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Category Archives: Spanish Poetry

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

John Berger’s fictional account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean, Dr Sassall in A Fortunate Man, presents the reader with that reality pointed to by Charles Tomlinson in his poem ‘A Meditation on John Constable’:

“…The artist lies
For the improvement of truth.”

Berger’s country doctor “exaggerates when he tells stories about himself. In these stories he is nearly always in an absurd position: trying to take a film on deck when the waves break over him; getting lost in a city he doesn’t know; letting a pneumatic drill run away with him. He stresses the disenchantment and deliberately makes himself a comic little man. Disguised in this way and forearmed against disappointment, he can then re-approach reality once more with the entirely un-comic purposes of mastering it, of understanding further.” Anna Crowe’s Preface to her convincing translations of the contemporary Mallorcan poet Aguiló highlights some similar ideas concerning the imagination of this tale-weaving poet:

“Already there is a sense that the reader may expect the unexpected. Reading these poems, what is striking is the power of the imagination at work, and the multiplicity of voices that speak through the poems. The power of the imagination might be said to be the underlying argument or leitmotif of Aguiló’s poetry.”

Aguiló creates worlds which can be visited secretly and we can begin “to search for the truth / by finding where the ink is hidden that tattoos us / in the world”. This is a poetry of doors and as they open, one by one, they invite the reader into the next stanza:

“The first stanza is the one that welcomes
you and drags you inside,
grabbing you by the arm and frowning at you;
the one that speaks to you with warmth and trust
while it makes you sit down in the armchair of the second stanza.”

These are magical poems which create a magical world of Mallorca in which “green and yellow words”, written by a botanical god, can be deciphered “every day on the pages of / the thicket of writing”.
This is a Mallorca known to the Americans of the 1950s from which Robert Creeley published his Divers Press books and Black Mountain Review and from which Robert Duncan could write to Denise Levertov in June 1955 about “the desire to have imagination freed again”. This is a world which exists with a perception of exact detail and an understanding that ouvertures are created through which we see another world:

“You had to walk stealthily. Every footstep echoed,
disturbing emptiness and time. The smells of food
from the kitchen did not reach this high and I scrabbled
among lumber and old clothes, savouring the smells
of chicken bran and the dung and damp walls
of this corner of Santanyí and bad Mallorcan cement.”

The importance of Tomlinson’s assertion about imagination and truth informs this whole collection and the emphasis noted in Anna Crowe’s introduction stands sentinel to a landscape which invites further exploration:

“There is a sense of a poet pushing the boundaries of the possible further and further out, of exploring what it means to live on the edge of whatever world he has invented, as well as, at the same time, going further and further in, exploring what it means to be human.”

Ian Brinton 23rd January 2017

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A Quick Note on César Vallejo

A Quick Note on César Vallejo

Selected Writings of César Vallejo, ed. Joseph Mulligan, various trans. (Wesleyan University Press, 2015) is a badly formulated publication, in contrast, for example, to the same publisher’s magnificent handling of Victor Segalen’s Stèles (2007). It has to be said that it is not infrequent that seemingly all-embracing selected volumes make uncomfortable reading. The Selected Poetry and Prose of Andrea Zanzotto (University of Chicago Press, 2007) is another case in point. This is not to say that one should not buy this Vallejo. Probably one should because some eighty percent of its contents have never been translated into English before. The problem is that the wonderful wealth of decently translated and annotated prose, extracted from a great deal more: articles, chronicles, stories, plays, letters, has, interspersed among it, selections from Vallejo’s poetry, some in previously published translations, all anyway previously translated many times. This makes for irritating intrusion, not the helpful context the editor or publisher presumably intended. And that space could have been taken up with more of the prose. Two other points, just for example. Firstly, the earliest Vallejo prose includes quotations from poems by two other poets, which are not translated. Why? This book is offered as a translation. Doubtless many of its readers will be unable to read Spanish well or at all. So why is it assumed that these quotations do not also need to be translated? Secondly, that part of the bibliography, while described as selected, devoted to “Works by Vallejo in English Translation”, is nevertheless grossly negligent in important omissions, including Shearsman’s The Complete Poems, Allardyce Book’s The Black Heralds, and others.

Anthony Barnett 15th July 2015

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

Panic Cure, Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century

Panic Cure, Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century

Edited and translated by Forrest Gander (Shearsman Books 2014).

On Monday 24th March I attended the book launch of this terrific collection; it was held in the Auditorio del Instituto Cervantes de Londres and two of the poets, Pilar Fraile Amador and Esther Ramón read in Spanish from the volume. They were accompanied by Forrest Gander who read from his translations.

 

Well, when it was suggested that ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’ Mr Eliot was absolutely spot on the mark. I don’t know very much Spanish: I was deeply moved. The readings communicated an urgency that mattered and I was quite spell-bound.

 

The book itself contains poems by ten contemporary poets and it is prefaced by a fine introduction written by Daniel Aguirre-Orteiza of Harvard University. As he says about this selection: it ‘justifies itself by its peculiar foreignness’ and its guiding principle is the translator’s ‘understanding of innovation, as defined by his acute ear as an American translator who seeks out the restless, inquiring voices now proliferating that unbounded linguistic space many Mexican and US poets are creating as we speak’.

 

From Hedge by Amador:

 

a shadow lingers behind the door. sour as those lemons we drip with

honey to eat.

we are a lump growling under the sheets. soaked purple. the source of

our pain unclear.

 

From Cattle by Ramón:

 

In the horse dump everything’s ready for rendering.

 

They flicked on the emergency lights and no one knew if they were

running to get there or to get away.

 

Ian Brinton 29th March 2014

 

 

 

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