NEA Literature Fellowships

Jesse L. Kercheval

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(2016 - Translation)

"Vermeer" by Circe Maia

[Translated from the Spanish]

(A Girl Asleep I)

With her elbow resting on the table
and her fist on her cheek,
— the tablecloth luminous, wall in shadow —
the young girl sleeps.

Through the half—open door
you can see a room with no one
a piece of furniture
a picture
bright tiles: no one.

But she is not alone. Totally enveloped
sustained by forms and colors
in vivid equilibrium.

With that trusting gesture
she is supported, her other hand
and the light are tranquil.

Not alone. Protected. Her room-ship travels
waves of motionless time
navigates the light-silence…
…if only she were real!
It is not astonishing that there really was
a real arm on a real tablecloth, now dust?

— Dust, her? No.

Which is she? Who is she?
— Who is it sleeping there?
— Her being for other eyes…

On the tablecloth her elbow, her fist in her cheek
— tablecloth luminous, wall in shadow —
she sleeps.

Original in Spanish

About Circe Maia

Circe Maia is the author of ten books of poetry. She was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1932, but she has lived most of her life in the northern city of Tacuarembó where she taught philosophy and translated works from Latin, Greek, and English. In 1972, when the military dictatorship took power in Uruguay, police broke into her house in the middle of the night and arrested her husband for supporting the MLN Tupamaros, leaving Maia behind only because she had just given birth to their youngest daughter, an experience she wrote about in the short autobiographical novel, Un Viaje a Salto (Editions del Nuevo Mundo, Montevideo, 1987). Her collected poems, Circe Maia: Obra poética (Rebeka Linke Editores, Montevideo), was published in Uruguay in 2011. Dualidades, her most recent collection, was published in 2014.

Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of 15 books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction including the memoir Space and poetry collections Cinema Muto and Dog Angel. In 2015, Editorial Yaugarú in Uruguay published her bilingual poetry collection Extranjera/Stranger. As a translator, she specializes in Uruguayan poetry. Her translations of Circe Maia have appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker and American Poetry Review. The University of Pittsburgh Press will publish Invisible Bridge/El puente invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia in 2015. She is also the editor of América invertida: an anthology of younger Uruguayan Poets which is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press. Her current translation projects include continuing the translation of Circe Maia's complete works, including her latest book Dualidades/ Dualities and Poemas de Amor/Love Poems by Idea Vilariño. She is the Zona Gale Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin.

Photo by Dan H. Fuller

Translator's Statement

When I received the call telling me I had been awarded an NEA Fellowship in Translation I literally jumped with joy, cell phone in hand. I was so happy because I knew the fellowship would help me bring the poetry of Circe Maia to more readers and I want the whole English speaking world to be able to read her wonderful poetry. I first encountered Circe Maia's poems in January, 2012, when I was staying with Uruguayan friends at the beach. They gave me Circe Maia's collected poetry Circe Maia: Obra poética as a present. I sat in a hammock and read all 400 pages, and fell completely in love with a poetry so deceptively simple, so ultimately profound. When I returned to the U.S., I wrote to ask Maia for permission to translate her poetry and she wrote a lovely reply. Then in June, 2013, I made the trip to Maia's house in Tacuarembó, a five-hour bus trip from Montevideo where I had spent my time in Uruguay. Circe picked me up at the bus station and took me to her home. She was and is one of the most luminous, lovely people I have ever met. We sat under the lemon tree and talked about translation, poetry, and life. Reading Maia's poetry is to be under that tree. So my first thought after receiving the phone call from the NEA was of Maia's poem "Invitation"/"Invitación," which ends with the poet, saying, "Come in!/ I was waiting for you. This way./ Let's go into the garden. There are fruit trees./ You will see. Come."