Afternoon Poems

Jean Gebser

Translated by Aaron Cheak

On the Path to Uncertainty

Jean Gebser, Gedichte (Poems), 1924–1944

Gebser’s Afternoon Poems were written on the eve of two wars. The originals were written by Gebser in Spanish while living in Madrid, shortly before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (Poesias de la Tarde, 1936). During this time, Frederico Garcia Lorca, the poet whom Gebser had befriended and whose work he had translated and published in 1935, was murdered. On his departure from Spain, Gebser later remarked: ‘In the Autumn of 1936, my Madrid apartment having been bombed just twelve hours earlier, I made my way once again on the path of uncertainty.’ Under the auspices of a delegate for the Mexikanischen Unterrichtministeriums für Europa, Gebser made his way to France. Eight years would pass before he returned to the poems, where, shortly before the outbreak of World War Two, he translated them into German (Nachmittagsgedichte, 1944).

In the translations presented here, I have worked both from the German and Spanish versions. Most of the Spanish originals use rhyming forms, and in Gebser’s German translations, he has attempted to preserve the rhyme of the originals (sometimes at the expense of a literal rendition). For this reason, the two versions vary not only in terminology, but also in rhythm, and so a literal redaction that is strictly true to both versions proves, in most passages, impossible. The English versions therefore step in and out of consistent rhyme, while the language is coloured by both the Romance and the Germanic forms. I am deeply indebted to Andrea Chaos, Sabrina Dalla Valle and John Dotson for their invaluable assistance in bringing these translations to their final form. Any shortcomings are, naturally, my own.


Spiritual Landscape

Wild berries clarified by frost,
inhabitants of a transparent landscape,
spiritual vista of flowers reduced
to their remote value: cold on the forehead.

A stone hangs in the air like a bird
touching branches and roses as it flies,
slightly weightless yet never grave:
easing my heart as it passes.

Hands in bloom that never grasp:
serene reservoir encompassed by vastness,
and distances—so many—that flow into veins,
while softly a star sleeps upon the table.

The Hills of Coín

How many hills of smiling earth
stretch from the sea to Coín!
As from waves of ochre and green
the village is born—Alhaurín.

When autumn, when late noon
designed in crimson light
against the dusk confound
figures so slender and slight.

Behold as you arrive from the sea,
beyond the village—Alhaurín:
bold life greeting the heavens
there on the hills of Coín.


Our steps so slowly advancing,
where will they be when night falls?
so lost in life, we seek paths
that eventually find us all.

Accompanied always by death
(we die so many times throughout life)
death now sleeps in my hand:
lucid flower surrenders to flight.

Lost to death we encounter
paths that turn to behold us,
like stars discovering their orbits,
and finding in us their telos.

Grain of Salt

Nothing now remains but bitter patience:
salt scattered upon the fields and hills,
withered grasses, forgotten herbs,
desolate strength and dead waters,

that now and then still reflect a cloud,
fragments of a sky, of scattered blue—
but from the edges of these pools rise shadows: 
from what sorrows do these flowers bloom?

Holding face in hands so that this weeping
restores unto the veins their proper flow:
we gather grain by salty grain, yearning
for earth and winds to flourish once again.

Boulevard Between Two Lights (Játiva)
Autumn-fire, foliage, and drifting light
shifting vaguely at the boulevard’s end
slowly a figure draws forth, slowly
between two lights passes life.

Serenely they shine, orange groves afar
countless suns ready to fall
a silent plain with egress breadth
that only this sky can bestow.

Extinguishing fires, shadows retire:
fleeting movements are erased
and later a distant voice begins to sing.

Milicroques (Foxgloves) *

A butterfly dancing
by the sea,
a foxglove emerging
fragile and fierce
to a granite wall:

A glittering chalice
captures the whole sky,
a single wing
bears the sun entire:
fate’s transformations,
and pure transference:

A flower
evolving into flight,
and flight
dissolving into light.

* Milicroques is the regional name of a delicate blue flower that blooms on the walls of Santiago de Compostela (Province of Galicia). [J.G.] Gebser’s delicate-blue flower (flor de un azul delicado/zartblauen Blume) is more commonly known as the foxglove (digitalis purpurea, literally, ‘purple fingers’). Its long, bell-shaped, pale violet petals fit over the fingers, hence the Latin name. [A.C.]

Behind the Heavens

Behind the heavens
of those we feel,
await still others
we’ve yet to live.

Behold the rose pink
clouds of dusk:
so much promise
in their fragile passing.

Behind the heavens,
Behind the heart:
roses and reflections
life and death, a tone.