Thursday, July 05, 2007

Thought, Late in the Day

I love the work of the Detroit-born poet Philip Levine. One of my favorites of his books, one you must read, is The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994). Here, in the chapter "Living in Machado," Levine is speaking of his love for the work of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), and of some time spent reading and translating Machado's work while Levine was living near Barcelona:

I decided the best thing I could do was select a short poem by Machado and do my best to translate it. If I waited for permission from someone, even from myself, it would never come. I chose one that began, "La casa tan querida," because I could translate the first two lines without consulting a dictionary. Also it did not rhyme, and the lines seemed of no fixed length, so most of the usual formal considerations were irrelevant. The syntax of the first stanza––which was a single, very complex sentence, gave me fits. I wanted not to have to resort to breaking it into two or even three sentences. Hours passed, and I felt I was simply moving words around and not getting any closer to a version of the poem I'd be happy with, but a curious thing happened during these hours: I was falling in love with the taste of Spanish on my tongue.

I went for a long walk down by the sea and began quoting passages from the poem. To my great surprise, I had memorized all of it, though I no longer recalled how I had translated most of it. The poem concerns a man who goes back to view a house that was very dear to him because once a certain woman had lived there. The place is now an uninhabited wreck, and the wreck reveals its worm-eaten skeleton. The short second stanza goes:

La luna esta vertiendo
su clara luz en suenos que platea
en las venanas. Mal vestido y trise
voy cainando por la calle vieja.

We discover it's night. The moon "is shedding / its clear light of dreams / that silver the windows." Why would the windows remain in a junked house? Perhaps the speaker is remembering it as it was even though he places the experience in the present. Perhaps he is demonstrating how the past takes pre-eminence over everything. I repeated the final sentence over and over, for I was describing myself, alone, bundled in thick, coarse sweaters against the sea winds, feeling each of my thirty-seven years twice over. "Shabby and sad / I make it down the old street." The experience was utterly not mine, for there was no woman of romance anywhere in the world whose loss I regretted, but there was in me a yearning for a place of the past, a house to which I could return and be taken in, a place that had once mattered and still mattered. No such place existed. I had had the American experience of finding the old house replaced by a parking lot, and this was 1965--two years before what in Detroit would come to be known as the Great Rebellion--and much of the neighborhood of my growing up was still unburned. It would take another twenty-five years to show me how fully Machado's poem dealt with a life I could never live, for by the time I truly became the shabby old man the places of my growing up had been obliterated. The American experience is to return and discover one cannot even find the way, for the streets abruptly end, replaced by freeways, the houses have been removed for urban renewal that never takes place, and nothing remains, not even a junked skeleton "silvered by moonlight."


NOTE: I regret that I could not get the accent marks placed into the quoted Spanish.


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