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Fists held high in Mexico: Juan Villoro and ‘El puño en alto’

23 Sep

El puño en alto

The earthquake in central Mexico has produced startling and heartrending images, but perhaps none so powerful as those of rescue workers poised with fists held high – the sign for silence – so that any sounds from the rubble and ruins might be heard.

Yesterday the writer Juan Villoro published a poem in the Reforma newspaper called El puño en alto which has captured the imagination of many readers in Mexico and elsewhere. Here is my translation:

 

Fist held high

You’re from the place where you

pick up garbage.

Where two sunbeams fall

on the same spot.

Because you saw the first,

you wait for the second.

And you stay on here.

Where the earth opens up

And the people come together.

*

Another time you arrived late:

you’re alive because you’re not punctual,

because you didn’t show up for

the appointment that at 1.14 pm

would have killed you,

thirty two years after

the other appointment, to which

you didn’t arrive on time, either.

You are the victim who wasn’t there.

The building swayed and you

didn’t see your life pass

before your eyes, like

in the movies.

You had a pain in a part of the body

that you didn’t know existed.

The skin of memory,

that didn’t bring scenes

of your life, but of

the beast that can be heard

crunching up matter.

Also the water remembered

what it was when it

owned this place.

It shook in the rivers.

It shook in the houses

that we concoct in the rivers.

You gathered up the books of another

time, the one you were

long ago

before those pages.

*

The weather went from bad to worse

after the national holidays.

More of a party than a grand occasion.

Is there still room for heroes

in September?

You are afraid.

You have the courage to be afraid.

You don’t know what to do,

but you do something,

You didn’t found the city

nor defended it from invaders.

*

You are, at best,

history’s beggar.

Who picks through rubble

after the tragedy.

Who shifts bricks,

gathers stones,

finds a comb,

two shoes that don’t match,

a wallet with photographs.

Who puts together loose parts,

bits of bits,

remains, only remains,

what fits in the hands.

*

Who doesn’t wear gloves,

Who shares out water,

Who gives away their medicine

because they’re cured of fright.

Who saw the moon and heard

strange things, but didn’t know

how to interpret them.

Who heard the cat miaow

half an hour before and only

understood it with the first shudder,

when water burst from the toilet.

Who prayed in a strange language

because they’d forgotten how to pray.

Who remembered who was where.

Who went to the school

for their children.

Whose battery ran out.

Who ran out onto the street to offer

their cell phone.

Who broke in to rob

an abandoned shop

and repented in

a food bank.

Who knew that they were

one too many

Who stayed awake so that

others could sleep.

*

Who is from here.

Who has just arrived

and is already from here.

Who says ‘city’ so as

to say you and me and Pedro and Marta

and Francisco and Guadalupe.

Who goes two days without electricity or water.

Who still breathes.

Who held a fist high to ask for silence.

Those who paid attention.

Those held up their fist.

Those who held up their fist.

to listen

if anyone was living.

Those who held up their fist

to hear if anyone was living and heard

a murmur.

Those who didn’t stop listening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then, everyone leaves  . . .

15 Sep

 

On Tuesday, after all the poetry and talk was done, we were taken to see a Uruguayan folk dance group of superior talents: in the second half of the show the men produced these steel balls called boleadoras (I forget how, if at all, they relate to any aspect of cattle husbandry) and whizzed them around their heads on ropes. Truly impressive. Then we had a group photograph – in fact I took a ‘groupie’ – as it should, or may, be called –  in which I do not appear, though I attach another taken earlier in the day outside our favourite San José restaurant, the self-explanatory roti-parilla: in the foreground, in black, our hostess or maître d’ – Maria.

 

faves roti

Next morning, back in Buenos Aires, the world is too loud and large objects move around quickly, dangerously. Crossing the road from the ferry terminal with two suitcases in order to track down a taxi demands a certain degree of skill and agility. The distilled lethargy of small town Uruguay now resembles the leftover dross of a dream from which you have recently awaken and cannot quite piece together: the dream’s debris holds you back in this Brave New World. We take a taxi to Palermo and I check into the same hotel I stayed in on first arriving in Buenos Aires 10 days ago, and again four days ago, after the trip to Chile. It’s becoming a habit, and I’m beginning to feel at home in these streets what with all the recent yo-yoing and after five visits in as many years. The staff at the hotel greet me as though I were a regular, and I suppose I am, albeit accidentally. Despite my work as a writer and translator of poetry from Spanish, there is little real sense of contrivance or intention in my returning trips to Buenos Aires and other Latin American cities: it is more as if I were fulfilling a destiny that was decided for me when, in my teens, I bought a big map of South America and stuck it on the wall of my bedroom, which now seems like a determining moment.

People asked me about that map back then, and I was never really clear about why I had chosen to put it on the wall. It felt like a challenge to myself of sorts; a possibility that might be made to happen when the time was right, and it was able to turn itself into a plan. I had no idea it would take so long. And then, around ten years ago, I start thinking about Latin America in a new way, less linked to the past and influenced by my reading and by some serendipitous meetings with Latin American writers, who subsequently become friends, and some of whom I would translate. And I’m tempted to say that I knew this would happen, but that would be an exaggeration, of course. However, if I consider the archaeology of the thing, and work backwards from the present, is it really all that strange to think that my placing of that map on the wall acted as the trigger to where I am now, in relation to my work and most of my friendships?

Below are a few photos, in no particular sequence or order of importance:

 

faves w Andy Marina and Jorge at Goethe Institut

Left to right: Andy Ehrenhaus, Blanco, Marina Serrano, Jorge Fondebrider; Goethe Institut, Buenos Aires

faves blanco with blanco

Blanco perplexed before an image of the alleged Richard Gwyn, Catedra Bolaño, Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago

faves fab four w carlos as benny from crossorads circa 1976

The Fab Four, from left: Jorge Aulicino, Carlos López Beltrán (whose expression and headwear bring to mind the character Benny from Crossroads, circa 1976), Pedro Serrano, Andy Ehrenhaus.

Escritores, traductores

Pedro and Blanco, Santiago

faves vero blanco and Auli

Vero, Blanco and Auli discuss the benefits of smoking

faves reading at San Jose with Marina and Laura

Reading at San José with Andy Ehrenhaus, Marina Serrano & Laura Wittner . . .

faves random dog

Random Dog, San José

faves don quixote

Random Quixote, San José

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

faves boneless pig

faves last morning

Farewell breakfast, with Pedro, Jorge and Carlos.

An evening walk to the Rio San José, with dogs

14 Sep

blanco 1

 

San Jose 2

San Jose 3

San Jose 5

San Jose 8

jose pink house

Jose dog

 

 

 

jose 4.jpg

 

jose 5

 

jose 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

carlos and pedro by the rio san jose

IMG_0798

San José de Mayo

12 Sep

san jose trees

A cold evening: walking in this strange amber light towards the theatre in San José’s main square. Everything seems to happen in slow motion here. Even the dogs are pensioners, shuffling arthritically down the pavement; they make some effort to accompany you on your way before giving up and slumping to the ground.

I want to find a reason for being here, other than the fact of having being invited, but draw a blank. This is what continuous travel does after ten days or so: each new displacement presents a minor ontological crisis – nothing serious, just the sense of being nowhere in particular, a feeling which is precisely so: we could be almost anywhere, provided it was a so-called backwater – market towns in Wales and Catalunya come to mind; places that might, under other circumstances, or to other people, feel like home. And I remember a town like this in rural Colombia, driving past two dogs glued together by their rear parts, yet facing in opposite directions, an eight legged Janus. One of the dogs turned its head to follow me down the road, eyes laden with infinite sorrow, pleading: please help me come unstuck, or even: take me with you, help me get the hell out of this place.

Later, inside the theatre, the lights fail, the sound system packs up, and for a full three minutes we are left in silence, in the dark. Only then do I feel comfortable; only then do I feel as though I’ve arrived.

theatre san jose

Antonin, sure enough, there are no more masterpieces. / But your hands trembled as you said it, / and behind every curtain there is always, as you / knew, a rustling.

 

San Jose lectura
Blanco flanked by Andrés Ehrenhaus and Darío Jaramillo (right)

Confabulations

11 Sep

confabulationsOne of the things that delights me about the work of John Berger is that you can dip in at random and find something that provides context to almost anything you care to name. This morning I try the trick with Confabulations, a gathering from his late notebooks published last year:

‘What has prompted me to write over the years is the hunch that something needs to be told and that, if I don’t try to tell it, it risks not being told. I picture myself not so much a consequential, professional writer, as a stop-gap man.

After I’ve written a few lines I let the words slip back into the creature of their language. And there, they are instantly recognized and greeted by a host of other words, with whom they have an affinity of meaning, or of opposition, or of metaphor or alliteration or rhythm. I listen to their confabulation. Together they are contesting the use to which I put the words I chose. They are questioning the roles I allotted them.

So I modify the lines, change a word or two, and submit them again. Another confabulation begins.’

What a concise and wonderful way of summarising the process of writing. Firstly, the notion that if you don’t write something, it risks not being told. This might not be the greatest of losses to humanity, but then one never knows what one wants to say, as E.M. Forster nearly said, until one has said it.

Secondly, the notion of ‘letting the words slip back into the creature of their language’: Berger considers language as an animate being, back into which words can mysteriously slide. This idea of the creature of language is much more attractive, as a metaphor, than the ‘virus’ of language which fascinated Burroughs (and which might be traced to a reading of Chomsky).

And thirdly, the notion of words forming a community, a host of other words lying there in wait, to align themselves or dissociate from those returning: a fluid body of words, a jostling mass of word-molecules, contesting the writer’s choice, questioning the decisions of their creator, but not their creator, as the writer only ever borrows words, and – as an animate body – confabulating among themselves as to where they want to go, what they intend to mean.

River Crossing

10 Sep

chicas

So, we were just on Santa Fe (the main thoroughfare connecting Palermo to the centre of Buenos Aires) trying to hail a taxi, when these young people, on the way back from a night out – or rather, still on a night out – at 7.15 in the morning, approached Pedro and me as we unsuspectingly pulled our suitcases towards the road. Pedro, informing them he was Mexican, proved of little interest, but they engaged me enthusiastically in alcohol-infused conversation on a range of interesting topics, and at full volume: my favourite Argentine food (I went for medialunas rather than raw steak, obviously to their disapproval); my favourite Argentine beverage (theirs was Fernet with coke, which I have never tried and almost certainly never will); and lastly, with considerable ardour, my opinion on the political status of the Falkland Islands or Malvinas (in the opinion of their most vocal spokesperson, there was no doubt on this issue, although I expressed scepticism, recalling – though not mentioning – something that Borges said about two bald men fighting over a comb). When pressed on the issue of whether the Malvinas were Argentine on a purely geographical basis, I suggested that the islands should probably belong to Antarctica. These kids can’t have been much more than eighteen; they weren’t anywhere near being born when the Falklands war was on; why is this even an issue?

In order to get from Buenos Aires to Uruguay, you take the ferry to Colonia del Sacramento. I’ve done this before, en route to Montevideo, but today we are going to the town of San José de Mayo, where there is a Book Fair and Poetry Festival, and where we will be presenting, as a part of the festival’s opening ceremonies, and for the third time on this whistle-stop tour, following our events in Buenos Aires and Valdivia, The Other Tiger, with readings by a range of poets included in the book, from Uruguay and Colombia, as well as those from Argentina and Mexico who have been on tour with me over the past week.

The weather is frightful, though obviously not as bad as in parts of the Caribbean. From my seat on the ferry I watch a grey sea against a slowly unfurling grey sky.

 

 

It seems timeless, and perhaps it is. I don’t know. I watch Carlos taking a film of the grey sea and the grey sky and ask him what he is doing, and he tells me he is making a film of the sea, so I do the same as I can’t think what else to do. Perhaps if you put the video on loop you might achieve lasting wisdom, though I doubt it. Once we hit terra firma we pile into a mini bus and, as the rain hammers down, we pass green fields and scattered woods.

 

 

I curl up in the back with my hood over my head and listen to music. At one point I look up and wonder if the driver is watching me, or watching out – but it seems like a David Lynch moment, or is it a Hitchcock moment, and although I cannot remember making the decision to take a photo, one appears on my iPhone.

 

retrovisor

 

After a very long wait for lunch – everything in Uruguay, I am reminded, takes place very slowly, which can be nice sometimes, but not when you are hungry –  the food finally arrives, and almost immediately a piece of meat, a piece of meat from a famous Uruguayan asado, goes down the wrong way, and I know at once that I am in trouble. I go to the bathroom, try to rack my brains for a memory of what to do, to find an auto-cure for this thing that won’t go down, but all I can think of is the Heimlich manoeuvre. And I know, without considering it for very long, that of all the people in the dining room, of whom I know around ten personally, Andy is the one to ask, so I do. And he does know, although he didn’t know he knew, and hadn’t done it before. And so I breathe again, my brush with mortality over almost as quickly as it began. What a way to begin a poetry festival.

Here, in case you find yourself in a similar position, with a chunk of Uruguayan beef, or something equivalent, choking your airways, are the instructions on doing it yourself.

Performing the Heimlich Maneuver on yourself

  • Make a fist and place the thumb side of your fist against your abdomen, below the ribcage, and just above the navel.
  • Grasp your fist with your other hand and press into your abdomen with a quick, upward pressure.
  • Repeat until object is expelled.

Alternatively, you can lean over a fixed horizontal object, such as a table edge, chair, or railing and press your abdomen against the edge to produce a quick, upward pressure. Repeat until the object is expelled. Like this fellow in the grey pullover:

 

heimlich-maneuver-on-oneself

 

After lunch I return to my hotel room, ring home to let my loved ones know that I survived, even though they didn’t know I might not, and then watch the rain through my window, and in the distance there is the almost continuous sound of thunder.

 

 

Night Bus

9 Sep


Before leaving Valdivia, I am able to take a final walk down to the river, where the pleasure boat Neptuno is tied up to the dock, guarded by a pair of old dogs who bark selectively at passers-by. The light is magical after a cold, sunny day. 


The overnight bus from Valdivia to Santiago covers 850 kilometres and, including a couple of unexplained stops, lasts 11 hours. On the plus side, the seats convert into quite comfortable beds, and with a warm blanket, a blindfold, noise cancelling headphones and a little white pill, the night can pass in a perfectly pleasant manner. 


We are a gang of Argentine (4), Mexican (2) and Welsh (1) writers, and I can only imagine that we present something of a spectacle. 

We pose outside the publishing house where there is anteresting example of literary graffiti that says 2666 huevos (eggs), which might be a commendation, of sorts. 

Without the time to commit to a serious excursion before our flight back to Buenos Aires, we drop off our bags at the LOM publishers office and meander – a posse of poets – without aim or purpose, around the streets of the city. 


As so often occurs when you enter flaneur mode, the world opens up to you. A few pictures describe, after a fashion, our circuitous path to the Sur Patagonico, our eventual destination.