A psalm rises: Poems after Antonio Machado

by Antonio Machado
translated by Daniel Evans Pritchard
December 6, 2016

Translator's Note

On January 27, 1939, in torrential rain, the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado entered France on foot. He was accompanied by his mother, his brother José, and his brother’s family. More than two years prior, the civil war had exiled Antonio from his beloved Madrid, where the poet and two of his brothers—the younger, José, a painter, and the elder, Manuel, also a writer—would gather each Sunday in Antonio’s small flat to discuss their work among towers of books and papers. For months after the terrible siege of Madrid began, Antonio remained in the capital, holding out for the Spanish Republic. He evacuated in November 1936 only for the sake of his elderly mother.

The war stalked Machado. He watched Valencia burn from the frigid tower of a nearby estate. He fled Barcelona just as the first bombs fell. Each night he composed to the sound of artillery fire, passing bombers, and distant explosions. In France he joined the thousands of other refugees who crowded into train stations, sleeping where they stood while gendarmes separated children from parents and husbands from wives, identifying candidates for the concentration camps.

The family found refuge in Collioure, an old French port city with a strong Catalan influence located 20 kilometers from the border. Less than a month later, on February 22, in a modest hotel on what is now Rue Antonio Machado, the great poet died of apparent heart failure. “He could not overcome the desolation of his exile,” his brother José wrote.

The few poems published here were written by a much younger Machado long before the founding of the Republic. Still, there's a texture of saudade or hiraeth—a feeling of desperate homesickness, even in one’s own homeland—in these early poems, as if the telos of exile were always present. In these poems, the budding Republican lies inside the Francophile, fin-de-siècle, Romantic poet who was presciently obsessed with the image of life’s long and difficult road to the voracious sea.

In a passage about St. Jerome (patron saint of translators), Rosmarie Waldrop writes: “Translator’s invisibility as a first step toward nothingness. Though difficult to navigate: you translate word by word, you sin. Add the smallest word, you blashpheme.” I must confess: I have sinned lightly but blasphemed much in these renditions. Other poets have practiced the invisibility of good faith to Don Antonio’s beautiful Spanish, notably Willis Barnstone. Their work freed me to pursue something more idiosyncratic. I am very much in their debt.

XXIII.

rosepetal hours shed
into an empty path

pink hawthorn revolt
in the ash
of the valley light


a psalm rises out of the heart
the heart is built

from crumbling speech,
the ruined mortar of lips

the milky sea-foam languishing
on the sand                      a storm

pacing the horizon
draped in imperious clouds


but here the sky is calm
a honey-warm wind crosses

the plains          solitude is Blesséd so
taking the form of shadow in shadow

XXXII.

violet humidity
behind a fan of cypress

            winged and naked
            Cupid leans mute

in his sleeping marble
water fills the fountain

            and the water is like dying
as clear and placid as a face

XXXIII.

reeds cringe and yellow
along the dusty riverbed

you remember that day?
tell me you remember

remember the thousand
charred poppies carried

by summer—the black
crape over low fields

I hated the sun
                           so did you

that shy bulb
flickering, almost
and defied by

a fountain locked in ice

XXXVI.

an earlier version of myself
arrives at the house

we say, hey what are you
doing at the old house?

he opens up windows

the grass alive with bees

on the trail trees blacken
and distant leaves shine
greener than any Monet

the river’s wide as a lake
when you’re down beside it

and you’re deep in the mist
and you’re deep in the mist

til across the blue peaks
another version makes his way