Translated from Spanish by Thomas Christensen
(Archipelago Press, 2013)
Those of us who still read poetry are aware of the great Spanish poets who flourished in the early part of the 20th century: Juan Ramón Jiménez (Nobel Prize, 1956), Antonio Machado, Miguel Hernández, the great Federico García Lorca, and the rest of that extraordinary group known as the Generation of ’27. The Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) put an abrupt end to the Renaissance of Spanish letters that occurred during the period of the Second Spanish Republic (1931 – 1936). During the war and the subsequent regime imposed by Francisco Franco, many poets were murdered, imprisoned, or exiled. Those who remained in Spain were forced to live a precarious life, subject to the censor’s pen and the regime’s wrath. Vicente Aleixandre (Nobel Prize, 1977), to name one example, remained in Madrid after the end of the war but was not allowed to publish for many years. Spanish poetry didn’t quite go underground. Let’s say that it stayed very close to it. Gone were the heady days when poets such as Pedro Salinas, Jorge Guillén, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, and José María Hinojosa gathered under the twin banners of surrealism and modernism to write poetry that embraced the great esthetic and social movements of early 20th century Europe. As the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla said, “dictators and poets are natural enemies.” Once Generalissimo Franco set himself up as dictator, the poets had little choice but to turn inward and quietly explore the psychological and emotional landscapes they encountered.
Among the postwar Spanish poets, arguably the most notable was José ángel Valente, 1929 – 2000, a selection of whose poems has been published this year by Archipelago Press in a handsome bilingual edition titled Landscape with Yellow Birds. Taking his inspiration from the philosophies of the East and the mysticism of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, Valente’s poems move in subtle but engaging ways:
A single word from you breaks
blind solitude to bits.
If you bring your inexhaustible mouth
to mine, I endlessly drink
the roots of my own existence.
(“Be My Limit”)
There are similarities with the work of Octavio Paz and other Spanish-language poets who absorbed Eastern philosophy into their work. Their medium is silence, their method is clarity. Valente bears witness but doesn’t bear grudges. The rhetorical excess of the poets of the Generation of ’27 has all but disappeared:
When there is nothing left for us,
the emptiness of what does not remain
could be finally useless and perfect.
His is a furtive poetry, struggling to exist in the interstices between the restrictions of a totalitarian regime and the urge to speak, to bear witness, no matter how obliquely. That struggle eventually caught up with him. Valente went into voluntary exile after his father fell out of favor with Franco. In 1972, the poet was tried and condemned in absentia for writing articles against the regime. He remained in exile until 1986, well after the death of Franco, when he returned to live permanently in Spain. Surprisingly free of politics, Valente’s poems are intensely personal but never confessional. His major preoccupations are love and death. He is capable of wonderful love lyrics, as good as Pablo Neruda’s but not as self-centered: “I want only to lie on your body / like a lizard drawn to the sun in days of sadness.” (“Latitude”) He can also write eloquent poems about death, many of them written after the passing of his son, where the poet gives vent to his grief. In a prose poem from the series titled The Singer Does Not Awaken, he says:
The center is a mirror where I seek my face but cannot find it. Is that why you have come here? Who were you meeting? The center is like a circle, like a carousel of painted horses. Among the green and yellow manes, the wind blows away your childhood. –Stop it, you say. Nobody can hear you. Music and flags. The center has been deleted. It was here, where you were.
As a translator myself, I have quibbles with some of Thomas Christensen’s English choices. In the excerpt above, for example, Valente has used the participle borrado, which literally means “erased,” but Christensen’s use of the word “deleted” seems arbitrary. On the whole, however, I find his versions readable and engaging. It is to the translator’s credit that he has been able to render Valente’s work faithfully without losing its resonance across language and culture. Kudos, too, to Archipelago Books for adding Landscape with Yellow Birds to an already impressive list of works in translation.
PABLO MEDINA is a novelist and poet. His most recent novel Cubop City Blues has just been published in paperback by Grove Press. He teaches at Emerson College in Boston.