Machado on paths

Robert Bly translates “Soledades,” the first collection of poems by the celebrated Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), as “Times Alone.” The literal meaning of “soledades” is “solitudes,” which does sound awkward in English. Times alone are instances of solitude. They are, superficially, times when one is alone, but Machado is writing memories, dreams, images, symbols, sentiments. The totality of the poems evokes solitude, but individually they are solitudes, not simply times or moments alone.

The images of solitude in Machado are universal. In Japanese poetry, the wistful sense of wabi-sabi is especially revealed by seasonal images combined with the poet’s precise reflection upon them. In Machado, the images are everywhere: raindrops across windowpanes, children’s voices on a distant street, the stolid eyes of a mule, a long and solitary corridor, the scent of jasmine, a ruined old house, the flight of a stork, a black and gnarled tree against the horizon.

Less evocative and more philosophical, perhaps, are Machado’s poems about paths or roads. In “Campos de Castilla” (“Countryside of Castile”) he writes (these are my translations, not Bly’s):

All things pass away and all things remain,
but our task is to pass on,
to go on making paths,
paths over the sea.

Thus our road, our path, is not so distinct, so proud, as to even be distinguishable in time. We make a path over water, over the sea, and nothing is noticed.

In another poem of this collection, Machado writes

To die … To fall like a drop
of the sea into an immense ocean?
Or to be what I have never been:
one without shadow or dream,
a solitary who goes on
without a path and without a mirror?

What is death and dissolution: is it the image of dissolution or union? And what remains of our shadow and our dream, which has always been our own all along? What a sense of solitude to lose even these ephemeral aspects of ourselves?

But in his anthology, Bly omitted the famous but not-yet-overly-familiar Machado poem about paths. Here is the wonderful translation by Betty Jean Craig of poem 29 of “Proverbs and songs” in Machado’s “Countryside of Castile.”

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path
that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road —
Only wakes upon the sea.