Natural History by José Watanabe


Translated by Michelle Har Kim
Illustrated by Eduardo Tokeshi

A contribution to ongoing cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary conversations about language, nature, and Asian migration across the Americas, this dual-language edition of Natural History by the Peruvian poet José Watanabe is finally available in both Spanish and English for the first time.



If “la vida es física,” then it deserves physics, not what comes after; it needs the thing that sees things through experiment, so things don’t get too clear and imprecise. Experiment is “an encounter/of forces” so we can see how things go together as they come and go and say a prayer. The physical prayer recounts our findings of the uncountable things we lose: the prodigious lizard, the bicycle for cruising, all the things we are and never have. Natural History preternaturally describes this miracle, which sings to itself and sees through itself. José Watanabe (and Eduardo Tokeshi and Michelle Har Kim, who keep Watanabe such beautifully illustrative and translative company) is come out—now, here, in this tongue’s share—to show.

 —Fred Moten
Author of the “consent not to be a single being” trilogy (2017, 2018)


A vital force in Peruvian poetry, these poems are menageries and tales synthesized through physics, philosophy, and materialism. Watanabe’s singular gaze is a master lesson in the poetic gaze, and I’m thrilled to see Natural History in English translation, opening up his brilliance to an American audience who will find a poet with kinship to a long tradition of naturalist poetry. Michelle Har Kim has rendered an attentive and precise translation of Watanabe’s ineffably lucid work.  

—Carmen Giménez Smith
Author of Be Recorder (2019) and Editor of Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing (2015)


Translation of poetry always manages to lose something. As Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” This is particularly true when the original text has been written in a vernacular language as rich and colorful as that of José Watanabe. Ms. Kim’s translation however is rigorous and sensitive to the poet’s linguistic and rhythmic peculiarities. She has preserved the cleanness of the poems, creatively remedying the impossibility of translating dialect variants and complex metaphors that are particular to the flexibility of the Spanish language. Nothing sounds artificial in the poems, but rather fluid and genuine. The result is admirable as when, for example, she moves from free verse to metrical verses. The book reveals taste and excellent skills in both languages, and will be a great authority on José Watanabe’s work.

—Carlos Yushimito del Valle
Author of Lessons for a Child who Arrived Late (2017) and Rizoma (2015)


JOSÉ WATANABE (1946–2007) is one of Peru’s most revered contemporary poets. His repertoire of articles, screenplays, anthologies, and children’s books is best known for its seven original volumes of poetry. Watanabe was awarded the Casas de las Américas Prize in 2000 for his anthology El guardian del hielo (The Ice Guardian); he is also remembered for his adaptation of Antígona, which rendered into free verse for the renowned theater troupe El Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani.

Michelle Har Kim lives in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles. She is from Manhattan.