Miguel Hernández - In Miguel’s earthy and wild poetry all the extravagances of color, of perfume, and of the voice of the Spanish Levant came together, with the exuberance and the fragrance of a powerful and virile youth


Miguel Hernández, Miguel Hernández,  Selected and Translated by Don Share. NYRB Poets, 2013.

Miguel Hernández is, along with Antonio Machado, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Federico García Lorca, one of the greatest Spanish poets of the twentieth century. This volume spans the whole of Hernández’s brief writing life, and includes his most celebrated poems, from the early lyrics written in traditional forms, such as the moving elegy Hernández wrote to his friend and mentor Ramon Sijé (one of the most famous elegies ever written in the Spanish language), to the spiritual eroticism of his love poems, and the heart-wrenching, luminous lines written in the trenches of war. Also included in this edition are tributes to Hernández by Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda (interviewed by Robert Bly), Rafael Alberti, and Vicente Aleixandre. Pastoral nature, love, and war are recurring themes in Hernández’s poetry, his words a dazzling reminder that force can never defeat spirit, that courage is its own reward.

In Miguel’s earthy and wild poetry all the extravagances of color, of perfume, and of the voice of the Spanish Levant came together, with the exuberance and the fragrance of a powerful and virile youth.—Pablo Neruda

Miguel Hernández sang in his deep voice and his singing was as though all the trees were singing.—Octavio Paz

In Don Share’s translations of Miguel Hernández, there is a sense of shared elation between reader and translator that confirms the delight of exact sensation when the poem feels transmitted by that cautious and subtle alchemy that is the translator’s skill. —Derek Walcott

The consummate poet of light, darkness, soul, time, death.—Willis Barnstone

The apparent simplicity of his poems, which speak eloquently of love, poverty and hope, turned Hernández into a popular figure who was elevated to cult status.—El Pais

Raw, passionate, despairing and celebratory.—Publisher’s Weekly

What a victory it is to watch springing forth from our murky thicket of half-commercialized poetry the silver boar of Hernández’s words—to see the world of paper part so as to allow the language tusks and shoulders to emerge, shining, pressed forward by his genius.—Robert Bly

One of the great talents of the century.—Philip Levine, The Kenyon Review

A cherished example of why great poetry is timeless.—Ray Gonzalez, Bloomsbury Review

The poet and playwright Miguel Hernández (1910–1942) was born into a peasant family in the province of Alicante in southeast Spain and died from tuberculosis in a prison hospital there at age thirty-one. For much of his life he worked, like his father, as a shepherd. As a soldier and cultural ambassador for the Republican Army during the Spanish civil war, Hernández read his poems and plays on the radio and on the front lines. When the war ended in 1939, he was arrested and sentenced to death (commuted to thirty years in prison).
In various jails, Hernández wrote many poems that were included in letters to his friends and family, particularly his wife, Josefina Manresa—a seamstress from his hometown Orihuela, with whom he had two sons. “Everything Is Filled with You” was written during this time of imprisonment and was published in 1958 in his final collection of poems, Cancionero y romancero de ausencias (Songs and Ballads of Absence).
Jeffrey Yang

Everything is filled with you,
and everything is filled with me:
the towns are full,
just as the cemeteries are full
of you, all the houses
are full of me, all the bodies.

I wander down streets losing
things I gather up again:
parts of my life
that have turned up from far away.

I wing myself toward agony,
I see myself dragging
through a doorway,
through creation’s latent depths.

Everything is filled with me:
with something yours and memory
lost, yet found
again, at some other time.

A time left behind
decidedly black,
indelibly red,
golden on your body.

Pierced by your hair,
everything is filled with you,
with something I haven’t found,
but look for among your bones.

Miguel Hernández, selected and translated by Don Share, is a powerful introduction to one of Spain’s finest poets. Comparable to Ted Hughes in quality and intensity, Hernández shatters the notion that pastoral verses are synonymous with gentleness. Though the poems temper truth with mercy, it is the death-mercy, the lead gift, that Robinson Jeffers (a comparable poet) gave to his hurt hawks. Miguel Hernández does not flinch from describing either joy or suffering. He insists that we observe the world as it is, that it is the duty of man to change it for the better, and to find the beauty in the blood we spill.
Miguel Hernández died on March 28, 1942 at 5:30 in the morning. He was thirty-one years old. Context will tell you that he was a fighter in, and a victim of, the Spanish Civil War. After the defeat of the Republic, Franco condemned Hernández to death—not for the role he played in the fighting, but for his poetry. The General paid him the compliment of calling him ‘A very dangerous man’, before reducing his sentence to life in order to prevent him from becoming a martyr. It was tuberculosis that slew him in the end, not a volley of rifles. His eldest son starved to death while he was in prison. His wife and younger child survived him.
Hernández inscribed his last verses, like so much graffiti, on the stone wall above his prison cot:
Goodbye, brothers, comrades, friends,
Let me take my leave of the sun and the fields.
A gentle epitaph for a great poet, but the poetry contained in his last letter to his beloved wife, reprinted in this book, was more in keeping with the brutal pastorals and deep understanding of the range of human feeling found in his published verses:
The hemorrhaging has stopped. But you must tell Barbero that the pus is not draining through the tube he put in, for the opening has enlarged, the pus is building up and spills on the bed with any coughing fit. This is a bother and an obstacle to my rate of recovery from the disease. I want to get out of here as soon as possible. They are curing me by stops and starts through their bright ideas, sloppiness, ignorance, negligence. Well, love, I feel better, and as soon as I get out, my recovery will be like lightning. Kisses for my son. I love you, Josefina,
This book contains selections from works that spanned his short life. The earliest are often acerbic, virtuosic poems about something that might conceivably be love. A childhood spent tending sheep on a rock allowed no room for illusions. In “Like the Bull” he compares human courtship to a bull fight:
like the bull I am branded
with a hellish iron in my side,
and, being male, by the fruit of my groin.

like the bull I need to fight for your love.
The usual clichéd poem about love as a conquest would probably not contain a bullfight, and if it did the man would unquestionably be placed in the dominant, more macho role of the fighter. He would slay and vanquish. He would feel no loss. Miguel had a talent for exploding clichés such as this:
Like the bull I follow and chase you,
and you leave my desire on the sword,
like the taunted bull, like the bull.
This poem illuminates the power-play that often runs beneath the act of love. Hernández does this in a way that gives agency to the woman who refuses his terms, who taunts and slaughters by the sword, an instrument whose psychological significance is obvious.
In a later poem, ‘To My Son’, written for his dead child, Hernández uses a series of images, alternating between brutality and redemption, to bring beauty from his loss:
The sun, your sole rival, devoured you…
Ten months in light, with the sky making its rounds,
the dead sun, blackened, entombed, eclipsed.
Without passing through daytime, your hair faded;
your flesh drew toward evening, with dawn just at hand.
In this poem the sun kills its rival, its shadow, and in so doing finds that it has killed itself. Through talent and grief, Hernández takes the over-used image of the redemptive son and makes it new again.
Though shrouded in pain, recovery returns like Christ, like the speaker’s flawed hope for another child, the boy who will live. Death is only permanent for the individual. Life—brutal, implacable life (which allows death)—returns again to shroud the earth.
“War” is among his last, posthumously published poems. In it, Hernández depicts war as a reversal of nature, a brutal uncoupling from the human evolutionary path:
All the mothers of the world
hide their wombs, shiver,
and wish they could retreat
into blind virginity,
into that lonely beginning
and the orphan past.
The people who do not desire regression reduce their humanity through surgery:
Lust for murder invades
the lily’s heart.
All the bodies yearn
to be welded to chunks of metal:
to be married, possessed horribly.
To vanish
In this poem men are marred, becoming automatons, and only death is birthed at last.
Auden, in a poem dedicated to Yeats, wrote that, “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives.” Hernández must have understood that viscerally, trapped as he was behind the thick walls of a prison. He received a letter from Josefina in the last winter of his life in which she said that she had nothing to eat but bread and onions. The poem that he wrote in response to this news, “Lullaby of the Onion,” was dedicated to his son, who was slowly dying of malnutrition.
Helpless in life, his poetry is infused with power. This poem allows Hernández to imagine a victory. He begins with stark realism, describing the slow starvation of his child as the starving boy drinks his mother’s thin, foul milk:
My little boy
was in hunger’s cradle.
He was nursed
on onion blood.
It is not in the nature of the poet to linger on bleakness. He imagines a happier image, “Laugh, son/ you can swallow the moon.” But the moon is not a joke. It is a symbol for death, the eternal lunar mother. The realism returns with a startling physical description:
The flesh fluttering,
the sudden eyelid,
and the baby is rosier
than ever.
It is clear that this infant is dying. The helplessness Hernández feels is equally clear, as is the knowledge that poetry, his poetry, can make nothing happen. The only survival for him, and his family, is in words. Hernández draws the moon down once again, dismissing any illusion of succor, plunging fully into myth. He ends the poem with renunciation:
Fly away, son, on the double
moon of the breast:
it is saddened by onion,
you are satisfied.
Don’t let go.
Don’t find out what’s happening,
or what goes on.

In a letter to Hernández, contained in this book, Federico Lorca writes, ‘you show, in the middle of savage things (that I like), the gentleness of your heart, that is so full of pain and light.’ Those words present an accurate depiction of the soul present in the heart of these poems. Hernández utilizes unique imagery, narrative, and creative inversions of well-thumbed truisms to create work that is far more powerful, and far less mortal, than the man. - Bethany W. Pope

Miguel Hernández
Miguel Hernández Gilabert was born on 30 October 1910 in the town of Orihuela, near Murcia, in southeastern Spain, to poor parents. His father, Miguel Hernández Sánchez, a herdsman and dealer in sheep and goats, took for granted that his son would soon be hard at work helping with the family business. From a very early age the young Miguel was expected to perform menial tasks around the house and stable. A lengthy, enriched education was out of the question, both for economic and socio-cultural reasons; instead of starting school at the usual age, Hernández was forced for years to shepherd his father's flock. This grueling, solitary experience had a profound impact on him. His work on the farm led him to establish a special bond with nature, and he later drew on that experience in his poetry.
When Hernández's passion for reading and writing became evident, his father tried hard to discourage such impractical pursuits. However, Hernández had made a conscious decision to become a poet. Gifted with an ability to versify and a phenomenal memory, he survived a difficult apprenticeship during which, with the help and advice of close friends and mentors, he managed to learn Hispanic literature and culture, particularly the poetry and theater, at the same time mastering a wide variety of styles of poetry from earlier decades and other cultures. Against enormous odds, he broke loose from the severe limitations of his humble beginnings to emerge as one of the greatest and best-loved Spanish poets.
One common thread in the lives of so many of Hernández's contemporaries is their education, erudition, and worldliness; unlike them, he was rigidly forbidden to indulge in such interests by his father, who saw no use for formal education or for what his son wrote and recited. Throughout most of his youth Hernández was in conflict with his father over his desire to read and study, and later over his ambition to become a poet. Hernández’s early poems were thus shaped and inspired as much by the numbing routine of his pastoral chores as by the poets whose works he read. His day-to-day chores provided a common motif in poems, such as "En cuclillas, ordeño una cabrita y un sueño" (Squatting on My Heels, I Milk My Goat and My Dream, in Obra completa, 1992), a short poem which illustrates his early predilection for creating visual and auditory metaphors out of the down-to-earth scenes of everyday life. In "Aprendiz de Chivo" (The Apprentice Kid, also in Obra completa) Hernández depicts the miracle of birth, the awkward yet splendid first moments of a newborn goat as it slowly awakens to the pleasures of its mother's milk and the sheer joy of being alive. Although many of Hernández's early poems probably have not survived, about forty of them were published for the first time in Obra completa, which includes over one hundred previously unpublished works.
In the years immediately after Hernández left school, he befriend the Catholic writer Sijé (Marín Gutierrez) who was drawn to Hernández for his poetry and intellect. Sijé became Hernández's mentor and guru, suggesting that he study in great depth the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Spanish poets and dramatists and teaching him to fashion his verse with particular care for allegory, semantics, and symbols. Hernández’s poem, "Pastoril," which he had written in his beloved orchard, was published in the Pueblo de Orihuela on 13 January 1930; his career as a published poet had begun.
Madrid at the time was the literary and cultural capital of Spain; Hernández naturally was drawn to it and made his first trip in 1931. His enthusiasm was dispelled by the cool reception he met within the Spanish metropolis. The tension caused in Hernández by the differences between big-city and country life was to affect him and pervade his poetry at every stage of his life. The butt of mildly unflattering articles, Hernández returned to Orihuela but not before publishing a poem, "Reloj rústico" (Rustic Clock, now in Obra completa ), in the Gaceta Literaria (1 May 1932). On his way home, however, he was stopped and imprisoned for not having the proper documentation—the first of two such arrests that left indelible impressions on Hernández. He was obliged to contact his family and friends for funds to get him out of jail, where he remained for several days. He felt that his six months in Madrid had been a disaster; help from the cultural powers had not been forthcoming, nor would it be for years to come.
Back in Orihuela, Hernández worked menial jobs and wooed the daughter of an officer of the Guardia Civil, Josefina Manresa. Their long and tumultuous courtship would be an inspiration for much of Hernández’s later love poetry. Sijé's influence on Hernández also became especially strong following his return in seeming disgrace from Madrid. Hernández was hard at work composing his first book, "Poliedros"—published as Perito en lunas (Lunar Expert, 1933). Although he had absorbed through his reading the styles and techniques of baroque pastoral poetry, his "lunar" Arcadia was far removed from its aristocratic source. Beneath the artifice of his culteranismo (art for the sake of art) conceits, his poetry abounds with regional themes, rustic flavors, and popular images intimately linked with the common elements of life on the land: wells and irrigation systems; trees and vegetation; bulls and roosters; and palms and snakes—proof of Hernández's deep attachment to the natural world around him, the wellspring of his pantheism.
With the publication of Perito en lunas Hernández had finally proved himself a full-fledged poet. His career took off rapidly from that point, and his work evolved from the hermetic baroque style of Perito en lunas through the sensual love poems and quasi-religious themes of early versions of El silbo vulnerado (The Injured Whistle, posthumously published in 1949), to the crystal clarity and sexual candor of the sonnets in later versions of El silbo vulnerado and Imagen de tu huella (Image of Your Footprint, published in 1963), which were reworked in Hernández's first major work, El rayo que no cesa (1936; translated as Unceasing Lightning, 1986).
Hernández returned to Madrid in March 1934 where he befriended poets like Frederico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, and Vicente Aleixandre. Drawn deeper and deeper into the circle of poets that favored the Republican government and its socialist views, Hernández moved further away from Orihuela and Sijé's influence. When Sijé paid him a visit in Madrid, it was clear that, though they remained close friends, irreconcilable changes had drawn a permanent intellectual barrier between them. Hernández remained torn between two worlds, between the artificial, decadent city and the pure, Arcadian countryside. In June 1935 Hernández collaborated on an homage to Neruda which included a warm dedication (collected in Obra completa) and three then-unpublished cantos materiales (material songs) from Residencia en la tierra. His support of Neruda cost him Sijé’s friendship and he returned to Orihuela emotionally drained; however, the loss also occasioned one of his great poems. In late December 1935, Sijé died of pneumonia. Devastated by the news and beset by terrible feelings of guilt, Hernández turned inward to concentrate and distill his sorrow, composing an elegy to Sijé that many critics consider to be one of the finest elegies in the Spanish language. First published in Revista de Occidente on 10 January 1936, the elegy is an earthy evocation of his friendship and love for Sijé and of Sijé's long-standing influence on Hernández:

Yo quiero ser llorando el hortelano
de la tierra que ocupas y estercolas,
compañero del alma, tan temprano.
Alimentando lluvias, caracolas
y órganos mi dolor sin instrumento,
a las desalentadas amapolas
daré tu corazón por alimento.
Tanto dolor se agupa en mi costado
que por doler me duele hasta el aliento.

I want to be the grieving gardener
of the earth you fill and fertilize,
my dearest friend, so soon.
With rain and snails my stifled sorrow
nourishes the organs of your body
and I would feed your heart
the drooping poppies. Pain bunches up
between my ribs till every breath I draw
becomes an aching stitch.

—translation by Edwin Honig (from The Unending Lightning, 1990)

Hernández’s style evolved from a tendency toward traditionalism to greater and greater independence of form and imagery. His early preference for the octava and the sonnet and his penchant for la tropología culterana (culturalist tropology) eventually gave way to the simpler textures and more direct language of the canción (song) and the romance (ballad), revealing his kinship with Machado and Lorca. This coexistence of popular and sophisticated art, common throughout most of Spanish history, was also typical of Spanish literature in the 1930s.
The culmination of Hernández's enthusiasm for traditional forms can be found in El rayo que no cesa. These poems were composed over a crucial two-year period in Hernández's career: 1934–1935. As such, El rayo que no cesa is a pivotal work in Hernández's development as a poet. His discovery of love, in the person of Josefina, caused him to search out a richer, yet more restricted, vocabulary, less excessively decorative and more functional. Hernández still exhibits a love of wordplay, conceits, and occasional verbal and rhetorical excess, but much less so than in earlier works. The influence of the religious eroticism latent in the Song of Songs and de la Cruz's Cántico Espiritual (Spiritual Canticle, 1584) can be felt throughout, as well as echoes of Neruda's Residencia en la tierra and Aleixandre's La destrucción o el amor.
On 18 July 1936 a Spanish military uprising led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco in the North African province of Melilla caused vital Spanish services, such as mail and trains, to come to a stop. Sometime during the next day, Lorca, who ironically had left Madrid to seek the comparative peace and safety of his beloved Andalusia, was captured by the military and killed with some other prisoners near Granada. Such mass executions and other chaotic events threw the country into turmoil and exemplified the wanton death and destruction of the next three years. The Spanish Civil War had a disastrous effect on all aspects of life in the country, particularly those involving culture. Many of the greatest intellectuals and finest artists eventually left the country to live in exile; others, like Lorca, Miguel de Unamuno, and Machado, died at the onset or during the war; and a few others, such as Hernández, died not long afterward as a direct result of that brutal conflict and the subsequent savage reprisals and executions.
Hernández soon enrolled in the well-known Fifth Regiment, part of the Republican forces fighting Franco and the Nationalists; he also joined the First Calvary Company of the Peasants' Battalion as a cultural-affairs officer, reading his poetry daily on the radio. He traveled extensively throughout the area, organizing cultural events and doing poetry readings for soldiers on the front lines, or even pitching in where necessary to dig a ditch or defend a position. As more and more war poems flowed from his pen, he slowly approached the status of prime poet of the nation during the war years.
Hernández and Josefina were finally married in Orihuela on 9 March 1937 in a no-frills civil ceremony attended by close friends Carlos Fenoll and Jesús Poveda. The atmosphere at the wedding was not entirely happy, but Hernández's post-marital poetry soon took on new tones and colors, full of sensuality and sexuality seemingly fulfilled. Hernández kept busy working on his poetry during the war, correcting proofs of Viento del pueblo and preparing speeches. When his propaganda unit was shifted to Castuera in Estremadura province, he took time off from his exhausting pace to see Josefina and came down with a severe case of anemia. Hugh Thomas, noted Spanish Civil War historian, mentions the accelerating pace of Hernández's literary activities during the war years, a pace that inevitably took a heavy toll on the poet's health and required him to rest and recuperate on several occasions.
During the war, Hernández also took part in the International Writers’ Congress, held in Madrid and Valencia, and the Fifth Festival of Soviet Theater in Moscow. Attending as one of a group of Spanish intellectuals, the Moscow trip influenced Hernández’s burgeoning dramatic style. However, his commitment to a democratic Spain, and his inability to escape into exile after the triumph of Franco’s troops, meant that he faced a life of arrest and imprisonment. Sentenced to death at one point, his term was commuted to 30 years. Years of war and struggle had left him weakened, however, and Miguel Hernández died in prison, of tuberculosis, in 1942. - www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/miguel-hernandez

Miguel Hernández: Twenty Poems

Translated by A. S. Klin


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