Three Poems from Spanish by Amado Nervo

Amado Nervo (1870-1919) was a significant Mexican poet and novelist of the Spanish ‘Modernismo’ movement, which included Rubén Darío. The movement sought to counter materialistic and naturalistic literary influences, expressing a mystic, spiritual approach to reality. Nervo had studied for the priesthood, but took a clerical job for financial reasons. He later worked widely and internationally as a journalist: in his final years he worked as an academic and an ambassador. Some of his most significant works were influenced by the death of Ana Cecilia Luisa Dailliez: he had met her in Paris and spent more than a decade with her.
Nervo’s poetry is lyric, deep, intricate, movingly simple. Stunning contrasts and associations galvanize his metaphors and imagery. He was largely a formal poet, working in a particularly lyrical language. His words are often precise and rich, charged with various senses in ways that are difficult to translate. Inevitably, some aspects remain buried.



La sombra del ala


Tú que piensas que no creo

cuando argüimos los dos,

no imaginas mi deseo,

mi sed, mi hambre de Dios;


ni has escuchado mi grito

desesperante, que puebla

la entraña de la tiniebla

invocando al Infinito;


ni ves a mi pensamiento,

que empeñado en producir

ideal, suele sufrir

torturas de alumbramiento.


Si mi espíritu infecundo

tu fertilidad tuviese,

forjado ya un cielo hubiese

para completar su mundo.


Pero di, ¿qué esfuerzo cabe

en un alma sin bandera

que lleva por dondequiera

tu torturador ¿quién sabe?;


que vive ayuna de fe

y, con tenaz heroísmo,

va pidiendo a cada abismo

y a cada noche un ¿por qué?


De todas suertes, me escuda

mi sed de investigación,

mi ansia de Dios, honda y muda;

y hay más amor en mi duda

que en tu tibia afirmación.



The shadow of the wing


You who think I don’t believe

when we two feud

do not imagine my desire,

my thirst, my hunger for God;


nor have you heard my desolate

cry that echoes through

the inner place of shadow,

calling on the infinite;


nor do you see my thought

laboring in ideal genesis,

frequently in distress

with throes of light.


If my sterile spirit

could own your power of birth,

by now — I would have columned heaven

to perfect your earth.


But tell me, what power stows

within a flagless soul

to carry anywhere at all

its torturer — who knows? —


that keeps a fast from faith,

and with valiant integrity

goes on asking every depth

and every darkness, why?


Notwithstanding, I am shielded

by my thirst for inquiry —

my pangs for God, cavernous and unheard;

and there is more love in my unsated

doubt than in your tepid certainty.




¿Y por qué no ha de ser verdad el alma?

¿Qué trabajo le cuesta al Dios que hila

el tul fosfóreo de las nebulosas

y que traza las tenues pinceladas

de luz de los cometas incansables

dar al espíritu inmortalidad?

¿Es más incomprensible por ventura

renacer que nacer? ¿Es más absurdo

seguir viviendo que el haber vivido,

ser invisible y subsistir, tal como

en redor nuestro laten y subsisten

innumerables formas, que la ciencia

sorprende a cada instante

con sus ojos de lince?

Esperanza, pan nuestro cotidiano;

esperanza nodriza de los tristes;

murmúrame esas íntimas palabras

que en silencio de la noche fingen,

en lo más escondido de mi mente,

cucicheo de blancos serafines…

¿Verdad que he de encontrarme con mi muerta?

Si lo sabes, ¿por qué no me lo dices?





And why shouldn’t it be true that there’s a soul?

What labor does it cost God, who fibrils

the phosphorescent tulle of the nebulae,

who veins brushstrokes so subtle

of light on the comets that never fail,

to give immortality to the spirit?

Is it more incomprehensible, by chance,

to be reborn than to be born? Is it more absurd

to go on living than to have lived,

to be unwitnessed and exist, as around

us here throb and exist

numberless forms that science

surprises every instant

with its lynx eyes?

Hope, our commonplace bread;

hope, nurse of the wretched;

murmur to me those intimate words

that in silent night feign,

in the inmost obscurity of my mind,

whispers of white seraphim …

Isn’t it true that I will encounter my dead?

If you know, why do you not inform?


El fantasma y yo


Mi alma es una princesa en su torre metida,

con cinco ventanitas para mirar la vida.

Es una triste diosa que el cuerpo aprisionó.

y tu alma, que desde antes de morirte volaba,

es un ala magnífica, libre de toda traba…

Tú no eres el fantasma: ¡el fantasma soy yo!


¡Qué entiendo de las cosas! Las cosas se me ofrecen,

no como son de suyo, sino como aparecen

a los cinco sentidos con que Dios limitó

mi sensorio grosero, mi percepción menguada.

Tú lo sabes hoy todo…, ¡yo, en cambio, no sé nada!

Tú no eres el fantasma: ¡el fantasma soy yo!



The ghost and I


My soul is a princess in her tower closed

gazing on life through five little windows.

She is a mournful goddess prisoned by the body.

And your soul, which flew before you died,

is a brilliant wing, thoroughly freed …

You are not the ghost; the ghost is I!


What do I understand of things! To me, things offer

not what they truly are, but how they appear

to the five senses with which God holds at bay

my bulky sensorium, my tenuous perceiving.

You know all today … I, rather, know nothing!

You are not the ghost; the ghost is I!

Isabel Chenot has loved and practiced poetry all her remembered life. She hopes her translation effort conveys something of Amado Nervo's rare gift, and inspires others to make his works more widely available.