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Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam – A poetic anthology

José Manuel Cardona (Translated from the Spanish by Hélène Cardona)

ISBN: 978-1-912561-18-6

Page Count: 94

Publication Date: Thursday, February 22, 2018

About this Book

Praise for Birnam Wood

These are poems of solid classical diction, keenly aware of the rich traditions that precede it, where mythology, travel and personal memory represent starting points for erotic and metaphysical reflection.
Andrés Neuman
author of Traveller of the Century

“It’s possible things are not/ as we wished them to be,” José Manuel Cardona writes in Birnam Wood, a superb account of his travels around the world in the service of poetry. Exploring the consequences of the fact that “Only man is capable of destroying/ what he never created/ and he along believes belong to him,” he creates a rival system of belief, which depends upon his vivid imagery, sophisticated ear, and wisdom borne of experience, all of which his daughter, Hélène, a gifted poet in her own right, has gracefully preserved in her translations. This selection of his poems, spanning the length of an illustrious career, are everything we might wish them to be.
—Christopher Merrill
author of Self-Portrait with Dogwood

Birnam Wood embodies the self in the world of myth with its attendant themes of tragedy and fate.  If the water of exile is longing, the cup brims over in these sun-shattered works of diaspora.  Cardona is an essential twentieth-century Spanish poet. His poems journey toward an ever-receding home. 
—Marsha de la O
author of Antidote for the Night

The lush and mystical poetry of José Manuel Cardona’s Birnam Wood is firmly rooted in the world of classical mythology as a means of articulating what is human and timeless. 
—Blas Falconer
author of The Foundling Wheel

From the ghostly amphora that languish at sea bottom “like soft fish that escaped/ the potter’s greedy love” to the impulse “to tell how yesterday’s solitude was”, Hélène Cardona’s translations are revelations of language and image, a voice dipped in clear water and wrung through her careful hands. 
—Dorianne Laux
author of The Book of Men

In the best tradition of the Poets of 1927 (including Cernuda and Lorca) and postwar Spanish poetry, José Manuel Cardona, mellifluously renders a typically fine sonnet in his imperially lovely Birnam Wood. Like the great Spanish poets of his time, he takes from 16th and 17th century poets, from Saint John of the Cross to Luis de Góngora to Antonio Machado and Federico García Lorca. In his lyrical poem to the painter Pedro Bueno, he reveals his command of the sonnet as well as his own daring paradoxical modernity:

You pushed the rigor of a limitless art
  to unfathomable mysteries
    opening to the color white the singing
    the Chimera never dreamt.
    Occult light, impenetrable aromatic smoke,
  in your paintbrush hands, solitary passion.

—Willis Barnstone
author of Mexico in My Heart: New and Selected Poems

Birnam Wood is one of the most impressive collections of poetry I’ve read in recent years.                                                                                                                                               
Thomas McCarthy
Poetry International

Birnam Wood is a World Literature Today Notable Translation of 2018.

Birnam Wood is Awarded Best Translation in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Author Biography

José Manuel Cardona (July 16, 1928 – July 4, 2018) was a poet from Ibiza, Spain. He is the author of El Vendimiador (Atzavara, 1953), Poemas a Circe (Adonais, 1959), and El Bosque de Birnam: Antología poética (Consell Insular d’Eivissa, 2007), published as a tribute by the government of Ibiza.
He co-founded and co-edited several literary journals, among them Luna Negra, with José María Rodriguez Méndez, and Atzavara, with Francisco Galí, and wrote for many publications (Cántico, Ibiza, Isla, Eivissa, Caracola, Arkángel, Alcaraván, Poesía Española, Azemar, Alfoz, Trilce, La Calandria, Aljaba, Mensaje, among others). He participated in the II Congreso de Poesía in Salamanca and belonged to the Cántico group.
The Franco regime forced him into exile in France. Years later, when the socialists came to power in Spain, he was offered a ministry position, which was ultimately denied him by the still heavily embedded Franquist administration. (He remained blacklisted for several years). 
He held PhDs in literature and humanities (University of Nancy), and political sciences (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva). He wrote his thesis on the Mexican revolution at the Instituto de Cultura Hispánica de Madrid and was an attorney (University of Barcelona). 
He worked for the United Nations most of his life, in Geneva, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Belgrade, Sofia, Kiev, Tbilisi, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Panama, among many places.

About the Translator:

Hélène Cardona is the author of seven books, most recently Life in Suspension, Dreaming My Animal Selves, and the translations Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac), winner of a Hemingway Grant, Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux); and Whitman et La Guerre de Sécesssion: Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb.
She has translated Rimbaud, Baudelaire, René Depestre, Ernest Pépin, Aloysius Bertrand, Maram Al-Masri, Eric Sarner, Jean-Claude Renard, Nicolas Grenier, Christiane Singer, and John Ashbery. Publications include Washington Square Review, World Literature Today, Poetry International, The London Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Drunken Boat, Anomaly, Asymptote, and The Warwick Review
She worked as a translator/interpreter for the Canadian Embassy in Paris, received fellowships from the Goethe-Institut and the Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, the 2017 International Book Award in Poetry, the 2017 Best Book Award in Poetry, the 2015 USA Best Book Award in Poetry, 2 Pinnacle Book Awards for the Best Bilingual Poetry Book, and 2 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards in Poetry. 
Hélène has served as a judge for the 2017 Jacar Press Full Length Competition, the 2016 PEN Center USA Translation Award, the 2015 Writer’s Digest Challenge, and the 2014 Rabindranath Tagore Award. She co-edits Plume, Fulcrum, and Levure Littéraire.
Acting credits include Chocolat, Jurassic World, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Serendipity, Mumford & more.

Read a sample from this book

Poema a Circe III

Tampoco tú eres mía aunque te amo.
Eres como la tierra, como la isla.
Con nadie te comparto, amor, con nadie.
Yo no puedo decir: aquello es mío.
Esta isla donde amamos no es de nadie.
Lo que se debe a alguien no es de uno.
Y lo prefiero así, porque el amor
Es cual lengua de fuego o universo
Desparramado en vid por todas partes.

La carne es lo ulterior, la brasa misma,
Lo que se busca y ama y estercola.
Fugitiva verdad de luna opaca
En arañazo cruel de zarza ardiendo
Despertando al misterio de las manos,
Al tacto de la boca y a los besos.

Circe, carne eres tú, tierra fecunda
Como la que no tengo en esta isla.
Cierro la palma y el puño y la semilla
Entierro bajo tierra roja y blanda.
Paseamos la tristeza mano a mano.
La carne es un mastín para la sed
Con pámpanos de nata como senos.
Curvo alfanje con filo de cristales
He de abrirme la sed y vaciarme.
Poem to Circle III

You are not mine either even though I love you.
You are like the earth, like the island.
I share you with no one, love, no one.
I cannot say: that is mine.
This island where we love belongs to no one.
What is owed doesn't belong to anyone.
I prefer it this way, because love
Is that language of fire or scattered
Universe in vine everywhere.

Flesh is subsequent, the very embers,
What one looks for and loves and composts.
Fleeting truth of an opaque moon
Cruelly scratching the burning bramble,
Awakening to the mystery of hands,
The touch of the mouth and kiss.

Circe, you are flesh, fertile land,
Like the one I don't have on this island.
I close the palm in fist and bury
The seed beneath soft and red earth.
Sadness and I walk hand in hand.
Flesh is thirsty as a mastiff
With vine shoots of cream for breasts.
A crooked swordfish, crystal sharp,
I must open my thirst and empty myself.

Oda a un joven marino

A mi hermano Manuel

El mar es una novia con los brazos abiertos,
con los pechos macizos como balas de goma.
Es difícil negarse a su caricia,
secarse de los labios su regusto salobre,
olvidar su amargor azucarado.
Bajo sus aguas gime un rosario de muertos
centauros veladores de las sombras.
Hombres hermosos, duros, como anclas arrancadas
del pecho de un dios bárbaro.

Es difícil negarse a la llamada
del mar, taparse los oídos,
agarrar con las dos manos el cuello
y enmudecer de súbito, o arrancarse los ojos
y darlos a los peces. Ignorar las gaviotas
y los mástiles rojos y tantas banderolas,
y los barcos que llegan de países ignotos
y los barcos que parten para otros países
que apenas se conocen, o quizá para el nuestro.

Porque nosotros llevamos adentro
como una quilla azul o arboladura
el amargor marino de las algas,
las barras sobre el dorso de los peces,
la muerte alquitranada
y nuestras iniciales escritas en el mar.

La mar de los marinos, vuestra novia
hermano que te alejas sobre el Puente
como un pedazo más de nuestra isla.
Tú sabes el olor que huele a la muerte
porque pisas debajo un cementerio
que puede ser el tuyo y vas alegre.

Tú sabes como huele el mar a vida,
como vomita a veces fiera espuma,
como salvaje gime y se rebela
igual que un ser atávico, criatura primitiva.

Llevamos todos dentro la muerte escrita a surcos
como un nombre trazado por la quilla
de tu barco en el mar. Somo todos marinos
de una novia dormida con los pechos redondos.

Yo no quiero partir para la tierra,
brotar como una rama de eucalipto
con los ojos cegados por la hierba.
Espérame tú, hermano, cuando ancles tu nave
en la mar que has amado.
No has de partir tan solo, marinero
hermano de un marino atenazado
por las fauces abiertas de la tierra.
Ode to a Young Mariner

To my brother Manuel

The sea is a bride with open arms,
with stout rubber balls for breasts.
It is difficult to refuse her caress,
dry from the lips her brackish aftertaste,
forget her sweet bitterness.
Underneath her waters wails a rosary of dead
centaurs, watchmen of the shadows.
Handsome men, hard as anchors torn
from the chest of a barbarian god.

It is difficult to refuse the call
of the sea, cover one's ears,
grasp the neck with both hands
and become suddenly mute, or pluck out one's eyes
and feed them to the fish. To ignore the gulls
and red masts and so many pennants,
and the ships arriving from unknown countries
and the ships departing for others
barely known, or perhaps for ours.

Because we carry within
like a blue keel or masts and spars
the marine bitterness of kelp,
the stripes on the back of fishes,
the tarry death
and our initials written in the sea.

The sea of mariners, your bride,
brother moving away to the Bridge
like one more piece of our island.
You know the smell of death
because you tread beneath a cemetery
that can be yours and you go brightly.

You know how the sea smells of life,
how at times she spits a ferocious foam,
how she wails wild and rises
like an atavistic being, a primitive creature.

We all carry death within written in furrows
like a name traced by the keel
of your boat in the sea. We are all sailors
of a sleeping bride with round breasts.

I don't want to depart for the land,
to sprout like a eucalyptus branch
my eyes blinded by grass.
Wait for me, brother, when you anchor
your vessel in the sea you've loved.
No need to depart so alone, mariner
brother of a seaman gripped
by the earth's open jaws.

Copyright © José Manuel Cardona & Hélène Cardona 2018


Review: Rich Follett reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for Readers' Favorite (March 2019)

Birnam Wood by José Manuel Cardona is an elegant, epic, fecund odyssey of lyrical imagery, steeped in time-honored mythic tradition and yet endlessly inventive. Cardona is alternately stentorian and coy – his imagery swells like distant thunder even as it dances. In the truest Shakespearean tradition of using the oxymoron to forge new synaptic pathways, Cardona offers implacable, sublime juxtapositions of language which defy categorization. From Ode to a Young Mariner: "The sea is a bride with open arms/with stout rubber balls for breasts." This perfect union of seemingly unmarriageable images is closely followed by “Handsome men, hard as anchors torn/from the chests of a barbarian god.” This is the second sight of a true poet—a true master of incontrovertible word and image pairings which simultaneously sear and expand the brain. Birnam Wood is mind-expanding in the manner of the world’s finest literature—an epic adventure in verse, beckoning us to abandon all that we know for the promise a new way of seeing the world.

Birnam Wood by José Manuel Cardona has been lovingly and painstakingly translated from the Spanish by Cardona’s daughter Hélène. It is a rare pleasure in the world of poetry to read such an expert and devoted translation. Hélène Cardona’s affection for her father and respect for his genius orbit each other in every line. The magical bond between father and daughter is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in her father’s words, translated by a poet in her own right: “We arrived and the miracle happened.”

José Manuel Cardona’s Birnam Wood is a paean to the importance of awe to human survival. With its roots firmly planted in classical mythology, Birnam Wood leaps into the air time and time again and absorbs itself thoroughly in the mystery of returning to earth. Birnam Wood is inexplicably suspended between mortality and immortality; groundedness and blind faith; past and future; courage and fear—it is a song for the ages, fascinating anew with every turn of an eclectic, sirenic page.

The late José Manuel Cardona, star poet of Ibiza, scholar, translator and literary victim of Franco, has died only very recently and his death has robbed Europe of one of its last links with a golden age of cosmopolitan, internationalist Spanish poetry. The fractures of the Spanish Civil War and the volcanic dispersal of Spanish genius as Fascism gripped Madrid has now, almost all of it, passed into the dismal history of Western Europe. Cardona was one of the last survivors, a witness of history, a heroic, unbowed Spanish soul. His peripatetic life in the service of the United Nations, a life that followed academic training in Nancy, Geneva and Barcelona, became a kind of metaphor of the mid-Twentieth century. He wandered because he was a political exile and he served the UN because, having seen the work of tyranny like Conor Cruise O’Brien or Sergio Vieira de Mello, he wished to place his intelligence and mental formation at the service of humankind. It was part of the sheer magnificence of intellectuals of Cardona’s generation that they never wavered in their belief in humanism, in our common humanity, despite all the provocation of world Powers involved in the Great Game. José Manuel Cardona never succumbed to cynicism despite that anti-Fascist life of exile and estrangement.

Near the end of his days El Bosque de Birnam: Antología poética was published as a late tribute by the government of Ibiza. The gesture ennobles them. Now it is available in the English language as Birnam Wood, a dual-language edition, published by the indefatigable Salmon Poetry on the windswept Irish Cliffs of Moher. The translation has been done by an equally talented poet, his profoundly gifted daughter, Hélène Cardona; and a great deal of Cardona’s baroque and classical intensity has been carried over into the English language:

‘This is the same river witnessed
by Heraclitus’ eyes even though it’s not
the same river.
I ponder this way, spellbound
On the banks of the Danube
This fall afternoon
When the waters flow, furrowed…’

Inevitably, this is a great poetry of exile. But it is not one dimensional: the highly educated Cardona has many, many stories to tell the reader. This is a lush and richly textured poetry, a heavy Spanish brocade, poetry as artwork, poems as stained glass: ‘Circe, you recognise,’ he writes, ‘you decipher/ Enigmas and the color of the omen. / I always await the revelation. / I am among those who believe in magic.’ His mighty sequence ‘Poems to Circe’ has all the ambition and achievement of someone profoundly European. It is a work that can sit easily beside Seferis’s great poems of exile and return, or beside Elytis’s gigantic sequence of the Albanian campaign. This is Europe yearning: ‘Exalted were you in my dreams,/ Almost inaccessible like an island/ Sought and sought for years.’ Here Cardona addresses this goddess of the Sun, maker of wild beasts out of men in the Odyssey, this dangerous creature of Aeaea and the Roman Circeiiof Campania. Ultimately, it’s poetry that’s the true daughter of the sun but love, for Cardona, is the language of fire and the scattered universe of wines; Circe is also the land, the receiver of seeds. Circe, too, like love or home, is eagle, chalice, time and olive tree.  Understanding neither abundance nor rainfall, the poet bewitches or charms Circe – or tries to, rather – by claiming poetry’s kinship with Circe’s immortal essence:

‘But I believe our essence is the same,
Which is the trade of dethroned kings.
And with little I hold my vigil.
Don’t ask me anymore about the extent
Of my watchful arms. Distance
Counts sometimes as little as time.’

In these lines we can hear the desperation and exile of the Mediterranean wanderer, the Twentieth Century condition. The vigil against Fascism was so long, and so physically and morally expensive, that time and distance became interchangeable. It was not the sun or daughters of the sun who made beasts of mankind. ‘The foreigner knows that the land/ He most loves is not his and he remains/ Like an unfamiliar sailor among men’ Cardona writes in ‘Poem to Circe XIX’, and he goes on ‘I am iconoclastic and break idols./ I affirm and deny with the same force.’ His disorientation and inability to re-integrate reminds us of the forces of European history rather than pre-history or the era of the Immortals. The force and intensity of the verse here is beautifully captured by the daughter-translator who has left everything said and nothing unsaid from the intense originals.

‘It is beautiful to be born like birds/ on a stone nest,’ says the poet in ‘Ibiza,’ a golden hymn to a loved island refuge, a poem that opens the El Vendimiador/ The Vintner section of the collection. Ibiza here is ‘a word, a blaze,/ a little geography,’ the island itself becoming a metaphor for the poet’s life, that intense life of love after torture, of fig trees after exile. This paean to Ibiza is followed by an emotional Ode to the poet’s brother ‘Ode to a Young Mariner.’ In beautifully precise nautical and classical lines, drenched with the spray of details, the poet appeals to his brother not to voyage without him across ‘a ferocious foam.’ This is poetry of an intense brotherly attachment:

‘Wait for me, brother, when you anchor
your vessel in the sea you’ve loved.
No need to depart so alone…..’

Such fraternal intensity is carried over into the perfect lyrics of ‘Four Orphic Sonnets,’ four flawless sonnets that celebrate love, art, and the solitary passion of both art and human love. These seem like perfect works, jewels of the Spanish language, and Hélène Cardona has correctly decided not to mirror the rhyme scheme in English; rather, the thoughts flow unfettered as thoughts always should in good translation. These poems are the smaller diamonds in a sparkling collection, a book that quivers and shines like lacquer-work in direct sunlight. The whole enterprise here, the genius of the father and his undaunted Classicism, the fidelity and skill of the daughter-translator, makes for a rare and beautiful event in world poetry. Birnam Wood is one of the most impressive collections of poetry I’ve read in recent years.

–Thomas McCarthy

Review: Isabelle Kenyon reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for Fly on the Wall Poetry (December 2018)

Birnam Wood by Spanish poet José Manuel Cardona, and translated by his daughter, Hélène Cardona, is a collection of his absolute best work - it flows like a,
‘Song that overflows like erosive
Blackberry juice’, 
and the poems are just as rich in imagery and meaning! The book spans the length of José’s career and travels and is sensitively translated by Hélène as a beautiful partnership.
The book begins with an extended ‘Poem to Circe’ which is almost a love letter or an attempt to document the way it stands, before it changes before his very eyes:
‘the rubble
Remains on the shore like a naked
There is an interesting use of biblical language at the very end of the ‘Poem to Circe’ sequence:
‘I’ve come to break crown and yoke. 
Rebel beggars and free slaves. 
I traded my peace for the knife.
I’m here to abolish death.
Those who believe in me will not die.’
This seems to be a poem about José meeting his maker, or Circe swallowing him up, at the end of his days, like a familiar friend. Perhaps in this way, Circe is compared to a living paradise. 
My favourite moments were those of dark humour, which translated beautifully:
‘The human species will die out
without ever reaching
the age of reason, like those teeth
called wisdom, tardy,
painful and useless’.
This feels like a timeless statement on humanity, despite being written by a twentieth-century poet. 
José also uses classical mythology to express aspects of humanity:
‘the gods
love the mortals and we struggle
to return to the Labyrinth.’ 
José seems to imply a spiritual force in the world, but not necessarily that this can be defined as the traditional image of a Christian God.

Overall, this was very interesting read with a classical and timeless feel. As a Spanish language novice, it was interesting to compare José’s poems to Hélène’s translations - and to note how intricately she had followed the structure and language! 

Review: Emma Lee reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for Emma Lee’s Blog  (December 2018)

“Birnam Wood” is a collection of José Manuel Cardona’s poems from the Spanish by Hélène Cardona presented in both the original Spanish and English translations. José Manuel Cardona (1928 – 2018) was a Spanish poet forced into exile in France and worked for the United Nations. His collections include, “El Vendimiador”, “Poemas a Circe” and “El Bosque de Birnam: Antología poética”. The poems in “Birnam Wood” are gathered in three sections, “Poems to Circe”, “The Vintner” and “Other Poems”. “Poems to Circe” are a series of love poems, in “Poem to Circe III”,

“You are not mine either even though I love you.
You are like earth, like the island.
I share you with no one, love, no one.
I cannot say: that is mine.
This island where we love belongs to no one.
I prefer it this way, because love
Is that language or fire or scattered
Universe in vine everywhere.

Flesh is subsequent, the very embers,
What one looks for and loves and composts.
Fleeting truth of an opaque moon
Cruelly scratching the burning bramble,
Awakening to the mystery of hands,
The touch of the mouth and kiss.”

The original Spanish:

“Tampoco tú eres mía aunque te amo.
Eres como la tierra, como la isla.
Con nadie te comparto, amor, con nadie.
Yo no puedo decir: aquello es mío.
Esta isla donde amamos no es de nadie.
Lo que se debe a alguien no es do uno.
Y lo prefiero así, porque el amor
Es cual lengua de fuego o universo
Desparramado en vid por todas partes.

La carne es lo ulterior, la brasa misma,
Lo que se busca y ama y estercola.
Fugitiva verdad de luna opaca
En arañzo cruel de zarza ardiendo
Despertando al misterio de las manos,
Al tacto de la boca y a los besos.”

Themes of longing and belonging echo throughout the sequence echoing the sense that someone you love does not belong to you but longs to be with you. My Spanish isn’t good enough to comment directly on the translation, it’s clear that the rhyme scheme has not been used but the English translation does use assonance on the softer, longer vowels as a substitute. The poems in the middle section have a more contemporary feel such as, “Tom Smithson Dead in his Garret”,

“They fear seeing you wake at some unearthly hour
to go toward Wall Street and tell
                the sausage makers
that it is beautiful to dictate commercial letters
                to the blond typists,
but even more beautiful to wander the banks
                of the Hudson.”

“Temen verte despertar a deshora
para ir hacia Wall Street y decir a los
             fabricantes de embutidos
que es hermoso dictar cartas comerciales a
             las rubias mecanógrafas,
pero más hermoso vagar por las riberas del

As beautiful as work is, the restorative nature of landscape is far better. These poems are evocative with a balance between specifics, “Wall Street” “Hudson”, and general images, “commercial letters” “blond typists”, so the reader is given a sense of place but still has space to become engaged. Nature comes to the fore in the sequence, “From the Euxine Sea”,

“It was at times the jasmine, then the rose
and the fields of rockrose and lavender
at times the hyacinths, the broom
and at other the iris.
Inhospitable city. Seafaring
love with no other horizon or banner
than the debris of shipwrecks fluttering
like a torchlight.”

“Fue a veces el jazmím y otras la rose
y los campos de jara y cantueso
y a veces el lirio.
Inhóspita ciudad. Enomorado
mar sin otro horizonte y estandarte
que el resto de naufragios palpitando
como una luz de antorchas.”

The scents from flowers counteract the coldness of the city but not sufficiently to stop dreams of escape and perhaps return from exile. The theme of love returns in “Four Orphic Sonnets”, in “Forgotten Amidst White Lilies”,

“Search for my heart with a shield
and find it in bloom, fully opened
for sorrow grown and ripened
like a bitter fruit of mild weight.

The wait smells of Moorish courtyard
and the night of guitars and my heart
wakes like a wounded bull.”

“Buscadme el corazón con una adargo
y lo ballaréis abierto, en flor granado
para el dolor crecido y madurado
como una fruta agraz de suave carga.

Tiene le espera olor de patio moro
y guitarras la noche y se despierta
mi corazón herido como un toro.”

Hélène Cardona has successfully balanced providing a literal translation with retaining the spirit and language of the original. English is limited in rhyming words but the translator has substituted part-rhymes and sound-patternings in their place. The translations in “Birnam Wood” don’t feel like translations but poems in their own right, which demonstrates the attention to detail and ability of the translator.

Full marks to Salmon Poetry for including both the original and translation on facing pages so both can be read alongside each other; costs often make this prohibitive.

Review: Grace Cavalieri reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for the Washington Independent Review of Books (November 2018 Exemplars)


There’s something about Spanish poetry, this particular poetry, where nothing appears lost in translation. Its bold, declarative tone, elevated content, mystical moments, contemplation, and fire show through in Spanish and now English. Especially memorable are the 20 poems to Circe.

The oracle

We had taken a seat
next to the Sphinx alone
on the cliff. We evoked
the shipwreck of those days
time winged
with caresses and trumpet sounds
the unbridled frenzy of dawns
that will never recur
lost footprints
in the snow and sleep.

Inhospitable city.
Intact memory
of merlons ablaze
now ashes
incandescent combustion
and the howl
of the hound that in our procession
would remain petrified on the shore
ultimate sacrifice
or agony of a yawning world.

Review: Jayant Kashyap reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for Only Humane (October 2018)

Dorianne Laux says: Hélène Cardona’s translations are revelations of language and image, a voice dipped in clear water and wrung through her careful hands. – and Hélène’s poetic humour, it is true, deserves no lesser.

Moreover, what is wonderful about the translations is that hardly anyone else could have done it better — Hélène being the daughter of José’s, she must know how the horizons take turns in his poetry. From silence to music. From wishing to demanding; wanting, to achieving. There is a flow in José’s poetry that is very beautiful in almost every way, with measured lines — manicured music.

This book of 94 pages, Birnam Wood, actually an anthology of sets has, obviously, elegies, odes, sonnets and masterful talent. — from father to daughter, the translations are almost as strong as the original pieces, I firmly believe. And there are pieces that stay with you, in truth.

Homeland / we share and it is the mystery. // It was written / without you or I knowing it.


The pomegranate tree will bloom / where you leave your footprints. / A fire of aubades / will shatter the sky, covering / the firmament.

— "Inhabited Elegy" / "Elegía habitada"

In the final part of the book, there are mythical creatures partaking in the poems, as much as you and I have done, creating in each almost an aura of its own.

But before that even, there’s not lesser aura in any of those; there’s just enough to make you converse with them, with anyone.

open the hands, look at them. / Do you ask of their emptiness? / You see: they love the land that is not theirs.

— "Poem to Circe II" / "Poema a Circe II"

In one of the poems in the book, José writes “Now only a flutter of ashes remains, and your name / voiced by the newspaper boy.” — and then in another he writes “And the dream will cloak / the earth with snow and oblivion.” There is, as is apparent, quite a deep sense of both belonging and not belonging, more of not belonging, and that is very clearly expressed in many of the lines in this collection; but José is not someone who is struggling to belong, through his poems. He has instead found a home in not belonging — the beauty of it. Birnam Wood is a collection housing variety, with bravery, and when José wrote it down, in 2007, it seems he had made sure of being the most expressive, and that at his best.

And among the many poems is one that was written in Paris, in 1955. “Over the Eiffel tower / I perceive your chained god bones”, and as it is, much of his poetry can hardly be abhorred — a completely wrong word when referring to him. — It just flows in through you. And, most of the time, stays.

There is a mystery I should keep secret.

Cardonas’ book is one that gets you interested in Literature apart from English — Hélène’s is not the first book, this one, but if this is the first someone reads, it is not one to be the last; and in case of José, it sure does get you closer to Spanish Literature.

Review: Peter O'Neill reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for Levure Littéraire: A Family Business (July 2018)

A Family Business
Esperanza es tu nombre, porque un nombre
Tiene significados que conoce
Solamente el amor.
So, the overture of Latinate vowels ascends.
Hope is your name, because a name
Has meanings only love
And, so the daughter of the Master Spanish poet translates.
Beso tu piel de bronce en sol bruñida.
Each line put down, hard won, and so deliberated with all of the full adjudicative sympathy of the science, by both.
I kiss your bronze skin burnished by the sun.
Bruñida/burnished was one of Baudelaire’s favourite verbs, Les Fleurs du Mal is full of the burnished bodies of women. There is this to consider, but there is also the voice of honeyed experience. These opening four lines are taken from the very first poem Circe II, one out of a whole cycle of poems devoted to the Homeric muse, who kept Odysseus from Penelope for several years, while turning his poor sailing companions into pigs by her magic. Hence, the reference to Baudelaire. For Circe, the goddess, is but woman eternal, fashioned out of the great tapestry of human experience, and José Manuel Cardona, like Baudelaire and no doubt Homer before him, has come but to inscribe the pain.

Review: Rustin Larson reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for The Iowa Source: José Manuel Cardona’s “Birnam Wood” (June 2018)

When I was in my early twenties, my fellow students and I feverishly employed ourselves to the production of a campus literary magazine. We were fuelled by visits from poets like Robert Bly, Marvin Bell, and John Logan who came to read to us in the campus lecture hall. Especially mesmerizing was Robert Bly, whose journal The Seventies introduced our young minds to translations of poets like Rilke and Tomas Transtromer. Especially popular were the translations from the Spanish: Fredrico Garcia Lorca, Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and Blas de Otero. What excited us about the poems from the Spanish? Bly said, “We accept tons of dull poetry, and no one looks for an explanation of why it is dull.” The poets translated from Spanish were not dull. They, in Bly’s words, “loved the new paths of association” and their leaps were the fuel that we as young poets adored and consumed like addicts.

In a similar vein, now that I’m slightly older, I have been enthusiastically revitalized by the recent encounter with the poetry of José Manual Cardona, masterfully translated by his daughter, poet Hélène Cardona.

José Manuel Cardona is a poet, writer, and translator from Ibiza, Spain. The Franco regime forced him into exile in France. This exile informs much of the spirit in this book. The original Spanish language is printed face to face with Hélène Cardona’s English translations. In her hands, El Bosque de Birnam (Consell Insular d’Elvissa, 2007) or in English, Birnam Wood (Salmon Poetry, 2018) sings to us in a rendering that is lush and passionate.

My favorites in the book are the Poems to Circe, where the young exiled poet, full of passion and longing, envisions himself as a modern Odysseus, swayed by his personal enchantress, at once person and country, who is seen everywhere, in the sea, in the sky, and on the earth. In years, I have not read a poetry more expansive, gripping, and beautiful for the true music of language.


I open my blood in love

and offer it to you.


I am amazed every day by the roaring

Song that overflows like erosive

Blackberry juice…


Amazing verbal gems abound in these poems, but so does a clear vision, so does a searing consuming energy. You cannot leave these poems behind unaltered; you cannot leave them without feeling your own exile, without hearing your own island, your country, call out to you.


Here I present “Poem to Circe XIX” as a sample:


I did not come to put things in order,

Nor will I spend much time among you.

The foreigner knows that the land

He most loves is not his and he remains

Like an unfamilier sailor among men.

When it’s time to leave,

When the wind raises its moorings

And the rigging is wrapped with the mysterious

Smoke of dawn and the fish

Slime is soft in the grotto

Where we sacrifice to the gods,

When you do not see me among you,

Abandon my name to oblivion.

I leave you nothing and I take nothing

With me. There are no anchors or banners

To commemorate my tenure.


Only the long knife of the stars

In the night’s open eyes.

I haven’t come to ask, or to give, or to be.

I haven’t come to sow in your fields

Nor do I think of collecting for winter.

I have been with you, that’s all.

Circe knows what stars, what storms,

What millennial moons brought me.

I know the signs ruling exile

And death and abandon myself

To a dark honey blood.


I am iconoclastic and break idols.

I affirm and deny with the same force.

Those who know me know the fire

In my decisions, what brutal force

Accompanies my laughter, what madness

Has bitten my chest and the black

Mastiffs barking on my heart.


–It was just a man who knew himself

A man inside and out. A Stranger

Who arrived, saw and loved. The humble

Adopted him a citizen of the island.

A man bound with human skin.


–And he is still alive and remembers you.

Review: Margaret Saine reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for California Quarterly (June 2018)

José Manuel Cardona, a voice from afar. Birnam Wood, poignant and sad, yet celebratory, of life, of love, of art. Friend of Luis Cernuda and a whole generation of Spanish poets and artists before him, exiled by Franco’s Civil War, Cardona left Spain during the early Franco dictatorship. His obtaining doctorates at universities in Nancy and Geneva, and later working for the United Nations in many of the world’s capitals, did not mitigate what was ultimately to become a life of exile. Starting to write poetry and collaborating at poetry journals in the fifties, Cardona is a poet deeply imbued with world poetic traditions, with Pound, Rilke, Hölderlin, Vallejo. Yet despite exile, Cardona is and remains a deeply Mediterranean, Spanish poet:
Under this sea Phoenician amphorae
Sleep their languid female curves. [21]
The foreigner knows that the land
He most loves is not his and he remains
Like an unfamiliar sailor among men. [35]
The anthology Birnam Wood was first published in Spanish as El Bosque de Birnam in 2007 by the government of Cardona’s native island of Ibiza.  It is thanks to José Manuel’s daughter, the polyglot American poet Hélène Cardona, that it has now seen the light in English, in her spirited, inspired translation.
Unlike Ulysses, who according to Homer shunned Circe as sorceress, Cardona dedicates some wonderful love poems to her, whose eyes he apostrophes as the “astral gaze of [a] blind sphinx.” An entire poetic cycle of 1959 is entitled “Poemas a Circe”:
This island where we love belongs to no one.
I prefer it this way, because love
Is that language of fire or scattered
Universe, in vines everywhere. [19]
He not only compares the loved woman to the earth, but she becomes, she is, the earth herself:
Circe, you are flesh, fertile land,
Like the one I don’t have on this island. [19]
But ultimately, even in Circe’s arms, the poet remains a stranger, at home and abroad. And from Circe’s arms, he is propelled toward travel, toward foreign lands, and into exile:
If they ask what is my name, I will
answer No one, My name is No one, No one,
and I own nothing, and it doesn’t hurt me
because this way I walk with less weight. [33]
Like that other poet diplomat in Rangoon, writing “Residence on Earth” several decades before him, Cardona is a deeply engagépoet embodying human suffering, in Spain as elsewhere:
I embody each man, each remnant
Of tormented man, each slag 
Of debased man, each cry
Of executed man    [39]   
Overall, José Manuel Cardona’s vision of humanity remains bleak, which is not surprising, given the times that were his to live in. In the major poem of 1995, “El Embeleso,” [The Spell], he writes, evoking Plato, Hobbes, and their ilk of humankind’s pessimists:
I don’t think we ever leave
the cave. Wolf, tiger and vulture,
words man invented 
fleeing from himself.   [67]
Yet with the very word of “fleeing”-- of people being forced into times of exile by times of war and civil war—José Manuel Cardona suggests a parsimonious note of hope for future generations: Humans, take heed, and reform!
And this he means, may be possible largely, thanks to the gift of poetry.
-Margaret Saine 

Review: Don Cellini reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for The Ofi Press Magazine (May 2018)

Hélène Cardona has done what few translators have the chance to do: she has translated the work of her own father, José Manuel Cardona. In this book Cardona presents his readers with poems on the human condition: love and loss, as well as exile and the diaspora.

Hélène Cardona is a seasoned translator, having already completed translations of authors such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, René Depestre, Ernest Pépin, Aloysius Bertrand, and others. She has provided a service in sharing her father's work with us in English, shedding additional light on that generation of Spanish poets who were forced into exile from their country. She lets us feel the pain of distance and separation as well as of life in new places. 

Review: Fred Johnston reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam (April 2018)

Hélène Cardona has produced a very fine translation in Birnam Wood, a collection of her father’s poetry of travel and experience, the Ibiza poet, José Manuel Cardona, rich in language, metaphor and imagery. A lovely book and a must for students and poetry-lovers alike. 

Fred Johnston, Galway Western Writers’ Centre 

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