Belinda Cooke reviews El Bosque de Birnam / Birnam Wood by José Manuel Cardona, translated by Hélène Cardona, Salmon Poetry, 2019.
Jacquie Goukia’s burnt orange landscape on the cover of El Bosque de Birnam / Birnam Wood sets the tone for Cardona’s technicolour expression of life’s intensity. Here we have both a glorious paean to the individual – ‘Humanly I’m illuminated, | I’m amazed every day by the… | joyful | and boisterous song of men’ (IX) – and a meditation on ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. The often-hallucinogenic language of this transcendental journeying is captured in the face of the violence it frequently portrays. Add to this his daughter Hélène Cardona’s faithful, intelligent translation, with its ‘hands off ’ reliance on prose clarity – just the occasional shift to ensure the natural rhythm and cadence of English poetry – and you have a winning formula. From the opening selections from ‘Poems to Circe 1-XX’, to various tributes and elegies to friends, the collection contains haunting expressions of sadness for Cardona’s forced exile and blacklisting, due to the Franco regime, which continued under the entrenched Franquist administration in spite of Socialists gaining power in 1982.
Thus we open with the poet/Odysseus as an Everyman contemplating humanity’s darker side, set against the ultimate failure of all empire-building: ‘Circe, you’ve penetrated, | Into my deep bones that proclaim | The vertebrate pain of the species’ (‘II’), further noting, ‘This island where we love belongs to no one’ (‘III’), ‘Missing is the man who says: the sea is mine,’(‘IV’). The drowning sailor, the ultimate symbol of human powerlessness – one thinks of Leonard Cohen’s line: ‘All men will be sailors then | until the sea shall free them’ (‘Suzanne’) – is a motif drawn on in a later poem to his brother, ‘Ode to a young mariner’ and as an ongoing image in the anthology.
Hélène Cardona’s diction is spot on, with harsh consonants to ornament the sequence’s building crescendo, and Cardona’s increasing awareness of human evil. ‘I kept recreating you in my image’ leads to ‘Exalted you opened my painful wound’ (‘XII’), and onto showing the horror man is prepared to commit in pursuit of all forms of love or passion: ‘…what madness | Has bitten my chest and the black | Mastiffs barking on my heart.’ (‘XIX’). It ends with a gloriously Miltonic-Satanic utterance: ‘I proclaim my black thaumaturgy | Higher than God, in the darkness…’ (‘XX’). All in all, a stunning sequence in both versions.
The rest of the collection moves to poems more personally reflective of life’s darker side, while sustaining this carpe diem exhilaration for the world’s wonder. This is a poetry of tragic loss of country, culture and fellow compatriots – elegies to writers and painters and for the land that should have been his. He is proud always to be, ‘the man from Ibiza’ whose name is written: ‘by the fiery index finger of a sylvan archangel’ but albeit it with no belief that things will ever change: ‘The human species will die out | without ever reaching | the age of reason (‘The Spell’). Yet this does not prevent him offering powerful eulogies, and his love of colour in particular makes him perfectly suited to bring painters to life, which he does particularly well in his orphic sonnets:
You pushed the rigor of a limitless art(‘To the painter Pedro Bueno in Villa de Río’)
to unfathomable mysteries
opening to the color white the singing
the Chimera never dreamt.
Occult light, impenetrable aromatic smoke,
in your paintbrush hands, solitary passion.
Reading his poetry, we are not allowed to forget the ‘heartbeats | a thousand times restrained, the hurt today | beyond repair’ (‘Fountain in the passage of the bonfire’), but, clearly, he finds his compensation in offering tributes to those who have shared the same love and loss, and in so revealing art as our perfect compensation for mortality.
– Belinda Cooke
Belinda Cooke completed her PhD on Robert Lowell’s interest in Osip Mandelstam in 1993. Her poetry, translation and reviews have been published widely. Her most recent books are Forms of Exile: Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (the High Window Press, 2019); (et al) Contemporary Kazakh Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2019) Stem (The High Window, 2020) and Days of the Shorthanded Shovelists (forthcoming, Salmon Poetry). She currently lives and teaches on the west coast of Scotland.