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

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

An Orient Free of Orientalism: Magic, the square, and women in Moroccan short fiction



Morocco has long been associated in the Arab imagination with magic and superstition, casting off mystical curses and exorcising jinn from the body. The word “al-Moghrabi” (“the Moroccan”) has itself become yet another qualification claimed by those who work in this parallel world, adding it to their names, some going so far as to christen themselves “Sheikh from Morocco.”  These are the men one hears about from time to time, those who help ancient treasure-seekers get their hands on spell-protected troves, perhaps of the sort guarded by serpents.

An Orient Free of Orientalism: Magic, the square, and women in Moroccan short fiction

The Cripple Gets Married



Marzouka’s lips are wet

Marzouka? She’s carrying a bundle wrapped in a cloth on her back, and her earrings sparkle. Marzouka comes closer, and I move closer to her. The sun is scorching, and her large earrings are blinding. Should I greet her? I kiss her hand, so she kisses me on my forehead. I kiss her cheek, red like the late-afternoon sun. “Let me be your son,” I say to her. “And carry me like that bundle on your back.”

The Cripple Gets Married

Two Stories


Petty Thefts

I’m frightened of everything. I walk around with my abnormal body. I haven’t learned to accept it yet, this body that bulges in every direction. Now I have two round lumps jutting out of my chest, and shrubbery growing in my armpits and between my legs. And then there’s the fear that’s plunged itself deep inside me. 

Two Stories

The Ache of the Sands

Translated by NARIMAN YOUSSEF 

The Bedouin’s Journey

I know a man whose heart is instructed in Bedouin life. He knows the desert and its moods, and has learned early on that it doesn’t like to be challenged. I know him walking without pause, teaching his feet and his heart the ways, walking slowly and deliberately, the trails trembling beneath him. Aimlessly he digs into the sand of the earth and settles nowhere, for his early existence taught him that a real Bedouin doesn’t settle except in death. He may pause, but if he does, life sneaks up on him with its poison. With every pause comes an ache. The trick is not to overcome life’s problems, but to understand its laws. 

The Ache of the Sands



Translated by ALICE GUTHRIE


To my counterpart in privation: The Awaited Mahdi, Mohammed al-Mahdi Saqal[1]


If he’d obeyed me I wouldn’t be here now, and he wouldn’t be there, either… but he’s what they call around here head-cracking stubborn.

Lice and stench and cockroaches. I thought head lice died out ages ago, but in this dump they’re still going strong. The flabby woman sitting across from me is picking through her friend’s hair. From time to time she yells out, “There’s one. I’ve got it!” She squashes each little nit between her two thumbs.

My mother used to put my head on her lap, too, and search for those tiny little bugs. She’d set herself up ready with a bottle of paraffin next to her, and one of those combs made from sheep or gazelle horn that we all used in those days, and then she’d launch her attack on the parasites feeding on my blood. I’d be trying to wriggle away; she’d grab my arms; I’d keep struggling. Eventually she’d lure me in—I’m gonna tell you the tale of Hayna, who was abducted by the ghoul[2]—and at that I’d surrender instantly.


The Seventh

Translated by ALICE GUTHRIE


—We simply must get a band in to play at the women’s section of the party. A party’s nothing without drumming and dancing.

—If my first wife demanded that of me, I would never have granted her wish. But you…you know the place you have in my heart.

Nuwara was twenty-two years old, slight, and a little snub-nosed. What made up for that, however, was the rosy bloom of her cheeks and the existence of that exquisite mole between her left cheekbone and her nose. And although her clothed body didn’t stand out as anything special, when she was naked and in the hands of a man, she became a real woman. She was tastier than any fantasy, as sweet as a ripe fruit out of season. Any man could see that. That’s why Ahmed was saying to her now:

—You know I give in to all your demands. But a male band performing to a group of women? I can’t imagine that.

The Seventh

The City’s Pantaloons




Internal Alienation

I looked at my wristwatch. Was it time for a surprise trip, or nearing an appointment? I approached one of the coffee shop’s customers and peered at the cup of black coffee and the glass of water—at the time, it would’ve cost the Ministry of Interior Affairs forty billion to quench the citizens’ thirst. This was therefore the most expensive glass of water I never drank!

The City’s Pantaloons

Adam’s Apple

Translated by NARIMAN YOUSSEF 

I walk in and find the women there in the large hall. I can hear their soft, melodious voices, which means there is no man around. (More accurately: there is no man doing all the talking.) I instinctively head toward them, like an animal finally encountering its species. I take a seat and wait for my turn. Before I came up to the therapist’s clinic, I had run into Fast Lubna—with the hazel eyes, the kohl always smudged, and the newly blonde hair—outside the entrance. She was on the phone. She was dressed in black leather pants and a black leather jacket. I thought she smiled at me, but she didn’t move the phone slightly away from her ear to give me a warm hug as she would have usually done. She used to dress more normally, less severely, before she adopted this style and dyed her long hair blonde. She surprised me. The transformation of the vast majority of women I know since the eighties of the last century has been toward the hijab and extreme modesty, away from modern clothes. 

Adam’s Apple