September 07

Poems - With an Introduction by Ilan Stavans

Isaac Goldemberg

Isaac Goldemberg's maturity as a writer has come along with an increasing disdain for realism. His earlier work, especially his best-known novel, The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner (1976), sought to recreate the life of the Jewish community in Peru in the middle part of the 20th century by focusing on a troubled father-son relationship, though which Goldemberg explores issues of religion and ethnicity. But the frequent rewritings he's done of it over the years have showcased his embrace of allegory as a tool to understand higher truths. In other words, he has looked away from the plight of the little people (a mestizo, a soccer player, a business man) to concentrate on Platonic models, especially his main obsession: The Jew, with a capital "T." This is clear in Goldemberg's poetry. From Hombre de paso/ “Just Passing Through” (1981) to La vida al contado /“Life in Installments” (1992) and beyond, there's a bizarre quality to his verses, a proneness to archaisms, an endearment of symbols, as if Goldemberg's contemporaries were not Raúl Zurita, Alberto Blanco, Homero Aridjis, and other poets from the Spanish-language Americas today, but Dante and Milton and perhaps Goethe.

- Ilan Stavans


What God was that who, generation after generation,
reiterated the territorial pact
while appearing not to know geography?

He promised to be with them in the conquest of space,
and once again they invoked His word
in the atrium of the nearest planet.

And in the year following the expulsion,
they congregated on the threshold of Earth
to listen to the reading from the book of all things
when the word was used as testimony
before that God who hid Himself from human eyes.

But when He peeked out with His only eye,
so many and so much were the evils and sorrows
that they gave up on His eternal presence.

Then God again reiterated to the human
the promise of the earth in the pit.

(Translated from the Spanish by Stanley H. Barkan with Wanda Rivera and Roy Cravzow)

The Religion Lesson
Upon refusing to correctly interpret the situation,
religion set in motion the final catastrophe.
Such was the tragic continuation of history.

It knew that no one could say more about the human than the human.
There existed many things that one could have said,
but the most profound, the most revealing,
the most extreme were found in his conception of himself.

Then religion decided to do and say something.
It wanted to be recognized by the humans
and that they define themselves by its precepts.
It didn’t wish to be the fruit of their imagination.

Then it sat itself upon a high and exalted throne,
and from there it spoke, covering its face.
It warned that the humans’ house would be destroyed
and any demonic thing
would have free reign to attack them.

It begged the humans and cried out to them,
but the humans wanted no more of it.

(Translated from the Spanish by Wanda Rivera and Roy Cravzow with Stanley H. Barkan)

The Law
When the Law was delivered to the humans,
its words echoed from one end
to the other of the universe.
The inhabitants of the galaxy
were panic stricken.
Their rulers gathered together
and asked:
“What is this loud rumbling
we hear? Can it be that a new explosion
in the universe is nearing?”
The Supreme Being had promised
not to cause another explosion of the world.
But they again asked:
“Can it be that another rain of fire will fall?”
The Supreme Being had promised
never again to destroy the human race.
But once more they questioned:
“Then, what does that loud rumbling we hear mean?”
The Supreme Being had promised
to render His word because the humans
had lost the balance between
heaven and earth,
and the physical impulse had
overtaken the spiritual.
Then the Law ordered
human life to be shortened.

(Translated from the Spanish by Stanley H. Barkan with Wanda Rivera and Roy Cravzow)

Mail from God to the Chosen Peoples
The first essential of faith is the Name,
The first of the other existences.
A being that doesn’t believe that
Will have lost its primary vertebra.
Let it be established firmly in the heart
That this truth is not interchangeable
With any other truth.
And not even in the face of death
Will it accept a substitute.
Be true to the word.
Make it a constant practice.
All of this strengthens the heart’s faith
In the indifference of the Name.

(Translated from the Spanish by Jim Kates and Stephen A. Sadow)


Images from Bara Sapir's Prayer Series.


Isaac Goldemberg is a renowned poet, playwright, and fiction writer. He has lived in New York since 1964 and is a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York, Director of the Latin American Writers Institute, and Editor of Hostos Review, an international journal of culture.

Ilan Stavans serves as the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His forthcoming book, Love and Language(with Veronica Albin), will be published by the Yale University Press.