Translator's Note: "After Quevedo" by John Matthias
This is more of a trespass than a translation. I am by no means a Quevedo scholar and even my knowledge of Spanish is rusty enough to require assistance from existing translations and commentaries. A year ago I wrote an essay called “Grand Old Dirty Old Men,” which ended with a reading of two late books by Octavio Paz, The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism and An Erotic Beyond: Sade. Late in his life, Paz was haunted by Quevedo’s baroque masterpiece, “Amor constante más allá de la muerte.” Paz finds Quevedo breaking with both Christianity and Platonism in his poem, and in fact “violating” both traditions in a kind of double heresy. Readers not familiar with Spanish baroque poetry may initially think of John Donne when encountering the poem for the first time. But it is perhaps more radical than anything by Donne. Calling the poem blasphemous, Paz is in fact thrilled as well as unnerved by the imagery of mortal desire lasting beyond death, and finds Quevedo’s poem to be itself the urn containing immortal remains still with mortal longings: “Although the body deteriorates into formless matter, that matter is animate. The power that animates it and imbues it with a terrible eternity is love, desire.” My version mixes the dust of the beloved with that of the lover in that urn, and it retains fragments of the original “matter” of the Spanish like tiny pieces of bone in the ash.
The second source of my own fascination with the poem is much more distant. Ever since I was a student of Yvor Winters, I have found two of his poems, “The Marriage” and “The Cremation,” as hauntingas Paz finds “Amor constante más allá de la muerte.” Winters knew the Spanish baroque tradition well, and he made some translations from its canon of great poems. Here is the end of “The Marriage”:
When flesh shall fall away, and, falling, stand
Wrinkling with shadow over face and hand,
Still I shall meet you on the verge of dust
And know you as a faithful vestige must
And, in commemoration of our lust,
May our heirs seal us in a single urn,
A single spirit never to return.
But the two dusts in my Quevedo version do not reduce to “a single spirit,” because it is not “lust” that is being commemorated but “Amor constante” (constant love) “más allá de la muerte” (even beyond death) that is being celebrated, and in a way that should appall even as it stimulates the imagination of a reader who might perhaps have fed on Baudelaire or Poe. That reader must actually try to see the convergence, the movement of the particles in the urn as they grope toward each other. Only a baroque style, it seems to me, can achieve this; and I have exaggerated the tortuousness of that style in my homage, which, again, is also a trespass. Winters’s “The Cremation” asks in its middle stanza:
And where is that which made you just?
Which gathered light about the bone
And moved the tongue, in earth’s despite?
In Quevedo it is all there in the urn, and preternaturally alive.
John Matthias has published fourteen books of poems, most recently Trigons (2009) and Collected Shorter Poems (2011), both from Shearsman Books. He is professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and co-editor of Notre Dame Review.