June 2007

Elizabeth Bachner


Tarumba by Jaime Sabines

The poems in Jaime Sabines’s Tarumba are about a man who takes himself into the drunken, rainy streets, into the sexual underworld, into the certainty of death. “Tarumba” colloquially means to get unsettled or confused, or to drive crazy, and the Tarumba the poet addresses is his constant companion, his frightening alter ego, the self that he talks to as he pounds the sidewalks, loses himself in daily life and gets old. (“Abracadabra again. / At this hour I have to say something. / I’m off to the bakery, / out to make money or / to find a spot to drop dead.”)

Tarumba was Sabines’s fourth book of poetry, written when the poet was 30. This latest edition of the work, edited and translated by Philip Levine and Ernesto Trejo, includes a judicious selection from the Tarumba poems as well as new translations of work spanning the poet’s life through 1999, including pieces written when Sabines was in his 50s and serving as a congressman in Chiapas. In his moving Afterword, Levine writes that he and Trejo first co-translated Sabines’s work in the early '70s, when the most regarded Mexican poetry was elitist and hermetic, far removed from, “where people spoke and lived.” Ernesto Trejo, a gifted poet who moved from Mexico to the United States at age 17 and published his own work in both Spanish and English, insisted on preserving the street language in the poems and the gritty vernacular of Sabines’s voice. Their original 1977 version of this volume was out-of-print for decades, and Levine worked for its republication -- with his own new translations included -- partly as a tribute to Trejo, who died of cancer in 1991. In the original forward, Trejo wrote that Sabines’s, “descriptions and images are accessible, and his vocabulary is colloquial. His most obsessive themes -- death, love, time, loss -- are familiar. His best poems are revelations of truths, odd truths, truths we immediately accept, which we have long suspected as truths but have never before heard articulated.” It’s clear from the original Spanish alongside the translations that Trejo and Levine have succeeded in preserving the searing accuracy of Sabines’s revelations. Sabines’s best work has a burning intensity that brands itself on the reader viscerally -- it is by turns cruel, hilarious, haunting, and so brutally truthful that it sets you reeling.

A single verse in the Tarumba series spans the erotic -- “You grind like a honeycomb. / You explode a thousand times. / You go four days without a woman / because you like it that way, / the burning up and the coming back, / you like to pass the tongue of your eyes over them all.” -- and the vicious -- “Tarumba, you were born in spit, / born in god knows what hot goo” -- and the taunting -- “You’re not gonna make it, / even though you cry, even though you sit perfectly still / like a good boy.” Throughout the work, the ordinary and commonplace are revealed as menacing, searing truths -- “Your curse was to grow only two hands”; “You can take the moon every two hours / either with a tablespoon or in capsules... / It calms and sweetens children / who can’t fall asleep, / and a few drops of the moon in the eyes of the old /can help them find a good death.”

The poet’s turn of phrase is sure and unforgettable --“To see the light in the oily street, / the stopped cars, the people passing and passing, / ...the bookshelves tumbling behind you, / the grey hairs on your father’s head, / the son your wife never had...”; “you’ve got the hide of a mouth / and you never wear out”; “You stayed on the ground smoldering like a cigarette.” His earlier work is largely stronger, simpler and more addicting than his later work, although Levine’s selections showcase the better of the verses he wrote after he was famous and acclaimed. The Tarumba poems, in particular, are worth reading and rereading, memorizing, falling asleep to, listening to, rediscovering and carrying into daily life. They are so sly and simple, so awe-striking and so deadly in their precision that it’s immediately clear why Cuban poet Roberto Fernandez Retamar coined Sabines the “Sniper of Literature.” This volume showcases Sabines at his sharpest, darkest and most fiery, and will secure his place as one of the greatest Mexican poets of the 20th century.

Tarumba by Jaime Sabines
Translated by Philip Levine and Ernesto Trejo
Sarabande Books
ISBN: 1932511482
119 Pages