Thursday, April 21, 2011

David Lee Garrison's Certain Chance: Poems by Pedro Salinas

Certain Chance: Poems by Pedro Salinas contains the English translations of Spanish poems found in Pedro Salinas’s collection Seguro azar. David Lee Garrison translates these poems and provides the introduction. This edition includes a prologue by Pedro Salinas, a short reminiscence by Willis Barnstone, and art by David Leach. The Bucknell University Press in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania publishes this edition, alongside the Associated University Presses of London, in 2000.

Before Salinas receives his epiphany of the beloved for La voz a ti debida, Razón de amor, and Largo lamento, he focuses on the essences of ordinary things in nature and in everyday life. The objects obtain a mystical quality that enriches the perspective of the mundane viewer. These poems are short and clean. These objects include panoramas at various places like beaches, mountains, cities, roads, movie theaters, and country sides. They also include actions of people and children. Colors and textures diffuse their vibrant qualities. The poetic self retains his intellectual gaze and captures definitive meanings of these objects.

Here are some observations I have made while reading this volume of poetry. In “Otra tú” (“Another You”), I notice that the poetic self wants to look at the act of looking instead of the look itself. This intentionality of the object upon the poetic self causes him to divert his focus to another angle. He says, “No te veo la mirada / si te miro aquí a mi lado. / Si miro al agua la veo” (“I don’t see the look in your eyes / if I glance at you here beside me, / but I do if I look in the water”) (44-45). He sees the beauty of his companion not by gazing on her directly, but indirectly using a reflection coming off the water. The water separates the gazer and the object one more degree, thereby accentuating the beauty of the object’s look. This love in a courtly manner places an obstacle between the two making the female companion more desirable for the poetic self. This device of extracting the ideal image of the beloved has its first appearances here in this poem.

In “Vocación” (“Vocation”), the poetic self describes his visions and experiences between seeing the world of the visible as opposed to the dark abstractions of closed eyes. Between the two, he declares, “escogí: / el otro. / Cerré los ojos” (“I chose: / the other world. / I closed my eyes”) (48-49). These lines remind me of a book I hope to read completely one day called Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought by Martin Jay. Jay coins the term anti-ocularcentrism, a term that means the rejection of the eminence of the cultural sense of sight. Salinas studied and taught for a few years in Paris during World War I, so it would not be a surprise that he could have had exposure to French philosophical thought and later reflect it in Seguro azar in 1929. This topic alone could make for an interesting dissertation.

Because anti-ocularcentrism takes a noticeable role in Salinas’s poetry, one sense that complies with this philosophy is the sense of touch. Touch performs a vital role to know the reality of objects like it does in “Don de la material” (“The Gift of Matter”). The poetic self exclaims:


La sorda vida perfecta,
sin color, se me confirma,

segura, sin luz, la siento:

realidad profunda, masa.

They’re here!

Perfect, deaf, colorless
life is confirmed for me—
I feel it, certain, lightless:
the deep reality, matter. (84-85)

I interpret these stanzas as a rebellious protest against the standards of empiricism that dismiss first-hand experience and “gut feelings.”

In other reviews, I have mentioned the motif of the fruit and its significance. The fruit not only relates to the paradisiacal version of Adam and Eve, but it also relates to the thought experiment popularized by José Ortega y Gasset. The essence of the fruit, known to be there yet hidden from the observer, represents the essence of earthly things in “El zumo” (“Juice”). The poetic self sees the “secret” of an orange as follows:

¡Tan visible está el secreto!

¡Tan alegre,
tan alegre,

colgando al aire!

The secret is so visible!

so happy,
hanging in the air! (52-53)

While reading “Tránsito” (“Transition”), I could not help noting the allusion to the symbol of the fallen leaves mentioned in the Iliad:

For what is man? Calamitous by birth,

They owe their life and nourishment to earth;
Like yearly leaves, that now, with beauty crown’d,
Smile on the sun; now wither on the ground. (Homer, Book XXI, 537-540)

“Tránsito” (“Transition”) has the poetic self view the last leaf of autumn like a princess exiled away to the heavens. The bare trees stand guard as the princess passes. “¡Qué princesa final—la última hoja / de otoño—pasa por en medio, lenta, / de la ancha calle sola!” (“The last princess—autumn’s / last leaf—drifts down the middle / of the wide empty street”) (64-65).

“Route Nationale” expresses the same sentiments I had one time while traveling westbound on I-70 in the eastern Utah desert on a moonless night. The colors and the horizons in the twilight made for a fantastic show until I could not see them anymore. The poetic self writes:

Aquel paisaje tan firme

¿cómo se rindió tan pronto?
¡Resístete, variedad

amada, tú, no te dejes,

no me dejes solo

en lo negro, raso, uno!

That solid landscape,

how did it surrender so quickly?
You varied colors that I love—
keep fighting, don’t leave yourself
or me alone,
in the blackness, in the open, one! (96-97)

While traveling on the freeway, I relied heavily on the headlights of my car to help me reach my destination. I felt like I was getting tunnel vision after the sun went down. I was grateful for what I could see with the headlights. The poetic self gets the same sentiment and says, “Con una vuelta a la llave, / […] / los faros / me devolvieron el mundo” (“With a turn of a key / […] / headlights / restored the world”) (96-97).

The last poem I note comes from “Amiga” (“Friend”). In this poem, the poetic self plays on the presence of the beloved and her perception which is invisible to the poetic self. The poetic self wants to know how the beloved sees him, but, of course, cannot.

Tu presencia aquí, sí,

delante de mí, siempre,
pero invisible siempre,

sin verte y verdadera.

Your presence here, yes,

always facing me
but always invisible,
true presence without my seeing you. (156-157)

The phenomenological perception challenges the subject to direct his consciousness towards the beloved’s perception of him. The only way the poetic self can see the invisible perception of the beloved, she must condescend to his level and provide it for him.

The poems in Certain Chance are whimsical and thoughtful. However, I have mixed feelings after reading this edition of Seguro azar. I am glad that an English version is out there for many people to read, but there have been times that the English translations do not coincide faithfully to the original. I understand that meanings can get lost in the translation process, but in this case I think there is too much artistic license on the part of the translator. The poems feel too much like Garrison and not enough like Salinas. Nevertheless, at least there is some translation than none at all.


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