Home » Issues & Poems » Issue Eight » Romances of Rio de Janeiro

Romances of Rio de Janeiro

Timothy Adès

Alfonso Reyes, Mexican, 1889–1959, a brilliant and prolific man of letters, wrote this sequence of eleven poems, or 121 stanzas, in 1932 when Ambassador in Rio. He also served in Buenos Aires, and as Head of Mission in Paris. He translated English and Russian, and turned much of the Iliad into rhymed verse. His successor Octavio Paz said:

Poet, critic and essayist, he is the Writer; miner, craftsman, peon, gardener, lover and priest of words. His work is history and poetry, reflection and creation. If Reyes is a group of writers, his work is a Literature… The love of Reyes for language, for its problems and mysteries, is something more than an example: it is a miracle.

My version of Reyes’ poem sequence ‘Homero en Cuernavaca’ appeared in 2002 in Translation and Literature (Edinburgh U.P.), luckily winning a TLS award. ‘The Botanic Garden’ here also dates from that time, and is unrhymed, but more recently I have followed the original’s haphazard rhyming and near-rhyming, and always the lilting rhythms. I hope to publish a book of Reyes’ poetry one day, with these two sequences prominent. Reyes’ poetry varies from totally free verse to the extremely, sometimes teasingly formal.

© Fondo de Cultura Económica

Romances of Rio de Janeiro

Alfonso Reyes translated by Timothy Adès

River of Forgetting


Rio de Janeiro, Rio,

you were river, you are sea:

what runs rolling down to Rio

rolls back slow, so easily.


In your breast the daylight ripens

with eternity of calm:

for each hour your hand unfastens,

back an hour or more will come.


The cloudbanks filter your mountains,

sponges of clearest light;

you rarefy even the swansdown

that the tempest throws in the dirt.


What annoyance can withstand you,

if at every salty taste

your breezes are all sugar-candy,

your light pure, honest and chaste?


Land runs into water, playing,

city touches on country ground,

darkness enters into evening,

equal friendship, open hand.


Next to the household’s murmur,

song of your thrush, the sabiá;

woman and fruit, one aroma,

two emanations there.


Whoever once has known you

finds in you his solace,

whoever has rested in you

has forgetting of all else.


Let the soul in its disorder

seek your clear crystal calm;

let sleep rain down from the nodding

head of your royal palm.


As travellers do, I carry

in my baggage my hearth:

I am captain of a vessel

with no navigation chart.


All I ask, Rio de Janeiro,

your consent, in my time of test:

let me wander on your beaches

when my ship is wrecked and lost.


The hand went to the forehead

hoping to bring surcease.

Not the hand, it was the wind.

Not the wind, it was your peace.



To and Fro in Santa Teresa


Up in Santa Teresa

gadabout shuttle-blade

moon in the mesh of tree-limbs

weaves the trellis-shade.


Eyes, in the clamp of lashes

captive, and yet at large,

fleeing away to ashes,

inviting peace, wage war.


A youth, slim, small, swarthy,

hipped on his mandolin,

not ready to go steady,

thrills, clasps a little queen.


Woman grasped in the hour

freely yields, though another’s:

all is transient, fluid,

leaving from where it lingers.


Drops of essence are oozing

from the trees’ goblet-blooms:

another time is renewing

at the time it self-consumes.


The sea runs off beneath us

in the very light it delivers,

runs off but cannot leave

the land and its hands’ embraces.


The horseman of the wind

goes by on his lively mare:

or not – he is in the shadow,

jabbing and jangling his spurs.


Something proceeds through life

pretending to disappear:

a coming and going, both

a leaving and staying near!


This being close to me

though she died years ago!

This fooling everyone

like a bolt from Zeno’s bow!


Time entangles the word,

the song succumbs to sloth;

angels with delicate tread

deign to descend to earth.


– Noiseless moon up above,

heron, a prey self-caught:

through arabesques of leaves

it runs and rolls… or not.





A liar: below her eyes

the prickling heat like a wound;

and with a radiance

in her eyes, she importuned.


If in the teasing of talk

she was all insinuation,

her desire did not take after

her promising conversation.


Her hand forgot itself

in the course of a discussion,

but returned to her again:

no forgetting, no confusion.


Every bud that was crushed

burgeoned again in her bosom,

concealing and revealing,

wherever you looked, a lemon.


It was in mid-December,

greatest weight of the sun,

when suddenly the breezes

were contrary, meddlesome.


With the jingling of cicadas

all the air was a-quiver;

in the pauses of silence

the silence was the greater.


The earth was amassing honeys

in gentle fecundation.

Life lazy and abundant

lay low without expression.


I realised that the songbirds,

even as they were strewing

voices on voices on voices,

did not desist from singing.


I realised that the clouds

wandered without direction;

I realised that all things

repent of their intention.


That also the red of daring

ends in the red blushing face,

halted there, and in nature

temptation itself is chaste.


– I find now I enjoy her

and I handle her better;

I watch her, and let her talk,

no hustling, no dilating.



Contrast and Dream


Why seek a reviving elixir

– don’t look for an answer from me –

in a cigar’s asphyxia

and coffee’s acerbity?


The ukulele is grieving,

they ask it for something cheerful.

Not having entails not giving:

it only knows how to be tearful.


One lover wants no more heart’s-ease,

no more solace, than to have woven

and wept, in a lacework of tears,

the effigy of a woman.


Another is gasping, expiring,

but he doesn’t go out to court her:

his one idea’s to be steering,

blind drunk, to the red-light quarter.


Let them put some music to passion,

fit the cat with a jangling clapper,

give time for a nimble evasion:

their quarry’s a lucky escaper.


What a milksop disappointment,

what a dismal failure to fire!

What pusillanimous judgment,

not to seize what they claim to desire!


When daybreak has halfway broken

and the morning sky’s half red,

the half-hearted man at one stroke can

be seen getting half out of bed.


He half knows what he is planning,

he half approaches his task,

and when night has halfway fallen,

what’s done is done, and it’s past.


Can it be that the water of dreaming

is that by which thirst is abated,

the one we hear covertly streaming,

the one that has never been sighted?


So among the wise he is wiser

who flees from the honey’s caress,

seeking instead, for his pleasure,

a contrast, a bitterness.


Firm of purpose, by his unmoving

Achilles reveals his value;

Penelope, by her unweaving.

I forgot what I meant to tell you.



Lonely Longing


Gardener, what do you gain

destroying each nursery of seedlings?

You only sow and uproot

the bushes of good intentions.


How lonely you pass through life!

A hundred cities befriended:

In each you created loves,

but each of them, you abandoned.


From the Cerro de la Silla

to the foot of the Sierra Madre

runs the line of your familia,

an invisible thread, compadre!


Woven into the memories

of  all the years you passed

is Madrid, the City of  Palaces:

skies of  Castile, so vast.


If  there by the Guadarrama

your friendship left some traces,

you know what you can remember

from Sainte-Geneviève in Paris.


The River Plate’s tawny water

– tawny with clay, not crystals –

that is the urn of  your teardrops:

may it pity you and your sorrows.


May grief  take the Corcovado,

where today your banner is planted,

for your hands outstretched and pleading,

and your bleeding heels abraded.


They say that in tropical waters

there wanders a straying vessel;

the sea has made her a lover,

she is aided by the breezes.


They say that a grain of  sand

is lost among its fellows,

that foliage on a tree

is a muddle of  lookalike faces.


Here a man has gone missing:

let any who find him say so.

He rowed his boat among men 

and now there is none to trace him.


– Irony of  remembrance,

one door to go out and in:

he wept for his hours that perished,

he thought they were flourishing!



Dark Lady


Swarthy nut of  Brazil,

you chestnut of  Marañón:

you are roasted with oil

anointed by the sun.


From mythology’s algae

and the salt’s attacking

in the crucible of  the sea

your tint is of  roasting.


Rich in oils, unharmed virgin,

lamp of  brilliance profound,

you rise as day is quenching

to carbon from diamond.


Isn’t the flower consumed

in the sweat of  the sand?

No, not consumed, but the stem

swells and the bud is formed.


Mystery: fruit and ash;

ash with no bitter taste,

fruit rough with the harsh

scents of  powders and paste.


On the arms, benzoin and myrrh;

savour of  clove on the teat:

he gathers a spice superior

who travels the Indies route.


I’ll surely set sail and follow,

feeling myself  a discoverer,

a pupil of  Marco Polo

or the Genoese Cristóforo.


‘Land!’ I cry: in the refuge

of  the clay of  your birth,

the caravel is attaching

its keel to the mooring-berth.


Land of  the dark receives me

in silent germination,

where the trees are leaping

like rays of  an explosion.


Thunder of  God! In that hour

of  God’s thunder, I return,

that’s my fortune and my venture,

to the shade where I was born.    


Silver pieces, fall silent,

When you hear the cry:

‘You daughters of  Jerusalem,

The copper penny am I.’



Off  Balance


The water’s almost freezing

at seventeen, just over!

The norms are in confusion,

it seems I start to shiver.


It seems the light is ominous

as if  in Scandinavia

because a great cloud’s menace

coils on the Corcovado.


It seems the earth must suffer

full planetary terror

because a leaden ocean

suspended it in nowhere.


It seems that anger rattles

its quiverful of  missiles,

because all in a twinkling

you’d had enough of  smiling.


And though I breathe, it seems

I suffocate and weaken;

it seems I’m giving chase,

not nearing, not advancing.


Life lurched and swayed and tottered,

up on some higher levels,

vertiginous, constricted,  

breathless in errant breezes.


And was it storm and tempest

or you, cloud-furrowed, frowning?

And was it you who brandished

the lash and flash of  lightning?


So sensuous, so pampered,

the countryside was polar,

so very unaccustomed,

having no golden colour.


You were like bitter almonds,

your aftertaste was bitter,

accordingly dissolving

your sugar-coated flavour.


(An evening and a woman

were yielding, I’ll admit, to me:

uneasy, shy, and solemn,

being ecstasy’s epitome.)


– And with the fall of  darkness,

when everything was silent,

what was it broke the silence?

The laughter of  the drizzle.



Lucky Charms


‘Take this and give it to no-one,

It’s a secret all of  your own:

let it hang on your bosom

for there it has to shine.


‘From Mozambique and Angola

mysteries came to Brazil,

seven mysteries of  hand-work

which I shall now reveal.


‘This raceme is the wood

of  the vine-stock of  Salvador:

have a thought for the blood

in the earth’s hidden store.


‘They say this rattling pod

has laughter to banish sadness,

for inside it is the seed

of  the tree of  madness.


‘This is the jacarandá,

wood of   long life and years:

the race of  people of  colour

unceasingly endures.


‘The hand on the charm: a latch

no-one knows how to open.

It closes the body to witchcraft

and to the subtlest poison.


‘You must obtain your water

never having to plead:

with a bowl of  hazel

you will find what you need.


‘Here are the sun and moon:

these and Solomon’s seal

and Don Pedro’s gold-and-silver

are riches and sleeping well.


‘The bursting pomegranates

that grow up at your door,

if  with these your life began, it’s

with these you shall expire.


‘You’ve heard all that matters:

I’ll say it one more time.

Then, to be sure you know it,

you say it to me in turn.’


– The crone gave her these counsels:

she listened without a word.

I listened as well, unsettled,

couldn’t laugh at what I heard.



Sound and Echo


Rounds of  masks and of  music,

hostelries dressed overall:

Mexico’s Night before Christmas,

Rio in Carnival.


There, the rafts in the gardens,

rowers, the little guitar,

great round hats that are sunshades

tracking the course of  the star;


here, in the dance on tiptoe,

pivoting wooden sole,

and the anklets are cobras

snaking up from the heel.


Brazil’s inlaid Alagoa

coconut, craft of  the dirk;

walnuts, San Juan de Ulúa,

Mexican openwork.


Bare-breast Recife mulatas

reap on the Mangrove Coast

bounty of  avocados,

sapodillas too, Nature’s best;


and I in a dream am seeing

pirogues along our Canal,

black tresses studded with roses,

wrapped in a handsome shawl.


Glimmering of two visions

that the crystal reflects and frees;

on my loom interlacing,

two skeins, two tapestries.


Where am I? Can’t remember,

with any certainty:

lost in the street, I wander,

a shipwreck, in the great city.


May the patron saints protect me

in such a great confusion:

protect me La Guadalupe,

protect me St Sebastian.


Protect me! – but do they help me?

My delirium should be eased:       

I flee it and I pursue it,

it has to be appeased.


– Sung by a simple fellow

connecting by ample toil

the Star and Southern Cross

with the Eagle and Nopal.



The Botanic Garden


King John the Sixth came bearing

a palm tree, palm of  Cuba.

To kiss its feet in homage

The plants are all assembling.


The guards are Indian pikemen,

plumed helmets high as heaven:

the guards mark out the alley

that runs between the sedges.


High-born bamboos are flaunting

fine lace of  samambaya.

The democratic cacti

trade touches with their prickles.


A water-lily carpet

lies covering the water:

the water shakes in terror,

knowing that it is naked.


The plumage of  the parrot

permutes through many colours:

it flames in pomegranate

or weeps in pure snow-whiteness.


Camphor is born a noble,

rue is a countrywoman.

Breathe perfumes, don Alonso:

Aldonza, you are glowing.


Victoria Regia: cradle

of  bronze to give to Moses.

There on the pond, a salver,

a white bloom, all of  vapour.


Others, of  Latin language,

like costly acts of  worship:

girls of  a hundred surnames,

unable to pronounce them.


Tail of  a royal peacock,

the flora stands resplendent:

light moves among the goblets

as daylight shifts her posture.


Reclining on the mountain,

high-placed, a noble lady,

with all her loyal household

the night awaits and listens.


The birds call out the password

from one point to another.

The grilles are shut and bolted.

Nothing is left but moonlight.





My thanks, Rio, my thanks –

aloneness and company,

from all torment a haven,

from hardship, a relief.


And because I never thought,

and because I did not know

the world has a borderland

where the world is far away;


a zone in which the heart

is healed of  every thorn,

and grief  wraps round itself,

giving itself  a caress;


and tears dissolve away

with the warmth of  the view,

and I say nothing of  memories,

which no-one can assuage.


In happy continuance

of  surfeit of  centuries,

history tints your face,

as your hopes tint your fan.


You play appearances

like a canny Creole woman

who puts her trust in Time

more than in amulets.


Enamels of  butterflies,

flibbertigibbet, fine,

are enough to rip the sun

into seven sneaking blades.


You likewise with your charm,

your delicate courtesy,

clap all our wills in chains,

fetter them, and forgive.


Your streets run down to sea,

laden with living flesh;

and in your angel-waters

you are seeded, and baptised.


You noble, ample vessel,

St Elmo at your mast:

beat the shoals, clear the whirlpools!

be glorified at last.


– I’m at the end of  my song,

it belongs less to me than to you,

and, Rio de Janeiro, I couldn’t

tell you what I wanted to.

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