Gloria Fuertes: Historia de Gloria

aa4If you feel like a dishcloth
Like a butt
Like a husk.
Don’t water your sadness,
Your failure doesn’t exist
(The failure is his!)
Of the man who used you to clean himself
And threw you away like an old dishcloth,
Who sucked out your energy,
Enjoyed you then trod on you like a dead butt;
He bit into your fruit
And threw away what was left of you,
The pure and simple velvet shell.

If you are a dishcloth,
Or husk
Sow your seeds inside yourself!
Then flower again in a painting,
A poem,
Or if a husk,
In food for a starving child.
(That’s what I did.)


This poem comes from Gloria Fuertes, Historia de Gloria, Amor, Humor y Desamor (Madrid: Cátedra, 1980).  You can see just from the title that she loves wordplay.  The title could be Story of Glory in English and I chose this poem because it shows just where Gloria finds her glory.

Gloria Fuertes is a well-known poet in Spain.  She has written some of the best-selling anthologies of poetry for children with delightful plays on words and meanings.  She has an engaging directness.  Historia de Gloria combines the wistful observations of her children’s poetry with a directness of sentiment and feeling that occasionally makes you feel awkward, like when someone you meet on the bus confides in you.  “Oh Gloria!” I found myself saying at times, struck by the painful autobiographical truth of what she was saying.

This poem is a good example.  “The pure and simple velvet shell” in Spanish is “la monda y lironda cáscara de terciopelo”.  Monda is part of an expression that means pure and simple but when it is used alone it means something like “stripped to the bone”.  That one line is the most lyrical in the whole poem, right there in the centre, seeding the poem like the advice she gives at the end.

And I imagine the food for a starving child refers to her poetry that has given food for thought to several generations of children now.


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Cespedes: Poem on Painting

aa3I’ll start out here, Painter of the World.
On the first and second days
Right up to the last day of rest,
From confused and shadowy chaos you brought
A happy face to light from out of the deep;
And the bright shining heavenly throne
Of most varied and perfect painting,

Which decks the sky with purple tints,
So distant from our human bustle,
And with different flaming lights
Adorns the shining sovereign enamel:
You show your skilful and mighty hand
When you so marvellously paint
The great signs of the ethereal cloister
On the western and the southern sides.


Here I offer you two verses from Pablo de Céspedes Poem on Painting from Teoría de la Pintura del Siglo de Oro edited by Francisco Calvo Serraller  (Madrid: Cátedra, 1991).

The Siglo de Oro is the Spanish Golden Age and there are many treatises in this collection that give valuable biographical and technical information about artistic practice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  I find the debate about the nobility of painting fascinating and, even after studying the period in depth, I am continually struck by the paradoxes.

For example, it is Velázquez’s work that makes him of interest to me, not his nobility.  I could really give a fig whether he was a knight of the Order of Santiago or not.  Yet painters were keen to make the point that they were not mere craftsmen and that their work should be considered alongside poetry, music and philosophy, not sculpture, ceramics and textiles.

This poem gives us the image of God painting the world.  It is a loose translation.  Although I generally prefer to stick closely to the original the involuted phrases just sounded pompous in English.  The Spanish is lively, varied and intriguing.  Maybe I’ll put some more of it up when I have the time.

I did the painting on a cold day at the weekend.  A wren came down and hopped in front of me contre-jour to provide me with the main motif!

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Always the Same

madeocebreiro1‘So my girl, did you see a wolf
To take the words from your mouth?’
A young lad said this to a girl
Because she went silently by
Without saying a thing to him
Or those he was walking with.
‘So it seems,’ she said,
Without even looking him in the face.
‘And did he get a bite of you?’
‘You really want to know, do you?’
‘Of course I do, my darling?’
‘Well, if you’re interested…  some other day
When we are out walking, if you happen
To meet me, I’ll let you know.’
And the poor girl was quiet… and sobbed.
Boys were always the same
And still are with the girls.
They go seven times around hell,
If necessary, to catch them.
Everything is to the point, as they
Not blind to all this, direct it.
So that touching up the fat
We’re talking about the hemlines
And when they talk of rolling
What they mean is on your back.

This is a poem in the vernacular by Manuel Leiras Pulpeiro.  I have to confess I struggle with him because he uses colloquial expressions in the local dialect of Galician from Mondoñedo.  He made a dictionary of some of these expressions but it wasn’t enough to give me a complete understanding of the double meanings in the last lines.

Why put the poem up then?  Well, I have been thinking about some other blogs I have been reading dealing with sexual relationships.  Leiras Pulpeiro was writing at the end of the nineteenth century in a world where the girl was very much the victim of the cocky young lad.  Rosalía paints a similar picture of peasant life in the Cantares.

The two worlds collide in my head.  Think, for example, of someone who is writing a blog about her experiences with a terrible set of boyfriends who are egotistical, demanding and transitory.  Have things changed?  I guess there was as much honour and good faith then as now.

What do you think?

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Elías Veiga- Robinson Astur


Last Tuesday
The men from the council
Put out
Three waste containers
Next to the church.
It’s about time
Now there’s hardly anyone left
In the village:
Four pensioners
With an old cow
And four chickens.
All the young men
Work away
In construction
Or on the roads.
Now and again they’ll bring back a girl
And they always say:
“this is so lovely”
And “what a lovely village”
But end up going back where they came from.
Last week,
Eight days ago today,
Marcial died from the Xuaca house.
Seventy years old.
Thirty underground.  Miner.
In the morning
When I went to throw out the rubbish
I saw his clothes in some bags
Inside one of the recently-installed containers.
Is this what is left of a man when he dies?
Is this the trace we leave?
Shadows of memory
And a rank greasy smell of sadness
And solitude.
I picked this book up because I was attracted by the title Robinson Astur (Universos: Mieres, 2008).  In Spain generally there is a tendency to put your regional identity forward strongly: in León the market will be MercaLeon, in Bilbao the buses are Bilbobus and here the shopping centre is ParqueAstur.  The Astures were the pre-Roman indigenous people about whom little is known besides the pejorative things the Romans had to say about them.  They did not have a literary culture and seemed to have a tribal culture like the Highland Scots, living by hunting and raiding cattle.  Veiga is making Robinson Crusoe into an Astur.

So the title is an ironic joke.  I like irony in blogs and satire but it is dangerous in serious writing.  The collection does a good job of keeping itself this side of outright dark humour as you can see in this poem.  When I read it to myself I enjoyed it, but when I read it out loud to Carmen to see whether she would give it the thumbs up for the blog it became something else: the last three lines were like a slap in the face; it acquired a new intensity.  The mention of the miner Marcial made me think of the Roman poet Martial.  He was born in Calatayud and  said he was descended from Celts and Iberians and also had a good way with a sharp ending.

Here is another poem called The Transformation:


 I’ve made myself a scuzz-ball
With bad breath
And unshaven face,
One of those vegetables who spend the day
Lounging on the sofa,
Dozing off
With the TV going
And a belly full of beer.

Damn the day I left you for no reason,
No reason other than that you loved me too much:
My life is now a topsy turvey house,
A rudderless boat, with no pattern,
In hopeless misery.
I who could run five thousand metres
In less than twenty minutes,
I who whistled in the shower in the mornings,
I who changed the sheets

Every week..
What happened to me, Gregor Samsa?
What animal or monster
Have I been changed into now?

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The Girl at the Fountain

feb4I saw you on a clear night,
It was Midsummer´s Eve,
And you were putting fresh herbs
Out in the fountain to cool.
Ah, but you were so pretty
Like the rose on the rosebush
When it is covered all over
By the early morning dew.
That’s why,  in love with you
And breathing softly,
I wanted to wrap my arms
Around your waist,
And with your sweet eyes
And even sweeter voice,
feb3Enchantress,you fooled me
With calm solace.
All the little stars
Up there in space
Looked down and smiled on us
Gentle in their clarity
And were witnesses, alas,
To your soft sighs
Replying to mine
With equal love.
But afterwards with other men-
This fine fellow and that young lad-
(Not that they loved you more,
No one  will ever do that)
feb4What’s more, what’s more, my girl
You were ready to converse
With them beneath the willows
Beside the rosemary patch.
That is why I sang to you
In sad solitud
If- oh poor me- I saw
You starting up with them;
“Be careful, girl, watch out:
The place where many spit
Turns to mud.”

How sad you seem now!
feb3How sad, my girl, you are!
And your fresh colours,
Where are they, lass?
And your serene gaze
And your sweet singing,

Where, my girl, wretched thing,
Where will you find them?
I didn’t see you, girl,
This Midsummer’s Eve
Putting fresh herbs
Into the fountain to cool.
You no longer seemed fresh
As a rose on a rosebush,
feb4Since you were cast down
From so much sobbing.
Today, cut up and suffering,
You go in search of honour;
The honour you lost.
Who can give it you back?
Well I would, my little girl,
Would like to give it to you:
Since I loved you so much
I suffer to see you in pain.
But child, although I may
Say that you are clean,
They smile at me and reply
To mock me all the more:
O“You well know, Farruquiño,
Farruco del Pombal:
The place where many spit
Turns to mud.”

This poem is from Rosalía’s Cantares Gallegos number 12.  The story is pretty plain: the romantic lad hangs out with a girl in the night and falls in love with her, but she is toying with him because she likes to hang out with other lads as well.  She gets the reputation of being a “slut”, as they say in schools these days.  People start to talk about her and she loses her honour.  The repellent narrator can then come to her with his pious, and frankly repulsive, metaphor: “the place where many spit turns to mud.”

Rosalía does not sweeten things up in her poetry and acknowledges as much in the introduction to the Cantares saying that some of her readers might have been expecting happier love songs.  What she gives us, on the contrary, is a world in which the gaitero, or bagpipe player, moves from village to village stealing girls’ virtue and where those same girls are ruined when they have lost their honour.   In my previous post we saw how this vision, combined with other perceptions of her life, leads to a comprehensive nihilism in her later verse.

I have been on an eccentric loop in my literary investigations and I’d like to share it with you, if you have the patience, because I have made some surprising connections.  Next week I will be in Andalucía leading a group and, wanting to understand the background of the Moorish culture of southern Spain, read No God But God by Reza Aslan (Heineman, London, 2005): it is a comprehensive introduction to Islam for beginners. Chapter 8, concerning Sufis, starts with the story of Layla and Majnun.  Majnun literally means “crazy” and the whole story revolves around the troubles of the young noble, Kais, who goes off to live in the wilderness when he is separated from his childhood love, Layla.  He becomes a mad poet and people go out into the desert to consult him in his isolation from the world: his mad love is full of poetic wisdom.  Layla is married to another by her family and eventually dies of sorrow after meeting up with Majnun in a garden.  Majnun then finds her tomb and dies there also.

The most widely known version of the story is by the Persian poet Nizami.

When I read the story as recounted by Aslan I was struck by this passage:

“Little does anyone understand me,” Majnun thought.  “Do they not realize that their idea of happiness is not mine?  Do they not see that while it may be possible for them to have their wishes granted in this life, my longing is for something else entirely, something that cannot be fulfilled while I remain in this transient world?”

This seems to me to be a beautiful encapsulation of saudade, the existential pain that is so common in Portuguese, Galician and Asturian writing.  As I investigated further I became more and more interested in the connection between this idealised, unattainable love and saudade.

Nizami’s poem is a version of older poems in the Arab tradition, the earliest of which, by Imru al Qays Ibn Hujr (500-550 AD), is pre-Islamic.  It starts with the lines: “Stop, oh my friends, let us pause to weep over the remembrance of my beloved.”  It is rich and vivid with powerful descriptions of place and feeling, and contains the seed of the idea that would grow into a long and fecund poetic tradition: the lover whose love brings him disaster.  This was the line from the poem that suggested the translation I have posted today: “Pure water, unsullied by the descent of many people in it, has nourished her.”  The idea of purity becomes dominant in the tradition over time.

By the time of Nizami we are already looking at a fully-fledged example of Virgin Love poetry.   Layla and Majnun are forever separate even though they are united in their love: their love transcends their physical separation and can, therefore, act as a cosmic metaphor.  There is a heavy symbolic weight placed on this love that acts as a grand metaphor for universal longing and, within the sufi tradition, represents the soul’s longing for God.

Once I get a hold of an idea like this I tend to rocket around like a pinball.  I thought of Don Quijote: the episode of Marcela and Crisóstomo is a condensation of the Virgin Love tradition; the young woman becomes a wandering shepherdess to avoid love and her lover goes off into the wilderness where he dies of love.  This tradition goes back to the troubadours and I cannot help thinking of the unrequited love of so many wandering minstrels.

Just as in the Persian and Arabic literatures, in the West love songs are converted into esoteric religious texts: St John of the Cross takes the Song of Solomon and turns it into an allegory of the mystic union of the Soul with Christ.  St Teresa of Ávila seems to use the traditions of Petrarchan love poetry to describe her loving union with God.   As I have flitted around reading into this tradition I have even bumped up against the surprising notion that the Majnun/Layla model lies behind the Dante/Beatrice relationship.

Rosalía openly rejects this tradition.  What a brave woman!  She was steeped in the poetry of the cancioneros, or songbooks, and in other posts I have noticed the borrowings from traditional songs in her verse, yet she takes the traditions and turns them on their head.  It is the believable reality of her poetry that gives it such freshness and life.

The world has changed.  I resolutely do not want purity for my daughters: I am glad they live in an age where they can go out into the world on equal terms with men, owners of their own bodies and minds.  What a relief that these ideas of honour, purity and virginity are fading away!  Farruco is a creep, not a mythic lover, and the girl crying by the fountain will get up and get on with her life because we don’t believe in Madonnas and Whores these days.

Posted in 19th Century, Rosalía de Castro | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

En las Orillas del Sar

feb2In the organ’s echoes or the wind’s words
In a star’s shining or a drop of rain,
She felt you all round, saw you everywhere
Without ever finding you.

Maybe she found you, found you and lost you
Again, in the harsh battle of life
As she keeps seeking you and feels you all round
Without ever finding you.

But she knows you exist, are no vain dream,
Nameless beauty, perfect and unique,
So she lives sad, always looking for you
Without ever finding you.



feb1I don’t know what I eternally seek
On earth, in the air and in the sky
I don’t know what I seek but it’s something
I lost who knows when and cannot find,
Even when I dream that it lives on unseen
In everything I touch and see.

Happiness, I’ll never get you back
On earth, in the air or in the sky,
Even when I know you exist
And are not a vain dream.

This poem is from Rosalía de Castro En las Orillas del Sar (Madrid, 1884).  Rosalía is supremely pessimistic.  This poem is not the exception in an otherwise optimistic collection of poetry and is, furthermore, a late expression of a pessimistic tendency in her whole thought that builds like rising storm clouds over the sea throughout her life.  In her earlier poetry there are intimations in the sad finales of her love poems where the young maiden all too easily gives up her kisses to the inconstant wanderer.  Then there are the poems of outrage against poverty, emigration and discrimination towards Galicians in the rest of Spain and the poems of yearning for the homeland.  Finally there are the deeply personal shadows of death and mourning, the loss of her mother and a son in 1875 and another daughter in childbirth two years later, with a backdrop of her own sickness and suffering.

This sense of lost happiness gives up its bitterness like a nut cracked in the mouth.  Once the flavour is released it permeates everything.  Here Rosalía is grappling with something more all-encompassing than the specific reasons she has to feel sad; she is developing an existential philosophy of bitter sadness.

To go with the poem I have included a dark little acrylic painting of trees in the wood.  The light was going down.  It was a winter afternoon with a hint of frost in the air.  A hawk was keening mournfully as it quartered the valley and in the distance cows lowed.

If you are interested in Rosalía de Castro there are some books out there in English but I do not recommend them highly.  It is better to read what I put here!  You can get the originals from Austral:  En las Orillas del Sar and Cantares Gallegos both with an introduction and guide by Mauro Armiño who is a versatile translator and commentator.

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???????????????????????????????An afternoon in spring
Murmured these words to me:
If you are seeking paths
With flowers in this world
Then put to death your words
And let your old soul speak.
Let the same white linen
That you are wearing now
Clothe you in your mourning
Clothe you at party time.
Cherish your happiness
Cherish your sadness too,
If you are seeking paths
With flowers in this world.
I spoke then my reply
To that spring afternoon:
You have told the secret
That is spoken in my soul:
I abhor happiness
Abhorring suffering.
But before I ever tread
Your flower-strewn path,
I would like to present
My old soul to you: dead.

Antonio Machado is one of the better known poets of the Generation of ´98, a group of writers who changed the direction of Spanish literature at the turn of the century.  This one is XLI from Soledades. Galerías. Otros Poemas (1907- I used the edition edited by Geoffrey Ribbans (Cátedra, 1993)).

The dialogue that he uses here is typical as is the emphasis on seeking a path: one section of the collection is called Del Camino.  The path or way is a dominating symbol in his poetry to which other subsidiary themes and metaphors are joined, frequently expressing fatalism about the inevitability of death.  Machado venerated Edgar Allen Poe’s poem Nevermore and a recurrent meditation on the transitory and ephemeral underlies the lyrical beauty of his phrasing.

What does it mean?  I have found many quotations from Machado while flitting around on the internet.  Machado gives an attractive appearance of being deep especially when read in fragments and this makes him easy to cut into if you are looking for something vaguely poetic and poetically vague.  Well, if you get as far as what the spring says and read no further you would have a good candidate for a motivational blog, wouldn’t you?  When you read further you get a shock: he rejects spring’s advice to leave his words and declares that he hates both happiness and suffering.  He does not want that old, primitive soul and finishes on the shock word: dead.

Machado was concerned about being just a “useless poet” and was proud that he could earn his way in life once he got a job as a secondary school teacher: “I go to work and pay my own way”.  This attitude was influenced by Giner de los Ríos, one of his teachers and the founder of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza, about which I will write more in another post.

Here is a section from the introduction to this collection of poems by Ribbans that seems to me of extraordinary interest:

In a letter to Unamuno of 1903, Machado makes some very interesting declarations… “I am beginning to believe,” he says, “even at the risk of falling into paradoxes, which I dislike, that the artist should love life and hate art.  Quite the contrary to what I previously believed.”  And one year later he says, again to Unamuno:  “We should not create a separate world in which to enjoy in egotistical fantasy the contemplation of ourselves; we should not flee from life to forge for ourselves a better life that is sterile to others.”

This poem seems to belong to the pre-1903 Machado then, the Machado who believed that you should love art and hate life.  I am fascinated by this transition.  All of his poetry, whether it be the melancholy visions of gardens and lonely expanses or the exact descriptions of places and roads, has a delicate lyrical beauty.  You can love both visions.  But, as someone who has started going to the gym, something I never imagined I would do as a young aesthete, I find the movement out of melancholy especially interesting.

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