The great Rubén Darío (1867-1916), native of Nicaragua, drunk on Parnassianism and symbolism, who almost single-handedly dragged Spanish-language poetry into the modern era, awakening it from three centuries of near-lethargy: when he was good he was very, very good, and when he was bad he was horrid. And by horrid, I mean full of overblown, precious imagery and devoid of any sense of physical reality, as for example in his most famous poem. I admit however that my ear isn’t good enough to distinguish great from merely good Spanish prosody. And in going through some of his regularly anthologized poems, I was surprised to find several that I really liked. The first one below, I think, will speak to any writer or artist who’s ever tried to grope her way toward a new form of expression without any clear idea of what that might be. The second is a good example of how well Darío’s poetry can work when it stops just short of bathos, and I liked the parallel images in the last stanza. The final poem is the third of three nocturnos Darío wrote in the course of his career. Insomnia may have been a bit of a Romantic trope, but for those of us who suffer from it, it’s a very real and baffling phenomenon. I choose to interpret the final phrase as a reference to the angel of death, mostly because I feel that almost any Darío poem could be set to music by Slayer to the benefit of both. Please feel free to critique my translations in the comments. (I’m trying to move away from reliance on Facebook.)
I Pursue a Form… (Yo persigo una forma…)
I pursue a form that my usual style doesn’t encounter,
a bud of thought seeking to be a rose.
It’s betokened by a kiss planted on my lips
in the Venus de Milo’s impossible embrace.
Verdant palms adorn the white-columned courtyard,
the stars have foretold a vision of the Goddess,
and the light settles in my soul the way the moon,
that great bird, settles on a calm lake.
And I find only the word that escapes,
the opening melody that flows from the flute,
the dream ship sailing through space,
and under the window of my Sleeping Beauty,
the never-ending sob of the fountain
and the question posed by that white swan’s neck.
Mortal (Lo fatal)
For René Pérez
Happy the tree that is barely capable of feeling
and happier still the rock—so hard it feels nothing,
for there’s no greater pain than the pain of being alive,
no affliction more severe than consciousness.
To be, knowing nothing and lacking a sure path,
with the fear of having been and dread for the future…
And the reliable terror of being dead tomorrow,
and suffering through life and through shadow
and through everything we don’t know and can hardly guess,
the flesh so tempting with its fresh clusters
and the waiting tomb with its funeral bouquets—
and not to know where we’re headed
or whence we came!
The still of the night—a distressing, nightly stillness…
Why does my soul quake like this?
I listen to the humming of my blood
and a soft storm passes through my skull.
Insomnia! Not to be able to sleep, and yet
to dream. I am the specimen
in a spiritual self-dissection: the auto-Hamlet!
Diluting my sadness
with the wine of night
in darkness’s marvelous glass…
And I mutter to myself: When will the dawn come?
A door has just been shut…
Someone has walked past…
The clock has struck three… If it were She!