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Vigils

William Carlos Williams (1883–1963) produced a good many translations of Spanish-language poetry during the course of his poetic career, as well as translations of Greek, French, and Chinese poems. He was “half-Spanish,” as he says in his autobiography. This personal identity helped fuel his desire to translate poems from Spanish. He recognized that “a translation into another language involves in the first place a choice of the language into which the translation is to be made.” For Williams, this language was not English, but “American.” On this point he was emphatic: “I don’t speak English, but the American idiom. I don’t know how to write anything else.” And when it came to translating poetry, he once said, “I have been as accurate as the meaning of the words permitted—always with a sense of our own American idiom to instruct me.”

Williams made the translation here at the request of Mexican-born professor and writer José Vázquez-Amaral (translator of Ezra Pound’s
Cantos into Spanish as well as poems by Williams). It was in the spring of 1958 that the poet accepted the professor’s invitation to contribute to a Latin American feature to be published in New World Writing. Vázquez-Amaral sent him the Spanish texts, along with literal translations he had made “to save [Williams] some useless trouble” (his knowledge of Spanish was rudimentary), instructing him to “make them into poems.” Because of space limitations in the magazine, not all of Williams’s translations could be included, and his rendering of “Vigils” has been unpublished until now.

I
Vacant days, what shall become
of me? At nightfall
already conquered in our dreams,
facing a wall, uncertain we stumble
and go astray. To fall as night falls
without deceit, on any bed
which chance interposes, in search
of the most modest and white caress.
Tell me, my soul, elect
or favored, friend of the Lord
in the star filled night, how
bar the day from that blinding light.

II
Vacant days, what shall become
of me? Free as the steed
before the timeless goal, panting
but secure, free of the wall
placed about us blind, but
with the pride of one who gives
all that of himself that may be
given by a free man,
uncursed if it may be—,
knowing that I am here
today, and tomorrow . . . no where,
nor when, failing tomorrow. Free,
as a dagger, but with
you, suffering, self pitied,
keeping from self the power of
a most savage conscience and, for
all that, relentless love.
When I place you, my body,
sacrificial to night’s beneficence,
lowly I am reborn and humble me.

III
Vacant days, what shall become
of me? Bordered by a light
acid and sudden, sand
made vain by a lightning, like
foam at the edges of waves
to my heart’s thumps
swinging from bump to bump
toward the star. What whiteness
so stealthy, what sleepless
wonder, the live lime
rocks, the furious waters
cause to blanch, silver shouting
from the torch which never dims.
Bays solely blossomed in snow.
Days hardened by the moon
as if at a cobra’s gaze
and weeping melting the self
centered snow of meanest breast.
Oh implacable! Oh ferocious white
between grey and the air, shading water
to grey, shining, threatening,
debasing, with a murderous glint,
thus are the bones I shall leave
polished as a signal in the night.

IV
I am kneeling before the white wall
I write my name
upon the water. I see the hours
passing like clouds. There is no
bottom. Neither abyss.
At my feet shadow draws back.
Who am I? Do you not know me?
What strange monster
is sucking the minuscule
darkness that I need not
disappear? What delirium
the Uranian skies have willed on me?
I am within myself beside myself,
side by side, my fog, my
ashes, my breed, my
guts, look upon me for the last time
before I destroy myself.

V
Someone calls me and I don’t know how to answer.
I am not here. I have not returned. It is not I.
Subterfuge, unknown person,
unknown self who will continue calling
from always to never without stop.
I am not here. I am unknown to myself. Who is who?
I call, implore, question, no answer,
and I will continue calling, whom? and who
to whom, without end or beginning,
until I can call and answer
with one voice and at the same time.

VI
What plunging thoughts
the heart casts upon me,
your own heart. What
patent joy.
What amazement. Under
its bark life has
kept its forms by which
we know it, the egg
from which it was borne.
I desire what at once
I desire and spurn
—to remember, be false to
the present—and consent,
what difference? by you alone
my entrails are scorched.

VII
Pain does not point
either to movement or
movelessness. Thus
sway dancing between
the hurt and the joy
so that I no longer know
whether I live
or swoon. Let me spin
if I would persist.

Translation of “Los desvelos.” Copyright Ernesto Mejía Sánchez. Translation copyright 2010 by the Estates of William Eric and Paul H. Williams. All rights reserved. From William Carlos Williams, By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916-1959 (Bilingual Edition), compiled and edited by Jonathan Cohen, forthcoming from New Directions in September 2011.