“Because we are going to die,” C. D. Wright wrote, “an expression of intensity is justified.” Every time I remember this sentence, which is often, I’m pierced, jarred to attention. It makes me shiver. It’s the justified that really gets to me: because Wright is talking about poems, about poetry as “the language of intensity,” and because I crave justification when it comes to poems, among other things.
Because we are going to die (this is how I amend Wright’s line for myself these days), a fact I cannot grasp, poetry—that expression of intensity—is one way to do some grasping. Some flailing. Some making-with-language, language being one of the few tools available to me, in response to what I do and do not understand.
I’ve been rereading Javier Peñalosa M.’s poem “La grulla” for years now. I was moved to translate it (as “The Crane”) because it made me feel the way the Wright quote does, and because I both did and did not understand it, not entirely. I still don’t claim to, or care to. I translated this poem because I wanted to get closer to it. Sometimes that’s the only reason.
I’d describe “The Crane” as a deceptively narrative poem, in the way that a dream can present what feels like a coherent story you’ll then struggle to recapitulate once you’re conscious again. The story, as it were, is more like a snapshot remembered: the speaker finds an injured crane in a boat by a riverbank and uses an oar to put the bird out of its misery, an act that fills him both with shame and with a feeling of identification he can’t quite describe. Years later—and here the young poet’s voice becomes ancient—the speaker continues to imagine the crane as if it were part of himself, flying home, overcome with exhaustion. The last two lines always leave me awed and shaken:
But I’m waiting for it to fall
so I can draw close again, the oar clutched in my hands.
Today, it’s the but that stops me in my tracks. It suggests that the speaker doesn’t kill the crane, even in his imagination, because it’s wounded, because it’s exhausted. It makes me think that this act, both violent and tender, isn’t really about putting anything out of its misery, but about defending something so intimate, so intrinsic, that it’s almost unspeakable.
Reader, I don’t know: today I receive this as a poem about making art without knowing why, and about the violence and wonderment that coexist where the making happens. Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is justified. The rest, or most of it, is a mystery.
Javier Peñalosa M.’s What Comes Back, translated by Robin Myers, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2023.