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Black Tulips


José Maria Hinojosa

November 2012

Elizabeth O'Brien

Black Tulips, published by the University of New Orleans Press as part of The Engaged Writers Series, is the first translation available in English of the work of Spanish poet José Maria Hinojosa.

Black Tulips, published by the University of New Orleans Press as part of The Engaged Writers Series, is the first translation available in English of the work of Spanish poet José Maria Hinojosa.

In translating this lesser-known member of the famed Generation of ’27, translator Mark Statman offers the book as an introduction to Hinojosa’s poetry and states that he hopes to encourage future interest and further inquiry into Hinojosa’s full body of work. The book is contextualized by a helpful forward from Professor Willis Barnstone, who offers a poetic frame of reference for Hinojosa’s style and content. In the introduction, Statman provides thorough background information concerning Hinojosa’s life and death.

Hinojosa was born in Campillos in 1904, and he died in 1936, in an attack on the prison where he had been imprisoned by anarchists. He had begun to write poetry when he went to study in Madrid in 1923. There, in spite of political differences stemming from his own republican leanings, he was strongly influenced by Breton’s surrealist manifesto and by the poetic work of his contemporary peers, Federico Garcia Lorca and Miguel Hernandez among them. Hinojosa later focused much of his attention on politics rather than poetry, but he nonetheless published six volumes of his own poetry in his lifetime. Black Tulips provides a selection of pieces from five of these volumes and helpfully presents Statman’s translations beside the original poems in Spanish. Hinojosa’s La Flor de California is not included here because the pieces contained therein, Statman says, “took me further from the poet’s work than I presently wished to go.”

Nonetheless, evidence of the “strange and anachronistic qualities” that Statman finds in La Flor de California can be found in the selection of later poems that are included, as Hinojosa clearly can be seen to experiment with increasingly more surreal images, and his lines grow lengthier and sometimes forgo breaks altogether for prose poetry.

Although Hinojosa’s work throughout his lifetime is rooted largely in the natural world, his early poems in particular rely on sharp natural images, often forgoing expository flourishes and simply proceeding from one image to the next. The translation is faithful to meaning and attentive to Hinojosa’s use of white space and caesura, making for poems that leap from sight to sound, as in this verse from “Poems for someone”:

Rose chimes
sound in my soul
and when they ring
their petals fall.

This sort of synesthesia inspired by nature is a theme Hinojosa returns to in the opening of “Simplicity”:

The fingers of snow
on the small drum
of space.

This somewhat later piece leaps from the physical imagery of snow-as-fingers to the metaphorical weight of the drum “of space.” While the repiquetearron en el tamboril of the original Spanish is far more musical than its literal translation, “tap on the small drum”—particularly because repiquetearron is set on its own line, forcing us as readers to pause on its nuances—the complexity of what happens in the space of the compact verse as translated is remarkable.

In the chronological arrangement of the work, Hinojosa’s evolution as a poet is clear: his early work’s brief verses composed of streams of images give way as the collections progress to longer lines and then prose poem forms, and the subject matter begins to make more surreal leaps from the physical to the metaphysical. Included from Hinojosa’s later work is a selection of poems from The Rose of the Winds, a collection organized around the points of a compass. “E” opens:

I dyed my retina
a lemon yellow
and half-closed my eyelids
to look at the sun.

The poem is centered on its speaker rather than on the image as viewed by the speaker, and the poem departs from here into still more lovely weirdness. Hinojosa’s later work shows a speaker with more agency and a tone that consistently grows darker as the political climate of violence and upheaval is reflected in Hinojosa’s images of blood, and of fire, as in the later poem, “Wings are made for flying,” which ends: “Before dawn / a white dove will come to leave blood on our roof / and that blood, curdled, by noon will be our skin.”

Like many of Hinojosa’s later poems, the grotesqueness of the imagery in “Wings are made for flying” is amplified by its sensual presentation. Again and again in Hinojosa’s later work, dark themes are treated with a sensitivity that makes them all the more striking for what they withhold.

Black Tulips offers readers a well-curated selection of work showcasing Hinojosa’s range and spanning his development as a poet. The collection also offers an excellent introduction to Hinojosa’s work as a whole and further embellishes the Generation of ‘27 for the English-speaking world.

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