‘The Silent Letter’ – Jaume Subirana (tr. Christopher Whyte)

In my last post about Antonio Gamoneda’s ‘Book of the Cold’ (tr. Katherine M. Hedden & Victor Rodríguez Núñez) I quoted one of the translators, who wrote: “Spanish American poets who refuse to follow the conventions of how U.S Americans want them to write as a way to disrupt the neocolonialist unidirectional circulation of ideas”, let’s extend that idea to Catalan poets.

Fum d’Etampa Press, a recent arrival on the independent publishing scene, specialises in Catalonian literature. In the introduction to the novel ‘Wild Horses’ by Jordi Cussà (tr. Tiago Miller) there is a short explanation of the history of Catalan writing in the last century:

When Franco and his fellow rebels won the Civil War, they did everything they could to outlaw the Catalan language, which was made illegal in books, schools, the cinema, the theatre, as well as on transport tickets, remembrance cards, advertisements, road signs, tombstones and so forth. These strict prohibitions were partially lifted in the 1960’s and a new generation of writers began to emerge, although one of them (Joan Sales) wrote to another (Mercè Rodoreda), the fact that not a single news item or review could be published about any Catalan language book meant that there were all, so to speak, sent to Coventry, unable to re-enter the mainstream they had been happily swimming in before Franco’s victory.

Although poet Jaume Subirana was born in 1963 (in Barcelona) the impact of the language restrictions bleeds through into his collection of poems ‘The Silent Letter (tr. Christopher Whyte). As the “Acknowledgements” section advises these poems were written in places far from Catalonia such as Connecticut, Venice, and Wales. This feeling of being in “exile” from Barcelona was something I noted very early on in my reading of this collection. An exile from a culture that’s been restricted.

This book is presented in both Catalan and English and is made up of forty-two short poems, only one (‘Jonah by the Garonne’) is longer than one page.


Escaping from the island
trains whistle through the night:
carrying to the mainland
tiny lights, on the causeway
their voices alternating
at regular intervals
with the water taxis.
At night I think of trains
full up at the platform
waiting to depart
until I fall asleep,
little lights of meaning.
When they return they’re empty,
a long rope in the darkness
clattering in the silence,
clattering towards me.

As journalist Jordi Galves points out in a short essay at the end of the collection, titled “Viva Nova”;

I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that Subirana’s poetry dares to search out common sense and meaning in the midst of the experience, in the intimate biography steadily shedding itself of all unnecessary things until blossoming into an unexpected collection of visual, revolutionary Joan Brossa-esque poems. Visual because they cry out to be interpreted beyond the immediate obvious. A poetry as experimental as any other, as doubting as any other, but that sketches out a specific drawing, a slice of meaning, provisional comprehension, a harvest from within the fog.

As the above poem shows, there’s an “immediate obvious”, a recollection of packed trains, departing lights and them returning empty, however there’s also the silence, the escape and then the alienation.

Many of the poems capture this pensive regret:


Catching cold, night’s tyre slows down at the crossroads.

The breathing of the small hours gradually weakens, they congeal
progressively in this mineral silence of the trees, assuming the
disguise of snow, like a present delivered, left in offering to the
folds of dawn.

So much snow. Give thanks. You’ll have had the privilege of
spending a wakeful night with it, and when your eyes open, to-
morrow, months later, even the memory of it will have melted.

Now, today, all around you, a white sheet covered in frost.

And there are poems about poetry:


What strange, absurd matter you are, poetry:
revealing in detail the darkness of the soul
unable to tell the colour of the sea’s patina
growing solid in her eyes when afternoon comes.

As in the ‘Book of the Cold’, this collection is full of dark and unsettling images, nothing that you can anchor to, strange visions coming as you turn each page and read the few lines, the natural world meeting the imagined, the dreamlike landscapes of something slipping away.

The shipwreck is our greatest teacher, advising us to retire voluntarily from any lengthening of life before it’s too late, to definitively unlearn the certainty of death. In the intensity of ignorance, the oblivion of the moment, we feel eternal and pure, a little like animals not knowing they are to die. (Jordi Galves ‘Vita Nova’ – end word).

There is also a play on numbers and the number of letters in each word, as in the poem ‘Five Letters (Aubade)’:

Your finger on my lips,
the palm of your hand
wasting time on my back,
the pain, this pain with which
the night exhales itself
not wanting tomorrow’s
letters to reach an end.

My lips say “index”
the hand goes its way
explores impenitent
the river bank of now:
we’re this, we are a moment.
All I want to breathe
five letters and one night.

A love poem, the hand on the back, the exploring hand, and “night”, “index”, “night” five letters. Leads us back to “crying out to be interpreted beyond the immediate obvious”.

A collection that feels as though it’s playing on the edges, one where you read and then re-read the poem and have two different meanings, a focus on the here and now with this dark shadow of a foreboding future somewhere in your peripheral vision.

My copy is courtesy of my subscription to Fum d”estampa Press.


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