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LITERATURE 21st-century poetry

'History as error and correction': collections from Marcos Ana and Paul Mills

THE SPANISH communist poet Marcos Ana (1920-2016) was Spain’s longest-serving political prisoner. Captured by Italian troops at the end of the civil war, he spent the next 23 years in Franco’s prisons, often in solitary confinement.

In prison Ana started writing poems, which were smuggled out and published as Poemas desde la Carcel (Poems from Prison, 1960).  They were written “...in the depth of night, by the poor light of a peculiar lamp, assembled from an old inkwell, a little alcohol that I smuggled from the sick bay and a wick plaited from the lace of an espadrille.

“Afterwards when eyes and keys were waking up, I would hide my words in a shoe and while walking in the prison yard, on a circular path that led nowhere, I would memorise the poems, giving them form and harmony.”

Following an international campaign led by Pablo Neruda, Rafael Alberti, Jean-Paul Sartre, Yves Montand and Pablo Picasso, Ana was eventually released in 1961. Che Guevara was carrying one of Ana’s books when he was executed.

Beautifully translated by David Duncombe, Poems from Prison and Life (Smokestack Books, £8.99) is the first English edition of Ana’s last book, published when he was 91 and written in order to “open a path of fire and rebellion in the hearts and minds of the new generations, in whose furrows we have sown our history.”  

Clear, musical and compelling, these are painful studies of loneliness and claustrophobia in a fascist prison. “My sin is terrible;/I wanted to fill the heart/of mankind with stars./For that, here behind bars,/in nineteen winters/I lost my springtimes.”

Writing about his incarceration was for Ana a way of writing about the imprisonment of his country: “The earth is not a sphere;/it is a square yard/where men walk round/beneath a sky of tin./
I dreamed that the world/was a sphere, spectacular,/wrapped in the sky,/with cities and fields/in peace, with wheat and kisses,/with rivers, hills and wide/open seas, navigated /
by hearts and ships./But the world is an enclosed yard/(a yard paced around/by men without space).”

After more than two decades in prison he wrote, “Tell me what a woman’s kiss/is like. Give me the name/for Love: I can’t recall it./Are the nights still perfumed/with lovers trembling/with passion beneath the moon?”

But running through the whole collection is a defiant belief in the eventual liberation of Spain and the world: “I do not ask for clemency./I hand out banners./I pass from hand to hand the beaten/heart of my imprisoned people.”

Paul Mills’s Nomad (Smokestack £7.99) is a book about time — geological, mythic, historical and familial. It begins with the memory of reading a child’s illustrated history in the 1950s: “Mary facing the block with scaffold composure/Queen Jane blindfold over straw/the gunpowder plot conspirators/And when did you last see your father?... history as error and correction.”

By contrast, ordinary life seemed always to be spent in “a time and place without events... we lived in a semi in a cul-de-sac/in the middle of Cheshire in the fifties/the co-op by the railway bridge sold Hovis/my father umpired the second eleven/I was in the church choir we got a dog/my mother’s rice puddings were awful.”

The book connects these two kinds of history by following the long journey from a pre-human world to the Gates of Grief. It tells a story of antler-bone spears, virgin forests, stone-tools, hand-prints on rock, ancestors and grandchildren.

Nomad is a book about learning to use technology to survive the natural world without destroying it. Above all, it’s about people together, the importance of art and story-making, of compassion and empathy,“from hunter-killers of the Cretaceous/to open branches in the Channel Islands/who you are is always when and where.”

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