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A Clouded Illumination

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 5, July/August 2013
pp. 26-27 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0089

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Vicente Aleixandre (1898–1984), one of Spain’s most important twentieth-century poets, is perhaps best known for his association with the Generation of 1927, a group that also included Rafael Alberti, Luis Cernuda, Gerardo Diego, Federico García Lorca, and Jorge Guillén, among others. The group aimed to renovate the language of poetry, to bridge popular and classical traditions with avant-garde movements such as Surrealism; its early promise was cut short by the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), which effectively dissolved it: Lorca was murdered by Franco’s forces, and many of the Generation’s writers were forced into exile.

Though the influences of the group and the Civil War were decisive on his development—as no doubt were his birth in Seville, his idyllic childhood in Málaga, and his subsequent move to Madrid, where he studied, taught law, and began to write—Aleixandre was also impacted by another major circumstance. In his twenties, he contracted Tuberculosis and, as a consequence, became bedridden; because of his delicate condition, he remained in Spain throughout the War—an internal exile, in effect. But his illness was also transformative and helped propel his vocation as a writer. As he later stated, it was during that time when he first started writing “with complete dedication.”

During his long literary career, he published thirteen collections of poetry—the first of which was Ambito (1928), and the last, Diálogos de conocimiento (1974). In addition to the deep contemplative quality of his oeuvre, no doubt conditioned by his illness, from which he never truly recovered, Aleixandre’s early work is characterized by surrealistic imagery as well as by a romantic eroticism and a pantheistic vision of nature; his later output, beginning with Sombra a paraíso (1944), explores themes including fellowship, spirituality, and the fleetingness of life, while making use of a more direct language. Although his work was banned during the first years of the Franco dictatorship, Aleixandre served as a mentor for younger writers who used to visit him at his home in Madrid throughout his life. He was elected to the Spanish Royal Academy in 1949 and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1977. He died in Madrid at age 86.

While his literary presence in this country is modest compared to the towering figure of Lorca, who has been extensively translated over the years—his Poet in New York (1940) was recently reissued by Farrar Straus & Giroux—Vicente Aleixandre’s poetry has in fact achieved some notoriety in translation. His work in English includes his Destruction or Love (1976), and Twenty Poems (1977), both translated by Stephen Kessler; Shadow of Paradise (1987), translated by Hugh Harter; and A Longing for the Light (1979), a selected poems edited by Lewis Hyde, and translated by Hyde and various other translators, Kessler among them. Now we can add to that list Aleixandre’s Poems of Consummation, translated by Kessler from the author’s Poemas de la consumación (1968) and published in an attractive bilingual edition by the Boston-based Black Widow Press.

Given that nearly half of the above translations are out of print, the time is ripe for an expansion of Aleixandre’s work in English. This collection does just that. Perhaps its intimacy and sense of authority derive from the fact that it was written toward the end of the poet’s life, at a distance from the Generation of ’27 and the circumstances of the Spanish Civil War. The poems read like meditations, those of a man looking back and reflecting on memory, desire, and mortality, both in relation to his own life and his art, all of it burnished like “old gold,” to use an image from “The Past: ‘Villa Pura.’” Indeed, the back-cover blurb praises the work as “an eloquent lyrical encounter with themes of Eros, memory, old age, death, and oblivion,” its language described as “elemental and metaphysical…sensual and philosophical…a bracing engagement with unanswerable questions.” The book’s content, combined with its production—the cover showcases the author’s portrait against a stark black background, and inside, the en-face format includes plenty of white space—encourages the reader to...



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