Poems by Mayra Santos-Febres

From Boat People (Ediciones Callejón, 2005). Translated by Vanessa Pérez-Rosario.

• October 2017

air is lacking,
so the journey goes on
to the illegitimate city in the ocean’s deep.
undocumented alveoli
explode in melancholy song,
air is lacking
but what’s different on the surface
if on the surface everything else is wanting
everything for the cooking pot and for the breast
for the pocket and the eyes
cold and calloused from walking so
                                               and waiting

air is lacking,
still wanting.
a few lights glisten among the algae.
maybe in the ocean’s deep there is an excess
of everything that suffocates here.


to change names
cells and identity
IDs to an identical cell
with tied hands
a cell of howling aging
and once more to the sea
to change names
immensity of cells
cells identically become
Helios brilliant sun
with dragonfly dartings
hurdle and corral
stronger than the paper frame
a two-by-two photo holds    a grimace
hands tied behind the back
belly latched like a kennel
on the verge of leaving, another cage
identity unquestioned
and once more to the sea
a watery wilderness
with its enormous city of the dead
swollen in salt.


morenita                     black water flower  
what’s your return address
what direction your current’s flow
out of you comes the sky that’s a cry
my shipwreck             you’re my yawl
my crossing
there in the green deep the alveolus
lays as much algae
      as you’ll allow a nestling on your bulge.
in the deepest recesses of this tongue
the salty sweat of your fingers
are everblossom on so foreign a shore
remnant stem of an unfading passport.
your body’s swaying
breaks in shadows
against the waves rock your skin’s every petal
abandoned                   your body billows
in search of its home address
and I know not
                       where to send it
to what street
to what block of which neighborhood of glass
where they wait for the news of your death.
oh, morena,
              black water flower,
your body’s wreckage and your sigh
            is this salt’s shipwreck.


el aire falta,   
va faltando
y continúa el viaje hacia
la ciudad ilegal al fondo de los mares.
indocumentado el alveolo
explota en canción de melancolía,
el aire va faltando
pero cuál la diferencia con arriba
si arriba falta todo lo demás
lo demás para el caldero y para el pecho
lo de para los bolsillos y los ojos
fríos y callosos de tanto andar

falta el aire,
va faltando.
entre las algas brillan unas lucecitas.
quizás allá al fondo sobre
lo que aquí asfixia.


cambiar de nombre
de células de identidad
cédulas de igualita celda
dos por dos
con cable en las manos
célula de grito y edad
y otra vez al mar
a cambiarse el nombre
células de inmensidad
céldas que idéntico se generan
helios y sol egregio con aspas
de libélula
rémora y un corral
más fuerte quel papel
una foto dos por dos que atrapa    mueca
de manos con cable a la espalda
a panza de perrera con pestillo
a punto de partida, otro corral
y de nuevo al mar
crédula de identidad
selva de agua
con su ciudad enorme de muertos
hinchados en sal.


negra flor de agua     morenita
cuál   el remitente de tu calle
cuál la dirección de tus mareas
de ti sale el cielo que es un llanto.
tú eres mi naufragio                yola
tú eres mi viaje
allá al fondo verde el alveolo
carga cuanta alga
dejas anidar en tus costillas.
allá al fondo desta lengua
los dedos de tu sal
son siempreflor de costa tan  ajena
tallo de documento inmarcecible.
el trajín de tu carne
rompe en sombra
contra las olas que mecen cada pétalo en tu piel
el trajín de tu carne     abandonada
busca su remitente y yo no sé
            a dónde enviarla
a qué calle, morenita
a qué cuadra de qué barrio de cristal
donde esperen el aviso de tu muerte.
ay, morena
negra flor de agua,
el naufragio de tu carne y tu suspiro
            es el naufragio desta sal.



Translator’s Acknowledgement

My deepest gratitude to Roberto Márquez for his guidance and encouragement and for his insistence on the importance of style, rhythm, lyricism, and resonance. Thanks also to David Scott, Kahlil Chaar-Pérez, and to student assistant Wilfredo José Burgos Matos for their comments. 


Mayra Santos-Febres, an award-winning poet, novelist, essayist, and biographer who writes in Spanish, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Latin American and Caribbean Fiction in 2009. She holds a BA from the University of Puerto Rico–Río Piedras, and a PhD in Africana studies from Cornell University, and is the author of numerous works, including Pez de Vidrio (1995), Sirena Selena vestida de pena (2000), Cualquier miércoles soy tuya (2002), Boat People (2005), and Nuestra señora de la noche (2006), among others. Her narrative work has been translated into French, English, and Italian; her poetry has not been translated.


Vanessa Pérez-Rosario is the managing editor of Small Axe, an associate professor of Latino studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and a translator. She is the author of Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon (2014) and the editor of Hispanic Caribbean Literature of Migration: Narratives of Displacement (2010). She recently completed a translation manuscript of Mayra Santos-Febres’s 2005 collection of poetry Boat People and has edited and translated a manuscript titled “I Am My Own Path: A Bilingual Anthology of the Collected Writings of Julia de Burgos.”


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