Birnam Wood engages the reader in an ascending exploration of the world and the self together. As human beings, we are bound and brought closer to one other through the mythic tales we know and create anew. These stories flow through humankind across all our philosophies, literature, and faiths. José Manuel Cardona, and his daughter Hélène Cardona, take us on a literary voyage of a classic hero’s journey. One where we become the maritime pilot navigating a ship at sea through its depths and currents. Go, go, go, said the seaman: for it is a journey worthy of your time and the distant lands you’ll come to know.
Review: Birnam Wood, by José Manuel Cardona, trans. from the Spanish by Hélène Cardona, reviewed on Bookaccino (June 20, 2019)
If you’ve ever seen one of those .gifs that is meant to help regulate your breathing when you feel an anxiety attack coming on, you’ll recognize the mood set in this collection of poetry. Birnam Wood is a collection you pick up when the cycle of life—creation, destruction, love, everything—gets to be too much. These poems are the kind that make you feel small in the world, but in a cottony kind of way: being small does not mean being insignificant. Being set into a myth, even as an observer, needn’t be frightening, and here is even grounding.
The book is divvied up into three sections: Poems to Circe, The Vintner, and Other Poems. For this reader at least, it is hardly an easily-perceived division as, while the subject matter itself varies, the feeling and movement of the collections rushes up and over itself overwhelmingly, like sitting in sucking and rushing waves on a stony black beach. The delineations in the book are buoys marking your progress as you’re swept further and further out.
In a world that needs more witches, this collection is a joy to read: the author gives the power to the reader to create the witch, our Circe, and carry her name and spells with us. It is this creation that is so much the crux of the work, but the reader is continually reminded that creation has a price. And when you’re creating an immortal witch, you’re playing with fire and crags, and love.
[…] love itself was making you.
I created you, Circe; humanly
I keep recreating me in your image,
I keep recreating you and living
My creation in you, until I don’t know
Or confuse, by dint of knowing,
Where you, reality, start
And where I, desire, end.
There is a cloying need in this creation, a desperation to be recognized as creator and loved in turn as much as the creator loves the creation. When there is no home on the horizon, the creator must create and so becomes in creation, and vice versa. The author created Circe to see her make magic, created her so that he can believe in magic. It is a beautiful selfishness, a living haunting.
I have the ageless power of volcanoes
And I feed my thirst for adventure.
You already recognize, Circe, my bones.
I’ve traded my peace for the knife.
I’m here to abolish Death.
Those who believe in me will not die.
These are the rules of Cardona’s poems: Creation is possession. Destruction is possession. Love is possession. Possession is destruction. Recognition is immortality.
Here, love is the space between the symbiosis of creation and destruction. It is the yin-yang symbol pushing itself around and within, endlessly and hypnotically.
A creature with no home is a living ghost. The stubbornness of living, of refusing to die, in creating so as to preserve one’s own bones when they no longer belong to us, is the anxiety-inducing and poignant linchpin of this collection of poems. The need to be seen and loved drumpfs all else, and makes a fool of the creator. But we love the fool, because the fool is us. Just as the creation is also us: in reader, we are created as reader by author. We are claimed and owned, just as we, like Circe, by turns shuck off and adore the eyes and hands of the creator.
Only man is capable of destroying
what he never created
and he alone believes belongs to him.
Seeing is not enough to live,
everything has to be his, owned.
I do not read Spanish at all, and am grateful to Hélène Cardona, translator and daughter of author and creator José Manuel Cardona, for rendering this collection in English. Because it is a rendering, as the words themselves seem rent from the Spanish and forged and recast into English, much like the “crown like a yoke / Macerated in irons and crystals.” The translation, the poems, glimmer and cast shadows, breaking over the cliffs the lines comprise of. The poems spill over themselves but then come to collect themselves in little pools: the anxiety breaks over the reader’s head but collects into the vintner’s glasses of heady wine that cozily overwhelms.
All is consumed, Circe, and I live.
José Manuel Cardona’s Orphic Aubade
José Manuel Cardona’s collection Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam
(Salmon Poetry, 2018), translated by his daughter Hélène Cardona, opens with an epigraph from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1820 closet drama Prometheus Unbound, which itself was an exercise in creative translation, a reimagining of a now-lost play by Aeschylus of which only fragments remain. Considering the ease with which the Cardonas move within and through languages as well as the format of the book—José Manuel’s original Spanish on the left, Hélène’s English translation on the right—we can wish for no more fitting epigraph to the book than Shelley’s since here “Language is a perpetual Orphic song.”
This review, I should say at the outset, won’t dwell much on the titanic feat Hélène Cardona’s translation achieves, that of being almost indistinguishable from the original to a bilingual reader who consumes the collection reading the recto and verso of each page, in order. At times, I forgot which poem was the original and which the translation. It is fitting that the preface of the book is by Andrés Neuman, who, on his personal blog, remarks that “querer a alguien implica transformar sus palabras en las nuestras”: “To love someone implies transforming their words into ours” (“Translating Each Other”).
Gone is the prevailing notion of the traduttore / traditore adage familiar to every one of us who has studied comparative literature—where, in a vowel change, the Italians made their (all too familiar) feelings about translation known. Yet in the Cardonas’ work, we find no such ill will. What larger measure of love is there than to spend time with a family member’s words? Not only to internalize them but to produce them just as beautifully in a language common to both author and translator, both father and daughter? Hélène Cardona’s translation of her father’s poetic anthology imbues the same reverence to the Old Masters of world literature, among them Homer, Góngora, and Shakespeare—from the last of whom the collection takes its title—into the fabric of its English lines as the originals show.
This tripartite collection begins with the “Poems to Circe,” which are addressed to that Oceanid nymph who is reimagined here with some attributes of Calypso, who herself, depending on one’s reading of the Odyssey, either soothed Odysseus on his return home to Ithaca from Troy or waylaid him and frustrated his attempts to reach Penelope. By opening with a section of poems that function as love poems to a traditionally maligned character, the book’s polyglot celebration of multicultural sources shines through—not only does the elder Cardona engage with distinct polyglot traditions, he imbues his crisp Castilian Spanish with the Greek tradition of ξενία evident in Circe’s original welcoming of Odysseus, a tradition of consummate hospitality to strangers. Cardona’s speaker in part 1, an Odyssean traveler himself, though never conclusively identified with the Homeric character, implies that this particular reworking of Circe never broke ξενία as blatantly as her Homeric iteration did, though she has that same darkness. Despite—or perhaps because of—this, the speaker of Cardona’s poems is compelled to “carry on on this island, whipped by typhoons / Chained to the sea” screaming “until hoarse, your beloved name.” The poems in this section not only deal with the relationship between the speaker and Circe but also show an awareness of the sense of erudite play afforded a polyglot poet who is confident in the magic of his voice (much like Circe’s) to pun on an episode in book 9 of the Odyssey where, in accordance again with the laws of stranger-friendship, Odysseus responds that Οὖτις is his name when asked by the Cyclops. Cardona alludes to this when he says “When they ask, I will answer: No one” (Poem to Circe XVIII).
The second section of the book, “The Vintner,” opens with an ode to Ibiza, José Manuel Cardona’s birthplace; here, he shows a versatility that not only touches on the classics of Spain and the Greco-Roman world but one that echoes the poetry of the Americas as well. The second stanza of “Ibiza” echoes the structure of Neruda’s poem “Walking Around” but in this versión ibicenca of the poem, we do not find the speaker tired of being a man; instead, he luxuriates in his homeland, telling the interlocutors (readers or listeners) that “now I have no mystery for you. / I am the man from the island of Ibiza.”
Preoccupied with place equally in language, time, and space, the poems in Birnam Wood
are, like the title of the collection, easily understood the first time they are encountered. With every minute spent more closely reading the poems, however, we begin to hear echoes of things suggested intertextually both between lines and between poems. If Birnam Wood is mentioned, Dunsinane Hill mustn’t be far behind, right? This collection, though, is not bogged down in mist and rain like a certain Scottish king’s demise at Scone. Rather, though it ends with an “Inhabited Elegy,” Cardona’s collection harnesses the power of nostalgia in the Greek sense, a longing for home, to shine through the sadness of some of its poems to remind readers that “in the sunrises / memory comes back to” us, and we are richer for it.
Jordi Alonso graduated with an AB in English from Kenyon College in 2014 and was the first Turner Fellow in Poetry at Stony Brook University, where he received his MFA. He is a Gus T. Ridgel Fellow in English at the University of Missouri, where he is a PhD candidate studying the cultural transmission of nymphs and fauns in literature. His work has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Southampton Review, Levure Littéraire, and other journals. Honeyvoiced, his first book, was published by XOXOX Press in 2014, and his chapbook, The Lovers’ Phrasebook, was published by Red Flag Poetry Press in 2017.
Birnam Wood is a spell-binding, spell-bound book. It comes by this honestly, of course, originating in the spells of the three witches who correctly envision the death of Macbeth, but extending to a great many other binding moments in literature. It is no coincidence that one of the overarching concerns of the book is the certainty of human mortality. The poems in the book were collected over many years, beginning with the youthful series of “Poems to Circe” written and published in 1959 and ending in time, appropriately, with “The Spell,” written in 1995. Throughout, the poet relies on the magic of language and metaphor to articulate his desires, his misgivings and his passions.
José Manuel Cardona was one of many Spanish intellectuals exiled by the Franco government, and the poems reflect the anguish and longings of the exile, embodied most powerfully in the figure of Odysseus. Cardona’s outpourings of longing for his “Circe” bespeak a displaced self and all its yearnings for the homeland. In “Poem to Circe III,” he says, “Circe, you are flesh, fertile land,/ Like the one I don’t have on this island.” What is mythology, after all, but a metaphor we tell ourselves to explain the inexplicable? To this poet, myth, metamorphosis, and magic are undeniably intertwined: “And metamorphosis and spell,/To what extent are they inseparable?” The fact that Circe herself is an enchantress and a spell-maker lends considerable depth to the metaphor.
Throughout the book the poet takes pains to emphasize his astonishment at the “this-ness” of the world in which he finds himself, and in the fluid and sensual and quite beautiful translations of his daughter, the language expressing this wonder rings through as truth and beauty:
Hélène Cardona is the author of seven books, most recently the award-winning Dreaming My Animal Selves and Life in Suspension and the translations Birnam Wood (José Manuel Cardona), Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac), winner of a Hemingway Grant, Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb.
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).
Sidney Wade is a poet, translator, and professor residing in Gainesville, Florida. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Houston, an MEd in counseling from the University of Vermont, and a BA in philosophy from the University of Vermont. Her seventh collection of poems, Bird Book, was published by Atelier26 in the fall of 2017. She has served as President of AWP and Secretary/Treasurer of ALTA. She is Professor Emerita of Poetry and Translation at the University of Florida.
Birnam Wood by José Manuel Cardona, translated by Hélène Cardona, the poet's daughter, was published in Ireland by Salmon Poetry. The collection measuring ninety-six pages of poetry is divided in three sections: 'Poems to Circe', 'The Vintner', and 'Other Poems', introduced with a prologue by Andrés Neuman. The original text was published in 2007 by the Consell Insular d'Eivissa, Ibiza, Spain, as El Bosque de Birnam.
Here we have the wood near Birnam in Perthshire, Scotland, which in Macbeth is a symbol of Macbeth's defeat. The world moves like a branch in the hand of a man doing. The collection poems with a quote from Shelley: 'Language is a perpetual orphic song.'
Writing to a god is a tricky adventure. If the poet is a believer, Leopardi's infinity of silence is dealt with humility. .If the poet is a believer, Ungaretti's immensity of light fills him with glory. If you're not a believer, well I guess, there is a problem and so you will have to seek for more tangible thematics.
José Manuel Cardona's prayer, 'Poem to Circe', is proof of faith. 'I don't know... where you, reality, start/And where, I, desire, end' (25). Interestingly, the obvious is not so obvious. Cardona's Odysseus, a symbol of desire, is less real than the god of his soul. The universe is ripped inside out. Circe, a nymph, a witch changes men into hogs. Odysseus, however, is protected for having swallowed the drug moly. Cardona, however, is under the influence. Hence, desire is less truthful than the concretion of a goddess. 'I kept recreating you in my image', writes the poet. Between reality and non-reality the image. Poetry resides there. And the greatest of poets. And the loneliest of poets too: 'And I remain alone and amazed.'
Why the aloneness? Because, as the poet confesses, he believes in magic, sees masks and pulp, bites into the stem, and cannot explain the glamor of drums and the jungle. He created the goddess he can't ignore anymore, and so, back turned against friend and slave he, 'No one', alone awaits the 'revelation'.
The poet is a foreigner in a foreign land, with the 'ageless power of volcanoes' and a 'thirst for adventure', 'having to abolish Death'.
'Those who believe in me will not die./ I love the pain: my Kingdom is of this world.'
These verses bring to an end the prayer, a love song to life.
Follow individual poems such as 'Ibiza' (with its verse: 'this land has made me a prisoner', a masterpiece), 'From the Euxine Sea' ('Inhospitable city... Why the will to always move forward/ to go deeper into forests/ and embrace the maelstrom?), 'The Spell' ('I don't think we'll ever leave the cave'), the 'Four Orphic Sonnets' ('Image of love too, death/ finds us among reeds. Baptistry./ Splendid gargoyle or lifeless dream.'), and the final 'Inhabited Elegy' dedicated to Luis Cernuda ('Take me by the hand, pilgrim.... Yet I will follow your narrow path').
José Manuel Cardona, why have I not read you before? We must thank Hélène Cardona for this 'act of revelation'. For is this not what translation is? Offering illumination from the unknown for me the daub.
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 Woodby 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.
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
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:
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:
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!
“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.”
“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.
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.
We had taken a seat
next to the Sphinx alone
on the cliff. We evoked
the shipwreck of those days
with caresses and trumpet sounds
the unbridled frenzy of dawns
that will never recur
in the snow and sleep.
of merlons ablaze
and the howl
of the hound that in our procession
would remain petrified on the shore
or agony of a yawning world.
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.
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.
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
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.
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. 
The foreigner knows that the land
He most loves is not his and he remains
Like an unfamiliar sailor among men. 
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.