Love Poems by Pedro Salinas: My Voice Because of You and Letter Poems to Katherine
University of Chicago Press, 2010
256 pp., $46.00
Love Poems by Pedro Salinas
Last week, as I walked along busy State Street in Chicago, on my way to resume this review, it was easy to encounter love in its myriad splendors, durabilities, entanglements, and vicissitudes. One man just ahead of me was talking angrily. It was even louder than your usual cell-phone call annoyingly overheard. He was saying that it was a ten-dollar pack of cigarettes he left there, and who did she think she was, and he would not put up with being mistreated that way. He used harsh names. Up the block, an older man and woman walking hand-in-hand were accosted by a fellow clearly trying to get them to sign up for something. "You two make the cutest couple!" he declared. "I bet you two were high-school sweethearts." For all I know, he may have gotten it just right, unctuousness and all. Shortly I turned left to check out a recommended restaurant—we were looking for a special place for my in-laws' upcoming visit, somewhere we could celebrate fittingly their thirty years of marriage.
I returned to State Street just in time to happen upon three young black men—three very gay black men, it seemed—emerge from the subway. Two were in a very heated quarrel that quickly sounded like more than just friends disagreeing. I don't know who you think you are, one said. Pointed speech. Arch gestures. His speech poured forth in one long, uninterrupted accusation, as with Gargantua's mouth. "You must think you're something by not telling me but I will have you know that you're dealing with the wrong man this time oh yes you are." All three men were dressed crisply, displaying a high urban fashion sense—low-rider designer jeans, beefy and tan suede boots, crisp collared shirts under puffy, shiny black winter coats, and cocked, custom-made baseball caps. But two of them clucking at each other like hurt lovers, too. It was quite a scene. The one yelling had an Armani gift bag on one arm, and soon the accused responded with even more passion, the Hollister shopping bag on his arm shaking a little. The third guy, looking every bit the third wheel, mainly stood between them and looked nervously neutral; he was somehow two people at once, retiring in aspect yet still flamboyant in his gait and accessorizing. And by that time, we were walking by the culture's most broadcast version of love—the tantalizing, almost gymnastical erotics of the American Apparel store's Valentine-themed window display, with its G-strings and chemises on colorless mannequins. Love as Business—and love always is a complicated business. Pedro Salinas' poetry can still enchant us and even speak for us today because it memorably registers that complexity, love's sweetness and valor, insanity and inconsistencies.
The original seventy poems of My Voice Because of You appeared in 1933. It was the first volume of an eventual trilogy of love-poetry collections, and stands as one of the great sequences of modern European poetry. "He wrote his Song of Songs in the twentieth century," Barnstone suggests, thereby placing Salinas' lyric poems in the tradition of Saint John of the Cross' Spiritual Canticle and Fray Luis de León's translation of the Bible's greatest love poetry. Salinas' language is sometimes charged and elaborate, reflecting the influences of Spain's Baroque authors and more recent Symbolist poetry, and at other times piercingly straightforward. To illustrate this second aspect, consider the speaker upon seeing trains pass by:
They would take me where
I've never been. But I
don't want new skies.
I want to be where I was.
With you, to be back.
What an immense newness
to go back again, […]
Sometimes the speaker's urgency seems to have been so great that he couldn't be bothered to work up a poetic conceit: "I would drop everything, / toss it all away: / costs, catalogues, / … / You, who are not my love, / if you called me!" There are other sweetly pedestrian moments, such as quick consideration between a kiss on the lips and one on the forehead, that "hardness / behind the flesh, / stiff, eternal, inflexible answer[.]" Some of the casualness derives from Salinas' fascination with technology, although he could not have imagined the extent to which we now identify ourselves, announce our "relationship statuses," and interact with potential mates via our gadgets. Twice in his introduction Barnstone speaks of these poems as "telephone meditations" or "telephonic." "Telegraph wires" do appear in the sequence, but upon further thought, it is the peculiar nature of our phone voices and conversations, which others here more of now than ever before, that makes some poems feel so familiar, so easily heard. "How long have we been talking?" one poem begins. "Who began it? I don't know." Lovers do fill the air between them in this way, but each hears in the other's voice the speech of Demosthenes, the romance of Rostand. Elsewhere the poetry grows more elaborate, and playfully melodramatic, in the spirit of Salinas' great Spanish predecessor Góngora. Sometimes the compositions seem misleadingly plainspoken, but notice the concentrating effect of the repetitions here, and how they foreground the last phrase: