The eternal return to the “slow memories of days lost forever,” of “cypresses, / so green, immobile above/ the hushed sea” characterize the saudade—the nostalgia of what is beloved but absent—at the core of the poetry of Salvador Espriu, the foremost Catalonian poet in the twentieth century.
Fellow literary prodigy and American poet Cyrus Cassells’s first and last meeting with Espriu sets off a decades-long tracing back and translation of Espriu’s poetry, a sampler of which is included in To the Cypress Again and Again, alongside Cassells’ introduction and a selection of his own poetry inspired by and in homage to Espriu.
The overarching setting of the selection of Espriu’s poetry in translation, as Cassells explains, is Sinera Cemetery, the famed Arenys Cemetery spelled backwards. In the dystopian “dungeons of silence,” it is almost as if Espriu’s speaker “[doesn’t] rally [himself]/ to the task of living, for [he doesn’t] know how.” Yet his speaker always does speak in Catalan in his solitude, as an act of remembrance. It is in “ample pain” that Espriu “opted for the simplest/ words to tell [himself] how the sun’s rays/ slowly traveled the lavish ivy/ in the garden of five trees.” Espriu’s austere language paints nature’s beauty in sharp relief with his suppressed psyche.
It was not as if Espriu was never tempted to leave his beloved Catalonia. Like all of us, he too has dreamed of escape. In “Trial Hymn in the Temple,” his speaker imagines a “getaway up north,” away from his “brute, puny homeland.” Ultimately, love prevents him from doing so. This love manifests itself as obsessive attention to the acreage that Espriu calls his own, in the personification and utilization of epithets of nature, which in turn recalls the epic tradition of the ancient Greeks. Surrounded by nature, Espriu imagines his escape from the insularity and oppressiveness of Sinera beneath “the grieving trees’/ benevolent, towering peace.” Nature thus serve as an antithesis of a world turned outside down by the dictatorship. This homage to the Catalonian landscape through the Catalan language is the kind of striving that endures, as a form of patriotism, even while Espriu laments the limits of any oral or artistic memorial of the loss of a language.
Cassells’ energetic lyricism, which sings of the “ardent days of the Republic,” connects the dots of Espriu’s influences and intention. If Espriu’s signature style is withdrawal into “Sinera’s tenantless rooms,” Cassells seeks to (as Espriu) to reach beyond Cervantes and the “pantomime of war” to transcend the “fear of death.” This extraordinary homage to and translation of Espriu’s poetry by Cassells defeat the object of the conformity and uniformity sought by the “armies of the dead.” In its stead, beauty as “dolphins pass” by “the sea’s everlasting hem.”
Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (forthcoming, BlazeVOX) and the chapbook When Ilium Burns (Bottlecap Press), as well as co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the Women in Translation project at the University of Wisconsin. Her reviews and interviews are published in The Adroit Journal, The Cortland Review, The Los Angeles Review, Matter, The Laurel Review, EcoTheo Review, Rain Taxi, New World Writing, Hong Kong Review of Books and Tupelo Quarterly, where she is Managing Editor.