Skip to content
Announcing the winners of our 2020 Poems in Translation Contest in partnership with the Academy of American Poets. Read more.
from the December 2014 issue

Night Up North

Artigas is an abandoned station
the hope left behind by a train that won’t come back
a road that disappears heading south.                                        


I don’t know how it is in civilized places
but in Artigas
people have a last name.
Mr. Nobodies
like me—        
we come from the border.
Not from this side, not from the other.
The ground we walk on isn’t ours
nor the language we speak.                                                       


Artigas has a language that nobody owns.                                 


This tongue of mine
sticks out its tongue at the dictionary
dances a pagode on top of the map                             
makes a kite from a schoolboy’s tunic and sash
flies loose and free in the sky.                                                                                          

Artigas is a land lost up North
that doesn’t show up on maps.                                                 


Artigas had a sky filled with stars        
a river of fish
fields green with trees
earth brilliant with stones
but someone’s taken it all to some other place
and we’re left with nothing.                                                     


I wanted to be from Uruguay.
I want to be from here.                                                                        


I don’t go where the buses go—           
I’m afraid I wouldn’t find there
the things that I like.

In Artigas in the morning
I see lamps lit in doorways with nylon curtains
hunkered-down dogs keeping watch
house numbers whitewashed on unplastered walls
yards full of weeds
washtubs leaning on wires for hanging out clothes
windows with flowerpots in bloom
houses half-built
and always open.                                                                      


The hour when the sun becomes hidden—
that’s the time when you listen.
The stars press out and light up the fireflies.
The crickets sing
that bring good luck.
I close the front door
and go into myself so I can think,
so I’m able to write.                                                                 


The Río Cuareim flows out back;         
sometimes it sings, sometimes it sleeps.
It flows downhill and goes
and goes who knows where.
The fishes are free; I think they go with the river,
just go to wherever it ends—
they say that’s the sea,
a place where the water doesn’t touch the earth.                      


I didn’t know what I could write
until my godfather said one day,          
Yiribibe, tu vas fasé istoria:
You’ll make up stories, kid.
He didn’t use those words.
He spoke very well.
So I started to write.

I enjoy the nights up North.
The flies are asleep
and I write in the notebook la Negra gave me.

My padrino was right,
I wasn’t going to end up like Mónica’s kids,
good for nothing but gossip and scandal.
I hooked up with la Negra,
then I found work at Arrieta’s place.
Now we have a house and we’re expecting a child.

I write to show the boy when he starts asking questions.
La Negras nephew must be about five years old—
I see him always asking.
Children these days are a guiding light.
They want to know everything, and they never stop.              


When I’d go to my padrinos house
I’d see my madrina giving a bath to Luisa
who had blonde hair and blue eyes
and she’d say
Viste Yiribibe—watch me, boy.
If you want to turn out like Luisa,
you’ve got to scrub hard and the water has to be hot.

So I spent hours washing
got red in the face from scrubbing myself so much
burned myself with hot water
but I kept on being black.                                                         

Fito would always say, God helps the early risers.
And God always helped him.
I’d try to get up before he did
but he was always first, and God helped him.

Whenever I woke up
I’d look outside and see him sitting there,
hunched over, skinny,
drinking sweet maté and eating bread
left over from yesterday.

That’s how it was in our house.
God helped the one who got up first.
Those of us who didn’t
had to wait until noon
for something to eat.                                                               


We come from the border
like the sun that’s born here
behind the eucalyptus trees
and shines on everything over the river
then goes off to sleep
behind the Rodríguez house.

From the border
just like the moon
that turns night almost to day
laying down its light
on the banks of the Cuareim.

Like the wind
that makes the flags dance
when the rain
carries off the houses on the other side
right along with ours.

We all come from the border
when birds fly in from over there
singing in a language
we all understand.

We came from the border
we head to the border
when grandparents and children
eat the godforsaken bread
of affliction
at this end of the earth.

We are the border
more than any river
more than any bridge.                                                 

Noite nu norte © Fabián Severo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Dan Bellm. All rights reserved. 

Read more from the December 2014 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.