Sonetos del Diente de Oro / Sonnets of the Gold Tooth

by Javier Egea; translated from the Spanish by Miles Waggener

Javier Egea’s “Sonetos del Diente de Oro” is a syncretic and bewitching sequence of Petrarchan sonnets, wherein the reader encounters an old hotel, dark alleys, seedy barrios, gambling dens, shipwrecks, buried treasure, Sinbad the sailor, mermaids, a platinum blonde, Scheherazade, all of which are half cloaked by the night. And there’s betrayal, not to mention lots of sex and murder. Among the community of Egea enthusiasts, this poem is a favorite. In fact, the Javier Society takes its name, Asociación del Diente de Oro, from the poem.

It’s no wonder this writer’s attempt to translate the poem was wrought with difficulty. Its form, subject, and allusions pose unique problems. If Jean Cocteau is right that form is only the visible part of content — the skin, the skin around the poem is Petrarch’s renaissance marble. The sonnet form, with its enveloping octaves and three-rhyme sestet, can be difficult to handle in English, so when I could not retain the rhymes, I turned to imperfect ones. I tried to work within the phrasal architecture of his lines, for the poems’ parallelism and repetitions served as a foundation.

And then there were what George Steinur calls “contingent difficulties,” the allusions and references that appear throughout the poem. From reading Egea’s diaries and from working with members of his society, I learned that the gold tooth, “el diente de oro,” comes from the Panamanian salsa singer Ruben Blades’ “Pedro Navaja,” which tells the story of a criminal’s murder of a prostitute. And Blades’ song came from Bertolt Brecht’s “Mackie Messer” in The Threepenny Opera, which North Americans may recognize as “Mack the Knife.”

But does any of this explain Egea’s use of “the gold tooth” in the poem? In Blades’ “Pedro Navaja,” the tooth is a sign of Pedro’s criminality, but in the Egea poem, the gold tooth appears as a pendant between the breasts of Scheherazade in sonnet IV, or as the neon-lit name of a waterfront bar in sonnet VII. The gold tooth is but one of many recurring objects in the sonnets, but it points to the carnal and nocturnal world Egea has created. The gleam of a serpent’s fangs, the flash of a smile in the light of a signal flare, the sea and the contraband that ships bring, all move in and out of the poems.

Egea’s sonnets are nocturnes, where figures are often partially or completely hidden. The subjects that drive the verbs of his sentences, “alguien, nadie, la sombra ... someone, no one, or the shadow” appear cloaked and unidentifiable. Egea has chosen to stage a cast of stock characters, such as the platinum blonde, the feline shadow, or un hombre triste. Above all, love in the poem is treacherous but rich in adventure.

When I started studying Egea’s poetry, I could not find a copy of the sonnets in North America. They had appeared shortly after his death in a limited edition, so I travelled to Spain to translate them sight unseen. When the archivist put the manuscript before me, I didn't know what to think. They seemed impenetrable. As I slowly worked through the octaves and sestets, there were many images I struggled with. What do I do with lines like “los altos pechos narcotizados” in Sonnet II, or “Sobre el vaho del vientre ...” in VI? I fought against the temptation to beautify or de-objectify images of bodies in the poem. At times, passages seemed stubbornly and awkwardly surreal. In Sonnet VII’s closing sentence, “De pronto / al diparar, / ve los labios traidores huir en desbanada,” The lips are traitorous, perfidious, faithless? Okay, I thought, lips tell lies and they can betray us. But then the sentence continues. Do these lips flee and disband? Or do they scatter, as an army is routed and scatters? How can lips be seen to scatter helter-skelter? In the first edition of the sonnets, the editors included the daybook he kept as he crafted the poem. In a diary entry on sonnet VII, he originally had this figure’s “eyes / ojos” instead of “lips / labios” fleeing in confusion. Would this version have made the translator’s job any easier? Egea scholar Marta Badia was invaluable in helping me understand some of these images, but many of the poem’s mysteries remain unsolved. Perhaps this is part of the poem’s mystique. Most likely, they are the province of future English translations of this extraordinary poem.

Sonetos del Diente de Oro

Javier Egea

                                La ciudad, a las siete de la mañana, no habîa perdido ese

                                aire de casa vieja que le infunde la noche; las calles eran

                                como largos zaguanes, las plazas como patios.

                                          — Jorge Luis Borges, “El Sur” (Ficciones)



                                A Andrea y Juan

Alguien huye desnudo por los fríos pasillos

de un hotel sin estrellas. Hermosa, junto a él,

una desanillada serpiente cascabel

muestra la baba roja que brilla en sus colmillos.

A la 301 llama con los nudillos

secos. Del ventanuco alzado en el dintel

llegan ecos de ondas de radios de babel

y una neblina densa de dulces cigarillos.

Vuelve a llamar. Se inquieta. Un ebrio taconeo

anuncia la sorpresa de una rubia platino

que ahora muerde los labios de huésped importuno.

Alguien bífido lame la mancha del deseo.

Alguien firma en el libro: Simbad el Asesino.

Alguien que no esperaban en la 301.




Sonnets of the Gold Tooth

Translated by Miles Waggener

                                The city, at seven in the morning, had not lost that air

                                of an old house that cities take on at night; the streets

                                were like long hallways, the plazas like inner courtyards.

                                          — Jorge Luis Borges, “The South” (Fictions)



                                To Andrea and Juan

Someone is running naked down the frigid hallways

of a derelict hotel with no stars. Beautiful

beside him, a jeweled rattlesnake uncoils,

red saliva glistening as it shows its fangs.

From the transom of the tiny window raised

above Room 301, come knocking sharp knuckles,

a fog of sweet cigarette smoke, and from Babel

the faraway echoes of lost radio waves.

The knocks return. Become restless. A drunken

tapping of high heels reveal an unwelcomed visitor.

Biting her lips is the surprise of a platinum blonde.

Someone signs the guestbook: Sinbad the Assassin.

Someone’s forked tongue licks the stain of desire.

Someone no one expected is in Room 301.






Rescatada de un bello naufragio de sirenas,

ahora inclina los altos pechos narcotizados

sobre una línea de cristal. Dos nebros dados

ruedan y suman siete. Y mira a quien apenas

recuerda, a una sombra que mueve sus melenas

bailando en un desierto de papeles pintados.

Nadie sabe los nombres de los recién llegados.

Una lámpara oscila sobre las copas llenas.

Por la espalda otra sombra se le acerca y le alarga

la luz intermitente de una sorda linterna

que ha sellado su cita con ocultos navíos.

Corre la cremallera de un cielo añil de sarga

y reconoce el rostro de quien en la galerna

largo un cabo de plata para sus labios fríos.





Rescued from a beautiful shipwreck of mermaids

she is now leaning her narcotized breasts against

an edge of clear crystal. Two black dice

tumble and stop to roll seven. And she gazes

at a man she barely remembers, a shadow who shakes

its mane in a desert of wallpaper and dance.

No one knows the names of those who just

arrived. A light swings above their full glasses.

Behind her another shadow approaches and lengthens

the intermittent light of a dim lantern

that has sealed its rendezvous with hidden ships.

The zipper races indigo, willows a heaven,

and she recognizes the face of the man in a fierce galerna

wind who once threw a lifeline toward her frozen lips.





                                 A Juan Medina, que guarda bajo llave

                                    el negativo de la sombra de un tango.

No supo nadie, nadie de qué sueño tenía

los ojos la mujer que se paró elegante

bajo la lluvia. Sola. Que se quedó delante

de la estatua sin rostro de una plaza vacía.

No supo nadie cómo su corazón latía

mientras se deslizaba por su brazo aquel guante

de raso gris. La llave brilló por un instante.

Nadie la vio mirando esa fotografía

en que un hombre triste tocado por la luna

regresa de la caza y baja de aquel coche.

Nadie la vio arrojando al fuego al cazador.

Nadie la vio salir. Nadie sintió la una.

Nadie la vio perderse en medio de la noche.

Y a los lejos ladraban los perros del amor.






                                 To Juan Medina, who kept the negative

                                    of a tango’s shadow under lock and key.

Nobody knew, nobody, of what dream her

eyes were kept, the woman who stopped, elegant

in the rain. And alone. She lingered in front

of a faceless statue in an empty square.

Nobody could possibly know how her heart

beat as the gray satin glove slipped

from her arm. The key shimmered for a moment.

Nobody saw her looking at that picture

in which a tragic man, touched by the moon,

comes back from the hunt and steps from the car.

Nobody saw her throw the hunter into the fire.

Nobody saw her leave. Nobody felt the clock strike one.

Nobody saw her vanish into the dark.

And the dogs of love kept barking from afar.






                                A M. M.

La llaman Sherezade. A la desmemoriada

que ha salido del lago, a la que lleva un diente

de oro entre los pechos, a la que de repente

mira el reloj y siente que cada campanada

da una vuelta de llave a la esquina rosada

donde brilla la verja del laberinto. Siente

que ya no parpadea la nítida serpiente

de neón. Y la larga, lentísima zancada

de la noche la cubre con un chal de rocío

en el que está bordada la rosa de los vientos.

Mira el reloj de nuevo. Y es de Nuevo el estrago

que le cruza la espalda como un escalofrío.

La llaman Sherezade. Ha olvidado los cuentos.

Sabe que los llevaba cuando salió del lago.






                                To M. M.

They call her Scheherazade. She who is forgetful,

who rises from the lake, she, who between

her breasts wears a gold tooth, she who suddenly

watches the clock, and at each strike she feels

in the pink street corner, the turn of a key where sparkles

the iron grillwork of the labyrinth.

She feels a clarity of the sleek serpent’s neon

no longer blinking. And the night’s long, gradual

stride covers her with a shawl of dew on which

a compass rose of winds is sown.

She looks at the clock again. And again the devastation

travels up her naked back like a shiver.

They call her Scheherazade. The stories she has forgotten.

She knows that when she leaves the lake she’ll remember them.






                                 A Eva y Fernando

Al salir de la curva la lluvia se hizo lenta,

viscosa, impenetrable como una gelatina.

Delante de los faros una sombra felina

agitaba un pañuelo. Al fin sube, se sienta

junto a unos ojos tristes. Por el camino cuenta

que burló al centinela de la negra sentina.

Llegan, entran, se miran. Luces de parafina.

Al fondo, en un espejo, se agita la tormenta.

El de los ojos tristes pone en una bandeja

tres copas escarchadas de un licor amarillo.

Luego extiende en la plata tres regueros de coca.

Y la sombra felina lo besa y, a la oreja,

— Ya no vendrá — le dice. Y le brilla un colmillo

y le pide silencio con un dedo en la boca.






                                 To Eva and Fernando

Out of the hairpin turn the rain becomes viscous,

slow, impenetrable like gelatin.

Before the headlights her shadow is feline,

waving a handkerchief. At last she sits

beside his two sad eyes. Along the way, she says

she tricked the lookout of the black bilge’s den.

They arrive, they enter, they witness. Lights of paraffin.

In back, in a mirror, a tempest agitates.

The man with sad eyes places on a platter

three frosty cups of a yellow liquor.

Later, across the silver he lays out three snowy tracks.

And her feline shadow kisses him, and in his ear,

whispers — he’ll not be coming back. And a fang shimmers

as she tells him tell no one with a finger to her lips.






Sobre el vaho del vientre, cruzando su cintura,

con una letra pálida — esa mano, otra mano,

la que lleva el anillo, de rubio Americano

manchada —, ya se enciende la bella tachadura

que le afila el deseo: es nítida escritura,

secreta dentellada, es noche de un verano,

es el ángulo oscuro donde suena un piano,

es el brillo en la sombra de una perla futura.

Tachaduras que suben por el hombro de aquella

mujer que se incorpora en el hondo diván

junto a un acuario. Y fuma. Y es rara en esa esquina.

El hombre de las doce le señala una estrella

que sangra de un disparo. Luego los dos huirán.

Y mirarán el sueño de asesino a asesina.






On the vapor of her belly, across her waist,

in pale handwriting — that hand, then the other hand,

the one that wears the ring, stained by American

contraband smokes —, the gorgeous erasure that sharpens

desire has been lit: it is neat penmanship, a secret

snap of the jaws, it is night one summer, it is the sound

of a piano playing from a dark corner, it is the shine

within the shadow of a treasure that awaits.

Erasures rise through the woman’s shoulder

as she sits up straight in the deep divan

beside the aquarium. She smokes. She looks strange in that corner.

The man of midnight draws her attention to a star

that’s bleeding from a gunshot. Later, they will run

away and see the dream of one assassin to another.






                                 A Elena C.

Sale por la ventana del bar una canción

que cuenta de prisiones, de unos labios y un día.

Y siente que en sus labios la noche se le enfría

y aprieta en el bolsillo un negro escorpión.

Ha vuelto de la islas. La luz del callejón

es la misma que, entonces, fatal, le sonreía.

(Y el mismo el que la mira pasar, el viejo espía

de la brasa en los dedos y del trago de ron,

que sale de las sombras y entra en la cabina

junto al embarcadero.) Por entre la neblina

adivina el farol que chilla en la portada

donde “El Diente de Oro” destella. En alta mar

se eleva una bengala. De pronto, al disparar,

ve los labios traidores huir en desbandada.






                                To Elena C.

Coming from the window of the bar, a tune

speaks of prisons, of a day and someone’s lips.

And he feels upon his lips the night’s chill,

and in his pocket he squeezes a black scorpion.

He’s back from the islands. The light of the narrow lane,

fatal ever since then, has made him smile.

(And in the same alley he sees her pass, an old

spy with burning ember in hand and a swallow of rum,

who steps from the shadows to enter

the phone booth beside the pier.) The fog suggests

a streetlight screaming across the neon sign

where “The Gold Tooth” glows. A signal flare

rises at high sea. As it flashes, he sees

her lips, traitorous and fleeing in confusion.




                                A Rebeca Arce

Al fin todos se fueron. Encima de la mesa

los restos de una timba de siglos invernales,

de noches sin piedad. Cuatro cartas iguales

aún brillan en las manos de la joven princesa

que ganó la partida, llegada por sorpresa,

grabadas en su vientre las bellas iniciales.

Todos menos la sombra que toca en los cristales

y salta la baranda y penetra en la espesa

humareda del cuarto menguante de esa luna.

La sombra que le muerde los pechos y aventura

una mano encendida bajo el lamé del tanga.

La sombra que reclama su parte de fortuna

y le pone delante de los ojos la oscura

soledad del espejo que guardaba en la manga.






                                To Rebeca Arce

At last, everyone left. On the table the leftovers

of a poker game of invernal ages,

of nights without piety. Four of a kind still flashes

in the young princess’s fingers

who won the hand, an unexpected arrival carved

upon her belly in beautiful initials.

Everyone except the shadow who touches the window panes

to leap from the banister and puncture

the thick smoke around a waning quarter moon.

The shadow who once nuzzled her breasts

and ventured a burning hand beneath lamé panties.

The shadow who reclaimed his share of the fortune

placed before his eyes the dark loneliness

of a mirror he kept hidden up his sleeve.






Como una mancha de licor, sobre la alfombra,

se derrama el cabello de la mujer que mira

a un blanco pedestal. Le parece mentira

que pasaran sus ojos como cruza una sombra,

veloz, por un espejo. Tic-tac. Y suenan las

campanadas de un miedo metálico de inviernos,

de secretos tachados en trágicos cuadernos

que hallaron al entrar. Nadie supo jamás

por qué llamó indicando que buscaran (en vano)

en otro laberinto de blancos pedestales

al escultor que — dijo — huyó con su destino.

Luego, al abrir la carta que apretaba en la mano,

encontraron el mapa sin puntos cardinales

donde ríe una máscara que señala un camino.






Like a liquor stain on the carpet, hair

spilling over of the woman who sees

a white pedestal. How incredible it seems,

their eyes passing through a mirror

quick as a shadow. Tick-tock. And a fear

strikes in the bells of metallic winters,

of secrets crossed-out in tragic diaries

they found when they entered. Nobody ever

knew why she asked them (in vain) to search

the other labyrinth of white pedestals

for the sculptor who — she said — fled with his fate.

Later, upon opening the letter she clutched

in her hand, they found the map without cardinal

points where a laughing mask pointed the way.






Han pasado los años. Un teléfono suena

por helados pasillos. Bajo el agua, entre brumas,

ella detiene el dedo que busca otras espumas.

Abre los ojos. Duda. No merece la pena

contestar. Al fin sale. De pronto, en los espejos,

ve resbalar un cuerpo desnudo, ve pasar

unas huellas mojadas … Por el auricular

llega una voz que tiembla como un astro a lo lejos.

— Conté los pasos, trece, marcados, hacia un norte,

con hielo de tus labios … — Por el balcón abierto

un viento ya olvidado le alerta los pezones.

— Cuenta otra vez — responde —; si pulsas el resorte

se te abrirán eternos mi piel y mi desierto:

y, al fondo, mi tesoro, con sus escorpiones …






Years have gone by. A telephone is ringing

down the frozen hallways. Between mists underwater

her fingers stop searching for that other lather.

She opens her eyes. She wonders. Answering

can’t be worth it. Yet she leaves the bath. Seen slipping

across the surface is her nude body in a mirror

as are her tracks of wet footprints … On the phone receiver

comes a voice like a distant star trembling.

— Thirteen paces I counted, marked leading to the north,

where there was ice on your lips … —From the open balcony,

hardening her nipples is a long-forgotten wind.

— Count them again — she says —; if you push the doorbell, forever

open for you will be my desert and my skin:

and beneath it all, my treasure, and its scorpions …



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