Reviewed by Charlotte Whittle
Ramón López Velarde enjoys the status of a national poet in Mexico, where his best-known work, “Suave patria” (Gentle Homeland), is recited in classrooms across the country. Yet López Velarde’s work is all but unknown to English-language readers. López Velarde, who was active around the time of the Mexican Revolution, came of age as a poet after the peak of the Spanish American Modernismo founded by Rubén Darío, but his work predates that of the internationally known Spanish-language poets such as César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and Federico García Lorca, and is perhaps best viewed as a bridge between Modernismo and the avant-garde.
López Velarde’s poems abound in formal innovation, but their technical sophistication has sometimes been neglected, perhaps owing to the relative conservatism of his subject matter and his open veneration of tradition. Like the Uruguayan Herrera y Reissig, he often ended successive lines with proparoxytonic words, creating a startling rhythmic impact. Yet he also wrote poems in a more conversational free verse, whose tone suits his subject matter well, and whose apparent simplicity conceals a lyric density admired by many later poets. His metaphors tend often towards the complex and unusual: images such as the “volcanic pallor” of a woman’s face in “May it be for the Good,” or a “misanthropy of violets” in “My Soul is Transmuted” produce surprising breaks in poetic logic. M.W. Jacobs, who has translated a new selection of his poems, writes of López Velarde’s relation to later avant-garde poets that he “prefigures them with wild tangential flights of the imagination, obscure or semi-surreal imagery, and broken syntax” (ii). Jacobs’s new translation strives to make the Mexican poet’s innovations intelligible to the contemporary reader.
The principal thematic coordinates of López Velarde’s poetry could be said to be his affection for home and an unrecoverable past, and a veneration of women that exists in tension with his religiosity. “While the Evening Dies” is characteristic of López Velarde’s nostalgic tone: the poet laments the passage of time, and after a brief evocation of the provincial setting, senses a disdain in his beloved for the passions brewing in his heart:
The drowsy twilight falls
And if with your disdain you muffle
The flame of my love, I am happy
With the deep look of your mysterious
López Velarde is content to bask in the dignity of her presence, admiring the “jewels of the grandmothers” (35) on her hand, and the speaker seems to suggest that tradition can be as powerful as love. But while poems such as this one maintain a certain distance between the lyric subject and his beloved, elsewhere the provincial scene and Catholic imagery give rise to eroticism. In “May it be for the Good,” childhood is remembered as “all fragrant of the sacristy,” and the loss of innocence is evoked through the transformation of water into wine:
You completed the wonder of replacing my clear water
With a grape liquor… And I drink
The liquor that your hand provides me (61).
Here the eroticized allusion to the Eucharist echoes the images of communion found in some Modernista poetry, and even in the early work of Vallejo, who was later to depart so radically from the Modernista aesthetic.
* * *
“Suave Patria” is not an epic of the founding of the nation, but a chronicle of the everyday lives of its people, which raises the seemingly banal and domestic to the level of poetry, enshrining items such as clocks and beads in a hymn that honors the settings of the provincial life López Velarde enjoyed until moving to the capital in 1911. The tone is not grand, but intimate. The “Proem” states:
I will say in muted epic:
the homeland is impeccable and diamantine.
Gentle Homeland: permit me to wrap you
in the deepest music of the jungle
with which you modeled me
entirely by the rhythmic blow of axes,
amid laughs and shouts of girls
and birds of the woodpecker trade. (3)
López Velarde sings to his country’s natural resources such as corn and oil, but some of the most evocative lines are reserved for these resources as they are shaped by human hands:
and through the early mornings of the native soil,
in streets like mirrors, the bakery
empties its sacred fragrance. (5)
The poet celebrates the abundance of the nation less with the panorama of its landscapes than with the signs of a warm, quotidian, domestic abundance, extolling “a paradise of compotes” and “cupboard and aviary” (5).
Much of López Velarde’s subject matter is drawn from the provincial life he imagines as a refuge from urban modernity. The plazas, houses, and fountains of the towns of his native state of Zacatecas become idealized spaces that could easily stand for any provincial town where the frenetic pace of city life can be escaped. In “Viaje al terruño” (“Journey to the Native Soil”), the poet divides his poem into three sections evoking anticipation, journey, and arrival (27). The poetic voice speaks not of his native land as he himself sees it, but as he hopes it will be seen by the implied recipient of his invitation:
The dawn sends its living fire
To the purple cloudscape
And to the dusty carriage
A beam of furtive light.
The native city arises:
Within its boundaries, a hut
Seems to see the wheels
Break the crystal of the river
And among mute poplars
The country house hides itself.
Can you see
from the coach windows
the Shrine, like a snowy reliquary
hidden by the orange groves?
The pigeons leave
the slender belfry
and streak the skies with their flights,
as if the towers welcomed
you, my life, with
waving handkerchiefs. (29)
Though present as an observer, orchestrating the arrival, López-Velarde the lover almost absents himself from the idealized encounter between his beloved and “the maternal lap/of the fragrant homeland”:
By the garden walls the greenness
of the jasmine hangs to the street,
and the whole valley breathes
a melancholic tenderness.
The local gardens
will scent the freshness
of your silken cheeks,
and in the blue mornings
daydreams will arrive in swarms
at your windows. (29)
It is as if the male lover has been replaced in this poem by “the patriarchal tranquility/of home” (31). In many instances in López Velarde’s poetry, the idea of home is inextricable from the women who represent it. These women may be maternal figures, the poet’s beloved, an unrequited love, or the young girls he played with as a child, who embody the innocence of their edenic surroundings. One of his most quoted poems, “My Cousin Agatha,” is a deceptively simple composition dense with images that evoke the nostalgia of youthful yearning in a single brushstroke: Agatha’s “mourning, green eyes and ruddy/cheeks” (25) encapsulate the poet’s memory of his sensual awakening in the setting of the provincial family home.
* * *
Despite his propensity to idealize, López Velarde was not removed from the social and political upheaval experienced by his generation as a result of the Mexican Revolution. It was perhaps because of his brushes with modernity and the city, and the threatening political instabilities of the period, that he came to write such poignant elegies to a peaceful provincial life he knew to be a thing of the past. In poems where the effects of the revolution are present, the women whose beauty the poet chronicles become victims on whose bodies the marks of change can be read. In “A Woman Traveler” the subject is an old acquaintance, a “poor provincial flower/who walks the noisy promenade in the metropolis” (79). The poet implores her, “So as not to stain your clothes with the mud/of impure cities, go back to your village.” Meanwhile “The Exiles” laments the flood of provincial women arriving to Mexico City as a result of the war:
The poor exiles
of Morelia and Toluca, of Durango and San Luis,
are scenting the Metropolis like grains of anise.
They improvise their shop
to measure, sorrowful quadrants,
the ruin of their peace and their ranch.
Women, those who dreamt
lost in vast bed chambers
sleep in miserly lodgings. (43)
Nowhere is the loss and destruction wrought by the revolution more present than in “El retorno maléfico” (“The Maleficent Return”). From its opening, the poem is charged with the grief of knowing that the past cannot be undone:
It will be better not to return to the village,
to the subverted Eden silent
in the mutilation of the shrapnel. (69)
In the original Spanish, the clip of the rhythm and the rhyme scheme provide a sense of inevitability that complements the finality of the sentiment:
Mejor será no regresar al pueblo
al Edén subvertido que se calla
en la mutilación de la metralla. (68)
It is not surprising that Octavio Paz chose these first lines as the epigraph to “Vuelta,” his poem of returning to Mixcoac, the Mexico City neighborhood of his childhood. In the poem’s continuation, López Velarde reads his own fate on the walls of his shattered hometown:
And in the lime of all the walls
of the spectral village,
maps black and fateful,
so that in them the prodigal son might read
on returning to his threshold
on a cursed nightfall,
in the light of an oil lamp,
his hope undone. (69?)
In this section, Jacobs wisely retains the word order of the original and thus the distance between “might read” and “his hope undone.” The final four syllables in English deliver some of the punch of the shortened final line in Spanish (“su esperanza deshecha”).
* * *
In his translation of López Velarde’s work, Jacobs chooses not to attempt the rhymes of the original poetry, although the transition from Spanish to English does allow for some felicitous transferences (“I who sang only from the exquisite/score of intimate decorum/raise my voice in the middle of the forum” ). Jacobs’s emphasis is on accuracy, which has occasioned him some digging around for the usage of names of household objects of the period, since, as he notes, López Velarde’s poetry is “almost a catalogue of the props of middle-class Mexican life at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries” (iv). Jacobs translates
Y nuestra juventud, llorando, oculta
dentro de ti el cadáver hecho poma
de aves que hablan nuestro mismo idioma
And our youth, crying, hides
within you the corpse, which becomes a perfume vial,
of birds that speak our very language.
He writes of these lines, “[t]he two previous translations of the poem both rendered ‘hecho poma’ into the reasonable ‘made apple.’ The problem is that it doesn’t make sense, and since there are plenty of images in the poem that are at least semi-surreal, the earlier translators probably just shrugged and went on. But I dug deeper and discovered that poma had an idiomatic meaning in RLV’s time of ‘perfume vial.’ That makes more sense: the corpses of the birds instead of decaying and stinking are made aromatic when buried in the soil of the homeland” (iv).
There are occasions, though, in “Gentle Homeland” and in other poems, when the translator’s pursuit of accuracy results in excessive literalism. For instance, in the “Interlude” to “Gentle Homeland,” which addresses Cuauhtémoc, last leader of the Aztecs, Jacobs translates “Joven abuelo, escúchame loarte,/único héroe a la altura del arte” as “young grandfather, hear me praise you,/sole hero at the height of art.” Rather than the literal sense “at the height of,” the expression “a la altura de” can mean “worthy of”—in this case, López Velarde deems Cuauhtémoc to be the sole hero worthy of being immortalized through the art of the poem. In the poem “Jerezanas,” Jacobs translates “media naranja,” an expression used to mean “soulmate” or “better half,” as the literal “orange half.” He then provides the translation “soulmate” in a note beside the text, such that there is a two-layered translation process at work: first from Spanish into the literal English meaning, and then from the literal meaning to the actual usage as it is understood in the target language. In this way Jacobs lays bare a process that another translator might prefer to keep from the view of the reader.
The format used in this edition also raises certain questions. This translation eschews footnotes, in favor of brief explanations of certain terms that appear to the right of the English text, as described above. These notes explain, for example, that a “reliquary” is a “container for religious relics” (29), or they provide cultural context by saying after the title “You had a silk shawl,” “Small children were carried in shawls on the backs of their mothers or caretakers.” While some of this information might have been pertinent in footnotes or endnotes, its placement beside the translated text interferes with the reading experience, and there were moments when I wished that more trust had been placed in the reader. Providing the extra information in notes would perhaps be more appropriate in a scholarly edition than in a translation that is intended for a more general readership. On one hand, this volume errs on the side of providing the reader with too much supplementary information, while also asking for a degree of collaboration on the reader’s part, where we might expect to rely on artistic choices made by the translator.
Perhaps the question ought to be, what is the purpose of the translation? Is the duty of the translator to ensure that the reader understands the literal sense of each word or phrase behind the curtain of the new version? Or is it to give new life to a text in the target language, by creating a version that can stand alone, and be read as if it had been written in the new language? As a translator myself I would argue for the latter, and suggest that accuracy and artfulness can coexist, but, to co-opt an antithesis normally used when speaking of the law, it is the spirit, rather than the letter of the original that should be pursued in translation. This new version of López Velarde’s work leaves the way open for another translator to tackle the artfulness and the formal complexity of the work of this singular Mexican poet.
López Velarde, Ramón. Poems. Translated by M.W. Jacobs. Floricanto and Berkeley Presses: 2013.