Sunday, November 14

Gather this voice ...

This is part of a series of posts commemorating Spanish poet Miguel Hernández on the occasion of his centenary (30 October 2010). For more background and previous posts on the man about whom Pablo Neruda said "his was the face of Spain", click on the sketch of him by Benjamín Palencia on the sidebar to the right.

Miguel's poetry and struggle still alive in Spain.
A poster of Miguel Hernández at a Madrid protest against
political, media and judicial persecution of crusading
magistrate Baltasar Garzón, a judge who has vigorously
worked for recovering the memory and rights of victims
of the Franco-era repression (April 2010, photo LLL).
After having mentioned Pablo Neruda's recollections of his friend Miguel Hernández in a previous post in this series, today I want to feature a tribute to Hernández penned by the Mexican writer Octavio Paz, Nobel Laureate for Literature (1990, see his bio at the Nobel Prize website). Octavio Paz first met Miguel Hernández in 1937 when visiting Spain to participate in the International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. This piece was written in November 1942, just a few months after Hernández had succumbed to tuberculosis in woeful conditions in a Spanish penitentiary, while serving out a 30 year prison term, which had been commuted from a death sentence. His 'crime' was none other than his active support for the democratically elected Spanish Republic against the military uprising led by Franco that brought on the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939.

It is titled Recoged esa Voz (Gather this Voice):

In a prison in the village of his birth, Orihuela, Miguel Hernández has died. He died alone, in a hostile Spain that has become enemy of the Spain where he lived out his youth, adversary of the Spain that rang with his generosity. Let others curse his torturers; let others analyze and study his poetry. I want to remember him.

I first encountered him singing songs of the Spanish people, in 1937. He spoke in a low voice, a bit untrained, a bit like an innocent animal: sounding like the countryside, like a deep echo repeating through the valleys, like a stone falling from a cliff. He had dark eyes, hazel and clear, not twisted or intellectual; his mouth, like his hands and his heart, was large and, like them, simple and fleshy, made of mud by pure and clumsy hands; of average height, sort of robust, he was agile, with agility born of the blood and the muscles, with the agile gravity of the earthly; one could see he was more akin to the somber colts and the melancholy bullocks than to his tormented intellectual companions; he kept his head almost shaved and wore corduroy pants and espadrilles; he looked like a soldier or a farmer. In the lobby of that hotel in Valencia, full of smoke, of vanity and, also, of rightful passion. Miguel Hernández sang with his deep voice and his singing was as if all the trees were singing. It was as if one tree, the tree of a nascent and millenary Spain, were beginning to sing its song anew. Not the poplar, not the olive tree, nor the oak, not the apple, nor the orange, but all of those together, fusing their saps, their smells and their leaves in this tree of flesh and voice. It is impossible to remember him in words; more than in memory, “in the flavor of time he is written”.

Later I heard him recite poems of love and war. Through verses —and I cannot say now how they were or what those verses said— as if through a curtain of luxurious light, one could hear a moaning or lowing, one could hear the death throes of a tender and powerful animal, a bull perhaps, dying in the afternoon, raising its eyes astonished toward the passive, ghost-like spectators. And now I don’t want to remember him anymore, now that I remember him so well. I know that we were friends; that we walked amid the ruins of Madrid and of Valencia, at night, near the sea, or the intricate side streets; I know that he liked to climb trees and eat watermelon, in taverns frequented by soldiers; I know that later I saw him in Paris and that his presence was like a ray of sunlight, a shock of wheat, in the black city. I remember everything, but I don’t want to remember … I don’t want to remember you, Miguel, great friend of so few days, miraculous and outside of time, days of passion, when I discovered you, as I discovered Spain, and I discovered a part of myself, a rough and tender root, that made me both larger and more ancient. Let others remember you. Let me forget you, because forgetting is pure and true, forgetting our good times gives us the strength to continue living in this world of compromises and reverences, of salutes and ceremonies, fetid and rotting. Let me forget you, so that in this forgetting your voice can continue to grow, stolen now from your body and in the memory of those of us who knew you, free and tall on the wind, unchained from time and from your misery.

Mexico, 1942 (translated by Ted Genoways)
As noted by the translator, Ted Genoways, to understand Paz's statement above that "...I cannot say now how they were or what those verses said", it is important to know that Miguel Hernández's war poems had been banned in Spain and were largely unavailable.

Octavia Paz & Elena Garro, Spain, 1937.
Accompanying Octavia Paz on the 1937 trip to Spain was his 17-year old wife, Elena Garro. In fact, the trip was part of their honeymoon. Sadly, Garro is a rather obscure writer, even though some critics and historians consider her novel Los recuerdos del porvenir (Recollections of Things to Come) as one of the very first works of 'magical realism'. She wrote it in the 1950s and published it in 1963, four years before Gabriel García Marquez's seminal Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). In 1992, she published a memoir of her time in Spain, Memorias de España 1937, in which she discussed meeting Miguel Hernández, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Casals, Alejo Carpentier and others.

Friday, November 12

Museum shutterbugging

I recently returned from a very rewarding visit with family and friends in New Jersey, the first time in three years that I have been back home (yes the term still applies, more than 25 years after leaving for Spain). One of the highlights was a trip with my mother to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a first for me. My great pleasure in strolling through the magnificent "European Art 1850-1900" section of their permanent collection was very much enhanced by being able to take photographs there. You see, in Spain, and in most of Europe as far as I have been able to find, taking photos inside museums is strictly prohibido. While I agree that flash photography of works of art should be prohibited, the only reason I can see for not allowing non-flash non-professional photographs of anything, even the text signs that accompany and describe paintings and exhibits, is commercial, namely, to boost the museum's sales of catalogues and reproductions of the art works.

So on this visit to the museum, my usual slow dawdling amble through the galleries and rooms was reduced to a snail-paced crawl with camera in hand. But I was one happy snail. More than head-on individual photos of the paintings, what particularly captured my optic fancy was being able to snap the paintings and sculptures in context, from different angles to frame them in the company of their illustrious art siblings and neighbours.

Despite her fame for fearlessness, Marcello's bronze Pythian Sibyl seems frightened of the larkspurs in Henri Fantin-Latour's 1891 oil panting. Here's a question for you: what might dolphins have to do with both of these works of art? For a fascinating essay on this work and the sculptress who produced it, Marcello (Duchesse de Castiglione-Colonna, born Adele d'Affry), see this article in the journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide.

This room featured a curious triptych composed of Adriano Cecioni's 1868 bronze Boy With a Rooster and Auguste Rodin's The Thinker framing Thomas Eakins' Crucifixion ...

Startled and afraid, the crying child closes his eyes and holds on for dear life to his crowing dawns. No one had yet told him that paradise had been lost, that the true paradises are the paradises we have lost (Proust).

Meanwhile, naked with his thoughts, the thinker is pondering what the difference might be, if any, between Christ dying on the cross to save humanity and humanity crucifying Christ to save itself (in the words of Antonio Machado).

Rodin, Renoir, mom.

I love this photograph, although I may be opening myself to the critique that I have harnessed here the classic female triumvirate of the male imagination: voluptuous nude, washerwoman, mother. Oh well, so be it...

Sunday, November 7

A salt-wizened truth between blue and singing

This is part of a series of posts commemorating Spanish poet Miguel Hernández on the occasion of his centenary (30 October 2010). For more background and previous posts on the man of whom his friend Pablo Neruda proclaimed "his was the face of Spain", click on the sketch of him by Benjamín Palencia on the sidebar to the right.

Prison portrait of Miguel Hernández
by Antonio Buero Vallejo
 The portrait to the left is probably the 'classic' image of the man known in his lifetime as the goatherd poet, the poet of the people, the poet of the revolution. It was drawn while he was in prison, by one of his cellmates, the playwright Antonio Buero Vallejo, who, like Miguel, was sentenced to death for his support for the Spanish Republic before and during the Civil War. Unlike Miguel Hernández, Buero Vallejo did manage to make it out of prison alive, after spending six years behind bars. It is signed and dated (January 25, 1940). Click here for more on Buero Vallejo.

In 1933, Miguel Hernández wrote a short piece entitled Mi concepto del poema ('My Idea of a Poem').

What is a poem? A beautiful affected lie. An insinuated truth. Only by insinuating it will a truth not appear a lie. A truth as precious and hidden as anything from a mine. One needs to be a miner of poems to see in its Ethiopias of darkness its Indias of light. A salt-wizened truth situated between blue and singing. Who sees that the sea in truth is white? Nobody. Nevertheless it exists, it flutters, it alludes in its sculpted spume to the color of the crescent moon. The clear sea — would it be as beautiful as its secret if it were suddenly clarified? Its greater beauty lies in its secrecy. The poem cannot present itself to us as either Venus or naked. Naked poems have only the anatomy of poems. And who could make something more horrible than a bare skeleton? Guard, poets, the secret of the poem: a sphinx. Let them learn to tear it away like bark from a tree. Oh, like the orange: what a delicious secret under its planetary circumference! Except in the case of prophetic poetry for which clarity is essential [...] guard yourselves, poets, against fruits without skins, seas without salt. The poem has to work as with the Holy Sacrament .... When will the poet come with a poem in his fingers, like a priest with the host, saying "Here is GOD" and we will believe it? (translated by Ted Genoways)

Saturday, November 6

Conversation Piece

Rex Stewart, photo by
David Redfern/Redferns, Gettyimages
Cornetist Rex Stewart was a mainstay of the Duke Ellington orchestra in the 1930s and 40s and much loved in the jazz world for the half-valve effects and the playful and plaintive muted wah-wah blowing he brought to his wonderful soloing. Much less known or heralded was his skill as a screenwriter. This neglect has now been righted by the BBC-produced video vignette I am embedding below, featuring dialogue written by Rex Stewart. Though only a few minutes long, the piece manages to combine intrigue and suspense, humor and tension in a domestic drama, which I am sure many of us can relate to: a bit of bathos, a peck of pathos, more than a touch of tension, a lot of fun and some riveting husband and wife dialogue.

I suggest you turn up the volume on your speakers and watch the short clip in the full screen version (by clicking on the rectangular icon all the way on the right near the bottom of the video) ...

Imagine Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage if the Swedish master had signed Rex Stewart up to do the screenplay. As I scan my eyes over my prized collection of hundreds and thousands of jazz records and CDs, I am thrilled by the possibilities this brilliant little film opens up. Indeed, I don't think that María and I will ever have another spat again without first putting one of those records on the turntable.

There is an interesting website on the film, including the script, director's notes and more. Click here to see it.
I first saw this film on Donna's Elements of Jazz website which I learned of through National Public Radio's A Blog Supreme / NPR Jazz (highly recommended).

Tuesday, November 2

Eternity is in love with the productions of time ...

If the author of this quote, William Blake, was right, eternity must be building up a great fondness for Esperanza Spalding. The young bassist, vocalist and composer has certainly been making quite a splash in the jazz world in the last couple of years. She has a fresh and soulful command of the acoustic bass, impeccable time, a beautiful voice and singing style, and is a compelling performer, seemingly wise much beyond her years (just turned 26).

The PBS art blog that I follow and am always eager to recommend recently featured the young artist from Portland, Oregon. I am embedding a clip below of her performance of a piece called 'Little Fly', in which she sets William Blake's poem 'The Fly' to music.

So, what do you think: how cool is Esperanza (whose name means "hope" in Spanish)? Here is the Blake poem.

I was particularly taken by her explanation of how she came to compose this piece, a poem that she pasted up on her desk and then macerated in her imagination for years. You can hear for yourselves in the video below ...

I'll close with a well-known and always timely scrap of verse from William Blake ...

To see a world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palms of your hand
and eternity in an hour.

Monday, November 1

Milking a goat and a dream ...

Yesterday was the 100th birthday of Spanish poet, Miguel Hernández, born October 30, 1910. I discussed this much loved goatherd-cum-poet in an earlier post featuring one of his poems. For more background, the Poetry Foundation has an excellent biographical essay, including links to English translations of several of his poems.

Hernández is not as widely known outside of Spain as his contemporaries and fellow poets Federico García Lorca, Antonio Machado, Rafael Alberti, who like him, were supporters of the Spanish Republic in the 1930s and victims, in one way or another, of the Franco-led military coup that overthrew the Republic and imposed a 40 year dictatorship. It is no accident that Miguel Hernández is not well known outside Spain. It was meant that way. His life was taken away cruelly soon in 1942 and many of his works were routinely censored until after the dictator’s death in 1975.

The triumphant Franco forces initially condemned him to death for his open and active support for the Republic ('adhesion a la rebelión' read the death sentence), but then commuted his sentence to 30 years imprisonment. The poet did not last more than three, however, and died of tuberculosis in hideous conditions in 1942 at the age of 31. The harrowing tale of his three years in jail, malicious neglect, lack of medicine and adequate medical care is one of the most heartbreaking and infuriating stories in the history of Spanish letters, woefully emblematic of the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and its long miserable aftermath.

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda was a close friend of Hernandez’s and worked to ensure the man and his poetry would not be forever swallowed up in the dark pit of Francoism. In his words, “Miguel Hernández disappeared in darkness; to remember him and to do so in the full light of day is Spain’s duty, it is a duty of love”.

So in that spirit of dutiful love, I will do a series of posts on Miguel Hernández, largely based on the current centenary exhibition at the National Library of Spain in Madrid. It is the most complete such collection of materials on the poet ever, with scores of manuscripts of his poems, including some of the very earliest, many other documents (from his school report cards to his arrest record, death sentence, death certificate, censorship orders decades after his death), photographs, paintings, testimonials from Neruda and others, and much more. Many of the images in the series are taken from the catalogue for the show, Miguel Hernández: La Sombra Vencida (The Defeated Shadow), published by the Spanish Ministry of Culture.

I am inserting here a photo of what may be the earliest poem for which a manuscript survives, written in 1924 at the age of 13 or 14. It is hard to describe the knotted-throat silence with which most people react to seeing this scrawled manuscript on one of the first walls in the exhibition. I had certainly never seen it before and cannot imagine any one short verse that could tell more about who Miguel Hernández was, his life and his poetry than that very first line written as a schoolchild:

En cuclillas, ordeño
una cabrita y un sueño
(Crouching, I milk
a goat and a dream)

And here is a photo of the boy poet taken in the same year as he milked those lines and dreams from his chores as goatherd.

I will close with some more quotes from Pablo Neruda on Miguel (you will please excuse the intimacy here, but that is how he is known in Spain, by his first name, just as his friend Lorca is known simply as Federico). In his Memoirs, Confieso Que He Vivido (I Confess that I Have Lived), Neruda recalls his first impression of the poet from Orihuela. “The young poet Miguel Hernández was one of Federico and Alberti’s friends. I met him when he came up, in espadrilles and the typical corduroy trousers peasants wear, from his native Orihuela”. He describes Miguel as having an “aura of earthiness” with “a face like a clod of earth or a potato that has just been pulled from among the roots and still has its subterranean freshness”.

In a 1966 interview with poet Robert Bly, Neruda recalled a telling incident from a night in 1934 when taking a walk with Miguel in Madrid:
I said to him that I had never heard a nightingale, because no nightingales exist in my country. You see, it is too cold for nightingales in my country; and then he said, “Oh, you’ve never heard …” and he climbed up a tree and he whistled like a nightingale from very high up. Then he climbed down and ran to another tree and climbed up and made another whistle like a nightingale, a different one.
This seemingly visceral and spiritual connection to the earth, nightingales, trees and goats projected by Hernández was memorably and movingly recalled by Neruda in another anecdote from his memoirs about this newfound friend:
He would tell me how exciting it was to put your ear against the belly of a sleeping she-goat. You could hear the milk coursing down to the udders, a secret sound no one but the poet of goats has been able to listen to.
I’ll close with Estrella Morente singing this beautiful 'Tangos del Chavico' about a certain little goat (un cabrito):

The Neruda quotes are taken from The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández, Bilingual Edition, edited by Ted Genoways and published by The University of Chicago Press in 2001.