Translator’s Note for Three Poems by Javier Peñalosa

Robin Myers

Javier Peñalosa’s three poems “The Crane,” “To Jonah,” and “Winter” — all from his book Los trenes que partían de mí — speak with a clear voice, fixing the reader with a steady gaze. In their different ways, these poems explore what can be both wondrous and frightening about truly seeing another creature, whether human or animal; about contact and intimacy; about inhabiting, or being inhabited by, what we see and have contact with. There are no fireworks here. These poems are not afraid to be lyrical, but they are careful in their lyricism; they are driven by praise and lament — by awe, which is a feeling borne of both light and shadow — and by a fine observational impulse.

Peñalosa’s spare, clean language doesn’t mean that his poems are simply spare and clean. What fascinates me are their subterranean tremors, the ripples on the water. In “Winter,” a second person accompanying the speaker “responded to my words / as gently as a door without a bolt”; this person is “an unfamiliar tongue inside my mouth,” a shadow “beneath the arches / with a shape that wasn’t yours.” What’s unsettling here? A boltless door isn’t just an open door: it’s a door stripped of protection it might still want. An unfamiliar tongue can be sensual, but unfamiliarity can also feel strange, even lonely. The repeated shadow is distorted, distorting, bereft of the person whose image it casts — and, perceiving it this way, the speaker himself is suddenly bereft of that person.

The tensions laced into these poems, the barely audible echoes, are where the true contact happens. And the true losses. Or both, at the same time, as is true of “The Crane,” a poem of tremendous tenderness that is sparked by a moment of violence. The poem unfurls with steady, sober astonishment, its narrative voice growing somehow ancient, at the responsibility — if I may use a heavy word for something Peñalosa handles so deftly — of being in the world. Which is, of course, both tender and violent.

“To Jonah,” too, explores an image of contact and communion — at the end, schools of fish swim to shore, lingering around people’s legs, “so children can touch them” — yet all of this is orchestrated and described by a speaker trapped inside the belly of a whale, a solitude from which he may never emerge. Contact, here, is inseparable from isolation. Joy is a commitment, a choice.

Peñalosa’s poems are often gentle. But, reading more closely, they are also a constant reminder that gentleness is not simple, does not lack rigor or complexity or pain. It is our challenge, as readers and as human beings, to understand this.

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