by Craig Epplin “A simultaneity of inconsolable co-existences”: this is the way Charles Bernstein has described American culture. A plural America, ultimately the Americas. Plural because of its continent-spanning reach and plural, also, because its past is always present. The horizon is never just a thin gray line dividing ocean from sky. It’s also a jagged relief of trees and mountains and water towers. Even the purest of horizons waxes, wanes, and occasionally softens with the play of light. Our future, the future of Americans north and south and, really, of everyone else too, lies on that intermittent horizon. That horizon is the future, founded on the past. And thus, a military raid captures and kills Osama bin Laden, and its codename is Operation Geronimo. A Native American leader, metonym of a history of resistance against imperial fantasies, resurfaces in an ill-conceived conflation of narratives. And thus also, the Argentine 100-peso bill commemorates, on its flipside, the “Conquest of the Desert,” the military offensive against indigenous peoples that consolidated the nineteenth-century nation state. An extermination campaign as the official story. What country in the Americas doesn’t have such a past? And which of these pasts doesn’t continually rear its head, unexpectedly, in the most varied contexts? This is why our co-existences are inconsolable. And what is true of the Americas holds true for every place. Spain, for example. This simple insight lies at the heart of Nathalie Handal’s brilliant new volume of poetry, Poet in Andalucía. In it, her eye abolishes time, combing all pasts into the resonant folds of the present. I feel close to death tonight. I just saw the poets of the Golden Ages and those of ‘27, there was no time between them— They speak to her and through her, these poets, across history: Luis de Góngora and Garcilaso de la Vega, bookends of the Spanish Golden Age; Rafael Alberti and Federico García Lorca, standard bearers of modern Spanish verse. They tell her to drink and sing and also that “illusion creates history,” perhaps because it is the illusion of leaving the past behind that allows us to name it as such. The conversation she imagines runs contrary to illusion, then, just as it re-stages another conversation, one that happened in Seville in 1927 when a group of poets gathered there in celebration of the 300th anniversary of Góngora’s death. Alberti and Lorca were among the group, henceforth canonized as the Generation of 27. They brought Góngora into their present, just as Handal brings them into our own. And she brings one of them, in particular, to the fore: Lorca. Her Poet in Andalucía is a recreation, in reverse, of his posthumously published Poet en New York. Her own introductory remarks sketch out the way we might read her geographic negative. Lorca left as part of his legacy a longing for homeland. My own longing stretches across four continents, due to a life made exilic by the political turmoil in the Middle East. His poems are about discovering a lost self. The poems in this collection confront that same loss, and resonate with that same yearning for a sustaining place. Poet in New York is about social injustice and somber love, and the quality of otherness such forces produce. Poet in Andalucía explores the persistent tragedy of otherness but it also acknowledges a refusal to remain in that stark darkness, and it searches for the possibility of human coexistence. Longing for a place: this is why both titles situate their poets geographically. Loss of self: this is why both collections alternate so visibly among subject positions. Otherness and its reverberations: this is why both poets fixate so much on things and the symbolic forces they channel (and on words as things, especially in Handal’s poems). There are certainly other points of contact between the two, but I’ll just name one: both poets understand the “simultaneity of inconsolable co-existences” that makes up human (and indeed, nonhuman) history. For example, in Poet in New York we read lines like these: It isn’t foreign to the dance this columbarium that yellows the eyes. From the sphinx to the vault there is a tense thread that pierces the heart of all poor children. The primitive drive dances with the mechanical drive, ignorant in their frenzy of original light. From the pharaohs to the titans of Wall Street “there is a tense thread”: history doesn’t repeat itself, as in a spiral, but is rather stitched in a complex of threads, some of which are more tightly spun than others. And those threads are not static. They dance, present and past holding hands. If I had to imagine Lorca’s vision spread out in space it would take the form of a sparsely woven cloth flapping in the wind, some parts of it stained with blood, others reflecting light. Lorca’s mode is frequently that of an accusal. When he reveals the ties that bind present and past, he also seeks to uncover the violence of that binding. And thus the poem titled “Office and Denunciation” begins with these lines: Under the multiplications there is a drop of duck’s blood. Under the divisions there is a drop of sailor’s blood. Under the sums, a river of tender blood; He mentions the death of a human, but he’s really concerned with the animals, as we see later on in that same poem: Every day in New York they slaughter four million ducks, five million pigs, two thousand doves for the pleasure of the dying, a million cows, a million lambs, and two million roosters that leave the sky in splinters. The pain of violent animal death underlies the balance-sheet arithmetic of slaughterhouse administration. This subterranean truth is brought to light in these verses. * Cruelty buttresses civilization; the past inheres in the present. Both formulations repeat the modernist trope, running from Marx to Freud to Debord, of a truth, an awful and awesome truth, that is concealed from our everyday perception, whether through a fetish or through the sound and fury of the spectacle. In Poet in Andalucía, the question is refracted through the lens of language itself. And thus the collection’s title keeps the Spanish “Andalucía” instead of the Anglophone “Andalusia.” The title bears the trace of its own past, its peripatetic origins. And thus too the first poem in the collection is titled “Ojalá,” left in Spanish, a Spanish word that comes to us from the Arabic “Insha’allah”: God-willing, or in lay terms, let’s hope. In the almost eight centuries of Arab occupation of at least part of the Iberian peninsula, thousands of words filtered into the local languages. Handal captures something of this history in the Qit’as presented here, each of which bears the title of a Spanish word of Arabic origin, each of them explicated below the short poem. The truth of the Spanish language is the truth of its hybridity. It, like all languages, is a mestizo tongue. That affirmation has its own history, and it is a history of repression. If Arab-occupied Iberia was a motley pot of Jewish, Arabic, and Latinate cultures (among others), post-“Reconquest” Spain was marked by its intolerance. This was the Spain of the Inquisition, the Spain that expelled its Jewish population in 1492, and a little over a century later the Moriscos (Muslim converts to Christianity) as well. A version of this purity-fixated Spain resurfaced under the government of Francisco Franco (1939-75), when manifestations of linguistic and cultural diversity were persecuted. Handal is sensitive to this past when she writes, for example, in a poem significantly titled “La Guerra” (“War”), You said: After the bomb, I held a comrade’s arm, listened to Radio Cadena Española, and looked at the moon. The bodies weren’t moving. I went closer— we must remember what we looked like once, a country cut in half. And that metaphor of splitting, of one half running up against another, divided by a tenuous border, recurs in her collection. For instance the Qit’a titled “Acitara” (“Wall”): Can the sky recover after a bombing, can a house break into two cities, and secrets hold the wall between two bodies? Tell me, what are borders? The violent past of a nation divided (the idea of the “two Spains” is a constant trope in the country’s essayistic tradition), here acquires poetic weight. And yet, as she herself marks out in the prologue, the collection seeks a path beyond division and alienation: toward the possibility of coexistence, to use her word (and Bernstein’s). And thus the book’s eighth section is titled “Convivencia” (“Coexistence”). How can we live together? Through the intimacy of touch, the section seems to suggest, given the number of sensual, bodily scenes. Perhaps this is a recognition of our shared embodied nature, and the capacity of our bodies to feel pain, weight, touch, and arousal. Recognition of this simple truth lies at the origin of life in common. The politics of that shared life is also an erotics. That question, how can we live together, runs throughout Nathalie Handal’s Poet in Andalucía. I see in it a very American (in the broad sense of the Americas) problem, but this is certainly short-sighted. It owes, I assume, to the simple fact that I live in the Americas, two continents or one where our languages are marked by the violence of conquest and the struggle for coexistence. But this is the story of all humans, at least I think so. And this is why Poet in Andalucía—about Spain, about the Middle East, about shared destinies and hopes—touches me deeply: it reminds us of what’s inconsolable, of what’s multiple, of what’s irreducible, and what’s simultaneous.
by Catherine Fletcher From her first collection, Nathalie Handal’s poetic language has been a personal patois of English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. Her poetry has explored and fused images and sounds, moments real and imagined from her many lives in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, and Palestine. As both critics and fellow poets including Tom Paulin and Lisa Suhair Majaj have noted, Handal’s work reflects a life in motion, of permanent transience in the Dominican Republic, France, the United Kingdom, or her own memory—“C’est comme cela, tout change habibti”. As she has moved, she has depicted her encounters with “betrayed souls”, fortune tellers, soldiers, immigrants, gods and prophets, named and unnamed lovers. She has traveled between the past and the present, living with ghosts in many forms, exploring the borders and spaces which separate people and the forces which draw us to one another but, as Carolyn Forché has noted, “It is a poetry of never arriving.” While alternating stylistically between the narrative—tinged by the Romantic tradition—and the slightly surreal, much of Handal’s work is also marked by various forms of fragmentation. She writes primarily in free verse, tending toward short lines rather than long, and frequently employs enjambment. In The Neverfield (1999), short interior ruminations stretch over some fifty pages and three sections with lines sometimes just a single word: “I,” “echo,” “lost”. Words and phrases resound: “come… come”; “give… give”; “the field never even sighed… in the neverfield”. In “Lives of Rain,” “In Search of Midnight,” and, below, “I Never Made It to Café Beirut; Nor, I Heard, Did You” from The Lives of Rain (2005) she takes seemingly straightforward narrative poems and fractures lines, fractures stanzas: You told me that I should wait at the Lebanese border. You told me not to fear the Hezbollah, the gunshots, the missiles or grenades, told me that I would not see the shadows of corpses in the stained grey clouds, would not see the refugees and the UN trucks waiting for God… Her 2010 collection, Love and Strange Horses, contains poetic collages like “Portraits and Truths” and “Love and Strange Horses—Elegía Erótica” (“A horse. A stranger. An Anthem. An impossible thereafter. / A lonely rift. A grove of trees. A touch. A cry. A murmur.”). Other more recent titles—“Black Butterflies, A Lost Tango”, “Here and There”—suggest the poet’s simultaneous presence and absence. Within poems from all three collections, she often deconstructs the bodies of her subjects into their parts and houses into their elements: doors, walls, and windows. In Poet in Andalucía, Handal places her poetic self in a single geographic area—southern Spain and northern Morocco—for the first time. A resident of New York, she in her own Preface writes that she had “consciously set to recreate Lorca’s journey in reverse”, spending nine months in the home region of the author of Poeta en Nueva York and writing a ten-part collection that mirrored his work. Many of the threads Handal has followed, juxtaposed and interweaved in previous works meet again here. Her opening poem “Ojalá” (“Hope”) marries history and the present, Islam and church bells in its first two stanzas: He holds on to the force that stretches the narrow light and finds himself somewhere behind history. He thinks, All we have left is to invent God, to find an infinite number to hope in, to touch the grounds of La Manquita, say Insha’allah, and wait for the church bells to remind us of who we have become. She continues, “There are different varieties of loss…” However, constrained by the Lorcan framework she has chosen for herself, the poet’s perspective shifts subtly, and several of her aforementioned motifs manifest themselves in new ways in this collection. Handal delves into fragmentation and wholeness in “10 Qit’as” (Arabic for “fragment”). These short forms were originally occasional poems with a single theme and less formal than ghazals (love poems) or qasidas (panegyric odes). A sort of decaptych in which the elements of individual poems dissolve into one another, this suite of poems often feels like pieces of Andalusian tile configured to create a pattern. In “Acitara” she questions the rupture of a whole into parts. In “Ajaraca” memories conjured by ornamental loops cause a house to reappear. “Ajimez”, named for a pair of windows which share a central column, juxtaposes the unexpected division of windows with the unexpected absence of a wall: We hesitated to see the bent, maybe we divided our windows to have a clearer view, we gave birth in languages not our own, we wanted to hang their photos but there were no walls. ajimez: mullioned window, from Arabic samis. One of the distinctive features of Islamic buildings in Spain, especially noticeable on minarets. Each qit’a is accompanied by an etymological note, revealing additional layers of meaning. While the bodies of the poems often focus on what can be destroyed or what has been lost, the notes focus on what remains, what is hiding in plain view. Handal’s Constelación en el Ateneo de Sevilla section operates similarly, with seven poems named for members of the Generation of ’27—an influential group of writers in post-war Spain—such as Rafael Alberti, José Bergamín, and Lorca himself. Each piece is complemented by a quotation by the titular writer, offering additional meaning to Handal’s lines; her Bergamín poem, for example, meditates on the nature of time and is accompanied by Bergamín’s statement: “No tengo más realidad que la irrealidad del tiempo.” (“The only reality I have is the unreality of time.”) And in “The Book of Toledo”, at the end of Convivencia, a series of poetic epigrams concerning war, home, loss, and prayer are illuminated by knowledge of their speakers, information which Handal includes as parentheticals. Also in Convivencia, “Two Ghazals Two Tzvis” brings together homages to the Andalusian Arabic ghazal and its cousin, the short, erotic Iberian Hebrew gazelle or tzvi, under a title which means, in Spanish, “living together”. Each poem, a series of couplets, has a distinctive flavor— “Ghazal/1” is more abstract like the independent couplets of classical versions, riffing on music and the heart, while “Tzvi /1” is more narrative (like its Hebrew counterpart), describing a charged moment in which two potential lovers meet as a bucket spills water onto wet tiles. “Ghazal/2” continues with the musical theme but with greater narrativity, while “Tzvi/2” is the reverse of “Tzvi/1”, and more abstract. The quartet refracts different aspects of the same theme: how to hold onto moments of beauty, how—after even the briefest encounter—we belong to one another. And how we don’t. If your heart is not mine, the kiss you placed on my neck is mine, the word you drew on the palm of my hand is mine, your touch, that afternoon on the banks, is mine, the continent you placed by the chariot is mine, but what about this paradise, who is it for? We knew we were both in it. We also knew, we can’t lose a paradise we’ve seen. Derived from other Semitic languages—Aramaic and Ladino respectively—additional poems in this section examine who and what is inseparable—“Awón/Sin”—and what happens when departure occurs—“Abásho” (“below” or “departed”, also with the connotation of the dead). Elsewhere in Poet in Andalucía, the second section, Maktoûb, the Moor Said (named for the Arabic word for both destiny and letter), examines the failings of memory and different versions of home. Alleys and Reveries, particularly “On the Way to Jerez de la Frontera”, explores those things which we need to invent about ourselves—countries, flags—in order to have identities. By the Door, or Is It Death focuses on fate of a different sort, and The Poet Arrives in Tangier offers the mingling of cultures from yet another perspective, just across the Straits of Gibraltar. Non-English words appear throughout, but Handal’s use of them is tied to geography (French, for instance, does not appear until the reader arrives in Morocco), and this more formalistic use gives the work a greater sense of place than in previous collections. Perhaps the collection’s most intriguing poem is “Alhandal y las Murallas de Córdoba.” A meditation both on the etymology of the poet’s name and the source of identity, it is one of the few pieces in which Handal, a frequent visitor to the past, uses the future tense: I will be the well where water meets water. I will invent my own languages, images, streets and sins, my own walls and my own cities. I will be the two doors in the fading light, the echo that burns his lips, and the canvas that keeps the cry wet. With a sense of possibility, she continues to mine in greater depth today’s ever-present questions: “Who am I?” Where do I come from? than when she first noted in The Neverfield, “the name I carry,/the murmuring of my blood/that/is/my only claim/the only one that really matters…”. I find myself elsewhere especially everywhere here, but mostly in the ruins. I see myself in the stranger’s face, I hear my voice in hers— what language am I speaking, what am I wishing for, am I entering or exiting prayer or the alphabet? I dream what I must. The day you told me, Here is a bitter apple— that’s the meaning of your name— it will help you find the days that taught you who you are. She sifts through the Andalusian landscape, sifts through her memory, ponders her own future disappearance, investigates the appearance of her name on a Spanish announcement spelled in a way she had seen previously only in her native Bethlehem. In her journey she finds “things no one can take away”: “the taste of date on our tongue”, “the poems of the Sufis”, Córdoba’s legacy of tolerance, the Spanish language, orange trees, and her own name and its origins—the colocynth, a bitter medicinal plant used by Arab apothecaries. Handal’s work, so beautifully protean, has questioned and examined what can be lost: a country, languages, a missed rendezvous between lovers, the music of the earth. The transitory nature of life is common to the human experience—the bitter apple we all taste: so much of what we live and who we love just disappears… While Handal intended Poet in Andalucía to parallel Lorca’s Poeta in Nueva York, her work also shares common ground with his last collection, El Dívan del Tamarit, whose gacelas and casidas were a vehicle for him to re-imagine Andalucía and the cultural legacy of Al-Andalus. Lorca’s poems had the veil of death over them; love and sensuality ripple through Handal’s. Poet in Andalucía recasts southern Spain through Handal’s eyes, exploring impermanence but also possessing a sense of ojalá. Some things can and do endure. Everything we hear is the echo of a voice we can’t hear, everything we see the reflection of something we can’t see. The heart like a star gives light to the color blue, to the ruins of Córdoba. And by la Mezquita, by the walls I give you alhandal— to save you— and you say my name for me.
Poet in Andalucía by Nathalie Handal Federico García Lorca lived in Manhattan from 1929 to 1930, and the poetry he wrote about the city, Poet in New York, was posthumously published in 1940. Eighty years after Lorca’s sojourn in America, and myself a poet in New York of Middle Eastern as well as Mediterranean roots, I went to Spain to write Poet in Andalucía. I recreated Lorca’s journey in reverse. Andalucía has always been the place where racial, ethnic, and religious forces converge and contend, where Islamic, Judaic and Christian traditions remain a mirror of a past that is terrible and beautiful. Poet in Andalucía is a meditation on the past and the present. It renders in poetry a region that seems to hold the pulse of our earth, and where all of our stories assemble. It is a meditation on what has changed and what insists on remaining the same, on the mysteries that trouble and intrigue us, and on a poet who continues to call us to question what makes us human. Poet in New York is about social injustice and somber love, and the quality of otherness such forces produce. Poet in Andalucía explores the persistent tragedy of otherness but it also acknowledges a refusal to remain in that stark darkness, and it searches for the possibility of human coexistence. Nathalie Handal, photographed by Ram Devineni. excerpt from Seven Stars in Sevilla December ‘27 1. Rafael Alberti ¿Adónde el Paraíso, sombra, tú que has estado? Pregunta con sílencio? You rest your voice on the white roofs. I rest my eyes on the ports where I saw my grandmother once. She thought it was Tripoli. We are in Cádiz. You stand at the bottom of the night with the rain. I stand under the lightning not too far away. You dismantle summer to find your feet. I take the day apart to find a compass. You tell me we must accept the sun now. So I stay behind. I keep the heat. You pass the streets, the cars, the women, you even pass your heart. The sailors prepare to float away, and you ask them to describe water, look at the roofs, and the time you touched the tears on your face and kept them from falling — the ground wants everything. That was then. Now, there is only one sentence in your head — where is that place? 6. José Bergamín No tengo más realidad que la irrealidad del tiempo. This last drum. This last train. This last hour. Last warning. This is history. A thousand feet pacing a country, voices ripping up the winter sky, an obsession at the edge of a world and there, a decision — you either believe in it or you don’t. That’s the trouble with time — the only way out of it is in. *In December 1927, a tribute was held in the Ateneo de Sevilla to mark the 300th anniversary of the death of the Baroque poet Luis de Góngora y Argote. Rafael Alberti, Gerardo Diego, Juan Chabas, Dámaso Alonso, Jorge Guillén, Jose Bergamin, and Federico García Lorca traveled together by train to Sevilla. They became known as el siete de la fama, otherwise known at the generation of ‘27. There were two poets missing on the trip: Pedro Salinas and Vicente Aleixandre. The other poets who joined the seven poets in the Ateneo and also considered part of the generation of ‘27 were Luis Cernuda, Fernando Villalón, Rafael Laffón, Adriano del Valle, and Joaquín Romero Murube. The patron of the trip and of this celebration of Góngora was the famous bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías (elegized by Lorca in “Llanto por la muerte de Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” / “Lament for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías”). These poets were not the only ones considered as the generation of ’27; among many others were Manuel Altolaguirre and Emilio Prados. Convivencia Two Ghazals Two Tzvis Ghazal /1 Sometimes music presses its ache against the mirrors so that a thousand windows can find a heart. On the terrace of wild jasmines, we see a sky cut into pieces, and we bow to keep the small clouds in the heart. The fog hides one hundred violins in the groves of our childhood, but under the palm tree, our breath continues to grow the heart. In the withering garden of daybreak, we starve to translate grief, at the end of a well, ghosts sculpt water into hearts. Night comes so that you can come so that the wet jasmines can stay wet and the voice can bend to listen to the soft wave at the bottom of the cup. Tzvi /1 The light covers the stairs she sees her reflection on the wet floor she sees his they stare at each other and their shadows tell them get out fast, leave, forget this is forbidden and then a bucket of water washes their faces from the tiles he sees her nipples under her shirt and she the ripples of water moving over his feet — a country never ends. Ghazal /2 Under the secret part of desire, an albérchigo— It’s there I see the opening of a scarf of concerto He starts with cero and ends with solo I saw his face once, he stood inside, outside an algarazo, now diwans are piled up in front of the window to keep his last echo On the balcony, one forgotten azulejo — when I look closer, I see our faces trapped, yes, it’s that photo At the dark corner of the zoco we hide letters in the back of a radio Tzvi / 2 Eight hundred years of love — we can’t be strangers now. We are here to allow the other to be here. There is a sea beyond the sea. But who is watching us when we make love? If your heart is not mine, the kiss you placed on my neck is mine, the word you drew on the palm of my hand is mine, your touch, that afternoon on the banks, is mine, the continents you placed by the chariot is mine, but what about this paradise, who is it for? We knew we were both in it. We also knew, we can’t lose a paradise we’ve seen. *Convivencia in Spanish means coexistence. The Spanish convivencia describes the time when Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in relative harmony in Islamic Spain. There are numerous debates surrounding notions of tolerance in al-Andalus during the Middle Ages. However, one cannot deny the rich and prosperous cultural and artistic life that existed during that period—a life that these communities created together. As I was writing this section, Mahmoud Darwish’s words kept echoing: “Andalus… might be here or there, or anywhere… a meeting place of strangers in the project of building human culture… It is not only that there was a Jewish-Muslim coexistence, but that the fates of the two people were similar… Al-Andalus for me is the realization of the dream of the poem.” In Arabic, ghazal refers to a poem dealing with the theme of love, whether long, medium, short, verse, prose, etc. The Hebrew equivalent of the ghazal is the tzvi / tzviyah, ya’ala or ofer, also means a roe/gazelle (Song of Songs 4:5 – Thy two breasts like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies). The proper Hebrew term would be shirei heshek (which literally means poems of desire). Ghazal 2: This ghazal is inspired by Lorca’s “Ghazal VII—Ghazal of the Memory of Love,” were all lines end with o. Additionally, I wanted to alternate between a Spanish and an English word that ends with o. Albérchigo means a clingstone apricot or peach, from the Andalusi Arabic albershiq; Cero or zero, from sifr of the same meaning; Algarazo means a short rainstorm, from the Arabic algazeer or heavy rain; Diwan is a collection of poetry (Arabic, Persian or Urdu); Azulejo means bluish, from the Arabic word zullayj; is a form of Portuguese or Spanish painted, glazed, tilework; Zoco or azogue means market, from the Arabic souk with the same meaning. Abásho Tell me what I should do so when I awake I see only the strands of your hair. Tell me what I should do so the songs don’t break the cellar in the room. Tell me what I should do to keep silence out of our way. Tell me what I should do to keep the sun out of your coat, to find a way to obey the wind to find the pomegranate on the other side of the revolution There is a moth, there is a flame too — desire is just another illusion. Tell me, below — is there a cathedral in the sea? I turn on the only straight street in my body and discover, when we depart, a confession rises in the bottom drawer. *Abásho means what’s below or the departed in Ladino. Ladino, also called Judeo-Spanish, is a Romance language derived from late medieval Spanish with elements of Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, Aramaic, French, Italian, and Greek (written using the Hebrew alphabet). It was spoken by Sephardic Jews in the former Ottoman Empire. Today, Ladino is nearly extinct and those who speak it are mostly in Israel. Only one high school in Jerusalem has a Ladino language program, and there is little new literature being produced in the language. It is similar to modern Spanish in the same way that Yiddish is similar to modern German. excerpt from Seven Stars in Sevilla December ‘27 1. Rafael Alberti ¿Adónde el Paraíso, sombra, tú que has estado? Pregunta con sílencio? You rest your voice on the white roofs. I rest my eyes on the ports where I saw my grandmother once. She thought it was Tripoli. We are in Cádiz. You stand at the bottom of the night with the rain. I stand under the lightning not too far away. You dismantle summer to find your feet. I take the day apart to find a compass. You tell me we must accept the sun now. So I stay behind. I keep the heat. You pass the streets, the cars, the women, you even pass your heart. The sailors prepare to float away, and you ask them to describe water, look at the roofs, and the time you touched the tears on your face and kept them from falling — the ground wants everything. That was then. Now, there is only one sentence in your head — where is that place? 6. José Bergamín No tengo más realidad que la irrealidad del tiempo. This last drum. This last train. This last hour. Last warning. This is history. A thousand feet pacing a country, voices ripping up the winter sky, an obsession at the edge of a world and there, a decision — you either believe in it or you don’t. That’s the trouble with time — the only way out of it is in. *In December 1927, a tribute was held in the Ateneo de Sevilla to mark the 300th anniversary of the death of the Baroque poet Luis de Góngora y Argote. Rafael Alberti, Gerardo Diego, Juan Chabas, Dámaso Alonso, Jorge Guillén, Jose Bergamin, and Federico García Lorca traveled together by train to Sevilla. They became known as el siete de la fama, otherwise known at the generation of ‘27. There were two poets missing on the trip: Pedro Salinas and Vicente Aleixandre. The other poets who joined the seven poets in the Ateneo and also considered part of the generation of ‘27 were Luis Cernuda, Fernando Villalón, Rafael Laffón, Adriano del Valle, and Joaquín Romero Murube. The patron of the trip and of this celebration of Góngora was the famous bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías (elegized by Lorca in “Llanto por la muerte de Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” / “Lament for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías”). These poets were not the only ones considered as the generation of ’27; among many others were Manuel Altolaguirre and Emilio Prados. 10 Qit’as *Qit’a means fragment. It is a short poem in the Arabic tradition, up to ten or twenty lines in English, which tends to concentrate on a single subject or theme. It is thought to have “broken off” from a longer poetic form, the qasida. Statistics vary concerning the percentage of Spanish words that derive from the Arabic—anywhere between 5 to 20 percent. Acitara Can the sky recover after a bombing, can a house break into two cities, and secrets hold the wall between two bodies? Tell me, what are borders? acitara: wall, from the Arabic sitarah, which means curtain. Alfanje History is nothing more than the smell of dew in our bones but even dew hurts when it enters the heart, even dragonflies know what’s unholy, even a child scatters his hurt to keep what’s dead alive in the mirror — yes, somewhere another crime is being committed. alfanje: backsword with curved blade, from Arabic, al-khinjar, which means dagger. Ajimez We hesitated to see the bent, maybe we divided our windows to have a clearer view, we gave birth in languages not our own, we wanted to hang their photos but there were no walls. ajimez: mullioned window, from Arabic samis. One of the distinctive features of Islamic buildings in Spain, especially noticeable on minarets. Ajaraca Every loop a memory: a field of lavender mist, an ebony door, an attic of white marbles, wearing identical shoes, suddenly, a house comes back. ajaraca: ornamental loop in Andalusian and Arabic architecture, from Andalusi Arabic Ash-sharakah. Zaga Don’t be distracted by the young boy you once were— look, something is moving in the opposite direction. zaga: rear, from Arabic saqah. Aduar If shadows crowd only one side of the road, they say, the street is broken and death can’t cross a broken street. aduar: Bedouin or gypsy settlement, from Bedouin Arabic duwwar. Adafina He said: A heart that contains ash contains only ash. adafina: stew which the Spanish Jews used to place on glowing embers on Friday evening to eat on the Sabbath, from Arabic dafina, which means buried or covered. Ahorría When we hesitate salt rises from the water ahorría: barrenness or freedom, from Arabic al-hurriya. Noria It’s better to drown than to miss water— confessions can’t handle thirst. noria: water wheel or ferris wheel, from Arabic na’urah. Alafia The doors are shut now— the ghosts sit upright. alafia: pardon or mercy, from Andalusi Arabic al afya, from Classical Arabic afiyah, health.
Selected poems from Imaginary Enemy (original: Inimigo Imaginário) By Fabrício Carpinejar, translated by Johnny Lorenz. I Told You So My father warned me: “If a dog comes toward you, keep perfectly still.” This is how I am with bees and dogs: I never proved the theory, confused as I get when trying to differentiate the approach from the attack, the honey from the growling, the wicked from the wonderful. Eu Avisei Meu pai alertava: “Se o cão avançar, permaneça parado”. Sou assim com abelhas e cachorros. Nunca provei a teoria, confuso que fico ao diferenciar o ataque do passeio, o mel do latido, o mal do maravilhoso. Cataguases, Brazil The hat of rain tears out the hairs of the house. Birds and roof tiles fly off. The television searches for a socket in the nearest tree. The toys left around the patio are hopeless fish. I don’t ask for more rain for the harvest. I know water can be violent, vindictive, poisonous. It takes what wasn’t bought and wastes what hasn’t been used. Soon it’s no longer holy water; it’s a blade without an edge, muddy, sloppily wrecking wood, causing filth to climb from the sewer. Don’t tell me water is pure. It doesn’t use a spoon, it doesn’t have an eyebrow to raise, it pulls children around by their shirts, it pulls the fibers from a rope. Don’t tell me water is well-mannered. It lies down like a slut, calls me to the corner, blackmails me, wants to ruin my marriage. Don’t call water tame. It doesn’t give second chances, it leaves tracks on the floor, it tramples mirrors. The dark cloud, a wall full of frameless pictures. Please understand, what the rain does is not done in anger, but I’ll forgive it. Everything I’ve done I would do again and again. The rain hurts in my bones like too much laughter. Cataguases O chapéu da chuva arranca os cabelos da casa. Voam aves e telhas. A televisão procura tomada na árvore mais perto. Os brinquedos são peixes desesperados pelo pátio. Não peço mais chuva para colheita. Sei que a água pode ser violenta, vingativa, peçonhenta. Toma o que ainda não foi comprado, gasta o que não foi usado. Logo não é água benta, é lâmina sem fio, barrenta. que corta a madeira de modo mais porco, provoca a sujeira a subir do esgoto. Não me diga que a água é pura. Não usa colher, não tem sobrancelhas, puxa os filhos pela roupa, os fios de qualquer estopa. Não venha me dizer que a água é educada, deita como uma puta, me chama para um canto, chantageia o casamento. Não venha pregar que a água é mansa, não dá segunda chance, deixa rastros no assoalho, pisa no espelho. A parede é uma nuvem escura com seus quadros, sem moldura. Entenda, não é por raiva, mas vou perdoá-la. Farei tudo de novo e de novo. A chuva dói nos ossos. Como um riso exagerado. Appliances The garage was a room to gather things no longer of any use. A museum of what the house was two decades before, if anyone could remember. There reigned a cabinet of abandoned toys, far from care, already hostile and intractable. Insects escaped from webs and entered the empty eyes of a doll; I allowed this to happen. I brought my ear close to the chest of the doll and rejoiced in the noise of imprisoned wings, a lung suddenly invented. Aparelhos A garagem era um quarto coletivo das coisas que não mais prestavam. Um museu do que seria a casa de duas décadas atrás; caso alguém pudesse lembrar. Reinava uma estante de brinquedos abandonados, distantes dos cuidados, já hostis e intratáveis. Os insetos escapavam das teias e entravam pelos olhos vazios da boneca; eu permitia. Aproximava a audição dos seios, Festejava o barulho das asas presas, aquele pulmão subitamente inventado. Street Curb I give thanks to the bird that sighted land where everyone else including me saw only stones. Meio-Fio Agradeço a ave que viu terra onde todos, inclusive eu, enxergavam pedras. Neighborhood I can see that I’m depressed, soulless, a tablecloth hanging on the clothesline, when I reach for the butter to give to an empty chair. Vizinhança Percebo que estou deprimido, desalmado, toalha de mesa no varal, quando alcanço a manteiga para uma cadeira vaga. From the Cradle I am an inherited uncertainty. My parents were unsure about my baptism; they divided up my personality. They wanted a Francisco. They decided on Francisco. I went six months in the womb being called Chico, a nickname for Francisco, for Francis, the saint of Assisi. A strong name, a name that makes you think of birds, the name of an aristocrat. And who says I didn’t hear my name? I responded with nausea, kicks, pinches, impossible gluttony. I adopted the echo of the patio, the handwriting of the fence, home cooking, warnings to be careful out in the street. At the final moment, when I was about to be born, my father had been reading The Charterhouse of Parma and abruptly switched my name to Fabrício. My mother didn’t resist, she was busy with her contractions, worried about her low blood pressure. The coming out. The arrival. The beginning. Stendhal is my stepfather, my comfort. I was born a character, a fiction from the very beginning, a promise, someone to read. My cousin is the one who snatched up the word, the one who received the name Francisco. But he died of cancer, in a lot of pain, at the age of three. Even today I believe that death was mine. Do Berço Sou uma incerteza herdada. Os pais ficaram em dúvida com o batismo, dividiram minha personalidade. Queriam Francisco. Decidiram Francisco. Durei seis meses no ventre sendo chamado de Chico. Nome de santo, de Assis. Nome forte, de ave, de aristocrata. Quem diz que não ouvi? Respondia com enjôos, chutes, apertos, gula impossível. Adotei de pronto o eco de pátio, a caligrafia da cerca, de comida caseira, cuidado com a rua. Na última hora, no parto, o pai lia Cartuxa de Parma e trocou no susto para Fabrício. A mãe não relutou com as dilatações, cuidou do batimento caindo. Saindo. Vindo. O início. Stendhal é meu padrasto, minha paz. Nasci como personagem, ficção desde a origem, promessa de leitura. Meu primo é que arrebatou a palavra, recebeu a lavra de Francisco. Mas morreu de câncer aos três anos, dolorido. Ainda hoje penso que aquela morte era minha. Tombstone The stone slabs of the patio invigorate. In so much sunshine, my dog sniffs and breathes at the same time. Campa A laje é refrescante. Entre tanto sol, meu cachorro cheira e respira ao mesmo tempo. Christmas Any needy child will still remember his brother when receiving a gift. Not me, trained to hold on to things, taught to isolate myself, to shut my room, to protect my secrets. Don’t lend me poverty. I’m capable of never returning it. Natal Qualquer menino carente lembrará do irmão ao receber um presente. Eu não, treinado a guardar, educado a isolar, fechar o quarto, proteger segredos. Não me empreste a pobreza. Sou capaz de nunca devolvê-la.
The Wicked and the Wonderful A glimpse into Brazilian poet Fabricio Carpinejar’s new book, Inimigo Imaginário, translated by Johnny Lorenz, and selected translations from previous collections by Craig Epplin. Accompanied by all original poems in Portuguese. Poems about the weather, animals and plants, the family, death and language: Fabrício Carpinejar’s poetic universe ranges from the concrete to the ineffable. A leading voice in Brazilian poetry, he has won ample recognition in his own country and abroad. Reading his poems, one gets the impression of entering into unlivable rooms, a world of repentance and small, singular consolations. It is our pleasure to publish here a selection of poems from his newest work (Inimigo imaginário), translated by Johnny Lorenz, as well as new renditions of poems from previous collections. Before Being a Book (original: Antes de ser um livro, 2001) By Fabrício Carpinejar, translated by Craig Epplin. I learned to turn knobs by opening a book. I learned to part my hair by combing its insides. The tracts I’d underline with a pencil are the letters I left for my family. I remember that remembering still persists in me. I had to use a pocket-knife to unseal the pages. The unopened work spoke the absence of reading, and I felt pity seeing it repentant in the dust. I’d open it leaf by leaf, like one who peels fruit. The sum of letters flowing, rolls of the eye descending everywhere. No brakes on the velocity of my eyes. The book imitated a bus; to stop reading abruptly was like getting off at the wrong stop. Even today I don’t know whether imagination is my memory. I have the impression that in my childhood home there were no walls, only shelves. Each book was a fan standing in the bleachers. A fan waiting to be noticed. Rooting for our lives to bear fruit. Making well honed plays, asking for a sub, raising joys. I remember that remembering still persists in me. I can say that the first neighborhood I died in was Dante’s Divine Comedy. Doré’s figures seemed so light next to that inferno. I know by heart the circles and hierarchy of sins. When uncomfortable, I’d use Dantesque precepts to designate a sentence. I cast out so many people from hell that I’m repentant. The book moved by touch, commotion. As with a polygraph, my breath was corrupted by the smell of new paper. When I discovered the Porto Alegre Book Fair, I didn’t understand. From one day to the next, the tents had sprung up. That surprised my solitude, like roots that suddenly raise the sidewalk. Writers circulated like country folk, their faces vulnerable, disguising the pride of a dust jacket, back cover and preface. I remember that remembering still persists in me. I know the ritual of opening the windows slowly, the brochures on the table. I live the poem directly, without intermediaries. Poems from As Solas do Sol (1998) By Fabrício Carpinejar, translated by Craig Epplin. First Hill – Poem 8 I recognized the age of the face by the hurried smoke of the plain - she made grow, devious, a snake that hardens its skin at the thrust of a knife. Primeira Colina – Poema 8 Reconheci a antigüidade do rosto pela fumaça apressada do prado - ela encorpava, ardilosa, uma cobra que endurece o couro na estocada da faca. Eighth Hill – Poem 1 The unripe oranges, burned-out lamps, floated in the patio’s drain like halted juice, away from electricity. Oitava Colina – Poema 1 As laranjas prematuras, lâmpadas queimadas, boiavam no esgoto do pátio, com o suco parado, isoladas da eletricidade. Ninth Hill – Poem 3 Life loved death more than it had left to die. Nona Colina – Poema 3 A vida amou a morte mais do que havia para morrer. Poem from Biografia de uma árvore (2002) By Fabrício Carpinejar, translated by Craig Epplin. Ears of Dew In eternity, no one’s judged eternal. On this stopover, here, I think I’ll last beyond my years, will have another chance at winning back what I left undone. If forgiving is forgetting, the worst awaits: I’ll be forgotten when redeemed. Don’t forgive me, God. Don’t forget me. Forgetting never freed a hostage. Clarity won’t repeat. Life bursts forth just once. Fire’s a nut not cracked by hands. Voice from fire, that only grows if flung. No way back after burning on high. I was thrown so early into the ashes. We react on our way back. When I made my way to your encounter, I risked shortcuts and unknown alleys. I thought I’d leave through the entrance. Coming back, I don’t contrive. My conversion comes through fear, praying and kneeling before the revolver, without turning: is it a toy or is it real? Wind traces a curve. I do not rummage through my pockets, paste and consciousness, no brusque gesture of the guitar, the science of a mark and the trigger rolling close to the drum of my teeth. Poured into God, I join my waste. I’ll lead you astray in the act of naming Better to retreat into silence. We sing in chorus like animals of the dark. The eyelashes didn’t sprout. Missing plantings in our mouths, vegetation in our nails, impressions and herbs on our chests. We beg grave and sharp, spasms and wonder, composing corner like the night. To sing brings no relief, but to ring the bells beyond our weight, remembering the summit of doves. We are smoke and wax, mud and tile, mist and helm. Winter invented us. It matters not whether I hear you or if you explode my ears of dew: does he die whom I cannot converse? I’ll be isolated and reduced, a photograph emptied of dates. Family members will try to decipher who I was and the one who prospered from the legacy. I’ll be a stranger in the portrait of brilliant eyes on broken paper. I write to be rewritten. I wander in the warehouse of fog, tense, under the threat of the sun. I chew leaves, taste the air, the washed earth. After I die, all can be read. I see steps even in flight. Your violence is sweetness. No waterfall is deeper than the one that can’t be chosen, embitter the end of the line, be what’s left for later, what friends enumerate in newspaper obituaries, what inters and what withdraws, exiled, destroys the rose at the touch of the paleness of petals and candles, examining every fold and invasion of ivy among the veins, never adult enough to understand. Nothing natural about a natural death. Divorce from the body, tremble when securing your legs, grow comfortable in the finitude of a bed and lie down with the tumult of an empty tomb. Ouvidos De Orvalho Na eternidade, ninguém se julga eterno. Aqui, nesta estada, penso que vou durar além dos meus anos, que terei outra chance de reaver o que não fiz. Se perdoar é esquecer, me espera o pior: serei esquecido quando redimido. Não me perdoes, Deus. Não me esqueças. O esquecimento jamais devolve seus reféns. A claridade não se repete. A vida estala uma única vez. O fogo é uma noz que não se quebra com as mãos. A voz vem do fogo, que somente cresce se arremessado. Não há como recuar depois de arder alto. Fui lançado cedo demais às cinzas. Somos reacionários no trajeto de volta. Quando estava indo ao teu encontro, arrisquei atalhos e travessas desconhecidas. Acreditei que poderia sair pela entrada. Ao retornar, não improviso. Minha conversão é pelo medo, orando de joelhos diante do revólver, sem volver aos lados, na dúvida se é de brinquedo ou de verdade. O vento faz curva. Não mexo nos bolsos, na pasta e na consciência, nenhum gesto brusco de guitarra, a ciência de uma mira e o gatilho rodando próximo do tambor dos dentes. Derramado em Deus, junto meu desperdício. Vou te extraviando no ato de nomear. Melhor seria recuar no silêncio. Cantamos em coro como animais da escureza. Os cílios não germinaram. Falta plantio em nossas bocas, vegetação nas unhas, estampas e ervas no peito. Suplicamos graves e agudos, espasmos e espanto, compondo esquina com a noite. Cantar não é desabafo, mas puxar os sinos além do nosso peso, acordando a cúpula de pombas. Somos fumaça e cera, limo e telha, névoa e leme. O inverno nos inventou. Não importa se te escuto ou se explodes meus ouvidos de orvalho: morre aquilo que não posso conversar? Ficarei isolado e reduzido, uma fotografia esvaziada de datas. Os familiares tentarão decifrar quem fui e o que prosperou do legado. Haverei de ser um estranho no retrato de olhos vivos em papel velho. Escrevo para ser reescrito. Ando no armazém da neblina, tenso, sob ameaça do sol. Masco folhas, provando o ar, a terra lavada. Depois de morto, tudo pode ser lido. Vejo degraus até no vôo. Tua violência é a suavidade. Não há queda mais funda do que não ser o escolhido, amargar o fim da fila, ser o que fica para depois, o que enumera os amigos pelos obituários de jornal, o que enterra e se retrai no desterro, esfacela a rosa ao toque na palidez das pétalas e velas, vistoriando cada ruga e infiltração de heras entre as veias, nunca adulto para compreender. Não há nada de natural na morte natural. Divorciar-se do corpo, tremer ao segurar as pernas, acomodar-se no finito de uma cama e deitar com o tumulto que vem de um túmulo vazio.
THE HUNGER WALL Prague,1968 After walking to the bridge at Karlova, we found the river where at dusk the swans dipped their beaks into the falls for sanctuary. The trees closed in for shade. We gazed through willows to the opposite hill, a single light from a room growing thick with sadness. Solemn smoke now cooked the evening meal. We were just about to treat our hunger well when, out of sunlight, undeclared, a shaded mass of stone began to stretch its neck along the slope. It would scan the water for a quarter hour before the foliage rubbed its throat, some internal hunger now assuaged for only moments, then again, the impulse thumbed like whalebone on a drum. The poplars began to rustle. A hawk spiraling, like an aspen deep in chatter, betrayed its nest to block the sun. The dam below rose up to boulder water as if to show how easily wars are won. They feed the hunger wall, the waitress points, the fingers in her skirt rubbing coins her hands are shoring up to feed the past. I don’t want the poor to endure me, she says King Charles said to those he paid, as he watched their faces, building borders, hunger for a wall, as she faced the smoldering Vltava, watching hunger well. (from THE HUNGER WALL, Grove/Atlantic) A GOOD SKY I show you a good sky. It could hold a fleet of geese above a kite, sipping in a breeze, or foliate the wind with leaves of cherry wood and hedge. Look. It will blanket your sleep with mirrors of stars in the soft undressing of night. It will love you, solely, through the Venus dawn, rubbing your eyes awake a moment before the day’s light hangs its spars. I show you a good sky. It will rain its reflection on your one troubled eye, the one that blinks each time a hawk rants by. I am no one’s romantic. No. I am the sky’s shadow-wish writing this only to breathe its light. I show you a falling sun, passing like a lover, to be near you, allowing no star, no bulb on a corner lamp to possess you as you are. Look. Here I am, the sky’s moon down. I will shave a horizon out of peaks like none your memory has ever carved. I show you a good sky. Its broad blue ribbon will wrap its mind around your eyes’ imagination and tease you into smiles—- Now, be patient, let your grieving rest awhile. (from THE WORLD SHOULDERING I, Salmon Publishing, Ireland) RILKE ON THE CONVEYOR BELT AT LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL A rick of pages, it falls hardly noticed into motion, and down the track, unspined, it cycles time between a rucksack and laundry. A book no thicker than a wallet or a comb, it is the unworthy carry-on, newly bought, colliding with a carpetbag and steamer on the unlikely navigation into being where it’s not. Each passenger has watched it circle more than once, a bold intrusion into the archipelago of things familiar. There is no fixed point of concentration, no laughter, no elation when the eyes dissect the slow descent of baggage into orbit as if in taking up an armstrap, each handler slews a body to the spars of his shoulder. Had Rilke himself fallen, unbound, lying in united state, he would have passed unnoticed by the baggage check or porter who fail to think it odd or such a pity to tag him at the lost and found. How many miles had his words trespassed, how many cities, alive, unread among so many ports of authority, a gold leaf of art so grand in the pall of memory it gives the mind encouragement to survive. Unless, unsung like a soldier’s duffel, duty bound, fear spreads its tarp along the spine of language. Creation can end this way, abrupt and final, like travel to the ends of the world with no intent, or vision, but destination. (from LUSIONS, Grove/Atlantic) SHOULDERING THE WORLD When I was young and hurried and had no words to climb, but knew the trees on the wide lawn to shimmy and skin to scrape into soft bleedings, I would bucket down plums and black cherries for the scrolled batter my mother kneaded with her thumbs, each round pan a single flat globe of busty dough above the juiced pickings, and when, in season, Easter currants, flowing sap along the walnuts I had crushed, had laid their wintered wash of gravel on the tongue in so many freshly spun orbits, and given song to a mind deliciously green, only then had I learned the world was not with me as I thought it must, and had I noticed more the play of metal, rolling pin, spoon, and the shell cracker or the miniature tin wheel that crimped and beveled crust on the ledge of the pastry pan, I would have known what hard earning comes with pain for the work of the thing, that the play of one force on another, a roller flattening thin the skin of the matted flour or the nut cracked quick into splits of progeny, was the child’s first true act of tending each and every bruise the mind had buried like a thought with the hard hammer of memory on whose wide shoulder I carried the terror of all the world’s cruel anguish. (from THE WORLD SHOULDERING I, Salmon Publishing, Ireland) THE DALAI LAMA HIDES FROM THE WORLD FOR A DAY He hears the taut strings of Debussy honing wind in the walls he has dug into clay for closure. He has wept all morning on the prayer beads of ancestors who have visited, not in shape but in sounds calling up their rhythms, tin-canned like the sung soft hummings on the strings of a psaltery. He still hears the diphthong grinds of motor-bikes he has driven always in their cant of distance. In his sleep a voice echoes up a howl not unlike the bleats he has foraged on the foothills of Hlasa, but as persistent as a note nagging up a treble clef scale. It is the cry of a generation wailing through the song of terror. It is not his ear for hearing chaos in the perfect rounding of a circle that he suspects, but rather peace in the quiet of the mind’s reflection. He would sooner leave the world its pleasure in the seeds of tsampa than believe devoutly in the sophistry of eyes, that clarity is better seen through bifocals, and vision is sublime. For the sake of grieving, he can no longer keep his beat with the flute’s quick measure. It has come to hide its petty deception, the false harmony that it plays, romancing the cobra, hermetic, spooled in its box, coiling to hiss the long howl of a world away. (from THE WORLD SHOULDERING I, Salmon Publishing, Ireland) DROPPING FUEL OVER CHINA Let the engine’s loss of vowels begin. Grind the tooth’s blade, now the mind’s thin worm of denial through an ear phone. When the steward speaks, sweep the lone bone from the dinner plate and weep. The last meal is light. The silk the child down wind weaves in breath is worn. Weep for the imagination’s useless fire, how the moment’s fact loses what is prior, and for the coiling smoke along the wings, feed it water. The rotor, sleek as the Rolls a dream could ride in, has coughed its soul into your breathing, stuttering, losing weight. Death will visit you in a foreign state (from THE WORLD SHOULDERING I, Salmon Publishing, Ireland)
IF FOR EACH OF US a rope could swing us long and light across a widening trough of all that fails us in our lives, I would want to land upon the Isle of Echo, lush with repetition, green with being original in birth and twice the twin a wave might dance along the skerry. I would want a canyon tall for hawks to carry long the deep tattoo of voices on the air. I would want an ear to hear what words to read again to memory, what verse to carol, thoughts to root before the sparrow’s flight the mind has taken comes to rest on truth. I would want to hear a vowel repeat in consonance with alliteration’s frothy throat. And should the landing fail its footing, I would want to know what inspiration in shorter flight one syllable might repeat as in the swash the flat-stone makes to skip across the light in water or the voice a wind gives to birch and linden. I would want the distance to all understanding to narrow just enough to fail at failure. I would want a melody of chances to learn to love again what first I dreamed, free as wonder, soft as touch, and of all things simple to care again for them as much. (from TOO LONG A SOLITUDE, U. of Oklahoma Press)
Edited by Flávia Rocha For James Ragan, a poet’s ultimate commitment is what he calls “the nobility of conscience.” Tradition is to be carried generously, written and spoken. Poetry travels and makes an impression wherever it lands, an intimate, powerful one. It moves boldly, like the river in the imagistic poem “Hanger Wall” that James Ragan recited to the President of the Czech Republic and 500 guests in a castle in Prague, in 2008. And it moves gently like “a kite, sipping in a breeze,” daringly like the Everest quivering “into an avalanche of cloud,” wisely like the Dalai Lama’s prayer, and the “cry of a generation.” James Ragan’s lyrical, transient poetry reaches out. He likes to tell stories, keep photographs of all special moments and people he has read with and shaken hands in understanding. As an ambassador of poetry, he has traveled the world, has read at the United Nations, and for six head of state in Eastern Europe and Asia. In 1985, he read with Seamus Heaney, Robert Bly and Bob Dylan at the First International Poetry Festival in Moscow to an eager audience experiencing Perestroika for the first time. But it’s at home, with his family, that his poetry reveals yet another – tender – layer of consciousness. The videos that accompany the poems presented in this section will show you more of the person behind the poet. You will find here a selection of poems that delve in to his history, a video interview, readings (including a poem by his daughter Tera Vale Ragan and a performance of original music by his son, Jameson Ragan), and a speech from the heart: “The Artist and the Nobility of Conscience”, by James Ragan. The Artist and the Nobility Of Conscience The Keynote Address by James Ragan at the Word Literature Today Conference, Normal University, Beijing, China, October 16, 2008 by James Ragan It has been said that man’s innate proclivities for creation and destruction are so inventive and so apocalyptic that in their genius lies the “unwritten” testament to man’s future. It is to his art, however, to his prose and poetry, the “written” testaments of man’s place in his universe, that we turn for truth and understanding. If man is to survive such creations of his own undoing, as the threat of nuclear and chemical arsenals or the god-science of biotechnology, an entirely new creed of morality must be proposed, and it begins with the artist, who has in the past fashioned our most durable foundations of communication and, by extension, the primacy of conscience. It is in the environment of the creative mind that a new morality will inspire global communication designed to retard or arrest the technological advances, which threaten man’s already fragmented psyche and existence. The artist, by nature, must represent a standard of nobility, bound at the core of his being, by passion and compassion. Our present goal as impassioned, free-thinking members of a community of artists is to return to our trust in literature, and to celebrate our freedoms to pursue the standards of the nobility of conscience. Like Descartes, we know that the mind thinks. However, we must face the truth that it does not necessarily improve—unless we choose to improve the environment of the imaginative and creative functions of the mind, afforded us by the metaphoric powers of language. Language with its mirror into the ecology of the mind has in recent times been debilitated by cynicism and political non-speak and is too long in recovery. I’m often reminded of the response Mahatma Gandhi once gave to a journalist’s question, “What do you think of Western civilization?” Gandhi responded, “I think it would be a good idea.” In America, from the sixties on, language has been in the process of “telegenic revivification.” Perhaps due to a post-Kennedy anti-intellectualism, the new life revived in a devolving language during the Nixon years was media-inspired, script-annotated and sound-simplified, suitable for television’s instant broadcast and mass audience consumption –and sadly destined for semantic collapse. “Instant imaging” like TV’s political sound-bite has become the vehicle for instant truth and gratification. This telegenic impulse to immerse us, as Octavio Paz suggests, “in the now that never stops blinking,” to, in effect, “instantize ” or “formulize” the visual image at the expense of truth and “context” has provided the impetus for the public’s movement away from books and book reading toward an evolving infatuation with the modern new media. The “instant imaging of truth” has also contributed to the misdirected goal of arresting or pacifying the imagination. It was Albert Einstein who once said, “Imagination is more important than intelligence.” It is the media’s rush to instant truth, without context, that has paralyzed our nation’s need for reflection. And art has always demanded context and reflection. Instead of the artist’s mandate to disturb the imagination on levels that metaphor has the power to achieve, today’s writer runs the risk of devolving language with an immediately recognizable, multi-visceral, cliche-bound vocabulary consistent with and suitable for the anti-intellectual and “dumbing down” trend in today’s society. We have become a tabloid culture. Thriving currently on the narco-narcissism of Facebook and twittering, we have stream-lined our collective identity as the “You Know?” generation – Like, you know? For the “you know?” generation weaned on tabloid cynicism, television, video games, cyberspace, and the “me-me-me” rabidity of Facebook, the technologies of “instant imaging” and Tweet “short-handing” have supplanted the polysemy of the written word. We have ceased to become a country of ideas. The sterility of the computer screen has replaced the passions of spoken dialogue. We are data-basing ourselves into mental atrophy. According to one critic, we don’t practice repression in our society, we practice triviality. We need look no further than to recent Presidential political races. Only in a tabloid culture environment, where communication is reduced to the “cliché” denominator of social discourse can a presidential candidate’s elevation of language to the level of eloquence be criticized as “elitist” – while another’s “semantical” slaughtering of the English language is praised on the grounds that “he sounds like one of us.” In 1988 as a guest of the Chinese Writers Association in Beijing, and more than a decade before Gao Xinjian won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times entitled “A Renaissance in Modern Chinese Literature.” In it I stated that “a new revolutionary rationale has infiltrated an old-culture consciousness. China is in transition—economically, socially, and politically—but nowhere are the changes more dramatic than in its literature.” This potential remains still to be realized. Contemporary writing and writers must reflect once again an imagination and eclecticism that has distinguished previous generations of authors, devoted in their verse and prose, to the pursuit of a global conversation in the arts. Indeed, the balance of wit and form offered in their works is met with the counterbalance of colloquy and reform. What is not lacking in either is imagination and the articulations of a global vision. A diversity of traditions was AND IS an unspoken mandate. In 1985, as one example of a globalization of the arts, I was honored to be invited to read alongside Seamus Heaney, Bob Dylan, and Robert Bly in Moscow for the First International Poetry Festival, hosted by Mikhail Gorbachev. We had read for 8,000 people in a hockey stadium. I’m reminded of what a poet said to me after the celebrity of our reading. “James, he said, now that we’ve become national monuments, look out for the pigeons.” His admonishment to beware of our detractors had not gone unheeded. Where once there existed a systemic starving of the intellect for an entire generation of Soviet artists, glasnost had served for them to free the encumbered spirit. I began the performance with the assessment that one of the still sacred powers of the artist in any period of intellectual recession is the ability to move and shape the minds of kings (world leaders), who in turn move and shape the minds of society. While sadly, at times, it appears there are few kings (world leaders) with minds willing to be moved – or, perhaps, writers seem no longer inspired by that intention– it still remains for the “artist,” that beleaguered and irrepressible shaman of image and language, to persist in the pursuit of universal truth, to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted, no matter how irascible or anti-cathartic society remains in its response. It is the hope that with a collective call for the globalization of a literature of conscience, with its renewed devotion to artistry, one will be inspired by the verve and compassion with which the poets and prose writers had, in the past, informed their art in order to, in turn, move and shape the hearts and minds of a seemingly dispassionate culture. Indeed, even if one lingers on their poetry, prose, plays, or films for only moments, there will lie over these moments what Rainer Maria Rilke called “the dimensions of gigantic intentions.” In the convening of this International Writers Conference, I am inspired by the many authors who in their best work continue to reflect the “dimensions of gigantic intentions” currently being published in climates of political cynicism and oppression, during this, the first decade of a new millennium. Each in his own way has weathered the shifts in the literary topography to remain steadfast in his or her own search for artistic identity in a period in which the culture and the temper of the times are so distinctively in flux. Each continues to look forward beyond the merely safe and familiar. Each continues to evoke the prophetic and the universality in all experience. The artist at the beginning of this century, most suited to being called nature’s prophet, is one who sees the past and future as the unifying factors of all art and one with whom nature and human nature share in the prophesy and the expedition. This is the sense of the best work in all literary periods and traditions, in all languages, and in all cultures. Wallace Stevens reminds us that the great poems of heaven and hell have already been written; the great poem of the earth has yet to be written. With this in mind, the new “young” generation has become obsessed with the experimentation in new forms as they explore both the “consciousness in nature” and the “conscience” of human nature. Their works seek only to speak in their own language and with their own sensory responses, and in so doing, they reflect through the “conscience of the eye” the diversity and multi-culturalism of our times. In her essay, Until Taxis Dance With Daffodils, Virginia Woolf asks us to immerse ourselves in the most profound and primitive of instincts, the instinct of rhythm. “All you need,” Woolf says, “is to stand at the window and let your rhythmical sense open and shut, open and shut, boldly and freely, until one thing melts in another, until the taxis are dancing with the daffodils, until a whole has been made from all these separate fragments.” Woolf and Stevens agree that one of the primary concerns of the writer is to rediscover and reshape language, for, indeed, it is the word that has seemed to fail us in this “telegenically” inspired culture of the literal-minded, the narcissistic, the greedy and the mentally atrophied. Here, then, is the key to appreciating the writing of so many of the distinguished authors in this assembly. The astonishment of experience, as alluded to by Woolf leads to an astonishment of “insight,” so necessary to the advancement of free thought and to the formation of conscience. Indeed, one is reminded of Robert Frost who was fond of saying, “How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?” In conclusion, the 1987 Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky stated that the artist’s vision is one of “exercising prophecy and perpetually redefining individuality through his loyalty to language.” Literature is a conversation, Brodsky says, “and in the moment of this conversation a writer is equal to a reader, as well as the other way around, regardless of whether the writer is a great one or not. This equality is the equality of consciousness.” In this convening of voices in World Literature Today, let us enjoy the universal astonishment of insight as we engage in the true democracy of literature’s global conversation. Let us continue to write, in order to “live out loud,” passionately, and through the expansive and compassionate reach of art, achieve community through a common language.
Forebodings These ravens gathering on the breach in the battered blue light of dusk are a sudden unkindness The path heading up the house strays off into a vague straggle like a thought that has gone too far That sliver peering through the clouds looks like a bell that can no longer ring in an abandoned church steeple I don’t mind the mindless fog but my room at the top of the stairs tilts like a broken boat at sea All night I feel the homesick waves and I hear ravens scavenging in my sleep Milk My mother wouldn’t be cowed into nursing and decided that formula was healthier than the liquid from her breasts. And so I never sucked a single drop from the source, a river dried up. It was always bottled for me. But one night in my mid-thirties in a mirrored room off Highway 59 a woman who had a baby daughter turned to me with an enigmatic smile and cupped my face in her chapped hands and tipped her nipple into my mouth. This happened a long time ago in another city and it is wrong to tell about it. It was infantile to bring it up in therapy. And yet it is one of those moments— Misplaced, involuntary—that swim up Out of the past without a conscience: She lifts my face and I taste it— The sudden spurting nectar, The incurable sweetness that is life. Anything but Standard It was the two of us, wasn’t it, on those steamy nights circling the low-slung museum across the street and lingering by the pond behind the chapel. It’s how the southern clouds passed slowly overhead, season after season, year after year, as you followed a low intricate scent across the stately lit lawn, and studied the squirrels in the live oaks, and waded into the brown reflecting pool with the broken obelisk. You were a descendent of water dogs and anything but standard when you materialized out of the sticky heat with your dripping black forehead and delinquent grin, a growl unmuzzled. It was your Russian face that steadied me as I sat on a battered wooden bench, lost in a night that wouldn’t end, and you lay down— calm, poised, watchful— and stirred beside me on the simmering grass. Let’s get up and go. Trot ahead of me, old friend, And shake off the watery darkness.
The Beginning of Poetry Railroad tracks split the campus in half and at night you’d lie on your narrow cot and listen to the lonely whistle of a train crossing the prairie in the dark. What the Last Evening Will Be Like You’re sitting at a small bay window in an empty café by the sea. It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up, though you’re still hunched over the radiator, which is slowly losing warmth. Now you’re walking down to the shore to watch the last blues fading on the waves. You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces— the walls around you kept closing in— but the sea and the sky were also yours. No one else is around to drink with you from the watery fog, shadowy depts. You’re alone with the whirling cosmos. Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place. Night is endless here, silence infinite.