Friday, July 30, 2010

Translation of poem by Antonia Pozzi

If this is it (Così sia)

Since I too have fallen,
at a doorstep —

like a pilgrim
who has used up bread, water,
and sandals,
whose vision is dim
and whose breath burns,
life’s edge
and the street would have her
laid flat out there —
dead there,
before she could touch
a stone of the Sepulchre —

since I too have fallen,
and am nailed here
to this street
as to the cross —

oh, won’t You grant me
this evening
from the depths of Your
nocturnal immensity —
as to the corpse of a pilgrim —
the mercy
of stars.

April 9, 1933

for Lawrence

translation by Nick Benson

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Miguel Hernández (1910-1942)

A version of this text was delivered as the intro for the evening of songs by Pedro Avila y Los Tres Galanes, based on the poems of Miguel Hernández, at the Stone Church in New Preston last Sunday. Thanks to Pedro for asking me to contribute something to a powerful evening of song. - NB

Typically poets are thought of as having hyperactive imaginations. They’re thought of as flighty and emotional, given to wild associations and uncanny leaps of faith. But the facts of Miguel Hernández’s life might have that effect on you. He was a farmboy, a goatherd, a pastor who wrote pastorals; he was educated by Jesuits and as Catholic as expected in his rural corner of Spain, Orihuela in the province of Alicante, and one of his early works was a religious ‘mystery’ or ‘miracle play’; but his father gave him beatings for neglecting the flock, and at the age of fourteen he left school and became largely self-educated. He fell in love with Josefina, who happened to be the daughter of an officer in the local Guardia Civil, the force of Catholic order and conservatism that would become the Fascist guard under Franco. Miguel would come to the Guardia compound wall and whistle as he would to the goats and shepherd dogs so that she’d know he was out there, waiting for her. Later Miguel impressed Neruda with his imitation of the nightingale’s song, which he delivered from the treetops so Neruda would get the full effect. By some miracle, Josefina’s father allowed their love to go on. When the father was killed by Republicans in August 1936, Miguel, who was by then a staunch Republican, nevertheless did what he could to help support the family. The couple were married in March 1937, eight months into the Civil War. Their honeymoon lasted one day.

How did Miguel Hernández support himself and his family? He wrote entries on famous bullfighters for the encyclopedia Los Toros at the publishing house of a friend, who would later try to protect him from persecution by the Fascists. By the time he was twenty-five, Hernández had made his way to Madrid and after some struggle to establish himself there, he became great friends with Vicente Aleixandre, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, who was the Chilean consul at the time, and numerous other writers. Hernández’s writing and his views on society changed dramatically because of his exposure to the city, the urban working class, and the socially committed poetry of Neruda. “I am tired of so much pure and minor art,” Hernández wrote, as he turned away from the intricacies and inwardness of traditional verse toward ‘impure’ forms, surrealism and song. When Neruda won his friend the favor of a potential appointment by the government of Spain, Hernández could think of only one post that would suit him: he asked to be put in charge of a herd of goats.

In January of 1936 Hernández was arrested for no reason while on a stroll in the outskirts of Madrid. Evidently his statement that he was there just ‘for pleasure’ was provocative enough for the Guardia Civil to beat him severely and it was only due to the intervention of Neruda, still the Chilean consul, that Hernández did not spend a length of time in prison. The incident thrust Hernández to the forefront of the Left, and by July 1936, when the Civil War broke out, he had become a prominent figure; after the assassination of Federico Garcia Lorca in August 1936, Hernández joined the Republican army, where he would become ‘commissar of culture.‘ Hernández wrote songs of and for the defenders of the Republic, the Loyalists, the laborers in country and city alike pitted against the Fascist alliance of Church and capital. In his book from 1936, The Unending Lightning, Hernández wrote:

I call myself Clay though Miguel is my name.
Clay is my profession and my destiny
whose tongue stains as long as it licks at time
Tired of yielding to the whirling
knives of the wagon and the hoof,
from clay beware a spawn of avenging
beasts with corrosive skin and claws.

Beware for clay renews itself almost instantly,
beware lest it grow and rise and cover
softly, softly and jealously
your slender ankle, my torment of woe
Beware lest it raise a hurricane
in the mild territory of winter
and explode and thunder and rain
upon your blood harshly tender.

(trans. Geoffrey Holiday; 68-69. All page references are to Ted Genoways, ed. The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández. Chicago: The U. of Chicago P., 2001).

By 1937 Hernández was famous around the world for the poems of his Viento del pueblo - Wind of the people - which was first published in the pages of El mono azul, The Blue Overall, named after the work clothes of the campesino loyalists, a publication of the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals. In June 1937 he helped to organize the Second International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers, attended by Auden, Neruda, Cowley, Malraux, Spender, Vallejo, Octavio Paz, and many others. William Carlos Williams translated his poetry. Meanwhile, Hernández was spending his time in the trenches, reciting his poetry and boosting the morale of his comrades. He barely saw his son, his firstborn, Miguelin, who died in October 1938 of a disorder caused by malnutrition. In March 1939, the Civil War was officially over. Josefina had given birth to a second son, Manolo, but Hernández’s time with his family was brief; after a failed attempt to escape Franco’s Spain through Portugal and a brutal internment in prison, from which he was saved by the intervention of a sympathetic Cardinal Neruda had contacted in France, Hernández again returned to his native Orihuela, against his friends’ advice. It was mid-September 1939. By the end of the month, he was arrested again. From prison, Hernández wrote to his wife:

“The thin-fingered ones will never forgive me for having placed my poetry, all the intelligence I have, and my unselfish heart - two things of course bigger than all of them put together - in the service of the people in a straightforward and open way. They’d prefer me to be an ordinary coward. They haven’t succeeded in that yet, and they won’t. My son is going to inherit from his father not money, but honor. But not the ‘honor‘ gained by lying and playing along with these worst types disguised as the best” (274).

Hernández was appointed a lawyer who was only made aware of the charges the day before his trial. He was formally charged with treason and condemned to death, later commuted to thirty years’ imprisonment, just as fatal due to the harsh conditions of the prison and obstructions to getting medical attention. The official description of his case reads as follows: “Miguel Hernández, condemned to death. Crime: Poet and soldier of the mother country. Aggravating, intelligentsia. Death to the intelligentsia” (275).

Hernández refused to sign a ‘confession’ in exchange for permission to go into exile. After three miserable years of being transferred from prison to prison, and after suffering from bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis, Hernández died of tuberculosis, on March 28, 1942. From his prison poems, here is one you’ll hear tonight, ‘El sol, la rosa, y el niño’:

The sun, the rose, and the child
were born day-flowers.
Every day things are new
suns, new flowers, children.

Tomorrow I’ll no longer be:
someone else will be real.
And I won’t exist beyond
whoever desires the memory.

A day-flower is biggest
at the foot of what is smallest.
Flower of light the lightning,
flower of time the moment.

Among the flowers you went away.
Among the flowers I lag behind.

(trans. Edwin Honig; 289)

This year, the centenary of his birth, the Spanish government will rehabilitate the poet’s memory and officially annul the original death sentence.

Tonight you’ll hear songs that tell of the Spanish people’s struggle to arrive beyond partisanship, to realize the freedom expressed in Para la libertad: “Thinking of freedom I break loose in battle/from those who have rolled her statue through the mud./And I break loose from my feet, from my arms,/from my house, from everything.//Because where some empty eye-pits dawn,/she will place two stones that see into the future,/and cause new arms and new legs to grow/in the lopped flesh.//Bits of my body I lose in every wound/will sprout once more, sap-filled, autumnless wings./Because I am like the lopped tree, and I sprout again:/because I still have my life” (trans. James Wright; 237).

Friday, July 16, 2010

Ghalib: apostrophe and translations by John and Tom Alter


Whose passion for writing

implores? The painting dresses in paper.

Loneliness is painful.

Night: a river of milk.

Passion: untamed power.

Sharp, lethal, the sword pierces its own heart.

Understanding: a net.

Truth is an uncaught bird.

In prison, Ghalib, feet

braceleted with fire –Chains: braids of fine flame.


Fate: separation from

the Beloved forever.

Survival is an untrue promise. Truth

would kill me happily.

Frail as the wrists of my beloved, her

promise—easily broken, torn apart.

Half-hearted your arrow

has pierced my heart. Straightforward, there would be no pain.

My friends replace friendship

with lectures. My sorrow: gossip.

If your sorrow had truly burned,

stones would bleed endless blood.

If sorrow destroys life

love’s sorrow destroys hope.

Love’s insomnia is

torture. Forbidden, the solace of dreams.

Last night I drowned the sea.

Grave and funeral: never, nothing.

Neither my funeral would have been, nor my grave would there be!

Who can gaze upon the beloved? There is one, only one –

If there were even a scent of another, then so many would appear

Oh, Ghalib! Your allegories, your wisdom, the wonder of your speech!

We would consider you most holy – if only you did not drink!

Ek ek qatra

Of each drop I had to give an account –

The blood of my heart and my beloved’s tears are one

Now there is only I, and the mourning of a lost city of desires –

For you have broken that mirror which held the wonder of your beauty

Drag my dead body through the winding streets,

For I always gave my life to the wandering ways of the wind

Oh, do not ask of each mirage’s wave on the desert of faithfulness –

Every grain of sand, like jewels on a sword, shimmers and glimmers

So little I also knew of love’s sorrows, but now,

Having known them, they have lessened, but not the sorrows of life –

Na tha kuch

When there was nothing, there was god –

If nothing had happened, god would have been

I have drowned only because I was –

If I had not happened, than what would have happened?

In sorrow my head had become lifeless, so now what sorrow if I am beheaded?

Even if not cut off from my body, it lay dead upon my knee –

Ghalib left us so long, long ago – but yet we remember –

His special way of saying – “if this had happened, than what would have happened!”

Daim para hua

I am not going to prostrate myself at your doorstep forever –

To hell with such a life, I am not some god-forsaken stone

Why should my heart not quake before eternity’s endless turning?

I am a mere man – not some goblet filled with wine!

Oh, god! Why does the world wish to erase me forever?

I am not the letters of fate inscribed upon the tablet of life!

There should be a limit to the punishment given out for sinning!

After all, I am only a sinner, not an infidel!

Why was I never considered precious?

Because I am not a gem, nor pearl, nor gold, nor diamond?

Why do you walk so sadly before my eyes?

I am not less than any sun, any moon!

Why do you refuse to kiss my feet?

Am I any less than the very sky?

Ghalib, you are a mere pensioner, give prayers for the king –

Long gone are those days when you proclaimed – “I am nobody’s servant!”


Oh, my innocent heart, what is tormenting you?

Is there any cure for this relentless pain?

We are waiting, pining – and the beloved is so restless!

Oh, lord, what a strange, strange tale this is!

Even I have a tongue in my humble mouth –

Ah! if only you would ask, “what do you wish to say?”

If without you – except for you -- nobody can be present –

Then, oh god – why this commotion, why all these people?

How are there these angelic ones here?

Such delicate, such fine manners – what are they?

Why the thread so true in a lock of amber hair?

What is the look from her kohl-darkened eye?

From where have the plants and the flowers come?

What is a cloud? What is the wind?

We long for faithfulness from the beloved –

Who does not even know what faithfulness is!

“Yes! Do good unto others, and good will be done unto you!”

What else is the meaning of the dervish’s cry?

I have sacrificed my life for you –

Before this, what is prayer?

I have learned that if nothing, Ghalib –

Comes to hand free, than what is wrong?

Rahiye ab aisi jagah chalkar –

Go and live – now—all alone – in that place where no one else lives –

No one to speak with, no one to understand your words –

A house with no door, no walls – ah!

No companion, no watchman – nobody –

If you fall ill, no one will enquire after your health –

And if you die, no one will mourn your going –

Hazaaron khwahishien aiseen

Thousands of desires, and for each one I would give my life –

So much that I desired did happen, and – yet – I desire so much more.

Why is my murderer frightened? No blame will come upon him --

For taking my blood, which, drop by drop, has fallen forever from my weeping eyes –

We always heard about Adam leaving paradise – but –

With what shame did I leave the gully in which you live

The secret of your great height will be revealed, you devil –

If all the twistings and turnings of your twisting and turning hair should unravel

If someone wants to have a letter written to the beloved, than ask me –

Every morning I leave the house with a pen nestled behind my ear

I am the one whose name stands for true drinking in today’s age –

One again, the era has returned when the ‘elixir of life’ can be enjoyed!

The person from whom I expected praise for my poverty –

He has become even more impoverished by the sword of injustice

In love, there is no difference between living and dying –

I live only to see the beloved, for whom I am willing to die

Where the door of the tavern, ghalib, and where the holy man?

But one thing is for sure – yesterday, as I was leaving, he was entering!

Koi din gar zindagi aur hai –

If life goes on much longer, I have something quite different in mind –

The fires of hell are not nearly so hot – the heat of sorrow is truly unbearable.

I have seen, so many times, their worries and woes – but, this time, the sorrow is so much deeper –

The messenger waits so eagerly, having delivered the letter – a message spoken is always so much more beautiful –

The stars in the heavens are always so final in their judgment – that heavenly curse is not of this world –

All the travails of this world are over, Ghalib –

Only the suddenness of death remains --

Many thanks to John and Tom Alter for sharing with us their translations from the Urdu of poet Mirza Ghalib(1797-1869).

Friday, July 2, 2010

Translation of poem by Antonia Pozzi


Words – glass

that unfaithfully

reflects my sky –

I thought of you

after sunset

in a darkened street

when a pane fell to the stones

and its fragments at length

spread shattered light —

[Translation by Nick Benson, from Antonia Pozzi, Parole. Milano: Garzanti, 1989, p. 146. Other translations from the poetry of Antonia Pozzi appear here.]