From Issue 20: From the Porthole

Julio Monteiro Martins
Translated by Donald Stang & Helen Wickes
To be in the world
as on a ship:
to attend to the wellbeing
of the passengers,
inspire their confidence
in the crew.
Attend to the engines,
which mutiny and rebel
just as people do,
and to the passengers,
who get jammed
just like machines.
Feel at home
in the kitchen,
in the laundry,
not allowing the wind
to shred the flag,
and if that happens,
replace it immediately.
Then, once in a while,
glance outside,
through the porthole.
Because beyond the small world
inside the ship
is the larger world
swirling around it:
other ships,
distant torches
in the night,
fireflies that float by.
And also the currents, the winds,
clouds heavily charged,
pregnant with lightning,
and the terrors of the sea,
mountains of water
that suddenly rise
like a god staring at you.
The men
peel potatoes,
the women
tidy the beds
for the children
asleep in the life jackets;
every man and every woman who,
without the will or the courage
to look outside,
has forgotten
that they are aboard a ship,
that they are few in number—
every man and woman
will be protected.
They will have to be put ashore
in some port
before the storm.
They will have to learn to swim.
They will all have to get into—good God!
the little lifeboat:
women and children
But then,
who will paddle?
Who will carry them to safety
past so many horizons?
And if the drinking water
runs low
who will choose—what bad luck!—
those to be
thrown into the sea?
But for now,
no one thinks of that.
One is at home
in the world,
even though onboard a ship:
warm the milk,
reattach the arm of the doll
and the wheel of the tractor,
sweetly kiss
the breasts of the beloved
and, innocently,
smile at her.
But the corner of the eye,
peers out of the porthole.
And the eye knows
that out there it is dark
even at midday.
A giant wave?
A passing cloud?
Inside one plays
in the darkness.
But outside
everything is moving.
Julio Monteiro Martins was raised in Brazil, then lived in Italy. He was widely published in both countries and died in 2014. Our translations of his poems from Italian into English are the first to be published in the US.