Science of Departures: Poems by Salas Hernández

by Adalber Salas Hernández
translated by Robin Myers

In 2018, the Venezuelan poet Adalber Salas Hernández published a collection—his seventh—called La ciencia de las despedidas, which I’ve been translating as The Science of Departures. Poems “XI (Intensive Biopolitics Course 2),” “XXII,” and “XXVIII” all come from this book. The collection is organized around a compellingly elastic interpretation of la despedida: goodbyes, sure, but also loss, exile, death, illness, oblivion, dispossession, oppressive rewritings of history over time, and the rifts between language and experience.

Salas’s work is informed both by classical literature and contemporary Venezuelan politics, by twentieth-century history and high school biology class, by Twitter and the Old Testament, by the wild cynicism of bureaucracy and the piercing wonder of parenthood. One of the many gratifications of translating his poems (and one of the challenges, too) is the register: they read as lyrical but also chatty, playful but never insincere. Some, like “XI (Intensive Biopolitics Course 2),” are openly satirical; others, like “XXII,” wander nimbly between impishness and reflection; still others, like “XXVIII,” are rich and quiet in their meditations on how we live in language and inhabit our bodies.

The tone and rhythm is never static in these poems; they’re lithe and quick. As I translated, I found myself thinking a lot about motion in poetry—pace, cadence, punctuation. About how the textures of the English language can induce a fluid effect or a staccato one—or both at once, dense and jumbled—and about how these resources are similar or different in Spanish.

Perhaps what I love most about poetry is how readily it can shift between the micro and the macro, from the magnifying glass to the telescope (with the kaleidoscope whirling gloriously somewhere in between). For his part, Adalber Salas is an exuberant observer on every scale. The poems from The Science of Departures don’t stay anywhere for very long, but as their gaze shifts around in time and space, the echoes that linger after whatever is lost—or forgotten, or banished, or left behind—start to make their own surprising music.

—Robin Myers

See Original Language See Translation

(Intensive Biopolitics Course 2)

Major newspapers report that today
a group of businessmen, in cooperation with
the Greater Caracas Mayor’s Office, has just
founded a company that offers
intimate tours around the city for
a modest fee. Nostalgic émigrés and curious
tourists will be able to investigate the wildest parts
of the metropolis and make contact with its native inhabitants
in an armored van driven by an armed
professional. The vehicle will be
provisioned with food and drinks of
the highest quality, as well as the products
of our corporate sponsors. After signing a
series of authorization forms, the explorers will
participate in excursions to the mouth
of the Guaire, our Ganges, and will have the chance
to photograph the exotic fauna perched on rooftop
terraces or peering out of windows
with eyes like pools of tense
water. Various prominent politicians (on both
the left and right) have already booked
their tickets. In a playful tone, the pamphlet
promises adventurers that the journey will
reveal “the nimble, almost tender
mechanisms of mercy.” Immediately
thereafter, it advises participants to
refrain from extending their hands out
of the vehicle during the ride, and from feeding
any residents of Caracas, as their bodies are
no longer used to certain items. Guests are also
asked to remain silent or speak
softly, because isolation has convinced
the city’s populace that their language
is the only one spoken in the world: a string
of unfamiliar sounds could scare them off. Plus,
the document adds, then they’ll be able to hear
“the whispers exchanged by Venezuelans
when they think no one is watching, a crumbling
sound, like an old bill passed from hand
to hand.” In TV interviews, numerous celebrities have
declared their interest in visiting these extraordinary
places, covered by the sun: a drop of oil.


The language I speak is made of faulty
questions, of cropped, repeated phrases.
Every day, it bangs on my door, asking for something
to eat, threatening to knock my teeth out.
It’s not really sure where it comes from, and it doesn’t
care: mother tongue, father tongue,
it’s all the same to it. It teeters in on crutches and fills the house with dirt.
It has no table manners and never smiles
when I complain. My language
is merciless with me. It visits me because
it’s tired, because it needs a meal, a bed.
It comes in, sprawls out, and ignores me; it befriends
the mice, the ants, the cockroaches skittering away
to hide in the corners, under the furniture. It gathers
up its stories, sketches them in the dust with a skinny
finger, beside the flowerpots brimming with half-
smoked cigarettes. My language has neither sacraments
nor miracles. It thinks it needs them to conceal
its nakedness, but that isn’t true. And it thinks
that the feel of its own flesh is all
the prayer it needs, the sensation of its own weight pulling
us toward the sleeping center of the earth.
It’s obsessed with the scandalous exactitude
of hunger, with how it slowly disassembles us,
how it scours us for our bones.
It would like to get rid of itself, to be graffiti or
a billboard or a scribble on fresh
cement. It would like to curse and rail and swear with
propriety, but that hasn’t come naturally, either.
My language has never been able to resemble
itself. It’s made of words that say
goodbye as soon as they arrive. In it,
all forms are dazzled bodies,
all things buckle as if the light
were going to wring them out. It speaks impatiently
and stares at me: and at that moment we’re
the only two inhabitants of a continent surrounded
by waters that never sleep.


Simple words: rain, sun, house, tree, road, mother,
father, brother, laughter, now, animal, fear. Simple
and dependable as fingers. Complex words: name,
number, blow, shout, question, bullet, accusation, past,
future, patience, animal, fear. When I was little,
I’d often go to the natural history museum. It was a
large, white building with a portico invaded by
faux Doric pillars facing a circular patio. Through
the entrance, on the right, was a wing devoted
to the planet’s geological eras. Layers of
earth like shut eyelids, impossibly distant
countries, sleeping forever beneath our feet.
Places and periods I couldn’t fluently pronounce,
named only so that all the distance
wouldn’t burn our hands. The earth
hoarded lives, shed skins with impunity;
fossils were left as proof, as obscene as Polaroids
of a world that has nothing to say to us.
A little deeper in, there was an entire section
dedicated to the animal kingdom. Encased behind
quavering displays, all kinds of specimens watched
people walk past with glass eyes. The skins of their dead
bodies had been meticulously removed, salted,
rehydrated, tanned. Once dried and muted, without
the idiotic murmur of their vital fluids corralled
inside them, they’d been arranged in crowded frames.
Birds of prey perched on plastic and foam rubber
branches that grew and lengthened out of time, beasts
with yellow fangs and carious pelts, distracted
herbivores, stagnating in endless poses, grazing,
standing guard, hunting, being hunted, caught
in the deaf mimicry of desire. I’d move with caution,
back to the wall, both terrified and curious,
softly repeating all the simple words I could
remember. Among so much fauna, I’d hope to run
into a stuffed angel at any moment: my grandmother
had told me they were God’s own beasts of burden.
But I’d never make it to the end of the hall. There weren’t
enough simple words in the world, not enough to buy
my passage from one shore of fear to the other. I’d leave
just as carefully, trying not to draw attention to myself,
to keep from disturbing that cold somnambulism. I’ve
never returned as an adult. Those animals tamed by chemical
preservatives told me what they had to: a poem is a predator
that has been hunted, flayed, and tenderized, whose flesh
has been lost and whose skin is fixed, menacing and ridiculous,
to a skeleton of simple and complex words.

(Curso intensivo de biopolítica 2)

Reportan los principales periódicos que hoy
un grupo de empresarios, en colaboración con
la Alcaldía Mayor de Caracas, acaba
de fundar una compañía que ofrece, por un módico
precio, la posibilidad de hondos recorridos a través
de la ciudad. Emigrados nostálgicos y extranjeros
curiosos podrán investigar las zonas agrestes de la urbe
y entrar en contacto con sus habitantes nativos
en una camioneta blindada conducida
por un profesional armado. El vehículo estará
abastecido con alimentos y bebidas de
primera calidad, así como productos
de las empresas patrocinantes. Tras firmar una
serie de autorizaciones, los exploradores podrán
participar de excursiones para buscar el origen
del Guaire, nuestro Ganges, y fotografiar la fauna
exótica que se apuesta en las terrazas de los
edificios u observa desde las ventanas
con ojos como charcos de agua
tiesa. Varios políticos prominentes, tanto
de izquierda como de derecha, han reservado ya
sus pasajes. El folleto promete a los expedicionarios,
en un tono más bien lírico, que el trayecto les
“descubrirá los mecanismos leves, casi
tiernos, de la misericordia.” Inmediatamente
después aconseja a los participantes que
no saquen las manos del vehículo durante
el recorrido, ni den de comer a los
caraqueños, pues sus cuerpos ya no están
adaptados a ciertos productos. También
se les pide guardar silencio o hablar
en voz baja, pues el aislamiento ha convencido
a los habitantes de la ciudad de que su lengua
es la única hablada en el mundo –y una cadena
de ruidos insólitos podría ahuyentarlos. Además,
añade el documento, así podrán escuchar
“el susurro que intercambian los venezolanos
cuando creen que nadie los observa, un sonido
desvencijado, como un billete viejo que pasaran de
mano en mano.” Numerosas celebridades han manifestado
frente a las cámaras su interés por conocer estos parajes
insólitos, cubiertos por un sol que es una gota de aceite.


La lengua que hablo está hecha de preguntas
defectuosas, de frases truncas, recurrentes.
Cada día tocan la puerta pidiendo algo
de comer, amenazando con romperme los dientes.
No sabe bien de dónde proviene; tampoco
le interesa: lengua materna, lengua paterna,
todo es lo mismo para ella. Entra con sus muletas y llena de tierra la casa.
No tiene modales en la mesa, no sonríe
mientras escucha cómo me quejo. Mi lengua
no tiene piedad conmigo. Me visita porque
está agotada, porque necesita un plato y una cama.
Viene, se echa y me ignora; se hace amiga de los
ratones, las hormigas, las cucarachas que se
esconden en los rincones, bajo los muebles. Recoge
sus historias, las dibuja en el polvo con su dedo
flaco, junto a las macetas llenas de cigarros
a medio fumar. Mi lengua no tiene sacramentos
ni milagros. Cree que los necesita para
cubrir su desnudez, pero no es cierto. Cree
también que para orar basta con palparse, con
sentir el propio peso halándonos
hacia el centro dormido de la tierra.
Está obsesionada con la exactitud escandalosa
del hambre, cómo nos va deshaciendo poco
a poco, cómo nos va buscando los huesos.
Quisiera despojarse de sí, ser grafiti o valla
publicitaria o garabato sobre el cemento
fresco. Quisiera maldecir y blasfemar con
propiedad, pero eso tampoco le ha sido dado.
Mi lengua nunca ha sabido parecerse
a sí misma. Está hecha de palabras que
se despiden apenas llegan. En ella,
todas las figuras son cuerpos encandilados,
todas las cosas se encorvan como si la luz
quisiera estrujarlas. Habla con impaciencia
y se me queda mirando: en ese momento somos
los dos habitantes de un continente rodeado
por aguas que no duermen.


Palabras simples: lluvia, sol, casa, árbol, calle, madre,
padre, hermano, risa, ahora, animal, miedo. Simples
y confiables como dedos. Palabras complejas: nombre,
número, golpe, grito, pregunta, bala, acusación, pasado,
futuro, paciencia, animal, miedo. Cuando era niño, solía
visitar a menudo el museo de ciencias naturales. Era un
edificio grande, blanco, con un pórtico invadido por
falsas columnas dóricas frente a una plaza circular. Al
traspasar la entrada, a mano derecha, había un ala
dedicada a las eras geológicas del planeta. Capas de
tierra como párpados cerrados, telones de una obra
que nadie sabe dónde empieza, países imposiblemente
remotos, dormidos para siempre bajo nuestros pies.
Lugares y períodos que no podía pronunciar con
soltura, a los cuales sólo pusieron nombres para que
no nos quemara las manos tanta lejanía. El planeta
acaparaba vidas, mudaba de piel impunemente;
quedaban los fósiles como pruebas, como instantáneas
obscenas de un mundo que nada tiene que decirnos.
Un poco más adelante, había toda un sección dedicada
al reino animal. Encerrados tras vitrinas temblorosas,
especímenes de toda clase miraban a la gente pasar con
ojos de vidrio. Habían retirado meticulosamente las
pieles de sus cuerpos muertos; las habían salado,
rehidratado y curtido. Una vez secas y calladas, sin
el rumor idiota de los fluidos vitales encerrado
en ellas, habían sido colocadas sobre armazones
rellenos. Aves de rapiña posadas sobre ramas de plástico
y gomaespuma que crecieron fuera del tiempo, fieras
de dientes amarillos y pelambre cariada, herbívoros
distraídos, estancados en las más diversas poses,
pastando, vigilando, cazando y siendo cazados, atrapados
en la mímica sorda del deseo. Yo caminaba con precaución,
la espalda contra la pared, tan aterrado como curioso,
repitiendo en voz baja todas las palabras simples que
podía recordar. Entre tanta fauna, esperaba toparme
en cualquier momento con un ángel disecado: mi abuela
me había dicho que eran las bestias de carga de dios.
Pero nunca alcanzaba el final de la sala. No había suficientes
palabras simples en el mundo, no para comprar mi paso
de una orilla a otra del miedo. Me retiraba con el mismo
cuidado, tratando de no atraer atención sobre mí, de no
perturbar ese sonambulismo frío. No he vuelto de adulto.
Esos animales amansados por los conservantes químicos me
dijeron lo que debían: el poema es un depredador
que ha sido cazado, desollado, macerado, cuya carne
se ha perdido y cuya piel cuelga, amenazante y ridícula,
sobre un esqueleto de palabras simples y palabras complejas.

Published on November 8, 2019