12 February 2015

Poetry Thursday - "The waves, blue walls / of Africa" by Rafael Alberti

Africa seen from Spain (via)
‘The waves, blue walls/of Africa’ 

The waves, blue walls
of Africa, go and come back.

When they go . . .
Ah, to go with them!

Ah, to come back with them!
When they come back . . .

Rafael Alberti,  translated by Mark Strand (via)

Hitchhiking round Spain in the early 70s - after reading "As I walked out one midsummer morning" and other books by Laurie Lee, in which he writes about Algeciras and seeing Africa across the water - I longed to see it too, just a tiny edge of a great continent which I had enjoyed learning about in Grade 4. But it was not to be - though we were treated to a memorable lunch by the businessman who gave us a lift from Cadiz to Malaga and, my tongue loosened by a few glasses of win, were able to converse quite fluently in French (learning Spanish came later).

But the poem speaks of something else, especially in the context of the poet's life of exile.

Rafael Alberti Merello (1902 – 1999) is considered one of the greatest literary figures of the so-called Silver Age of Spanish Literature, and he won numerous prizes and awards. After the Spanish Civil War, he went into exile because of his Marxist beliefs, returning to Spain after the death of Franco. The best source of information on his early life, though vague in many details, is his memoir La Arboleda perdida (‘The Lost Grove’), published in 1959.

Born in Cadiz, he had Italian grandfathers in the sherry business, but bad management resulted in the bodegas being sold. The sense of belonging to a “bourgeois family now in decline” became an enduring theme in his mature poetry.

At the age of 10, he entered the Jesuit-run Colegio San Luis Gonzaga as a charity day-boy. A growing awareness of how differently the boarders were treated from the day-boys, together with the other ranking systems operated by the Jesuits, inspired in him a desire to rebel. In his memoirs, he attributes it to growing class conflict. He began to play truant and defy the school authorities and was expelled in 1917, just as the family was moving to Madrid.

Alberti was interested in painting, and in Madrid he again neglected his formal studies, preferring to spend his time copying paintings and sculptures, entering the artistic world of the capital as a painter. It was the deaths in 1920 in quick succession of his father, the matador Joselito, and Benito Pérez Galdós that inspired him to write poetry. Recuperation from tuberculosis gave him the chance to read widely; turning to writing poetry in earnest, in 1924 he won his first poetry prize.Sobre los ángeles (‘Concerning the Angels’, 1929), a book that showed a complete change of direction in the poetry of not only Alberti, but also the whole Generation of '27 group, is generally considered his masterpiece.

He and his wife, the writer and political activist María Teresa León, spent the years of exile in Paris, Argentina, and Rome, returning to Cadiz in 1977.

Read more of Rafael Alberti's poems here, and more about his life and poetry here.

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