qué, al tacto? Nada, a lo sumo
un estirón de uno o
dos años, si es que nos queda aceite. El acuerdo
era ese número, un buen acuerdo entre
cuchillo y lomo.

Pero, ay, cuánta flaqueza cuesta, costillas, desencarnar
hombre de uno, pensamiento
de uno, cortar el grifo.
                        Admitamos con
todo el sinsentido del descaro: 70
son las aves que vuelan a las galaxias, 70 las
circunvoluciones de Bach, 70 los hemisferios
de Heráclito, ¿y ustedes?, entonces, ¿quiénes
son ustedes? Estaba
pensando en lo peligroso, de repente
estaba pensando en lo peligroso.

Ribs, Bars of the Heart

Ribs, bars of the heart
whose bombardment of vowels is so much
more yours than mine, as muses
I mean -- since there never were muses like you, wouldn't
it be time to bet the dulcimer
on some other diaphraghm?
                        On a sacred diaphraghm for instance
with a jazz-time music that would fly
like a plane and not like a coffin, a flaming
acrobat on tippy-toes
like an angel but more earthly, with some
less clinical scenario?
                                All this please
just between us in euphoria of the intercostal flow I strictly ask
you who have lodged me seven
acoustic decades with such precision ventilating
the motor through interstices with almost
astrological care for the old paranomastic and
diastolic accordion, from the breath
to its stop.

I ask you what, to the touch? Nothing, at the outside,
one or two more
years' pull, if we've got the oil. That number
was agreed-on, a good compromise between
knife and spine.

But oh, what cost in frailty, to disincarnate
oneself of man, thought out of one,
turn off the tap.
                        With all bare-faced
meaninglessness admit it: there are 70
birds that fly to the galaxies, 70
convolutions of Bach, 70 hemispheres
of Heraclitus, and you? well then, ribs, who
are you? I was thinking
about the dangerous thing, suddenly
I was thinking about the dangerous thing.

Real Audio"Las Hermosas/Lovelies" and "Costillas, Rejas del Corazón/Ribs, Bars of the Heart" read by the author.