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from the December 2021 issue

Antonio Gamoneda’s “Castilian Blues”: Songs No Longer Silenced

Reviewed by Jose-Luis Moctezuma

Antonio Gamoneda's collection of poems interprets the American blues tradition with powerful results.

In the introduction to their translation of Antonio Gamoneda’s Castilian Blues [Blues Castellano], Benito del Pliego and Andrés Fisher describe the book as “rooted in an ‘aesthetics of translation.’” It is a resonant phrase that sums up both their approach to translating Gamoneda’s poetry and the confluence of sources that feed into his adoption of a universalized blues-idiom. Written during the years 1961–1966 but first published in 1982, Castilian Blues is an intermediary text that bridges the two major phases in Gamoneda’s poetic career: the early poems in his first book, Sublevación inmóvil (1961), written during Franco’s dictatorial period in Spain, and the mature voice in Descripción de la mentira (1977), a monumental work published after a sixteen-year silence that was in defiance of fascist censorship and brutality. Indeed, Castilian Blues would have been Gamoneda’s second published book, until Franco’s censors, according to del Pliego and Fisher, “mandated that the book be purged of entire poems, quotes, and references antithetical to the dictatorial ideology” before it could be published. Gamoneda rejected this imposition, choosing to remain in a furious, pregnant state rather than give in to the butchery of the censors. 

Castilian Blues is an important link between Gamoneda’s early work and the post-Franco poems that would solidify his place as, in Raul Zurita’s words, “the greatest living poet in the Spanish language,” and it conjures a special affinity to the US American vernacular tradition in its embrace of an African-American blues aesthetic. As the title indicates, Castilian Blues marks a period in Gamoneda’s life when, as Del Pliego and Fisher inform us, he “immersed himself in . . . blues and gospel [music],” and even ventured to publish “translations of six ‘Negro Spirituals’ in 1961.” In the midst of the poverty and hardships of Francoist Spain, Gamoneda found in the blues idiom a “double function, beyond the [a]esthetic one: expressing suffering and seeking solace from it.”

Indeed, in several of the book’s poems, we encounter stylistic facets of the blues tradition, albeit “translated” from the modality of the emotional expression of blues into the refrain of an image that recurs with startling piquancy. For example, in “Blues for Christians,” the stanzas seem to evoke the three-pronged verse structure of a blues song, switching from the statement of a problem to an enhancement of the problem’s imagery, eventually resolving (or collapsing upon itself) in a surfeit of emotional release: 

Before, some men sat down to smoke
and to slowly watch the land.

Before, many men sat down to smoke
and slowly came to understand the land.

Now one cannot smoke when night comes.
Now there is neither tobacco nor hope. 

The repetition of the first two lines in the next two is deceptive; the quasi-refrain has subtly changed tenor and meaning. The incidentals of action—a few men smoke and watch the land—give way to a deepening of time in the pluralization of men smoking and the power of a formerly empty, almost accidental activity which has solidified into a ceremony of desolate mourning. Without speaking the pain of a body politic, the poem uses the level of landscape, and, like the blues, converts the political into internal despair and external song.  

The split between the spoken and the internalized occurs in another poem, “Questions Blues,” where Gamoneda directly evokes the blues in his questioning of the ardor of an apostrophied subject (be it the reader or a beloved) whose silence defeats his entreaties, sending him into a plangent mode: 

For a while I’ve had the blues
because my words don’t enter your heart.
Many days I’ve had the blues 
because your silence enters my heart.

There are times I feel blue at your side
because you only love me with love.
Many days I feel blue at your side 
because you don’t love me with friendship. 

In the fraught space of Francoist Spain, loveless sex seems to be a transactional certainty, and friendship is the radical missing half of the speaker’s dilemma (“you only love me with love”). If even love is corruptible under the cruel lash of fascism, true friendship assumes a greater role in rebuilding the trust necessary for revolutionary love. The refrain, repetition, and recall of the blues are all at play here, but interestingly, part of what’s missing in this translation is the sonic play of the last line in the original second stanza (“porque no me amas con amistad” / “because you don’t love me with friendship”) in which amar and amistad embrace, yet repel one other with their different connotations. The missing alliterative conjunction of these terms (an opportunity which other translators might have been tempted to utilize) bespeaks the translative strategy taken up by Del Pliego and Fisher, who, in their own words, adopt a “literal” approach to the poems in Castilian Blues, choosing syntactical, word-for-word transparency as opposed to leaning on the poem’s nuances. 

This tactic seems to serve Gamoneda’s lyric well, with the trust the translators show in the straightforwardness of the blues-idiom Gamoneda emulates. If the musical qualities of Gamoneda’s poems can be reproduced exactly as in the original iteration, taking a word for word, line by line approach, then perhaps the explicitly creolized cadences of Gamoneda’s blues en castellano might effectively be translated to the reader.

In Stomping the Blues, Albert Murray defines the blues as “an attitude toward the nature of human experience (and the alternatives of human adjustment) that is both elemental and comprehensive,” an attitude in which the political implications of social injustice, trauma, and personal loss manifest as a “perseverance” that “not only embodies but stylizes, elaborates, and refines into art.” Murray universalizes the blues idiom as a transcendent art form that encompasses the Black American experience but also allows for its poetics of canto hondo to register in other languages and experiences. The early traces in Castilian Blues of Gamoneda’s later work on the trauma of Francoist violence and what I’ve called elsewhere an “ontology of disappearance”—in which the absence of the missing speaks louder than the effects of memory—directly evoke this message and aesthetic of perseverance. Like the blues, we glimpse such perduration in Gamoneda’s poems of hope as well as in the poems of despair, such as in the brief, yet intimate poem that concludes the book: 

When I fall on a chair, and my head brushes death; 
when I grab the darkness of the pots with my hands; 
or when I contemplate the documents representing the blues, 
friendship is who holds me. 

Gamoneda, who came of age as a poet in the wake of the Generacion del 27, found in the American blues the presence of what his great predecessor, Federico Garcia Lorca, had earlier theorized as the presence of “duende” in the poetries of deep song. Lorca writes that all “the arts are capable of possessing duende,” and often, “the composer’s duende passes to the interpreter,” a reality which we glimpse in Gamoneda’s poems, as they weave in the pathos of blues imagery. The book’s surprising internationalism, at a time when Francoist Spain presented a “closed door” on Gamoneda, opens a critical chapter in Gamoneda’s career and influences. Castilian Blues is a significant book because it underlines the understated connections between the Spanish duende tradition and the American blues tradition, in the unlikely space of Gamoneda’s unique social-realist lyric style. 

© 2021 by Jose-Luis Moctezuma. All rights reserved.

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