Poetry Analysis: "Punishments" by Rafael Alberti

Rafael Alberti, born in 1901 was a Spanish poet and member of the avante garde group the Generation of '27. Alberti wrote the poem “Punishments” as an articulation of the Spanish Civil War. The poem is contained within metaphor and imagery, and expresses the loss of innocence, the crumbling hope of Spain's youth within the breakdown of society, and the destruction of culture and ways of life in war-time Spain.

In the opening lines of the poem, we see a juxtaposition of earthly concerns against the heavens, or air, dreams, and the subconscious. The poem begins with the line “It is when gulfs and bays of blood/.” This line refers not only to the terrestrial world itself, but is an articulation, or poetic witness, of earthly horror. The poem continues, "clotted with dead and vengeful stars,/ flood into my dreams.” The terrestrial is “clotted” with the celestial, which in turn invades the unconscious. “When gulf and bays of blood/” the poem reiterates, “capsize the beds that were sailing,” we see that there is no respite even in dreams, no peaceful slumber, no retreat from the events of the world.


Jose Caballero - Illustration for Laureados de Espana, 1940
Jose Caballero - Illustration for Laureados de Espana, 1940

The Elusive "It"

There is an immediacy to the words, heightened by the fact that the poem’s initial statement “It is when” is never really completed. We do not learn what the “it” is, only that it is important enough to “capsize” the beds of dreamers. “It” is apocalyptic in scope, as “it” is “when the winds reek of brimstone.” “It” is evocative of torture as “mouths by night taste of bone, glass and wire.”

While the “it” is not named, “it” is still important enough to make the narrator beseech his reader at the end of every stanza “Hear me.” There is also an important sense of the temporal present here, “It is when” serves to anchor the stanza into a specific time, a time that the narrator is crying out to articulate, to share, to serve as a poet of witness.


Punishments

It is when gulfs and bays of blood,

clotted with dead and vengeful stars,

flood into my dreams.

When gulfs and bays of blood

capsize the beds that were sailing,

and, on the world's right, an angel dies forgotten.

When the winds reek of brimstone

and mouths by night taste of bone, glass, and wire.

Hear me.

I did not know that doors moved from place to place,

that souls could blush for their bodies,

nor that at the end of a tunnel, the light would bring death.

Hear me yet.

An Untrustworthy Reality

The second stanza of the poem moves backwards in time, to a sense of innocence that has been lost, a fragmentation between past and present self. “I did not know that doors moved from place to place,/ that souls could blush for their bodies/.”

Before the horror that is unfolding in the first stanza, was a lack of awareness on the part of the narrator that such event could happen. Before the events of “It is when,” a door opened onto something that was to be expected. Now there is a familiarity of surroundings that is eroding, an untrustworthy reality.

Before it would be unimaginable that something so grievous could happen to the body that would serve to shake or shame the soul, to cause it to “blush,” but now this is not only a possibility but a reality. As final testament to the loss of innocence is now an awareness of mortality, “that at the end of a tunnel, the light would bring death.” “Hear me yet,” says the narrator, there is more to come.

The sleepers want to run away.

But those graves of the sea are not still,

those graves which open through neglect and weariness of the sky are not stable,

and the dawns stumble upon disfigured faces.

Hear me yet. There's still more.


There are nights when the hours turn to stone in space,

when veins do not flow

and when the silences raise up centuries and gods to come.

A thunderbolt shuffles tongues and jumbles words.

The World of the Present

The third stanza comes back to the present, “The sleepers want to run away.” There is desire to escape, it has become to much to bear, yet there is no safe haven. If the horror that pervades the dream is of the earth, life, then the sea represents the realm of respite, escape into death.

“But those graves of the sea are not still,” writes Alberti. The events that are transpiring are a complete breakdown of the surrounding world, which is not limited to earth, but includes heaven, angels, the dead.

In the fourth stanza we see more of this idea of the very fabric of society crumbling. Time “turns to stone in space,” becomes at once hardened, unchanging, yet infinite.

“Veins do not flow,” the very coursing of blood, of life-force in the veins is not happening. “Silences raise up centuries and gods to come,” yet all the more important that we as readers do indeed “hear” the narrator yet.

Think of the shattered spheres,

of the dry orbits of the uninhabited men,

of the dumb millennia.

More, more yet. Hear me.


You can see that bodies are not where they were,

that the moon is growing cold through being stared at,

and that a child's crying deforms the constellations.

Mildewed skies corrode our desert brows,

where each minute buries its nameless corpse.

Hear me, hear me for the last time.

Impact and Effect

The fifth stanza moves to the effect on the people of all this chaos and destruction. They have become a “dumb millennia,” vacuous, empty shells, “uninhabited men.” A loss of the soul, a numbing is the effect of so much bloodshed, of loss of all that is familiar. It asks the listener not just to hear, but to think for the first time.

The sixth has a cautionary note to it, as if, if the narrator’s plea is not heeded, then these events impact will have far-reaching impact. Just as the sky has reflected onto the earth in the earlier stanzas of the poem, heightening the intensity, the importance of the words, so now is the poem reflecting back onto the sky.

“A child’s crying deforms the constellations,” now we learn that there is only so much pain and suffering that the world/universe can take without making an indelible impact upon it. “Hear me, hear me for the last time,” says the narrator. This is the last call for help, the last attempt at deliverance as his world crumbles, before the void of space crashes onto earth leaving behind a “skeleton of nothingness.”

For there's always a last time that follows the fall of the high wasteland,

the advent of the cold in forgetful dreams,

and death's headlong stoops upon the skeleton of nothingness.

Trans. Geoffrey Connell

Bearing Witness

Alberti possesses a strong appeal to be heard and believed, an indestructible need to bear witness, though the fragmented landscape of the poetry, the fragmented self, the ruin of heaven and earth betray an environment that is destructible indeed. His poem tumbles from image to image as if in dreaming, time and space again become altered.

Alberti is explicit in his word choice, “blood,” “disfigured faces,” “deforms,” “corrodes,” “skeletal,” evocative of the horrors of war, creating a poetry of witness that resembles more of a nightmare than a dream. This is the effect of trauma, he shows us rather than tells, a scar upon the psyche, which in turn impacts the world, and the poem.

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