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What the Swedes Read: Vicente Aleixandre

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Vicente Aleixandre

Daniel Handler
19 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Vicente Aleixandre (Spain, 1977)
  • BOOK READ: A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems (various translators; Lewis Hyde, ed.)

It hit me the other day, reading the poetry ofVicente Aleixandre at a bus stop near a high school: poems are like teenagers. They’re dressed up funny but they all kind of look the same. They say obvious things in incomprehensible slang. They come on strong one minute and the next minute refuse to tell us anything. They traffic in vast sensitivity, even hysteria, all the while obsessed with keeping cool. They won’t settle down and talk to us like grown-ups. In short, they’re exasperating. It’s no wonder we all wrote poems in our adolescence. You did so, I saw you.

Still, they give me much pleasure—I’m just talking about poems now—and I don’t really want my poetry to grow up. When I come across poetry that has straightened itself out to conduct itself like an adult without any nonsense, it makes for very stale reading, as does the stuff that has disconnected from passion and impulse in favor of intellectual gamesmanship. I might admire it, but it doesn’t cling to me. I can’t love the poetry that sits around in a well-furnished room with its well-weathered friends talking about complicated political situations and other hobgoblins of grown-up life. I love the ones that are loving somebody, longing for somebody, dancing all night, driving home listening to the radio, and staring out their bedroom windows at the cruel, cruel world. To wit:

Bare earth. The defenseless
night alone. The wind
insinuates deaf throbbings
against its draperies.

The shadow of lead,
cold, wraps your breast
in its heavy silk, black,
closed. So the mass

is pressed down by the material
of night, famous, quiet,
over the limpid
late plain of night.

There are bankrupt stars.
Polished hinges. Ice
drifts along
in the heights. Slow streams of cold.

A shadow passing
over the mute grave contour
lashes, austere,
its secret whip.

This is from the first poem in A Longing for the Light, a collection of Aleixandre’s poetry, and as it turns out an archetypal one, at least in how it strikes me. There are parts I really like—that startling wordfamous, those “bankrupt stars”—and it sustains a recognizable mood in the swirling quiet of a lonely evening. But also there are parts that seem, well, a little much. “Wraps your breast / in its heavy silk” feel like the sort of lines that people recite when they’re making fun of poetry. Some of the word choices spoil the lines that could have otherwise worked very nicely, so after “The defenseless / night alone” you get that wind insinuating against its draperies, and I found my eyes rolling a little before they moved on to the next line. By the time we get to the “secret whip,” an image both striking and giggly, the poem has swiveled back and forth, several times, between a quiet depth and an overspoken angst, and if that’s not like freshman year in high school I don’t know what is.

It’s tempting to trace these teeterings back to issues of translation. A Longing for the Light feels a little cobbled-together, perhaps in the post-Nobel rush to get Aleixandre’s work to an audience who had just heard of him. The book collects the efforts of some fifteen different translators, many of whom are poets, and anyone who’s ever hung out with more than one poet knows that you can’t get a singular vision on where to go to dinner, let alone on a body of work. But Lewis Hyde, who herded these cats while doing a bunch of the translations himself, assures me that the irregular feel of Aleixandre’s work is to be found in the original. “The poems are not an affirmation,” he says in the introduction. “They are the reflective mind trying to think its way out of coherence and precision… They are hard to examine closely. The images won’t stick together, the syntax breaks, the plot shifts, the objects shine and fade, the proportions of things seem odd.”

It was fun making my way through this oddly proportioned book, as I never knew if a turn of the page would bring me some specific and surreal imagery—“The gentlemen, abandoned by their buttocks / try to draw all looks toward their moustaches”—or the blunt ferocity of sincere sentiment—“Go into the swarming square. / Go and discover your own face in the torrent that claims you.” As does an adolescent, the poetry tries on all sorts of tones and identities in an endless search.

It’s curious to me that Aleixandre doesn’t see it that way, placing himself firmly on one side of a line he draws in the sand. “Some poets,” he says, in a reprinted prologue to one of his collections, “are poets ‘of the few.’ They are artists… who address themselves to men by attending, so they say, to exquisite and narrow obsessions… Other poets… address themselves to what is permanent in man… These poets are radical poets and they speak to what is primordial, to what is elemental in humanity. They cannot feel themselves to be poets of the few. I am one of these.”

This sort of writer-talk always annoys me—nothing personal to other writers, but what I’m doing is very important, and I couldn’t write unimportantly even if I tried—and there’s nothing more frustrating, while grappling with a prickly collection of work, than to come across the line “Perhaps I write for people who don’t read my poems,” as I did toward the end of the book. I was tempted to prove I was his perfect reader by stopping reading him. But I think one of the reasons such back talk ruffles my feathers is that it has a little truth buried in all that. After reading Aleixandre, some of the poetry I read next felt like elegant frippery, even when I loved it. Much of the verse in Vicente Aleixandre stumbles over its own passion, but its awkward emotionality just made it feel more like genuine emotion, the kind we all felt in high school and then put away for more-adult pursuits. We taught ourselves not to shout our desires from the rooftops, and to stop asking impertinent questions nobody can answer. A Longing for the Light reminded me that these are the real questions the world demands, and that we ought to listen to them despite the fact—because of the fact—that they exasperate us. As Aleixandre says:

I want to live, to live like the strong grass,
like the north wind or the snow, like the vigilant coal,
like the future of a child yet to be born,
like the contact of lovers when the moon ignores them.

To which I say: Oh, please, calm down. And, but, also: Yes! Or as I said when I was fifteen: Score! 

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