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Giovanni Quessep

Giovanni Quessep is one of the most important poets in Colombia’s history. Son of a Lebanese father and a mother from Bogotá, Giovanni Quessep was born in San Onofre, a small town in the Colombian Caribbean coast, in 1939. In a career that has spanned over 60 years, he has published fourteen books of original poetry. In addition, various publishing houses in Colombia have published several collections of his work and he has been included in many Colombian and Latin American anthologies of poetry. His work has already been translated partially into Portuguese, Arab, German, Italian, French, English and Greek.

Quessep’s poetry is the result of the improbable encounter of elements from various different literary traditions: from the folk tales of the Arab world he heard from his Lebanese father and grandmother to the classic works of Colombian literature such as García Márquez’s novels, from the characters that populate Ancient Greek mythology to the philosophical convictions that underlie the Italian Renaissance and Shakespeare’s plays. His gaze is that of a perpetual foreigner who marvels at the strangeness the world reveals to him under the guise of history and legends.


Ranald Barnicot (born 1948) has a BA in Classics from Balliol College, Oxford and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Birkbeck College, London. He has published or is due to publish original poems and translations—of Anacreon, Catullus, Horace, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Lorca, Hernandez, Vallejo, Alfonso X (El Sabio) of Castile, Violante do Céu, D’annunzio and La Compiuta Donzella—in Priapus, Acumen, Poetry Strasbourg Review, Transference, In Translation Brooklyn Rail, Ezra, The Rotary Dial, Meniscus, Sentinel, Poetry Salzburg Review, The French Literary Review, Better Than Starbucks, Orbis, Stand, The Dark Horse and Metamorphoses.

Felipe Botero Quintana (born 1990) is a writer, philosopher and translator from Colombia. He took a B.A. in Philosophy at the Universidad Nacional of Colombia and an M.A. in Philosophy and the Arts at the University of Warwick, from which he graduated with Distinction in August 2017. Felipe has translated into Spanish various literary and philosophical texts such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, JD Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Fernando Pessoa’s play O marinheiro, poems by Robert Hayden and literary essays by Anthony Burgess and Florence L Waltz.

Ranald and Felipe have published their translations of Giovanni Quessep in Acumen and In Translation Brooklyn Rail. Their translation of 100 poems by Quessep, A Greek Verse for Ophelia and Other Poems 1968 – 2017, was published by Out-spoken Press in November 2018. Other translations are due to come out in a forthcoming issue of Better Than Starbucks.


The following four poems by Giovanni Quessep have been translated by Felipe Botero Quintana and Ranald Barnicot ...

From Giovanni Quessep’s first book Being is not a fable (El ser no es una fábula, 1968):
The Impure Clarity
It is also in our dream that time ignites
its fable-making denial. No one ever
forgets that dying is this impure
clarity. Like the sea between doves.
Who is to be deemed guilty? (Ah hope,
the matter of invented days.)
Our dreams get lost, someone utters words,
failures, founderings: ships, for our sakes,
fly on towards legend.
All is exile, all sea, all is its depth,
its rim, its never, its time it recounts to us.

La impura claridad

También en nuestro sueño el tiempo enciende
su negación fabuladora. Nadie
olvida que morir es esta impura
claridad. Como el mar entre palomas.
¿Quién se nombra culpable? (Ah esperanza,
materia de los días inventados.)
Se nos pierden los sueños, alguien dice
palabras o hundimientos: por nosotros
vuelan los naves hacia la leyenda.
Todo es exilio y mar, todo su hondura
y orilla y nunca y tiempo que nos cuenta.

From Giovanni Quessep’s third book, Song of a Foreigner (Canto del extranjero, 1976):
Reading of Omar Khayyam
A night will come on which this moon
Will search me out and will find
Me with that sleepless gaze
Which mirrors back a mortal sky
Out of a time of marvels they
Summon me to retrace my steps
Perhaps who brings this gloom to be
Or she who sleeps among violets
The insomniac knows well the story
Of that misfortune’s other blue
Ah silenced in that moon’s light
All my oblivious solitude
Words the wind has carried away
Music right on autumn’s cusp
In the mist the leaves are falling
For another tuneful of dust

Lectura de Omar Khayyam
Vendrá la noche en que esta luna
Ha de buscarme y me hallará
Con la mirada del insomne
Que refleja un cielo mortal
De algún tiempo de maravillas
Me llamarán para que vuelva
Tal vez quien hace esta penumbra
O la que duerme entre violetas
El insomne sabe la historia
Del otro azul de la desdicha
Ah de la noche de esa luna
Mi soledad calla y olvida
Palabras que se lleva el viento
Músicas a punto de otoño
En la tiniebla caen las hojas
Para otro cantico de polvo

From Giovanni Quessep’s sixth book, Death of Merlin (Muerte de Merlín,1985):
Death of Merlin
In between woods the kingdom’s at an end.
It offers nothing but dust-corroded doors.
The spell was false, the sorcerers
lie under the white hawthorn.
Nonetheless – for those with eyes
to see through frost-encrusted lids –
there is an unknown corner yielded
by the constellation, by the rose.
Here the laurel does not dwell but
in the mandrake’s blue-tinged poison,
and time preserves its dragonflies
for the dead, to gild their eyes.

Muerte de Merlín
Entre bosques el reino ha concluido.
No tiene sino puertas con herrumbre.
El sortilegio era falso, los encantadores
yacen bajo el espino blanco.
Sin embargo – para quien pueda ver
a través de sus párpados de escarcha –
existe un rincón desconocido
que brindan la constelación y la rosa.
Aquí el laurel no habita
sino el veneno azulado de la mandrágora,
y el tiempo guarda sus libélulas
para dorar los ojos de los muertos.

From Giovanni Quessep’s seventh book, A Garden and a Desert (Un jardín y un desierto, 1993):
Night watch
Steps in the garden. The watcher
smites the apple tree’s bark.
and there are birds that flee, others remain
in their cages of time and silver light.
Let fables not charm me; I want to watch over
my weapons tonight or embed myself
deep in the garden and hear under my steps
the clovers that keep in the dust
the marvels of the white tower.
Under the apple tree and at my side
a woman leafs through an old book:
Demons surround, and a fountain
mirrors a deer, a Bengal tiger.
Steps come and go and they do not know
who is the watcher, who the watched.

Pasos en el jardín. El vigilante
golpea la corteza del manzano
y hay pájaros que huyen, quedan otros
enjaulados en tiempo y luz de plata.
Fábulas no me encanten; velar quiero
mis armas esta noche o adentrarme
por el jardín y oír bajo mis pasos
los tréboles que guardan en el polvo
las maravillas de la blanca torre.
Debajo del manzano y a mi lado
una mujer hojea un viejo libro:
Demonios hay en torno y una fuente
refleja un ciervo, un tigre de Bengala.
Los pasos van y vienen y no saben
quien es el vigilante, el vigilado.

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