Tuesday, June 2, 2020

that voice in which the freshness of those days still breathes - more 1930s Spanish poems, from Vicente Aleixandre and Rafael Alberti

A pliable notion of “international surrealism” has helped me read a number of poets from the 1930s, but in Vicente Aleixandre I find the Spanish version of the real thing.  He was – today I would call him a corporate lawyer – who dabbled in poetry.  He fell ill and read the real Surrealists, the French ones, André Breton and that crowd, and their approved precursors like Rimbaud.  Aleixandre did not move to Paris and swear fealty to Breton; he was not a real Surrealist.  But his poetry, his life, permanently changed.

from Lightless

The swordfish, whose weariness arises first of all from its inability to pierce the shadow,
to feel in its flesh the cold unliving blackness of the sea bottom,
where there are no fresh gold seaweeds
illuminated by the sun in the first waters.  (tr. Stephen Kessler)

This one is from the early 1930s.  It is free verse, but coherent in its imagery and mood.  It is concrete but not really about its subject.  Aleixandre’s interests are psychological and interior.  That swordfish is inside the head, maybe in a dream.  In the last line, the unpierced shadow is identified as “where calm slime doesn’t imitate exhausted dreams.”  I don’t want to say I know what each element of the poem means, but I get the feeling.  Mostly.

In the 1950s, Aleixandre’s poems become more straightforward and exterior.  The poems are directly about whatever is in the title: “To My Dog,” “On the Way to School,” “My Grandfather’s Death.”  “On the Death of Miguel Hernández” – so many tributes to Hernández, to Lorca.  The poems are also about other things, but Aleixandre now gives his reader a form place  to begin.

from Who I Write For (from the 1950s)
For the bully and the bullied, the good and the sad, the voice with no substance
and all the substance of the world.

For you, the man with nothing that will turn into a god, who reads these words without desire.

For you and everything alive inside of you,
I write, I write.  (tr. Lewis Hyde)

The book I read is A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems (1979), translated by many hands, a curious and enjoyable feature of that period of publishing.  Robert Bly is always in there somewhere.


Rafael Alberti is more my kind of fun, more playful, more humorous.  I read Mark Strand’s translations, The Owl’s Insomnia (1973).  “Alberti’s poems number in the thousands,” Strand writes (p. ix), and this book contains exactly fifty of them, half from 1929 and 1930, so what do I know about Alberti.  But I enjoyed these.

Thirteen have the word “Angel” in the title, or hidden elsewhere in the poem; the angels seem to represent any number of beings, including schoolchildren:

from The Angel of Numbers

Virgins with rulers
and compasses were watching
the heavenly blackboards.

And the angel of numbers
was thoughtfully flying
from 1 to 2, from 2
to 3, from 3 to 4.

Or perhaps the angel is the personification of grade school education.  It ends the poem “lifeless, shrouded” – how sad.  See also the poem “The Grade School Angels.”

Alberti writes tribute poems not just to Charlie Chaplin (“Charlie’s Sad Date”), but to Buster Keaton (“Buster Keaton Looks in the Woods for his Love Who Is a Real Cow”) , and not just to Keaton but to Harold Lloyd.  Where, I ask, is Fatty Arbuckle?

from Harold Lloyd, Student

The Spring rains over Los Angeles
in that sad hour when the police
are unaware of the suicide of the isosceles triangles,
the melancholy of a Naperian logarithms
and the facial unibusquibusque.

Look, more angels hidden in there, more math.  The three poems about the great comic film actors are all pretty crazy, barely connected to their subjects as far as I can tell, and full of verbal (and numeric) play that give Strand something to do.

There is of course a Lorca tribute (“The Coming Back of an Assassinated Poet”).  There is a tribute to Vicente Aleixandre!

from The Coming Back of Vicente Aleixandre (1958)

Where are you, my friend,
where are you coming from, from what depth
of years do you come to me
this noon so far
from those other noons or those nights
in which I would meet you,
tall, trim, and blond,
as if you were already looking for what would give you
with time that voice in which
the freshness of those days still breathes?


  1. i saw no other comments, so: is there a difference between poetry and just weird associations? some modern poetry just seems like the latter, to me, anyway... of course that might just indicate that my brain isn't where their's was, or is, but even so, if the point of poems is to communicate (maybe it isn't), some of the more erratic ones could be considered rather meaningless... of course nobody ever knows what goes on inside another's head, so maybe that's a justification for writing whatever one wants, haha...

  2. One of the many difficulties of the surrealist-inflected poetry is that the poets are deliberately rejecting rational connections. They are looking for the wild leaps - intuition, the unconscious, dream logic. But how many readers can make the same leaps?

    I am pretty sure they are always trying to communicate something, but 1) with whom? and 2) sometimes they try but fail. They all risk being meaningless.

    It is interesting how little the Spanish poets of this period depend on references. They are hard to understand, but not in the same way that Eliot and Pound are hard.

  3. Rafael Alberti, as a poet, contained multitudes. Some of his poems feel like Wallace Stevens', others feel like William Carlos Williams', Neruda's or even Richard Brautigan's and points in between. I revisited his collected poems thanks to your post AR(T) and it's a lifelong series of delights. It takes a lot of effort to not quote a large number of favorite lines.

  4. Such a pleasure. I will have to try someone else's Alberti sometime. It is not surprising that Mark Strand's Alberti generally sounds more than a little bit like Mark Strand.