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Volume 6 – Issue 2 – Poetry – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Volume 6 – Issue 2 – Poetry

May 14, 2010 | by SRB


Translated by James Robertson

Humberto Ak’abal is the foremost poet writing in K’iche’,
a Mayan language spoken in the central highlands of
Guatemala by approximately one million people. Born
in 1952 in Momostenango, he left school at twelve to
work with his father, weaving the heavy woollen blankets
for which the town is famous. Later he went to work in
Guatemala City as a street vendor and porter. In the 1980s
he began to write, but it was not until the 1990s that he
found a publisher willing to print his work. Although he
does write in or translate into Spanish, his first loyalty is
to his own language, K’iche’, which he has described as “a
poetic, guttural language, rich in onomatopoeias”.

Language, the natural environment, love, community
and politics – particularly relating to the brutal repression
of Guatemala’s indigenous population over many
centuries – are the constant themes of Ak’abal’s work. His
poems are mostly concise, but full of colour and passion,
and with a rich vein of humour running through them. A
prolific writer, he has published many collections but very
little of his work is available in English, and until now –
perhaps not surprisingly – none in Scots.

James Robertson first came upon Ak’abal’s work
some years ago, when he was asked to read some of it at
a Writers in Prison event at the Edinburgh International
Book Festival. Subsequently, Robertson collaborated
with Rosemary Burnett, the former Scottish Programme
Director of Amnesty International, in translating Ak’abal’s
poems. The result is Drum of Stone, a selection of Ak’abal’s
work, with examples of the original K’iche’, English
translations by Burnett and Scots ones by Robertson, and
with illustrations by Iain McIntosh.


The thrawn wee laddie,
ayewis lookin ahint,
fankled himsel in some ruits
and fell doun.

Stertit tae skreich.

Felt his granny’s vyce
like a chap on the heid.

‘When a dug’s daein a shite
in the middle o the road,
dinna you stare
or ye’ll get whit’s comin tae ye.’


Ma granfaither wis no weel.

Speelin bens
and crossin glens
we gaed lookin for the healer.

Maister Tun
wis a sonsie auld man.

He took a toom gourd
and sang intil it.

‘Tak it tae him that he mey drink the sang.’

Ma granfaither pit the gourd
up tae his lugs
and bit by bit his face chynged,
and the nixt day he begun tae sing
and syne even tae dance.


This efternune
efter thunner and storms
the lift gied us
a wee glisk o the sun.

The birds chant
and the trees greit
wi the new-faan rain.


I speak
tae steek
the mooth
o silence.


The tale is tellt
o an auld, auld people.

Scunnered wi their ain tung – sae it’s said –
they set themsels tae biggin a ben –
mool upon mool –
till it raxed up intae the cloods.

Up yonder, it wis tellt,
they haundit oot languages.

Sae they thocht they’d try it oot…

Ye had tae hae baws tae get up there.
The first thing tae dae
wis cowp a wheen muckle drams.

On the wey back doun,
ye were jist haiverin, pure pish…

but in anither language!


The trauchle o mismindin
is poetry tae.


The mune wis a muckle hoose
sittin on the rigbane o the ben.

Gin ma faither gied me a tellin
I’d awa tae the mune
and kip there.


Ma dreams in shivereens
like hail-puckles
are skailt amang the stanes:
ae kiss o the sun turns them tae mist, ae fuff o wund
turns them tae nocht.


In yer hert
there’s nae room ony mair.

It’s late.

I jist want ye tae ken
that forenent yer door
a gaberlunzie man is waitin.


That efternune
ma hert turnt itsel ower
and landit on its heid.

When I kent
that ye didna luve me
it stertit tae whummle.

It’s you that’s tae blame
noo that ma hert is thrawn for aye.

Drum of Stone by Humberto Ak’abal is published by Kettillonia at £8.99

ISBN: 978 1 902944 27 2

From this Issue

A Pint and a Nip

by Karl Miller

Tartan Pimps

by Ian Bell

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