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).

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