Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam – A poetic anthology
|José Manuel Cardona (Translated from the Spanish by Hélène Cardona)|
Page Count: 94
Publication Date: Thursday, February 22, 2018
About this Book
* Winner of the Pinnacle Book Award for Best Bilingual Poetry Collection *
* Finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award *
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Birnam Wood is one of the most impressive collections of poetry I’ve read in recent years.
Birnam Wood is a World Literature Today Notable Translation of 2018.
Birnam Wood is Awarded Best Translation in the Washington Independent Review of Books.
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
Copyright © José Manuel Cardona & Hélène Cardona 2018
Review: Jordi Alonso reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for World Literature Today (May 21, 2019)
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.
Review: Sidney Wade reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for The Los Angeles Review (15 May 2019)
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:
It is beautiful to be born like birdson a stone nest,lift the wings like an antenna of lightover the bitter sea,carry the name of the belovedon the wings
His evocation, in the Circe poems, of the splendors of the flesh and the insistent passions of youth work well and powerfully to counterbalance the weight of the poet’s later considerations of loss and mortality.
The book is haunted by the tutelary spirits of literary friends and giants who have passed: Vallejo, Cernuda, Góngora, and contains elegies to a great many of the poet’s artist friends. It’s almost as if the spells the poet is weaving are attempts to ward off mortality and loss, as if they were talismans against forgetting and/or being forgotten. In his lovely “Inhabited Elegy,” the great heroes of myth are still with us and speak to each other in the present moment:
(In Knossos, dolphinsknow how to exit the Labyrinthand Theseus chats with Oedipusin full knowledge that the sea, final destiny,will be his shroud. Because the godslove the mortals and we struggleto return to the Labyrinth.)
There are many mythological and literary heroes here with us, clearly embodied or hinted at: Rilke, Orpheus, Hölderlin, Pygmalion, Odysseus, Shelley, Shakespeare, Machado, García Lorca. Through the fiercely elemental, deeply sensual and classically disciplined magical spells of José Manuel Cardona and the loving talents of his daughter, they live, struggle, bicker, forgive, and remember, still, as this magical book continues to keep their memory alive.
Ode to a Young MarinerTo my brother Manuel
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.
Review: Antonio D'Alfonso reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for The Pacific Rim Review of Books (5 May 2019)
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 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.
Review: Thomas McCarthy reviews Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam for Poetry International: Poetry of Exile: Thomas McCarthy on José Manuel Cardona (December 2018)
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 witnessedby Heraclitus’ eyes even though it’s notthe same river.I ponder this way, spellboundOn the banks of the DanubeThis fall afternoonWhen 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 extentOf my watchful arms. DistanceCounts 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 anchoryour 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.
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 erosiveBlackberry 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 rubbleRemains on the shore like a nakedBody’.
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 outwithout ever reachingthe age of reason, like those teethcalled 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 godslove the mortals and we struggleto 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 loveIs that language or fire or scatteredUniverse in vine everywhere.
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 amorEs cual lengua de fuego o universoDesparramado en vid por todas partes.
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 hourto go toward Wall Street and tellthe sausage makersthat it is beautiful to dictate commercial lettersto the blond typists,but even more beautiful to wander the banksof the Hudson.”
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 roseand the fields of rockrose and lavenderat times the hyacinths, the broomand at other the iris.Inhospitable city. Seafaringlove with no other horizon or bannerthan the debris of shipwrecks flutteringlike a torchlight.”
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 shieldand find it in bloom, fully openedfor sorrow grown and ripenedlike a bitter fruit of mild weight.
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.
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.
— "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 nombreTiene significados que conoceSolamente el amor.
So, the overture of Latinate vowels ascends.
Hope is your name, because a nameHas meanings only loveKnows.
And, so the daughter of the Master Spanish poet translates.
EnamoradoBeso 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.
EnamouredI 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
I am amazed every day by the roaring
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.
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 amphoraeSleep their languid female curves. The foreigner knows that the landHe most loves is not his and he remainsLike 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 loveIs that language of fire or scatteredUniverse, in vines everywhere.