Jesse Lee Kercheval and Jeannine Marie Pitas in conversation with Mihaela Moscaliuc
Mihaela Moscaliuc: I am excited we are able to feature six poems from Mariella Nigro’s Memory Rewritten, forthcoming this spring from White Pine Press. Starting with the first poem, loss announces its insistent presence and calls attention to the ways in which language can or can not contain it. Would you say a few words that further introduce our readers to Nigro’s haunting collection?
Jesse Lee Kercheval and Jeannine Marie Pitas: Memory Rewritten is a meditation on the insufficiency of language to contain human emotion and memory—and the paradoxical reality that it is the only means we have to preserve them. The death of Mariella’s sister haunts this book, as does the failure of words to convey the depth of grief. Mariella Nigro carefully and patiently examines the experience of grief and loss as it is affected by the passage of time. She questions the very nature of healing—the idea that time heals all wounds—because that healing itself is a loss of connection with those who are gone.
Memory Rewritten is not the translation of a book already published in Uruguay, but the product of a task Mariella set herself to re-examine the past. It includes some poems from a prize-winning but unpublished manuscript Memoria de lo invisible and it also revisits, re-examins, and rewrites poems from earlier published work. It is a purposeful act of remembering that created something entirely new.
Jesse Lee: As soon as Mariella sent me the manuscript I was fascinated by it—both the project and the poems, whose themes echo those of my own poetry. I asked Jeannine to translate it with me. It was the second translation we did together.
Mihaela: How did you approach the process of collaboration? Did you consult with Mariella Nigro as you were translating the poems?
Jesse Lee and Jeannine: Since our first collaboration, A Sea At Dawn by Silvia Guerra, our process has been the same. We divide the book so each can do a first draft of an equal number of poems. We don’t divide it by sections or by halves, but by one of us doing perhaps the first three poems, then the other the next three, so that even on the first pass, we each find our way through the entire book, learning as we go. This helps us discover the poet’s voice, vocabulary, themes, and style together. It is like going on a road trip, both of us in one car—rather than agreeing to meet up later at the hotel. We meet regularly as we go along, in person or on Zoom, and read the poems aloud and go over them—first for meaning and imagery, then for sound. Then we go through the whole book again and again. It is a slow process with multiple rounds of collaboration and revision.
In our experience (as individuals and as a team), the poets we have translated have reacted very differently to the process of being translated. We approached Mariella with some specific questions about certain poems. We sent her an early version and the final version before it went to the press, and she made some comments. But, in the end, she trusted us to decide what to do.
Jeannine: I think I have had more experience than Jesse Lee with poets who choose to get deeply involved, commenting on drafts and giving feedback. But the authors I’ve most often worked with have tended to be quite hands off, giving me free rein to translate as I see fit.
Jesse Lee: Circe Maia, the first poet I translated, told me that my translation of her work was my book. She left both the selection of the poems and their translations to me. (The Invisible Bridge: Selected Poems of Circe Maia, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.) Circe is the loveliest, most luminous person I have ever met. She also said that our friendship was the most important thing to come out of the translation. That was an ideal first translation project!
Mihaela: In addition to your extensive work as translators of Uruguayan poetry, you are both accomplished poets. In fact, you both had new collections come out this year. Jesse Lee, congratulations on I Want to Tell You, and Jeannine, on Or/And. How do writing and translating co-habit and inform your creative space? Are they good, generous roommates?
Jeannine: I began writing poetry as a child, but it wasn’t until age eighteen that I wrote anything I’d be happy to share today! I also began translating at age eighteen. As such, my writing life has always been closely linked to my translating life. I have no idea what my poetry would look like were I not also a translator.
Translation has affected my attitudes toward poetry in a liberating way. In undergraduate poetry workshops, it often seemed that the people around me were very worried about finding our own voices. We were afraid of falling into cliché or being too imitative. But the simple truth is that all poetry is imitative. Writing is by its very nature a dialogue; even as we write in solitude, we are responding to texts we’ve read, conversations we’ve had, and ideas we’ve encountered from more sources than we may even realize. Translation, which involves collaboration between an author, translators, editors, and publishers, brings that shared process out into the open. But I argue that even in single-authored books of poetry, collaboration is always present, whether acknowledged or not. All writing is already translation.
Jesse Lee: My experience is quite different from Jeannine’s. I came to poetry early but translation late. My first poetry collection, World as Dictionary (Carnegie Mellon University Press) was published in 1998. I Want To Tell You (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2023) is my sixth collection. But I didn’t start translating until 2013 which is 27 years after I got my MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. In 2010, I went to Uruguay on sabbatical and fell in love with it. Uruguay is a country full of poets! And the living ones often feel like they live in a very small goldfish bowl and cannot get out—or that their work cannot. My first translation project was an anthology, América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets (University of New Mexico Press, 2016), but my first book in translation was Circe Maia’s.
I am sure reading so much Uruguayan poetry has affected my poetry. But mostly I am aware of how it has reignited my love for language. Words seem fresher to me now that I regularly read in two languages. And translating is a wonderful break from the ego. I am always aware that the words and ideas I translate are not mine, that I am more in the role of the pianist than the composer. Honestly, after a lifetime of writing poetry, I find it a wonderful and much-needed change.
Mihaela: What are some particularities of Uruguayan Spanish that most fascinate you or that you find most exciting or challenging as a translator?
Jesse Lee and Jeannine: Uruguayans speak Rioplatense Spanish. It has a form of the pronoun you, vos, that is even more familiar than the already familiar tú. Most Americans are taught Mexican Spanish or perhaps European Spanish as defined by the Real Academia Española in Madrid. But Uruguayan Spanish uses different words for nearly every fruit, vegetable, and item of clothing that would perplex most chilangos and madrileños. It has an elaborate 19th century slang called Lunfardo which is still used and evolving. Both of us have lived in Uruguay and worked with so many Uruguayan poets that these peculiarities seem normal now. Rioplatense has become our Spanish. And we both have a lot of friends—beyond just the poets themselves—we can consult.
Jesse Lee: On Uruguay’s border with Brazil, some communities speak Portuñol, a language born out of centuries of contact between Portuguese and Spanish. Laura Cesarco Eglin and I translated a book by Fabián Severo, Night in the North (Eulalia Books, 2020), that was written in Portuñol. If you get a chance, listen to Fabián read. It is a beautiful language.
Mihaela: I’m thinking, as you mention these specific aspects, how little we know, from the outside, about what has gone into the process of translating any given piece or poet, how cultural or linguistic variants might have played a role in the decision-making. I’m curious about the forms translating that extra familiar vos might take in a poet, but I’ll hold on to that question for another conversation. For now, I’d like to return to the landscape of Uruguayan poetry. Jesse Lee, you have introduced us to poets such as Idea Vilariño, Circe Maia, Tatiana Oroño, and Jeannine you gave us Marosa di Giorgio and Selva Casal; together, you have also translated Silvia Guerra. Are there features/threads you see in contemporary Uruguayan poetry that parallel, overlap, or distinguish themselves from what’s happening in poetry in the U.S.?
Jesse Lee and Jeannine: What fascinates us is the unbroken chain of Uruguayan women stretching from early poets like Delmira Agustini through the poets you list above, and up to the youngest poets reading in the bars and boliches of Montevideo right now.
Jeannine: It is so interesting to see the echoes of Marosa di Girogio, say, in the poems of Silvia Guerra. And many of the poems in Marielle Nigro’s book are dedicated to another Uruguayan woman poet.
Jesse Lee: I was just in Uruguay for the book launch of Flores Raras, which is an anthology of 55 Uruguayan women poets born before 1940 that Silvia Guerra and I edited. It is 450 pages—but it easily have been twice as long and included double the number of poets. It brought me back to the U.S. with a fresh appreciation of all the amazing women poets we have and have always had here though, as in Uruguay, not all have them are remembered or recognized as the important artists they were. I think there needs to be a recognition and reevaluation of that not just in Uruguay or the U.S., but in every country.
Mihaela: I couldn’t agree more. This fall, while at a poetry festival in Romania, I came across this recently published two-volume anthology (600+ pages) of poems by Romanian women writers of the 20th and 21st century, edited by Purcaru and Erizanu. And I realized, with shame, that I did not know, and should have, many of those poets.
What translation projects are you working on?
Jesse Lee and Jeannine: We are currently co-translating Wisteria, a book by forty-year-old Chilean poet Úrsula Starke. It is an interesting and challenging work.
Jesse Lee: And for me, my first non-Uruguayan!
Jeannine: I am also currently working on a translation of La flor de lis, Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio’s (1932-2004) last book of poetry.
Jesse Lee: I am not sure what is next for me after the Starke, but I have promised myself to do more Circe Maia. She is 90 and in poor health. I really want to return to her work which, for me, is full of lessons about life.
Mariella Nigro (Montevideo, Uruguay, 1957) is a lawyer, poet and essayist. She has published eight books of poetry and two of literary essays, including El tiempo circular (Yaugurú, Montevideo, 2009), Después del nombre (Estuario, Montevideo, 2011), and Orden del caos (Vitruvio, Madrid, 2016). In 2011, she received the Bartolomé Hidalgo Poetry Prize, and in 2013 the Morosoli Prize, awarded by the Lolita Rubial Foundation, both honoring her complete poetic work.
I’m Writing an Elegy
and so I’m arranging a dark bouquet
of useless words
with their eloquence of broken petals
and burning in the rhetoric of embroidered leaves
the poem grows in black water
of the fragile overflowing vase:
she was so little,
I see her lost there
between the flowers’ white vapor
and the wood’s lustrous rigidity,
all by herself,
toward who knows what high point of heaven.
Up ahead the gleam of the abyss is waiting
boundless certain horizon
final gleam of all things
rays of light in the dark corolla
highest leaves, fruit about to fall with its delicate buds
the future white shadow of the child of the child of the child…
his aura so clear on the screen
and I, so old, gripping the stalk
in the lovely hologram imagined
in his burst of fire
And a possible, almost safe site of wreckage
the eye of hurricane in the body’s center
and its echoing gale
in the dark interior country
that, prophetic, might predict what earthquake
what solar storm
what lightning bolt traversing lymph and heart
will shine in the dark.
And one more tributary
of this untamed river with unquiet waters
where the death bed was once a ship
and the garden grew only orange blossoms
their brief bloom that taking flight
under the moon that raises its blade like a scythe
stalking the fortitude of the pines.
in the absence of the child on the high branch
with his face revealed by the January moon.
it’s necessary to reorder the tree and the night.
The House of Orange Trees
“how will we look in the amber sun,
backlit, facing the old wall”
“. . . besieged by a wall of high waves,
stone over the whiteness, whiteness over the wall ”
(From The River)
There was a time when I looked for snails between the yellow sidewalk and the stone wall where my sister had fallen and died. I followed them in order to kill them.
I wore those clothes handed down on my mother’s orders, clothes not given away, that knit bikini, so tiny it showed off my puberty, which was why I liked it. I’d collapsed into her, her small breasts, pink, white and pale, into her batik shirts, tangled among the threads we’d strung with snails for necklaces we had to yank off when the gross slugs came slithering over the neckline.
In a box I locked like Eleusinian mysteries the poems we’d shared the previous year under the January moon, along with the colored ribbons and glass beads that we’d fought over, now mine alone. (Trapped in them my neck got burnt, stinging).
Later, along the beach the whitest dust was flying.
In the green quarries’ solitude I invoked her name and boneless face. And I missed her. And I said
It’s me, I’ve come with roses to hang an epitaph of petals
sealed by a hopeful flower.
You’re not there.
For so long no one has been there
in the nothingness estate.
Therefore I come, every so often,
to change the water
and clean the letters chiseled in marble.
Girl in the country
At night, they hunted pigeons in the mountains using long bamboo poles with
Armadillos too, in a way I can’t forget…
He wore a long, thick cape, dark, flying.
He waved the cape over the Land Rover, bouncing down the moonlit road. His green eyes and
teeth, very white, were shining.
(I would remember all that later, when I read Marosa among the gems).
And at every turn, the cows shimmered, swollen with a fatal disease.
The moon whitened the leather of their haunches.
And the doves were cooing.
And I was a girl.
Something brought me here.
Suffocating the immense green field, the artificial flower’s artificial smell.
The sun sets and purgatory’s souls appear.
There’s a prayer in the air
waters run through mossy canals,
dry branches fly, a mother cries
and I see the little hands
in the puddles we splashed in the air
colored ribbons in our hair
and our game of leaping over the wall
and the now all-too-visible face of death.
And He Teaches the Lesson
“Given the provisions for living …
the grandmother takes life’s journey full of nothings … ”
I have read the poem to Marco
and he knew how to point out his name’s letters one by one
in the water of the mirror of my eye
and he repeated the rhyme
trilling in amazement
at the correspondences
leaving a little bird inside my head.
May it live in my eye and trill in my tree
and receive in verse
the provisions for living.
Then, may it read,
see the shining water of the poem,
its meaning in the lovely bower of letters.
Be the tall flower that holds up my tree.
Escribo una elegía
y formo así un oscuro ramo
de inútiles palabras
con su elocuencia de quebrado pétalo
y ardiendo en la retórica de sus hojas bordadas
crece el poema en el agua negra
del frágil vaso desbordado:
quedó tan chiquita,
la veo allí perdida
entre el vapor blanco de las flores
y la lustrosa rigidez de la madera,
mirando hacia adentro
vaya a saber qué alto punto del cielo.
Ahí adelante espera el fulgor del abismo
el infinito horizonte destinado
los destellos finales de las cosas
los rayos de luz en la corola oscura
las hojas más altas, los frutos por caer y sus pimpollos leves
la futura sombra blanca del hijo del hijo del hijo…
su aura tan clara en la pantalla
y yo, tan anciana sosteniendo el tallo
en el holograma hermoso que imagino
en su emisión de fuego
y su ternura.
Y una posible casi segura región de escombros,
el ojo del huracán en medio del cuerpo
y su vendaval sonoro
en la patria oscura de la entraña
agorando vaya a saber qué sismo
qué tormenta solar
qué rayo que atraviese linfa y corazón
que brille así de oscuro.
Y un afluente más
de este río bravío y de revueltas aguas
donde la cama de morir antes fuera navío
y el jardín fuera sólo flor naranja
en breve semilla que volando va
bajo la luna que asciende su cuña como hoz
que acecha la entereza de los pinos
cuando es necesario ordenar el árbol y la noche
con la ausencia del hijo en la alta rama
y su faz asomando en la luna de enero.
La casa de los naranjos
“que en el ámbar solar pereceremos,
a contraluz, de cara al viejo muro”
“…sitiada por un muro de altas olas,
piedra en lo blanco, blanco sobre el muro”
(De El río)
Hubo un tiempo en que buscaba caracoles entre la vereda amarilla y el muro de piedra junto al que había caído mi hermana y había muerto. Los perseguía para matarlos.
Yo usaba aquella ropa legada por mandato materno, la que no fue donada, aquel bikini tejido que, de
tan chico, mi pubertad modelaba, y entonces me gustaba.
Había caído en ella, en su pecho menudo, rosa, blanco y celeste, y en sus camisetas de batik,
enredada entre los hilos con que habíamos enhebrado entonces caracoles en collares que debíamos
despojar de un tirón cuando aparecían las asquerosas babosas recorriendo el escote.
Encerré en una caja como misterios eleusinos los poemas compartidos el último año bajo la luna de
enero y las cintas de colores y los abalorios que entonces disputamos y ahora sólo a mí pertenecían
(en ellos atrapada me quemaban
ardiéndome en el cuello).
Luego, junto a la playa volaba un polvo blanquísimo.
En la soledad de las canteras verdes yo pensaba en su nombre y su rostro sin hueso. Y la extrañaba.
Y le decía
Soy yo, que he venido con las rosas a colgar su epitafio de corola
y la flor de ilusión que lo rubrica.
No estás ahí.
No puede estarse ahí por tanto tiempo
en la estancia de la nada.
Por eso vuelvo, cada tanto,
a remover el agua
y sanar el revés rasguñado del mármol.
Niña en el campo
De noche, ellos cazaban palomas en el monte con unas largas varas de tacuara con un pincho en la
Y mulitas, en una forma que no puedo olvidar…
Él llevaba una capa gruesa y larga, oscura, voladora.
Ondeaba la capa sobre el Land Rover, a los saltos por el camino iluminado por la luna. Le brillaban
los ojos verdes y los dientes muy blancos.
(Recordaría todo aquello en otro aire, cuando leyera a Marosa entre la pedrería).
Y a cada trecho reverberaban las vacas, hinchadas por una fatal enfermedad.
La luna blanqueaba el cuero del anca.
Y las palomas zureaban.
Y yo era una niña.
Algo me trajo hasta aquí.
Ahoga el olor artificial de la flor artificial, el campo verde inmenso.
Cae el sol y aparecen las ánimas.
Hay un rezo en el aire
hay aguas que corren por canales musgosos
vuelan ramas secas, llora una madre
y yo veo las pequeñas manos
en las pozas que batíamos en el aire
las cintas de colores en el pelo
y el salto en el juego sobre el muro
y la cara ahora tan visible de la muerte.
Y da la lección
“provista de los avíos del vivir…
la abuela hace el camino de la vida repleta de nadas…”
Le he leído el poema a Marco
y él supo señalar una a una las letras de su nombre
en el agua del espejo de mi ojo
y repitió la rima
trinando ante el asombro
de las correspondencias
dejando un pajarito dentro de mi cabeza.
Que viva en mi ojo y en mi árbol trine
y reciba en los versos
los avíos del vivir.
sepa ver el brillo del agua del poema,
su sentido, en la hermosa enramada de las letras.
Sea la alta flor que sostiene mi árbol.