Natal Debts

August 26, 2019


Mara Pastor complicates the debt of a nation through the microscope of her days. Her poems demand that the reader encounter Puerto Rico’s disasters—both political and “natural”—through lived experience. But what is the labor of her days, as poet, mother, lover, puertorriqueñe? The urgency of her work only echoes louder after the recent political uprisings in Puerto Rico. When Pastor writes, “Don’t pay attention if you don’t want to,” we know she means how can one do anything else but pay attention?

María José Giménez and Anna Rosenwong’s lithe translations, rooted in conversation and friendship with Pastor, introduce the reader unfamiliar with Puerto Rican literature to one of its most important contemporary poets. Pastor’s poems invite you into her private world not as tourist or voyeur, but calling you to witness the global political situation from an Island long tired of being under other nations’ thumbs.


In a shack in Chacahua,

Beatriz Magadán lives

with her little chicken that listens to hearts.

She cooks seafood

on her woodstove in coconut oil

and talks when the chicken isn’t listening.

She crossed the border in a trunk

with every one of her children.

Over there she was baker, tortillera, house

keeper, mother, grandmother and wife.

One good day, empty-handed, on foot,

she returned to her village on the

Pacific shore. Fear, she said,

is not a mother in a trunk

waiting for them to take one of her children,

fear is not daring to do something else.


Every minute far from her

passes in the ease of her voice that rings

like a stone tossed into a lake.

I accept that the stone sinks

to recover my mother’s voice

in grieving your love.

A gift on each cheek,

ribbon of spit and bird calls,

even if the sugar runs out

or I don't have any wheat,

I cannot fathom the faltering flame.

Happiness is one way

we will remember

having danced among vejigantes.

I barely know how to set this love

over a small plate of water

so the ants can’t devour it.


No more promises, our signs say.

Emmanuel wanted to know if the signs were

protesting suicide.

He asked looking into my eyes.

His father warns me

that Emmanuel talks a lot.

“Don’t pay attention if you don’t want to.”

Emmanuel reads the sign I’m painting syllable by syllable.


Emmanuel knows a pitirre is a bird of prey.

He’s seen them out in the country when his dad takes him to the river.

And a buitre is a bird that eats dead meat

like the turkey vultures that fly over the highways.

Emmanuel told me that vultures are like Atrón.

“Who's Atrón?” I ask him.

“A blond man who’s gonna build a wall in the ocean

so we can’t get to the United States.”

Emmanuel knows this because he saw it

on TV. Emmanuel asks me

if the buitres are like Atrón.

Emmanuel’s father calls him from the boardwalk.

“Let’s go,” he yells. “Say goodbye.”

He takes off running.

Talks to his dad and comes back.

“My dad says to call me on his phone

if you get together to make more signs.

I want to paint some with you to protest Atrón.”


When I stripped the sheets,

there was a dead grasshopper.

We were stunned,

looking at its dried, iridescent wings.

Friends were waiting in the living room,

but I wanted to get in bed

in that room full of memories.

When I stripped the sheets,

the dead grasshopper was there,

draped in the desire

of two creatures ready

to desecrate its tomb.


Again I walked the arches but that once yearned-for smell

of burning brush

is impossible now. How to explain

that the shortest path was not the curve

and even less the line.

I’m in the unseen in between.

If the cat is fat and that’s well-being

for a cat, the Caribbean suits him.

And that, here, is no small thing.

Almost no one settles here.

So if the cat has emigrated

and he’s fat and happy, that’s a comfort.

The people I came to see leave

when I knock on the door. The cat doesn’t.

The cat stays in the house waiting for me.


What’s left of the sea

is packaged in Alaska

at the cost of our bitten skin.

It’s costly to talk on this island

because every breath of air

lets in a fistful of repellent.

We get word from Alaska

and it’s not avant-garde poems.

The cost of a ticket to the 49th state

has no equivalent in palm trees.

Forty-nine palm trees aren’t collateral against

the balance of natal debt.

This riddle bites at us all.


We can’t go outside without an umbrella.

We’ll stop going to concerts

and to nurseries.

The IMECA pollution index

reached 172

and we don’t want to take

taxis or buses.

The power has gone out twice.

The future is watching movies,

translating American

poets, perhaps,

writing poems in acid-free

notebooks, in a bunker

full of coffee and weed,

insisting we live in the best

city ever. Let’s bring

all the edible plants

into the house

so they don’t kill us later.



stagnates again.

Loving me doesn’t.

Mortals do.

Little cage underwater

to see

strange fish

fall back in love.

They sway nothing.

Awake yes.

Dream no.

Mountain yes.

Beach no.

Urchin yes.

Hammock never.

They hide nothing.

They recommend

going to see the reefs

the salt bells


the monster

going extinct.

Let the water sway.


dorsum and flight,


dorsal salt.

Aloft me.

Flight and flavor.





I’ll say storm.

I’ll say river.

I’ll say tornado.

I’ll say leaf.

I’ll say tree.

I’ll be wet.

I’ll be damp.

I won’t be a bust.

I won’t be a pelican.

Baby I’ll want.

Man I’ll want.

The man’s song I’ll want.

Woman I’ll always be.

Small woman I’ll have.

Small island I’ll have.

I won’t have money.

I’ll have a dream.

I’ll have too much work.

I’ll say salt.

I’ll say papaya.

I’ll say bean and yuca.

Car I’ll have.

Fuel I’ll have.

Washer I’ll have.

Everything's so expensive I’ll say.

Everything’s so pretty I’ll say.

Cats I’ll have.

Cat hair I’ll have.

Mother and father I’ll have.

Mother I’ll be.

Aunt I’ll be.

Wife I’ll be.

Friend I’ll be.

I’ll have little.

I’ll have a rented house.

I’ll have debt.

I’ll say tree.

I’ll say leaf.

I’ll say tornado.

I’ll say river.

I’ll say storm.

*Most of the above poems were published in Spanish in Falsa heladería (False Ice Cream Shop) by Aguadulce Ediciones (2018) in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.

María José Giménez is a poet, translator, and editor whose work has received support from the NEA, the Studios at MASS MoCA, the Breadloaf Translators’ Conference, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Banff International Literary Translators’ Centre. Assistant translation editor of Anomaly and a former board member of the American Literary Translators Association, María José works between English and Spanish, and from the French, and is the translator of Tilting at Mountains by Edurne Pasaban (Mountaineer Books, 2014), Alejandro Saravia’s novel Red, Yellow, Green (Biblioasis, 2016), and the chapbook As Though The Wound Had Heard by Mara Pastor (Cardboard House Press, 2017). Among other awards, María José was recently named 2019 Poet Laureate of Easthampton, Massachusetts.

Anna Rosenwong is a translator, book editor, and educator. Her translation of Rocio Ceron’s Diorama won the Best Translated Book Award, and her collected translations of Jose Eugenio Sanchez are now available as here the sun’s for real. The translation editor of Anomaly, she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, and the American Literary Translators Association. Her scholarly and creative work has been featured in such venues as World Literature Today, The Kenyon Review, and Modern Poetry Today. More at

Mara Pastor (San Juan, 1980) is a Puerto Rican poet and editor. Her work has appeared in journals such as The Common, Brooklyn Rail, Connotation Press, Latin American Literature Today and Seedings. She has authored six full-length poetry books in Spanish as well as the bilingual chapbooks As Though the Wound Had Heard, translated by María José Giménez, and Children of Another Hour, translated by Noel Black. Her latest book Falsa heladería (False Ice Cream Shop) was published in 2018 by Aguadulce Ediciones. Her most recent editorial work was the anthology of contemporary Puerto Rican fiction A toda costa, published in 2018 in Mexico City. She lives in Ponce where she teaches literature at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico and collaborates as a writer with a number of publications and magazines in Puerto Rico and abroad.