Reading in Translation

Emilio Prados’ Jardin cerrado and the Spanish tradition in exile


Reviewed by Lucina Schell, Editor

Donald Wellman’s lyrical translation of Emilio Prados’ Jardin cerrado (Enclosed Garden) introduces a major poet of Spain’s Generation of ’27 to English-speaking audiences. By choosing to translate a complete work of the poet, Wellman also gives us the gift of appreciating Prados’ full and complex vision at work in his carefully constructed poetic journey. Unlike other poets of his generation such as Lorca and Hinojosa, whose careers were tragically cut short by the Spanish Civil War, Prados escaped into exile in Mexico, where he wrote Jardin cerrado, published in 1946, and other volumes that are among his most acclaimed works. Juan Larrea, the first editor of Jardin cerrado believed that in it “Prados redeems the flower of Spanish poetry from the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War” (7). Indeed, we are fortunate that the work of poets such as Prados, as well as Rafael Alberti and Vicente Aleixandre, continued to stoke the brilliant flame of this generation beyond the limitations of Spanish fascism. As Larrea’s assessment indicates, Jardin cerrado represents a lyrical journey that bears the mark of centuries of Spanish poetic tradition, from its motifs to its metrics and rhythms, as well as the untethered complexity of the Generation of ’27 and within it, the freedom of surrealism.

As Wellman describes in his illuminating introduction, Prados was a shy and lonely man, despite the recognition he received from his peers. He retreated often into solitude, which seemed to feed his work, and this self-imposed solitude, its own sort of exile, figures prominently in the journey of Jardin cerrado. Solitude is interrogated throughout the book, and is often even personified, as are other themes like death and night. The gender of nouns in Spanish, allowing for a subtle personification and playful subversion of gender, presents problems for English translators. Wellman confronts these elegantly, typically choosing not to use gendered pronouns—he, she—for these subjects/characters, except where absolutely necessary, lending strength to those poems where they are explicitly personified. Still, he does explain in his introduction the significance of these genders in the overall scheme of the book: “…the ‘garden’ and the ‘body’ are both gendered male in Spanish: ‘el jardin,’ ‘el cuerpo.’ Symbolically the garden is the poet’s body and he is the virgin, among multiple figures of containment and enclosure found in varying combinations throughout the poem” (10).

This central conceit of the book is borrowed from medieval romance, where the walled garden functions as a metaphor for the body of the virgin. Natural motifs like the poplar grove and olive trees come from Arab-Andalusian traditions, which root the sacred in the innocence and beauty of the natural world. Writing from outside the golden age of his generation, from outside the country that inspired him, Prados offers a journey through these traditions that allows us to look back and appreciate the fullness of his generation’s flowering. As Wellman summarizes, “For Emilio, after long journeys inward, the return to the garden, founded on nostalgia though it is, became his spiritual trajectory” (9). Jardin cerrado represents an inward journey, into the enclosed garden, that ultimately becomes externalized in the poet’s spiritual return to the garden. These internal/external dichotomies of alienation from the body and imprisonment within its desires weave a complex metaphor for exile and a consummation of the Spanish poetic tradition as it lives on beyond the confines of war-torn Spain.

The pain of exile suffuses the poetry of Jardin cerrado in direct and metaphorical references, but ultimately, the Spanish tradition, when viewed from a distance, gains new clarity of expression in Prados’ work—“nostalgia becomes visionary” (7). One of the most poignant references to his exile comes in an early poem, “Temblor del estío”/“Trembling summer”. “¿Qué me importa la alameda/si no he de volver a ella?”/“What to me is the poplar grove/if I am not to return to it?” asks the poet (64-5). “Al borde de la alameda/hay una rosa entreabierta…”/“At the edge of the poplar grove/there’s a rose half open…” the poem responds, with a tantalizing image of hope, just out of reach. The natural images become darker and more tragic as the poem proceeds: “hay una sombra que espera…”/“there’s a shadow that awaits…”, “llora el agua entre las piedras…/¡Suspiran las hojas secas!”/“the water weeps among the stones…/The dry leaves sigh!” (66-7). Each of these corresponding images trail off in inconclusive ellipses, with the last sigh punctuated by a dramatic exclamation point that calls to mind the theatrics of Lorca. (Wellman makes a respectable point of faithfully following Prados’s punctuation, a practice of which other translators might take note.) Even the deceptively simple language of this poem poses choices for the translator. The construction “si no he de volver a ella” could also be translated as “if I must not return to it” or “if I cannot return to it.” Wellman’s election is a happy medium between each of these senses. The rhetorical structure of this poem reminds me of a much earlier poem by José María Hinojosa, from his 1924 book Poema del campo, “Canción final”/ “Last song,” dedicated to Rafael Alberti. “Y qué se me importa a mí/que la helada se deshiele”/“And what does it matter to me/if the freeze thaws” the poem proceeds, offering images of transition and mobility. Hinojosa’s shorter poem concludes on a more optimistic note, “Si tengo en ciernes un campo/de margaritas de nieve”/“Because I have a field where/snow daisies bloom” (40-41, Mark Statman’s translation). Hinojosa’s country from 1924, despite the constant fluidity of nature, is one of comfort and predictability: the thawing freeze makes way for a field of snow daisies. Prados, looking back on Andalusia from exile, seems to literally wonder what to make of this natural beauty that he will never return to. The landscape has changed. The hopeful, half-open rose becomes a stream that mourns and dead leaves that pointedly sigh. Wellman’s flexible rendering of his phrasing leaves open the possibility that the poet is also willing himself to forget.

In the second book of Jardin cerrado, “El dormido en la yerba”/ “The Sleeper on the Grass,” Prados’ inward journey intensifies, and he begins to make explicit the central conflation of his body with the garden itself, retreating into and interrogating his practice of solitude. The book begins with “Cantar del dormido en la yerba”/ “Song of the Sleeper on the Grass”:

Death is with me;

but death is the enclosed

garden, a space, a preserve,

silence, walled-in,

by the skin of my body […] (103)

Prados conflates the enclosed garden with death, a carefully tended and unnatural landscape that is resistant to pollination, diversity, the intrusion of outsiders. At the same time, it is the silence, enclosed by the poet’s body. Elsewhere, the poet continues to conflate the walls of the garden with the outer limits of his body. In “Sangre de la noche”/ “Blood of the Night,” he writes:

Were you and your silence,

the skin that you still lacked

for my fully realized

body –enclosed garden-,

shadow? Now you are whole!

Complete solitude already you join me. (141)

The body of the sleeper on the grass, (“I am the center of the garden:/shade, reclining body,/figure of repose” 107) becomes one with the garden; the garden, taking in the poet’s body, becomes whole and the poet is enveloped in solitude.

Much of the book is written in meter, and the poet fittingly chooses the Spanish national meter, the romance or ballad, of eight syllable lines and assonant rhyme. “Tres canciones” (“Three songs”), which follows the more complex and gorgeous “Tres tiempos de soledad” (“Three Periods of Solitude”), follows this meter faithfully:

Tengo mi cuerpo tan lleno                                            I keep my body so full

de lo que falta a mi vida,                                               of that which is lacking in my life,

que hasta la muerte, vencida,                                      until death, overcome,

busca por él su consuelo.                                              seeks in it its consolation.

Por eso, para morir,                                                       That’s why, in order to die,

tendré que echarme hacia dentro                                I will have to throw

las anclas de mi vivir.                                                     inwardly the anchors of my life. (156-7)

The poem (the first song) proceeds in this structure of alternating three and four syllable stanzas of octosyllabic lines, with a simple abba cdc rhyme scheme. The tercet inverts after another four line stanza: “Por eso, para vivir,/tendré que echarme hacia dentro/las anclas de mi morir”/ “That’s why, in order to live,/I will have to throw/inwardly the anchors of my death” (156-7). Despite the presence of water, and later sea, in this poem, no ship appears in relation to the “anchors.” Throwing the anchors of death or life within is a violent act against the self. The lack of a ship signifies the impossibility of escape. Life and death are taken within the body, yet the body remains unmoored in a state of exile. In the third song, the poet continues:

Me pierdo en mi soledad                                                I am lost in my solitude

y en ella misma me encuentro,                                     and in it itself I am found

que estoy tan preso en mi mismo                                 who am so pressed into my very self

como en la fruta está el hueso […]                                as the stone is in the fruit.

Así, por dentro y por fuera                                                And so, from within and from without

se equilibra mi destierro:                                                 my exile is balanced:

dentro de mí por temor,                                                    within from dread

fuera, por falta de miedo.                                                 without, from lack of fear. (158-9)

Meter and rhyme are often cited as evidence for the impossibility of poetic translation. Wellman does not attempt to replicate the rhyme scheme, or really the meter, instead opting for an unembellished rendering of the sense. He does capture, fortuitously, internal rhyme in the lines “That’s why, in order to die,” and a soft musicality from the alliteration and consonance in lines like “lacking in my life” and “seeks in its consolation.” The painful image of imprisonment within the body from the fruit/pit metaphor, reinforcing the sense of exile and the sterility of the enclosed garden, is strengthened in the Spanish, where Prados uses “hueso” for stone, meaning literally “bone.” “Balance” is a major concern of Prados’ poetry, and here the meter reinforces the careful balance within the Spanish.

While much of the material of the book seems drawn from nostalgia for Spain, Mexico seeps into some of the poems, such as “La voz en el jardin”/ “The Voice in the Garden.” Here is the poem in its entirety:

As a gleaming sword

with a thrust through my eyes

sorrow pierced my body.

It descends through me, stepping on my ruins;

colonizing the field of my dream.

Like a beam of light its fiery tears

moistened my blood

and I departed illuminated, pursued:

all my insides open to the new master.

The heiress to the sorrow of my madness

unleashed the currents of her army

and discovering my eyes now without borders,

my garrison fell to them.

Now I sing with the flower of my sadness

hidden in silence:

For what purpose am I to enter the grove

if it does not lead to eternity? (236-9)

I love this photo of Prados.

In the violence of this poem, Prados seems to refer to both the Spanish Civil War and the Spanish conquest of Mexico as metaphors for his pain and loneliness. The references to “ruins” and “colonization” call to mind the ruins of ancient Mexican civilizations, still omnipresent in the Mexican landscape, but could also refer of course to the more contemporaneous ruins of Spain in the aftermath of the Civil War, and its colonization by Franco’s fascist regime. The second stanza continues with war metaphors, and a more intense and sexualized possession of the body in conquest. Here, Prados opens his insides, perhaps attempting to liberate what they have been so filled with. His eyes are now without borders, another reference to his obsession throughout the book with the outer limits that keep things in, in this case within nations. He ends the poem with another return to the poplar grove that echoes the earlier poem. Here, the grove is envisioned as a pathway to eternity, to the divine essence within all landscapes. It is no longer the physical space that remains beyond his reach.


Jardin cerrado/Enclosed Garden by Emilio Prados. Trans. Donald Wellman. Diálogos, 2013.

Black Tulips: The Selected Poems of José María Hinojosa. Trans, Mark Statman. University of New Orleans Press, 2012.