“Books of poetry,” wrote Federico García Lorca to the poet Miguel Hernández in 1933, “catch on very slowly.” The New York Review of Books’ new poetry series, which recently released a selected edition of Hernández’s work, seems designed to make up for this slowness, which might particularly affect work in translation; the series’ scheduled releases include volumes by Alexander Vvedensky, Pierre Reverdy, and classical Tamil poets.
A soldier in the Spanish Civil War, Hernández died in prison at age 31. This new edition includes early pastoral poems and sonnets, later poems written during war (“far less tidy, but vivid, almost nightmarish,” notes translator Don Share in his introduction), and the mournful poems written during Hernández’s post-war imprisonment in thirteen facilities, posthumously published in cancionero y romancero de ausensias (Songs and Ballads of Absence).
Share’s translations are clear and resonant, and though the harrowing inflections of Hernández’s biography might feel inescapable (his first son died, he fought on the losing side of the war, one is aware that this is the work of a young poet), the poems offer more than historical ephemera. In “Lullaby of the Onion,” which Share describes as Hernández’s best known poem, Hernández addresses his second son, who “in hunger’s cradle” has been “nursed / on onion blood.” The poem offers something harder than hope—“Laugh so much / that my soul, hearing you, / will beat in space,” the imprisoned Hernández writes, and one knows that such beating is both ebullient and tortured. Hernández urges his son to “fly away…on the double / moon of the breast,” a palliative escape that won’t spare the son from the world. The poem concludes with a plea for ignorance: “Don’t find out what’s happening, / or what goes on.”
“Keep hunger in mind,” Hernández instructs in an earlier poem, a call to remember that “the abundant years…were only for those who get called boss.” His later poems show the anguish of this continued politicized mindfulness, though, as in “I Move Forward in the Dark,” they also note ways in which the sustaining shade “that surrounds bare life” can “ripen from nothing.”
Lorca’s letter appears among remembrances from Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Rafael Alberti, and others at the end of the volume. Read together, their kaleidoscopic portrait of Hernández resembles the overlapping oral histories in the second section of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, those fictional testimonies that rove through the lives of literay provocateurs Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima as they seek (and themselves become) lost poetic heroes. Belano is a stand-in for Bolaño, of course, and Lima was inspired by Bolaño’s friend, Mario Santiago Papasquiaro (born: José Alfredo Zendejas Pineda, 1953-1998). So, it seems fitting to note that Wave Books, which regularly publishes singular translations, has recently released Santiago’s short book Advice from I Discipline of Marx to I Heidegger Fanatic, originally published in 1975.
And it’s true that the portions of Santiago’s biography included in co-translator Cole Heinowitz’s compact and thorough introduction read like details from Bolaño’s fiction: Santiago left Mexico in disgust with its literati, was “a thief in Paris, a fisherman on the coast of France, a political prisoner in Vienne, an agricultural day laborer in Spain, and a kibubutznik in Israel,” before returning to Mexico City in the 1970s, where he died after he was hit by a car—for the second time—during a hallucinogen-fed amble.
His poetry is similarly wild, displaying the convulsive elucidation that Bolaño details in the manifesto of the artistic movement Santiago founded. “The world gives you itself in fragments,” Santiago’s book begins, going on to showcase the splinters of “the fucking awesome vermilion of the twilight / & the flight of thrushes that for I instant blackens the air / & the spark of life that ruffles your chest hair” through which reverie merges with external landscape.
This merging, as one also sees in some of Santiago’s clear influences (Surrealism, “Howl”), often illuminates depths of tenderness and desire; it’s clear that Santiago’s distress, derangement, and rages extend from a deep faith in poetry and its ability to both inscribe and incite new perceptions:
Poetry: we’re still alive
& you light my cheap cigar with your matches…
We’re still alive
I green-eyed & yellow-winged butterfly
has pinned itself to my jacket’s blue lapel
–my denim body
feels seductive human radar pollen magnet
acquires at times the conviction of I miniature galaxy
singing sheer absurdities between ohs of amazement—
Damn what a moon!
Santiago typographically merges the impersonal pronoun “one” and the indefinite article; this creates the impression that by cataloging particulars, a poem can unify consciousness with the concrete items that reel through it. This unification generates a radical vision of identification:
Of course you’re not the only I
before whom the rusty umbrella of life
doesn’t want to spread its wings
you’re not the only I to whom the world seems
–in moments of pessimism—
I ghetto without bridges or streets
Though some readers will be drawn to this book because of its connection to Bolaño, Santiago’s poem reminds us that poetry doesn’t only demonstrate historical and literary effects but causes original experience, which, if intent enough, will challenge and affront less inspired moments of existence. “Explain that to your occasional lover,” Santiago advises. “Clear it up for yourself // that life is still your poetry workshop.” Let’s hope.
PS You can currently order Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s book as part of Wave Book’s 2013 subscription. You will also receive books by Mary Ruefle, Dara Wier, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Caroline Knox, and many others—a great way to fill your year with poetry. Here and here are a couple of other presses you might consider supporting through a year’s subscription.
This post is the fourth in a series of brief blog-reviews I’ll write this month. Previous posts in the series discuss works by Jena Osman and Yevgeniy Fiks, Kevin Goodan, and Cole Swensen and Hadara Bar-Nadav.