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Sepharad, 1492

by Homero Aridjis

translated from the Spanish by the author and George McWhirter


For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, they are entangled in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in.
Exodus 14:3

And the Lord said unto Moses, wherefore criest thou unto me? Speak
unto the Children of Israel that they go forward.
Exodus 14:15


In the alleys of the walled city,
drunken soldiers pronounce your name badly.
On the treacherous summer roads,
a lascivious pack of Moors
attacks your virgin girls; like fauns
with their budding breasts wrapped in rags
they flee, tumbling into the nets of others.
The light of all your yesterdays throbs in your eyes;
kings, monuments to the forgettable,
offer you their hostile friendship.
You travel on foot beside your weary love,
you contemplate a day as clear as knotless cedar.


Going forth, you fall back.
Words, chattels, whole cities—
in some places—you forget.
Your bag is full of the holes
you spill out of.
You go, loaded with what you cannot carry,
there being nothing to take.
The day has given everything bar an ending
and still has everything to give.
The eyes fixed ahead turn back
with nothing to turn back to. I
would give gold for nothing to give.


Rest from the road at dawning,
many weary before setting to.
Pay no heed to the dreams that build around you,
the serpent of forgetting bites at your heals
and sadnesses tie you to the land.
Jettison the longing,
if your shadow weighs too heavy on the ground,
pluck it from you, cast it out
of you, to whom these streets belonged,
these bodies,
these years
in a city that today expels you.


There are centuries where nothing happens
and years in which whole centuries pass,
the body of a man unfolds in time
and his hand reaches down through the millennia.
The day’s fierce colours
are filled with stabbings
and the children’s faces cobbled over by history.
The walls of life are battered through,
man is a bolt of lightning in his own heavens;
roll over any stone and it turns up tombs and temples,
tug open this door and swollen rivers pour forth.
Man is in his moment of unremembering.


The hard road of goodbye has begun,
you dwindle in the eye of those, stopped
in the doorway of a house, receding.
Take a weight off your body, brush away your dust,
do not admit to the urgings that spur you to injury,
nor flay the flanks of your children
to get anywhere too soon:
no exile is worse than the one within us.
Though fallen in your estate you are not naked,
spread the sun that burns between your two coldrife souls,
the two halves of you: one going, one staying.
The whole air of exile is yours.


Don’t puff up in the mirror of yourself,
many waxed ecstatic at shapes they saw
sleepy-eyed, only to raise an eyelid
and see an ass braying in their faces.
Ward off dreaming whilst still awake,
it leads only to shadows of what lives.
Beyond the kings and their provisions,
far from all inquisitors and their human
curs there is a kingdom of limitless love.
High above the night they shut you
into, the light feet of the rain play
on the sods of something unrepeatable.


Even without a memory, they say, you will die
of homesickness, drown in thirst by the water’s edge;
mired dreams will steal out to meet you,
your own footsteps in the streets make you reel;
the one-eyed ire blots out the good eye,
allowing blind justice to slaughter you.
The City of Generations is yours no more,
devout ghosts will be sired on your daughters,
heretics of blood and shadow.
Those who expelled you are mere reflections
in the mirror of That One who is no-place. Only That One,
who speaks not, exists. Only to him, The One I see not, do I look.


In Sepharad, we settled our debts,
quit our estates, exchanged houses for asses;
our daughters of twelve up and married off,
so they might cross over adversity
in the shadow of their husbands.
From the moment of the Expulsion Order
our goods were seized.
We had no rights as persons to be spoken
to in public or in private.
The Bibles, synagogues and cemeteries
were confiscated by the dogs of God.
From the early morning we took the road into exile
as far as the closed off night of history.


Before leaving Sepharad, we were already departed,
on foot and on horseback; by ass and by cart
far from ourselves we arrived by hard stages,
along roads hardened for hooves, along carriageways and King’s ways,
even on wrong roads we walked all the while into exile.
The Sun, the Moon, the dust and the streams kept up with us,
without ever lying down, we rose early in the wide open country.
The night carter rested from his fatigue,
but not us. Even in death we kept on walking.
In the mountain thickets the marrano promised us
a mass of maravedis and marvels.
We got only a grave trodden on by men.


Cast out from Sepharad, which cast itself out,
expelled we were from the squares of the faithful,
their religious and secular festivals, but not their fires;
lice-ridden, naked, and bare of foot,
our daughters ravished, our sons stabbed
by the Moors along every road,
the gates of the Inquisition opened for us.
The tolls and taxes paid to King Ferdinand,
covered the cruzados for the King of Portugal,
who collected us into his kingdom to sell,
with our God and our history upon our backs
we left a Sepharad which had cast itself out.


A new Moses shall come with a shining countenance,
he shall sing the ancient desert hymn,
shall lift up his rod and reach out his hand,
through the midst of the dry sea
shall the children of Sepharad pass.
The water shall stand as walls to right and left,
the bitterness depart, without ever wetting us.
Safe and sound, through the red water we will go
singing as we others, years before, went through.
Over the kings and the inquisitors of this world
the waves of justice will close.
The light that opens our eyes will last a thousand years.


From their graves dug up by the dogs of God,
from the black boxes where the ashes go
into auto-da-fés—the bull rings where
the body dead, judges for the Holy Office
free the soul into its frenzy—
unable to do anything, our grandsires watch us
set forth into exile from Sepharad.
Their lips sealed into a silence
longer than the rope that lashes us to life,
eyes lashed to a dream greater than the dream of death,
God’s name blurted out by clods of men, the dead
are known only to the clay.


This land of exile is a lump of salt
from which I sup my own thirst,
these eyes that mis-see are a human hunger in me.
With love’s hangdog-head, enshrouded in you
my today is your no-day, and in us both, no-I am.
These bygone fields no longer know me,
shadow and unshadow war over your body;
this abode of mine gone, I have no place in the world.
The light that lights my way burns.
A tower of fire am I in the terrifying squares
where commonfolk crowd in to see
the doomsday drama of my passion.


Shut into the dungeon of their devotion
they give me nothing to eat or drink,
but the darkness is all mine.
Men, not the land, exile me;
in Burgos, they hound me out of Burgos,
in Vitoria I am forbidden to eat;
in Seville they turn me into a fiery statue. I,
and the others, the Caballeria’s, the Lunbroso’s
have no place in the world of men.
Besides, what does exile amount to, if for those who step by
here—cobblers, tailors, physicians, menders—
their stay only comes to a day.


Like a procession of shadows along
the serpent of history, of forgetting,
we see the shape of exile on the sea.
In the port of Santa Maria, the rabbi raises his rod,
holds forth his hand to part the waters
to preserve us from ourselves.
But the sea does not open in two halves,
does not close over the Inquisitors,
the horizon ill-omens plague and starvation
and the sight of the ships alone saddens the expelled.
The reality of exile sinks home:
men’s justice is unbearable.


You who drove your cart over the ocean, your boat over the land,
gave credence to the rabbi when he preached: “This exile comes from God.”
The exile comes not from God, but men—
neighbours, friends, your own kin.
Vain words those of the prophet
who swore he’d lead us to a promised land,
lead us, rich and hugely honoured, out from Sepharad.
The king took possession of the only paradise we had: our life,
took our keys to the gate: the present,
took for his own what we searched for: a dream.
On the tablets of the afterlife and time,
his name is engraved in gold;
ours is graven in ashes.


Homero Aridjis is president of PEN International and the author of twenty-nine books of poetry and prose. Twice the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he has taught at Columbia University, New York University, and the University of Indiana and has been Mexican ambassador to the Netherlands and Switzerland. Translations of his work into English include the novel 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Canezon of Castille (a 1991 New York Times Notable Book of the Year) and the poetry collections Blue Spaces and Exaltation of Light. Eyes to See Otherwise: Selected Poems of Homero Aridjis, a bilingual anthology, is to be published in England in November 2001 by Carcanet Press and in the U.S. in spring 2002 by New Directions. (2001)

George McWhirter was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1939 and came to Canada in 1966. He translates from Spanish and has had a long association with Mexican poets José Emilio Pacheco, Homero Aridjis, and Gabriel Zaid. In 1998 he won the League of Canadian Poets Canadian Chapbook Prize for Ovid in Saskatchewan.

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