Poetry: ¿es esto lo sagrado? by Daniel Lipara, translated by Robin Myers

Today we have the special privilege to publish a translation by the talented Robin Myers—this winter, her hard work translating the Spanish language poet Daniel Lipara culminated in the release of the English version of Another Life from Eulalia Books. You can read Asymptote’s recent review of the work here. Please, take a moment, enjoy walking the liminal space between two languages, between two talented poets, as they intersect at the question of what is sacred?

¿es esto lo sagrado?

la cabeza mojándose en el río
en este huerto lleno de frutales
de flores y pájaros sin nombre
las vacas tiradas a la sombra
y el Taunus de mi padre
recién lavado con el motor en marcha
será sagrada
la ceniza de bosta quemada en mi frente
la nave que cruza la noche
los dioses escondidos en el campo
el olor de las reses a la tarde en Mataderos
y mi madre
viniendo hacia mí como un perro una araña en otra vida
las cabezas de dios que me miran
Sai Baba vestido de naranja haciendo que aparezca algo
y la isla de Eolo
donde llegó Ulises donde nació mi abuelo
lavanderas que brillan en el valle con sus sábanas
y mi hermana con nueve años en panyabi blanco
y el mono que tira del pelo
será sagrado
el coco recién cortado
mi tía con sus ángeles
los taxis los mapas los chicos que suben valijas
los pasos de los dioses por el cielo
será sagrado
el cáncer de mi madre
esta estirpe de hojas que el viento derrama y devuelve
el humo del asado
las turbinas que suenan como estrellas


is this what sacred means?

the head dipping into the river
in this orchard of fruit trees
of flowers and birds with no name
cows resting in the shade
my father’s Taunus
newly washed the engine running
is this what sacred means
the burned dung ash streaked on my forehead
the vessel moving across the night
the gods hiding in the fields
the smell of livestock in the afternoon in Mataderos
my mother
coming toward me like a dog a spider in another life
the heads of god that watch me
Sai Baba dressed in orange making something manifest
the island of Aeolus
where Ulysses disembarked where my grandfather was born
and washerwomen shining in the valley with their sheets
my nine-year-old sister in her white kurta
and the monkey who pulls her hair
is this what sacred means
the coconut just cut down from the tree
my aunt with all her angels
the cabs the maps the boys hauling luggage
the footsteps of the gods across the sky
is all of this what sacred means
my mother’s cancer
this lineage of leaves the wind disperses and returns
the smoke from the meat
the engines rumbling like stars


On Translating This Poem

I sang in choirs for many years. In conducting groups of singers, many choral directors mark the final phrase by bringing their fingertips together, each hand closing like a flower at night. I remember one director, though, who liked to do the opposite: reaching the last note of a song, he’d fling open his hands in mid-air. That was our cue. Our last chord, our last breath, our shared conclusion, was to feel not like a shutting-down, but an opening. A release.

The image of his open palm, and the sound of many voices flung outward into silence, returns to me when I think of “is this what sacred means?,” the second-to-last part in Daniel Lipara’s fifteen-part poem Another Life. This too is a culmination and an unfurling.

Up to this point, the book has chronicled various journeys. The most narratively obvious one is the trip taken by the teenage speaker and his sister, mother (who has terminal cancer), and aunt (a devotee of the late guru Sai Baba). Together, they travel from their middle-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires to an ashram in India, where the aunt hopes his mother will be cured. Along the way, we find ourselves looping back and forth in space and time: from Argentina to India and Lipara Island; from the early lives of his parents to the speculated lives of his ancestors; to the future and its inexorable losses. Lipara makes use of Homeric myth and epithets to paint brief, flawed, affectionate portraits of his anti-heroes. And in the scenes at the ashram, he plumbs not the experience of devotion to any particular god or creed, but the pure possibility of wonderment itself, even in the shadow of death.

I venture this synopsis because every part of it is present in the section titled “is this what sacred means?” In translating this text, one of my very favorites, I wanted to make sure its crescendo—this final stream of images, faces, names, and projections—felt light on its feet. I wanted it to feel like the conductor’s hand opening in mid-air on the last note, not snapping shut. And I sensed that this would-be lightness could be made or broken by however I translated the repeated phrase ¿es esto lo sagrado?

A syntactically closer translation of this line would be something like “is this the sacred?” or “is this sacredness?” But I knew I’d need to stray farther afield. For one thing, these more “literal” options (whatever “literal” ever means when it comes to translating anything—a rant I’ll save for some other time!) are clunky and flat. For another, I’d committed to translating Another Life in a loosely iambic line, so I had meter on the brain. Most importantly, though, and however quiet the poem remains, ¿es esto lo sagrado? marks a moment of climactic wonder. The speaker takes in everything around him, every immediate image offered up to him by his present experience, every unknowable story that melted together in the strange forge of family history, everyone he loves, and asks himself if this, all of it, tiny and intimate and scratched-up and fleeting, could be what “sacred” means.

So there was the line: is this what sacred means? A small, earnest question, colloquial, asked in the voice of a boy that’s also the voice of a man who became a poet and wrote these words in both voices, because who knows where one starts and the other begins; the voice of someone who suddenly and however briefly feels, as Yeats wrote in another poem I love, “that I was blessed and could bless.” A note released, rising up into the air that awaits it.


Daniel Lipara, translated by Robin Myers

Another Life is available from Eulalia Books.

Daniel Lipara—poet, translator, and editor—was born in Buenos Aires in 1987. His translations from English to Spanish include Learning to Sleep by John Burnside (Bajo la Luna). Otra vida is his first book of poetry. His work has appeared in Hablar de Poesía (Argentina) and Periódico de Poesía (Mexico), among other publications, as well as in English in Tupelo Quarterly. He lives in Buenos Aires. Robin Myers is a Mexico City-based poet and translator. Other recent book-length translations include The Science of Departures by Adalber Salas Hernández (Kenning Editions), The Animal Days by Keila Vall de la Ville (Katakana Editores), and Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos (Open Letter Books). She was among the winners of the 2019 Poems in Translation Contest (Words Without Borders / Academy of American Poets) and writes a monthly column on translation for Palette Poetry.

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