Miguel Hernández selected and translated by Don Share. NYRB Poets. $12.95, 128 pp.
Miguel Hernández, selected and translated by Don Share, is a powerful introduction to one of Spain’s finest poets. Comparable to Ted Hughes in quality and intensity, Hernández shatters the notion that pastoral verses are synonymous with gentleness. Though the poems temper truth with mercy, it is the death-mercy, the lead gift, that Robinson Jeffers (a comparable poet) gave to his hurt hawks. Miguel Hernández does not flinch from describing either joy or suffering. He insists that we observe the world as it is, that it is the duty of man to change it for the better, and to find the beauty in the blood we spill.
Miguel Hernández died on March 28, 1942 at 5:30 in the morning. He was thirty-one years old. Context will tell you that he was a fighter in, and a victim of, the Spanish Civil War. After the defeat of the Republic, Franco condemned Hernández to death—not for the role he played in the fighting, but for his poetry. The General paid him the compliment of calling him ‘A very dangerous man’, before reducing his sentence to life in order to prevent him from becoming a martyr. It was tuberculosis that slew him in the end, not a volley of rifles. His eldest son starved to death while he was in prison. His wife and younger child survived him.
Hernández inscribed his last verses, like so much graffiti, on the stone wall above his prison cot:
Goodbye, brothers, comrades, friends,
Let me take my leave of the sun and the fields.
A gentle epitaph for a great poet, but the poetry contained in his last letter to his beloved wife, reprinted in this book, was more in keeping with the brutal pastorals and deep understanding of the range of human feeling found in his published verses:
The hemorrhaging has stopped. But you must tell Barbero that the pus is not draining through the tube he put in, for the opening has enlarged, the pus is building up and spills on the bed with any coughing fit. This is a bother and an obstacle to my rate of recovery from the disease. I want to get out of here as soon as possible. They are curing me by stops and starts through their bright ideas, sloppiness, ignorance, negligence. Well, love, I feel better, and as soon as I get out, my recovery will be like lightning. Kisses for my son. I love you, Josefina,
This book contains selections from works that spanned his short life. The earliest are often acerbic, virtuosic poems about something that might conceivably be love. A childhood spent tending sheep on a rock allowed no room for illusions. In “Like the Bull” he compares human courtship to a bull fight:
like the bull I am branded
with a hellish iron in my side,
and, being male, by the fruit of my groin.
like the bull I need to fight for your love.
The usual clichéd poem about love as a conquest would probably not contain a bullfight, and if it did the man would unquestionably be placed in the dominant, more macho role of the fighter. He would slay and vanquish. He would feel no loss. Miguel had a talent for exploding clichés such as this:
Like the bull I follow and chase you,
and you leave my desire on the sword,
like the taunted bull, like the bull.
This poem illuminates the power-play that often runs beneath the act of love. Hernández does this in a way that gives agency to the woman who refuses his terms, who taunts and slaughters by the sword, an instrument whose psychological significance is obvious.
In a later poem, ‘To My Son’, written for his dead child, Hernández uses a series of images, alternating between brutality and redemption, to bring beauty from his loss:
The sun, your sole rival, devoured you…
Ten months in light, with the sky making its rounds,
the dead sun, blackened, entombed, eclipsed.
Without passing through daytime, your hair faded;
your flesh drew toward evening, with dawn just at hand.
In this poem the sun kills its rival, its shadow, and in so doing finds that it has killed itself. Through talent and grief, Hernández takes the over-used image of the redemptive son and makes it new again.
Though shrouded in pain, recovery returns like Christ, like the speaker’s flawed hope for another child, the boy who will live. Death is only permanent for the individual. Life—brutal, implacable life (which allows death)—returns again to shroud the earth.
“War” is among his last, posthumously published poems. In it, Hernández depicts war as a reversal of nature, a brutal uncoupling from the human evolutionary path:
All the mothers of the world
hide their wombs, shiver,
and wish they could retreat
into blind virginity,
into that lonely beginning
and the orphan past.
The people who do not desire regression reduce their humanity through surgery:
Lust for murder invades
the lily’s heart.
All the bodies yearn
to be welded to chunks of metal:
to be married, possessed horribly.
In this poem men are marred, becoming automatons, and only death is birthed at last.
Auden, in a poem dedicated to Yeats, wrote that, “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives.” Hernández must have understood that viscerally, trapped as he was behind the thick walls of a prison. He received a letter from Josefina in the last winter of his life in which she said that she had nothing to eat but bread and onions. The poem that he wrote in response to this news, “Lullaby of the Onion,” was dedicated to his son, who was slowly dying of malnutrition.
Helpless in life, his poetry is infused with power. This poem allows Hernández to imagine a victory. He begins with stark realism, describing the slow starvation of his child as the starving boy drinks his mother’s thin, foul milk:
My little boy
was in hunger’s cradle.
He was nursed
on onion blood.
It is not in the nature of the poet to linger on bleakness. He imagines a happier image, “Laugh, son/ you can swallow the moon.” But the moon is not a joke. It is a symbol for death, the eternal lunar mother. The realism returns with a startling physical description:
The flesh fluttering,
the sudden eyelid,
and the baby is rosier
It is clear that this infant is dying. The helplessness Hernández feels is equally clear, as is the knowledge that poetry, his poetry, can make nothing happen. The only survival for him, and his family, is in words. Hernández draws the moon down once again, dismissing any illusion of succor, plunging fully into myth. He ends the poem with renunciation:
Fly away, son, on the double
moon of the breast:
it is saddened by onion,
you are satisfied.
Don’t let go.
Don’t find out what’s happening,
or what goes on.
In a letter to Hernández, contained in this book, Federico Lorca writes, ‘you show, in the middle of savage things (that I like), the gentleness of your heart, that is so full of pain and light.’ Those words present an accurate depiction of the soul present in the heart of these poems. Hernández utilizes unique imagery, narrative, and creative inversions of well-thumbed truisms to create work that is far more powerful, and far less mortal, than the man.
Bethany W Pope is the author of two poetry collections, A Radiance (Cultured Llama Press, 2012) and Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books, 2013).
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