Transformada: Noche Oscura del Alma (Dark Night of the Soul)

“Poems that changed me” is a fairly broad and amorphous phrase. And it sounds hopelessly idealistic. I remember on my first day of grad school, my literary theory prof asked each of us why we were there. Everyone had very intellectual, jargon-y answers, and then I said something like “I think literature can tell us more about who we are, maybe make us better.” He paused after everyone’s answers and said I was the only person to talk about literature like it was personal. I still don’t know if that was intended as an insult (my guess is yes, that I was being tagged as the naif). Either way, that belief survived grad school, unlike much of my self-esteem and a good portion of my liver.

Earlier, in undergrad, my first Spanish class was Golden Age Literature. This pre-internet class involved almost nightly trips to the library to look up words in the DRAE, as required by our professor. (Walking to another building to use a reference book: sigh.) I worked hard, and I focused a lot on just doing things right. But then we got to San Juan de la Cruz.

“Noche Oscura del Alma” was the first poem in Spanish that utterly blew me to pieces, that chiseled past mere comprehension. I could hear the beauty of every single line, the soft love in “amada en el Amado transformada.” I felt the ecstasy of mysticism, spoken to me in poetry–in a language that I was still learning. The message of it was life-changing: What do we need to do to be ready for what might never happen? How do we wait through the horrible dark? Even in finishing the poem, I alternate between believing I can survive my own long dark night–how old am I now?–and a sort of brutal certainty that it just won’t end. I think every time I write, I’m walking through de la Cruz’ garden, seeking.

And I realized something about translation–it inevitably fails. Of course there are great translations, and brilliant translators at work, but ultimately it’s a doomed task because each word in each language holds its own power. Sound, appearance, connotation, even the space it takes on a page. I’m including a translation because the poem is still powerful in English. But I’d also encourage anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish to go to Youtube and find a recording of a native speaker reading this piece, just to hear the explosive beauty, the crescendo, the ascent of the poem.


Noche oscura del alma

En una noche oscura,
con ansias en amores inflamada
¡oh dichosa ventura!
salí sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

A oscuras y segura,
por la secreta escala, disfrazada,
¡oh dichosa ventura!
a oscuras y en celada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

En la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me veía,
ni yo miraba cosa,
sin otra luz y guía
sino la que en el corazón ardía.

Aquesta me guiaba
más cierto que la luz del mediodía
a donde me esperaba
quien yo bien me sabía,
en parte donde nadie parecía.

¡Oh noche, que guiaste!
¡Oh noche amable más que la alborada!
¡Oh noche que juntaste
Amado con amada
amada en el Amado transformada!

En mi pecho florido,
que entero para él solo se guardaba,
allí quedó dormido,
y yo le regalaba,
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.

El aire de la almena,
cuando yo sus cabellos esparcía,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello hería,
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.

Quedé y olvidéme,
el rostro recliné sobre el Amado;
cesó todo, y dejéme,
dejando mi cuidado
entre las azucenas olvidado.


Dark Night of the Soul
translated by Eric Rosenbloom

In a dark night,
With longings fired in love
— O happy fate! —
I went unnoticed,
While my house was calm.

In darkness, certain,
By disguised and secret ladder
— O happy fate! —
In darkness, concealed,
While my house was calm.

In happy night,
In secret, that nobody saw me,
Nor I anything,
No light and guide
But what in my heart was burning.

It guided me
More surely than the midday light
To where he waited,
Who well I knew,
There where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more kind than break of day!
O night that joined
Love with love,
Love in her lover transformed!

On my flowering breast
All kept for him alone —
Left sleeping there —
And I gave myself,
And the cedars gave the air their smell.

The scent of his brow
When I spread his hair,
His calm hand
Hard on my neck,
And all my senses suspended.

I lost myself,
I lay my face against my love,
Everything stopped,
My cares were left
Between the lilies all forgotten.

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