*****************************Selected Poems By José Ángel Valente
Extend your heart,
bankrupt it, blind it,
until in it is born
the powerful void
of what can never be named.
I know at least
and spent bone
- - -
Let there be night. (Stone,
nothing but nocturnal stone.)
Then raise your plea:
that the word be nothing but truth.
The poem above is from A Modo de Esperanza (In a Hopeful Mode) published in 1953 - 4, this was José Ángel Valente’s first published work and it won the Adonais Prize for Poetry, his next collection Poemas a Lázaro (Poems for Lazarus) won the Critics Prize. Born in Galacia, North-western Spain, Valente had studied romance languages and law, graduating from the University of Madrid (1953) at the age of twenty four.
Although initially a supporter of Franco, Valente’s father had fallen out of favour with the regime, and Valente would spend many years in voluntary exile, at first in Oxford, where he taught Spanish letters and received a MA degree.
Later he would live in Geneva and Paris working as a translator for the World Health Organisation and Unesco. In 1972 he was court-martialed in absentia, for remarks critical to the regime.
He wouldn’t return to his homeland until ten years after Franco’s death. In 1988 his work as a writer was finally recognised when he was awarded the prestigious Príncipe de Asturias prize, followed by the National Poetry prize in 1993.
Rotation Of Creation
The seed contains all the air;
a grain is but a buried bird;
cloud and root share a dream;
sap opens the palm of the flower's spike
where sun and rain recreate
and kneed warm bread with love;
the upside - down sky faces above
pointing to its dome of earth;
land rains birds upon the sky,
and, fertilized in springtime,
the sky multiplies its joyous light;
dream is a sleepwalking sentry
and awakening is your true dream.
In the green, profound eye of God
the first seed is still grasping for the bottom,
where everything rotates, from slime to man,
so that the world may yet begin.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, his poetry didn’t directly reference the political or social forces affecting his country. His concerns were with poetry itself – that poetry explored and transcended itself: poetry as knowledge, as truth -creating a meta-poetry, using the language, the logos as a means to define the essence, for Valente poetry was a material thing or a “material memory” (title of his 1977-78 collection) and writing was like ceramics, a shaping process. Poetry was not, as it was for earlier post-war Spanish writers, so much an act of communication as it was a process of discovery.
Desire Was a Still Point
The bodies remained on the lonely side of love
as if negating each other without negating desire
and in this negotiation a knot stronger than themselves
indefinitely bound them together.
What did their eyes and their hands know,
or their skin, which held a body
against the breath of another, and gave birth to
that slow immobile light,
the solitary form of desire?
This places Valente as heir to the Spanish mystical tradition, with his influences ranging from the Jewish Kabbalah, Iranian Sufism, and Christian mysticism (primarily through figures such as San Juan de la Cruz or Miguel de Molinos ), Taoism and Zen Buddhism, amongst others. In his later years this process would condense his poetry stripping away any excess, creating highly distilled and introspective prose that through the process of distillation created new vistas.
I see, I see. And you, what do you see? I don't see. What colour? I see. The
problem is not what is seen but seeing itself. The looking, not the eye.
What is before the eye. Not color but noncolor. Not seeing. Transparency.
José Angel Valente, poet, born April 25 1929, died July 18 2000, published more than twenty books of verse as well as translating the poetry of writers such as Paul Celan , John Keats , Constantine Cavafy , Dylan Thomas ,Gerard Manley Hopkins , John Donne , Benjamin Peret , Edmond Jabes and Eugenio Montale.
Considered by many to be the major poet of post-war Spain, and yet Landscape With Yellow Birds is the first major selection of his work to appear in English, containing poetry from throughout his lifetime from A Modo de Esperanza written in 1953 to Fragmentos de un Libro Futuro (Fragments from a Future Book) 1991 –2000, tracing Valente’s journey as he sought to define and shape his reality through the crafting of his verse, to realise through this process ****
“ An aspect of reality to which there is no means of access other than through poetic language.”
As Stated above, this is the first major selection José Angel Valente’s poetry to appear in English. Translated by Thomas Christensen and published by Archipelago Books, this is a wonderful, thought provoking collection of poetry and would make a worthy addition to any poetry collection.
Thomas Christensen is the author of 1616: The World in Motion and New World/New Words: Recent Writing from the Americas. He has translated, often in collaboration with his wife, Carol Christensen, works by Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, Alejo Carpentier, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, among others. He lives in Richmond, California.
When there is nothing left for us,
the emptiness of what does not remain
could finally be useless and perfect.