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At the Jan 27th meeting of the ongoing series Poetry in Translation : The Trace I Wished to Leave at the Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden, Sarah Lawson, introduced us to the Mexican poet, Manuel Ulacia.

She writes :

“Manuel Ulacia (1953-2001) was still building his reputation as one of Mexico’s younger distinguished poets when he died in a drowning accident off the Pacific coast of Mexico. He was a Yale-educated academic, specialising in the poetry of Luis Cernuda. Both his parents were poets, and his maternal grandfather was Manuel Altolaguirre, one of the leading lights in the Spanish “Generation of ‘27”. Ulacia’s best poetry is of a very personal nature and often deals with his homosexuality, both his coming to terms with it as a youth and his frank enjoyment of same-sex relationships in later years.”
She adds,  “I regret that I never knew Manuel Ulacia, but I know people who did know him, including members of his family, and no one has a bad word to say about him. He was charming and charismatic and all the rest of it. As a young man he was really strikingly good looking.”

Biographical note on the translator:  Sarah Lawson translates from French, Spanish, and Dutch. Her translation of Jacques Prévert’s Selected Poems was a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation in 2002.

As examples of Manuel Ulacia’s work she gives us here a Cavafyesque sketch of the encounter of two men in a hotel, and a poem from a collection he wrote about his father’s death which many critics consider his finest work.

In the Ritz in Meknes

Just one glance was enough,
the silence between two sentences,
the light touch in your hand
when you asked for the key
in the heat of the siesta,
for the young concierge
with the look of a gazelle
to follow you to the room.

Such delight to touch
his olive thighs,
smelling of orange blossoms,
and to kiss his full lips
tasting of cardamom
while the fan revolved
cooling the entwined bodies
in their delirium desiring each other
as the desert desires water.

So much enjoyment in an instant
when the bodies forget reality
letting themselves go,
but where? where?

The city woke up after an hour.
The cars, the motorbikes,
the music from a radio,
the mysterious babble
brought you back to the world.
The concierge hurriedly,
said good-bye and left the room.
You went back to sleep.
You woke up in another dream
when the muezzin began
to pray into the microphone.
From the balcony, the Palace
glittered in the resonant night,
full of stars.

–Manuel Ulacia

translated by Sarah Lawson.

Note : Meknes is in Morocco. That’s why the muezzin is praying into the microphone. This doesn’t happen much in Mexico. Manuel Ulacia wrote this about the same trip in a few other Moroccan poems, like “Express to Marrakesh”.” (Sarah Lawson).

The Stone on the Bottom

While my father’s breathing
little by little fades away,
the probes removed, the needles
and the oxygen mask,
between systole and diastole,
on the stage of memory,
one after another,
a slide-show of past life.
The trip to school at eight in the morning
with his quizzes
about the Yellow River,
the gardens of Mesopotamia,
the Great Wall of China and Newton’s apple,
and later, in the break
in the cool shade of tall ash trees,
in conversations with other boys,
the image of my father transformed
into the hero of an adventure story,
and now back home
the family together again,
my father tells about the thousand and one inventions
of his laboratory,
essences of rose, musk and lavender,
and the adventures of his mother as a girl,
in the trains of the Revolution
from Campeche to Mexico City,
the cockfights
that his father liked so much,
the walks through the fields and along riverbanks,
the forgotten image of his grandfather
who painted fans in Valencia,
his brief childhood in a huge garden,
stories about emigrants of almost a century ago
who left behind the Gothic tower, the olive grove and the herd
and who never returned.

And at the end of the day
I watch how my parents get dressed up
to go to a party,and after the good-night kiss,
absorbed in the movieon the black-and-white television,
I imagine that life is like this,
and that my parents are dancing
on a moon-lit terrace,
to a waltz by Agustín Lara,
and that my father is the leading man of the screen,
the corsair of a sea battle,
Tarzan in the Amazon jungle,
and that someday I too will be grown up
and I will catch on a girl’s neck
the odour of violets
and I will play out my destiny as they explained it to me.

While my father’s breathing
little by little fades away,
and each pulse is slower than the last,
between systole and diastole,
time expands
like the concentric circles that form
when you throw a stone into the mirror of the water.
Each instant is an hour,
and each hour a life.
Brief the passing time.
Those days full of sun in the country,
the rusty walls of the house,
the stable, the corral,
the dam of the watering hole
with its clouds reflected as they pass,
where one day my father taught me
to measure the depth of water
by the time it takesthe thrown stone to reach the bottom.
And the woman who shells ears of maize
as if she were shelling the seeds of time.
In what waters do we fall
when we go if time doesn’t exist?
What is the depth of the sky?
Where do the hours of living germinate?
And now here we are as evening falls,
in a dimly lit room,
among loud steam of red-hot irons
on white sheets,
my father told me
that in the next room
his father had died:
the first image of finite time,
a falling stone,
a vast measurement that we are unaware of,
the sharp outline of his face,
the white sheet that shrouded his father,
the secret glance of the two ironing women,
the hand and the watch that take the pulse.
My father sits up
and asks, “What time is it?”
and without listening says: “Tomorrow at the same time.”
Shaking from cold his body begins
to give birth to another body,
the invisible butterfly with white wings,
that awaits the exact moment
to break free in nuptials with nothingness.

While my father’s breathing fades away,
an anxiety revives,
a sharp-edged stone in the throat.
Those meals in my youth,
in which the only sound was
the contact of the cutlery and the china,
the shy glances
that hid the blush caused by
carnal passion,
and my secret games in the bedroom,
while the piercing light, coming in through the window,
lit up the clouds of the pitcher,
the empty dishes and the crumbs,
because wakeful in my lascivious dreaming
I grasp the strange nature of my desire.

Now I wouldn’t be the picture of the hero after all
who danced with a girl on the screen,
nor the manager of industries,
nor the prudent man with social approval,
nor the man at the mercy of alluring virgins,
nor the father who perpetuates the species.
And later you argue;
doesn’t make men happy,
says my mother, it only makes them men.
My father is silent:
indifference is fragile armour.

My father lives in the ideogram of his world,
he builds other dreams,
without a thought for the finite quality of time,
for the stone and its fall,
in the shadowy bedroom.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, always tomorrow
and the household increases
while my mother’s hair is turning white
and my sister discovers in the mirror
her budding breasts,
and my grandmother becomes a child again.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, always tomorrow.

While my father’s breathing
little by little fades away,
I want to tell him
that the only thing I wanted
was to live the truth of my real love,
but he no longer hears anything,
he no longer says anything,
silence has been taking possession of his body,
of the body of my mother,
of the circle formed around his bed,
of the shadowy room,
of the clear mirror of water
in which the stone keeps falling
in the fragile gravity of the moment.

While my father’s breathing fades away
the transparency of the window reminds me
that outside the world exists.
I contemplate the lighted city,
the cars that circulate,
the teenager in a corner
meeting his girlfriend,
the cyclist who goes past,
the athlete who runs on the grass.
Absorbed in the fragility of time,
I contemplate the world,
the window again,
the gathered family,
and I think that my father no longer speaks,
no longer sees, no longer hears,
that his dead senses
begin to perceive the theatre of the world
through us,
that the only memory of his life
is the fragments of our memory:
vast jigsaw puzzle from which pieces are missing.
What is he thinking about as he is leaving himself?
About my mother’s skin?
About the news bulletins of World War II?
About his first communion and the commandments?
About the tumours that are spreading through his body?
My father, between stammerings,
says that he has a stone in his neck,
that the stone doesn’t fall,
that he will fall with it.
Where to? In what place?

While my father’s breathing fades away,
it seems that he is beginning to forget everything:
the chemotherapies and the executioners,
the waiting rooms and the operating theatres,
the portrait of his grandmother
and the young legs of girls,
the stone from Oaxaca and the canary’s song,
the red rattle and the first cry.

Or perhaps, in his oblivion
—the last dream that time devours—
he may travel by a road
in search of his father.
But the road is already another road,
and the house another house.
His life now is contained in an instant.
All the parts are reconciled.
A single sun burns in his conscience,
frozen fire that consumes the world.
In the mirror of water
the last ripple appears.
The stone, in its fall,
reaches the bottom.

Manuel Ulacia

translated by Sarah Lawson