Rimas y Ritmos
Poems by J.A. Torres Gutierrez (1925-1996)
Translated from the Spanish by Alan Baker
Born in Madrid, where he lived his entire life, Gutierrez is a little-known poet, whose work nevertheless deserves recognition for his attention to traditional forms combined with High Modernist seriousness. In his early life, his Catholicism informed much of his poetry. Gutierrez was a professional musician, a violinist in the Madrid Symphony Orchestra, and one of his poetic projects was an attempt to transpose musical forms into poetry. Gutierrez was an English-speaker and Anglophile, and in the late 1960s he discovered the poetry of Basil Bunting. He later met Bunting on a visit to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1975. Bunting’s poetry and personality, which Gutierrez took as a model, caused a radical change in his own poetic idiom, and indeed, seemed to transform his whole world view. This change is represented in this short selection by the Bunting-esque “sonata” poem “Picasso’s Bull”, taken from his acclaimed 1980 collection “Rimas y Ritmos”. Gutierrez was overlooked for membership of The European Union of Imaginary Authors (EUOIA) in favour of the Catalan poet Cristòfol Subira, and maintained a bitter feud with Subira for the rest of his life.
For Robert Sheppard
‘Well Socrates, we acquit you...and find
you guiltless of our blood, and not our deceiver’
Plato, The Republic
‘The Terror is still remembered... To this day there are villages in the Vendée region that refuse to celebrate the July 14 Bastile Day holiday, preferring instead the rituals of the Roman Church.’
Ruben Ygua, "El legado de la Revolución Francesa"
I - Côte de Lumière
A land of salt-pools and canals
Where reflections, being subjective,
Lean towards the seer,
Gives each eye its own perspective.
‘Jesus revient’ - graffitti scrawled
On a wall beside a roadside shrine
Recalls unrest fermenting:
Proscribed, sacramental wine.
Among the priests and fishermen
Reason extended no quarter, no pity
To those who laboured to admit
Poetry to the Just City.
A luminosity of pine
And dune, a light that strains attention,
Makes distances deceive
And vistas dazzle comprehension.
Now, as then, canals and pools
Offer to the eye reflections;
Each observer, flattered by them,
Remains immune to their deceptions.
II - Île de Noirmoutier
The islanders were harvesters of salt,
Their ditches score the fen’s immensity
And seem in summer light to form the grid
Of an unseen, imaginary city.
A semi-isle, tethered to France by seaweed
Draped over sand until the tide turns,
It stands aloof, hermit-like,
Yet cannot quite escape worldly concerns.
It gave imperfect sanctuary
To fleeing men. The small chateau
That now exhibits porcelain and paintings, hosted
One frosty morning in seventeen ninety four
The execution of the rebel D’Elbée,
And fifteen hundred of his men.
From the chateau’s tower the view is clear
Towards the ocean, across the fen
Where brine-pools, that were once whitened
By the hard logic of frost, gleam again white,
Seem in salt glare sea’s essence,
What survives of it, parched in summer heat:
Irreducible as faith, persisting
When the tide at last abates,
Enduring, crystalline and perfect,
When the frost has melted, sea evaporates.
III - The Moths
Like the moths that rise at dusk
In these woods of oak and pine,
The faithful, coming in secret
To take the offered bread and wine
Whose chanted litany and prayers
Belied the daylight’s clarity,
Obscured like Atlantic mist
The edicts of the distant city
Were led by mystery and night
To shun the sun’s revealing glare
And seek for flowers that bloom in darkness,
Unseen, but sensed, on the scented air.
IV - The Gulls
The sea runs in families, like blood,
And on this coast, the son’s wish
Is still to master the ropes and nets,
Predict the sea’s swell or the haunts of fish
To learn the father’s skills of navigation,
How to haul the catch ashore
To the bustling quayside stacked with crates
Of staring fish and crushed ice stained with gore.
Farmers court with vines and maize
A land of plenty. Fishermen choose a chaste
Untouchable bride, that suffers them but briefly
As they cast across its level waste
To gain at last the harbour mouth, their trawler
Trailing clouds of gulls that forage,
Screech, dive in much confusion,
Unsatisfied and restless as seekers after knowledge.
The branches of this tree, whose roots clutch earth, finger the indifferent air. It has sprung from a single pip to seem a diviner’s rod drawn to the source of the miracle of blossom. It will be clothed by summer’s bounty, heaped upon it when it least expects it, and its finery will serve to intensify the ague of the brown leaf.
Consider how the happiness of two children (a boy and a girl) lying in its shade one day, when it hushes the breeze, and casts dappled shadows on the long grass, is coeternal with its own loss, like memory prefigured in the burgeon of each moment. When winter comes, the tree will cast a streetlight-shadow on the snow, resembling an agéd parent’s bony hand, that once held laughing boys in its palm, lifting them skyward on green-leaved evenings.
Consider the apple tree; gnarled companion to the ages, bringer of autumn plenty, host to moss and mistletoe. Consider its fruit.
Consider this blossomer of spring, greenery of fabled Avalon, creator of Cézanne’s shining globes, and of the rotten heart of the world, bearer of all knowledge, of good, of evil, whose roots clutch earth, whose branches finger the indifferent air.
Snow ground underfoot erases our footprints, as if taking revenge. The winds carol their hallelujahs to a God of empty spaces hidden in the half-lit swirl of chaos. From the blizzard of replicating cells white footsteps lead from spore to leaf to meat-wrapped bone, to the strictly unnecessary cortex (far more than the sum of its parts, where neuron and synapse stretch to infinity’s edge, forming drifts of possibilities).
Yet questions vex us. How many snowflakes in this storm? The sum erases our footprints, enumerates our tracks, from warmth and comfort, to the chaos of flakes.
SYMPHONY No. 2
by Jean Sibelius
strides like a storm-broken night scattered by the moon’s frenzy, outshouting mere machinery, severing power lines, shoring ships, making accidents on roads that claim in calmer times to tame the land, and bringing up short in a sudden start the lone walker, laden suddenly with the wind’s weight,
who feels, even more than the crescendo’s force, that sudden weightlessness, as sound falls from under him and stumbling, is freed for a second, from what the whole darkened world labours under.
TO MY MOTHER AT PRAYER
May your prayer arrest sight,
Snapshot the headscarved church
In shafts of windowed light,
Take you where the chords and voices reach
And lift from you the world’s weight.
May memory, the miser, render
The things that are yours,
Give you gold from hidden stores
Of pennies lent by a trusting lender
But now no longer tender.
May your God grant you
What you gave me;
The shock of birth’s epiphany,
The heart’s thud transposed into
Tomorrow’s in the corner, a sullen child,
Yet there’s still hope that Night can be beguiled
To yield its healing powers, conquer strife,
Collect the scattered puzzle of my life.
Be silent, for words can never be unsaid,
But lie like seeds, dormant in our bed.
Be warmth, be touch, be a kindling spark,
And let your shape jigsaw into mine in the dark
Until first light, when Day steps out; no child:
Adult, and waiting to be reconciled.
clasps oak quells cold
dances in wind others bend in
sends tendrils endlessly twining
neural network, hooked, locked
to crevice, nick,
colour against snow or summer’s
persistent as hope whose green promise
mitigates the heart’s ache
makes ‘heartache’ what once grieved:
grief or grievance, crack, decay
and corded bark lie
in a bed of our own making
turned to what
the moment timeless hallows.
Living by berry & herb,
healing by poultice & leech
wanting the wisdom of the leeching years
Seeking crags where eagles hatch,
or wild goats suckle their young,
the moonlit pool where an otter’s ripples
betoken what’s uncertain, subatomic,
the crushing singularity of knowledge.
Bird flocks weave for him
a cryptic choreography,
frost refuses his questions,
answers to none but the mathematical certainties
Yet the acorn’s blueprint waves its boughs
in Heisenberg’s breeze.
“What we foresee, we cannot alter.
What we alter lies unforseen
to trap or tie us to the strangest destiny.”
The photon strikes the retina,
unhinged the astrolabe.
For Basil Bunting
From daubed nests white-bellied martins flit
like chips of crystal flying
from a sculptor’s chisel;
As a summer ends
Madame Matisse and Marguerite are arrested by the Gestapo
Picasso hands postcards of Guernica to Nazi officers.
Sensing the coming
of war and winter
the martins gather to be gone.
“Memories glide like silt
shed slowly to form the sunburnt islets
of the lizard and the bird of prey
“Where the Gaudalquivir
curls round Cordoba’s walls
in that unattainable land.
“Afficionados settle in the sombras
a luckless bull frisks onto burning sand
the blood-loving barreras already baying
a piled tabletop
“For Alhambra palace
guarding its sublime geometries
against another world
“Where a bull’s sullen drunken stance
expects the sword-thrust
blood on sand
“And the matador pirrouetting for the volk
here in Paris
where the martins surely will not build
“Where only work makes you free
among the clay and paint and boards
of a makeshift bathroom-studio”.
Clouds gather birds of passage
follow the pull of the south
mocking wire and roadblock
The sun succumbs to the pull of the sea
and in the story
a bull breasts the water westward.
No walls, no roofs, no unscorched stone,
no healing wattle-and-daub
only contorted fractures, bent lives to re-create.
For Max Jacob what monument, like Appollinaire’s
‘built like poetry and fame, from nothing’
can withstand? can resist?
Picasso says: Painting is not used to decorate houses.
It is an instrument of war, for attack
and defence against the enemy.
“I scour the rubbish tips and yards
and like Michael Angelo, cast in bronze
the form, so like and unlike, of a sort of truth.
“Always, the work must begin again;
out of blistered paint and charred canvass,
the collage of decay,
“Comes the phoenix,
and in the forest of symbols
a sacred bull wards the clearing.
“But friends die
and the sculpted nests
are empty in the snow”.
“We would follow the migrations
over Africa’s sands waterless by day
gunfire-bright at night
“Over ragged coasts
mined and turretted
bristling with defence
“But must remain
with only memories.
Suerte de picar!
“Jostled in a crowd smelling of old Spain
Sweat wine cattle
up steep steps in the dark
“To blinding sun,
a circle of sand
tense with expectancy
“Watched by a people who see the rising
and the setting sun
not as a symbol of death and rebirth
“But as a signal that the day has ended
and work must cease or has returned
and work must begin again”.
Needle-sharp points in back and shoulders
the ears and tail of the bull
severed tribute to the matador
Tribute of a giant’s head slung back concussed
lights sliding over his retina
like asteroids on the sky’s lid
And David a stripling
with a sling
and marble-smooth limbs
Jostled in a crowd in the rue des Grands-Augustins;
the great events are over
and work must begin again
In the bocage and the bird-sprinkled woods of the Ardennes
on the littered beaches
in the field in the city still to be rebuilt
By a people
as the dawn.
No resistance to the panzers’ advance on Paris
But Matisse handed back his ticket to Rio:
‘if everyone of value left, what would
become of France?’
Echoed also in Beckett
leaving Ireland for occupied Paris
driven into hiding by the Gestapo.
But friends die - Julio Gonzalez, March 1942:
“Early spring sun, chilly, through intricate suburbs
past a rubbish tip broken bicycle tangled.
“The intonation of the priest
mourner’s gentle sobs,
and Julio and myself
“Years ago, at Boisgeloup,
drinking in the summer like two trees
sprouting sculpture like green leaves.
“Now, a new summer threatens
and drought leaves only a steer’s skull
to be retrieved from garbage.
“With few tools the job is quickly done
the smell of burnt solder
pale smoke in a shaft of sun
“On the workbench-kitchen-table
for a friend unmade”.
As a hatchling taps and taps
at the mystery of the shell
as a poet’s words tap silence
As a sculptor’s hands caress smooth limbs
where some feel only stone
as a kiss revives the sleeper
surges like sap
through the dried branch of facts
Out of earth’s fabric
cathedrals soar from broken stone
Plato’s perfections sought in cast bronze
becomes a David.
Now artefacts become organic
bone and gristle grown from steel and leather
apotheosis of junk
and elegant skeletal bull’s head
Blur and interchange
like a shape seen by night
now live now lifeless as the moon clouds and clears
Uncertain as dawn
when it welcomes the wanderers
joins their dance on the spring breeze.
“Haunter of house-eaves
and the changing airs
of half the world
“Where the raven and the dove
found the peace of endless seas
the trenched earth writhes
the navigator’s fixed stars
“Where night wanes
Taurus turns seeking Europa
in Europe’s remains”.
Île de Noirmoutier
The American poet John Bloomberg-Rissman comments "To call the royalist a rebel is to (apparently) at least slightly sympathize with him ... confirming my belief that ‘reason and the just city’ is as aristocratic a concept for him as it was for Plato”.
The final lines I take to an expression of anxiety that the new physics threatened the stability of the universe as seen by Catholicism and Newtonian physics. Guterriez’s excursions into science generally filled him with terror and religious doubt.
Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius
John Bloomberg-Rissman, in a comment on this prose-poem, describes Gutierrez as "an aristocratically-pretensioned reactionary religious type who does not like life on earth at all." I’d demur, but would argue that the poem is expressing the existential doubt which dogged Gutierrez in the later part of his life.
One critic called this poem "an insomniac’s slight crisis of faith".
The strict sonata form here is taken from Basil Bunting's notes to Briggflats, in which he illustrates, in diagrammatic form, the two recurring themes and central development (in section three here) of the classical sonata, with the return to the tonic key in the last movement.
Canciones / Songs (1947)
Música de cinco / Music at Five (1955)
El legado / The Legacy (1962)
A Las Cinco de la Tarde / At Five O'Clock in the Afternoon (1968)
Medina Ramirez y El Diablo / Medina Ramirez and the Devil (1970)
El árbol marchito / The Withered Tree (1972)
Caminos que andan / Walking Roads (1975)
Rimas y Ritmos / Rhymes and Rhythms (1980)
Vigencia Lejanía / Validity Distance (1983)
Últimos Poemas / Last Poems (1991)
© J.A. Torres Gutierrez 1980 / translation, Alan Baker 2017.
a facqueuesol paperless book 2017.