¡Feliz cumpleaño, Pablo Neruda!
I can’t think of any better way to celebrate el maestro’s birthday than by sharing this video of Martín Espada reading “General Franco in Hell” at the CantoMundo retreat.
Before we get to the poem, let’s think a second about recitation and craft. As Martín reminded us before reading the poem: Neruda’s poem of damnation and public scorn walks a thin tightrope between personal anger, Neruda’s grief over the assassination of his dear friend, Federico García Lorca; human outrage, being witness to not only war, but a civil war—seeing brother attack brother; and the toughest battle of all, converting this horror into poetic art.
Espada’s recitation of this poem is proof of Neruda’s genius. His ability to simultaneously denounce Franco’s acts with proper vitrioil and elevate the human spirit who challenges and survives these atrocities with a language that serenades the reader in both Spanish and English.
No smoke and mirrors here. Neruda names the harm, making sure all of Franco’s barbarity is documented, and sets his darkest poetic imagination free, reviling Franco’s legacy to the enduring eye of commoner judgment.
Likewise, Espada doesn’t hold back in his reading and sets the sonic quality of this curse poem free without resorting to yelling or arm waving. What for? The power is in the words and in the form. It’s a poem operating on all cylinders thanks to the poet’s eye for detail, ear for language, and faith in the power of verse to elevate the downtrodden and overthrow dictators.
Sadly, as Espada noted before reading the poem, Neruda would not live to see his poem come to pass. Franco outlived him as he did so many others. But Franco did not leave a poem behind for the ages and so Neruda gets to laugh from the heavens while Franco continually burns in literary effigy.
We join this poem in media res, the first part is below in Neruda’s Spanish. Espada continues from there reading the first section in Spanish and the majority of the poem in English. Again, a wonderful read and reminder that a poet’s legacy can be as eternal as the simple desire to call injustice by its proper name.
El general Franco en los infiernos
Desventurado, ni el fuego ni el vinagre caliente
en un nido de brujas volcánicas, ni el hielo devorante,
ni la tortuga pútrida que ladrando y llorando con voz
de mujer muerta te escarbe la barriga
buscando una sortija nupcial y un juguete de niño
serán para ti nada sino una puerta oscura
De infierno a infierno, que hay? En el aullido
de tus legiones, en la santa leche
de las madres de España, en la leche y los senos
por los caminos, hay una aldea más, un silencio más,
una puerta rota