NEA Literature Fellowships

Philip Pardi

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2015 - Translation)

"A Better Language" by Claudia Lars

[translated from the Spanish]

Because I'm rattled by noise from the street
and the surplus of useless words
that throbs in the city
I'm thankful when I remember the language
of the almond tree,
dignified and solitary, always bending,                                                     
always in place amidst rustling green,        
heard though it makes no effort.                           

Beneath its rise lingers the beggar,                       
the girl who doesn't yet know her blood,
the neighbor's dogs flashing collars
of metal and leather,
and the student, a sort of hippie
who's in love with Marcuse.

Finding its aroma in my curtains
I, too, am sheltered.
Perhaps I should burn all my books
and seek in leaves and herbs         
the lesson I still haven't learned.

Original in Spanish

About Claudia Lars

In fourteen volumes of poetry and one volume of short stories, Claudia Lars (1899-1974) created a body of work that embraces the complexities and nuances of her small homeland and simultaneously investigates her identity as woman, poet, and person of Irish-American and Salvadoran heritage. Raised bilingual and able to read from an early age in Spanish, English, and French, her poems are a meeting ground of diverse literary influences and poetic styles. Her work includes poems of social concern, some of which have a prophetic, Whitman-like stance toward the future, others of which explore the fears to be found everywhere in a country torn by social inequalities and political repression; poems that offer, in contrast to this turmoil, the simplicity and sincerity that can be found in day-to-day life; poems about her “two lands”—Ireland and El Salvador—and about how her identity is forged from these roots; poems about the vocation of the poet and the power of poetry; and many, many love poems, written to people near and far.

Philip Pardi is the author of Meditations on Rising and Falling, which won the Brittingham Poetry Prize and the Writers' League of Texas Poetry Award. His translations have appeared in Seneca Review, Translation Review, Two Lines, Sentence, and An Introduction to the Prose Poem. A former Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas, he now teaches at Bard College.

Photo by R. Wilson

Translator's Statement

An NEA Translation Fellowship will enable me to complete a project that has been with me, in one form or another, for many years. I first discovered the poetry of Claudia Lars (1899-1974) during my time in El Salvador in the early 1990s. One thing that struck me in those days, when the civil war was in full swing, was the way ordinary life continued despite the ongoing violence. In retrospect, it was a naïve insight, but at the time I could easily be startled by, say, the image of people waiting to take the bus to work on the morning after major combat had occurred nearby, or by the image of peddlers selling mangoes outside a prison where torture was known to be routine. War simplifies things for those looking on from a distance, but we risk losing something in that simplification. A country is more than the war we might know it for.

Lars both documented and was a part of the richness of Salvadoran culture in the decades before the war, and her work thus bears witness to the life and the country behind the headlines that are so easily exported. Her poems offer a fiercely human gaze at the world around her in a voice that is at once bold and humble, tenacious and patient, critical and loving. Through it all, she maintains a steadfast faith in the power of poetry to redeem us. As she writes in one poem, “The soul is called to find certain truths, / to dive into the poem, to reach the blank bottom / and retrieve from the abyss the love we've ignored.”