“Birnam Wood” Hélène Cardona (Salmon Poetry) – poetry review

Birnam Wood Helene Cardona“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 love
Is that language or fire or scattered
Universe in vine everywhere.

Flesh is subsequent, the very embers,
What one looks for and loves and composts.
Fleeting truth of an opaque moon
Cruelly scratching the burning bramble,
Awakening to the mystery of hands,
The touch of the mouth and kiss.”

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 amor
Es cual lengua de fuego o universo
Desparramado en vid por todas partes.

La carne es lo ulterior, la brasa misma,
Lo que se busca y ama y estercola.
Fugitiva verdad de luna opaca
En arañzo cruel de zarza ardiendo
Despertando al misterio de las manos,
Al tacto de la boca y a los besos.”

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 hour
to go toward Wall Street and tell
.                the sausage makers
that it is beautiful to dictate commercial letters
.                to the blond typists,
but even more beautiful to wander the banks
.                of the Hudson.”

“Temen verte despertar a deshora
para ir hacia Wall Street y decir a los
.             fabricantes de embutidos
que es hermoso dictar cartas comerciales a
.             las rubias mecanógrafas,
pero más hermoso vagar por las riberas del
.             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 rose
and the fields of rockrose and lavender
at times the hyacinths, the broom
and at other the iris.
Inhospitable city. Seafaring
love with no other horizon or banner
than the debris of shipwrecks fluttering
like a torchlight.”

“Fue a veces el jazmím y otras la rose
y los campos de jara y cantueso
y a veces el lirio.
Inhóspita ciudad. Enomorado
mar sin otro horizonte y estandarte
que el resto de naufragios palpitando
como una luz de antorchas.”

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 shield
and find it in bloom, fully opened
for sorrow grown and ripened
like a bitter fruit of mild weight.

The wait smells of Moorish courtyard
and the night of guitars and my heart
wakes like a wounded bull.”

“Buscadme el corazón con una adargo
y lo ballaréis abierto, en flor granado
para el dolor crecido y madurado
como una fruta agraz de suave carga.

Tiene le espera olor de patio moro
y guitarras la noche y se despierta
mi corazón herido como un toro.”

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.

“Birnam Wood” is available from Salmon Poetry