The isle has a river of birds
That open their mouths in song-
Sad island birds they are
With their nests up in the sun.
It has a new and waxing moon
And eyes to say hey-ho
It has a mouth that’s firmly closed
To harvest in the salt.
And it has hair new and shiny,
My love, oh what hair it has,
With the deep, dark smell of seaweed
And a clean honey taste.
There is an enchanted island
Away in the deeps of the sea
Steered by bright stars and each night
The trunk rises out of its waist.
When I am reading I like to feel that I am following a thread. There is always some thread there that connects one book with another, which means that when I come to write my commentaries I do not have to play the part of the seventies DJ making a convoluted connection between one song on my playlist and the next.
Why then have I dipped into Dona do corpo delgado (1950) by Álvaro Cunqueiro and found this poem? It seems to bear no relationship to the harsh realities described by Montoro the persecuted Jew (see previous post).
I fell in love with Cunqueiro’s writing when I read As Crónicas do Sochantre, a magical novel that really should be translated into English. I would willingly take on the job. Cunqueiro’s imagination loops and curls around fantastic, surreal and touching images and scenes. His long sentences burble along like brooks running through a woodland where every tree is a token of his immense learning. He is like Italo Calvino in his lightness of touch.
Yet Cunqueiro was born to a conservative Mondoñedo family in 1911. When the Civil War turned Spanish life upside down in the 30s he was starting out in his professional life. He advanced in his career as a newspaperman and writer by pulling on those conservative family strings. His lyrical writings about the Middle Ages and his neo-troubadour poetry are beautiful, lyrical and lacking in any reference points to the times he was living through.
It is this silence that brings him to mind. I have considered many poets who have confronted cruelty, discrimination and prejudice with powerful and stirring voices. Cunqueiro seems to me to be looking the other way. He seems to be asking us to look off to magical worlds in the distance where there are pretty things that can distract us from the harsh realities of life in the here-and-now.
If you know Cunqueiro’s work you might care to disagree with me. You might say that the Dance of Death theme running through Crónicas is a coded reference to contemporary sufferings. If so, it was a heavily coded message for he worked in the bosom of the Nationalist press until 1947 and was lauded and garlanded throughout the Franco years. There is something very appealing and, well, traditional about these Medieval dreamx.
I emphatically do not want to take a high moral tone in this. I do not want to say that the books are less worth reading because they do not deal explicitly with contemporary events. I still love reading Cunqueiro.
Yet the knowledge is there. Is Cunqueiro like the priest in that wonderful novel Requiem for a Spanish Peasant by Sender? Or does art follow a different path that cannot be tainted by political associations? I would be interested in your views.
Nacelle o van el talle: the last line of the poem is very difficult to translate and I am not sure what Cunquiero means by it. Van and talle are two synonyms both meaning waist, although talle can also mean the whole trunk. So what is should mean is “the waist is born to it in the waist” but that is clearly senseless. He has given o van the Galician article and el talle the Castilian Spanish article. It is mysterious to me and I have not found a good explanation in my reading.