Monday, August 24, 2020

Come and see the blood in the streets - notes on Miguel Hernández, Pablo Neruda, and the poetry of the Spanish Civil War

Months ago, I was reading quite a bit of the literature of the Spanish Civil War, especially the poetry but also George Orwell’s clear-eyed Homage to Catalonia (1938, a good sequel to Joseph Kessel’s 1934 reporting from an abortive start to the war).  Also a single Hemingway story, come to think of it, “Old Man at the Bridge” (1936), a sad little sketch of a refugee.  I guess I should read For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), a famous book.

Mostly poets, though: Rafael Alberti, Pedro Salinas, Vicente Aleixandre, Federico García Lorca (I read his best-known plays, too), and the astounding Miguel Hernández.  Alongside them, Pablo Neruda’s surrealist book, Residence on Earth, which incorporates Spain in Our Hearts (1937).

Neruda was working in the Chilean consulate in Spain during the Civil War, helping poets escape the country, that sort of thing.  In his poetry, he had been working in asurrealist mode during the 1930s, but not surprisingly Spain in Our Hearts is political and direct.  Some titles: “Spain Poor through the Fault of the Rich,” “General Franco in Hell” (some other politicians are also assigned to their infernal spots), “The Victory of the Arms of the People.”  Poems as propaganda, some more than others.

from I Explain a Few Things

You will ask: why does your poetry
not speak to us of sleep, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of your native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!  (tr. Donald Walsh)

I wish I had something to say about Lorca.

Miguel Hernández, he just overwhelmed me.  Years ago, I wrote about Don Share’s translations of his poems, and this time I supplemented that book with the peculiar Selected Poems: Miguel Hernández and Blas de Otero (1972, ed. Timothy Baland and Hardie St. Martin, tr. many hands), peculiar because Hernández and Blas de Otero have nothing to do with each other, so this book is just two separate shorter books under one cover.  I knew nothing about post-Civil War Spanish poets, religious and reactionary compared to the great generation that preceded it, so I was glad to read some of Bras de Otero’s poetry.

But, Hernández.  The book’s section titles are painful enough.  “Poems Written During the Civil War,” “Poems Written in Prison,” “Last Poems before Death” (age 31).  Forget that, how about something from the “Early Poems” section, when Hernández was the “shepherd poet,” self-educated, sponging up five hundred years of Spanish poetry:

Your heart? – it is a frozen orange,
inside it has juniper oil but no light
and a porous look like gold: an outside
promising risks to the man who looks.

My heart is a fiery pomegranate,
its scarlet clustered, and its wax opened,
which could offer you its tender beads
with the stubbornness of a man in love.

Yes, what an experience of sorrow it is
to go to your heart and find a frost
made of primitive and terrifying snow!

A thirsty handkerchief flies through the air
along the shores of my weeping,
hoping that he can drink in my tears.  (tr. Robert Bly)

The Spanish sonnet, of course, is composed of more than imagery but also rhymes and flows and so on.  If only Hernández had been allowed to write more of this kind of sad poem, and fewer about the death of his son from wartime malnutrition.

I meant to write this up for for Stu and Richard’s Spanish Literature Month(s), and now I have.


  1. How nice to see a poetry submission for Spanish Lit Month. While familiar with Lorca and Neruda, of course, I can't remember whether I ever read anything by Hernández. Will have to look into him one day since Machado's the only other poet from that century in Spain that I recall at all.

  2. Hernández by himself justifies working on my Spanish.

    Machado - oh no - what war has been harder on the great poets.

    The Spanish-language poetic talent that crashed into the Civil War is unusual.

    Vallejo would fit in here, too. I'd like to read all of España, aparta de mí este cáliz someday.

  3. see also the recently released

  4. Stu kicked off Spanish Literature Month with that book, which seemed like half-cheating, since it is written in French. Maybe, given Pey's background, one-fifth-cheating.

  5. Thanks for the notes, especially on Hernández. I need to revisit him. As well as unpack the books that made the move, especially on the Spanish Civil War and including Jose Maria Gironella's "The Cypresses Believe in God." I've been meaning to read this, but somehow too many other books get in the way. Now I just need to find which box it's in...

  6. Yes, please, read that Gironella monster and report back.