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Periplum #11: Umberto Senegal

Periplum is a section that is devoted to 20th and 21st century haiku from around the world

Periplum #11: Umberto Senegal

BY David G. Lanoue

Umberto Senegal, founder and president of the Colombian Haiku Association, has been writing and publishing haiku in Spanish since the 1980s. His books of haiku and short poetry include Pundarika: poesía zen (Pundarika: Zen Poems); Ventanas al nirvana (Windows to Nirvana) and Dejé las flores en el sueño (I Left the Flowers in a Dream). He is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on haiku in the Spanish-speaking Americas. Juan Manuel Cuartas Restrepo calls Umberto Senegal a “master . . . in every sense of the word, the prolific and brilliant author of hundreds of haiku” (my translation;10). Because of his prominence in Latin American haiku, he was invited in 1993 to edit a bilingual Portugese-Spanish anthology of haiku with the twin titles, Antologia do haicai Latino-Americano and Antología del haikú latinoamericano. For years, an unpublished text by Senegal, Anotaciones sobre el haikú (Notes on Haiku), has circulated among South American scholars, leaving its imprint on books such as the aforementioned Juan Manuel Cuartas Restrepo’s Los siete poetas del haikú (The Seven Haiku Poets) and Rodrigo Escobar’s and Javier Tafur’s Para el corazón que no duda: breve antología de haikú japonés (For the Heart That Has No Doubts: A Brief Anthology of Japanese Haiku). In recent years Senegal has taken up short fiction. He writes “atomic stories” consisting of no more than twenty words, exluding the titles—a collection of which is gathered in Cuentos atómicos (Atomic Stories)—and he writes paragraph-length microfictions, many of which appear in his book Relatos para un enano (Stories for a Dwarf). Even though he now considers tiny fiction his area of specialization, he still writes haiku of the highest quality.

I first encountered Senegal’s work in 1993 when I reviewed Pundarika for Modern Haiku. Recently, seventeen years later, Charlie Trumbull asked me to write an update on Senegal’s haiku for that same journal. With the help of Xavier University librarian Nancy N. Hampton, I gathered and read Senegal’s books in print. However, we soon discovered a gap: he has no book of haiku published after 1994. I found a postal address in one of his recent fiction books and wrote to him. My snail-mail appeal took nearly a month to reach his hands, but when it finally did, he wrote me an e-mail reply which included a generous selection of unpublished haiku from the years 2000 to 2009. Many of these, he says, he plans to bring out in future books with the titles Universo de rocío (Dewdrop Universe) and La caída de las hojas (Fall of the Leaves). I picked fifteen of these previously unpublished haiku to share and translate in my Modern Haiku essay. Of those fifteen, I would like to present three, here, with comments. To see all of them, you’ll need to pick up a copy of the Autumn 2010 issue of Modern Haiku.

The first example reads, in Spanish:

Todas las puertas
con viejos candados
me devolveré.

Here’s my translation:

all the doors
with their ancient padlocks
will be mine

Senegal’s language is clean and direct, yet, hidden behind this plainness of statement—like his future inheritance behind locked doors—lurks a dense, musty emotion. There is a heaviness to family and to legacy, and there are also secrets, ancient secrets, awaiting in the cobwebs behind padlocked doors. There is so much here to deal with, so much of the past, hidden! I suspect that the poet would prefer to light a match to it, when the time comes, but he will not do so. His last line, “will be mine” (me devolveré), sounds a note of resignation. Behind every door lie artifacts of ancestors: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and many, many others. Every door, when its rusty old padlock is finally opened, will grant access to rooms filled with memories, hopes and regrets: the heavy baggage of family. The poet will stand in them, their sole inheritor . . . and then what?

A second haiku from one of Senegal’s future books is the following.

En el candil cadáveres
de zancudos. Alguien solloza
en la habitación.

mosquito corpses in the lamp
someone sobbing
in the room

Two events come together synergystically to create an effect greater than the sum of parts: the cadavers of mosquitoes lie in the cemetery of a lamp and someone sobs in a room. At first reading, I don’t get the feeling that the sobbing person is grieving for the little deaths in the lamp. In my imagining of it, I see a triangulation of mosquito corpses, a sobbing person and the poet, who is also there, looking at the mosquitoes and hearing the sobbing. It is the poet’s consciousness that brings together the two other stimuli: the seen and the heard. Interestingly, he doesn’t describe the sobbing person but instead chooses to focus on the dead mosquitoes in the lamp. Senegal, the author of atom-sized stories, evokes here a micro-drama, a mini-tragedy of pain, loss and unspoken suffering. With deft, oblique understatement he leaves the reader to meditate and conjure. The imagination must choose, and, as I contemplate futher, mine chooses to picture this unspecified sobbing person in two different ways. In one vision she is a grieving woman whose pain is so keen the poet cannot bear to look at her and so instead gazes at the dead mosquitoes in the lamp. In the other vision, the sobbing person, though seeming to be external to the poet (after all, Senegal describes this individual as a third-person “someone”) is, in fact, the poet. In his contemplation of the tiny-sized deaths, the poet finds himself interrupted by the sound of sobs coming from the mouth of “someone”: himself! I like imagining the scene in both ways and feel no need to pick one or the other. One of them hints at a story of a man and a woman; a husband and a wife, perhaps—rich with history and subtext. The other suggests the psychodrama of a personality coming unglued: a fragmenting of self such that the poet, detached and alienated from his own grief, notes its expression—the sobbing—with eerie objectivity.

Here’s a third example, just as simple on its surface while complex in its depths:

Sobre la piedra
deja de ser mariposa
la mariposa.

on the stone
through with being a butterfly
a butterfly

The butterfly has always symbolized transformation and, in Buddhist poetry, rebirth and enlightenment. Maybe because I’m aware of Senegal’s study of Zen, I’m inclined to read this haiku not as an elegiac poem on the butterfly’s death, but as a celebration of its final letting-go that equates with nirvana and immersion into the All. The butterfly has spread its wings and flown over the great “stone” of planet Earth for a season of beauty and grace, but that season is now over. The thing on the stone is no longer what it was, no longer a butterfly. Like a loved one’s corpse, it is only a vestige: a delicate shadow of what it was. The butterfly game is over. Senegal, a poet steeped in mystical traditions—who alludes in his works not only to Zen but also to the Indian mystic Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna, to Sufism and to the Mahayana sutra, Saddharma Pundarika; slyly begs the question: Who was the butterfly, really? Who plays the game of being butterflies, human beings, mosquitoes, polar bears, willow trees, viruses?

The answer to this question cannot be expressed using the yes-no binaries of human language, but it might be hinted at, wordlessly, in the Buddha’s half-smile.

Works Cited

Cuartas Restrepo, Juan Manuel. Los siete poetas del haikú. Cali, Colombia: Programa Editorial Universidad del Valle, 2005.

Lanoue, David. G. “A Haiku Poet of Contemporary Spanish-America: Humberto Senegal.” Modern Haiku 24, No. 1 (Winter-Spring 1993): 47-49.

Senegal, Humberto, Ed. Antologia do haicai Latino-Americano; Antología del haikú latinoamericano. São Paolo: Aliança Cultural Brasil-Japaõ, 1993.

—–. Cuentos atómicos. 4th edition. Calarcá (Quindío) Colombia: Revista Minificciones, 2006. First edition, 2005.

—–. Dejé las flores en el sueño. Armenia (Quindío) Colombia: Ediciones Kanora, 1994.

—–. Pundarika: poesía zen. Armenia (Quindío) Colombia: Editorial Quingráficas, 1984.

—–. Relatos para un enano. Calarcá (Quindío) Colombia: Cuadernos Negros, 2008.

—–. Ventanas al nirvana. Calarcá (Quindío) Colombia: La Cámara de Representantes, 1988.

Tafur González, Javier and Robrigo Escobar Hoguín. Para el corazón que no duda: breve antología de haikú japonés. Second Edition. Cali, Colombia: Programa Editorial Universidad del Valle, 2005.

Periplum: Introduction
Periplum #1: Keiji Minato
Periplum #2: Petar Tchouhov
Periplum #3: Masahiro Koike
Periplum #4: Fay Aoyagi
Periplum #5: Jean-Pierre Colleu
Periplum #6: Casimiro de Brito
Periplum #7: Saša Važić
Periplum #8: Ami Tanaka
Periplum #9: Chie Aiko
Periplum #10: Slavko Sedlar

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Lovely. The translations are, for me, entirely effective, sacrificing nothing of the scent of the originals and only some of the music. As good a result as one can hope for in translating poetry.

  2. “I gathered and read Senegal’s books in print. However, we soon discovered a gap: he has no book of haiku published after 1994. I found a postal address in one of his recent fiction books and wrote to him. My snail-mail appeal took nearly a month to reach his hands, but when it finally did, he wrote me an e-mail reply which included a generous selection of unpublished haiku from the years 2000 to 2009.” David G. Lanoue

    What a joy it must have been to get an email from Senegal! It is moments like these that makes long hours of research and translation worthwhile. I’ll looking forward to reading your essay
    in MH.

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