Man doesn’t exist

Last night I went for a walk around 10:00, and kept pausing to notice how the branches of various trees seemed to stretch caressing or imploring arms toward the second-quarter moon. A very thin cloud cover meant that the moon was virtually alone in the sky – Venus was just setting behind the ridge – and there were no shadows. I stood on the little wooden bridge down at the forks and listened to the stream for a few minutes, enjoying as always the braiding together of so many watery voices.

When I got back to the house, emerging from the trees I saw for the first time the dark hoop of the moon’s halo. It was difficult to escape the impression of a monstrous celestial eye. The pupil was small and bleary-yellow; it was almost unsettling. I found myself unconsciously reaching for my fly. What do I do with this? Oh, right – time for another leak.

Female readers might find this a little hard to understand, but most of us men have a deeply instinctual response to the threatening, the awe-inspiring or the liminal: we mark territory. (Ideally while whistling, or pondering baseball statistics.) I suppose I could have mooned the moon, but that would’ve made me feel utterly ridiculous. Well, I was ridiculous, of course – but that’s simply an existential condition. I pee, therefore I am. Or am I?

translation of “No existe el hombre,” by Vicente Aleixandre

Only the moon guesses the truth.
And it’s that man doesn’t exist.

The moon gropes its way across the plains, fords the rivers,
penetrates the woods.
It fleshes out the still warm mountains,
runs into the heat from erect cities.
It forges a shadow, slays a dark corner,
drowns in shimmering roses
the mystery of caves where no scent can be found.

The moon keeps moving, seeing, singing, going on and on without a pause.
A sea is not a mattress where the body of a man can stretch out all by itself.
A sea isn’t a shroud for an otherwise shining death.
The moon keeps going; it soaks, sinks into, gullies out the beaches.
It sets the calm green murmurs to rocking crazily.
The standing carcass of a man sways for a moment, wavers,
lurches forward – green – stays put – stiff.
The moon takes note of its broken-down arms,
its disapproving glare at a couple of cuddling fish.
The moon sets fire to sunken cities where one can still hear
(how enchanting!) the clear bells,
where the last echoes of the surf still ripple over sexless breasts,
over soft breasts some octopus has worshipped.

But the moon stays forever pure and dry.
It comes from a sea that remains forever a box,
a block whose limits no one, no one can measure,
a sea that isn’t a hunk of rock glowing on top of a mountain.

The moon comes out and chases what once had been a skeleton,
what once had been the blood vessels of a human being,
once had been its resonant blood, its tuneful jail,
its distinct waist that splits life in two,
or its light head bobbing on the breeze, facing east.

But man doesn’t exist.
Never has existed, never.
But man doesn’t live, just as the day doesn’t live.
But the moon makes up his furious metals.

I have always loved this poem, one of several by Aleixandre that I’ve almost memorized despite my very imperfect Spanish. However, I have always relied on the crutch of Lewis Hyde’s translation (in the bilingual A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems of Vicente Aleixandre, Harper & Row, 1979). Only this morning, when I decided to try and come up with my own version, pondering every word with the help of my trusty Spanish-English dictionary, did I discover just how inadequate Hyde’s translation really is. What seems to have happened is that Hyde assumes more randomness in choice of words and images than the poem in fact possesses – an understandable error for a translator of a surrealist poet, to be sure, but I have always felt Aleixandre to be among the most logical of surrealists. For example, Hyde’s version doesn’t really bring out what seemed to me to be fairly obvious sexual imagery in the second stanza. At one level, this is a song of sex and death, like so many poems from that brilliant generation that came of age around the time of the Spanish Civil War; the moon is like a witness or an accessory to a crime whose face we scrutinize for signs about what really happened.

There were some delightful surprises: “stiff,” which translates “inmóvil,” also of course means “corpse” or “person” (as in “working stiff”) – precisely the right nuance for an English version, I thought. The image of a block of immeasurable dimensions evokes, intentionally or not, the Daoist image of the uncarved block that symbolizes original purity. I also wonder why Hyde chose to translate “mar” as “ocean” throughout, considering that the moon has so-called seas, but not oceans.

I welcome corrections and suggestions for improvement. I’ve no great ego wrapped up in this. You can find the original Spanish on the web. Click on “escuchar la poema” to listen to a recording of Aleixandre himself reading the poem. (His reading doesn’t get very animated until the next-to-last stanza.)

I don’t want to analyze this poem any more than I’ve done already, but it does occur to me all of a sudden that my mission here at Via Negativa is to make unknowability as comprehensible as possible. Does that make any sense? I ask you!

Oops, gotta go take a leak . . .

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