Peter O’Neill












A Family Business



El Bosque de Birnam-Birnam Wood

By José Manuel Cardona

Translated by Hélène Cardona

Salmon Press (p.93.)



Esperanza es tu nombre, porque un nombre

Tiene significados que conoce

Solamente el amor.


So, the overture of Latinate vowels ascends.


Hope is your name, because a name

Has meanings only love



And, so the daughter of the Master Spanish poet translates.



Beso tu piel de bronce en sol bruñida.


Each line put down, hard won, and so deliberated with all of the full adjudicative sympathy of the science, by both.



I kiss your bronze skin burnished by the sun.


Bruñida/burnished was one of Baudelaire’s favourite verbs, Les Fleurs du Mal is full of the burnished bodies of women. There is this to consider, but there is also the voice of honeyed experience. These opening four lines are taken from the very first poem Circe II, one out of a whole cycle of poems devoted to the Homeric muse, who kept Odysseus from Penelope for several years, while turning his poor sailing companions into pigs by her magic. Hence, the reference to Baudelaire. For Circe, the goddess, is but woman eternal, fashioned out of the great tapestry of human experience, and José Manuel Cardona, like Baudelaire and no doubt Homer before him, has come but to inscribe the pain.


La piel es la corteza de las cosa,

Esa cosa que anamos sin sorpresa

Come una ropa usada cada día.


Skin is the bark of things,

The thing we love without surprise

Like a garment worn every day.


The poet’s matter is but the stuff of mortal nature; La piel/ The skin. I had forgotten Spanish was a Latin language and so, having working French and Italian, I am easily able to appreciate the gently familiar rising and falling sound of the vowels, guided by the very deepening cadence of the lines, and at the same time simply marvelling at the quiet majesty of the spell master at work, while simultaneously appreciating enormously the formidable mastery of his daughter’s English translation. Poetry, then, as a family business. I have never before witnessed such a thing, which brings with it, of course, a further excitement to the act of reading each piece.

The pain of the poet is deeply felt, his poetic impulse a chronic condition, so subject then to the pitiless march of time. And so, the poet, as is his, or her, nature, borrows from idiom, simile, and metaphor, all of which will resonate deep into the great almost unyielding abyss of things eternal; a concept now which most people have simple no idea of, caught up as they are in the hyper Real. What place have metaphor and myth, indeed poets, for that matter, in the 21st century? You ask that reader at your own peril. For, the poet’s pain when he/she writes is no longer his own. It becomes disembodied from him, only to be embodied in the very fabric of the poem. Such is the poem’s plasticity. Its sonic voicing rooted in “Be-ing”; its quiet, timeless, intractable touch. So that each piece, each verse, each line, and considered altogether, each book, and by further extension each Lifework, are but the mere physical manifestation of their most ghostly, and sublime nature, re-enactment of the subject. When you take down a book by a master poet like José Cardona you are, while reading his work, reliving, at least for a short spell, the magic of the great moderns and ancients. And there is Circe in all her splendour; each of us readers will fashion her to our own likeness. After all, we all bring our own stories to book!


Ancient bronzes, we reached the sea.

Missing is the man who says: the sea is mine.

Under this sea Phoenician amphorae

Sleep their languid female curves.

Do you know amphorae? Have you

Seen their figure, their elegance?


Well, have you reader? If you haven’t, you are only to be pitied. And, if you have… well, pity can extend that way too.

Hélène Cardona’s translation of her father’s work must be the crowning achievement so far in her own poetic career. For he reads in English as poetry, as above, not as mere translation. While I was reading Poem to Circe IV, I had skipped the Spanish original on the left hand page, as I had been doing, and went straight into the poem in English. And that is exactly how it felt, that I was reading a poem in English. I can’t offer better praise then this. But can perhaps just pause at a piece of verse, on the very next poem, again in the Circe series – the collection is made up of three parts; Poems to Circe, The Vintner, and Other Poems, among which are grouped Four Orphic Sonnets, which I will soon come to.

Here are the final five lines in the first section of Poema a Circe IX/Poem to Circe IX.


Aquí la humanidad se abraza y grita

Mezclando con la risa sus colores,

Hablando el mismo idioma con acentos

Variados. La evidencia de amor

Se transforma en un rito que oficiamos.


And here is Hélène’s translation.


Here humanity is embraced and screams

Mixing with laughter with its colors,

Speaking the same language with varied

Accents. Love’s display

Becomes a ritual we officiate.


By changing idioma, or idiom, in the third line, to language, and La evidencia del amor, a very dramatic expression in English, to the more subdued Love’s display, she shows her perfect cultural attunement, and unique poetic sensibility, while a lesser poet, or mere translator, might have given the lines as they literally were, and so we would have this:


Speaking the same idiom with varied

Accents. The evidence of love

Becomes a ritual we officiate.


How many times have you read translations like this, particularly from Latin, or Romance languages, such as Spanish, French or Italian?




There is a line in Poema a Circe III, in the first section of the book, which prefigures the title of part 2, El Vendimiador The Vintner


Y lo prefiero así,porque el amor

Es cual lengua de fuego o universo

Desperramado en vid por todas partes.


I prefer it this way, because love

Is that language of fire or scattered

Universe in vine everywhere.


The idiom of love and nature, of bark skins and vines, continues in the opening poem of the second section. The poem’s title is simply Ibiza, and it is ironic that when we mention this word that we tend to think of nights of trance music and bacchanal excess.


Este es el nombre que llevo en las rayas de mis manos,

el nombre que dice una leyenda

y escribe la historia de mis veinticinos años.

This is the name I bear in the lines of my hands,

the name that tells a legend

and writes the story of my twenty five years.


How many other, poor brain addled, twenty five year olds are walking around the planet, one wonders, after some summer of love went up smoke? Are the poems contained within El Bosque de Birnam Birnam Wood the recollections of the poet from youth, when he met his nemesis who took on the form of Circe the enchantress, in later life? Perhaps the clue is in the title of the book itself. Birnam Wood is made famous by Shakespeare in Act 4, Scene 1, in Macbeth.


Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until

Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinan Hill

Shall come against him.


The prophecy is uttered by an apparition conjured by the three witches on the heath. Yet Macbeth, tragically, does not believe the prophecy.


That will never be:

Who can impress the forest, bid the tree

Unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements, good-

Rebellios dead, rise never till the Wood

Of Birnam rise, and our high place Macbeth

Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath

To time, and mortal custom. [i]


And indeed, while reading these lines, I was taken back to the Circe poems, in which José Cardona becomes Odysseus, trapped on the island with another famous literary witch, or sorcerer.


Circe, tú reconoces, tú descifras

El color del augurio y los enigmas.

Yo espero siempre la revelación.

Yo soy de los que creen en la magia.

Circe, you recognise, you decipher

Enigmas and the colour of the omen.

I always await the revelation.

I am among those who believe in magic.


But, as in Macbeth, the magic is very black. The above verse is taken from Poema a Circe XVII, which was first published in book form in Madrid in 1959, so prefiguring the poems of Jorge Luis Borges, which they so remind me of. Particularly in the way in which Cardona inhabits roles, like Borges, playing wonderfully with other literary myths and legends. As again here in Poema a Circa XVIII.


Si preguntan qué nombre tengo, Nadie,

Responderé. Me llamo Nadie, Nadie

Y no poseo nada, y no me duele

Porque así puedo andar con menos peso.

If they ask me what is my name, I will

answer, No one. My name is No one, No one,

and I own nothing, and it doesn’t hurt me

because this way I walk with less weight.


Which makes for a fascinating conjecture; was Borges aware of the poetry of José Manuel Cardona before writing the poems contained in El hacedor/The Maker ( 1960), and El otro, el mismo/The Self and the Other (1964)? Here is an extract from Odisea, libro vigésimo tercero/Odyssey, Book Twenty-three, published in 1964.


¿dónde está aquel hombre

Que en los días y noches del destierro

Erraba por el mundo como un pero

Y decía que Nadie era su nombre?

Where is that man now

Who in exile wandered night and day

Over the world like a wild dog, and would say

His name was No One, No One, anyhow?[ii]


I am not asking the question to create polemic, I am merely asking the question as I think it is a fascinating one. Yet, there is also another particularity which confirms the link to Borges, at least for this reader, and that is the references to Heraclitus which appear in the final section of the book. Asides for their mutual love and admiration of Anglo-Saxon literature, such as writers like Shakespeare and John Donne, they both shared a mutual fascination, along with so many major intellects of the 20th century, including Heidegger and Samuel Beckett, with the Sage of Ephesus. Here is José Cardona in El embeleso/The Spell, a poem which was written many years after the Circe poems in Vienna, in 1995.


Puede que las cosas no sean

como quisiéramos que fuesen.

El río sigue su curso

y lo contemplamos atónitos.

Este río será el mismo que vieran

los ojos de Hercálito aunque no sea

el mismo río.


Hélène Cardona translates:


It’s possible things are not

as we wish them to be.

The river follows its course

and we watch it astonished.

This is the same river witnessed

by Hercalitus’s eyes even though it’s not

the same river.


And here is Jorge Louis Borges in a poem called Arte Poética/ Poetic Art published in the collection L’Artefice/ The Artifice which was published in 1960, yet composed, in fragments, between the years 1934, and 1959. So, I am informed by the Editor’s notes from this Italian edition published by Adelphi in 1996.


Cuentan que Ulise, harto de prodigios,

lloró de amor al divisor su Itaca

verde y humilde. El arte es esa Itaca

de verde eternidad, no de prodigios.

Tambien es como el río interminable

que pasa y queda y es cristal de un mismo

Heráclito inconstante, que es el mismo

y es otro, como el río interminable.[iii]

Ulysses is hungry, tired of prodigals,

and full of love when he sees Ithaca

modest and green. Art is like such an Ithaca

eternally green, and not so prodigious.

Like the river endless

and which passes and rests, the one

and the same as Heraclitus, inconstantly

the same and another, like the endless river.


As I said previously, both poets, Borges and Cardona, shared an interest in similar subjects, and themes.




[i] Shakespeare, William: Macbeth, Edited by Nicholas Brooke, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 174/175.

[ii] Borges, Jorge Luis: Selected Poems, Edited by Alexander Coleman, Penguin Classics, London, 2000, pp. 204/205.

[iii] Borges, Jorge Louis: L’artifice, Biblioteca Adelphi, 1996, p.178.



Peter O’Neill

April, 2018










Peter O’ Neill is a translator, poet, editor and academic, currently at work on a comparative study of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Beckett’s Comment c’est/How It Is and their mutual debt to the eighteenth century Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico.



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