on Desolation of the Chimera, last poems by Luis Cernuda, translated by Stephen Kessler (White Pine Press)
Born in Seville in 1902, Luis Cernuda left Spain in 1938 for permanent exile. He had emerged with Federico Garcia Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Vincente Aleixandre and Jorge Guillén in the Generation of 1927, avant garde poets influenced by surrealism. But his experimental urge had played itself out by the time the civil war began in 1936. Earlier that year, La realidad y el deseo (Reality and Desire), his first volume of collected poems, showed a poet who had tried out several poetic modes. Although he joined the Communist party in 1934, he never exerted himself politically. But he keenly felt the significance of Lorca’s murder in 1936 by Franco’s fascists, writing in “To A Dead Poet”:
Just as one never sees bright petals
Spring from a rock,
Thus among a hard and sullen people
There is no proud new ornament of life
To flower in splendor.
For this they killed you;
You were the green in our barren land,
And the blue in our dark air.
Por pesto the mataron. For Cernuda, Lorca represented less political martyrdom than the broader tragedy of the poet crushed between reality and desire. Cernuda witnessed the bombing of the University of Madrid – but when he later described the event, it was only to specify the very moment he discovered Leopardi’s poetry. Reginald Gibbons describes Cernuda as “highly principled, unsociable, dandified, very much an autodidact, homosexual, both grateful and grudging toward his literary elders.” He loved and studied Goethe and Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Yeats and Eliot. Like Leopardi, he was obsessed with solitude. Striving for authenticity and going his own way, Cernuda was a true poète maudit -- turning his prophetic face toward those who can’t see or hear him. His prophesies, however, were based on retrospection.
In his 1935 essay “Words Before a Reading,” he voices his distaste for bourgeois society and philistinism, and his individualistic recourse puts everything personal at stake:
“Modern society, unlike societies that preceded it, has decided to do without the mysterious element that is inseparable from life. Unable to fathom it, modern society appears not to believe in its existence. But the poet cannot proceed in this way, and must depend in life on that zone of shadow and fog that floats around human bodies. This zone is the refuge of an undefined vast power that manipulates our destinies. At times I have perceived the influence of a demonic power in life that acts on men … So the poet tries to fix the transitory beauty of the world that he perceives, relating it to the invisible world that he senses, and when he grows weak and fails in this unequal struggle, his voice like that of Satan in the Moslem theologian’s reply, weeps, still enamored, for the loss of what he loves.”
In other words, the demonic force isn’t wielded only by certain vilified parties. Cernuda sought to speak to all people rather than for a set of fellow victims already confirmed in their righteousness. Gibbons explains, “His own poetry moved away from purely sensuous or semantic effects toward discursive meditation … He moved toward a style that, while retaining the free verse and flexibility of his early poems, would cohere around the flux of conscious thought and emotion ... Cernuda found a voice that was public without being declamatory.”
This is Gibbon’s translation of “Nocturne Among Grotesqueries”:
Body of stone, morose body
In woolens like the walls of the universe,
Body like the birthdays of the races,
Like edifices overwhelmingly innocent,
Like the shyest waterfalls
White as the night, while the mountain
Rips up manic shapes,
Pains like fingers
And pleasures like fingernails.
Not knowing where to go, where to go back to,
Seeking those merciful winds
That wear away the wrinkles in the earth,
That bless those desires cut out at the roots
Their great blossom, like a child.
Lips want that flower
Whose fist, kissed by the night,
Opens the doors of oblivion lip by lip.
Some fellow poets, such as Juan Ramón Jimenez, disparaged Cernuda’s work for its dim but persistent echo of the English Romantics. Like Leopardi, Cernuda expressed himself in meshing tones of longing and asperity. Like Cavafy, he traced the dual phenomena of erotic fulfillment and bitter betrayal or neglect. Like Robert Desnos, he began with surrealistic imagery, then lost his taste for aestheticism when life got harsh. Unlike those of the modernists and experimentalists, Cernuda’s mature voice is that of a person unstraying from singular emotions in specific circumstances, a signal of ethical pressure. He took a position between drawing on personal experience and keeping an eye on a world of people and things.
Cernuda taught in England and Scotland until 1947, then came to the US to teach at Mount Holyoke College but gave up that position to live in Mexico where he died in 1963. Gibbons suggests that his “closed temperament and at times unsociable nature” precluded his developing ties to America or its literary circles. Yet he wrote productively in these years about his condition of exile. Some have critiqued these poems for their tendency to let idea eclipse imagery and emotion.
But Stephen Kessler’s translations of poems from 1950-1962 return to us the Cernuda whom we failed to appreciate or even acknowledge.
THE TRAVELER (El viajero)
It’s you who’s breathing
This warm night air
Among the unfalling
Leaves. Isn’t it strange
Slipping like this into the pleasure
Of another climate? It seems
An impossible marvel
To be so free. Look
From under a dark palm
Up at the dripping stars.
Is what you’re seeing a dream
Or is it true? The magical
World you carried
So long for, flares
Into light outside. If now
Your dream is at last aligned
With your truth, don’t think
This truth is any more
Fragile than that dream.
If Lorca, Guillén and other contemporaries rejected the first-person due to the narrowness of its anecdotes, Cernuda stubbornly shaped the first-person into an emblem speaking in the foreground of an entire human world. It is Cernuda who later sneered at those who would prefer the hagiography of Lorca over that poet’s actual humanity. In the biting poem “Once More, With Feeling” (“Otra vez, con sentimiento”), Cernuda writes, “Isn’t it enough / For your countrymen to have killed you? // And now stupidity succeeds the crime.”
The poems of Desolation of the Chimera include some of Cernuda’s most moving and desperate work, joining the company of the exile poetry of Ovid and Mandelstam. “I know very well this image / Fixed in my mind forever / Isn’t you but a shadow / Of the love that’s left in me / Before my time runs out,” he writes in a section of “Poems for a Body.” But there are also the last poems of love, and the final testament of someone whose use of the world was always finely calibrated and never gratuitous:
And you see the deepest thing
In your life is no more than a wisp
Of what so many other sensible people
Would call nothing:
A scent of orange blossoms, air.
Was there ever anything more?
[Published June 1, 2009. 213 pages, $17.00 paperback]
Of related interest:
I recommend Reginald Gibbons’ Selected Poems by Cernuda (University of California Press, 1977), still available in a 1999 paperback edition from Sheep Meadow Press with an essay by Octavio Paz.