In a brief appendix, "Note on the Author," we learn that he teaches English at Northeastern University in Boston and that "In the summer, he works on a farm in Spain." This may have to do with Blessington's fondness for the Spanish language(s) and Spanish art, as well as with his choice of cover art for Poems from Underground: Goya's "Witches' Sabbath," perhaps the darkest paintings by the master, which goes indeed well with the dark title. One of my favorite poems in this book, and not by chance, is "Goya's Prints" (p. 70-1). Here's the beginning:
"The circus of the night
with no color,
mere shapes, sorties
perpetrated in smoke,
In one, reason has fallen
asleep at his page
and a hundred owls
with bats' wings pullulate:"
The superstitious waste that was Spain during the Enlightenment is captured in Goya's Los Caprichos, encapsuled in Blessington's first stanza above, and El sueño de la razón produce monstruos is depicted in the second. The previous-to-last stanza in the poem sums up admirably the spirit of Spanish Catholic reaction:
"Let there be no light.
Mere shades of dark
are we all, except
for outrageous pain."
I don't remember having heard it in verse so well expressed. You can smell the fire and brimstone in that "except for outrageous pain." But turning back to Goya, I now remember that, more terrifying even than his prints, more disgusting than Saturn devouring his children, are his several portraits of the king who reigned on Spain until 1833, Fernando, or Ferdinand VII: the cruelest and most stupid of all Spanish kings. His smiling satisfaction.
Our poet's consummate skill with rhythm and rhyme are amply evidenced by his "Dionysus" (p. 45), of which I transcribe the first two stanzas:
"The ivy snaked his mask:
a smile hung up to ask
nothing—mere dark behind,
while hate and love entwined
to spur his chorus line.
When city drunkards meet,
His roar invades the street
To panic saints and wives
Till on their tomb he weaves
His holy ivy leaves."
There is much in Blessington's book to delight the imagination; I have some quibbles, though, about his poetry translation. His elegant Englishing of Baudelaire's « L'Âme du vin » (p. 46), is unfortunately blemished by an error, possibly of proofreading or typesetting: « J'allumerai les yeux de ta femme ravie » Baudelaire has his wine say – and Blessington translates, "I'll light the eyes of your ravishing wife." But ravie in French does not mean ravishing (= ravissante); rather the opposite: it means ravished, seized, raving, either in the sense of Europe ravished by Zeus in the shape of a bull, or of the maenads seized by Dionysian frenzy, or, nowadays, in the gentler and more usual sense of seized by delight or thrilled.
Blessington's somber Spanish mood clearly delights in the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral's early "Sonetos de la muerte", "The Death Sonnets" (p. 50-1), where the poetic voice addresses a young man who was her lover and who died, having betrayed her for another woman. The young poetisa avers that she brought that fate upon him, for she had prayed to God, "Retórnalo a mis brazos o le siegas en flor" (Bring him back to my arms or cut him down in bloom). She is not remorseful; she is rather defiant, and in the last two lines of the third and last Sonnet, she parries any possible reproach by the young man or by others:
"¿Que no sé del amor, que no tuve piedad?
¡Tú, que vas a juzgarme, lo comprendes, Señor!"
(They say I don't know about love, and that I showed no mercy?
You, who will judge me, you understand it, Lord!)
Oh, yes, she knows that love is inconstant, free, that it obeys no rules; she has taken to heart, no doubt, the famous lesson in Carmen's Habanera:
« L'amour est un oiseau rebelle
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser
Et c'est bien en vain qu'on l'appelle
S'il lui convient de refuser ».
(Love is a rebellious bird / no one can tame / and you will call it in vain / if it feels like not listening).
But the Chilean's fiery creation, her jealousy and her thirst for revenge — "Me alejaré cantando mis venganzas hermosas" (I'll go away singing my beautiful revenges) — leave the Spanish gypsy composed by the Frenchman Mérimée pale and bloodless in comparison.
Blessington renders those last two lines of the third Sonnet – "¿Que no sé del amor, que no tuve piedad? – by : "What do I not know of love? I didn't feel his grief?" The first question would be a correct translation of "¿Qué no sé del amor?", where the accented Qué works as an interrogative pronoun—what is there about love that I don't know?—but that is not what Mistral wrote; the second question assumes that the young man felt grief, which is not warranted by the text: she showed no mercy in praying for his early death. The Sonnets, it must be added, are tough to translate: Ursula K. Le Guin, who translated many of Mistral's poems, avers that the "Sonnets of Death" resisted her empathy. [Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, U. of New Mexico Press, 2003, p. 5.]
Poems by Blessington in Offcourse:
"Observations on Prince Rupert's Dogge called Boye (1643)" in the current issue, #73
"A Muster of Storks" and two other poems in Issue #69
"Aegean" and other poems in #65
"The Devil's Mark" and "Hoard" in #63
Four Poems in #59
"Carrara" and other poems in #57
"Palimpsest" and Other Poems in #55
R. Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse.