Kelsi Vanada translating Álvaro Lasso

Six poems from Izquierda Unida [United Left]

Alto Perú

For a time the party was a movement that believed in violence. Everyone at school spoke of taking up arms, of finding surrealist poets to assassinate in the jungle. The slogan was stay aware in the face of the drug companies. So they got dressed, grabbed speakers, and marched off to the labyrinth with heads held high. When they arrived, they found no human beings. Their weapons were melting away, they got diarrhea, started to crawl around. As if they’d been tricked, they cried till they lost all speech. And the mothers of the combatants helicoptered in, annoyed, with flyswatters; they called roll and, undeterred, took them home.

We’ve All Been Hit Before

When that building in Tarata exploded, the kids from Surquillo ran toward the light. We knew who’d done it, but we wanted to see what the darkness the news channels were reporting on was like. The police blocked our way, but we still managed to stuff some loot into our pockets. When we got home, we had the odd sensation that our country’s inequalities had disappeared, and we bought candles so our parents wouldn’t give us the belt.

The Disappearance of the Peruvian State

I was kicked out of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for believing in a third-world god. My mother had already fulfilled every requirement: she grasped the logic of the fire that never goes out, even passed the atheism class. Everything was in order so we could stay.

My mother and her little cosmonaut.

But the great dogmas began to fall, brick by brick, above our heads. That was when they moved me to Peru. I used to think the system was the same, the opaque colors were the same, the drunks sprawled along the sidewalks were the same. Everything but my exotic third-world god, the most serious one at the party: my little dictator in a guayabera.


«Writing verse is like painting still lives», he’d tell me, in his bushy doctor’s mustache: it’s just an exercise, an obsolete love I’ll never give up.

I always dreamed about stabbing him in the back as he wrote. It’s what I longed for when his eyelids grew heavy: to penetrate his soft milky buttocks, wrinkled like my grandfather’s skin, until I broke him, until he couldn’t even finish his little riddles.

My humble spouse could never make love when he wrote. It was yet another unspoken rule between us. For writing he used a chair, the only one in the whole high-ceilinged room, and he’d lay pencil and paper on an equally solitary table. A simple injunction: I had to go.

Viagem ao principio do mundo

I’m one of those people who doesn’t have a country of origin. I had a neighbor who thought he could find my passport at the top of a tree. But all he found was a peaceful view of his future wife hanging his future son’s clothes out to dry. The clothes went from big to small, and from his perch, my neighbor attained an enlightened perspective. When that’s over with, I ring the future mother’s doorbell and ask to borrow a little money.

The Publishing Industry

I install a 50-watt bulb with some difficulty and, with everything lit up, see that the room’s full of signs. Terrified, I rush outside. A cloud has conducted a small but precise shadow over our heads.

The children sit down to discuss what will become of the fair. They’ve been informed of the applicability of being adults, the applicability of money, the applicability of the cloud described in the paragraph above. A child notices another child disguised as a mother, and ironically a cord lowers to just within reach of his hand so he can detonate a little bell across the whole sky.

Translator’s Note:

When Álvaro Lasso and I first discussed these poems, he explained that as a twice-published poet, and as founder and editor of the Peruvian independent small press Estruendomudo, he was tired of reading and writing poetry as he knew it. Izquierda Unida (Celacanto 2015, republished by La Bella Varsovia 2016) collects what he considers his rejection of that former poetry, in favor of something “pop”—writing that draws from the movies and music of the contemporary imagination. Written in dense, short, cinematic prose blocks, these poems enact the ideas of revolution, idealism, and, ultimately, failure of the coalition Izquierda Unida in Peru in the 1980s. Their main character is Lasso himself in his many roles throughout his life: immigrant (he was relocated to Peru as an infant from Azerbaijan), child, adult, laborer, publisher, lover, consumer of culture.
These poems were a delightful challenge to translate because they are so precisely balanced tonally. While the sentences appear fairly short and simple, they make full use of imagistic and multivalent words. One example is a scene in which Lasso, as a child, hides under the bed while his aunt and uncle engage in sexual play above him. He uses the term “se derrite” (literally, “she melts”) to describe his aunt’s experience, as he hears it. In the short space of these poems, syntactical repetition is often key. Short, irregular bursts of quoted speech also punctuate the poems, and to provide a similar visual punch, seemed to me best left in the carrot brackets used by Lasso in the Spanish: « ». Swirls of other languages (Portuguese, Russian) reflect Lasso’s multicultural background, but in a more negative sense also add to a general confusion felt by most of the characters in the poems. Pervading these poems is a flat and implacable approach to the future, a sense of foreboding, a frenzied desire to record and recollect and assign meaning in the face of a violent, unforgiving world.

Photograph by Nicolás Giussani

Kelsi Vanada is from Colorado and holds MFAs in Poetry (Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 2016) and Literary Translation (University of Iowa, 2017). She translates from Spanish and Swedish, and her poems and translations have been published most recently in Columbia Poetry Review, EuropeNow, Asymptote, and Prelude. She was a 2016 ALTA Travel Fellow and works as Program Manager of ALTA. Her first translation, The Eligible Age by Berta García Faet, was published by Song Bridge Press in 2018.

Álvaro Lasso was born in Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan, in 1982. At ten months old, he was relocated to Peru; he studied Hispanic Literature at Peru’s Pontificia Universidad Católica. He founded the poetry festival Novissima verba (2001–2006), the poetry magazine Odumodneurtse! (2003-2006), and the Libromóvil project (2011–2015). He is both founder and editor of Estruendomudo, one of the most important independent publishing companies in Latin America since 2004. Lasso has published Dos niñas de Egon Schiele [Egon Schiele’s Girls] (2006), The Astrud Gilberto Album (2010), and Izquierda Unida [United Left] (2015), republished in Spain by La Bella Varsovia in 2016. He lives in Santiago, Chile, where he opened an office of Estruendomudo.