Listen, mother, I’ve come back.
I’m in the graveyard
where that day the great body
of my grandfather stayed.
I can still hear the weeping.
I came back. I had never left.
Distancing myself was just the means
of remaining forever.
(tr. Patrick Loughnane)
Born in the Galician city of Ourense in 1929, José Ángel Valente was a poet, essayist and translator known principally for his work in Spanish. His many books of poetry in the language earned him a reputation as one of Spain’s premier postwar poets, and prizes such as the Premio de la Crítica (1960; 1980) and Premio Príncipe de Asturias de las Letras (1988). His creative and personal life transcended borders, however, so while living in Oxford, Paris or Geneva he brought Celan, Cavafy, Dylan Thomas, and Montale (among others) into Spanish.
Given his interactions with numerous languages, it is perhaps unsurprising he eventually published a collection of poetry in Galician: Sete cántigas de álen (appearing first in Ourense’s La Región newspaper on the 17th of May 1981, before being expanded to Cántigas de álen in 1989). No mere token gesture, these poems should be considered an integral part of his oeuvre. As he himself stated:
“non os considero […] inferiores ó que nos derradeiros tempos teño escrito en castelán”
“I don’t consider them […] inferior to those I have written in Spanish of late”
This poem, the third of the initial seven cántigas, strikingly addresses this “return” to the Galician language.
Although Claudio Rodríguez Fer rightly highlights that Valente abandoned Galician as a poetic language with his move from the region, it had already occupied a central role in his development. It was on summer trips to towns and villages surrounding his native Ourense that he would have first encountered it as the language of everyday communication. This situation was in stark contrast to city and family life where, he would later recall, adults would say:
“No hables en gallego que es una grosería”
“Don’t speak in Galician, it is a coarse thing”
Sadly, this experience is indicative of attitudes toward the language at the time, with the poet’s peers being educated beneath the weight of the “más castrante“ (“most castrating”) diglossia.
In spite of these circumstances, the poet can be considered a pioneer in the cultivation of Galician by poets of the postwar generation. During a period when its use remained effectively outlawed, he would published the poem “Finisterre” in 1947.
Given the atmosphere shrouding the place as he left, it is perhaps understandable that Valente did not seem to remember it affectionately. In his (Spanish) poem “Tierra de nadie” (“No-man’s Land”), he describe it as a:
“Pequeña ciudad sórdida, perdida,
“Small sordid city, lost,
The city, he suggests, seemed to only have room only for “los muertos solemnes” (“the solemn dead”). In personal letters he argued that Ourense suffered from “una larga historia de persistente desatención hacia sus hombres de letras” (“a long history of persistent neglect towards its men of letters”). Whether borne out of the frustration of seeing his fellow writers not being appropriately respected (the local paper La Región requesting a contribution for a supplement on Vicente Risco provoked the above outburst), or the fear of suffering the same fate were he to remain aligned with the city– it would appear he had just cause for concern. Julio Alonso-Losada, who had dealings with the poet as a child and still lives in the city, has said he doesn’t believe “que existan en Ourense cien personas que lo hayan leído” (“that there are even one hundred people in Ourense that have read him”).
Such was Valente’s disdain for the city, he once went to the extreme of requesting that the publisher of Punto Cero (his collected works) remove the name of his birthplace from his biography.
Just as the influence of the Galician language on Valente’s early life can be identified, so too can that of its poets. There wasn’t, argues Fer in reference to the sixth of the initial cántigas, “un poeta na lírica galega máis propicio para ser glosado por Valente” (“a poet in the Galician lyrical tradition more propitious for Valente to quote”) than Manuel Antonio. As the most iconic figure among Galician’s early twentieth century poetic vanguard, it is unsurprising that a young Valente would be taken by Antonio’s work. Their poetry shares, Fer goes on to illustrate, “máis dun rasgo temático e formal” (“more than one thematic and formal feature”). Of course Valente is not the only poet to fall under Antonio’s influence, and has had his work compared to many of his contemporaries, including María Mariño.
Indeed the style of these poets’ work, notably their reflection of “the topic and the figure of the alien” can be traced right back to the foundational figure of Rosalía de Castro. A poet whom Valente, despite long distancing himself from the Galician language (and its culture), wrote a tribute to— his Spanish-language poem “La poesía“. Perhaps testifying to the impact de Castro, as well as the art in general, had on him one line of the piece simply states: “quedó en mi sangre” (“it [or she] remained in my blood”).
Though the majority of Valente’s work was not written in Galician, and he at times went to extreme lengths to detach himself from the city in which he was born– the influence of both on his life and work are undeniable. With the recent publication of all his poems in the language together, it is a fitting time to consider him within the context of Galician literature (a discussion from which he is so often excluded). For as this poem, and the cántigas that accompanied it, demonstrate: they were no mere token gestures. They fit what has been described as a “notably coherent tradition” in Galician poetry, and deserve recognition both in Ourense and beyond.
Note: This post’s featured image shows Valente (L) alongside fellow Galician (and Ourensean) poet Celso Emilio Ferreiro. The pair were attending the 1976 conference “40 anni di poesia in Spagna” in Venice.