Friday, July 11, 2014

Don’t let go, don’t find out what’s happening - some poems of Miguel Hernández

The book I will write about now, which might as well be part of Spanish Literature Month, is Miguel Hernández by Miguel Hernández (1910-42), published in 2013 as the first of the NYRB/Poets line.  I feel the title is a mistake, since that should be the title of a book about Miguel Hernández, or else the title of an old-fashioned novel.  This is a book of selected poems by one of the great Spanish of the twentieth century.  One of the many great Spanish poets etc.

Hernández was a rare creature, an actual, in the flesh shepherd poet, not a literary creation but a shepherd who fell in love with poetry and wrote it himself.  The usual literary conceit is that the shepherd poet is naïve and untutored, but Hernández was sophisticated and well-read, in poetry, at least.

Before the war, Hernández was something of a formalist, writing numerous sonnets, for example:

Death, in a Bull’s Pelt

Death, in a bull’s pelt,
full of the holes and horns of its own
undoing, grazes and tramples
a bullfighter’s luminous field.

Volcanic roaring, ferocious snorting
all from a general love for everything born –
Yet the eruptions that flare
kill peaceful ranchers.

Now, ravenous love-starved beast,
you may come graze my heart’s tragic grasses,
if you like its bitter aspects.

Like you, I am tormented by loving so much,
and my heart, dressed in a dead man’s clothes,
winds over it all.

The original lines should rhyme; the translator abandons that.  Supposedly professional book reviewers have so abused the word “luminous” that I distrust it, but I remember being inside the bullfighting ring in Ronda on a sunny day; the metaphor is accurate.  As for the love-starved bull, that is hilarious.

The war jolted him into free verse, and wilder imagery – more death, wounds, and blood.  “And wounds make sounds, just like conch shells,” (from “The Wounded Man”), more like that.

The dates of his birth and death are almost a sufficient biography.  Hernández died in prison of tuberculosis, another victim of Franco.  The third, and longest,  section of the tiny NYRB book is titled “Last Poems from Prison (1939-1941).”  The civil war, in which he fought, turned Hernández’s poems to death:

The Cemetery Lies Near

The cemetery lies near
where you and I are sleeping,
among blue nopals,
blue pitas, and children
who shout at the top of their lungs
if a corpse darkens the street.

From here to the cemetery everything
is blue, golden, clear.
Four steps away, the dead.
Four steps away, the living.

Clear, blue, and golden.
My son grows remote there.

Blue, blue, blue.  During the war Hernández lost a young son to malnutrition.  His most famous poem, “Lullaby of the Onion,” is “dedicated to his son,” his second son, an imprisoned father’s love song in a world of deprivation.  The mother only has bread and onions to eat;  boy is “nursed \ on onion blood”:

Fly away, son, on the double
moon of the breast:
it is saddened by onion,
you are satisfied.
Don’t let go,
don’t find out what’s happening,
or what goes on.

The books in the NYRB series are quite small, as well as short; it turns out all of the other selections of Hernández  in English are similarly short, or shorter.  This translation, by Don Share, seemed good.  Someday I will test it against some of the others.  A University of Chicago edition has facing-page Spanish, so that’s where I will go first.


  1. That last excerpt is heart-breaking. Well, so is the one before it. NYRB seems to be doing a great service in selecting poets for this series.

  2. Indeed, side-by-side editions with original versions and translated versions are so often well worth the extra time and effort. With a good foreign language dictionary at hand, it is an intriguing exercise -- matching wits with the translator. I dabbled a bit in Dante with this method. Will I ever finish Dante this way? Never. But the pleasure of discoveries along the way have been worth the limited journey.

  3. Correction "pleasures" v. "pleasure" in last sentence

  4. I'm going to write up another in the NYRB series, the Vvedensky book, later today. Good stuff.

    RT - absolutely. Very little knowledge of a language is required for a word or line or even an entire poem to really fill out. Much pleasure, indeed.