Monday, April 11, 2011

Pedro Salinas's La voz a ti debida (The Voice I Owe to You)

A few days ago, I presented a paper at the Annual Conference of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters held at the West Jordan campus of Salt Lake Community College. My paper consisted of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s contribution to Phenomenology and how it applies to Pedro Salinas’s poem “La memoria en las manos” (“Memory in My Hands”) from Largo lamento (Long Lament). The session went well and I listened to other’s presentations about their research in fields like Russian translations, Goethe’s Faust, feminist journalists in Peru, and salty attacks on the hegemony of white patriarchy. I also enjoyed an acquaintance’s comparison of two Spanish films: Furtivos (Poachers) and Flores de otro mundo (Flowers from Another World). What really tickled me was being able to follow my acquaintances interpretation of the latter film, one which I had seen just weeks before. After the sessions, I returned home intending to get back to my writing desk, edit my paper, and submit it for review and, hopefully, publication.

To help me in this process, I went to the local university’s library to check out some books and to submit interlibrary loan requests for others it did not have. I found four books related to Pedro Salinas. I even checked out a book I had already read. I read this book today and this review will discuss my favorite parts from it.

In 1934, Pedro Salinas publishes La voz a ti debida (The Voice I Owe to You). Editorial Losada, S. A., a publishing company in Buenos Aires, Argentina, reissues a sixth edition entitled La voz a ti debida: Poema (The Voice I Owe to You: Poem) on March 29, 1974. The edition forms part of a series called Biblioteca clásica y contemporánea (Classic and Contemporary Library), becoming its 226th volume. My personal copy of this collection of lyric poetry is academic in nature, full of explanations, footnotes, prologues, numbers, and bibliographies. However this copy simply presents the pleasant poem itself. There are no footnotes, so it should not intimidate the casual reader. I have certainly had a pleasant experience reading this edition.

Unfortunately, this book is in Spanish, so English-reading patrons will not benefit from this. Nevertheless, I will share some parts that I have enjoyed the most in this reading. (Don’t worry. I have added my own rough translations in English after each citation.)

La voz a ti debida tells of a male poetic self expressing his love and feelings to a beautiful and capricious woman. He follows in the tradition of courtly poets, reaching to and longing for the beloved, but never quite possessing her completely. Everything we know about the beloved comes through the poetic self; therefore, she speaks rarely. The poetic self does not rhyme in the most popular or traditional sense of poetic practice. The verses and stanzas are free-flowing or set in free verse. There is no set meter. Any noticeable rhyming comes from the lyric poem’s assonance. Yet despite having no set meter, the flow smoothly runs its way, making the pauses feel natural.

One of the themes of this collection is the poetic self’s resurgence from an insignificant shadow to a fully living entity. The beloved gives life to the poetic self and allows him to venture into intellectual ruminations. The poetic self obsesses over finding the essence of the beloved.

Si tú no tuvieras nombre,

todo sería primero,
inicial, todo inventado

por mí,

intacto hasta el beso mío.

Gozo, amor: delicia lenta

de gozar, de amar, sin nombre.

If you didn’t have a name,

everything would be the first,
initial, all invented
by me,
intact even to my kiss.
Joy, love: slow pleasure
of enjoying, of loving, without name. (19)

The poetic self wants to do away with any signifiers attached to the beloved. In a mathematical sense, he wants to find her lowest common denominator. There are references to nakedness, but it is the kind that does not flaunt itself or becomes so explicit that parents have to worry about exposing it to their children. (If anything, children will find this boring.) It is the kind of nakedness that one finds in an art museum or in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Even the most sensual poem only hints on lovemaking in a manner that only adults can understand in their imagination.

The poetic self is not without his contradictions. For instance, the poetic self never tires in describing his beloved, yet he states, “Yo no necesito tiempo / para saber cómo eres: / conocerse es el relámpago” (“I don’t need time / to know what you are: / knowing you is the flash of lightning”) (22). The beloved, at first, hardly has to do anything to please the poetic self.

Another theme that emerges from the whimsical play of words is the poetic self’s heretical worship of the beloved as a goddess, a poetic device strictly considered taboo under the eyes of the Inquisition in past centuries. For example, the beloved has the ability to create the universe out of chaos in the same way that God commanded the creation of the world by simply speaking.

Las ciudades, los puertos

flotaban sobre el mundo,
sin sitio todavía:

esperaban que tú

les dijeses: “Aquí”,

para lanzar los barcos,

las máquinas, las fiestas.

The cities, the harbors

were floating over the world,
without places still:
they were awaiting you
to say to them: “Here,”
in order to launch the boats,
the engines, the festivities. (24)

On the other hand, the beloved also has the ability to rock the poetic self’s world. The beloved’s capricious behavior leaves the couple in seasons of reckless incontinence.

[......................] Andas, ando

por entre escombros
de estíos y de inviernos


[......................] You walk, I walk

through debris
of knocked down
summers and winters. (29)

Another theme that appears within the pages of the book deals with the poetic self’s hyperactive fantasy of the ideal beloved. It is a bit sinister, but not unusual in a relationship based on appearances alone. The closest example I can recall comes from John “Scottie” Ferguson’s relationship with Judy Barton in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Sometimes, the poetic self focuses on the act rather than on the beloved herself. “Yo no miro adonde miras: / yo te estoy viendo mirar” (“I don’t watch where you watch: / I am looking at you watching”) (50). He continues this even when alone. “Hoy estoy besando un beso; / estoy solo con mis labios” (“Today I am kissing a kiss; / I am alone with my lips”) (52). Like Scottie who insists that Judy become another Madeleine Elster, the poetic self encourages the beloved to reach his ideal vision of her potential. “Perdóname el dolor, alguna vez. / Es que quiero sacar / de ti tu mejor tú” (“Forgive me the pain, sometimes. / It’s because I want to draw out / from you your best you”) (56). So, the poetic self ends up loving the essence more than the corporeal presence of the beloved. He falls into what Jean Baudrillard calls “hyperreality” in postmodern philosophy. The poetic self then experiences the beloved by proxy of some other stimuli, or in this case her shadow.

Me estoy labrando tu sombra.

La tengo ya sin los labios,
rojos y duros: ardían.

Te los habría besado

aún mucho más.

I am making myself your shadow.

I have it now without lips,
red and tough: they were burning.
I would have kissed them on you
many more times. (73)

If you continue on to read Razón de amor (Reason for Love) and Largo lamento (Long Lament), you will find that the beloved tries to fit the ideal. She later finds out that she cannot fit the mold of the poetic self’s ideal beloved. She ends the relationship by the beginning of Reason for Love. Ironically, the poetic self affirms in La voz a ti debida that he can only give so much to the beloved. “Yo no puedo darte más. / No soy más que lo que soy” (“I cannot give you more. / I am not more than what I am”) (37). On top of that, he subtly characterizes himself, although not totally, like Jehovah of the Old Testament by using a version of the biblical phrase “I AM THAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14). In a slightly hypocritical way, he unintentionally demands her all while realizing he cannot do the same for her. Regardless, he pleads for the beloved to stay. ”No quiero que te vayas, / dolor, última forma / de amar […]” (“I don’t want you to go, / sorrow, the last form / of love […]”) (81). The relationship is not an eternal one, but it remains sweet.

There are many more popular and pithy verses in this collection. They look deceptively simple. I remember one of my professors saying that Pedro Salinas’s poems sound like song lyrics we hear on the radio all the time, but really his verses portray something more profound. Pedro Salinas brilliantly incorporates this quality into his poetry.


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