Don Share on Miguel Hernández

As a teenager, yearning to leave my small hometown in the South and hungry for literature, I managed to get myself to New York City's Upper West Side. Without any money, lonely and out of my depth, whatever that could have been, I spent most of my time digging around for books of poetry to read in the dark innards of Columbia University's Butler Library. I'd studied Spanish in high school, and was on the prowl. Well, in no time, I found poems by Miguel Hernández. His work lit me up, there in the gloom—yet nobody I knew had ever heard of him. So, I translated a clutch of his poems for myself, and for my friends.

The very first poem of his that I read was one of Miguel's most famous works: the lullaby of the onion he sent to his wife and baby son on hearing that they had nothing to eat but a bit of bread and onion.

Lullaby of the Onion

 

The onion is frost
shut in and poor.
Frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion,
black ice and frost
large and round.

My little boy
was in hunger's cradle.
He was nursed
on onion blood.
But your blood
is frosted with sugar,
onion and hunger.

A dark woman
dissolved in moonlight
pours herself thread by thread
into the cradle.
Laugh, son,
you can swallow the moon
when you want to.

Lark of my house,
keep laughing.
The laughter in your eyes
is the light of the world.
Laugh so much
that my soul, hearing you,
will beat in space.

Your laughter frees me,
gives me wings.
It sweeps away my loneliness,
knocks down my cell.
Mouth that flies,
heart that turns
to lightning on your lips.

Your laughter is
the sharpest sword,
conqueror of flowers
and larks.
Rival of the sun.
Future of my bones
and of my love.

The flesh fluttering,
the sudden eyelid,
and the baby is rosier
than ever.
How many linnets
take off, wings fluttering,
from your body!

I woke up from childhood:
don't you wake up.
I have to frown:
always laugh.
Keep to your cradle,
defending laughter
feather by feather.

Yours is a flight so high,
so wide,
that your body is a sky
newly born.
If only I could climb
to the origin
of your flight!

Eight months old you laugh
with five orange blossoms.
With five little
ferocities.
With five teeth
like five young
jasmine blossoms.

They will be the frontier
of tomorrow's kisses
when you feel your teeth
as weapons,
when you feel a flame
running under your gums
driving toward the centre.

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.

 

*

I've never gotten over the experience of reading this poem for the first time. Later, I would learn that Miguel Hernández Gilabert was born into a poor family in the small city of Oriheula in southeastern Spain in 1910. For most of his short life he was a pastor and a goatherd. His authoritarian father often beat him and discouraged his innate gift for words. Like Rimbaud, Hernández was a poet-prodigy, but unlike Rimbaud, being a poor peasant, he was largely self-educated. He eventually married the daughter of an officer of the Guardia Civil, Josefina Manresa. He fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and for a time read his poetry daily on the radio and organized poetry readings for soldiers on the front lines. After the war, Hernández was condemned to death for his poetry by Francisco Franco, who called him "an extremely dangerous" man; the sentence was later reduced so that he would not become a martyr, like Lorca. Though imprisoned, Hernández continued to write until his death from tuberculosis on March 28, 1942, at the age of thirty-one. On the wall next to his cot, he wrote his final poem: "Farewell, brothers, comrades, friends: Give my goodbyes to the sun and the wheat fields."

I chose to translate the poetry of Miguel Hernández not only because it is among the most powerful of recent times—and still unfamiliar to most English-language readers—but because it remains a poignant and still-relevant rebuke to the view, which Camus articulated, that in Spain "man learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can defeat spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward."  The poetry of Miguel Hernández proves the opposite.

 

 

 
 

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