Knowingly, Skillfully, Faithfully

By Word of MouthNew Directions Publishing, the brainchild of James Laughlin, has been a steadfast friend to poetry readers for three-quarters of a century. In recent years they have come out with a number of notable translations, in poetry as well as prose. W.G. Sebald’s novels are of particular interest. His strange narratives seem as remote as the East Anglian countryside of England, where the German emigre lived until his death, in an automobile accident, ten years ago. Punctuated with enigmatic photographs, his stories thread autobiography through socio-historical contexts. The result is an eerie tapestry, felt more deeply in retrospect than at the time of reading, much as a Seurat painting can be seen more clearly from a distance.

2011 saw the New Directions Paperback Original publication of William Carlos Williams’ translations of Spanish poetry. From the Golden Age of Baroque Spain to 20th century Latin America, Williams covers, and uncovers, a wide range of verse. Whether excavating the poems of Cervantes’ era or expressing, in English, the work of an obscure Peruvian contemporary, Williams appears equally adept and committed. Here is a fragment of Lupercio de Argensola’s Cancion:

The tired workman
Takes his ease
When his stiff beard’s all frosted over
Thinking of blazing
August’s corn
And the brimming wine-cribs of October.

Fraught with symbolism, these lines seem to echo the translator’s own, some three hundred years later:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Known as “The Singer of America,” Jose Santos Chocano’s byline reads like so many other Latin American bards: poet, revolutionary, journalist, diplomat. Founder of mundonovismo, his work is served admirably, translated by a fellow modernist of Williams’ skill. From The Song Of The Road:

Suddenly, there, in the distance
within that sad and pensive mass
of the wood,
I saw a handful of lights like a swarm of wasps…

And as if the wood
understood all, it remained mute and cold.

As in the case of Williams’ own poetry, these lines are elusively allusive. Hence, a belief that one fully grasps them, might be considered illusive. Such is the true nature of true poetry. It is a nightscape — the day’s events transfigured by the restless movement of the sleeping mind’s eye. Prose is real. Poems are dreams.

And no one dreams quite like the Spanish, be they an ocean away or just a ways to the south. Consider the fabulist musings of Borges (I will in a future blog), the surrealism of Dali, the magic realism of countless Spanish language writers. Consider One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Consider several hundred years of magical poems. Each one delivered as only an obstetrician (Dr. Williams’ day job) could. Knowingly, skillfully, faithfully. Consider By Word of Mouth: Poems From The Spanish, 1916-1959 by William Carlos Williams, on the shelf at Our Town Books (in the new Poets Corner).

–Andy

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