Xuan María Acebal

He follows behind the lazy cows
And turns a deep furrow with the plough:
When weeding he pulls out the bad growth
And thins out the maize when it’s overgrown;
When reaping he makes piles of cornstalks
Or cobs to carry in the full wagon pannier;
When he plaits the cornstalks at harvest,
Or strips the seeds off to leave the shafts bare
Mindful of his work he always sings
Whether happy or to relieve his sorrows.

He sings when the midday sun
With its golden rays bathes the wheat,
Or on the threshing floor with threshers
The stones move in rhythm to release the spelt!
And when, turning the handle, the women
Wash the seed to separate the chaff.

And he sings when he sharpens the scythe
He uses to cut the grass with swinging arm;
And when he piles it up against the haystack pole
And when he fills the barn when it is dry.

And he sings when toasting chestnuts,
The cases of which are beginning to open;
And after shaking them down, he gathers them up
To soften their spines in the stone hearth circle.

And he sings when he is pounding flax;
And he sings as he cuts it and combs it over;
And the young women sing in their sewing circles
When they are pulling thread from the spinning wheel.

Xuan María Acebal, Obra Poética (Uviéu: Alvizoras, 1995).

Acebal was born in 1815 and died in 1895.  This edition of his poetry in Asturianu with its useful prologue by Antón García casts a revealing light on a poet who was touched by Carlism and Asturian nationalism and who lived through a period of great economic and cultural change in Asturias and Spain.

When I have had to explain Carlism to overseas visitors to Galicia, I have generally presented the liberal governments as modern and forward-thinking, representing the ideas of a rising urban bourgeoisie.  The Carlists, by contrast, come across as reactionary historical villains, representing a monolithic and inflexible church and semi-feudal aristocracy, whilst opposing any suggestion of what we have come to see as progress.  The three Carlist wars that caused such destruction in Spain are easy to characterise as the violent birth pangs of modernity in an almost medieval society.

It is interesting, therefore, to read a quotation from Karl Marx in the introductory prologue calling Carlism ‘a free and popular movement in defence of much more liberal and regionalist traditions’ than those of the liberals, which he says represent a centralising, absolutist state (K. Marx and F. Engels, La Revolución Española 1808-1843 (Madrid: El Cénit, 1929) trans. Andrés Nin).  Is this borne out in the writing of Acebal?

His poetry is undoubtedly regionalist and for my translation I have selected a passage from a longer poem, Cantar y Más Cantar, Impresiones de Asturias, Singing and yet more singing, impressions of Asturias.  It starts by suggesting that all the blessings of this world fall on the inhabitants of small villages.  This in itself makes an interesting contrast with the previous writers I have set down on these pages, especially Bances Candamo.  I paused with pleasure to notice him mentioning Grau, where I live, even if only to pass rapidly on:
I have no words to explain it
And leave it to someone who knows better.

This is the charm of the poetry: an inward-looking hymn to Asturias for Asturians, telling how beautiful, rich and splendid the natural resources, geography and social life of the region is; the happy labourer goes about his work singing.  The lines I have translated go from 197-224 in a poem whose overall length is 265.  They seem to me to be the heart of the poem.

I must confess that they gave me considerable difficulties.  Knowing what a panoya is does not help you to find the right word in English and the rich vocabulary for spelt and maize runs the risk of being repetitive in the translation since there are not so many words that I know to do the job.  Nonetheless, the exercise has been unusually rewarding as I have been looking at wagons and carts with new eyes and looking with a new appreciation at Carmen’s rental house- www.fade.es/pisondefondon – which used to be a mill for escandá or spelt.

I toyed with translating some of the other poems.  I’d have liked to have struggled a little with one of the religious poems.  Refugium peccatorum is rather good and, even though its subject is more challenging to modern tastes, it gives a good idea of the sensibilities of nineteenth-century Carlist.

For future reading I have set my sights on Manuel Fernández Castro (1834-1905) who was made archbishop of Mondoñedo in 1889 and therefore overlaps with Leiras Pulpeiro the genial doctor poet and precursor of Noriega Varela.  The way that the rhythms of spoken language keep finding their way into poetic diction is endlessly fascinating in any language!

Antón García incidentally edits an excellent magazine of Asturian Culture called Campo de los Patos.  The last edition was dedicated to German culture with articles ranging from Beuys through Hesse to translations of W.H.Auden.  As I dive into Asturian local culture, it is fascinating to see Asturian intellectuals looking outwards.

About Jason Preater

Working on Projects
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