Gloria Gervitz (Mexico, 1943–2022)

from MIGRATIONS: POEM, 1976–2020, two excerpts with commentary

Translated from Spanish by Mark Schafer


[In the wake of her recent death and in celebration of her great masterwork, Migrations, the following is an extended and modified version of her entry in the forthcoming historical anthology of North and South American poetry (“from origins to present”) coedited by me and Javier Taboada and scheduled for publication next year by University of California Press. The latest full version of Mark Schafer’s translation, Migrations: Poem 1976–2020 (with amended title and cover), was published last year by New York Review Books. (j.r.)]



SELECTION 1                                                                      


beneath the summer-drenched willow only restlessness lingers

docile clouds descend into silence

the day dissolves in the hot air
green erupts within green
I spread my legs beneath the bathtub faucet

gushing water falls
the water enters me
the words of the Zohar spread open
the same questions as always
and I sink deeper and deeper
in the vertigo of Kol Nidre
before the start of the great fast
in the blue haze of the synagogues
after and before Rosh Hashanah
in the whiteness of the rain
my grandmother prays the rosary
and in the background plummeting
the echo of the shofar opens the year
into the gulf of absences to the northeast pour words saliva

and farther to the east
I masturbate thinking of you
the screech of seagulls the break of day
the froth in the dazzle of the wing
the color and the season of bougainvilleas are for you
the pollen still on my fingers
your scent of violets sour and feverish from the dust

words that are nothing but a drawn-out prayer
a form of madness after the madness
the cages where the perfumes are shut away
the endless delights
the voluptuousness of being born again and again
static ecstasy
more even more
don’t be afraid
and the photographs fading in the fermentation of silence

the unscreened porches
fever growing red in other skies
the gleaming verandas darkening with the acacias
and in the kitchen the newly washed dishes
fruit and syrups
in the swell of rivers
in the night of willows
in the washbasins of dreams
in that steam of female viscera
rising unmistakable and expansive
I leave you my death entire complete
my whole death for you
to whom does one speak before dying?
where are you?
where in me can I invent you?





I’m in the pleasure within the pleasure of pleasuring myself

and my nanny sound asleep in the hammock nearby

and the house submerging in drowsiness

and in the plaza the market starts to bustle with activity

there’s orange juice and grapefruit juice

and rice milk and hibiscus tea and tamarind water

and strawberry atole and hot chocolate champurrado

and sweet tamales and Oaxacan tamales

and papayas and plums and Manila mangoes

and purple bananas and plantains

bunches of dominicos and tabascos

watermelons redder than blood

soursopslike vaginas on display

bright red capulin berries

pomegranates dribbling juice

black zapotes spilling over

mameys split open like vulvas

fat juicy pineapples

the passion fruit growing hard

and the heat entering the palm mats

entering the palm baskets

entering the sea bream

and the red buckets of shrimp

entering the lobsters

and the red rock crab legs

the bundles of freshwater crabs the mackerel for ceviche

and the clams partly opened and altogether stunned

the flaccid octopuses fainting in their ink

the oysters dreaming they’re at the bottom of the sea

the tiny oysterssmall as pebbles from the river

the white pompanos from Michoacán

the fresh and saltwater trout

the translucent jack fish and the sea bass

and the carp from Morelos and the scallops

and the charales their heads smashed

the large red snappers

and the shark fins

and the heat  wings crashing

smashing them in the bougainvilleas

smashing the squash blossoms and goosefoot leaves

and lovagefor the birds and the radishes

and clusters of loquats and ears of corn

unraveling in burlap coffee sacks

and the canary seed and amaranth

and sacks of millet and beans

and baskets brimming with chili peppers

the jalapeño morita ancho cascabel

guajillo manzano chile de árbol chilaca

and the pequin so tiny and hot and the habaneros

and mole paste green red black yellow

and poblano and sesame seeds for every kind of mole

and Oaxacan string cheese wound like balls of yarn

and ash-ripened goat cheese and farmer’s cheese and aged cotija

and manchego for quesadillas

and corn tlayudas and tlacoyos and mortars and metates for grinding

and braziers and palm leaf fans

and shawls from Santa María hanging in the stone arcades

guayaberas and blouses made of linen from the maguey tree

openwork embroidery from the nuns in Aguascalientes

magical drawings from the Mayan weaver women

t-shirts that say Viva Méxicowith the eagle perched on the cactus

feverish and delirious alebrijes

and sandals soled with rope or tire tread and combs made of wood and plastic

and necklaces made of crystal and tourmaline and amber and tiger’s eye

and butterflies and angels and agate and onyx and ebony

and periwinkles and ornamental combs of mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell

and Nivea hand cream and Tío Nacho’s shampoo

cross-stitched embroidered hearts

and soaps made of almonds and rose petals and oatmeal

and coconut and chamomile


and the overheated heat blazing with Celsius

plunging into the sweet breads the conchas and cuernos

and the cookies with clotted cream slathered with honey and María cookies

and myrtle candies and quince and guava jellies

sweet potatoes from Puebla and pine nuts and chickpeas and pumpkin seeds

and rolling tobacco and vanilla from Papantla and cinnamon sticks

and swallows swinging on strands of light

and filaments of heat dangling

and roots dangling from God knows where to God knows where

and arnica and rue and aloe leaves

and etherium capsules and bunches of eucalyptus leaves

and basil and myrtle and white lágrimas

and gloriasfor the altars

and votive candles and altar candles and cards printed with images of saints

and miraculous medallions and scapulars

and amulets to ward off the evil eye

and sticks of incense and crystalized copal

and a riot of voices

and birds full of cages

and cages of parakeets with clipped wings

and foulmouthed green parrots cursing blue streaks

and the church bells calling the faithful to mass

and music here and music there

and flocks of lorikeets

and mockingbirds from other landscapes and other memories

and the protracted trill of yellow canaries

and the organ grinder cranking the handle around and around

and cranking out the same old hurdy-gurdy tune

and a violin sad and lean

and a daydreaming guitar

and an out-of-tune trio singing:

                        tú me acostumbraste a todas esas cosas

y tu me enseñaste que son maravillosas.





Worked on from 1976 and up to 2020, Gloria Gervitz’s masterwork Migrations is an epic of the migratory self. Like Zukofsky’s A” or Pound’s Cantos, hers is the work of a lifetime: a life’s work including not only autobiography and familial memories as a kind of history but rife with sexual, religious, and mystical imagery taken from different sources: from Jewish kabbala to Mexican folk Catholicism and beyond.



Writes Mark Schlafer, translator, after her death: “At the beginning of Gloria Gervitz’s 261-page poem, which she composed over 44 years, she writes: ‘I leave you my death entire complete / my whole death for you / to whom does one speak before dying?’ In the context of the poem, Gervitz seems to be addressing a version of her mother or grandmother. But given her death on April 19, she now also addresses us, her readers. Except that — paradoxically, ironically, or both — we must now intervene as reader-writers of the text, replacing ‘death’ with ‘life.’ Death and life, the possibilities of the present and memories of the past, stasis and ecstasy, silence and song, the blank page and the printed word are all in a constant dance in Migrations. But now, at last, the author is silent and her song is done. And still, every time we open Migrations and begin to read, whether in the original Spanish or in one of more than a dozen translations into as many languages, we, her readers, lower the needle of our eyes to the record groove of her poem, and her music once again begins to play: ‘music here and music there / and flocks of lorikeets / and mockingbirds from other landscapes and other memories.’”