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Birnam Wood

Review by Antonio D’Alfonso

Birnam Wood
José Manuel Cardona
Translated by Hélène Cardona
Salmon Publishing

Birnam Wood by José Manuel Cardona, translated by Hélène Cardona, the poet’s daughter, was published in Ireland by Salmon Poetry. The collection measuring ninety-six pages of poetry is divided in three sections: ‘Poems to Circe’, ‘The Vitner’, and ‘Other Poems’, introduced with a prologue by Andrés Neuman. The original text was published in 2007 by the Consell Insular d’Eivissa, Ibiza, Spain, as El Bosque de Birnam.

Here we have the wood near Birnam in Perthshire, Scotland, which in Macbeth is a symbol of Macbeth’s defeat. The world moves like a branch in the hand of a man moving. The collection opens with a quote from Shelley: ‘Language is a perpetual orphic song.’

Writing to a god is a tricky adventure. If the poet is a believer, Leopardi’s infinity of silence is dealt with humility. If the poet is a believer, Ungaretti’s immensity of light fills him with glory. If you’re not a believer, well I guess, there is a problem and so you will have to seek for more tangible thematics.

José Manuel Cardona’s prayer, ‘Poem to Circe’, is proof of faith. ‘I don’t know… where you, reality, start/And where, I, desire, end’ (25). Interestingly, the obvious is not so obvious. Cardona’s Odysseus, a symbol of desire, is less real than Circe, the god of his soul. The universe is ripped inside out. Circe, a nymph, a witch changes men into hogs. Odysseus, however, is protected for having swallowed the drug moly. Cardona, however, is under the influence. Hence, desire is less truthful than the concretion of a goddess. ‘I kept recreating you in my image’, writes the poet. Between reality and non-reality lies the image. Poetry resides there. And the greatest of poets. And the loneliest of poets too: ‘And I remain alone and amazed.’

Why the aloneness? Because, as the poets confesses, he believes in magic, sees masks and pulp, bites into the stem, and cannot explain the clamor of drums and the jungle, He created the goddess he can’t ignore anymore, and so, back turned against friend and slave he, ‘No one’, alone awaits the ‘revelation’.

The poet is a foreigner in a foreign land, with ‘the ageless power of volcanoes” and a ‘thirst for adventure’, ‘having to abolish Death’.

‘Those who believe in me will not die./ I love the pain: my Kingdom is of this world.’

These verses bring to an end the prayer, a love song to life.

Follow individual poems such as ‘Ibiza’ (with its verse: ‘this land has made me a prisoner’, a masterpiece), ‘From the Euxine Sea’ (‘Inhospitable city… Why the will to always move forward/ to go deeper into forests/ and embrace the maelstrom?’), ‘The Spell’ (‘I don’t think we’ll ever leave the cave’), the ‘Four Orphic Sonnets’ (‘Image of love too, death/finds us among reeds. Baptistry./ Splendid gargoyle or lifeless dream.’), and the final ‘Inhabited Elegy’ dedicated to Luis Cernuda (‘Take me by the hand, pilgrim…. Yet I will follow your narrow path’).

José Manuel Cardona, why have I not read you before? We must thank Hélène Cardona for this ‘act of revelation’. For is this not what translation is? Offering illumination from the unknown for me the daub.

Antonio D’Alfonso is a Canadian writer, editor, publisher, and filmmaker, and was also the founder of Guernica Editions.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #24