3 Poems

Raúl Gómez Jattin


Raúl Gómez Jattin was from a ramshackle town near Colombia’s Caribbean coast called Cereté, which lies roughly equidistant between Cartagena and the Darién Gap. In fact, he was born and died in Cartagena, the closest big city and, a long time before he was born, one of the great cities of the Spanish Empire. The way that Gómez Jattin described his double provenance is instructive. He once wrote (or probably dictated) the following:

Nací en Cartagena el 31 de mayo de 1945 pero soy de Cereté (departamento de Córdoba), un pueblo en la mitad del valle del Sinú, o Chinú, como dicen los cartageneros.

[I was born in Cartagena on the 31st of May 1945 but I am from Cereté (Department of Córdoba), a town in the middle of the Sinú valley, or Chinú, as they call it in Cartagena.]

He was not born in the place that he was from, though he spontaneously thinks of the place he was from in the language of the place where he was born. He was, in short, from two places and an outsider to both of them. He tried to live in a third place later, moving to Bogotá in the mid-1960s. But like many others who attempted the move from the coast to the capital − a young Gabriel García Márquez had tried it not too long before − Gómez Jattin did not like the capital. The weather was cold and the people were worse. His undoing, however, lay elsewhere: he wanted to produce works of theater that had no political message. In an artistic scene that was intensely politicized, Gómez Jattin soon found himself out of work. This was the major catastrophe of his life and it impelled him to move back to the coast and begin writing poems. His later life in all of its lurid detail has proven something of a diversion for Colombian critics. He was certainly a voracious user of drugs, a vagabond, and a frequenter of mental hospitals, but these aspects of his life had only an oblique relation to his poetry. Even his sternest detractors concede that he never wrote poetry while in the throes of madness − drug-induced or otherwise − although these episodes did sometimes provide him with material after the fact. He died in 1997. Since his death, his fame in the Spanish-speaking world has only grown. These are the first of his poems to appear in English.

James Rumsey-Merlan & Camila Vélez Valencia 


Qué te vas a acordar Isabel

QUÉ TE VAS a acordar Isabel
de la rayuela bajo el mamoncillo de tu patio
de las muñecas de trapo que eran nuestros hijos
de la baranda donde llegaban los barcos de La Habana
cargados de…
Cuando tenías los ojos dorados
como pluma de pavo real
y las faldas manchadas de mango
Qué va
tú no te acuerdas
En cambio yo no lo notaste hoy
no te han contado
Sigo tirándole piedrecillas al cielo
buscando un lugar donde posar sin mucha fatiga el pie
Haciendo y deshaciendo figuras en la piel de la tierra
y mis hijos son de trapo y mis sueños de trapo
y sigo jugando a las muñecas bajo los reflectores del
Isabel ojos de pavo real
ahora que tienes cinco hijos con el alcalde
y te pasea por el pueblo un chofer endomingado
ahora que usas anteojos
cuando nos vemos me tiras un “qué hay de tu vida”
frío e impersonal
Como si yo tuviera eso
Como si yo todavía usara eso

As if You’d Remember Isabel

AS IF YOU’D remember Isabel
of the hopscotch underneath your patio’s mamoncillo tree
of the rag dolls that were our children
of the boats from Havana
loaded with…
When you had golden eyes
like a peacock feather
and your skirts were stained with mango
As if!
you don’t remember
Whereas I didn’t you notice today
haven’t they told you
Keep throwing pebbles at the sky
searching for a place where I can put my feet at ease
Making and unmaking figures on the skin of the earth
and my children are made of rag and my dreams are made of rag
and I still play dolls under the lights of
the stage
Isabel peacock eyes
now that you have five kids with the mayor
and a chauffeur in his Sunday best takes you around town
now that you wear spectacles
when we see each other you shoot me a “how’s life”
cold and impersonal
As if I had one of those
As if I still used one of those


El suicida

Airoso en su galope
levantó la mano armada
hasta su sien
y disparó:
suave derrumbe
del caballo al suelo
Doblado sobre un muslo cayó
y sin un solo gemido
se fue a galopar
a las praderas del cielo


The Suicide

Airy in his gallop
he lifted an armed hand
to his temple
and shot:
tender collapse
from the horse to the ground
doubled over one thigh
he fell
and without a single cry
he went galloping
to the meadows of heaven


Íntimas preguntas

¿De profesión?
¿De vocación?
¿De ambición?
¿De formación?
Y ni aún así
pudo contrarrestar
el cabrilleo de los ojos de Jorge
¿De fornicación?


Intimate Questions

By profession?
By vocation?
By ambition?
By training?
And even so
he could not resist
the foaming white of Jorge’s eyes
By fornication?


Translated from the Spanish by James Rumsey-Merlan & Camila Vélez Valencia 

Raúl Gómez Jattin was born in Cartagena, Colombia in 1945. He studied law at the Externado University of Colombia in Bogotá, where he acted and adapted literary works for the stage. Eventually he returned to Cartagena where, until his death in 1997, he wrote poetry during his lucid periods.

James Rumsey-Merlan was born in Sydney in 1987, and has moved around a fair bit ever since. He first read Raúl Gómez Jattin a few years ago in Cartagena, where he was taking classes at la Universidad Tecnológica de Bolivar. He studied German at the University of Chicago and is now pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Princeton University. 

For all we know, Camlia Vélez Valencia may have met Raul Gómez Jattin. She used to spend Christmas at her grandmother’s house in Cartagena, which is two doors down from the corner shop in which Gómez Jattin did some of his best work. She has two degrees, from the University of Chicago and Columbia University and she is currently working on a PhD in Comparative literature.

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