Machado: "Juan de Mairena: A Childhood Memory" (From Spanish)

Juan de Mairena: A Childhood Memory1
By Antonio Machado
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Spanish

Till he hears soft falling footsteps,
and hears a latchkey churned about,
this bad bad little boy won't dare
budge his body, or breathe out.

Little John the lonely boy,
mind in a fugue of mice and clocks2,
hears the woodworm in the closet,
the grease-moth in the cardboard box.

Jailbird John the little man
listens to time that will not stop,
to the groaning of mosquitoes
in the droning spinning-top.

The boy is in his room and dark,
the door latched shut by mother's key.
He is the poet, the pure poet
who sings: "It's time! It's time and me."

1-The poet-philosopher Juan de Mairena, along with his counterpart and mentor Abel Martin, is a pseudonymous persona concocted by Machado. These two mouthpieces allowed him to toy with views he didn't care to be seen as espousing directly, to challenge and subvert his own positions, and to generally indulge in literary masturbation when other artists started to seem too small and impotent to bother with. Mairena was also the persona (and by-line) Machado used semi-anonymously in the Madrid press during the 1930s, in the last decade of his life, when writing commentaries on sundry social, cultural and political matters. 

Several of Machado-as-Mairena's writings and poems got collected in a book entitled Juan de Mairena: Sentencias, Donaires, Apuntes y Recuerdos de un Profesor Apócrifo ("Juan de Mairena: Adages, Epigrams, Memoranda and Memoirs of an Apocryphal Professor") from which this poem is taken.

For those who care, it may be illuminating to read the above poem in the context of a certain passage, also from that book, which, in addition to showing how deftly Machado could manipulate the wordplay, tonality and rhythm of prose, gives a peak into Machado's head (or some version of his head) and, for me, enhances appreciation of an already well-wrought poem: (the original Spanish can be found at the tail end of this post)

Would our poets sing at all were it not for the anguish of time, that fate-stricken sadness that things are never with us, as they are with God, at one with one another, but put forth in sequence, cartridged like rifle-rounds to be shot off one after another? That we must wait for the egg to fry, the door to open, or the cucumber to ripen...this, gentlemen, is a thing worth pondering.

For inasmuch as our lives coincide with our consciousness, time is the ultimate reality: insubordinate to every order of logic, irreducible and ineradicable, fateful and fatal. To be alive is to live off of time, to wait; and however transcendent that wait may be, it will always be a wait during which we go on just waiting. Even the beatific life, that guerdon of the righteous, could it really (if life it be) go beyond waiting, beyond time? I purposefully have omitted the word "hope", which is one of those tumid superlatives we use to describe our anticipation of supreme rewards that leave us nothing more to wait for. It is a word encompassing theological notions, and therefore quite out of place in a class on Rhetoric and Poetics such as ours. Likewise, I don't want to talk about Hell, since I have no desire to blindside your imaginations so brutishly. Suffice it to say that in that place one abandons all hope, theologically speaking, but not all of time, nor the expectation of an infinite chain of miseries. Hell is the bloodcurdling mansion of time, in whose profoundest circle Satan himself awaits, winding up a gargantuan watch with his own hands.

We have had occasion to define poetry as man's dialogue with time, to call certain poets "pure" because they manage to empty themselves of all inner time for a showdown alone (or nearly so) with time itself; much as one would converse with the buzzing in one's own ears, that most fundamental sonic manifestation of time's flow. In short, we conclude that poetry is the word in its own time, and that it is the duty of a teacher of poetics to teach his pupils to push the timeliness of their verse to the limit.
(translation mine)

2- I'm writing this footnote to spare my comment-box and inbox the wrath of a 1,001 Spanish speakers telling me that I misunderstood this line, that it doesn't mean anything like the original. The original Spanish "fuga" has two main meanings: "fugue" (i.e. music) and "fleeing, scurrying, getaway." Add to that the fact that, it is "fuga de ratón" instead of "fuga del ratón" and the word's connotative potential is knocked squarely between these two meanings. This gives the line a reading "hears the mouse-fugue"along with something like "hears the mouse-footed scurrying." Since English offers no such potential polysemy, I went for the other, tertiary meaning of "fuga" which, though not particularly implied by the context of the poem, is shared by English "fugue": a fugue state. To do so I performed a bit of semantic and syntactic surgery to suggest the right things. So this line differs from the Spanish more so than you'd expect. But it is true, in every way that matters, to Machado's æsthetic and temperament.

The Original:

"Recuerdo Infantil" de Juan de Mairena
Antonio Machado

Mientras no suena un paso leve
y oiga una llave rechinar,
el niño malo no se atreve
a rebullir ni a respirar.

El niño Juan, el solitario,
oye la fuga de ratón,
y la carcoma en el armario,
y la polilla en el cartón.

El niño Juan, el hombrecito,
escucha el tiempo en su prisión:
una quejumbre de mosquito
en un zumbido del peón.

El niño está en el cuarto oscuro,
donde su madre lo encerró;
es el poeta, el poeta puro
que canta: ¡el tiempo, el tiempo y yo!

Juan De Mairena diserta acerca del tiempo:

Porque, ¿cantaría el poeta sin la angustia del tiempo, sin esa fatalidad de que las cosas no sean para nosotros, como para Dios, todas a la par, sino dispuestas en serie y encartuchadas como balas de rifle, para disparadas una tras otra? Que hayamos de esperar a que se fría un huevo, a que se abra una puerta o a que madure un pepino, es algo, señores, que merece nuestra reflexión. En cuanto nuestra vida coincide con nuestra conciencia,, es el tiempo la realidad última, rebelde al conjuro de la lógica, irreductible, inevitable, fatal. Vivir es devorar tiempo: esperar; y por muy trascendente que quiera ser nuestra espera, siempre será espera de seguir esperando. Porque aun la vida beata, en la gloria de los justos, ¿estará, si es vida, fuera del tiempo y más allá de la espera? Adrede evito la palabra “esperanza”, que es uno de esos grandes superlativos con que aludimos a un esperar los bienes supremos, tras de los cuales ya no habría nada que esperar. Es palabra que encierra un concepto teológico, impropio de una clase de Retórica y Poética. Tampoco quiero hablaros del Infierno, por no impresionar desagradablemente vuestra fantasía. Sólo he de advertiros que allí se renuncia a la esperanza, en el sentido teológico, pero no al tiempo y a la espera de una infinita serie de desdichas. Es el Infierno la espeluznante mansión del tiempo, en cuyo círculo más hondo está Satanás dando cuerda a un reloj gigantesco por su propia mano.
Ya en otra ocasión definíamos a la poesía como diálogo del hombre con el tiempo, y llamábamos "poeta puro" a quien lograba vaciar el suyo para enfrentarse a solas con él, o casi a solas; algo así como quien conversa con el zumbar de sus propios oídos, que es la más elemental materialización sonora del fluir temporal. Decíamos, en suma, cuanto es la poesía palabra en el tiempo, y cómo le deber se un maestro de Poética consiste en enseñar a sus alumnos a reforzar la temporalidad de su verso.

1 comment:

  1. I must report a tongue twister typing mistake
    "cómo le deber se un maestro de Poética consiste en enseñar.."