From Unknown to Unknown is a selection of eighty poems by Manuel Rivas in Jonathan Dunne’s English translation. The poems are taken from the Galician book Do descoñecido ao descoñecido, which contains the author’s collected poems from 1980 to 2003, a total of six poetry books and some recent poems. In 2009, the author brought out a further collection, The Disappearance of Snow, which was published in English by Shearsman Books. Manuel Rivas is Galicia’s most international author. Much of his fiction has appeared in English, and three films have been made of his work (Butterfly’s Tongue, The Carpenter’s Pencil, All Is Silence).

Introduction by John Burnside

There are those who will tell you that beauty in poetry is out of fashion. Of course, the notion of beauty is odd in itself, especially for those readers who set out to mistake a certain variety of self-limitation for tact, and to see the weary diffidence of the poet who has nothing very interesting to say as a brand of superior irony. It is also the case that this odd beauty is impossible to define; indeed, it can seem that the only way to talk about it is in the negative – we can say, for example, that beauty is neither prettiness nor mere elegance and that, whatever its relationship to ‘truth’, the claim that ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’, suggestive as it might be, is really nothing more than the statement of a tautology. Of course, talking about it may be the very problem: perhaps all we can do is look at the way in which Marianne Moore, say, or Eugenio Montale rediscover language in their poems, or the way in which Rosalía de Castro or Carlos Drummond de Andrade rediscover the world we take for granted, and leave it at that.

No direct comparisons are intended here, but it does seem to me that this process of discovery is central to Manuel Rivas’ poems. Again and again, as we listen to the account he gives of the world, we come across the beautiful surprise, the breathtaking renewal of some process or way of seeing we normally take for granted:

They would write letters
with honey and biscuit dawns
and postcards would arrive showing red trams,
watercolour gardens,
cotton poodles
and an absurdly happy couple on Westminster Bridge.

(Widows of the Living)

The revelations in these poems – a revelation that is at once a surprise and a reaffirmation of something known long ago but since un-remembered, like a childhood romance – the discovery – in the old sense of the word – may come from the juxtaposition of the accepted clichés of happiness or beauty and some lyric gift that arrives out of the blue, like those ‘honey and biscuit dawns’, or it may arise in a single image of extraordinary power and economy, as in the poem ‘Country Suicide’:

And then there are the earth’s dead,
elegant on the branches,
hanging serenely from the dawn on the apple trees,
with their eyes of snow,
like old birds that couldn’t emigrate.

Or it may originate in a playful celebration of language, married to a sudden shock of painful or ironic recognition, as in ‘Practical Guide’, where a hymn to the cultivar names of tree fruits – Granny Smith, Jersey Mac, Williams’ Bon Chrétien – ends with the lines:

May the blackbird,
gorged on cherry,
sing a purple song
in the arms of Schneider’s Noire.
I lost
the one they called the Beauty,
the most stolen apple in Galicia’s orchards.
Only the worm of splendour is left:
the memory of a forbidden laugh.

It is an enormous privilege to have this selection of poems in this attentive and imaginative translation: a privilege and a revelation in itself of the lyric brilliance of a writer that most English-speaking readers have only encountered before now in his novels and stories. Here, we have work from three decades by a poet of enormous range and real emotional and intellectual daring. Rivas is a poet who understands pain and dread, as well as pleasure and our strange longing not only to be happy but to communicate our happiness, and he is willing to take any risk in the pursuit of his vision – even the risk of making something beautiful, or of saying what he knows to be true without hedging his bets:

Fear, real fear,
comes when the extraterrestrials are
intelligent men
who give themselves away
because they don’t have tears
and don’t appreciate bitter tastes
such as wine.


Here is a poet who never exercises control for its own sake, but does so in order to accommodate and sustain his passion. His formal concerns arise from a need to make something that is both crafted and spontaneous, artful and immediate. Here, in short, is an essential poet whose work illuminates the world and the condition of those who live it:

The neon shone
with the memory of a river
between the paving-stones.
The kisses were long.
The trams and boats
got lost in them.
What was the message?
Lima Oscar Victor Echo
Lima Oscar Victor Echo

(One Missed Call)


John Burnside

Additional Info

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    FROM UNKNOWN TO UNKNOWN by Manuel Rivas is available for purchase through your local or online bookshop

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    From Unknown to Unknown simply cries out to be altogether known in every possible meaning of the word. The translation is clearly exemplary, while the poems themselves are politically thought provoking as well as socially eloquent in equal measure.

    David Marx Book Reviews


    ISBN: 978-954-384-068-7

    Publication Date: 02 April 2009 (24 June 2017)

    Language: English

    Paperback: 128 pages

    Dimensions: 216 x 140 mm