He appears beneath the olive flower
and pricks the moon’s navel.
You cry like a turtle each time she lays eggs:
she knows she’ll never see her children again.
You roll up in the woven corners of your petate,
ants pinch your body.
Before the wind bends your back,
stretch out a hammock of stars and
release the threads that tangle you.
Notes on this poem
Modern Poetry in Translation’s issue The Tangled Route (2015, no. 3) included poems from Natalia Toledo’s award-winning collection Guie’ yaase’ (The Black Flower). These three poems come from her latest anthology, Deche biotope (The Crab’s Hard Shell). Natalia Toledo’s bilingual poetry (Zapotec-Spanish) provides an important voice for the often-overlooked but vast and rich tradition of indigenous poetry in Mexico. She translated her own poems into Spanish and her fellow poet Irma Pineda helped me to translate them into English.
This kind of community effort is required to capture the subtleties in verses that merge different cultures. In ‘The Visitor’, for example, Pineda explained the belief that a turtle’s tears when giving birth are a farewell to her young. The ‘one tree’ in ‘Family’ is the pochote: not only the one that stands at the center of her village providing shade for games and story-telling and seed pods to stuff mattresses, but also the tree at the center of the Zapotec universe whose roots formed the first humans. ‘The Zapotec’ means literally ‘the people of the clouds’ and that poem is a litany to Toledo’s region and its customs. But these poems also expose her own pain and that of her people in images at once elegant and raw. Like the crab, she edges into the past, but the hard shell of experience or cynicism provides only temporary protection for the human vulnerability beneath it.