The tree of Gernika is no metaphor but a real tree – or series of trees – grown over the centuries in the town of Gernika in northern Spain, known to most of the world as Guernica. The tree represents the centuries-old traditions of the Basques. You may know Guernica from Pablo Picasso’s haunting 1937 painting of the same name. Picasso’s inspiration was the fascist terror-bombing of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. 

Noted 19th century Basque poet and troubador Joxe Mari Iparragirre had been dead for 56 years at the time of the Guernica bombing. The first English-language translation of his work had to wait until 2020. “The Tree of Gernika” (“Gernikako Arbola”), featuring translations by Wyoming poet David Romtvedt, was published by the Center for Basque Studies Press at the University of Nevada. 

Romtvedt’s book is just the beginning of a series featuring work from a language whose origins still baffle linguists. The side-by-side translation is a favorite of English speakers like me who never bothered to learn another language but are interested in the look and cadence of languages. Language, after all, is an art form, its creation a solely human enterprise.

A good thing about a book from a university-based press: it carries the stamp of academic rigor. It also usually features a foreword, translator’s notes and a bibliography. Without the notes, how would we know that abarkak are traditional Basque footwear made from a single piece of leather or that foruzaleak are the ancient laws that governed Basque Country? Language nerds revel in such arcana and store them away in memory banks for crossword puzzles. 

In his foreword, Romtvedt describes Iparragirre as a “poet, balladeer, guitarist, actor, former monarchist turned revolutionary seeker of freedom.” The teenage poet found himself on the losing side in the Spanish Civil War of the 1830s and fled the country for Germany, Italy and France where, as The Basque Singer, he performed wherever he could gather a crowd. During the 1848 French Revolution, he and thousands of others manned the Paris barricades. When he returned to Spain, he was thrown out of the country for being a “subversive.”

Pardoned years later, he returned to Spain and garnered a reputation as a street singer and poet. He began to perform “Gernikako Arbola” and it didn’t take long for the authorities to fear some of the not-so-subtle references:

“My dear children

I will not fall—my

leaves are green

my roots new.

But if I call, be

ready to drive

our enemies

from me.”

This got him tossed out of his homeland again. He lived abroad for more than two decades, spending some of that time as a sheepherder in Uruguay. He finally returned to Spain in 1877, leaving his family behind. The wandering poet recalls his emotions as he stood on a French hillside looking south to Basque Country:

I’m in Hendaia – ecstatic

Eyes wide open, Spain

In sight — no better place

In all of Europe

He returned a broken man, however. Reception to his performances was lukewarm and he died four years later, his contributions to Basque literature almost forgotten in the wider world. 

Until now.

David Romtvedt. (Courtesy)

Romtvedt was a vagabond poet himself as a writer in residence at the Ucross Foundation outside Buffalo. He met a local potter, Margo Brown, member of a large family of Big Horn Mountain Basques, many of whom came to the wilds of Wyoming to tend sheep. They married and established a partnership that included buying a home on main street and establishing Brown’s gallery in downtown Buffalo along the banks of Clear Creek. Romtvedt continued his poetic ways, eventually becoming Wyoming Poet Laureate and a professor emeritus in the University of Wyoming Creative Writing Program. He may have had the longest commute of any UW faculty member, 676 round-trip highway miles, although he didn’t drive it every day.

Romtvedt, his wife, musician daughter and bandmates traveled many thousands of miles around the West as The Fireants, performing a wide range of songs with Cajun, Cuban, Brazilian and Spanish roots. They perform Basque songs, too, some based on the poetry from the region including that of Iparrigirre. When he first started singing them, Romtvedt was new to the language. So he did what any curious writer would do — traveled to Basque country to learn it.

“The Tree of Gernika” is one of the byproducts of his trips. He also can sing the songs and recite the poems of the Basques. 

Romtvedt, too, knows what it means to be an exile from his homeplace. He grew up in Oregon and Arizona. When his father forbade him to attend college, he left home in Arizona and hit the road to Reed College in Portland and then to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. He spent many years finding a place to call home. 

Much of his poetry is based in Wyoming, the details of lifestyle and landscape. Here’s the opening lines from Romtvedt’s “Fixing Fence,” which he read for state legislators during his time as poet laureate. 

Nobody I know loves fixing fence,
setting creosoted posts into ground
hard as rock, stretching barbed wire taut
to sing in rising wind and burning sun.
In the fall when hunters come
it’s worse, wind-drifted snow, gates
left open and wire cut.

Iparragirre, too, wrote lovingly of his homeland, the place (Spain) that had banished him for decades. Some lines from “Back to the Land I Love:”

over there the beloved mountains

the rolling fields

the sparkling white farmhouses

the streams and springs.

Iparragirre’s unabashed love for Basque Country may seem a bit quaint to us jaded post-modernists of the 21stt century. It is endearing to see a man sing so loud and so proud about his native land. It often is tinged with sorrow. When the poet speaks about Basque Country (Euskal Herria, Euskadi, Euskalerria), he is referring to a region whose history predates the formation of Spain and France. The struggle for autonomy and the Basque way of life goes back centuries. Some of what he writes is meaningful today. This from “Let’s Not Lose Euskara:”

Today we see our

beloved language 

disappearing. All

these fine Basques

don’t seem to notice.

*****

We’re losing our way

losing Euskara. Go on

like this and in a hundred

years we’ll lose ourselves.

Basque poems are designed to be accompanied by guitar and sometimes by accordion. Romtvedt recites “If My Mother Knew” in Basque and English and sings in Basque and plays accordion for Iparrigirre’s long poem, “My Return to My Beloved Homeland” on YouTube. As Romtvedt says as he introduces the latter piece, “there are many poems on this theme.”

The trade paperback of “The Tree of Gernika” is available online through basquebooks.com or through your local bookstore. 

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Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Michael Shay

Michael Shay’s book of short stories, The Weight of a Body, was published by Ghost Road Press in 2006. His fiction and essays have appeared in Flash Fiction Review, Silver Birch Press, Northern Lights,...

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  1. I’m deeply grateful to Mike Shay, Studio Wyoming, and WyoFile for giving attention to my translations of the poetry and songs of Joxe Mari Iparragirre. I write to offer two corrections. The first is that the Picasso painting Guernica commemorates the Nazi bombing of Gernika in the Basque province of Bizkaia. The second is that when Iparragirre returned from South America he stood on a hill in Hendaia–in the Northern Basque Country–looking down into the Southern Basque Country. The northern part of the the Basque Country is currently governed by France while the south is occupied by Spain. The problem of who governs whom on the Iberian Peninsula is devilish indeed. One of the verses in the Basque song “Math Problems” asks “How many governments does the Basque Country have?” The song’s narrator answers, ‘If it had half as many as it does, it’d have twice as many as it needs. Thanks again to Mike Shay, Studio Wyoming, and WyoFile for this review.