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Summer 2007, vol 5 no 2

Last Poems
by Agusti Bartra, translated by D. Sam Abrams
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Agusti Bartra (1908-1982), considered to be one of the finest Catalan poets and translators, past and present, is a poet probably few of you have heard of. Little of what he's written has been translated into the English language. All were originally written in the Catalan language. A poet and translator (his credits include translating the complete works of William Blake), he lived in Spain with his wife, the author Anna Muria i Romani, until he was exiled by the Socialist dictator, Generalissimo Franco, during the Spanish Civil War, to Mexico. Bartra returned to his homeland in 1970. He passed away in 1982 after a long illness that left him bedridden for months. The following haiku were written from his deathbed. The government of Catalonia awarded Bartra the Creu de Sant Jordi (Saint George Cross) to honor his contribution to Catalan literature.

Agusti Bartra is an exceptional poet and deserving of a broader audience in the English speaking world. I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with his daughter, Eli, several years ago when she and her husband were visiting a mutual friend at the University of Santa Cruz in Northern California. At the time, she was a Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Mexico City. Learning that I was a poet, she asked me if I'd heard of her father. When I said that I hadn't, Eli shared with me some of Bartra's poetry and gifted me with a copy of the limited edition, Last Poems. From that day on, her father became one of my favorite poets. The book itself is a bilingual collection of long poems and haiku.

His wife said in the Foreword:

"Oh how I feel the nostalgic echo of luminous memories which the Haiku from Arinsal release! Written during the last happy summer of his life-time, everything in them is doting contemplation or rejection of anguish or lucid introspection, in the same vein of spirit open to the marvels of the earth which one year before made for his excitement in 'Midnight Birds' and his tenderness in 'I name the flower.'"

All things are paths for
remembrances that covet
the upland pasture.

With footsteps of air
I draw near the steeple bells
that are dreaming me.

Like his longer prose poems, Bartra's haiku resonate with metre and original voicing. They can be surreal: "I draw near the steeple bells that are dreaming me";

With words you begin,
words of obscure syllables,
close to the earth's crust

and metaphorical: "words of obscure syllables close to the earth's crust".

Bartra's imagery is the imagery of a true poet. He went beyond the obvious, opting for imaginistic imagery that incorporated seasonal references indigenous to his own unique cultural memory.

As if distracted,
on my way, I touched the tree.
Now it answers me.

He was unafraid of utilizing various tools to paint his poetry. Here he made use of personification, not because he believed a tree could speak but because he saw this specific tree for what it was, a living entity that, if seen from the proper perspective, had something to contribute to the poet's life.

I would die standing,
like smoke when it is transformed
not even knowing

This is insightful, poignant, and brilliant. The poet compares dying with "smoke when it is transformed not even knowing." He goes below the surface of a subject exploring what is unsaid, the intangible that gives breath to what is visible. Take for instance, the following:

On their pilgrimage
the eyes of the passing night:
searching for the lark.

Some at night when they are lonely, alienated, or feeling down emotionally, take to the streets, searching for something to fill the void in their lives. Bartra's phrasing in this haiku allows us to experience what he has seen and felt: "the eyes of the passing night: searching for the lark."

The light is teaching
the air that ever travels
how roses are born.

Metaphysically we are taken by the poet into a world foreign to most of us. Have you seen "light teaching the air?" The answer is, "No!" from the Occidental concept of viewing life. In the West, most of us see things concretely. A rock is a rock. To be alive, something has to be animate and fit into the occidental schemata of life as we've been taught to believe. Bartra is an occidental as well but as a creative person, he delves into the unsaid. "Light teaching the air that travels" how a rose is born from a metaphysical vantage point is not that far fetched. Air is not visible unless light, dust, or some other force or entity combines with it to make it visible. A rose is born via the wind carrying the tiny seedlings of a rose to the ground into fertile soil. We can take this concept further by comparing the seedlings with human lives. We are at birth, tiny seedlings (babies) whose lives are directed by the forces making up the world around us. It is how we respond to these forces that make us into the people we become with maturation. The magic of Bartra's haiku is in its ability to say all of this with an economy of words. This could not have been accomplished had he focused only on the surface.

I speak of trees; trees
from the profound memory
of years and the soul.

Listen to the metre in Bartra's haiku. They resonate, every word a musical note. The metre reminding me of that found in poetry by William Blake and other like Occidental poets; yet he writes them with his own imprint. Like Bartra, we are influenced by our surroundings, genetics, cultural memory, and social context. We cannot pretend to be an Eastern thinker if we do not think like an Easterner. But we can learn how, like Bartra, to think between the lines, to examine what is not seen. When we do this, coupled with a good understanding of the genre's metre and form, one's haiku can be elevated from the unmemorable to the memorable.

Tall, so very tall
with all her cast down towers:
oh greyish sadness!

Last Poems
Agusti Bartra
Limited edition (500 copies, July 1981)
Institut D'Estudis Nord-Americans
Barcelona, Spain
Translated by D. Sam Abrams from the Catalan
language into English