Joyelle McSweeney

Florentino y el diablo, by Alberto Arvelo Torrealba




[Stage right, a table and stool. Here is seated PORPHYRIA, slumping, in her work clothes and work hair. She is a coatcheck girl at Club Nectarine. Downstage from her, PROLOGUE. Stage left, a ramp represents a dilapidated dock collapsing into a pond of wastewater. This might be outside Gary, Indiana.]


[smoking, because it’s cold.]

This story wants to cling and be prophetic; like the pathetic

girl-garment of the girl (Porphyria) who drapes her limbs

on the night tripod (Pythian) who drapes her hair

just so (veronica; lake) where the python rots

it wraithes out a raincheck claimcheck the coatcheck

girl (Porphyria) knows the future by its black roots; knows it down

to its protein coat; would know it anywhere Apollo-hair

knotted in a bow.

[Porphyria begins to gather her things to leave work]

                                   In a pit called Nectarine: clutch clasp; a shell

crushed down makes a premonitory

stain on the lip of the cup of the sky eats enamel churns up a

(septic; peptic) ruby tide in cherubim inlet; poof; a lithe

benthic bacteria hardly and barely

laying down its deadzone cloak (for Porphyria) instep

wears away  the inside; opalescent; ulcerine; the uvula

pullulates; polyps populate; pus-pearls imperil the palate;

king hemoglobin tips his hand

-cart; the place is pulverized, ground white with rime;

like white mice; her knife of hair could

slice the face of Christ!

[Porphyria walks slowly to the center of the stage and gets down on all fours]

O summer & thy bummers thou art lost.

the key is broken in the lock. the lining’s ripped the

deposit slip

hath fluttered to the gutter. the hummer’s crushed the hive the panties

wadded up in the mouth of

no. Porphyria crouches

by the bumper. Has she lost something in the snow?

Strike one, one eye books a flight on the lam; lazy eye

take two second sight

Iliam. Goes Cassandra-wide as it

greets the tire iron.

the blood-brain barrier

lets out its breath, sags

like a girdle

-wattled sword-n-sandal

goblin opera’s purple -kirted

score. dumps a slushy slurry cell-o-phonic

business plan. symphonic dump, grey matter

like dandruff on the road’s

shoulder. a pigeony inkling

settles down like thought but

can’t clot.

[Porphyria lies with her cheek to the stage but reanimates according to Prologue’s instruction]

In a dead second, the reeds and rushes

stiffen: crown the ditch like spit

crowds the mastiff’s jaws like ocean drapes

the empire’s waist at the trireme. Bermuda Triangle. Lady Prince,

Prophyria. She sits up as for a portrait on a setee of blood.

A shard of skull upended like a visor.

Sword and buckler. Star of the see.

You have the second sight now, Porphyria,

you have a second shot

like an ingénue slouching through the days’ rushes in the

projection room. Get up and glide. The night’s so cold

and breathless no

breath holds

a mirror up to nature: huffs glue

from a ziploc locket

behind gym or Dumpster

a hum handholds

the first seconds of rot plot

like an engine ticking over

suspended for another ploy

opens a zone called ma

an end zone

wide as forever

corpse copse

hunch shouldered

spine snapping

huff huff

while one last wisp of breath

hangs around outside like a

a lab rat’s

white labcoat and will not disperse.


slips down the slip—

[Porphyria moves regally to the top of the dock and begins shuffling down]

Is the night a mind. Is anyone minding plot’s store tonight

the neverland ranch, the petroleum slick, the wastewater pond,

the welcoming ditch, the mouldering skiff, the icebound skip,

 the muddy shoulder, the brain-stained bumper, the closéd club,

the rippéd coat, the black tire iron, the lit-up trunk, the twinny blows,

 the half recline in snow floorshow bodydump.


stands where the jetty slumps

its shoulders like a mouth with its dentures out all

the way down to the frozen waste in the pond. The jetty

is toothless but the night is not. Half the stars are dropping

little blades on Porphyria, to loosen her footing. Yet her feet

are also knives. Sharp as lotuses, broken to this purpose.

The other half don’t care.


stands straighter than she did in life. Not tired. Not alive.

Ripped down jacket furled like a cloak. Feathers stuck in frozen blood.

Her ripped brain crowned in broken plate. Her bowl-eyes

fill just now with a furze of greeny light—

[The King of Hell floats in Stage Left on a cloud of green light]



[In white; waving his hands on fluoride light]

Porphyria. You’ve travelled some way to see me.

You’ve taken a turn, my greening meat.


If that’s a dig about my age you can forget it, King.

The name’s Porphyria, not Ophelia.

I’m not as young as I once was but now

I’ll be this young forever

and since forever’s getting older by the hour,

while I stay the same, you might say

my stock is gonna rise. You might say my odds are

evening. You might say they’ve improved.


[performing a handful of slight miracles]

Dear girl— shall we agree to call you that?—

Your new retinue is quite impressive.

Your regalia of roadside grime and brainy gore.

I like the locks that snake. Smart look.

But see how from swamp gas I produce little crankles of entertainment,

my own staff of gremlins,a gallimaufric crew? And now, by science!,

they make chemical chain

around your veiny ankle, and lock you to this place!

You are mine forever, girl, unless some tastier object comes

rootling after you.


I like this chain of demons, gracing my ankle

below my dolphin tattoo.

Already green, like the cheap jewlery I wore in life.

There are no surprises in hell.

After getting clubbed to death on the way home from the club, I feel

I already know the rules. Tautology’s

a fair deal, a ride on the circle line. I’ve had my ticket punched.

I want to sightline the sky line and the green lady

wielding her torch full of tourists

so like a club

forever. I like it here already. Where do I sign?


Uhm, that’s not how it works. You have to play for time,

beg for your life, answer some riddles, offer a ransom,

and attempt to be on your way, up to the bus station with your duffel bag.


O games! We’re both too old for that, King.

I’ve been evicted from my life into this trailer park

and I’m ready to make do.  I like Hell.

The heat is up, the gas supply is endless, and the rent

is never due.  But, procedures is procedures and rules is rules.

If you need answers for your intake from, fire away.


Very well. [rubbing hands together.] Question 1:

Which is brighter, the full moon or the cock’s crow?


The cock was never very bright.

He’d crow at a lantern if you raised it in the night.

But once upon a time, a clever robber could hide jewels

in the goose’s gullet, slice the bird

to set the rubies free. Rubies, emeralds, ropes of pearls

sliding from its slit belly. So the answer is the goose.


What goose? The question was moon or cock?


The answer’s goose. Honk honk.




As a goose’s entrails! What do I have to lose?

Question two!


Question two. Where does the shadow stow his pack at noon?


He stands on it.

Like his girlfriend’s back,

or like a stile! You know, on a rotary dial!

But what’s in the pack is a better question:

time, consequence, nothing but bad news.

Better to be suspended in that siesta forevah

than endure time’s liveblog—life.


Alright, Porphyria, you’ve answered two and now—


And now I’ve got a question for you!


What’s this? This is quite irregular! I’m king of Hell! And you’re

Persephone- uh, Eurydice—uh, Porphyria—


Oh King! You’ve got a lot more wrong than my name!

Question three is: What makes you think I want to flee?


Everyone wants to flee me. I’m King of Hell.


Not me. On earth, I was exhausted.

By the morning, by the evening, and by midnight: tired out.

But here, I’m fired up! I have no desire to leave!

I’m looking good! I’m taller, I’ve grown natural,

horned stilettos on my feet, my makeup’s

grinded from blood diamonds and never in need

of reapplication, and my hair’s bright black as lit rags.

I’m smokin, I’m a van on fire!

My signal’s gathering strength!

The only thing that needs changing is the management, wink wink.




THEEEE! But don’t weep, King.

I hear there’s an opening for the hatcheck girl at the club called Nectarine!

[She seizes him, shoves him up the slippery slip from which she came, hops onto his hovering green cloudcraft, and pulls away from the bank. Exit PORPHYRIA.]


Wait, wait, come back here!

Everyone knows the devil can’t swim!

Or work a dayjob, or a nightjob!

I’m srictly managerial material!

What, to clamber up this bank and clump back to town

on these two split hoofs? Oh I can’t do it!

I’ll perish! Oh, I can’t perish I never lived!

O rue! O bile! O enmity! I refuse to live—

Ah what a pickle! What a circus! What a clutch of bacterium

rutting in a dented can of baked beans! Oh ballpark franks! Ah fate!

Curse goose and shadow too! Whoever wrote me those riddles is

permanently demoted to—demoted to—-

(stamps feet until embarrassed of the gesture.

smoothed his combover. huffs. straitens jacket).

You’ve outsmarted me, Porphyria. But remember,

I myself am Hell. I carry hell with me wherever I go.

I’m one hell of an elegant man. Earth’s not nowhere!

It’s a whole new pool of suckerfish where I can ply my tricks

dribble my snake oil

and peddle my blow. And when I’ve grown a ready army of souls

for the taking—for the undertaking—

I’ll be back to blow the doors off your two bit trailer park

of an Underworld

and take my kingdom back!



The devil turns his back and begins with slow, uncertain steps, to clamber up the bank to the shoulder of the access road and starts the slow walk into town. As he walks, the cloven hoofs at his ankles suddenly lift and take the form of cheap stilettos. His tail rises, widens and wraps around his torso, becomes a nylon bomber jacket with a fake fur collar. He is wearing nylons and a miniskirt. He hunches his shoulders in the cold. And as he does, the white rime that hung all about the scene, which was the trace of Porphyria’s last breath, rises about his head and ties itself into a crown of blond and dirty hair.


That was just like Lycidas.

He’s quite reduced but he’ll press on like a press-on nail at the petting zoo, broken off in a feed bin, gobbled up, and currently making its way through some ungulate’s gut. He shall emerge as a glittering spore, tearing a gash in the fundament as he does

Of the hippo or  rhino or aardvark or tapir or warthog or peccary or musk deer or roe deer or elk or giraffe or muntjac or alpaca or impala or gazelle or dik dik or antelope or kudu or bison or barbary sheep or reebuck or reedbuck or oryx or kob.

That’s allegory, poor ungulate. It cannot be survived but must be endured. It takes so much pain and bloodloss to exit the plot.

[wailing] Porphyria!

[unnaturally composed] The End.



On A.A. Torrealba and Joyelle McSweeney

Editor’s Note

Translation is a Faustian bargain. You give up the ungivable to satisfy your heart’s desires: banished be the lack of money, unrequited love; or maybe a spell with the dreaded block in those nights when the writing does not yield, you’re one blink away from plagiarism: damned be the unyielding words and foreign languages. How opportune that blocks were used to separate thieves from their hands in olden times. Faust knew this because he was a translator who suffered over his version of the New Testament. His obsession was to find the *right* way to say In the beginning was the Word. To him this translation was clearly incorrect, and one can see his logic: if the Word is the beginning, what is the translator? A violator? A liar? A thief? For if the Word is so essential to being, how can the translator even think of altering, uprooting, challenging the Original? You could go to hell for far less.

But the original is unfaithful to the translation, said Borges, that old devil. And McSweeney proceeds to shred through Torrealba’s Venezuelan llanos with her rendering of The Pact and The Duel, thus also altering the landscape of the dark suburban living rooms, the Appalachian trails, the sleepy Andean churches, Southern crossroads, bowling alleys, Medieval German villages, beauty parlors, Irish mountain passes, academic cubicles, Assyrian orgies, Red Lobsters in the deep blue sea and any other place where such mythical showdowns have been known to occur. In the tradition of the Atlantean Poet, McSweeney is unfaithful. She switches genres and sinks the text into its own drama. She invades the space and not its depiction. She steals the frame and tears the canvas. She takes over the essence and goes for the Origin of the tale, her Origin, the real Word. She goes for the jugular because what we proposed to her -by giving her a mid Twentieth Century Venezuelan poet, a national treasure who said that  *a great poet is the voice of the collective*; who held political power and reigned at the center of our art circles at the time, taking unto himself the task of retelling the vernacular version of the Faustian saga in so many pages of Venezuelan folk poetry, in Spanish-  all  this was indeed a showdown, a bilingual monster duel.


McSweeney gives Atlantean Poets this impudent purple mess of a girl who belongs more in the underworld than the Evil one and claims it for herself with so much sass, her spike heels puncturing the searing slush. You have the second sight now, Porphyria, you have a second shot. You mean like a translator, Narrator? Meanwhile, the King is fixated on keeping his domain under control while lying on the burning Lake, thunder-struck and astonisht ; she, in turn, is fixing to stay forevah. This battle of wits is clearly unfair and fixed: how can a King hold his own in the face of such barefaced girlhood? If he were a mirror he would shatter. It´s unfair. It´s malefic. It´s the fairest malefice of them all.

One remembers the mile-long glittering braids of ­­­Gretchen spreading like snakes on the ground as she crumbles near the end of Murnau’s Faust, and how her hapless lover curses the youth he received in his bargain. It all ends in such a mess that one just swallows the cautionary tale thing like a spoonful of bat liver oil. It makes every traduttore-traditore choke and think of the way some writers seem to curse their own writing  - thou shall be untranslatable!  And like the Goethean silent screen couple, translators curse their own children by cautiously expecting the worst, which is silence. They live with it. They even grow to relish it, thankless task and all. In the end, the silence is broken and the task is done either though a pact with invisible forces or by a showdown between original and translation, mediated by the traditions and circumstances that define the mission. But who will win? Who will survive the duel? Who will prevail? Between Florentino and the Devil, Porphyria and the King, who is the best poet? Is there a winner?

Who knows? In the Beginning was the Deed. Whatever the outcome, in this Twenty First Century face off, our money is on Joyelle.


Alberto Arvelo Torrealba  (1905-1971) was a Venezuelan poet, essayist, lawyer and politician. He was Embassador and Cabinet Minister, and a member of the Language Academy. His works include Música de cuatro (1928), Cantas (1932), Glosas al cancionero (1940), Florentino y el Diablo (1940/1957) y Caminos que andan (1952), where he incorporated Venezuelan folklore and oral traditions in epic recreations. He received the National Literature Prize in 1966.