Reviewed by Lucina Schell, Editor
I first had the privilege to encounter Hinojosa’s poems as a student in Mark Statman’s Spanish Surrealism class at the New School, and I celebrate the achievement of this book. In considering Statman’s translations, which I have always admired for their poet’s attention to the musicality and connotations of language, I want also to contextualize Hinojosa’s poems within the surrealist visual art movement that influenced them. Like Lorca, Hinojosa’s early poems evoke the beauty and mystery of the Spanish countryside, yet the seeds of surrealism are already present in these spare and luminous lines:
por la mañana
dan sombra blanca.
El suelo se cubre
de una gasa
Y el pegujal
con gotas de agua.
The olive trees
in the morning
cast a white shadow.
covers the land.
With drops of water
From his first book of poems, Poema del campo (Poem of the Country) published in 1924, this poem is purely imagistic in its simplicity. The scene is not a metaphor for something else. It is a landscape as much as any landscape painting, and in its painterly quality lies its surrealism. There is a union of the surreal and the painterly visual in images such as, “The olive trees in the morning cast a white shadow.” We commonly know shadows to be dark, so a white shadow seems surreal; however, if there is frost on the ground and morning light shining on the scene, the shadow could very well appear to be white. This type of disconnect between what we really see with our eyes and what our minds tell us is real is often portrayed in paintings which show the way light affects the subject, and surrealists were interested in this disconnect between perception of reality and mental notions of reality.
Not only does the language of the poem create painterly images of the play of light, Hinojosa’s poetic form allows the reader to experience the poem visually. Hinojosa directs us through the scene of the poem as the light in a painting directs the eyes across it, and it is here that Statman’s choices as translator, even in this very simple poem, direct the English version in a similarly surreal fashion. In the Spanish, Hinojosa uses two different words in the second and third stanza, “cubrirse” and “taparse,” both of which Statman translates as “cover.” In such a sparse poem, there may be a great temptation to diversify the few descriptive words, but Statman’s choice to repeat “cover” creates a thread that conducts the reader’s attention through the English version and replicates the painterly control that the poet exercises in the Spanish. It also creates a beautiful reflection in the second and third stanzas of “frost/covers” and “farm/covered.” While cubrir and tapar have slightly distinct senses, with tapar more frequently used to convey the sense of covering as with a hat, a pot with a lid, or a bottle with a stopper, Statman’s choice of “cover” for both removes the other connotations that might crowd out the spare beauty of this poem. A more poetic choice for “tapar” could be veil, but in English this arouses a host of connotations that in the Spanish are more left up to the reader’s imagination of the scene. In a wonderful interview with the Nebraska Girl Lit Hour, Statman spoke of the challenge of translating Hinojosa’s early poems to make them “as tight as the Spanish.” Here, Statman privileges the tightness of the original to great effect.
Hinojosa’s poem moves from the simple present tense in the first stanza, to the passive tense in the second and third (literally translated it would read, “the ground is covered”), while Statman elects the simple present for the first two stanzas and concludes in the passive. Curiously, as a student, the first draft of this translation I came in contact with had a different third stanza, “And drops of water/cover/the farm”). I have to say that I feel conflicted over Statman’s revision, perhaps because I was deeply affected by the earlier version. The passive tense is much more common–and successful, I think–in Spanish; to my ear, the passive revision of the third stanza is a bit clunky and takes away from the immediacy that in English emphasizes that painterly quality of the Spanish. Yet, Statman’s revision mimics the single stanza tense switch within the Spanish poem, and also privileges that structural echo “farm/covered” that I like so much.
The title of the book comes from the deliciously surreal “Dreams” (69). “Smear your body/with darkness/and silence/and you may raise/the cup of dreams,” the poem begins in a surrealist incantation. By the end, “A splinter of light/pierces/the black tulips.” Here, there is heady surrealism and metaphor. Dreams are “black tulips,” flowers that grow fantastically in the darkness, and that are interrupted by the violence of morning light. This poem is a marked experimentation with surrealist dream states, yet it still stems from the natural imagery that inspires Hinojosa’s earliest poems.
By Hinojosa’s last book of poetry, La sangre en libertad (Blood in Freedom) of 1931, the poems are replete with surreal imagery and darkened with violence and chaos that echo the turbulent times in which they were written. “Pomegranates of Fire” is a tremendous example, from which I will quote the last stanza of Statman’s translation:
This opened pomegranate isn’t the fruit of a tree
bred in belly of seas and jungles;
in its bitter shell it carries the amplitude of the sky
and at its core peck birds and beasts. (171)
In the original, a beautiful half rhyme is formed by “selvas” and “fieras,” which Statman replicates with “tree,” “seas,” and “beasts,” capturing the musicality of the Spanish. The alliteration of “birds and beasts” is a fortuitous contribution from the English. Throughout the stanzas are the same echoes that can be seen in Hinojosa’s earlier style. The poem opens with “bitter architecture” and concludes with “in its bitter shell it carries the amplitude of the sky.” This late poem of Hinojosa exemplifies Statman’s musical ear.
The three poems I have discussed, from throughout Hinojosa’s career, each take natural imagery as subject or metaphor, and increasingly darken it with surreal ferocity. Curiously, the Spanish word for pomegranate is “granada,” calling to mind the great Andalusian city and capitol of Moorish Spain, whose cultural legacy could not be erased by the inquisition nor by Franco’s years of fascist dictatorship. Taken as a metaphor for Spain itself, the pomegranate is pecked at by savage creatures; civil war threatens to tear the country apart. At his most complex, Hinojosa’s poems read like Dalí’s paintings, richly detailed with eroticism, depravity, and decay, but above all, a great passion for the mystery of his land.
Black Tulips: The Selected Poems of José María Hinojosa. Trans, Mark Statman. University of New Orleans Press, 2012.