Musical Instrument

Luis Cernuda
If the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill
To awaken the notes,

What hand plucks 
With what bird's quill
The wound in you
That awakens the word?

More by Luis Cernuda

Once More, with Feeling

From our old friendship 
I never thought I'd ever remember again
How a whole tribe, such a strange group 
To me and maybe no less strange to you, 
Adopted you. 

                                  But one of that tribe, 
A professor and, according to him and others
Over there (which shows how far our land has fallen),
A poet, called you "my prince." 
And I ask myself what you ever did that he 
Could have come to think of you as his prince. 

Academic claptrap? His writings are full of clichés 
And conventional thinking. But his rapturous rhetoric 
Does nothing to clarify our understanding 
Of the mystery in your work, even though he's also called 
A critic of our contemporary poetry. 

The appropriation of you, which you wanted 
Nothing to do with when you were alive, 
Is what now seems to me so utterly strange. 
The prince of a toad? Isn't it enough 
For your countrymen to have killed you? 

And now stupidity succeeds the crime.

Desolation of the Chimera

The whole day's heat, distilled 
Into a suffocating vapor, the sand releases. 
Against the deep blue background of the night 
Like an impossible drizzle of water, 
The frozen splendor of the stars 
Is proudly aligned alongside the full moon 
Which, from a great height, disdainfully illumines 
The remains of beasts in a boneyard. 
Jackals can be heard howling in the distance.
 
There is no water, palm frond, underbrush or pond. 
In its full splendor the moon looks down 
On the pitiful Chimera, its stone corroded, 
In its desert. Its missing wings, like stumps; 
Its breasts and claws mutilated by time; 
The hollows where its vanished nose and hair 
Once curled are now home 
To the obscene birds feeding 
On desolation, on death. 

When moonlight touches 
The Chimera, it seems to come alive with a sob, 
A moan that rises not from the ruin 
But from the centuries rooted inside it, immortally 
Crying over not being able to die, as the forms 
That man gives life to always die. Dying is hard, 
But not being able to die, if everything dies, 
Is perhaps harder still. The Chimera murmurs at the moon 
And its voice is so sweet it eases its desolation. 

"No victims, no lovers. Where did the people go? 
They no longer believe in me, and the unanswerable riddles 
I posed, like the Sphinx, my rival and sister, 
No longer tempt them. The divine survives, 
In all its protean forms, even though the gods die. 
That's why this deathless desire is alive in me, 
Though my form is wasted, though I'm less than a shade; 
A desire to see humanity humbled 
In fear before me, before my tempting indecipherable secret.
 
"Man is like an animal tamed 
By the whip. But how beautiful; his strength and his beauty, 
Oh gods, how captivating. There is delight in man; 
When man is beautiful, how delightful he is. 
Centuries have passed since man deserted 
Me and disdainfully forgot my secrets. 
And while a few still pay me some attention, 
I find no enchantment among the poets, 
As my secret scarcely tempts them and I see in them no beauty. 

"Skinny, flaccid, balding, bespectacled, 
Toothless. That's the physical aspect 
Of my former servant; and his character 
Looks the same. Even so, not many seek my secret now, 
Since they find in woman their personal sad Chimera. 
And it's just as well I'm forgotten, because anyone 
Changing infants' diapers and wiping noses while he thinks 
About some critic's praise or bad review 
Has no time to pay me any attention. 

"Can they really believe in being poets 
If they no longer have the power, the madness 
To believe in me and my secret? 
Better for them an academic chair 
Than barrenness, ruin and death, 
The generous recompense I gave my victims, 
Once I had possession of their souls, 
When men and poets still preferred 
A cruel mirage to bourgeois certainty. 

"Clearly for me those times were different 
When with a light heart I danced happily through the labyrinth 
Where I lost so many and so many others I endowed 
With my eternal madness: joyful imagination, dreams of the future, 
Hopes of love, sunny voyages. 
But the prudent ones, the cautious men, I strangled 
With my powerful claws, since a grain of madness 
Is the salt of life. Now that I've been and gone, 
I don't have any more promises for man." 

The moon's reflection sliding 
Over the deaf sand of the desert 
Leaves the Chimera stranded among shadows, 
The captive music of its sweet voice quieted. 
And as the sea pulls back the tide 
Leaving the beach denuded of its magic, 
The voice's spell, pulled back, leaves the desert 
Even more unwelcoming, its dunes 
Blind, dulled without the old mirage. 

Mute, in darkness, the Chimera seems to have retreated 
Into the ancestral night of primal Chaos; 
But neither gods, nor men, nor their creations 
Are ever nullified once they've been; they must exist 
Until the bitter end, disappearing into the dust. 
Immobile, sad, the noseless Chimera can smell 
The freshness of dawn, dawn of another day 
When death will not have pity on it, 
But its desolate existence will continue.

Birds in the Night

The French—or was it the English?—government placed a plaque
On that house at 8 Great College Street, Camden Town, London, 
Where in a room Rimbaud and Verlaine, a peculiar couple, 
Lived, drank, worked, and fornicated 
For a few brief stormy weeks. 
No doubt the ambassador and the mayor attended the dedication, 
All the same people who were enemies of Rimbaud and Verlaine when they lived.
 
The house is sad and poor, like the neighborhood,
With the sordid sadness that goes with poverty, 
Not the funereal sadness of spiritless wealth. 
When night comes down, as in their time, 
Over that sidewalk, with its damp gray air, a hand organ
Plays, and the neighbors, on their way home from work, 
The young ones dance, the rest take to the pub. 

Brief was the singular friendship of Verlaine the drunk 
And Rimbaud the tramp, quarreling constantly. 
But we can think that maybe it was 
A good time for the two, at least if each remembered 
That they left behind an intolerable mother and a boring wife. 
But freedom is not of this world, and the freed, 
Having broken with everything, had a high price to pay.
 
Yes, they were there, the plaque says so, behind the wall, 
Prisoners of their fate: the impossible friendship, the bitterness 
Of separation, and then the scandal; and for this one 
The trial, and two years in jail, thanks to his habits 
Condemned by society and law, at least up to now; for that one on his own 
To wander from one corner of the earth to the other, 
Escaping to our world and its celebrated progress. 

The silence of one and the talkative banality of the other 
Made for a kind of balance. Rimbaud rejected the hand that Oppressed 
His life; Verlaine kisses it, accepting his punishment. 
One drags in his belt the gold he's gained; the other 
Wastes it on absinthe and whores. But both 
Outside the law forever, beyond the respectable people 
Whose meaningless work makes them rich and successful. 

Then even the black prostitute had the right to insult them; 
Today, as time has passed, as it does in the world, 
Their lives on the edge of everything, sodomy, drunkenness, vicious verses, 
No longer matter, and France makes use of both their names and their works 
For the greater glory of France and its logical art. 
Their acts and their comings and goings are studied, giving the public 
Intimate tidbits about their lives. No one is shocked now, nor protests.
 
"Verlaine? Go on, my friend, a satyr, a regular lech 
When it comes to women; a perfectly normal fellow, 
Like you and I. Rimbaud? A devout Catholic, as it's been proved." 
And they recite hunks of the "Drunken Boat" and the Sonnet to the "Vowels." 
But of Verlaine they recite nothing, because he's not in vogue 
Like the other, of whom they bring out phony texts in fancy editions; 
Young poets, in every country, talk about him nonstop in their provinces.
 
Can the dead hear what the living are saying about them? 
Let's hope not: that endless silence must be a relief 
For those who lived and died by the word, 
Like Rimbaud and Verlaine. But the silence there is no escape 
From this repugnant laudatory farce. There was a time one of them wished 
That humanity had a single head, so it could be chopped off. 
Maybe he was exaggerating: if it were just a cockroach, and be crushed.