Translation: Moss on a Smooth Rock


Translated from the Spanish by JESSE LEE KERCHEVAL and JEANNINE MARIE PITAS

Poem appears in both Spanish and English. 

Silvia Guerra

Silvia Guerra

Translators’ Note

“Moss on a Smooth Rock” is from Un mar en madrugada (A Sea at Dawn), by the Uruguayan poet Silvia Guerra, published in 2018 by Hilos Editora, Buenos Aires, Argentina. The English version of this book is forthcoming from Eulalia Books in 2022.

Guerra’s work is notorious for its complexity, its concreteness of image and abstraction of thought, and its convention-defying syntax, capitalization and punctuation. With a long-standing interest in linguistics and psychology as well as a deep affinity for the natural world, Guerra’s poems go beyond the self in an effort to imagine the world from the standpoint of other beings, living and nonliving. For centuries, humans have assumed a monopoly on consciousness, even arrogantly denying the subjective experience of other mammals. But scientists are at last confirming what any dog or cat owner has always known: animals are not unfeeling automata any more than we are. But while only some creatures are proven to be sentient, can we be so certain that others are not? “How can we be so sure that plants feel no pain?” asks Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. What about rocks? Guerra dares to imagine they are. 

We suggest that Guerra’s writing—which is always challenging—is itself a translation. As Virginia Woolf and the other early twentieth-century modernists attempted to translate the flow of consciousness into their writing, as Hélène Cixous urged women to transform their subjectivity into language for écriture féminine, Guerra shatters clichés, breaks through grammatical and stylistic conventions, and digs as deeply as she can into the shifting sands of language to seek the truths that lie beneath. But as it turns out, these truths are just as amorphous and fleeting; images or emotions appear before the reader like an exquisite piece of driftwood before being swept back to sea.

In the Uruguayan literary context, we see Guerra as a bridge between the well-known Generation of ’45—known for such poets as Amanda Berenguer, Idea Vilariño, and Ida Vitale—and many of the younger poets keeping Uruguay’s literary scene vibrant today. In addition to writing, Guerra has dedicated herself to building and maintaining a space for Uruguayan poetry, particularly for poetry by women. From 2009 to 2011, she was the coeditor of the seminal Uruguayan poetry press La Flauta Mágica. She has long served on the board of the Nancy Bacelo Foundation, organizing and hosting countless readings, discussions, and encounters, and she is now on the Mario Benedetti Foundation board as well. But the young poets love her, not for this work, but for her poetry, which engages deeply with what it means to be Uruguayan and to be a woman in Uruguay.

We decided to translate Guerra as a team due to our shared love of Uruguayan poetry and the fact that this work is very challenging. Sometimes two heads are better than one—or indeed, when translating the work of a living poet, that three heads are better than two! It is our pleasure and privilege to share the work of this poet with an English-speaking audience, and we are honored to publish this poem in The Common.

—Jeannine Marie Pitas and Jesse Lee Kercheval


Musgo sobre una roca lisa 

Nocturnamente atados
la casuarina acuática y
el jilguero del fondo
Sobre el tormento prieto
de ser uno De ser dos
de quererse 

Las aguadas
los cisnes
La laguna 

El horizonte fino
y paja estremecida
En los costados de
la línea 

(No habrá agua
en la lira
No habrá aforismo) 

No llegará esa cima
a rebasar la acequia. 

Cercado cada cual
Los ojos en la nuca
el corazón sin ritmo
Perdida la inocencia
de este lado 

La constancia de aquel
Perdido El rumbo de
ambas partes Desordena
la brisa lo que dura 

Cualquier brote no tendrá
Cualquier intento
Un cuerpo muerto.

Queda un hueco
que se bate en la tarde
contra un poste con los
golpes del viento. 

Ese manto de
Adentro me Convida.

Moss on a Smooth Rock 

Nocturnally tied
The aquatic whistling pine
and the goldfinch in the garden
Over the dark torment
of being one Of being two
of loving

The waters
the swans
The lagoon

The thin horizon
and shivering straw
At the sides of
the line

(There will be no water
on the lyre.
There will be no aphorism)

That summit will not reach
the ditch.

Each one fenced
Eyes on the nape of the neck
the heart without rhythm
Lost the innocence
of this side

The constancy of that one
Lost The course of
both parties Dishevels 
the breeze that lasts

Any outbreak will mean
Any attempt
A dead body.

In the afternoon,
there remains a hole
that beats against a post
with each blow of the wind.

Let’s keep it.
That mantle of
Inside invites Me.


Jesse Lee Kercheval is a poet and writer as well as a translator, specializing in Uruguayan poetry. Her translations include The Invisible Bridge/ El puente invisible: SelectedPoems of Circe Maia for which she was awarded an NEA Fellowship in Translation and Poemas de amor/ Love Poems by Idea Vilariño both from the University of Pittsburgh Press. She is the Zona Gale Professor of Poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. More information at jlkercheval.com.

Jeannine Marie Pitas is the author of the poetry collection Things Seen and Unseen (Mosaic Press, 2019). She is the translator of the Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio’s I Remember Nightfall (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017) and Carnation and Tenebrae Candle (Cardboard House Press, 2020).  Another recent translation, We Do Not Live In Vain by Uruguayan poet Selva Casal, was published in 2020 by Veliz Books. She lives in Iowa and teaches at the University of Dubuque.

Silvia Guerra (1961, Maldonado, Uruguay) is an Uruguayan poet, critic and editor whose books include Un mar en madrugada (2018); Pulso (2011); Estampas de un tapiz (2006); Nada de nadie (2001); La sombra de la azucena (2000); Replicantes astrales (1993); Idea de la aventura (1990); De la arena nace el agua (1986) and Fuera del relato (2007), a fictionalized biography of Lautréamont. She is a member of the executive boards of both the Mario Benedetti Foundation and the Nancy Bacelo Foundation. In 2012 she was awarded the Morosoli Prize in Poetry for her career.

Translation: Moss on a Smooth Rock

Trap Street


“[T]he existence, or non-existence, of a road is a non-copyrightable fact.” —Alexandria Drafting Co. v. Amsterdam (1997) 

Twitch of the cartographer’s hand and a street 
is born, macadam free, a tree-lined absence, 
paved with nothing but a name. No sidewalks, 
no chalk, no children’s voices, 
a fence unlinked from its chains, 
the cars unmoored, corn left to its rubble, 
some wandering mailman, a house unbuilt, 
the bricks unlayed, the mortar unmixed; 
of the things that hold more things together 
the cementitious crumbles on this street, 
the lime breaks from the shale, the shells 
from their marl and clay. On trap streets 
the rules of gravity bend, curve to the mountain 
or fight it, dog leg the impossible angle, 
ribbon the gulley, shimmer from heat, 
unspool. Cliff walk, some miracle mile 
meant only for goats, a meander of cloven hooves, 
a stitching of strip mines, red earth or white,
ground that, once spotted, we call disturbed

Trap Street



My father once asked me: How is it I can recollect
with utmost clarity what happened forty years ago, 
but not what I did this morning at all? I didn’t know, 

but I recognized I would always recall that moment.
It was late summer. We were driving to the country
to see my grandfather, now blind and demented,





I fell in love and became        like those men in Plato’s Republic
who heard music for the first time        and began singing,
and sang beyond reason,         beyond dinner, beyond sleep,
and even died without noticing it,      without wavering.


Ode to a California Neck Tattoo


A man in a Chicano Batman shirt got a tattoo of the state of California on his neck. He rode his longboard to the tattoo parlor early in the morning. This was going to be his third tattoo. He also had a tattoo of palm trees on his chest and a skeleton on a surfboard on his calf. He smoked a cigarette as he arrived at the shop.

Ode to a California Neck Tattoo

Sundown, Looking at My Estranged Cousin’s High School Yearbook Picture and All the Damage Done



No moon tonight but the white bells of a woman’s
            eyes squinting tacitly toward a camera, staring out

from the glossy page of a high school yearbook
            on a spring evening that stings like the elegy

Sundown, Looking at My Estranged Cousin’s High School Yearbook Picture and All the Damage Done

We Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Talk About


I remember the first time I saw a vagina
on the white pitched walls of an art museum— 
Columbus, Ohio, mid-afternoon. I was five, maybe 
six, maybe a few months shy of my grandmother’s 
cremation, the day after my goldfish, Rosie, jumped 
down the disposal and my mother ushered me
from the kitchen before she turned it on. 
I remember the curve of my little neck
upwards, that lush flesh on display, all swollen 
and pink. I remember closing my lips
to the awe that overcame me, my mother finding 
my hand to lead me toward the wing of still-lifes, 
all those porcelain bowls filled with perfect fruit. 
I’ve studied the metaphors of this womanhood, 
learned the verses of ‘lady-like’, but I can’t stop staring 
at the memory. I remember how unnamable was
the feeling of the rope that hung the disc swing 
from my neighbor’s walnut tree as it caught 
between my legs, the pleasure in that pressure
before dinner. I remember lying on the shag
green carpet of my bedroom, two days before
my bat mitzvah, bleeding onto the towel
I’d placed beneath me, the red dress I’d wear
at the celebration hung from the door almost
as bright a shade as this rite of passage,
the first time I realized that most deadly
weapons have once been covered in blood.

We Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Talk About

Bird Man


“You were only waiting for this moment to be free.”
                       Lennon/McCartney, “Blackbird”

As a Bronx kid at a homeless shelter, he watched
a peregrine falcon devour a pigeon on the windowsill,

and what began in violence leapt to awe,
and awe begat beauty.

Bird Man

The New Inexpressible



the inexpressible isn’t that which cannot
be expressed but that which will fall
expressed upon deaf eardrums meet with
sightless eyes centerfolded even
or on the front cover it will escape notice
and upon the face itself remain undetected
because mere expression isn’t all it takes
to be detected to be reasonably considered
expressed to others brothers sisters cousins
or indeed a disinterested passerby
hiding all in plain sight and only the fool thinks
no wait the fool does not even think that
no mystery is gone missing from his equation
a haze of sadness covering what is truly true

The New Inexpressible