Another helping of Rubén Darío

Friday, 18 March 2016 at 11:49


The ghost of Rubén Darío is still hanging around (as the poster says we are all sons of
Darío and Sandino), so here’s another version. He’s in high symbolist mode here, borrowing the title from Gautier’s “Symphony in White Major” (first pub 1849). Gautier’s poem is about a very different water creature, and is quite literally a swan-song.  Musical titles, hinting at synaesthesia, became fashionable among nineteenth-century writers and painters. Whistler painted several variations on “Symphony in White” (1851-62). Larkin later worked a quite different version on the theme in his own “Sympathy in White Major”. Like Larkin I’ve allowed myself a pun in the title. I’ve also been quite free in bringing the maritime elements to the fore, playing with the form, and moving Darío’s tropical siesta to something snoozing closer to home. I’ve included the original, and a literal translation.

Symphony in Sea Major
very loosely after “Symphony in Grey Major” by Rubén Darío (1867-1916)

The sea, like a vast quicksilver mirror,
reflects the sky’s grey sheet. Far away,
birds flock – I’m thinking stains on the dull
sheen of the quayside bar’s long zinc.

Opaque porthole. The sun toils up
to the crow’s nest, like he did as a kid.
Wind off the sea collapses in the shade,
head down, exhausted, on tarpaulin.

This sea-dog’s grizzled. Under grey, doldrum
suns have leathered his skin; he’s drunk gin,
weathered out Beaufort 12, while typhoons
shattered freighters, junks on the South China Sea.

      The waves now roil their bellies of lead,
      groaning beneath the pier where he sits
      on a capstan smoking Navy Cut.
      He is untipped, spits out what sticks to lip,
      an old tar peering through the haar.

That saltpetre-y iodine sniff lives up
his raspberry nose. It’s steeped his deckhand
wrists, blue-grey tattoos, his old salt’s
sea-boots, sun-faded first-mate’s cap.

Off watch. The sea-dog snoozes. The glint
of scattered fish-scales fades to grey
as if sea-mist has worn the horizon, washed
all that lies beyond it, far away.

      The old bull-frog tries the mouth-organ out,
      hornpiped on to the wheezing shanty of squeeze-box lungs:
somewhere a grasshopper rasps
      his one-string solo on a plywood violin.


SINFONÍA EN GRIS MAYOR

El mar como un vasto cristal azogado
refleja la lámina de un cielo de zinc;
lejanas bandadas de pájaros manchan
el fondo bruñido de pálido gris.

El sol como un vidrio redondo y opaco
con paso de enfermo camina al cenit;
el viento marino descansa en la sombra
teniendo de almohada su negro clarin.

Las ondas que mueven su vientre de plomo
debajo del muelle parecen gemir.
Sentado en un cable, fumando su pipa,
está un marinero pensando en las playas
de un vago, lejano, brumoso país.

Es viejo ese lobo. Tostaron su cara
los rayos de fuego del sol del Brasil;
los recios tifones del mar de la China
le han visto bebiendo su frasco de gin.

La espuma impregnada de yodo y salitre
ha tiempo conoce su roja nariz,
sus crespos cabellos, sus biceps de atleta,
su gorra de lona, su blusa de dril.

En medio de humo que forma el tabaco
ve el viejo el lejano, brumoso país,
adonde una tarde caliente y dorada
tendidas las velas partió el bergantín…

La siesta del trópico. El lobo se duerme.
Ya todo lo envuelve la gama del gris.
Parece que un suave y enorme esfumino
del curvo horizonte borrara el confín.

La siesta del trópico. La vieja cigarra
ensaya su ronca guitarra senil,
y el grillo preludia un solo monótono
en la única cuerda que está en su violín.

Symphony in Grey Major (literal translation)

The sea like a vast silvered mirror
reflects the sky like a sheet of zinc;
distant flocks of birds make stains
on the burnished pale grey background. 

The sun, like a round, opaque window
with an invalid’s steps climbs to the zenith;
the sea wind relaxes in the shade
using its black trumpet as a pillow. 

The waves that move their leaden bellies
seem to moan beneath the pier.
Sitting on a cable, smoking his pipe,
is a sailor thinking of the beaches
of a vague, distant, misty land. 

This sea-dog is old. The fiery beams
of Brazilian sun have tanned his face;
the wild typhoons of the China sea
have seen him drinking his bottle of gin. 

The iodine and saltpetre foam
long has known his ruddy nose,
his curly hair, athletic biceps,
his canvas cap, his blouse of drill.  

Surrounded by tobacco smoke
the old man sees the far off misty land
for which one hot and golden evening
his brig set out with all sails set … 

The siesta of the tropics. The sea-dog sleeps.
Now the shades of grey enfold him.
It is as if an enormous soft charcoal
rubbed out the lines of the horizon’s arc.  

The siesta of the tropics. The old cicada
tries out his senile, raucous guitar
and the cricket strikes up a monotonous solo
on the single string of his violin. 

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