Toward a poetry and poetics of the Americas (4): Jose Asunción Silva (1865–1896), 'Nocturne III'

Translation by Jerome Rothenberg with commentary by Heriberto Yépez

               A night,

A night thick with perfumes, with whispers & music, with wings,

               A night

With glowworms fantastically bright in its bridal wet shadows,

There by my side, pressed slowly & tightly against me,

               Mute and pale

As if a presentiment of infinite sorrow should stir you

Down to the secretest depths of your nature,

A path with flowers crosses the plain

               Where you traveled,

               Under a full moon

Up in the deep blue infinite skies

Its white light scattered,

               & your shadow too

               Thin and limpid,

               & my shadow

        That the moon’s rays projected

        Across the sad sands,

        Where both were conjoined

               & were one

               & were one

        & were one immense shadow!

        & were one immense shadow!

        & were one only one immense shadow!


               That night

               All alone     a soul

Filled with infinite sorrow

With your death and its torments

Cut off from your self, by the shadow, by distance and time,

               An infinite blackness

               Where our voices don’t reach,

               Mute & alone

               On the path I was traveling …

The sound of the dogs as they bayed at the moon,

               The pale moon,

               & the croaking out loud

               of the frogs …

I felt cold, felt the coldness that came from your cheeks

In the alcove in back, from your breasts & the hands that I loved

Under sheets white as snow in the death house!

A coldness of graves & a coldness of death

& the coldness of nada

               & my shadow

               That the moon’s rays projected

               Was drifting alone,

               Was drifting alone,

               Was drifting alone through an unpeopled wasteland!

               & your shadow, agile & smooth,

               Thin & limpid,

As on that warm night in dead spring,

That night filled with perfumes, with whispers & music, with wings,

               Came near & made off with her

               Came near & made off with her

Came near & made off with her …

Oh the shadows brought together!

Oh the shadows of our bodies joining with the shadows of our souls!

Oh the shadows sought & brought together in the nights of blackness

               & of tears …!


“Leave your studies & pleasures, your / vapid lost causes, / &, as Shakyamuni once councilled, / hide your self in Nirvana.”  (J.A.S. from Filosofías).  And again: “When you reach your last hour, / your final stop on earth, / you’ll feel an angst that can kill you – / at having done nothing.”


(1) José Asunción Silva was a careful reader of Bécquer and Verlaine, Martí and Poe, Campoamor and Baudelaire. He was convinced he needed to combine traditions, though he had his mind on an obscure and introspective nothingness that, according to him, transcended all of them. Silva was a deep researcher of the dark aspect of the soul.


After a year abroad in 1886, he returned to his native Bogotá. In Europe his poetry had evidently taken a significant turn. He had met Mallarmé in Paris, an encounter that marked him deeply. In Silva, European romanticism was reinvented, though he didn’t intend to escape the archetype of the Romantic poet that he explicitly wanted to adapt. Silva’s life is full of sad anecdotes. An important part of his work was lost in a shipwreck and soon in his adult life he had to face all sorts of difficulties. He was a man of an intense emotional life. He believed poetry precisely was an investigation of “complex feelings.”


About him the Mexican avant-garde poet José Juan Tablada would write: “Silva does not have a biography but a legend. He lived yesterday, is our brother today, but he goes back still further, caving in the past.” His work constructs a space-time that can be best described using images such as Vallejo’s “alternative cavern.”  He knew his “night” referred not only to the depth of his interior world but also to the artificiality of his visions.”


(2)  Soon after the death of his sister Elvira, Silva wrote (in 1892) his most enduring poem “Noche.” also known as “Nocturno III.”  The intensity of the piece provoked speculations around a supposed incestuous relationship with his sister. We could easily get lost in the biographical aspects of Silva’s figure. But we need to focus, at least for a moment, on this poem, so important in the development of later poetry in Spanish, not only as a forerunner of modernismo but as a structural inspiration for later avant-garde writing.


“Nocturno III” comes from an unusual extension of voice that even visually creates an unseen pattern of lines. One can sense in Silva’s ‘night’ the process of contacting his underworld and the intermittent flow and rupture derived from this contact. It is a chant to the night and to the obscure unity of a mysterious duality that does not lead to death, but is death itself. This poem in particular possesses a structure that would reappear (reinvented) in some of Neruda’s pieces, for example, but most importantly it deals with an alliance to obscurity and a dialect of rhythm and breakage, sound and visual play, that is still haunting.                                                                      


Silva is also the author of a novel titled De sobremesa. In 1896 Silva committed suicide shooting a bullet directly into his heart.


[Originally published in J.R. & Jeffrey Robinson, Poems for the Millennium, volume 3: The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry]