By Art Beck
Despite being a 1977 Nobel Laureate, Vicente Aleixandre (1898-1984) remains relatively sparsely translated into English. There are several small selections translated by Willis Barnstone, Stephen Kessler, and others, published in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but these appear mostly out of print.
An exception is a more comprehensive compilation, A Longing for the Light (Copper Canyon, originally published in 1979 and reissued 2007), edited by Lewis Hyde. The translations are by Hyde and a number of others, including Kessler, Barnstone, Robert Bly, and W.S. Merwin. That volume seems especially helpful to Anglophone readers wishing to familiarize themselves with Aleixandre because it seeks to provide a representative sampling of poems from various periods of his life. It might also be argued that the wide range of translators may tend to help Aleixandre’s own voice emerge free of any single translator’s idiosyncratic filter.
Conversely, with the volume at hand, translated by Stephen Kessler, an opposite case might be made that the cohesion of the poems—not a “selection” but an inward-traveling sequence that builds on itself—much benefits from the unobtrusive voice of a single, sensitive translator. Kessler’s approach here is lyrical and metric: the English versions read like poetry, not translatorese. But he also seems to cautiously subordinate himself as he “performs” the Spanish text, forgoing opportunities for glissando and grace notes. All successful poetic translation involves some level of appropriation, but it’s minimal here. Kessler is a respectful burglar.
An example of his restraint might be the line Suena el agua en la piedra. Mientras, quieto, estoy muerto. Kessler renders this simply as, “Water sounds against rock. While quiet, I’m dead.” It’s easy to imagine a translator with the bent of, say, Robert Lowell or Robert Bly unable to resist substituting a more concrete and aural-specific image for “sounds” or juggling the second sentence—“quietly dead,” “dead quiet”? But as will be seen, the thrust of Aleixandre’s sequence is abstract, tentative, subdued. And, I think Kessler’s disciplined restraint appropriately reflects this.
Kessler, for those not familiar with him, is a poet, editor, and noted Spanish language translator who’s won previous Academy of American Poets and Lambda Literary awards for his translations of Luis Cernuda, another Spanish “Generation of ‘27” poet. Kessler was also a late-life correspondent of Aleixandre’s and so seems especially suited to his task here. Poems of Consummation was a finalist for the 2014 Northern California Book Awards.
Scattered papers, flying leaves
Poemas de la Consumación consists of some 45 poems published in 1968 when Aleixandre turned 70. Kessler describes the sequence as “Aleixandre’s intimate, philosophic, densely compressed lyric engagement with old age and the mystery of death. The poems are intense, mostly brief, elemental in their imagery (stone, ocean, wind, fire), and they address, in sometimes gnomic terms, the unknowable—mainly, the paradoxes of memory: the simultaneous absence and presence of remembered love and the lover no longer living. The voice in these poems anticipates its own posthumousness and speaks at times as if … from beyond the grave.”
Kessler’s is an apt characterization. The opening poem, “The Poet’s Words,” begins:
Después de las palabras muertas,
de la aún pronunciadas o dichas,
¿qué esperas? Unas hojas volantes,
más papeles dispersos. ¿Quién sabe? Unas palabras
deshechas, como el eco o la luz que muere allá en gran noche.
After the dead words,
after the ones still said and spoken,
what do you expect? Some flying leaves,
more scattered papers. Who knows? Some dissolving
words, like the light or the echo dying out there in the great night.
This poem (one of the longer pieces in the volume with seven stanzas) is, as the title indicates, a poem that goes on to address poetry, “… something more like light than any skilled sound. / Skilled because poised / in the power of its song on a blank page …”
But for Aleixandre contemplating old age, the continued viability of that song is questionable. There’s a long tradition of poets extolling the permanence of poems. Shakespeare’s sonnet #55, for example: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” Or Horace’s Ode 3:30: “The monument I’ve made for myself will outlast / brass, reaches higher than Egyptian / kings and their pyramids …” (Burton Raffel, tr.)
Rilke takes a somewhat oblique approach as he casts Orpheus as the prototype poet, “Don’t erect monuments of stone. Just let the rose / bloom every spring as his token …” (my translation) But if Rilke eschews stone, he still finds a certain permanence in regeneration, a cycle of life.
Aleixandre leaves himself no such consolation:
Todo es noche profunda.
Morir es olvidar palabras, resortes, vidrio, nubes,
para atenerse a un orden
invisible de día, pero cierto en la noche, en gran abismo.
It is all deep night.
To die is to forget words, springs, glass, clouds,
to abide by an order
invisible all day but certain at night in the vast emptiness.
The two last stanzas that directly follow the excerpt above commence the pulsing leitmotif of the sequence. Most poets might choose to end with the penultimate stanza and its powerful sense of completion/consummation: a logical, organic end of a poem that achieves its own verbal revelation.
Allí la tierra, estricta,
no permite otro amor que el centro entero.
Ni otro beso que serle.
Ni otro amor que el amor que, ahogado, irradia.
There the earth in its rigor
allows no other love than the all-consuming.
No other kiss than the all-being.
No other love than the love that, drowned, illumines.
But Aleixandre goes on to a more tentative, humble place, where art provides only quizzical comfort.
En las noches profundas
las palabras dejadas o dormidas.
En papeles volantes ¿quién las sabe u olvida?
Alguna vez, acaso, resonarán, ¿quién sabe?,
en unos pocos corazones fraternos.
In the deepest nights
words left behind or asleep
may find their connections.
In scattered papers, who knows or forgets them?
Someday perhaps they’ll resonate—who knows?—
in a few sympathetic hearts.
Honors, archives, critiques, and translations notwithstanding, the universal darkness Aleixandre perceives himself entering is so profound that the poet leaves behind only windblown pages scattered like leaves. Once interred in that churchyard, the soon-to-be Nobelist, at the peak and consummation of his maturity, fares barely better than Gray’s “mute, inglorious Milton.” Maybe, someone will read him, on some windblown page. Maybe, not.
No poetic glory presumed here, no great legacy. In contrast to his Generation of ‘27 compadre Lorca, Aleixandre sees his own world’s end as a whimper. But, strangely, it’s the arid lack of illusion he adheres to that somehow proceeds to conjure a fertile family of literary allusion, like murmuring pallbearers. Not the least, Keats, whose self-chosen gravestone inscription reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Understanding and knowing …
All of us know our deaths are inevitable and have known it since childhood. The term “mortal” is interchangeable with “human being.” And we all know that unless you die young you’ll grow old. But aging is a strange experience. As much as you anticipate it when you’re young, you can’t appreciate the finality when it comes—when the “you” becomes “I.” Finality is different from inevitability. In the poem “Un Término” (A Term), Aleixandre opens with something like that distinction: conocer no es lo mismo que saber. “Understanding is not the same as knowing.”
And in the later poem “Sin Fe” (Faithless):
¿Saber es conocer? No te conozco y supe.
Saber es alentar con los ojos abiertos.
¿Dudar … ? Quien duda existe. Sólo morir es ciencia.
Is knowing understanding? I don’t know you and I knew.
Knowing is breathing with your eyes open.
Doubt … ? Whoever doubts exists. Only dying is knowing.
Farther on in the sequence in “El Cometa” (The Comet):
Like Halley’s comet, when I was a boy.
A boy sees and believes.
He sees long hair
and looks, and sees the tail
of a comet a boy flung into the sky.
But the man has his doubts …
Only later does he go back
to believing and he sees shadows.
From his white hair he sees darknesses,
and he believes. Everything blind is blind,
and he believes. He believes in the full bereavement he’s felt
And that’s how boys and men
pass on. The man doubts.
the old man knows. Only the boy understands …
An echo of Yeats?
The knowing vs. understanding theme keeps reappearing through the sequence, a continuum saved from nostalgia by clear–eyed irony. It seems to culminate in the last poem of section IV, “Ayer” (Yesterday), a 12-line poem that reads—at least to me—like a conscious meditation on Yeats’s “After Long Silence.” Almost as if responding to Yeats’s “curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,” it opens with its own counterpoint image,
Ese telón de sedas amarillas
que un sol aún dora y un suspiro ondea.
Es un soplo el ayer vacila, y cruje.
That yellow silk curtain
the sun still shines on and a breath billows.
With a sigh, yesterday waves and rustles.
And later, reminiscent of Yeats’s “all other lovers” are “estranged or dead,” Aleixandre continues,
… Dormido quien lo mira no responde,
pues ve un silencio, o es un amor dormido.
Dormir, vivir, morir. …
… Asleep, the one who sees it doesn’t respond,
since he sees a silence or a sleeping love.
To sleep, to live, to die. …
For Yeats, the only remaining solution was to “descant upon the supreme theme of Art and Song.” And Aleixandre seems to respond by incanting a passage that seems particularly Yeatsian in its logic,
… Quien es es signo,
una imagen de quien pensó, y ahí queda.
Trama donde el vivir se urdió despacio, y hebra a hebra
quedó, para el aliento en que aún se agita.
… Whoever is, is a sign,
an image he dreamed up, and there he is.
A fabric where living was slowly woven, and thread by thread
remained, for the breath where it still stirs.
Then Aleixandre ends his poem with what, for me, seems a distilled mirror image of Yeats’s “bodily decrepitude is wisdom, young we loved each other and were ignorant.”
Ignorar es vivir. Saber, morirlo.
“Not knowing is living. Knowing is dying.”
The Yeats echo may be entirely coincidental, and it’s appropriate that Kessler’s austere translation abstains from implying an intent Aleixandre may not have had.
But to my ear—despite the way that compressed Spanish last line seems to really resist English—the cross-language resonance evokes a serendipitous sense of mutation from a common source. An ongoing poem, beneath both poems, enriching both.
The Kiss of Earth
As can be surmised from the extracts, Aleixandre’s emphasis is consummation not consolation. But like some St. Jerome contemplating a skull, he’d like to make some sense of things. In the final 13 poems that comprise section V, you might even wonder if perchance he’s flirting with the great tradition of Spanish mystical poems. The final sequence begins with “Posthumous Kiss,” “Quiet like this, my lips still on yours, / I breathe you. It’s either a living dream or we’re alive …” On surface the poet’s buried corpse seems to be remembering an old lover. But are there also, maybe, wishful echoes of the spiritual-sexual imagery employed by John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila? A hope against hope that beyond the grave’s dark night, a Beatific Vision might dawn that can only be humanly expressed in erotic terms.
In the next poem, “The Limit,” Aleixandre again addresses some vague lover, although this time seemingly to say goodbye, “Enough. I’m not still trying to look into the long gleam / in your eyes. To be there until the world ends. / I looked and I took. I thought and I passed. / Man’s dignity is in his death … Now that I’m taking my last steps, I kiss these limits. / You my boundary, my dream. Keep being.”
And if there is Eros after death, it’s, as in “Impure Dream,” a “Vain truth of a body still persisting …” where “… night is nothing: a dream, impure / since there’s a live breath still at its edges. / The dark waves still come courting. / I can’t see, know nothing. Dawn, or never.”
But then, in “Another Truth,” the Eros of Thanatos again, assumes its own mystic life: “… that mysterious sound I hear / is the kiss’s depths. Light, / light up your lips with its warmth or sun- / beams that frighten the speechless, / like another blind mouth. / Ah, impure thirst / for light, thirst living or dead, in the last / mouth.”
In the next poem, “The Buried One”: “Germinal earth accepts the final / kiss … I’m living fiercely to the hilt, / under an urgent sky: earth, stars.”
A dignified denouement
As if with a sigh and a shrug, the final nine poems then quietly move, step by step, back from these pronouncements. It’s a dignified denouement, reminiscent of Aleixandre’s return from grand imagery to common earth in the book’s very first poem. Whether he was evoking a mystic or profane longing, both the age of faith and youth, have passed. And, at best, it seems the old man can only manage a wistful nod to whatever ecstasies both spirit and flesh may once have held.
In “Final Thoughts”: “He was born but didn’t know. He answered but never spoke … Wind never keeps its word … your slow thoughts dissolve / in the air. Gently rustling. A sound of final / branches, an awkward dream of live gold / scattering … The leaves keep falling.”
In the last poem, “Oblivion”: “ … It is and it wasn’t, but it was and it’s not talking … He died with dignity. There goes his shadow.”
One wants to sum up this chapbook-length sequence, but Aleixandre won’t allow this. Contemplating your conclusion, he seems to say, the only honest response is to not trust any conclusion.
Poems of Consummation
By Vicente Aleixandre
Translated by Stephen Kessler
Black Widow Press (2013)