Although Otero did not customarily write love poetry unmarred by the dark thoughts connected with one or another of his compulsive searches, he was not reluctant to name names, and he identifies in his poems a significant number of women important to him. In his earliest poems, he treats the desired woman as a virginal symbol and his potential union with her as a union of body and soul: “Mademoiselle Isabel,” apparently his teacher of French as an adolescent, with her carnation-colored breasts and rose-colored body; “Little Porcelain Jar,” who smelled of hyacinth; “La Monse” reclining in a field of yellow flowers. A special case is Tachia, nickname of Conchita Quintana, who, little more than a teenager when she befriended Otero, then in his thirties, gave the poet some of the happiest moments of his life. In fact, it was Tachia who helped the poet to realize the futility of his marathon bout with God, and it was she who invited him to concern himself instead with the brotherhood of humankind: “You said: Entwine your grief with mine,/ like a long and jubilant tress;/ immerse your dreams in my kind; push aside/ your thirst for God. My kingdom is of this world.”
In later poems, this ethereal love becomes tainted by the tantalizing pain caused by the body of a woman, and Otero’s imagery becomes less dainty: The poet lifts the warm skirts of one woman to find a shadow, fear, and a “silent hole,” and he writes cheerlessly of the impoverished Laura, who has a “little accordion/ between her legs.” In the relatively late “La palmatoria de cobre” (“the copper ferule”), Otero avails himself of the appellation “sister,” borrowed from the biblical Song of Solomon to address the consoling female subject of his poem. The consolation of love with women, however, is not enough to provide the poet with a permanent distraction from his Weltschmerz. In fact, one of the only times he speaks of women generically is in the form of a savage diatribe, where women are characterized as “Cunning, calculating, liars/ lily-white in public, notorious with their masks.”
Otero destroyed hundreds of early poems, or so he claims in “Es a la inmensa mayoría” (to the immense majority). His attempts to maintain his faith in God after the horrors of the Spanish Civil War are the theme of his first published work, Cántico espiritual (spiritual canticle), written in homage to Saint John of the Cross on the occasion of the fourth centenary of his birth (1942). These homage poems, which establish the relationship of God and man as the product of a violent meditation (“I moan and clamor for You like a sin”), Otero never allowed to be reprinted, and in comparison to his later poems, they seem rather less spontaneous.
Ángel fieramente humano
For the next eight years, Otero published in the Basque literary magazine Egan and began to acquire a following. In 1950, Ángel fieramente humano appeared, dedicated to the “immense majority” and bringing into sharper focus Otero’s personal quarrel with God and his conception of the vacancy and loneliness to which man is subjected in this life. The Existentialism of these poems recalls SØren Kierkegaard; Otero’s views during this period were influenced by discussions among the young Basque intellectuals connected with Egan. Otero speaks of the terrible silence of God, a silence made to seem even more terrible in the wake of the unnecessary killing (twenty-three million, by Otero’s count) in World War II. When the poet raises his hand, God, clearly the angry God of the Old Testament rather than the loving Jesus of the New, lops it off; when he raises his eyes toward God, God gouges them out. If man is an angel in the image of God, then his wings are like chains. Nevertheless, there are still to be found in this work vestiges of Otero’s deep religious feeling, as in “Salmo por el hombre de hoy” (“Psalm for the Man of Today”), written as a prayer: “Raise us, O Lord, above death./ Extend and sustain our gaze/ so that it can learn henceforth to see You.”
Redoble de consciencia
Otero’s next collection, Redoble de consciencia, was devoted to the same theme and written mainly in free verse. The lament of Job that he was ever born serves as the epigraph of the sonnet “Tierra” (land), and St. John’s observation that the soft hand of God can weigh heavily on the soul of man, serves to introduce “Déjame” (leave me). In the latter poem, Otero, equal in pride to God who made him, reaches the point of wishing he could kill God as God kills man; a godless abyss without hope is thus preferable to an abyss reigned over by an oppressive God who tantalizes with a hope that is unattainable.
Pido la paz y la palabra
In Pido la paz y la palabra, Otero, heeding the advice of Tachia, devoted himself to the working class in poems which J. M. Cohen has called monotonous in their anger. Such apparently...