Many of the poems of the Uruguayan Julio Herrera y Reissig (1875-1910) may seem uneventful and tame to us today. But in his own time he was quite ground-breaking, even shocking to most of his contemporaries in his unusual use of imagery, metaphors, subject matter and linguistic combinations to achieve his literary effects. His work, especially in the last ten years of his life, marked a distinct break with the poetic conventions which had gone before as he ventured into Modernism and Surrealism, and in doing so provided a model which many other Latin American poets would follow. Herrera y Reissig lived almost his entire life at his family’s home in Montevideo, making one short visit to Buenos Aires and periodic forays into the Uruguayan countryside, where his family had a rather extravagant neo-gothic retreat. He died before achieving fame. Here is my English translation of a sonnet which first appeared as part of the series ‘Amaryllis’ in ‘El Diario Español’, Buenos Aires, on April 2, 1905. Following my translation is Herrera y Reissig’s original Spanish text.
A single clock throbs: the tower,
Which counts the lovely boredoms of the town;
It shines in the January sun with an edge,
With its distant visage of stubborn old man…
Seated in his doorway, the apothecary sleeps…
In the spreading plaza a chicken clucks,
And a branch of witch-hazel burns on the hearth,
Beside which the pastor meditates his prayers.
All is peace in the house. A sky without rigors
Blesses labors, doles out sweats…
Mothers, sisters, aunts sing in a round
As they wash the clothes the peasants suffer on Sunday…
And the vagabond ass now brought to heel
Flees kicking away from the neighborhood dogs.
No late más que un único reloj: el campanario,
Que cuenta los dichosos hastíos de la aldea,
El cual, al sol de enero agriamente chispea,
Con su aspecto remoto de viejo refractario…
A la puerta, sentado se duerme el boticario…
En la plaza yacente la gallina cloquea
Y un tronco de ojaranzo arde en la chimenea,
Junto a la cual el cura medita su breviario.
Todo es paz en la casa. Un cielo sin rigores,
Bendice las faenas, reparte los sudores…
Madres, hermanas, tías, cantan lavando en rueda
Las ropas que el domingo sufren los campesinos…
Y el asno vagabundo que ha entrado en la vereda
Huye, soltando coces, de los perros vecinos.