Homesick, Odysseus summons the spirit of the dead Tiresias for guidance before traveling home. This moment, in Book XI of the Odyssey, is perhaps the oldest and, certainly, one of the most famous examples of the uncanny kinship between poetry and the art of summoning the dead. Closer to our own time, some of the most interesting poetry has likewise exploited the form’s natural tendencies for the elegiac, poetry’s almost necromantic spell. We might think, for instance, of Anne Carson’s material engagement with grief in Nox (2009), where the poet collects memorabilia from her defunct brother in a moving effort to reach out. There is also Alice Oswald’s elegant Memorial (2011), a work that rescues the voices of the minor soldiers, caught in the midst of jumping ashore, or surrendering to the war of Troy, from the Iliad, as they gently pass away into the good night.
Does poetry allow us to reach out to our dead? This question is explored by three recently published books that delve into the deep resonances of the topic through the lens of the Iberian tradition. There is Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, first published in 1957 and now reprinted by NYRB Poets, in which the American poet exchanges letters, translations, and thoughts with a defunct Federico García Lorca; Lupe Gómez’s Camouflage, a sustained conversation between the poet and her recently deceased mother; and Uxío Novoneyra’s classic The Uplands, a masterful rendition of life in a mountainous region of Galicia, which conjures up the voices of peasants and land laborers who refuse to pass away. The last two works are translations of texts originally written in Galician, a native language from northwest Spain with a vibrant poetic tradition that reaches back to medieval times, and share a deep awareness of the threat of cultural disappearance that often accompanies human loss.
There are important differences in tone between these volumes of poetry: the ironic and whimsical manner of Spicer, the aphoristic condensation of Gómez, and the unchained visionary imagination of Novoneyra. Yet, all three imagine the poet in intimate conversation with the deceased, whether whispering warm memories to a loved one or engaging in spirited conversation with an old mentor.
In After Lorca, the San Francisco Renaissance poet Jack Spicer reaches out to the ghost of Federico García Lorca, a Spanish poet who was brutally assassinated by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The book is an experiment on communication across time and across language, an “intimate communion” between two queer poets that tests poetry’s ability to draw lives together.
Spicer’s book is composed of ostensible translations of Lorca, poems by Spicer masquerading as translations, and letters to the Andalusian writer. In this sense, the book oscillates between translation and correspondence, two genres that depend on the engagement with others: there can be no translation without an original, no correspondence without an interlocutor.
Spicer’s own working through Lorca’s verse constitutes an artistic intervention, rather than a translation. As a deceased Lorca explains in the prologue with noticeable crankiness, these poems are not translations, for Spicer has introduced subtle modifications in “even the most literal of them.”
In fact, there are varying degrees of faithfulness: at times Spicer seems a somewhat literal, though audacious, translator (as in “Ode to Walt Whitman,” Lorca’s great work of queer myth-making), while at other times he completely changes the meaning of the original. Readers who want to tell apart Lorca’s originals from Spicer’s interventions might want to read Clayton Eshleman’s helpful side-by-side comparison in his essay “The Lorca Working.” Yet, it might be a greater joy to approach the text without signposts: there is considerable pleasure to be derived from Spicer’s own construction of a hybrid poetic language, which filters Lorca’s visionary style through Spicer’s own humor and self-referentiality.
Translation might be a work of love, but it is in his letters to Lorca that Spicer sounds most intimate. There is, at times, an almost childlike candor to Spicer’s prose (“where did your poems find people?”). The letters are punctuated by a vaguely frustrated longing, as if Spicer were addressing a target that he does not reach, that eludes him.
The final poem, one of Spicer’s own compositions, is fittingly entitled “Radar.” This concludes After Lorca by recreating an abstract maritime landscape, which includes the momentary impression of a close, physical companionship:
Those fins, those closed eyes
Admiring each last drop of the ocean.
I crawled into bed with sorrow that night
Couldn’t touch his fingers. See the splash
Of the water
The noisy movement of cloud
At the end of the collection, we find ourselves in a bed where the poet (Spicer?) is gently rejected by his lover (Lorca?): “I crawled into bed with sorrow that night / Couldn’t touch his fingers.” The communion with the ghost has ended, and yet Lorca remains, as Spicer writes in the last letter, a “contagious spirit” on the page.
As if leaving a trance—a brief but momentous séance—Spicer comes down to the world seemingly unchanged but with the incantatory rhythms of Lorca permeating his verse and with the hand of the poet’s ghost only vaguely out of reach.
The dead, the disappeared, and the forgotten can never be safely put away: they will always speak back to us.
Gómez’s work also begins with an invocation. In Spicer-like fashion, she also prefers “to write letters to the dead than to the living.” But unlike Spicer, Gómez stays close to home, and her book is framed as a conversation with her deceased mother that also recreates the rural village of Fisteus, where the poet grew up.
The title “Camouflage” refers, in the poet’s own words, to the idea that the dead do not disappear but rather are “camouflaged” among the living. Yet, the poem might also point to the ways in which a person becomes indistinguishable from a particular town or landscape, “in sublime vestiges of countryside.”
Gómez is good at the exacting detail, the carefully chosen word. In fragments of conversation with her mother, Gómez achieves a tone that manages to be at once expressive and contained, revealing hidden worlds of meaning through sparse sentences (“The village / only seemed grand / on feast days”). A central theme of the book is the poet’s own relationship with her mother’s world:
When you milked the cows, you wore old clothes:
they smelled of bay leaves and cow pies.
For me, you bought pretty dresses at the
Subtle variations in treatment reflect deeper differences in social worlds, and Gómez’s work can be read as particularly effective social poetry. What that means is that Gómez’s verses reveal the wide distance between two generations: the world of her mother, who gave birth “in the kitchen of a dirt-floored house,” and her own very different upbringing, that of someone who attended college, thanks to the expansion of the system of public education after Spain’s transition to democracy—which left behind “a universe without books.”
Gómez’s exhumation of her personal and literary roots might remind English readers of Seamus Heaney’s much-anthologized poem “Digging,” where the Irish poet changes his father’s shovel for the pen. Yet, Gómez’s work speaks above all about a vibrant generation of Galician poets, mostly women, who have sought to reconcile their literary work with their mostly rural and humble upbringings. Many of them were raised in a countryside still marked by the misery of the dictatorship and chose to write in a language only recently institutionalized and only partially accepted as a literary language. Chus Pato, a contemporary of Gómez and perhaps the preeminent Galician poet writing today, reveals a similar sensibility in her earliest works:
just like all the women that preceded me […] I, the first one amongst
them who does not know how to dig, who does not know how to scythe, who
does not know how to harvest; I would like to communicate language, creation, linguistic praxis: WRITING
Just like Gómez, Pato positions herself in the lineage of earlier generations of women, all of them workers of the land.
Ultimately, Gómez’s work is a piece of a much larger tapestry, still largely unknown to English readers. Contemporary Galician poetry has produced a formidable body of work, which deserves attention as a distinctive and powerful tradition, not reducible to other strands of peninsular or European poetry. Thanks to Erín Moure’s translation of Camouflage, we begin to gather some threads of that world.
The Direction of Beginning
Much of that work, and certainly Gómez’s book, still follows a path that was perhaps initiated by Uxío Novoneyra’s The Uplands, first written in 1955 and continuously in print ever since. Despite being arguably one of the great poets of the 20th century, Novoneyra is still largely unknown in English, partially due to the difficulties of rendering his poems outside their native Galician. For, if the language of Gómez feels at times contrived, Novoneyra relishes the pleasures of a liberated tongue.
Some of the particularities of his poetry make a translation particularly difficult: the recurrent use of toponyms, the cacophonous roar, the insistent use of the exclamatory mode. Moure is to be praised for undertaking the daunting task of translating him and for succeeding so admirably.
Like a spell, the collection begins with a late poem by Novoneyra (1995) that invokes “the long lineage of the last-land labourer”:
Instead, the lineages of peasant labourers
generations and generations
gathered at the door of shut houses
on the staircase of stone
or in the rootspread of a tree like this.
Notice the human landscape: shut houses, stone staircases. Novoneyra is at times seen as a lonely hermit, but his landscape is decidedly a peopled one, reverberating with the memory of communal agrarian traditions. Even while writing decidedly modern verse, Novoneyra incorporates the rhythms of popular song and music, in such a way that his poems often work like palimpsests, where layers of tradition and folk knowledge acquire newer, avant-garde resonances.
Many of Novoneyra’s compositions begin with sudden impressions from the landscape that flash up like lighting, and become the object of focused attention. Some of his most suggestive poems take the form of sustained riffs on a theme, as his famous poem on the wolf:
Wolf! Eyes and loin of wolf!
Deep in the eye of the forest, the wolf
moves amid shoots of yew
Snarling in the rut of trails
seeking hollows more scarce and more scary …
Halts and bellows
Claws earth lifts muzzle and howls at the sky
With every shadow of night in its maw.
Here, the cacophony and rhythmic quality of the original are expertly conveyed by the translation. Under Moure’s deft hand, Novoneyra’s verse has a ring of Ted Hughes’s animal poems: the ways in which the poem bends to capture nonhuman sounds and noises, the incantatory wordplay, the deep resonance of an almost mythical world (“With every shadow of night in its maw”).
In order to translate Novoneyra’s beating verse, Moure makes bold and original choices. Often, she provides the reader with several alternative translations, as with the following famous pair of verses by the Galician poet, which she translates in three different ways:
who’ve endured in its bones!
left clenched in its bones!
hanging on by skin and bones!
It might be the only way to translate Novoneyra’s unique compactness of meaning: a multiplicity of translations that releases what in the original is held together by a few verses, tense like coiled springs. Moure’s translations effectively convey the original’s ambivalence, for a simple expression like “quedarse nos ósos” (literally, “remaining in the bones,” but with the sense of being “stripped to the bone”) might suggest both decadence and endurance, at once the material reality of decay and the stubbornness to remain.
Novoneyra’s language rings particularly urgent, in Galicia as well as in the English-speaking world, in his time as well as ours. As new generations of poets try to grapple with our place in the so-called Anthropocene, Novoneyra’s work asks questions that feel urgent today, exploring the place of the human in the nonhuman world and engaging the landscape in a vigorous poetry of social protest. For while Novoneyra might be a very “local” poet, he tackles problems that will be familiar to most authors writing from the confines of a minor language, or, more generally, from an invisibilized community: how to account for the threat and the danger but also for the creativity and the thrill; how to denounce forms of violence that are powerful and real without succumbing to nostalgia or defeatism. Against the twin forces of Francoist centralization and capitalist modernity, Novoneyra wrote a poetry that infused the Courel, those ancient towns stripped to the bone, with life.
In that sense, perhaps, there is an enduring lesson emanating jointly from all these texts. The dead, the disappeared, and the forgotten—these poems make clear—can never be safely put away: they will always speak back to us. And the dead, as Spicer writes, are notoriously hard to satisfy.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.