The Guest #13

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In The Guest, poet and literary translator Robin Myers explores poetry translation as process, practice, vocation, meditation, and craft. Drawing both on her own projects-in-progress and the work of other translators, The Guest is a kind of diary, a thinking-out-loud about the pleasures, challenges, and decisions required—and invited—by bringing poems into another language. To do them justice and to make them new. 


Roads Run Forever

This is a story about reading aloud and learning poems by heart. It’s a story about Antonio Machado, Samuel Menashe, and an orange. It’s also a story about incompleteness and serendipity. It’s even about translation, sort of, as most things are.

*

My high school Spanish teacher made us memorize a poem: a predictably unpopular assignment. The poem in question was a famous passage by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), a rhythmic meditation on the unknowability of the future and the inevitability of making one’s own way. Here it is:

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

I remember reading it aloud to myself over and over at home, probing its soft, resolute pulse. Memorizing the first line first, then the first and second together, then the first and second and third, step by step. I remember realizing that the poem had hinges: that the repetitions not only helped link the phrases together in my memory, but also enacted what the poem itself was saying.

At this point, I should make a confession: I’ve never read a translation of “Caminante” that I really love. But the one I find most graceful and convincing is by Willis Barnstone:

Walker, your footsteps
are the road, and nothing more.
Walker, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
Walking you make the road,
and turning to look behind
you see the path you never
again will step upon.
Walker, there is no road,
only foam trails on the sea.
 

Machado’s use of repetition, it seems to me, becomes a way of advancing and retracing along the path of the poem. “Your footsteps are the road” is amended to “there is no road.” “The road is made by walking” surges ahead into a different kind of agency with “Walking you make the road.” Every new turn makes us glance over our shoulder to make sure we’re still going in the same direction—only to find that the path has already changed. (I’ve noticed, by the way, that Machado’s poem is often quoted in a self-help-y vein, with a live-in-the-moment kind of earnestness. Re-reading it, though, I’m always struck by how melancholy it is.)

I didn’t really speak Spanish as a high school student; fluency was still an abstraction, a dream. But now I could recite a poem by Antonio Machado by heart! There was hope. I liked having these sounds in my mouth, this cadence in my ear. I liked returning to it.

*

Home on a break from college, I found myself poking around a New York bookstore for something by Samuel Menashe, whose brief, tight, cut-glass poems had recently caught my attention. They were out of his books, the bookseller said when I asked, but the poet himself lived nearby and might have more. The bookseller called Menashe to check, then passed along his phone number to me, at which point I panicked—this had, as they say, escalated quickly—and went outside to calm my nerves and call him back.

Half an hour later, I was sitting in Samuel Menashe’s studio apartment. There was a clawfoot bathtub in the kitchen. Garrulous, charming, and old, he offered me an orange and interrogated me about poetry. Did I know any poems by heart? I didn’t, I lied.

He did, obviously. He started with a passage from Antonio Machado:

La primavera ha venido,

nadie sabe cómo ha sido.

He repeated it several times, laughing, delighted, knowing how difficult it was to transmit the compactness of his delight into English. But he ventured a translation: Spring has come, / no one knows how!

I decided to come clean. At that point, the only other poem I’d memorized was by Samuel Menashe himself, which embarrassed me. But here I was, in the living room of a living poet I might never get to see again, and so:

Roads run forever
Under feet forever
Falling away
Yet, it may happen that you
Come to the same place again
Stay! You could not do
Anything more certain—
Here you can wait forever
And rejoice at your arrival

*

Today, writing this, I feel certain that Menashe’s poem and Machado’s “Caminante” are connected. Maybe not consciously: I’ll never know if Menashe even read the latter (although his recitation of “La primavera” makes me think he could have).

But they’re connected for me, in me, reading them. Twinned somehow. As if Menashe’s poem, just one line shorter, offered a response, a cover version, a translation of sorts.

(This isn’t a hypothesis; it’s a consolation.)

At first, Menashe’s poem seems to invert Machado’s. Roads run forever / Under feet forever / Falling away: the road isn’t made by walking; it vanishes. So do the feet of the walker. The sense of continuity in the first two lines—the roads, the feet—is suddenly disrupted, darkened, made melancholy by the line break before “falling away.” It’s the break that made me fall in love with this poem: the perfect, startling displacement. Motion jarred into loss.

Curiously, though, while “Caminante” ends with that loss—the walker confronted with nothing but foam on the open sea when he looks for the road behind him—Menashe does something different in the emptiness. In circularity, he finds the promise of return: of recognition. Yet, it may happen that you / Come to the same place again / Stay! You could not do / Anything more certain.

Machado’s road fades out into the wake of a ship on the water. Menashe’s road stops running only because the walker does. Here you can wait forever / And rejoice at your arrival.

He lived in the same apartment for fifty-five years.


Robin Myers