You know how the sea smells of life,

how at times she spits a ferocious foam,

how she wails wild and rises

like an atavistic being, a primitive creature.


José Manuel Cardona

I know my Spanish isn’t anywhere good enough to fully appreciate José Manuel Cardona’s exquisite poetry, so it was with joy that I received the news of the publication of Birnam Wood: El Bosque de Birnam (Salmon Poetry; Bilingual edition, 2018) from Hélène Cardona along with a copy, her translation of her dad’s work. It has all the elements I most treasure in poetry. It is spiritually rich, vigorous, intuitive, conscious, disciplined and classic in its diction.  It delivers warp and weave of Western mythology and, given his roots, it’s not surprising that his work sometimes puts one in mind of the Spanish mystic poets of the Catholic Church: Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross … And who better to translate his work, than his own daughter, a literary translator and a poet in her own right.

Señor Cardona, poet, writer, and translator from Ibiza, Spain, died last year. In his early life, the Franco regime forced him into exile in France. Years later, when the socialists came to power in Spain, he was offered a ministry position, which was ultimately denied him by the still heavily embedded Franquist administration. He remained blacklisted for several years.

Señor Cardona was also an attorney and translator who worked most of his life for the United Nations.

Here with permission are two poems from this collection, a highly recommended read indeed, most valued.

Ode to a Young Mariner


        To my brother Manuel


The sea is a bride with open arms,

with stout rubber balls for breasts.

It is difficult to refuse her caress,

dry from the lips her brackish aftertaste,

forget her sweet bitterness.

Underneath her waters wails a rosary of dead

centaurs, watchmen of the shadows.

Handsome men, hard as anchors

from the chest of a barbarian god.           


It is difficult to refuse the call

of the sea, cover one’s ears,

grasp the neck with both hands

and become suddenly mute, or pluck out one’s eyes

and feed them to the fish. To ignore the gulls

and red masts and so many pennants,

and the ships arriving from unknown countries

and the ships departing for others

barely known, or perhaps for ours.


Because we carry within

like a blue keel or masts and spars

the marine bitterness of kelp,

the stripes on the back of fishes,

the tarry death

and our initials written in the sea.


Brother moving away to the bridge

like one more piece of our island,

the sea of mariners, your bride.

You know the smell of death

because you tread beneath a cemetery

that can be yours and you go brightly.


You know how the sea smells of life,

how at times she spits a ferocious foam,

how she wails wild and rises

like an atavistic being, a primitive creature.


We all carry death within written in furrows

like a name traced by the keel

of your boat in the sea. We are all sailors

of a sleeping bride with round breasts.


I don’t want to depart for the land,

to sprout like a eucalyptus branch

my eyes blinded by grass.

Wait for me, brother, when you anchor

your vessel in the sea you’ve loved.

No need to depart so alone, mariner

brother of a seaman gripped

by the earth’s open jaws.

From Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam (Salmon Poetry, 2018), by José Manuel Cardona, translated by Hélène Cardona

Oda a un joven marino

                       A mi hermano Manuel

El mar es una novia con los brazos abiertos,

con los pechos macizos como balas de goma.

Es difícil negarse a su caricia,

secarse de los labios su regusto salobre,

olvidar su amargor azucarado.

Bajo sus aguas gime un rosario de muertos

centauros veladores de las sombras.

Hombres hermosos, duros, como anclas arrancadas

del pecho de un dios bárbaro.


Es difícil negarse a la llamada

del mar, taparse los oídos,

agarrar con las dos manos el cuello

y enmudecer de súbito, o arrancarse los ojos

y darlos a los peces. Ignorar las gaviotas

y los mástiles rojos y tantas banderolas,

y los barcos que llegan de países ignotos

y los barcos que parten para otros países

que apenas se conocen, o quizá para el nuestro.


Porque nosotros llevamos adentro

como una quilla azul o arboladura

el amargor marino de las algas,

las barras sobre el dorso de los peces,

la muerte alquitranada

y nuestras iniciales escritas en el mar.


La mar de los marinos, vuestra novia

hermano que te alejas sobre el Puente

como un pedazo más de nuestra isla.

Tú sabes el olor que huele a la muerte

porque pisas debajo un cementerio

que puede ser el tuyo y vas alegre.


Tú sabes como huele el mar a vida,

como vomita a veces fiera espuma,

como salvaje gime y se rebela

igual que un ser atávico, criatura primitiva.


Llevamos todos dentro la muerte escrita a surcos

como un nombre trazado por la quilla

de tu barco en el mar. Somos todos marinos

de una novia dormida con los pechos redondos.


Yo no quiero partir para la tierra,

brotar como una rama de eucalipto

con los ojos cegados por la hierba.

Espérame tú, hermano, cuando ancles tu nave

en la mar que has amado.

No has de partir tan solo, marinero

hermano de un marino atenazado

por las fauces abiertas de la tierra

From Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam (Salmon Poetry, 2018) by José Manuel Cardona, first published in El Bosque de Birnam (Consell Insular de Eivissa, Ibiza 2007)

Poem to Circe IX

Humanly I’m illuminated.

I’m amazed every day by the roaring

Song that overflows like erosive

Blackberry juice, by the joyful

And boisterous song of men.

Voices stretch like branches,

Footprints like branches, flesh

Kindred to my flesh, and life’s

Juicy wind ripens.

I reincarnate with their centuries old footprints,

Their secular voices, their joy

So often painful, like a sick

Child carried on one’s back.

Oddly it’s on this island, Circe,

I have the strength to live.

Here humanity is embraced and screams

Mixing laughter with its colors,

Speaking the same language with varied

Accents. Love’s display

Becomes a ritual we officiate.


We arrived and the miracle happened.

It was the sea and the wind in the bells.

We came from far, from years

Thirsty as dust, from humble

fishermen’s nets on barren shore.

We arrived and the miracle with us.

It has jumped into the net like a liquid fish

And it has multiplied for all

And we satiated ourselves, and all of us

We walk through the sand as one.

You see, Circe, the miracle occurs

Whenever man wants it. The search

That is the mystery of all things.

From Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam (Salmon Poetry, 2018), by José Manuel Cardona, translated by Hélène Cardona

Poema a Circe IX

Iluminado soy humanamente.

Me sorprendo a diario con el canto

Que ruge y se desborda como un jugo

Erosivo de moras, con el canto

Alegre y tumultuoso de los hombres.

Se distienden las voces como pámpanos,

Las huellas como pámpanos, la carne

Semejante a mi carne, y es el viento

Jugoso de la vida el que madura.

Reencarno con sus huellas de hace siglos,

Sus voces seculares, su alegría

Tantas veces penosa, como el hijo

Enfermo que se lleva a las espaldas.

Es en esta isla, Circe, donde siento

La fuerza de vivir extrañamente.

Aquí la humanidad se abraza y grita

Mezclando con la risa sus colores,

Hablando el mismo idioma con acentos

Variados. La evidencia del amor

Se transforma en un rito que oficiamos.


Llegamos y el milagro se produjo.

Ha sido el mar y el viento en las campanas.

Veníamos de lejos, de los años

Sedientos como polvo, de las redes

De humildes pescadores en mar yerma.

Llegamos y el milagro con nosotros.

Ha saltado a la red como un pez líquido

Y se ha multiplicado para todos

Y nos hemos saciado, y todos, todos

Andamos por la arena como un solo.

Ya ves, Circe, el milagro se produce

Siempre que el hombre lo quiere. La búsqueda

He ahí el misterio de todas las cosas.

From Birnam Wood / El Bosque de Birnam (Salmon Poetry, 2018) by José Manuel Cardona, first published in El Bosque de Birnam (Consell Insular de Eivissa, Ibiza 2007)

José Manuel Cardona

José Manuel Cardona (July 16, 1928 – July 4, 2018) is the author of El Vendimiador (Atzavara, 1953), Poemas a Circe (Adonais, 1959), El Bosque de Birnam: Antología poética (Consell Insular d’Eivissa, 2007).

He was co-editor of several literary journals and wrote for many publications. He participated in the II Congreso de Poesía in Salamanca and belonged to the Cántico group.

He worked for the United Nations most of his life, in Geneva, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Belgrade, Sofia, Kiev, Tbilisi, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Panama, among many places.

Hélène Cardona

Hélène Cardona is the author of seven books, most recently Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves, and the translations Birnam Wood (José Manuel Cardona), Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac), winner of a Hemingway Grant, Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux); and Whitman et la Guerre de Sécession: Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb. Her work as been translated into 15 languages.

Publications include Washington Square Review, World Literature Today, Poetry International, The Brooklyn Rail, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Asymptote, Drunken Boat, Anomaly, The London Magazine, The Warwick Review and elsewhere.

Acting credits include Chocolat, Jurassic World, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Mumford, and Serendipity, among many.


Thank you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s