Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Willis Barnstone's Love Poems by Pedro Salinas: My Voice Because of You & Letter Poems to Katherine

Love Poems by Pedro Salinas: My Voice Because of You & Letter Poems to Katherine is another edition of Pedro Salinas’s critically acclaimed poem La voz a ti debida, this time translated by Willis Barnstone. Barnstone provides an introduction about the historical and artistic development of Salinas and his colleagues before explaining the intricacies of the poetry and the process of translation. Barnstone includes Jorge Guillén’s literary review written in 1976 as a foreword. Many critics at the time believed the beloved was just an ideal projection of Salinas’s imagination; but few, including Guillén, knew the real and secret interpretation of the beloved. As the title of the book suggests, the true inspiration for the beloved is Katherine Whitmore, “whose reality had been routinely denied or ignored by family, friends, and distinguished critics alike” (xxxiv). The revelation of the beloved makes the poem not only a passionate tribute to a lover by an enraptured male admirer, but also a biography of Salinas and Whitmore. To complete this edition, Enric Bou ends it with an afterword written in 2009 entitled “Pedro Salinas: Between the Old and the New.” Here, Bou gives more details about the poet’s life in Spain and his exile in the United States. He extols Willis Barnstone’s ability to read and translate poetry magnificently. Barnstone’s translation and gleaning of poems from Salinas’s letters to Katherine Whitmore impress Bou, a compiler of Salinas’s letters. A helpful index of first lines and a current bibliography of selected studies appear in this edition. The University of Chicago Press of Chicago and London publishes this book in 2010.

This edition of My Voice Because of You is the best English translation that I have read yet. It includes all 70 poems composing the work. Barnstone’s knowledge of poetic verse greatly benefits the work as a whole and leaves very little question as to the compatibility of the English translation with the original Spanish. I do not plan to share excerpts from this edition because I have already done so in other reviews. (To read these reviews, you can see this one, that one, and the other one by clicking their respective links.) Instead, I will complete this review using points of interest from the introduction, Letter Poems to Katherine, and the afterword.

When I was writing my thesis, I stuck to the idea that Margarita Bonmatí, Pedro Salinas’s wife, was the beloved of the lyrical poems. During my investigation, I tried looking for any possibility of a lover, even though I did not want to acknowledge one. And for the good part of my research, the idea of a beloved, or a real person with a name, was only an inclination. Honestly, I found no name to associate the beloved with a real person. The references were only speculation. So, I prodded away at my original thesis. I became excited at the thought that his wife was the center of Salinas’s soul; it was the “originality” I needed to start my research. I scheduled the final defense when things started wrapping up. Then, to my horror, I found the flame and the reliable references regarding her within a week of my defense. This development would significantly change my thesis, and I could not ignore these arguments. I read as much as I could about Katherine Whitmore and hoped no questions would come up in my defense.

The day of the defense came. The meeting started out fine. I gave my presentation. A couple of the committee members asked questions about philosophy and poetry, and I answered them to their satisfaction. It came time for the third committee member to ask questions. “What do you make of Katherine Whitmore?” he asked. I looked away and swore under my breath. The cat was now out of the bag. I answered him as best I could and gave my best arguments for Margarita’s case. Incredulously, he lectured me about Katherine’s involvement and Margarita’s suicide attempt. I had to cede to his argument. How would this impact my exam as a whole? I did not want to anticipate the answer. The exam continued and the time for voting came. I waited outside while they deliberated. After a few minutes, the committee invited me back. Either luck or sheer mercy let me pass the exam with qualifications and I returned to the revision process keeping Katherine in mind.

I read more and grew disappointed in Salinas’s infidelity. I wanted to punch him. I grew angry at Katherine’s insolence in even pursuing a relationship. I wanted to slap her. I thought of poor Margarita. I wanted to console her. I could not imagine how she lived after her failed suicide attempt. But I had to get the thesis done. I did not want to completely concede my interpretation that Katherine was the sole beloved of La voz a ti debida and other poems. So, to satisfy everyone concerned, I revised my thesis that the beloved was a conflation of the two, not exclusively the one or the other. That worked and I graduated a few months later.

I am over the drama . . . mostly. I have accepted the fact now and understand that Salinas needs a muse to write one of the greatest love poems of the twentieth century. It is just unfortunate that such a beautiful poem has to come from an illicit affair. But courtly love does not work in a sanctioned setting. There must be obstacles; it must be furtive. Even Don Quixote, if Dulcinea were real in his world, covets a lady he cannot cherish.

If there is one redeeming quality in this affair, it is that Salinas never intended to leave his wife and children. “Yet it must be said that even during the period of greatest passion,” Barnstone writes, “where the infatuation is true on both sides, Salinas never ventures further than the confines of a secret love, a tryst that does not, which must not, threaten his everyday family existence” (xxv). Well, maybe there are two qualities. Katherine feels her conscience pricked after Margarita’s suicide attempt, ends the affair, and avoids Salinas whenever possible. The affair is an intense, short one.

I admit that Katherine is the catalyst to bring out Salinas’s best work. Katherine really does rock his world. He really falls head over heels for her. She is the mystical avenue worthy of Saint John of the Cross and the Song of Songs. “And in the letters he constantly proclaims the name Katherine like a scriptural verse. In the poems, because of the secret nature of their relationship, Katherine must be a nameless pronoun. From the poems and letters we see that as much as Katherine is his love, she is his voice through the love poem, his literary fate, and his greatest creation” (xxxi).

The affair also gives me the creeps, because later on Salinas wants to transform Katherine into the perfect lover, an ideal always to be possessed in the flesh. I get the same feeling when I watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in which Scottie makes Judy dress and look like the late Madeleine. It is a postmodern way of experiencing a hyperreality. A reality so real it goes beyond reality, a standard that cannot be maintained over time. It is like a husband wanting his wife to look and to act like the women he sees on pornography. It is that insidious. Thank goodness it does not last long. Barnstone says, “She was not an enduring friend like his poet and professorial twin Guillén” or his wife Margarita Bonmatí, rather “Katherine is a superreality, and in her grace and person more real than the professional and family friends, which he makes clear in his complaints about professorial and scholarly duties” (xxxiii, emphasis in original).

Even after the relationship ended, Salinas continued to write letters to Katherine. He even wrote letters to Margarita when he traveled to literary conferences or other countries. In 1940, he traveled through Kansas and mentioned how the land reminds him of Castilla. (In my thesis, the third committee member gives a good point that Salinas has to be thinking of Katherine, even when he writes to his wife while traveling through Kansas on a train.) In one of his letters, not found in this book, he names Katherine his Great Duchess of Kansas. (Is it a coincidence that Salinas’s Katherine and Scottie’s Judy come from Kansas?) In my thesis, I found a snippet of the same description in another letter of 14 December 1932 and put it in as a footnote. I found it in a compilation of Salinas’s complete works that were excellently collected by Enric Bou. Even in letter form, I sensed a poetic rhythm. Barnstone translates this letter and writes them in poetic format. (He got the same idea and did it before I even considered doing the same.) He titles it “In the Train, from Palencia to Madrid” and here are the first two stanzas:

How gray, how brown, how austere this Castilla
I’m crossing while I write you. On the last trip
a month ago in my letter I sent the golds of poplars
bidding goodbye to leaves. Today only branches, skeletons,

and all Castilla appears peopled by erect skeletons.
What can I send you today? I must see golds inside.
If I send what encircles me it will be gray sky,
brown earth, denuded trunks, winter, Castilla. (156)

In another letter to Katherine dated 20 February 1933, he simply writes about the upcoming book he is going to publish. I add this only because I understand the feeling he has in publishing a work. For some reason, having a paper published gives me a satisfaction I cannot explain except through Salinas’s words. Barnstone titles this as “Love, Love, Catastrophe.”

[…] See why? Not literary vanity,
God knows. On seeing them printed,

by the press, removed from me,
I feel them more mine (you know what mine
means) than ever. […] (163)

When Salinas writes “mine,” he means that even as Katherine drifts further away from him, her existence becomes more his. His ideal beloved becomes more real. And he feels pain. As I developed my revised thesis, I found another passage from a letter dated 30 January 1934. If I remember this letter correctly, Salinas is home sick in bed. Margarita has a look of longing and sadness towards Salinas, but his son is happy that Salinas is home for once so he can play with him. It is a tragic feeling. In one of my arguments, I wrote that the beloved is a conflation of Katherine and Margarita. Even Katherine, the flesh-and-blood version of the beloved and co-creator of her, includes Margarita in the conflation. Barnstone titles the poem “Three Beings We Are” and the first two stanzas are as follows:

Three beings we are, Katherine, you said it
a while ago. None of us deserving disgrace
and the three in constant danger of destroying

our lives. And for love, Katherine, for love.
Will we be worthy of this destiny, my soul,
worthy, truly, without diminishing us? (166)

Even Salinas retains a bit of humility in his work. He leaves it to other critics to praise his work, even though he writes it for only one reader. In this next poem or letter that he writes to Katherine in 1934, he and she see a difference between La voz a ti debida and previous works, like Seguro azar (to see examples from Certain Chance, click here). The first has a definite object, while the second does not. Barnstone titles this poem “The Poem I Sent You Yesterday”, the second stanza of which is seen below.

You know that I am not professionally
a poet. Nothing that I think today,
or my poetry, should be taken as literary,
as professional, and each day less. Among
your many right sayings about our book
is that in it there is not one clever line.
There were in my earlier books, many
of my lines were game, dexterity, mental
fun. Nothing more. But in this one, no.
I am happy you see it so clearly, life. (167)

I applaud Barnstone for his work. He does a marvelous job translating and organizing the poems and letters Salinas writes to Katherine. I also applaud the work of Enric Bou and his afterword. During my time researching this topic for my thesis, I needed primary sources to bolster my understanding of the poet. Bou came through at the right time with his thick and authoritative books of Salinas’s complete works. Had he not compiled and published Salinas’s letters and works, I would have had a difficult time finding the necessary information. (If you are reading this Mr. Bou, I give you a thousand thanks!) Naturally, I have to quote some of his work.

When I was defending my thesis, the third committee member asked another question pertaining to philosophers. I focused on mainly French philosophers. I did read a Spanish philosopher, but I hardly referred to him because his philosophy fit more with the German philosophers at the time. So when I listed philosophers’ names in one section of the thesis, I only included the French names that coincided with the Generation of 1927’s modus operandi. Apparently, this bothered the third committee member. He asked why I did not include José Ortega y Gasset. I gave my reasons. Mainly, Ortega y Gasset toed the German line of philosophy, not the French. Having also studied French, I understood the French philosophers better than the German. It seemed only fitting that my logic should suit the French course of thinking. He did not say much after that, except that I add Ortega y Gasset’s name to the list, which I did. Later on, I was finding sources confirming my stand, and I could not help but feel a sense of boo-yah. Imagine how I felt again reading this passage in the afterword by Enric Bou: “The older modernista poets professed artistic purity and melodic poetic form, but the next generation, that of the ’27 authors, needed more than the exquisite, the French in Spanish dress. They were an avant-garde” (198). It feels good to find noted critics backing up my assertions.

I completed the revised thesis on good terms with the committee members. Part of the thesis dealt with phenomenology, and one of the aspects of phenomenology was the concept of presence and absence. I meticulously explained the jargon of those two terms and used them to interpret a particular poem in Salinas’s collection. I came upon an observation in this book that mirrored my interpretation. Bou writes, “Public knowledge and the distribution of private letters is essential in exploring the work of a writer with such diverse activities; in letter writing, voice and inscription become very comparable, and complete a dialectical relationship between two forces: presence and absence” (202). Well said! I wish I had this comment during my research.

In time, things settle down. Katherine lives on and marries. Salinas stays with his family and enjoys grandchildren. Committee members continue researching and teaching. And I get to enjoy writing to you. Our presences and absences mingle and depart.


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