Poetry by Giovanni Quessep

Matter without the sound of love

We are losing sky as we go. The high night
stalks us. We dream and we lose.
The false dice, the hollow images
of the earth. Were they not ours for a day,
the sea, with its cycle of lips and birds,
its complicated love, discord’s
eternal hum? Murky solitudes.
We look at this light and leaves fly by,
or–now transparency
unnamed no longer nor robbed of its being–
we touch time
now so much us, now so much nothing, so much
fallen among crazed beauty of words.
We’re losing ourselves as we go, hurling along
in hope. Matter without the sound
of love, matter isolated from dreams
and in the humid night the fairy woods.
All the rest’s road and roads. God? Silence.

Being is not a fable

Being is not a fable, this sun
that moves us in silence burns all.
Are we not innocent? Every dream
has its harsh enchantment; here the rain
has lost its fairies and its white shadow,
here, at the rim at which God stands alone
like fate, in the night of winds.
Afternoons and fruits soar, bodies roll
through the declining light, through the water.
We barely remember the plunge
where death was filled with birds
and where someone shouted heaven’s impossible.
But we do not wish to take
the leap, joy we rebuff.
Being is not a fable, we live
as we tell, at the edge of words.


From Quessep’s first book, El ser no es una fábula (“Being is not a fable”), 1968

A poet’s paradise lost

No one can sing
This is the afternoon
This the moon
That belongs to us
We say the word
And there is a time
Like oblivion
And a truncated tale
(Turn mortal rose)
Is it ours, the song
Enduring in legend?
No one can
Deserve that afternoon
Nor that moon

In the moon I have told

In the moon I have related
Light of name and memory
In the rose all but history
Of garden fancy’s recreated
All in the past’s illuminated
In all that’s lost all is in flower
Music of a former hour
Or how unreal the tall tale teller
(White moon or cruel rose’s terror)
Walks as he talks towards oblivion’s power


Note: “In the moon I have told” is the first of Quessep’s published work that has a definite rhyme scheme in its original Spanish: the poem is structured in the manner of a “Décima Espinela,” a stanza of ten verses that has a ABBAACCDDC pattern. It was named thus in honor of Vicente Espinel, a poet, priest, and musician of the Spanish Golden Age who is considered to be the first to use and perfect this poetic technique.


From Quessep’s second book, Duración y leyenda (“Duration and legend”), 1972

Closeness to death

Man only inhabits
A faraway shore
He sees grey afternoon
Falling white leaves fall

Lost face of love
Barely sings and moves
Fortune’s wheel draws him
On to death he can’t lose

Stranger to everything
Under joy’s malediction
The lonely man speaks alone
An inexistent kingdom

As a foreign country

If I forget you if your song does not remain
My lips’ mirror, nor to your name keeps nightly faith
If your body passes over wingspread of gloom
As a foreign country where a rumour
Makes us more distant forever strangers
If I take leave of you that lost music of some blue
And in every hour I don’t pronounce your name
If every time I see a cloud a leaf
Flit through the streets’ exhausted labyrinths
I see your hand tilt over autumn’s brow
If the hill declines in some bare silence
Where the night sang where love was singing then
If I forget you if nostalgia does not bloom
And memory’s story closes its every page
It is perhaps that Eden your beloved name
Will turn out to be death


From Quessep’s third book, Canto del extranjero (“Song of a Foreigner”), 1976

I am lost by the song that keeps me awake

Who has set himself, in truth,
to sing in the night and at these hours?
Who has lost sleep and seeks the sleep
he’s lost in music or the shadow’s powers?

What words are going through the woods, song
cypress of its branches interweaves?
Woe, who out of those leaves fashions his soul
and forms his chimeras out of those leaves!

Where do you come from, haunting madrigal,
transmuting all to sorrowful enchantment?
Woe to me listening to you in the gloom,
lost by the song that is sleep’s banishment!

In solitude written

Alone, sometimes, at night
your whiteness that is queen
still over every cypress
or deadly courtyard of your dream,

leaves in my heart
and in solitude written
what could have been the name
a song to paradise had given.

Alone, sometimes I sense
that the soul’s skies are threaded
now by no one at all, now merely
space for your fables’ dust to spread.


From Quessep’s fourth book, Madrigales de vida y muerte (“Madrigals of Life and Death”), 1978


Who draws you away from the imaginary valley,
or calls you with music from the celestial sphere?
Who covers your body with purple leaves all over,
transparency that you, with all our love, give over?

Only fleeting days on earth you had,
in the dark blue, causing joy
to fly in our souls, oh shadowless wing
of the ships lost at sea in death.

Can man be not happy? By a design
inscribed in his memory, time’s golden measure
stirs around in ashes and guilt emerges
and the fall, for all Eden is transitory.

That is why in vain we wander through nameless countries,
sunset’s silver forests, searching
as the lover in solitude searches for a body’s beautiful thrall,
docile to the lips, docile to the soul.


So much sky was mine,
so much Eden, of which men dream in error,
that, now in my life’s fortieth year,
I can love nothing in the chimera.

Lo, came pain, then
suddenly came death,
and I would not want to mourn,
but in mourning perforce I am dressed.

I await nothing but derision, the mockery
of those that know that bliss does not exist,
but who can tell me–
opening its doors to heaven, what kingdom is this?


From Quessep’s fifth book, Preludios (“Preludes”), 1980


Giovanni Quessep

Giovanni Quessep (b. 1939, San Onofre, Colombia) is one of Colombia's greatest poets. In 2004, he received the Premio Nacional de Poesía José Asunción Silva in acknowledgment of a life dedicated to poetry. In 2015, he was awarded the Premio Mundial de Poesía René Char. Some of his work has been translated into German, Portuguese, Italian, French, English, Arab, and Greek. To date, Giovanni Quessep has published thirteen books of poetry in the space of fifty-six years, and he has been included in many Colombian and Latin American poetry anthologies.

Felipe Botero and Ranald Barnicot

Felipe Botero (b. 1990) is a writer, philosopher, and translator from Colombia. He earned a BA in philosophy from the Universidad Nacional of Colombia and an MA in philosophy and the arts at the University of Warwick, from which he graduated with distinction in 2017. Felipe has translated into Spanish various literary and philosophical texts, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Fernando Pessoa’s play O marinheiro, poems by Robert Hayden, and literary essays by Anthony Burgess and Florence L. Waltz.

Ranald Barnicot (b. 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 (from Anacreon, Catullus, Horace, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Lorca, Vallejo, Alfonso X (El Sabio) of Castile, Violante do Céu, D’Annunzio, and La Compiuta Donzella) in Priapus, Acumen, Transference, Ezra, The Rotary Dial, Sentinel, Poetry Salzburg Review, The French Literary Review, Better than Starbucks, Orbis, Stand, The Dark Horse, Metamorphoses, and InTranslation. By Me, Through Me (original poems and translations) is due to be published by Alba Press in 2019.

Copyright (c) Giovanni Quessep, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1978, 1980. English translation copyright (c) Felipe Botero and Ranald Barnicot, 2018.