The Sunday Poem: José Emilio Pacheco: The Altar of the Dead & The Hour of the Children

Award-winning Mexican poet and author of the bestselling novel Battles in the Desert died on January 26th. Mr. Pacheco was born June 30, 1939. Here are two of his poems, English translations by David Shook, offered thanks to PEN International.

The Altar of the Dead

This atrocious month has finally passed
And left us so many dead
That even the air breathes death
And death is drunk in the water.

I can’t resist the wound of so much death.
Mexico cannot be the plural cemetery,
The enormous common grave
Where our hopes lie exhausted.

We already drown the future
In the abyss that opens each day.


The Hour of the Children

The children traffic in a new species of rats,
Ringed like lobsters and colored magenta and sky blue.
Strange flavor at first
But since hunger doesn’t lie
We grow used to baking them.

Since you are what you eat
In less than a year
We become like them.
First their panicked little eyes, fur and tail.
Then, quickly, teeth like drill bits,
Claws like a bone saw.
(Is it necessary to say that in this regard
They didn’t have to teach us much?)

Now the children who lived off the rats are men.
They operate like hit men contracted by an invisible power
And little by little but night after night
They eliminate us with gunshots.


El altar de los muertos

El mes atroz ya se fue
Y nos dejó tantos muertos
Que hasta el aire respira muerte
Y en el agua se bebe muerte.

No resisto la herida de tanta muerte.
México no puede ser el cementerio plural,
La inmensa fosa común
En que yace deshecho lo que esperábamos.

Al porvenir ya lo hundimos
En el abismo que se abre todos los días.


La hora de los niños

Los niños traficaban con una nueva especie de ratas,
Anilladas como langostas y de color magenta y celeste.
Sabor extraño al principio
Pero como el hambre no miente
Nos habituamos a hornearlas.

Ya que uno es lo que come
En menos de un año
Nos volvimos como ellas.
Primero los ojitos alarmados, la pelambre y la cola.
Poco después los dientes de taladro,
Las garras como sierra de partir huesos.
(¿Hará falta decir que a este respecto
No tuvieron gran cosa que enseñarnos?)

Ahora son hombres los niños que vivían de las ratas.
Actúan como sicarios de un poder invisible
Y poco a poco pero noche tras noche
Nos eliminan a balazos.

José Emilio Pacheco 

"Great Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco died this week after suffering cardiac arrest. He was also a fine short story writer. In 2009 José Emilio won the prestigious Cervantes Prize for his lifetime of writing. Goodbye, José Emilio . . . it was a beautiful run! We are losing our poets, but their poems remain!" Margaret Randall

Poetry submissions are welcome. Email or  Thanks, Larry Goodell.


Views: 118

Comment by Margaret Randall on February 2, 2014 at 7:43am

Nice translations of hard-hitting poems. Thanks so much, Larry, for featuring Jose Emilio Pacheco, who was a wonderful Mexican poet. Also a very modest and lovely person. We've lost so many of our good poets over the past month. I heard that when a reporter once mentioned Jose Emilio as being among Mexico's great poets, he responded: "I'm not one of Mexico's best poets, I'm not even one of the best in the neighborhood!" He was referring to the great Argentine poet Juan Gelman, who lived nearby. Gelman died only a couple of weeks before Pacheco. Too few in this country know the work of either poet, so thanks for making these poems available.

Comment by larry goodell on February 2, 2014 at 8:57am

Thanks, Margaret. Being a Spanish-ignorant gringo (and loco to boot) I need help discovering the great poets I'm unaware of . . .

Comment by Dee Cohen on February 2, 2014 at 10:47am

Beautiful poems. Sad loss. Dee


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