Dead men’s deaf clogs Os zocos zordos dos mortos
Walk over Friars’ Bridge: trepan na Ponte dos Frades:
They are not river froth, non son escumas do río.
On the twisted pathways- nos amieiros retortos
The groans of sleep and cold: os bruídos de sono e frío:
The dead on the doorsteps os mortos a prol dos portos
Hardly make a rustle fan apenas rechouchío.
Ramón Otero Pedrayo (1888-1976) is one of the most influential of mid-twentieth century Galician prose writers. Arredor de sí, his semi-autobiographical novel, charts the development of a displaced intellectual who struggles to unite his Galician heritage with his broader European learning. Os camiños da vida follows the fortunes of the families of minor nobility in a typical Galician village showing how the dramatic changes of the nineteenth-century affected the rural life of the region. He was not known as a poet until the collection from which these poems come was published in 1958.
Bocarribeira (Vigo: Galaxia, 2005) is heavily influenced by the terse and epigrammatic style of Castelao and shares the same vision of the Galician countryside: rich in superstition and folklore; suffering poverty and hardship; alive with rural traditions. In the two poems that I have translated here we see two examples of this vision: the first one evokes Galicia as the ‘land of the dead’, where a walk down a country lane at night might lead you to encounter the Holy Company of lost souls; the second brings in the ‘trasno’ or goblin, a kind of wood sprite with holes in his hands who is a trickster and jester, a little like Robin Goodfellow. Both are wearing zocos those clogs that make a healthy clack as they pass over cobblestone paths.
Both poems are short. They are not exactly musical, but the poet is inventive with his techniques. Os zocos zordos dos mortos is satisfyingly onomatopoetic, with the -z- that is pronounced -th- in Spanish, suggesting the dragging of the feet of the dead, whilst the –o- sounds give a good suggestion of the hollow clack of wood on the bridge.
The sand of the path rustles Ruxe a area do camiño
With the sound of the lad’s new boots. cas botas novas do mozo.
A night of worn clothes and wine. Noite de farras e viño…
The goblin knocks with his clog O trasno bate co zoco
On the half-empty keg o pipote a meias oco
And the owl laughs in its hollow. e ri o moucho no cavoco.
In Spanish poetry syllable-counting makes more sense than in English poetry where it is usually the accented foot that counts. Here I think Otero Pedrayo is writing in a way that an English reader instinctively understands, with the three feet per line. These short lines make the rhymes come around with insistent force. In fact, one would almost say that the -oco-oco-oco is more than a rhyme: an equivalent of the knock, knock, knock of the clog on the cask.
In parallel with these poems I have been re-reading Edward Thomas and cannot help meditating on the use that both poets make of myth and legend. For Thomas, Lob is almost a demiurge of the English countryside. For both poets the evocation of myth gives another shade to the love of the country they feel: a traveller in foreign lands does not have access to the local gods; the woodland sprites are inherently patriotic- that is why they are studied in primary schools even today.
With the vast changes that are taking place in the countryside due to mechanisation and the consolidation of lands into fewer hands, however, there is something quaintly outdated about the image of clogs and goblins. In the 1950s people still wore zocos, still went to church and still believed the local superstitions. If a poet were to write like that now he would be either twee or patronising towards simple folk who believe those things. Not only can you no longer write like Thomas or Otero Pedrayo; it is even difficult to think like them.