The Soldiers on the Bridge by Julio Martinez Mesanza, translated by Don Bogen

From one edge of the bridge back to the other,
we tug at the weaving mules, and the mules’ pace
rocks the loads they carry on their backs:
artillery for use in the mountains,
rugs, work tables, letters, various
instruments that the topographers
will need, benches, different kinds of tape,
rulers, goniometers, and quadrants
all swaying with the rhythm of the mules.
And we spend two hours on the bridge
while the officers study certain maps
that are, no doubt, impenetrable because
they do not give the order to resume
the march and leave the bridge; and here we are
turning in circles, on a perfect target,
some of us with noble beasts, and others
behind ungovernable animals.
Because I have been fortunate enough
to lead a strong and docile mule, my mind
is free to wander, and a little later
when we begin to march again I start
to think about the incident back there
as an allegory or a symbol
of something else that lacks a voice or shape
of its own and so has to be dressed
in the skin of what is tangible.
I tell myself, as I go on this way,
that that abstruse map marks the paths the soul
must follow and the tests it undergoes,
but then too it occurs to me the point
toward which we’re headed isn’t on the map
and neither is the bridge, because it’s new;
the slow and indecisive officers
studying the map are the blind eyes
of proud and hobbled reason: they don’t come
to a decision and they waste their lives
discussing things of which they’re ignorant.
I remember I was a slave in Egypt,
and suddenly an image comes to me:
the pillar of fire and faith that led the souls
across the trackless sand of the Sinai,
conquering the darkness as it moved.
And another one: that of the blind
strategists whose armies are submerged
in the voracious mire of the trenches,
groups of men set opposite each other
forever, victims of the error of pride
in the persistent mire of my soul.

Julio Martínez Mesanza is among the most prominent of a generation of Spanish poets who began publishing in the 1980s. His books include Europa, Las trincheras (The Trenches), Entre el muro y el foso (Between the Wall and the Ditch), and an edition of new and selected poems in 2007.
Don Bogen is the author of four books of poetry, most recently An Algebra (Chicago, 2009). His translations of Julio Martínez Mesanza have appeared in Two Lines, Boston Review, Poetry Northwest, and other journals. McMicken Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati, he recently spent two months as a visiting professor at the University of Bordeaux-Montaigne. His website is