A girl lifts her laughter to the black-leafed tree
golden leaves open
on a bare branch
so she can count the marks of desire.
The leaves will tell her how many loves she’ll have
for each blemish her finger counts
destiny will reveal a name.
If I could go to the market
with the pale-eyed girl,
I’d buy her: a game of chance,
a feather the colour of black coco plum,
some sandals with golden buckles and,
so that her totem could eat beneath a ceiba tree,
the luscious fruit of tart plums.
I would carpet her house with handfuls of basil and hoja santa,
that would be her huipil
and all those who gaze on her
would want her for the lasting dew of her body.
I wish you could walk with me on petals but also over pebbles.
My heart was sad that you left me in a basket
where smoke from the saints made my head swim.
My tiny feet wanted to hold on tight to their shadow’s hand.
How I wished to never ever kneel down at prayer time
while my eyes cried like a colander.
It would have helped my loneliness
if you hadn’t abandoned me in the belly of an old convent
where women prayed until their names were erased.
I slept beneath a tall guava tree
washed clothes for a year in the water that sprang forth.
I sat upon a dog’s back, carved my courage on his ribs.
How beautiful it would be
if you learned to love til your eyes ached
and your heart dropped petals of pain.
The world darkened
a jug spilled over, seas and rivers flowed,
a yellow sun came out, erasing men’s eyes,
the earth drank water from flowers and plants,
there was a tremor and from its fissures
the first man sprouted.
The river overflows
everyone turns into fish.
God appears on a peeling wall
I observe him from behind a black leafed tree.
Notes on this poem
One of the most difficult aspects of translating Natalia Toledo’s poetry is deciding how to express elements from the natural world in the Oaxacan Peninsula that do not exist in my culture. I want to convey the difference and beauty of plants and customs, for example, without exoticizing them. Sometimes I leave the name of a food item in Zapotec, more often in the Nahuatl (a larger indigenous language group that has influenced Spanish across Mexico and beyond). Whenever possible, I base my translations on the vivid strength of her own imagery. Natalia Toledo’s region has the unique position of being at a linguistic and economic crossroads on the continent. Through her poetry she struggles to preserve her Zapotec traditions while acknowledging how outside forces have shaped her culture.
– Clare Sullivan