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Mexican Divertimento

Joseph Brodsky, translated with the author by Alan Myers
for Octavio Paz

CUERNAVACA

1

Beneath the tree where M., the Frenchmen’s pet,
possessed his pearl of sluggish Indian blood,
a poet sits, who’s come here from afar.
The garden’s dense, like jewels closely set.
A thrush, like eyebrows knit, departs for food.
The evening air’s a crystal chandelier.

The crystal, be it noted, smashed to sand.
When M. reigned here as emperor three years,
he introduced them: crystal, champagne, dancing.
For things like that pep up the daily round.
But then appeared the patriot musketeers
and shot poor M. A doleful, haunting

cry of the crane drifts out from dense blue shadows.
The local lads shake down a rain of pears.
Three snow-white ducks are swimming in the pond.
The ear picks out among the rustling shudders
of leaves the lingo tossed around as pairs
of souls converse in Hell of things profound.

2


Dismiss the palms, let plane-trees loom in view.
Imagine M. now laying down his pen;
he flings aside his silken gown and frets
and cogitates on what his kin would do—
Franz Josef, fellow ruler over men—
and whistles plaintively: “Me and my marmot-friend.”

“Warm greetings, sir, from Mexico. My wife
went off her head in Paris. Now, the palace
walls all resound with shooting, fire sprawls.
Now rebels, brother, choke the city’s life.
(My marmot-friend and I, we saw the places…)
Well, here guns are more in vogue than ploughs—

and who’s to wonder; tertiary limestone
is just like brimstone, a heartbreaking soil.
Just add to that the equatorial heat.
So bullets are a natural ventilation.
Both lungs and kidneys sense this as they toil.
My skin is sliding off me—how I sweat!

Aside from which, I feel like coming home.
I miss the homeland slums, the homeland splendor.
Send latest almanacs—I long for them!
This place will likely prove a goodly tomb
for me and for my marmot. Woman sends her
due greetings to my royal brother. M.”

3


July’s conclusion merges with the rains
as talkers get entangled with their thoughts
—a thing of rather small concern to you—
back there the past means more than what remains.
A guitar twangs. The streets are out of sorts.
A passer-by gets soaked and fades from view.

And everything’s grown over, pond included.
Grass-snakes and lizards swarm here, the tree-crowns
bear flocks of birds, some laying eggs, some eggless.
What ruins all the dynasties, blue-blooded,
is surplus heirs replete with numbered thrones.
The woods encroach, and likewise the elections.

M. wouldn’t know the place again. Each niche
is bustless now, the colonnade looks bundled
and walls are sliding slack-jawed down the cliffs.
The gaze is sated, thoughts refuse to mesh.
The gardens and the parks become a jungle.
And “Cancer!” is what bursts out from the lips.

1867

Nocturnal gardens under slowly ripening mangos.
M. dances what one day will be a tango.
His shadow twirls the way a boomerang does
   and the temperature’s an armpit 98.
The iridescent flicker of a silver waistcoat;
and a mulatto girl melts lovingly like chocolate
while in a masculine embrace she purrs insensate,
   here—soft as wool, there—smooth as plate.

Nocturnal silence underneath the virgin forest.
Juarez, now the spearhead of, say, progress,
to his peons who never saw two pesos
   distributes rifles in the dark of night.
Bolts start their clicking, while Juarez on squared paper
puts little crosses ticking off each happy taker.
A gaudy parrot, one who never makes mistakes or
   lies, sits on a bough and notes their plight:

Scorn for one’s neighbor among those who sniff the roses
may be, not better, but more straight than civic poses.
But either thing gives quite a rise to blood and bruises.
   Worse in the tropics, here, where death, alas,
spreads rather quickly in the way flies spread infection,
or as a bon mot in a café draws attention,
where three-eyed skulls among the thickets rate no mention;
   in every socket—a clump of grass.

MERIDA

A fan of palms surrounding
a tawny-colored town,
ancient tiles and gables.
Starting from the café, evening
moves into town. Sits down
at a deserted table.

In the ultramarine sky
now touched with golden tints
bells assault the ear
like a bundle of keys:
a sound, laden with hints
of comfort for the homeless here.

A point lights up close by
the cathedral’s lofty tower—
Hesperus appearing.
Following it with his eye
filled to the brim with doubt
if not reproach, evening

downs his cup to the lees
(his cheekbones a touch florid),
pays the bill, adjusts
his hat brim over his eyes,
rises from his chair, unhurried,
and folds up his mussed

paper and leaves. The deserted
street makes to accompany
his lean black frame
through the somber mist. A concert
of shadows seems to waylay
him beneath an awning—a lame

rabble: plebeian manners,
blots, tattered loops and dents.
He throws off an onerous:
“Officers, gentlemen.
Betake yourselves hence.
The time is now upon us.

No time to lose, away!
You there, colonel, why, pray tell, is
onion on your breath?”
He untethers his dapple-gray
and gallops off at zealous
clip into the West.

MEXICAN ROMANCERO

1

Good old Mexico City.
Marvelous place to kill an
evening. The heart is empty;
but Time still flows like tequila.

Façades, car flashes, faces
cut in half with mustaches.
The Ave. of Reforma forces
eyes to prefer the statues.

Under each of them, in the gutter
with hands stretched to the traffic
sits a Mexican mother
with her baby. A tragic

sight. Let the winning party
carve them both for a Statue
of Mexico, huge and portly.
They’ll sit in its shade in the future.

2


Something inside went slightly
wrong, so to speak—off course.
Muttering “God Almighty,”
I hear my own voice.

Thus you dirty the pages
to stop an instant that’s fair,
automatically gazing
at yourself from nowhere.

This is, Father in Heaven,
a sad by-product of practice,
copper change for the given,
though it’s been given gratis.

How far all this is from prayer.
Words cure no despair.
But a fish blind with hunger
can’t tell the worm from the angler.

3


Palms, cactus, agaves. Slowly
Sun rises where night has stored it.
Its smile—you might find it lovely,
but on a closer look, morbid.

Burned-out boulders. Gritty
soil, as fertile as a bolide.
Sun has a look of grinning
skull. And its rays are bone-like.

Naked-necked vultures carry on
their watch from a telegraph pole,
like hieroglyphs for carrion
in the dust-beaten scroll

of a highway. Turn right,
cactus will catch your sight.
The same on the left. And dead
rusty junk straight ahead.

4


Good old Mexico City.
Delights in vocal power.
The band without any pity
grinds out “Guadalajara.”

Enter this town. Enter
this mixture of styles and manners
of an unknown painter
framed by the heavy mountains.

Night. Coca-Cola’s burning
message adorns the House
of Law-making. Beyond it
the Guardian Angel hovers.

Here he runs a risk
of being shot at random
and pinned to an obelisk
as a symbol of Freedom.

5


Heat retreats from the willow
to a single palm-tree.
(I knew I existed while you
were near me.)

A fountain. A pock-marked, fine
nymph lends to its purr her ear.
(I saw all things in profile
while you were near.)

Tabernacles; the zero
of my thinking of Thee
grows. (Who was always there
when you were near me?)

A purple moon in its climb.
A quarter shrunk to a dime.
Midnight. (I didn’t fear
death while you were near.)

6


Spreading itself out at last,
like delirium in dust,
the dirt road, sloping gently down,
brings you to Laredo town.

With your blood-swollen eyes,
wedging the knees as does
el toro to thrill a crowd,
you’ll sag to the ground.

Life has no meaning. Or
it’s just too long. The bore
of arguing lack of sense
stays with us, like that tense

of calendars on the wall.
Very useful. For all
plants, boulders, planets, etc.
Not for bipeds.

TO EVGENI

In all the elements man is
but tyrant, prisoner, or traitor….”
—A. Pushkin
I’ve been in Mexico, clambered up the pyramids.
Geometrically perfect solids,
dotted here and there on Tehuantepec isthmus.
I hope they really are the work of alien visitors,
since normally such things are raised by slaves alone.
And the isthmus is strewn with mushrooms made of stone.

Little gods of clay who let themselves be copied
with extraordinary ease permitting heterodoxy.
Bas-reliefs with sundry scenes, complete with writhing bits
of serpent bodies and the mysterious alphabet
of a tongue which never knew a word for “or.”
What would they say if they could speak once more?

Nothing at all. At best, talk of triumphs snatched
over some adjoining tribe of men, smashed
skulls. Or how pouring blood into bowls
sacred to the Sun God strengthens the latter’s bowels;
how sacrifice of eight young and strong men before dark
guarantees a sunrise more surely than the lark.

Better syphilis after all, better the orifice
of Cortés’ unicorns, than sacrifice like this.
If fate assigns your carcass to the vultures’ rage
let the murderer be a murderer, not a sage.
Anyway, how would they ever, had it
not been for the Spaniards, have learned of what really happened.

Life is a drag, Evgeni mine. Wherever you go,
everywhere dumbness and cruelty come up and say “Hello,
here we are!” And they creep into verse, as it were.
“In all the elements…” as the poet has said elsewhere.
Didn’t he see quite far, stuck in the northern mud?
In every latitude, I must add.

ENCYCLOPEDIA ENTRY

Magnificent and beggar land.
It’s bounded on the West and East by beaches
of two blue oceans. In between are mountains,
thick forests, limestone plains, plateaus
and peasant hovels. To the South lie jungles
and ruins of majestic pyramids.
Lying to the North, plantations, cowboys,
shading quite haplessly into the U.S.A.
Permitting us to dwell awhile on trade.

The chief exports here are marijuana,
non-ferrous metals, average grade of coffee,
cigars that bear the proud name “Corona,”
and trinkets made by local arts and crafts.
(Clouds, I must add.) The imports are
the usual stuff and, naturally, rifles.
Possessing a sufficiency of these,
it’s somewhat easier to take on the state structure.

The country’s history is sad; however,
unique is not the word to use. The main
disaster was, as they insist, the Spaniards,
the barbarous destruction of the ancient
Aztec civilization—that’s the local,
plain version of the Golden Horde complex.
With this distinction, namely, that the Spaniards
did grab, in fact, their little pile of gold.

It’s a republic now. A nice tricolor
flag flutters high above the presidential
palazzo. The constitution is beyond
reproach. The text with traces of leapfrogging
dictators lies enshrined within
the National Library, secure beneath green bullet-
proof glass—it must be noted, the very same
as fitted in the President’s Rolls-Royce.

Which permits us a glance clean through it to
the future. In the future, population,
beyond a doubt, will keep on growing. Peons
will rhythmically ply the hoe
beneath the blazing sun. A man in specs
will sadly leaf through Marx in coffee bars.
And a small lizard on a boulder, raising
its little head, will passively observe
up there in the blue
a spaceship’s passage.

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