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Solitudes & Other Early Poems by Antonio Machado trans. Michael Smith & Luis Ingelmo (Shearsman Books)

Solitudes & Other Early Poems by Antonio Machado trans. Michael Smith & Luis Ingelmo (Shearsman Books)

In 1983 Charles Tomlinson published his Translations, a selection of poems which he had worked on with Henry Gifford from the University of Bristol. At the end of the introduction he asserted that the freedoms he had taken with the originals had been ‘to ensure a living result’. The selection includes some pieces from Antonio Machado, the Spanish poet whose life and work ranged over the turn of the nineteenth century up until the time of the Spanish Civil War. In the excellent Foreword to this fine new Shearsman publication of Machado’s early work the translators, Michael Smith and Luis Ingelmo, give us a clear picture of this great poet:

‘In the ’20s and ’30s Machado spent his time schoolmastering in provincial towns, travelling round Spain and writing his poems. By the time the Civil War took place, his reputation was made. That catastrophe, however, put an end to more than Machado’s poetry; it also killed him. Machado, along with the majority of Spanish intellectuals, supported the Republic and the new Spain it was hopefully and painfully ushering in; and he stayed in Spain to the bitter end, despite an offer from England of a lucrative position as a teacher of Spanish literature. At the fall of Madrid, Antonio, with his mother, his youngest brother José and José’s family, made his way in the most appalling circumstances and with thousands of other starving and destitute refugees, to the small French border town of Collioure.’

Tomlinson’s introduction had mapped out a path for the reader of poetry-in- translation in which each poem ‘starts from a given ground’ and ‘carries the reader to an unforeseen vantage-point, whence he views differently the landscape over which he has passed’. The landscape of Machado is one of fountains, roads, pine groves, poplars, light and shadow, sounds of water, deserted town squares and paths which, as pointed out by the translators of this new edition, lead ‘into that spiritual order where the soul enjoys its own profound and redemptive freedom.’

Emotion for Machado is placed within the context of objects in a landscape such as with poem XXXI:

‘The moss grows in the shady
square and on the church’s old
and holy stone. In the porch, a beggar…
His soul is older than the church.

In the cold mornings he climbs very slowly
along the marble steps
till he reaches a stone nook…There his withered
hand appears within the folds of his cloak.

With the hollow sockets of his eyes
he has seen how, on clear days,
the white shadows pass,
the white shadows of holy hours.’

When Tomlinson translated a little of Machado’s work he was tempted to move the lines into the structure of William Carlos William’s three-ply step forward and I can see how this might work with the Spanish poet’s emphasis upon objects and the emotions which can burst from within things. But these new translations by Smith and Ingelmo keep more closely to the structure of the original language and capture a frieze-like intensity in which movement and stasis are held as in a block of stone. The ‘white shadows’ that pass are themselves a shade of passing time as ‘cold mornings’ move to ‘marble steps’ to conclude in a ‘stone nook’ which is itself translated into the ‘hollow sockets of his eyes.’

These new translations are monumental and hard-edged, delicate and moving, conveying Machado’s intent on ‘discovering and appreciating that mysterious transcendence which gives life its depth and meaning.’

Ian Brinton 25th January 2015

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