#RivetingReviews: Anna Blasiak reviews SPANISH POETRY ANTHOLOGIES

While exploring recently published English translations of poetry from Spain – of which there are a fair amount, both in the UK and on the other side of the Atlantic – I was struck by the great number of anthologies published this side of the millennium. It was a delicious surprise made even better by the number translated from minority languages (Catalan, Basque and Galician). There’s also an anthology of female poets, and one of LGBT poets. All – or at least quite a few – important boxes nicely ticked. Admittedly some of those books are not very recent, but luckily poetry doesn’t age fast (even if poets themselves do). 

The variety of themes, voices and forms in the five anthologies discussed here is dizzying. And exciting. Reading an anthology is a very different experience from reading a collection by one poet, so the variety and polytonality I enjoyed when reading for this review was multiplied by five.

The question I asked myself before reading all five anthologies was this: will there be a unifying thread visible in each book? Will there be something the poets included in each volume have in common?

The answer is: yes and no. Of course LGBT poets write about the LGBT experience, about queer love (and sex), and the social context for it, but they go far beyond that. Lawrence Schimel writes: ‘Everything I know about cooking I learned from a friend / who told me: the secret to cooking is to never let / the food smell your fear.’ While Maria Castrejón declares, tongue in cheek, that: ‘Women can read this poem for free, / and it will be half-priced for men / if they read it with a woman, / even on Saturdays and Sundays, / also in afternoon hours.’

The theme of a/the woman’s experience is, of course, also strongly present in the Ten Contemporary Spanish Women Poets. Pilar Adón writes about a mother-daughter relationship and describes her own grandmother, starting with (unsentimental) tenderness, progressing to the harsh reality of ageing, and ending on a shocking (though climactic) note: 

we tied her to a chair

so she wouldn’t throw herself on the floor and crawl

outside, away from the old people lying on tables,

with only old age in common.

Lounging on fake sofas, swaddled

in ersatz blankets, and false smiles,

with nails like claws, mouths shut like traps,

surrounded by blue and sugary familiar voices

bringing breakfast in the morning.

[…]

She loved her house, my grandma.

It’s yours for 30,000 euros

Adón’s poems also include difficult themes such as suicide; while Graciela Baquero creates  a surreal story of sisterhood, Mercedes Cebrián ventures into the political and María Eloy-García into the scientific. Elena Medel says that she belongs ‘to a race of women with biodegradable / hearts’. And that ‘every woman / marries her house’. And Miriam Reyes advocates that ‘prepositions don’t always fit / they should have elasticated corners / like undersheets / to stay in place / beneath the body’s paroxysms’.

Similarly, for the minority languages collections, there are themes specific to those groups and languages and their histories and political situations, but there is a lot more too. Gemma Gorga writes in Catalan:

A woman is ironing, making the most

of the last of the light from the window. She gathers

the garments on the ironing-board, dips her fingers

lightly in cold water, sprinkles the clothes,

pressing them with the triangle of steam,

and her eyelashes fill with vapour.

[…]

In the night, in the darkness, she goes on ironing,

she irons the flowers, the tiles in the house,

the eyelids that don’t know how to close,

this daily fear of ours.

And Miren Agur Meabe, reviewed in this Riveter, creates strong images using a very simple language, and often writes about sex as experienced by a woman – not a specifically Basque experience, you’ll agree. In fact, this theme creates a strong bridge to the other anthologies discussed here, especially the anthologies of women poets and of LGBT poets.

If pushed to name something that unifies all five anthologies, I would say it’s the diversity and the variety, the one-of-it’s-ownness of each voice, who at the same time belong to a shared space. And I’d also point to the good sprinkling of humour the anthologies share, as well as the richness of the cultural references (from the Bible and myths to other European poetic traditions and philosophies). I hope to see more of this wonderful wealth of poetry coming from Spain into English translation.

Reviewed by Anna Blasiak

TEN CONTEMPORARY SPANISH WOMEN POETS, translated from Spanish and edited by Terence Dooley, published by Shearsman Books (2020);
CORRESPONDENCES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY SPANISH LGBT POETRY, translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, published by Egales/Desatada (2017);
SIX GALICIAN POETS, translated from Galician by Keith Payne, edited by Manuela Palacios, published by Arc Publications (2016);
SIX CATALAN POETS, translated from Catalan by Anna Crowe, edited by Pere Ballart, published by Arc Publications (2013);
SIX BASQUE POETS, translated from Basque by Amaia Gabantxo, edited by Mari Jose Olaziregi, published by Arc Publications (2007).


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Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer, translator, journalist and Managing Editor of the European Literature Network. Recently she translated According to Her by Maciej Hen, published a bilingual poetry and photography book with Lisa Kalloo Café by Wren’s St-James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, and a book-length interview with a Holocaust survivor, Lili: Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak.

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