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Jaime Saenz Jaime Saenz

Five poems from: As the Comet Passes
translated by Kent Johnson and Forrest Gander


Jaime Saenz (1921-1986) is Bolivia's leading writer of the 20th century. Prolific as poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer, his baroque, propulsive syntax and dedication to themes of death, alcoholism, and otherness make his poetry among the most idiosyncratic in the Spanish-speaking world.


High Above the Dark City
      One night on a rain-glistened road high above the dark city
      with its noise now distant
      it's certain she will sigh
      I will sigh
      holding hands for a very long time within the grove
      her eyes clear as the comet passes
      her face come from the sea her eyes in the sky my voice inside her voice
      her mouth in the shape of an apple her hair in the shape of a dream
      in each pupil a look never seen
      her eyelashes in a trail of light a torrent of fire
      everything will be mine somersaulting with gladness
      I'll cut off a hand for each of her sighs I'll gouge out an eye for each of her smiles
      I'll die once twice three times four times a thousand times
      just to die on her lips
      with a saw I'll cut through my ribs to hand her my heart
      with a needle I'll draw out my best soul to give her a surprise
      on Friday evenings
      with the night air singing a song I propose to live for three hundred years
      in the loveliness of her company.



Your Skull
-- for Silvia Natalia Rivera
      These rains,
      I don't know why they would make me love a dream I had, many years back,
      containing a dream of yours
      -- your skull appeared to me
      And it had an exalted presence;
      it didn't look at me -- it looked at you.
      And it drew near my skull, and I looked at you.
      And when you were looking at me, my skull appeared to you;
      it didn't look at you.
      It looked at me.
      In the exalted night,
      someone looked on;
      and I dreamed your dream
      -- beneath a soundless rain,
      you hid within your skull,
      and I hid within you.

The Basket of Wool
      Desiring yet unable, I dreamt myself in this room sleeping and I dreamt
      myself being able,
      making a basket of wool toll like a bell to keep myself sleeping,
      and wanting them to come not come, and to make not make a basket of wool toll like a bell prompting a sadness without desire,
      eliciting a Japanese music that makes me weep remembering but not hearing,
      summoning an unsummonable scene that pure luck renders summonable,
      as when one says:
      now that this lady summons speaking and that gentleman speaks summoning,
      as when one says:
      "Come here, little parrot; let's make this basket of yarn toll like a bell," leaving everyone happy with this Japanese music that makes me weep, in summoning,
      and which goes on eliciting and tolling and goes on playing through the night.
Saenz book cover

          The City

-- for Blanca Wiethuchter
and Ramiro Molina

      With the smoke and with the fire, many people muffled and silent
      on a street, on a corner,
      in the high city, pondering the future in search of the past
      -- in the subtle entrails, night lightning
      in the probing eye, thoughts go to agony
      In another age, hope and happiness were good for something-time's flow invisible,
      and the darkness, an invisible thing,
      was revealed but to the infinite elders fumbling forward to feel if you might not be among them,
      while fumbling to touch some children they think they feel, even though these little ones feel them and are confused with them, feeling you,
      as in solitude you feel a shawl of darkness woven with unfathomed sadness by some habitant,
      dead and lost in this transparent darkness that is the city I myself inhabit,
      inhabiting a city at the base of my soul which is inhabited but by a single habitant,
      -- and like a city filled with sparks, filled with stars, filled with fires on the street corners,
      filled with coals and embers in the wind,
      like a city where many beings, alone and distant from me, move and murmur with a destiny heaven no longer knows,
      with eyes, with idols, and with children smashed by that very heaven,
      with no more life than this life, with no more time than this time,
      hemmed-in by the great wall of fire and oblivion, rocking in the swing of despair,
      soundlessly weeping with this sinking city.
      And no angel or demon in this well of silence.
      Only fires lining the long streets.
      Only the cold contours of shadows, the indifference of the sun pulling back.
      The breath of a dawn for the last time breaking, the doors creaking in wind,
      the boundaries breaking up and scattering and the forms fusing with the flames,
      the signs and the songs,
      with a remote anguish, in the soil and beyond the soil,
      and the breathing of the dead, the incessant rains,
      resignation with its taste of bread, in a house that stalks me between dreams,
      the patios and the steps, the beings and the stones, and the hallways without end,
      the windows opening to emptiness and shutting to shock,
      the rooms where I lose myself and the corners where I hide
      -- the dark walls and the wet moss, the outposts where I look for I don't know what,
      hiding myself from the swelling odor of habit.
      No voice, no light, no testimony of my former life.
      Only the fires,
      undying though forever flickering, and only the fires.
      The desolate portent of the ghost once named youth
      -- in my city, in my dwelling.
Jaime Saenz
Jaime Saenz
dressed in a beggar's jacket


Watching the River Flow
-- for Leonardo Garcia Pabon
      When the hour comes I'll speak with you, watching the river flow, at the river's edge.
      With the profile of your face, with the echo of your voice, parceling out my voice into the depths,
      into the great spaces that death's eye has seen, you will know the hidden word.
      Where the wind stills. Where living is finished off and all color is one.
      Where water is not touched and where earth is not touched: inside my invisible presence, where you know yourself to be, in the millenary present
      -- of deeds, of smells and of forms; of animals, of minerals, of plants inside time.
      In time, of time. Inside premonition's root. Inside the seed, inside anguish,
      only you will know the hidden word.
      The aloneness of the world. The aloneness of man. Man's reason for being and the world's
      -- the circular solitude of the sphere. Increment and decline;
      the closing of the hermetic thing. The hermetic closing of the thing.
      The immense, the immeasurable -- the incommensurate grave, indivisible and blank.



You can also read an excerpt from
Jaime Saenz's long poem Immanent Visitor
in this issue of Jacket.

Jaime Saenz (1921-1986) is Bolivia's leading writer of the 20th century. Prolific as poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer, his baroque, propulsive syntax and dedication to themes of death, alcoholism, and otherness make his poetry among the most idiosyncratic in the Spanish-speaking world.
      As the author of one of Latin America's first openly homosexual novels, the as yet untranslated masterpiece Los Papeles de Narciso Lima Acha, Saenz's work also stands as a singular example of artistic and personal courage.
      His poetry is collected in eleven books (including a volume of selected work), the first of these published in 1955 and the last in 1984. The poems presented here are taken from the collection As the Comet Passes (1982). They are the first published translation of Jaime Saenz's writing in English and part of a book manuscript of selected works.

-- KJ, FG

Kent Johnson is editor of Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (Shambhala), and Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry (Michigan). He is translator of A Nation of Poets: Writings from the Poetry Workshops of Nicaragua (West End Press).
Forrest Gander is the author of several books, most recently Science & Steepleflower (New Directions, 1998) and the editor of Mouth to Mouth: Poems by 12 Contemporary Mexican Women.
Jacket thanks Leonardo Garcia Pabon (to whom the poem "Watching the River Flow", above, is dedicated) for the photographs of Jaime Saenz. You can read more about Saenz (in Spanish) at Leonardo Garcia's website at this URL:,


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      This material is copyright © Jaime Saenz, Kent Johnson and Forrest Gander, and Jacket magazine 1999
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