From Alabama to Colombia: José Asunción Silva

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From Alabama to Colombia: José Asunción Silva

The apocryphal story goes like this:

A troubled young poet visited his doctor. He asked the exact location of his heart, then with a red crayon mapped the organ on his shirt where the doctor placed a finger. That night, after a dinner party, the poet took a pistol to bed and sent a bullet through the heart of the sketch.

José Asunción Silva was 30 years old.

Like Edgar Allan Poe in the United States and Charles Baudelaire in France, Silva lived unhappily, wrote lines of verse that brilliantly captured melancholy, and died young. He penned (or more likely quilled) a single poem, Nocturne III, that immortalized him.

Many Colombians can quote at least part of the Nocturne by heart, and after a few cervezas they do so with great emotion. They can even pay for the beers with a Silva. Though dead to the world since 1896, Silva’s soulful face, forever young, fronts Colombia’s 5,000 peso bank. His entire Nocturne appears in microprint on the bill’s flip side, part of a moody engraved moonlit scene illustrating the verses.

I find it exhilarating to see a poet and poetry on national currency. In the states, our Franklins and Lincolns and Grants could write, but they appear on bank notes for other reasons. The Silva note, purely and simply, puts poetry in the hands of Colombians every day.

Silva’s story reads like a bad Hollywood script about a tortured poet. Born to a well-to-do family, he consumed the family library. At school, he dressed like a dandy. Classmates dubbed him José Presunción (Jose Presumption). He started scribbling poetry at age 10. He went to France to study, met famous French Symbolists, then returned to his native Bogotá just as the family fortune crumbled in a Colombian civil war.

Assuming the Silva family’s affairs after his father died, the writer spent years battling lawsuits against the estate. He produced verse and fiction, showing it to a few friends. He became a diplomat to Venezuela, and he wrote enough there to fill a small chest with his works. That chest gurgled to the bottom of the Caribbean in a shipwreck. Silva only recreated a few works before his death.

It is widely presumed that Silva and his half-sister indulged in an incestuous relationship, and that her premature death broke the young poet’s susceptible heart once and for all. It is widely accepted, too, that Silva, aching with loss, wrote Nocturne III to her, before his suicide.

Whatever its inspiration, Silva’s poem was like nothing before it in Latin American literature. Through his free verse, the rhythms and words he chose to mimic sound and create mood, and his deeply personal anguish, Silva modernized South American poetry, clearing the way for future giants like Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz.

Below is Silva’s Nocturne III, followed by an English-language translation from Hispanic Anthology: Poems Translated from the Spanish by English and North American Poets. Editor: Thomas Walsh. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920.

Welcome to one of the best-known works of Latin American literature.


Una noche
una noche toda llena de perfumes, de murmullos y de música de älas,
Una noche
en que ardían en la sombra nupcial y húmeda, las luciérnagas fantásticas,
a mi lado, lentamente, contra mí ceñida, toda,
muda y pálida
como si un presentimiento de amarguras infinitas,
hasta el fondo más secreto de tus fibras te agitara,
por la senda que atraviesa la llanura florecida
y la luna llena
por los cielos azulosos, infinitos y profundos esparcía su luz blanca,
y tu sombra
fina y lángida
y mi sombra
por los rayos de la luna proyectada
sobre las arenas tristes
de la senda se juntaban.
Y eran una
y eran una
¡y eran una sola sombra larga!
¡y eran una sola sombra larga!
¡y eran una sola sombra larga!

Esta noche
solo, el alma
llena de las infinitas amarguras y agonías de tu muerte,
separado de ti misma, por la sombra, por el tiempo y la distancia,
por el infinito negro,
donde nuestra voz no alcanza,
solo y mudo
por la senda caminaba,
y se oían los ladridos de los perros a la luna,
a la luna pálida
y el chillido
de las ranas,
sentí frío, era el frío que tenían en la alcoba
tus mejillas y tus sienes y tus manos adoradas,
¡entre las blancuras níveas
de las mortüorias sábanas!
Era el frío del sepulcro, era el frío de la muerte,
Era el frío de la nada…

Y mi sombra
por los rayos de la luna proyectada,
iba sola,
iba sola
¡iba sola por la estepa solitaria!
Y tu sombra esbelta y ágil
fina y lánguida,
como en esa noche tibia de la muerta primavera,
como en esa noche llena de perfumes, de murmullos y de músicas de alas,
se acercó y marchó con ella,
se acercó y marchó con ella,
se acercó y marchó con ella… ¡Oh las sombras enlazadas!
¡Oh las sombras que se buscan y se juntan en las noches de negruras y de lágrimas!...



One night,
One night all full of murmurs, of perfumes and the brush of wings,
Within whose mellow nuptial glooms there shone fantastic fireflies,
Meekly at my side, slender, hushed and pale,
As though with infinite presentiment of woe
Your very depths of being were troubled,
By the path of flowers that led across the plain,
You came treading,
And the rounded moon
Through heaven’s blue and infinite profound was shedding whiteness.

And your shadow
Languid, delicate;
And my shadow,
Sketched by the white moonlight’s ray
Upon the solemn sands
Of the path, were joined together,
As one together,
As one together,
As one together in a great single shadow,
As one together in a great single shadow,
As one together in a great single shadow.

Another night
Alone—all my soul
Suffused with infinite woes and agonies of death,
Parted from you, by time, by the tomb and estrangement,
By the infinite gloom
Through which our voices fail to pierce,
Silent and lonely,
Along that road I journeyed—

And the dogs were heard barking at the moon,
At the pale-faced moon,
And the croaking
Of the frogs—

I was pierced with cold, such cold as on your bed
Came over your cheeks, your breasts, your adorable hands,
Between the snowy whiteness
Of your mortuary sheets;
It was the cold of the sepulchre, the chill of death,
The frost of nothingness.

And my shadow
Sketched by the white moonlight’s ray,
Went on alone,
Went on alone,
Went on alone over the solitary wastes;
And your shadow, slender and light,
Languid, delicate,
As on that soft night of your springtime death,
As on that night filled with murmurs, with perfumes and the brush of wings,
Came near and walked with me,
Came near and walked with me,
Came near and walked with me—Oh, shadows interlaced!
Oh, shadows of the bodies joining in shadow of the souls!
Oh, shadows running each to each in the nights of woes and tears!—

Image: Ozge Gurer Vatandas, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.