In Other Words
Loynaz, translated from the Spanish by James O’Connor, Archipelago Books, 263 pages
Absolute Solitude: Selected Poems by Dulce María Loynaz
One popular Spanish language course teaches phrases such as: “Excuse me, do you know which way is the Hotel Continental?” “Sure. Turn right and then go straight ahead.”
If you find a touristy approach to language acquisition less than inspiring, consider reading a bilingual poetry book. Absolute Solitude introduces American readers to Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz in an elegant bilingual edition with selected poems from her book Poems Without Names and the posthumous Autumn Melancholy. Loynaz’s language shines with such clarity that even a reader with limited Spanish proficiency can relish the taste of her poems in her native language. For instance, a reader might understand, or intuit, the meaning of “¿Y esa luz? — Es tu sombra.” “And that light? — It’s your shadow.” James O’Connor, whose previous rendering of Loynaz’s poems was shortlisted for the Popescu Award for Poetry in Translation, renders these poems fluidly from the Spanish.
Loynaz gives us poetry in its purest form: the substance of her prose poems is so potent that the style rarely gets in the way. A compact nugget of a poem can startle with its insight: Even in your way of forgetting there is
something beautiful. I thought all forgetting was darkness, but your
forgetting is luminous, like a great radiance. Like the dawn wiping out the stars!
A beloved Cuban poet in the 1950s, Loynaz was ostracized by Castro’s government for refusing to join the Communist party, and was largely forgotten after the Cuban Revolution. According to press materials, “Loynaz was a 90-year-old widow when Spain’s Royal Spanish Academy unexpectedly awarded her the 1992 Premio Miguel de Cervantes, the highest literary accolade in the Spanish language.” Others who have received that honor include Jorge Luis Borges and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz.
Reading these poems, one senses that awards were not terribly important to Loynaz. Her advice to artists is contrary to the contemporary belief that artists ought to wear themselves out on social media. “Only by devoting oneself to darkness, absorbing its deep waters drop/by drop, can one give rise to a noble, lasting work of art,” she writes. In another poem, Loynaz could be talking about the creative process when she writes, “From the patience of the earth,/inch by inch, or the convulsions of the earth, pressing up the fire/within, or the painful spasms of the young earth, the world’s flesh,/at the dawn of Creation.”
Despite its depth, Loynaz’s work might even be Twitterworthy, if only for its brevity. A terse one-line poem that gives this volume its title, suggests the distillation of an entire life: “The world gave me many things, but the only thing I ever kept was/ absolute solitude.”
Because Loynaz’s poems speak directly of matters of the heart and the soul, there are no long-winded preludes and little cultural specificity that would create walls between the poet and her reader. She speaks simply as one human to another. It is because of her directness, and how she lays bare her suffering — in a way that is at once gritty and dignified — that her poetry, for the most part, hasn’t aged. To be sure, we are no longer used to phrases that reference “the Creator” — in that sense her work is reminiscent of the poetry of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) — although the emotional suffering in Loynaz’s poems feels more modern compared to the spiritual anguish in Tagore’s poetry.
Loynaz does not use objects or set pieces much in these poems, but when she does so, her words are electric. “It was the darkest part of the night. The wind had died down/and the clock with the broken minute hand began to tick and every/second was absurd.” There is something Zen-like in her pose of timelessness and purposeful neglect. “In the end the only thing that might excuse me for the failure that/is my life is the vague, absentminded way in which I go walking down/every road on earth.” Her words here express fellow feeling with Zen master Shitou Xiqian (700-790) whose poem “Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage” begins:
I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value./After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap./When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
In one poem, Loynaz prays that her work will not be condemned “to the fruitless, loveless labor/of warming the cold bones of no one in particular.” On that count, she need not worry. Her poems have such fire that no reader will walk away from this book with cold bones.
— Priyanka Kumar