Today’s poem follows the announcement by the Prime Minister of the UK to ‘stay alert’ (whatever that means), while the leaders of Scottish and Welsh governments have told us to continue to ‘stay at home’, which seems clearer, at least. The protagonist in Darío Jaramillo Agudelo’s poem has left home, but no one is sure whether he will return. I love this poem, and apologies to those who have read it in a previous post, but since Carcanet recently published an entire collection of my translations of Jaramillo’s poems, called Impossible Loves, I thought I would give it a plug.
You can listen to Blanco reading ‘Reasons for his absence’ here.
Reasons for his Absence
If anyone asks after him,
tell them that perhaps he’ll never come back, or else
on returning no one will recognise his face;
tell them also that he left no one any reasons,
that he had a secret message, something important to tell them
but he’s forgotten what it was.
Tell them that he is falling, in a different way, and in another part of the world,
tell them he is still not happy
if that makes some of them happy; tell them also that he left
with his heart empty and dry
and tell them that this doesn’t matter, not even for pity or pardon’s sake
and that he himself doesn’t suffer on this account,
and that now he doesn’t believe in anything or anyone, far less in himself,
that from seeing so many things, his sight dwindled,
and now, blind, he needs touch,
tell them that once, on a sunny day, he had the faint glimmer of a faith in God,
tell them that once there were words that made him believe in love
and that later he learned love lasts
as long as it takes to say a word.
Tell them that like a balloon punctured by gunshot,
his soul plunged toward the hell within,
and he isn’t even in despair
and tell them that sometimes he thinks this inexorable calm
is his punishment;
tell them that he doesn’t know what sin he has committed,
and that he considers the blame he drags around the world
just another aspect of the problem
and tell them that on certain insomniac nights and even on others
during which he believes he has dreamt it,
he is afraid that the blame might be the only part of himself that is left
and tell them that on certain luminous mornings
and in the middle of afternoons of merciful lust and also
on rainy nights drunk with wine
he feels a certain puerile joy in his innocence
and tell them that on these blissful occasions he talks to himself.
Tell them that if some day he returns, he will come with two cherries for eyes
and a blackberry bush seeding in his stomach and a snake
coiled around his neck.
And nor will he expect anything from anyone and he will earn his living honourably,
as a fortune-teller, reading the cards and celebrating strange ceremonies
in which he will not believe
and tell them that he made off with some superstitions, three fetishes,
a few misunderstood instances of complicity
and the memory of two or three faces that always come back to him
in the darkness
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Razones del ausente
Si alguien les pregunta por él,
díganle que quizá no vuelva nunca o que si regresa
acaso ya nadie reconozca su rostro;
díganle también que no dejó razones para nadie,
que tenía un mensaje secreto, algo importante que decirles
pero que lo ha olvidado.
Díganle que ahora está cayendo, de otro modo y en otra parte del mundo,
díganle que todavía no es feliz,
si esto hace feliz a alguno de ellos; díganle también que se fue con el
corazón vacío y seco
y díganle que eso no importa ni siquiera para la lástima o el perdón
y ni él mismo sufre por eso,
que ya no cree en nada ni en nadie y mucho menos en él mismo,
que tantas cosas que vio apagaron su mirada y ahora, ciego,
necesita del tacto,
díganle que alguna vez tuvo un leve rescoldo de fe en Dios, en un día de sol,
díganle que hubo palabras que le hicieron creer en el amor
y luego supo que el amor dura lo que dura una palabra.
Díganle que como un globo de aire perforado a tiros,
su alma fue cayendo hasta el infierno que lo vive y que ni siquiera
y díganle que a veces piensa que esa calma inexorable es su castigo;
díganle que ignora cuál es su pecado
y que la culpa que lo arrastra por el mundo la considera apenas otro
dato del problema
y díganle que en ciertas noches de insomnio y aun en otras en que cree
teme que acaso la culpa sea la única parte de sí mismo que le queda
y díganle que en ciertas mañanas llenas de luz
y en medio de tardes de piadosa lujuria y también borracho de vino
en noches de lluvia
siente cierta alegría pueril por su inocencia
y díganle que en esas ocasiones dichosas habla a solas.
Díganle que si alguna vez regresa, volverá con dos cerezas en sus ojos
y una planta de moras sembrada en su estómago y una serpiente
enroscada en su cuello.
Y tampoco esperará nada de nadie y se ganará la vida honradamente,
de adivino, leyendo las cartas y celebrando extrañas ceremonias en las
que no creerá
y díganle que se llevó consigo algunas supersticiones, tres fetiches,
ciertas complicidades mal entendidas
y el recuerdo de dos o tres rostros que siempre vuelven a él
en la oscuridad
A note on ‘Reasons for his absence’
I was attracted to this poem by its epistolary style, and by the device of news being relayed about an absent party. The lack of clarity surrounding the reasons for the man’s absence holds particular poignancy in a country such as Colombia, where ‘disappearances’ were – at the time of the poem’s composition, in the late 1970s – already becoming an everyday occurrence. The baroque language and incantatory style creates a strange juxtaposition with the content, which describes a life of sensual dissolution. The curiosity is stirred by the profound sense of loss or lack with which the absentee seems infused, wherever he is. Whether his exile is literal or metaphoric is never made clear.
My principal concern with the translation of this poem concerned the title. The Spanish noun ‘razón’ can mean a range of things, including ‘reason’ or ‘information’, or even ‘explanation’, depending on context. Similarly ‘ausente’ – here a noun, but commonly an adjective – could be translated in a number of ways: ‘the absent one’ sounded too much like translatorese, ‘the missing person’ subject to over-interpretation in the context of recent Latin American history. In the end I chose ‘his absence’, which deviates from the original in a grammatical sense but conveys the meaning of the phrase accurately. A second concern was the repetition in the Spanish of ‘díganle’ (literally: tell him), which, since it refers back to ‘alguien’ (anyone) in line 1, I chose to translate as the generic ‘tell them’.
I attempted to re-create the long, rolling cadences of the original in my translation, alongside the reiteration of the introductory ‘tell them that . . .’. I have also tried to reproduce the bereft tone that reflects the absentee’s solitude, and the distance he has chosen to maintain from those he left behind.
When I read this poem out loud at an event – as I do from time to time – it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t say that happens with many poems, but with this one it happens every time.
Darío Jaramillo Agudelo is an internationally acclaimed poet, novelist and essayist. He graduated in law and economics from the Universidad Javeriana of Bogotá, and worked for many years in various roles with state cultural and arts organisations. He has won both the Colombian national prize for poetry (2017) and the García Lorca Prize (2018).
Something set me off with Micaela Chirif’s poem on Day 12, which recalls a phone call from a dead friend, and I have decided to revisit an old favourite by poor, wasted Jorge Teillier – the only poet to appear twice so far in this series. The poem was read at the poet’s funeral on 24 April, 1996.
If you wish to speak with the dead
If you wish to speak with the dead
you have to choose words
that they will easily recognise,
as easily as their hands
recognise their dogs’ fur in the dark.
Clear and calm words
like spring water tamed inside a wineglass
or the chairs set back in place by your mother
after the guests have left.
Words given refuge by the night
as the marshland its will-o’-the-wisp.
If you wish to speak with the dead
you need to learn how to wait:
they are fearful
like the first steps of a child.
But if we are patient
one day they will answer us
with a poplar leaf caught in a broken mirror,
with a flame suddenly revived in the fireplace,
with a dark return of birds
before the gaze of a girl
who waits unmoving on the threshold.
Para hablar con los Muertos
Para hablar con los muertos
hay que elegir palabras
que ellos reconozcan tan fácilmente
como sus manos
reconocían el pelaje de sus perros en la oscuridad.
Palabras claras y tranquilas
como el agua del torrente domesticada en la copa
o las sillas ordenadas por la madre
después que se han ido los invitados.
Palabras que la noche acoja
como a los fuegos fatuos los pantanos.
Para hablar con los muertos
Hay que saber esperar:
ellos son miedosos
como los primeros pasos de un niño.
Pero si tenemos paciencia
Un día nos responderán
con una hoja de álamo atrapada por un espejo roto,
con una llama de súbito reanimada en la chimenea,
con un regreso oscuro de pájaros
frente a la mirada de una muchacha
que aguarda inmóvil en el umbral.
Jorge Teillier (1935-96) was a Chilean poet, a key figure in the later 20th century literature of a country dominated by great poets such as Mistral, Neruda, Parra, Huidobro, de Rokha and Lihn. Teillier offers a unique, gentle voice, with a profound sense of the lyrical, often associated with simple, everyday – and usually rural – concerns. His collected poems are published as Nostalgia de la Tierra.
Not everyone owns a house, least of all a house that affords them privacy, or a place where children might play outside, even if the sun itself reminds one of the endless casualties in a terrible war. In today’s house poem the Salvadoran poet Otoniel Guevara conjures a house of dreams from the ruins of memory.
I never had a house
I want a house
where the neighbours cannot hear your cries
cries of pleasure
where there is always water falling
from the sky
and from the watering can
I want a garden and a patio
where childhood plays out
its most torrential alphabet
where the sun does not remind me
of being twelve and the endless dead bodies
where I don’t have to put red signals
where a bond of love fits us
and the children
where Death arrives finally
and feels as though
he’s in his own home.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Nunca tuve una casa
Quiero una casa
donde no escuchen tus gritos los vecinos
tus gritos de placer
donde siempre caiga el agua
y de la regadera
Quiero un hogar con patio
donde juegue la infancia
su más torrente abecedario
donde el sol no me recuerde
los cadáveres incesantes de mis doce años
donde no haya que colocar semáforos
bajo las puertas
donde quepa el amor que nos lazamos
y los hijos
donde La Muerte finalmente llegue
y se sienta
como en su propia casa
Otoniel Guevara was born in Quetzaltepeque, El Salvador in 1967. He fought for the FMLN in the Salvadoran civil war, studied journalism at the El Salvador University, and since then has worked as a publicist, cultural journalist, and editor. He has published around 30 titles and his poems have been translated into many languages. He is executive director of the Fundación Metáfora and director of the publishing house La Chifurnia.
Today’s poem come from the excellent Micaela Chirif, of Peru. Her theme is talking with the dead, an activity with which I identify ever more closely as the years go by. This poem can be found in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America.
a friend dead for some years now
sometimes calls me on the phone
contrary to what might be expected
the conversation is normal enough:
I give him the gossip from hereabouts
he gives me the gossip there
I watch the day darkening in the window
he lazily cuts his nails
and in this way
we sometimes spend the entire evening
when the time comes to hang up
and it always comes
we both become very sad
and begin to weep
but for the sake
each of us does this alone
a veces me llama por teléfono
un amigo muerto desde hace años
contrariamente a lo que podría pensarse
la conversación as bastante normal:
yo le cuento los chismes de acá
y él me cuenta los de allá
yo miro el día oscurecerse en la ventana
él se corta las uñas con pereza
pasamos a veces la tarde entera
cuando llega el momento de colgar
y siempre llega
nos da entonces muchísima tristeza
y nos ponemos a llorar
pero eso sí
lo hace cada uno por su cuenta
From Sobre mi almohada una cabez, Pretextos (2012).
Micaela Chirif is a Peruvian poet and children’s author. Born in Lima in 1973, Chirif’s first poetry collection, De vuelta was published by Colmillo Blanco in 2001. Following this came Cualquier cielo (Mundo Ajeno, 2008), and Sobre mi almohada una cabeza (Pre-Textos, 2012). In 2015, Galería Estampa published an illustrated selection of her poetry as part of the Biblioteca Americana. Her work in children’s literature has won her the Münich White Ravens de la Internationale Jugendbibliothek twice, for Buenas noches, Martina (2010), and Desayuno (2014). In 2019 she was awarded the Premio Hispanoamericano de Poesía para niños (Hispano-american children’s poetry prize).
I have known this poem since my teens, but returned to it in 2015 after a visit to Neruda’s house in Valparaíso, and decided to try my hand at translating it.
When I first read the poem in its English version, the translator defined Don Asterio as the ‘clocksmith’ of Valparíso. This is not strictly accurate, and Neruda has chosen ‘cronometrista’ in the title (rather than, say, relojero = clockmaker, which he also uses) for a reason. Although the subject of the poem does make and repair clocks and watches, his function within the poem (and within the city) is of a more ontological nature. Don Asterio is, effectively, transformed from ‘artisan’ to ‘wise man’ – or from ‘clockmaker’ to ‘timekeeper’. His gentleness and humility are characteristics of a man ‘stopped in time’, while around him ‘men and women flowed by / up the shabby hills or down to the sea’. My main concern in the translation was to capture the crucial paradox of Neruda’s verse, at once virtuosic and simple: an onslaught of vivid imagery and a skilled, tranquil protagonist.
If you prefer to listen, a recording of the English version only can he found here
To Don Asterio Alarcón, timekeeper of Valparaíso
Valparaíso has the smell
of a crazy port,
the smell of a shadow, of a star,
The heart shudders
on the harrowing stairways
of the bristling hills:
grave poverty and black eyes
dance there in the fog
and the flags of the kingdom
hang from windows:
and the sea sun salutes the banners
while the white clothes wave
the sailors a poor farewell.
Sea streets, windy streets
of the hard day wrapped in air and waves,
alleys that sing upward
in a spiral like snails:
the commercial afternoon is transparent,
the sun visits the merchandise
in order to sell the warehouse smiles,
showing windows and sets of teeth,
shoes and thermometers, bottles
that hold a green night,
unreachable suits, golden clothes,
awful socks, mild cheeses,
and so I come to the point
of this ode.
There is a shop window
with its glass
the timekeeper don Asterio Alarcón.
The street boils and turns
burns and batters,
but behind the glass
the old curator of clocks
stands immobile, with a protruding eye,
an extravagant eye
which guesses the enigma,
the cardiac arrest of the clocks
and scrutinizes with one eye
until the obscure butterfly
alights on his brow
and the hands of the clock move.
Don Asterio Alarcón is the ancient
hero of minutes
and the boat sails on the wave
measured by his hands
responsibility to the minute hand,
neatness to the beat:
Don Asterio in his aquarium
watched over the marine chronometers,
oiled with patience
the blue heart of the seascape.
For fifty years,
or eighteen thousand days,
the river of children and men and women
up the shabby hills or down to the sea,
while the clockmaker,
stopped in time,
softened like a pure vessel
against the eternity of the current,
his timbers appeased,
and little by little the wise man
emerged from the artisan
with magnifying glass and oil
cleansed of envy, fear discarded,
fulfilled his job and destiny,
until time itself
in its fearsome passage
made a pact with him, with don Asterio,
and he awaits his hour.
So when I pass by
the frantic street,
the black river of Valparaíso,
I only hear one sound
among the sounds,
among so many clocks one only:
the exhausted, gentle, murmuring
and ancient movement
of a great pure heart:
the distinguished and humble
tick-tock of Don Asterio.
(Translation by Richard Gwyn)
A Don Asterio Alarcón, cronometrista de Valparaíso
Olor a puerto loco
olor a sombra, a estrella,
a escama de la luna
y a cola de pescado.
El corazón recibe escalofríos
en las desgarradoras escaleras
de los hirsutos cerros:
allí grave miseria y negros ojos
bailan en la neblina
y cuelgan las banderas
del reino en las ventanas:
las sábanas zurcidas,
las viejas camisetas,
los largos calzoncillos,
y el sol del mar saluda los emblemas
mientras la ropa blanca balancea
un pobre adiós a la marinería.
Calles del mar, del viento,
del día duro envuelto en aire y ola,
callejones que cantan hacia arriba
en espiral como las caracolas:
la tarde comercial es transparente,
el sol visita las mercaderías,
para vender sonríe el almacén
abriendo escaparate y dentadura,
zapatos y termómetros, botellas
que encierran noche verde,
trajes inalcanzables, ropa de oro,
funestos calcetines, suaves quesos,
y entonces llego al tema
de esta oda.
Hay un escaparate
con su vidrio
don Asterio Alarcón, cronometrista.
La calle hierve y sigue,
arde y golpea,
pero detrás del vidrio
el viejo ordenador de los relojes,
con un ojo hacia afuera,
un ojo extravagante
que adivina el enigma,
el cardíaco fin de los relojes,
y escruta con un ojo
hasta que la impalpable mariposa
de la cronometría
se detiene en su frente
y se mueven las alas del reloj.
Don Asterio Alarcón es el antiguo
héroe de los minutos
y el barco va en la ola
medido por sus manos
responsabilidad al minutero,
pulcritud al latido:
Don Asterio en su acuario
vigiló los cronómetros del mar,
aceitó con paciencia
el corazón azul de la marina.
Durante cincuenta años,
o dieciocho mil días,
allí pasaba el río
de niños y varones y mujeres
hacia harapientos cerros o hacia el mar,
mientras el relojero,
detenido en el tiempo,
se suavizó como la nave pura
contra la eternidad de la corriente,
serenó su madera,
y poco a poco el sabio
salió del artesano,
con lupa y con aceite
limpió la envidia, descartó el temor,
cumplió su ocupación y su destino,
hasta que ahora el tiempo,
el transcurrir temible,
hizo pacto con él, con don Asterio,
y él espera su hora de reloj.
Por eso cuando paso
la trepidante calle,
el río negro de Valparaíso,
sólo escucho un sonido entre sonidos,
entre tantos relojes uno solo:
el fatigado, suave, susurrante
y antiguo movimiento
de un gran corazón puro:
el insigne y humilde
tic tac de don Asterio.
From Plenos Poderes, first published by Losada, Buenos Aires.
Pablo Neruda, original name Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, (born July 12, 1904, Parral, Chile—died September 23, 1973, Santiago), Chilean poet, diplomat, and politician who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He was perhaps the most important Latin American poet of the 20th century. (Britannica). A controversial figure in his lifetime, Neruda has been the subject of considerable polemic since his death, both with regard to his political and personal life. A biography of the poet in English, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, by Adam Feinstein, was published in 2004.
(Continued from Part One . . . .)
It seems only fair, at this point, to say something about how to deal with insomnia; how to approach it with a sense of purpose, how to break its hold on the poor sleepless victim, especially if that victim is you. A ‘cure for insomnia’, maybe.
Gayle Greene’s 2008 book, Insomniac, provides an exhaustive and at times entertaining account of the author’s attempt to find an effective treatment for the condition. Her investigations bring her to the conclusion that the medical world is really not interested in insomnia. Other sleep disorders are prioritised, such as sleep apnoea: ‘Apnoea is where the money is,’ one researcher tells her; ‘apnoea is where the career opportunities are’, says another. ‘No one wants to know about insomnia, I’m afraid,’ a GP told me once. ‘There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s probably genetic, at least in part.’ That much appears to be true, since both my siblings experience recurrent bouts of insomnia. Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) — persistent jerky movements in the lower limbs — from which I suffer, also seems to be genetic, and occasionally exacerbates my insomnia. Unfortunately, if you have RLS, you are automatically excluded from attending any of the UK’s very few sleep clinics, even if the insomnia is not contingent on the RLS. So there’s not a lot of help from the medical profession, other than sleeping pills (which are now more heavily regulated than ever before) or referral to a counsellor, who, like Harvey’s, will recommend adherence to a regime of sleep hygiene, along with hot milky drinks, sprinkling lavender on your pillow, recordings of waves breaking on the shore, gentle mood music, a warm bath before bed, whatever.
Paradoxically, in the light of medical science’s silence on the topic, a global sleep industry has emerged in recent years, flooding the online market and airwaves in much the same way as the multifarious alternative diets and healthy eating campaigns, all products of a consumerist philosophy in which we must be sold the fashionable advice, follow the tweets of the media’s self-help guru of the moment, buy the widget, get the app. Sleep has become a commodity, like any other. According to a recent report, the sleep aid industry turned over an estimated $76 billion last year, the millennial malady taking over from depression, which hogged the headlines in the 90s: remember Prozac Nation?
Roger Ekirch’s fascinating 2005 study, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, exposes the idea of a solid eight-hour stretch of sleep as a recent invention. Indigenous and non-industrialised peoples have very different sleep patterns to those of us in the industrialised nations, where a couple of centuries of the Protestant work ethic has forced people into following a sleep routine that has its basis in nothing more scientific than the demands of a capitalist means of production. In the medieval and pre-modern period, people in Europe took a first, and then a second sleep, retiring with darkness, but rising before sunrise and getting on with their various tasks; sewing or weaving, cooking, having sex, and returning for a second sleep — or not — always knowing that they could grab a snooze later in the morning, or a siesta in the afternoon. ‘In Colombia,’ a Colombian friend told me, ‘we like to take our siesta before lunch’ — and he was only half-joking. Why are we so uptight about our eight hours of uninterrupted sleep?
Perhaps if we were less neurotic about sleep, we wouldn’t deem insomnia such a problem. I continue to spend much of the night up and about, but it comes in waves; a few weeks on, a few weeks off, and when I’m sleepless I try not to let it bother me. If I can’t sleep, I don’t worry. I just get up and do stuff. I talk to my dog, I bake bread; I meditate, I read, I write. The worst thing for the insomniac is fear of sleeplessness; it becomes an incremental malaise. I don’t sleep; I worry; I sleep even less because I’m worried about not sleeping. And so on, in a vicious cycle of anxiety, self-blame, fear, and more sleeplessness.
Marina Benjamin remarks that her insomnia is ‘to a large extent a First World, post-capitalist artefact’, but confesses that the knowledge is of no use to her, unless she does something with it. In her case, as in Harvey’s, part of the solution lies in writing about it. ‘But then the fear that presses in on me is that my work might be fated never to transcend the neurotic’, she adds — a fear, I must admit, that may have seeped into my writing of this essay. In the vast context of what is wrong with the world, does my insomnia count for anything at all? Probably not, but neither is that the point. When seen in perspective, not much of what affects us in the daily round counts for much, but it is from those very flakes of the everyday, alongside the debris of our dreams, that we make sense of the things around us; and if by writing we improve our own understanding, we might, with luck, temporarily lighten the load of those who share our fears and concerns. Otherwise, why write at all?
Benjamin’s ‘taxonomy of darkness’ may seem like a recondite matter, but it articulates the surging mess of the nocturnal — and the unconscious — that spills over into the everyday. This is what gives us succour. Myth — humankind’s way of ordering the unconscious — has always been alive to the mysteries of darkness in order to better understand the world. This, after all, is what myths do. Orpheus failed in his mission to rescue Eurydice from Hades, but on his return sang more beautifully than before. ‘Ancient heroes’, writes Benjamin, ‘who wished to see things for what they really were had to pass through underworlds, or they dwelled in caves; sometimes, like Oedipus, they could see clearly only once they had been blinded.’ In some traditional societies (and in ancient Egypt) seekers after spiritual knowledge would spend a period of time in incubation, isolated from the world. Who knows, perhaps the self-isolation imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic will harvest benefits in just this way.
Benjamin and Harvey both find solace in those fragments of their lives and the lives of others that come to them at night and in the half-light, and the process of piecing things together, in the manner of a collage, or a mosaic, is something that is evident in the making of both these books. Both women have succeeded in forging something coherent and many-layered out of the scraps and shards scattered by sleeplessness. Benjamin’s account is more cerebral, speculative, and overtly digressive, while Harvey’s — as befits a novelist —relies more heavily on narrative and on pasting in images from her own childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, as well as the interjection, by instalment, of a story about a man who robs cash machines, a seemingly random tale, which, however, has its own random logic. What, we might ask, is this story doing in a book about insomnia? (In her LRB podcast, Harvey admits that she fully expected her editor to ask her to pull it). But its randomness, perhaps, is precisely the point. It is a piece in the puzzle, another clue dropped into the narrative: remember when the therapist suggests a jigsaw as a gentle way of passing the empty hours of her sleepless nights?
Benjamin writes approvingly of Joseph Cornell’s collage technique: ‘that art of reassembling fragments of pre-existing images in such a way as to form a new image . . . using the images of the commonplace to make something new.’ This idea can be likened to a comment made by the novelist Brian Aldiss, and cited by Benjamin in an article she wrote in The Guardian around the time of her book’s release: The ‘great attraction of insomnia,’ Aldiss observed, is that ‘the night seems to release a little more of our vast backward inheritance of instinct and feelings; as with the dawn, a little honey is allowed to ooze between the lips of the sandwich, a little of the stuff of dreams to drip into the waking mind.’ The idea is taken up again, and pushed a little further, towards the end of Benjamin’s account, when she suggests that insomnia, by picking up ‘the frayed thread-ends of one’s own existence’ might, just sometimes, evoke ‘the faintly delectable buzz of a cosmic hum that was there before human beings came into existence and will be there until the end of time’ — something which, in another language, might be called God.
And it seems apposite to me, in writing of insomnia, to equate such quasi-religious yearnings with the idea of the disintegrating self. This soul work relies heavily on a breaking down of the self in order to achieve some kind of integrity. ‘My self is a self understood through fragments. My self is a scattered thing’, writes Harvey (who, it seems, is well-versed in Buddhist philosophy). ‘I look in the mirror and I don’t know myself very much. I look at what I write and it’s like being introduced to my soul. Every time for the first time, not always liking what I see.’
And so we arrive inevitably at the role of writing in this business of insomnia. Harvey takes up a line she discovers in Larkin: ‘the million-petalled flower of being here’ — a phrase, she claims, that acts ‘like a steroid straight to the veins.’ The words appear to her as a revelation, when she is plunged deep in her insomnia — and I can see why. It is such a spectacularly un-Larkinesque sentiment, for one thing. For another, it is one of those lines, as Harvey claims, that can knock one’s life a little off axis. One can equate such an epiphany with Benjamin’s flurry of cosmic consciousness, late in her book, as well as with the idea that sleeplessness might at times act as a crucible for intense creativity (though it can also, it goes without saying, be exactly the opposite). ‘Writing’, Benjamin claims, ‘is . . . one of the few observances — sleep obviously being another — that get me beyond myself. Gets me ‘out of the way’, as we say in creative writing classes.’
The paradox that remained with me after reading Benjamin’s book was that while the insomniac wants to sleep, craves sleep, would give anything, at times, for some sleep, there is also a desire to follow the imaginative threads left hanging by insomnia, and to use them creatively. This paradox is summarised at the very end of her account, when she writes: ‘I want to flip disruption and affliction into opportunity, and punctuate the darkness with stabs of light’, before concluding, emphatically, almost defiantly: ‘This is the song of insomnia and I shall sing it.’
Harvey tells it rather differently: ‘Writing is dreaming’, she says: ‘It is lucid dreaming — the work of the subconscious that has a toe in the conscious, just enough to harness the dream’s waywardness. I always heard it said that writing draws on the subconscious, but that isn’t true. It is the subconscious, and it draws on the conscious.’ She continues: ‘In the last year, writing has been the next best thing to sleep. Sometimes a better thing than sleep. I am sane when I write, my nerves settle. I am sane, sane. I become happy. Nothing else matters when I write, even if what I write turns out to be bad. I proceed from some open and elusive subconscious formlessness roughly called ‘me’, definable only by being nothing and nowhere, just the silence in which shapes move.’ How fitting, then, that her book ends with a celebration of swimming as the ‘cure for insomnia’.
On certain days of summer, when I take myself out to sea for a long swim, there is just that sense of joy tinged with an intimation of danger that are the necessary preconditions for writing. Swimming, like writing, is precisely that: being nothing and nowhere in a silence where shapes move.
As an interlude from the series of ‘poems to stay at home with’, I am posting an essay inspired by my reading of two recent books on insomnia: The Shapeless Unease, by Samantha Harvey, and Insomnia by Marina Benjamin.
This piece was first published on 5th April as ‘The Big Read’ at Wales Arts Review, for which many thanks to editor Gary Raymond.
Poetry service will hopefully resume on Monday.
As my insomnia has progressed over the years, and for long stretches has become the normal state of affairs, I have become expert at dressing in the dark. Reaching for my clothes at four in the morning, I find them without really seeing anything at all; I have learned to see through the dark, in much the same way that an experienced diver, swimming at depth for long spells, finds their way through murky waters. And the swimming analogy, as it happens, is not far-fetched; there is a secret synergy between sleeplessness and swimming, just as there is between sleep and water — a theme to which we will return.
The quality of darkness is nuanced, ever-shifting. The insomniac learns to differentiate between the subtle gradations of light, the shifting texture of the night. We insomniacs rarely need clocks; we are usually able to discern, within ten or fifteen minutes, what time it is. And there is something else, which Marina Benjamin describes near the start of her 2018 book, Insomnia: ‘When I am up at night,’ she writes, ‘the world takes on a different hue. It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to. I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static . . . In sleeplessness I have come to understand that there is a taxonomy of darkness to uncover, and with it, a nocturnal literacy we can acquire.’
In Benjamin’s nocturnal wanderings I recognise my own: conversations with the bemused, sleepy dog; a trail of crumbs around the kitchen, evidence of food I cannot remember eating; reading glasses upturned on the coffee table. ‘Sapped by fatigue’, she writes, ‘I stand in the middle of the living room in the dusty light . . . I am trying to puzzle out the clues so as to reconstruct the events of the night before, but I keep blanking.’ It is like visiting a crime scene. ‘All that is lacking is the body shape outlined on the floor: the missing body, wakeful when it should be sleeping.’
This missing body perfectly encapsulates the defining characteristic of the insomniac: their absence — even from themselves. As I wander through the house at night, my prevailing thought is that I am not here. I am absent, vacated; in a real sense a shadow of myself. If you were to approach me, I would seem to be standing there, in front of you, but if you prodded me in the chest with a firm finger, I would shatter, disintegrate, turn to dust. There is no one here in the darkness.
Back in the first decade of the Millennium, my insomnia was way out of control. I manage my sleeplessness better these days. Like any other deficiency or handicap, one learns to cope, finds strategies for survival. Nowadays these strategies very rarely feature any of the wide range of prescription and other drugs that I once consumed so thoughtlessly, and which did nothing to help me sleep, but only disoriented me further. Back in the bad old days, I would stagger into work, at the university where I taught, where I still teach, shattered after no sleep at all, ghostly, dead-eyed, like a wraith, gabbing on in seminars in zombie mode, drifting in and out of slumber, once even falling asleep while standing, giving a lecture. I recall, from the worst period of my insomnia, a snippet of student feedback; rather than commenting on the content or delivery of the module, the student had written simply: ‘I believe Dr Gwyn may suffer from narcolepsy’. But it wasn’t narcolepsy that sent me to sleep so much as the accumulated effect of sleep deprivation.
*. *. *
Sleeplessness, like Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic, is a topic upon which everyone has an opinion. The Western world is apparently living though an insomnia epidemic, or, as a recent Guardian article spun it, ‘a golden age of sleeplessness.’ As someone with a vested interest in the subject, I am alert to any new publications on the subject, as reading about insomnia is about as near as I am likely to get to treating my own.
I have written about insomnia before. In my novel The Blue Tent, the protagonist is a hopeless insomniac, and in The Vagabond’s Breakfast I vented, tetchily, on behalf of the sleepless:
‘An insomniac is never short of advice from well-meaning friends and relatives. Everyone has experienced difficulty in getting to sleep, and many people feel that this qualifies them to offer advice based on the authority of experience. “Oh, I have trouble sleeping”, they will tell you, and what they mean is that they have struggled from time to time to get to sleep, have tossed and turned for a while, or woken in the night and found it hard to return to their slumber; but essentially these setbacks rarely make a dent on their seven or eight hours of regular sleep. Such people find it impossible to conceive of the extent of disability endured by a serious Contender for the World Title, such as myself. Let me make it clear that insomnia is not a question of simply not being able to get to sleep – it is, cumulatively, a massive derangement of the senses, a perpendicular longing, a lacuna within narrative time, a backsliding acceleration into the entrails of night, awaiting the dawn as a mortally injured man might await morphine, in the hope that with the light will come sleep, if only for an hour, or half an hour.’
* *. *
‘When I don’t sleep,’ Samantha Harvey writes, in her recent book, The Shapeless Unease, ‘which is very often, I don’t sleep at all. It’s not so much that I’m a bad sleeper these days, it’s that I am a non-sleeper. I am a bad sleeper too, but nights of bad sleep are the good nights, because they involve sleep.’
That’s right: nights of bad sleep are the good nights. On such nights even the suggestion of sleep seems miraculous, and you await it with greedy, hopeless anticipation. And sometimes, just sometimes, you are gifted a miraculous burst of sudden, unexpected sleep, and wake with the prevailing sense that you are refreshed, and wondrously alive, only to check the time and observe that you have slept for all of ten minutes, and with that realisation a dreadful fatigue and lethargy will overcome you: you have been duped, and your poor gullible body has responded as if it had rested for several hours. The truth afforded by the alarm clock suggests otherwise, and the body slumps back, resigned to this seeping drip drip drip of exhaustion, and a redoubled sense of injustice: how could you have been so easily fooled?
It is generally proposed by health professionals who advise on sleep problems that the insomniac who is awake in the dead of night should follow a simple rule. If you are unable to return to sleep within fifteen minutes, you should get out of bed and do something (preferably something healthy and affirmative, but not too strenuous, and not in a place bathed in bright light, and certainly not involving electronic devices of any kind). I tend to follow this rule, unless I have a strong gut feeling that I am going to return to sleep.
Samantha Harvey, by contrast, is an advocate of the ‘stay in bed and worry’ school of insomnia. When challenged by a therapist about her refusal to abide by the fifteen minute rule, she says, petulantly: ‘Sometimes I get up, it doesn’t help. I feel angry about getting up. I don’t want to be up, I want to be asleep.’ To which the therapist replies: ‘You shouldn’t be in bed awake. Have you heard of sleep hygiene?’ The therapist suggests doing something gentle, like ironing, or emptying the dishwasher. ’I don’t have a dishwasher, or an iron,’ Harvey whines. ‘I once had an iron but I don’t know where it is any more.’ Eventually she compromises on a jigsaw puzzle.
Nights awake are vast, empty places; ‘the longest, largest, most cavernous of things’ according to Harvey. ‘There is acre upon acre of night, and whole eras come and go, and there isn’t another soul to be found on the journey though to the morning.’ If you endure, say, three or four of these night in a row, it really begins to take its toll. ‘I give up,’ you say into the darkness, ‘and then into the morning light, I give up.’
The Shapeless Unease, however, is so much more than a litany of woe, evoking the terrible desolation of the long-distance insomniac. It is beautifully crafted and its achievement makes itself more apparent on a second reading. In an interview with Tessa Hadley for the London Review of Books podcast, Harvey claims that the thing came together as a collection of notes, and never was intended as a book. It just happened. She wrote some sentences, she says, and then some more sentences, instinctively and without design, and if this is impressive it is not entirely surprising either. A sense of spontaneity, or skilled improvisation, lies at the heart of it. The writing is both tight and loose, as Geoff Dyer once put it, following the model of jazz legend Charlie Mingus: ‘the Mingus ideal — tight and loose at the same time.’ Harvey’s book is funny as well, never more so than when she is off on one of her pet riffs, such as the inappropriate use of the descriptor ‘great’, in collocation with the noun ‘Britain’, and its appropriation to mean ‘above average’, ‘most important’, ‘really good’ etc., as it has been in countless outbursts in the Daily Mail and elsewhere, celebrating Britain and Britishness: ‘Great British Values, the Great British Public . . . The Great British people have spoken’ . . . ‘Who says we are great?’ asks Harvey, and ‘Great at what exactly? At being British?’ (As an aside, I always thought that the ‘great’ in Great Britain came about because the word ‘Britain’ is — rather neatly, in light of recent developments — borrowed from the French ‘Bretagne’ (Brittany). Topographically, the island of Britain somewhat resembles Brittany, and ‘Great Britain’ simply refers to a larger Brittany (Grande Bretagne) and was so called by the invading Normans to distinguish it from the region of northern France, just as Great Gidding is juxtaposed with Little Gidding, or Great Yarmouth (Norfolk) is differentiated from Yarmouth (Isle of Wight). However, such distinctions are doubtless irrelevant to readers of the Mail.)
The book’s narrative accurately mimics the wandering of the sleepless mind, as Harvey — or ‘the insomniac’, one of several voices through which she speaks — lies abed, struggling with her fears, her anxieties, the piled up detritus of her waking life, which includes, among other things, musings on the nature of language and Chomsky’s recursive grammar (by which we embed one clause inside another, one thought within another) versus the non-recursive language of the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon; the idiocy of Brexit (‘an almighty, extravagant, eternal show of shit’); her anger that ‘the week we gained Donald Trump as a world leader we lost Leonard Cohen, in some deal that even the Devil must have flinched at’; the fashion for prefixing the titles of TV programmes with the adjective ‘secret’, such as The Secret Lives of Dogs, The Secret Life of Ireland, The Secret Life of the Zoo, Secrets of Underground Britain (‘not so fucking secret are they, if every other programme is intent on airing them?’); the recurring memory of her first period in front of Ann Hathaways’s table while on a school trip to Stratford (‘the blood and the shame and the reckoning with a sanitary towel’); the wretchedness of adults (the abandonment and death of her beloved childhood dog); visits to an unsympathetic doctor (‘No catastrophising!’) and again to the infuriating therapist (“Why don’t you spray some lavender on your pillow?’); the nightly swelling fear of sleeplessness, and its inevitable, relentless arrival.
One of the most moving and unsettling passages in The Shapeless Unease is Harvey’s account of an hiatus in her year of not sleeping, when the insomniac responds to a sedating antidepressant and goes swimming. It is July and the sun blasts down on a small lake in a meadow in Wiltshire. The drug has gifted her a few nights of proper sleep and she has awoken to bright thoughts, is refreshed and energised. She swims up and down the lake. She swims below the surface, where there are ‘water fleas and nematodes and giant water bugs and scuds. Some small fish and tiny crustaceans. Even with goggles the insomniac can’t see any of this through the water, which is the amber of brewed tea that’s been lightly milked.’ We look down on the swimming insomniac from high in the pristine sky, gazing through the thin crisp air, past the ‘buzzards, pigeons, crows, magpies, swifts, all swimming at their own depths in the sky’, zooming in on the swimmer far below, who, just then, ‘stops mid-lake to float on her back and look up at the dragonflies and swifts and magpies and buzzards and can find no words for how extraordinary the world is and how inexplicable and gracious is life . . ’. As the drug starts to lose its effect, and the sleeplessness returns, the insomniac continues to visit the lake, but the beauty and mystery of the occasion begins to be clouded by doubts; as she swims up and down, arms windmilling in front crawl, she becomes convinced that something up in the sky is waiting to fall. It is a thought that has been there since she started taking the drugs; the imminence of insomnia’s return; the threat of a return to the long nights of nothing, nada.
A few days later the thought shifts: from the imagined high vantage point in the sky, will she be small enough to go unnoticed by the unnamed watcher? Who is the unnamed watcher? I imagine the figure of Death, who makes an appearance earlier in the book (a tall figure in black, carrying a scythe), when a girl (young Sam) and a boy (her cousin, whose death in real time appears early on in the book) are playing listlessly in a garden, and the two children follow the Reaper, in spite of themselves, and ‘begin to play a game for which there were no rules and no aim, because it seemed there was no choice.’
After nearly three weeks off swimming, the drugs have no effect at all, zero-sleep nights are back, and the ‘pale, starfished figure of the swimmer is like a piece of bait’. She has become bait: bait, I would venture, for the tirelessly patient figure of Death. She panics, feels alone and in danger. The fear of insomnia creeps into her every perception and the world is a dangerous place once more.
The blissful assent granted by swimming in a lake descends into panic, and one will do anything to have sleep back; one will bargain with insomnia, barter hopelessly with sleep; bargain with a God in whom one does not believe, or with Death itself.
* * *
Samantha Harvey is horrified by the ritual of dressing after a sleepless night, its abject necessity, its futile routine: ‘Always something unbearable about this process — the process of getting dressed in the morning after a night of no sleep, getting into the very clothes you took off the night before when you embarked on the ritual of bedtime as if such things as sleep applied to you any more. The pile of clothes is an open rebuke. I want to say they mock a lost innocence even though I know this makes no sense, but more and more I make this unconscious association between innocence and sleep.’ And she’s right to make this connection. The compound noun ‘bedtime’ is replete with cosy and infantile connotations of hot-water bottles and teddy bears, warm milk and winceyette pyjamas, the welcome imposition of a rehearsed and ordered normality, the unthinking acceptance that there is a time designated specifically for bed and innocent slumber. The insomniac suffers a heart-wrenching nostalgia for a time when ‘bedtime’ meant something good.
Perhaps getting dressed becomes an act of such grotesque routine, such cruel parody, because you yourself are a parody of a well-slept person getting dressed. In fact, almost all of the insomniac’s activity becomes in some way as if, parodic: so shattered and knackered have you become, such (I repeat) a shadow of yourself — and not until I became an insomniac did I appreciate the accuracy of that cliché. You are a parody of a person taking a shower; a parody of a person pouring a cup of coffee, a parody of a person making conversation: everything takes place at a remove, as if blearily observing yourself going through the motions of a normal life, all the time feeling at a remove, as if all this were happening to another person, an impostor, the person impersonator who has taken over your body and your mind when you weren’t paying attention. How could you have been so careless as to not pay attention, how could you have let the demons of sleeplessness steal your soul, take over your body? How could you have been so very, very stupid as to lose your innocence in this way, and with it lose all the good, kind, soft, well-washed things that pertain to sleep, allow them all to overrun and spill into the slurry of dirt and waste and rotten, broken things that furnish your insomniac’s beggarly basement? All this runs through your mind like the chattering of a thousand monkeys as you step into your jogging pants, and pull a hoodie over your head.
To be continued . . .
For today’s reading we join the inimitable Jorge Fondebrider at home in Buenos Aires for a reading of ‘Clearing out the house’, that sad activity most of us will carry out at some point in our lives, following the death of a parent.
You can listen to Jorge reading ‘Desmantelar la casa’ here.
You can listen to Jorge reading ‘Closing up the house’ here.
Closing up the house
Beyond the absence and the tremendous absurdity of what follows
– habits, such as calling every day,
for example, are hard to banish –
I am not sure if there is any such thing
as the true measure of death
until the house is empty, because
what once had a meaning and, of course, a story
can barely be summarized in an inventory:
two paintings, an armchair, the stove,
the bed and the sideboard.
The English china already doesn’t count,
nor the crystal glassware, the silver,
first editions of nothing that now matters.
They are old things,
objects that hover about the rooms with no purpose.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Desmantelar la casa
Más allá de la ausencia y del enorme despropósito que sigue
–costumbres que cuesta desterrar,
como llamar todos los días, por ejemplo–
no estoy seguro de que haya algo así
como la verdadera medida de la muerte
hasta que la casa se vacía, porque entonces
lo que tenía un sentido y por supuesto historia
apenas se resume en inventarios:
dos cuadros, un sillón, el samovar,
la cama y el bargueño.
La porcelana inglesa ya no cuenta,
ni el baccarat, la plata,
primeras ediciones de nada que ahora importe.
Son cosas viejas,
objetos que boyan en los cuartos sin razón.
Jorge Fondebrider (1956, Buenos Aires) is an Argentinian poet, critic and translator. Alongside his own collections, and several anthologies and studies of Argentinian poetry, he has published widely on such diverse topics as a history of Lycanthropy, a study of Argentinians in Paris, and books on Patagonia, Buenos Aires and Dublin. Fondebrider is also a well-known music journalist, and a translator from both French and English, notably of recent Irish writing. A bilingual Selected Poems, The Spaces Between, translated by Richard Gwyn, is available from Cinnamon (2013). His Collected Poems were published in 2016 as La extraña trayectoria de la luz (Buenos Aires: Bajolaluna).
Today’s poem, by the Bolivian Gabriel Chávez Casazola (pictured above), chimes perfectly with the lockdown zeitgeist. I love the gentle understatement, and calm acceptance of what is. The poem’s speaker dreams of travelling to distant places, all the while remaining at home: ‘I resign myself to the knowledge I have not left’. The most he can hope for is to ‘soar above the sheets’.
I was born within the confines
I was born within the confines of an elusive empire
bordered by imaginary and evasive lines.
Since childhood I wanted to know the heart of the region,
to visit the north, which was also the centre.
After many years of dreaming about roads
I resign myself to the knowledge that I have not left.
This morning a man across from me is conversing with the birds.
He tells them how to arrive at the jade palace.
I listen to this, thinking of the north,
of the centre,
of my old desire.
But now I am tired and the days weigh on me.
I have to be content with learning that language of birds
and, alone now, in my room, to soar above the sheets.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
He nacido en los confines
He nacido en los confines de un imperio inasible
rodeado por líneas imaginarias y huidizas.
Desde niño quise conocer el corazón de la comarca,
acudir a su norte que era también su centro.
Después de muchos años de soñar con caminos
me resigno a saber que no he partido.
Esta mañana un hombre enfrente mío conversa con los pájaros.
Les instruye la forma de llegar al palacio de jade.
Yo lo escucho pensando en el norte,
en el centro,
en mi viejo deseo.
Pero ya estoy cansado y los días me pesan.
He de conformarme con aprender ese idioma de aves
y, ya solo, en mi cuarto, planear sobre las sábanas.
Gabriel Chávez Casazola is a Bolivian poet and journalist. Born in 1972, his publications include Lugar Común, Escalera de Mano, El agua iluminada and La mañana se llenará de jardineros. His work has been translated into Portuguese, Italian, English and Romanian. He has contributed to several international poetry magazines. Two translations of his poems are included in The Other Tiger. For readers of Spanish, more can be found here: https://www.luzcultural.com/gabriel-chavez-casazola/
Today’s poem is by the Guatemalan K’iche’ Maya poet Humberto Ak’Abal, who died unexpectedly last year, at the age of 66. I met Humberto only once, but his intelligence, courtesy and gentleness made a lasting impression. Two of his poems appear in The Other Tiger.
The nights in Chonimutux
are thick and black.
You can pick up a little
between your hands
to seal off
small holes in the walls.
They are like inverted ravines.
If you keep looking at their depths
you will feel yourself falling headfirst
as if the earth were above you
and you were standing on the sky.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Las noches en Chonimutux
son espesamente negras.
un poco entre las manos
y tapar con ella
hoyitos en las paredes.
Son como barrancos boca abajo.
Si te quedás viendo su hondura
sentís irte de cabeza
como si la tierra estuviera arriba
y uno parado en el cielo.
Humberto Ak’Abal was born in 1952 in Momostenango, Guatemala, of the K’iche’ Maya people. He started out as a shepherd and weaver before leaving to find work in Guatemala City as a street vendor. He wrote in Maya-k’iche and Spanish, and his work has translated into many languages, including French, English, German, Arabic and Italian. Ak’Abal published twenty books of poetry, as well as three books of short stories, and two books of essays. Ak’Abal died suddenly in January 2019.
Today’s house is a childhood home in Santiago de Chile, revisited by the poet Verónica Zondek after years in exile, following the Pinochet dictatorship. The poem burrows and weaves its way through the dusty enclaves of the past, trying to make sense of ‘progreso’, which as well as meaning ‘progress’, is an area of Zondek’s native city.
You can listen to Verónica Zondek reading ‘Progreso’ on video below.
I know it without betrayal or evidence.
This is my house and yet it’s not.
Memories boil and bubble from step to step
and towering up to the 15th floor, get lost in the nothingness of sky
grey now and not the blue of No, I remember.
Three stairs with footprints and mud in the entrance
a cranky horseshoe on a nail in the door
and an aura that protects the family’s breath.
Yes, a chequered floor in the kitchen
a spruce chess board and Clorinda for thorough hygiene
bread that is promptly kneaded in memory
an oven that bakes the cake of childhood’s clay.
Yes, I remember the shifting shade of the shutters
and the eternal counting of lines in sleeplessness
and the voices from heaven
and also the others
those that reprimand
those that invade my head in supposed sleep
and make me read by the light of a torch
so that God willing panic doesn’t spread.
Yes, a grumbling staircase absorbs my school shoes
and reveals and flaunts that strident independence.
Yes, once loud and swaggering,
swelling with laughter and tears and the nerves of a beginner,
hooked, like everyone, in the eye of their own time.
So many days wandering in the desert of the home
concentrating on the alien talk of adults
filling the emptiness that occasionally swells
to later stitch together a story, only intelligible,
of course, in one formerly so sane,
and that wardrobe of surprises in the corridor
nothing less than an ancient sea in full surge
buried beneath one and seven keys of Cerberus
silence and secret seldom ajar
pirates’ chest and cave of cursed elf
wishing for illness so as to break the seal
and the shining white walls of adobe
naked and without a skin when the earth shakes
and the books that collapse on your head
and the invasion of master bonesetters
and the dust and the mess and the cornered silence
and the tremendous bother of hustle and bustle.
Vanity of the matter that shelters memory
like a silent treasure box surrendered to the digger.
cold and beautiful like the blue ice of glaciers
that barely able and with the road’s consent
neither knows nor asks
and takes control and buries beneath the thunder of doing
the loveliest thought and chained to the fire
that already once was snatched from us.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Lo sé sin traición ni documento.
Esta es mi casa y ya no es.
Hierven y suben los recuerdos de escalón en escalón
y altísimos hasta el piso 15 se pierden en la nada del cielo
gris ahora y no azul del no, ya recuerdo.
Tres peldaños con pisadas y barro en la entrada
una herradura quejumbrosa en un clavo de la puerta
y un aura que defiende el hálito familiar.
Sí, un piso cuadriculado en la cocina
Un pulcro tablero y una Clorinda para el buen aseo
Un pan que presto se amasa en la memoria
Un horno que cuece la torta del barro infantil.
Sí, recuerdo la sombre alternada de los postigos
y el eterno recuento de líneas en desvelo
y las voces celestiales
y también las otras
las que amonestan
las que invaden mi cabeza en reposo pretendido
y obligan la lectura a la luz de una linterna
para que Dios mediante no cunda el pánico.
Sí, una quejumbrosa escalera recibe mis zapatos colegiales
y destapa y ondea esa independencia de pelo en pecho.
Sí, una entonces bravucona y vociferante
una hinchada en llanto y risa nervios de principiante
una colgada como todos en el ojo del tiempo propio.
Tantos y tantos días errantes en el desierto del hogar
concentrada en el decir aparte de los mayores
llenando el vacío que a ratos hincha
para luego hilvanar una historia en demasía propia
inteligible, por supuesto, en un otrora tan cuerdo
y ese armario con sorpresas en el pasillo
no otra cosa que un mar antañoso con su completo oleaje
encerrado bajo una y siete llaves de cancerbero
silencio y secreto pocas veces entreabierto
baúl de piratas y cueva de duende maldito
deseando la dolencia para violarle el sello
y las albas paredes de adobe
desnudas y sin cáscara en medio de las tembladeras
y los libros que derrumban sobre la cabeza
y la invasión de maestros componedore
y el polvo y el desorden y el silencio arrinconado
y la tremenda molestia del ajetreo.
Vanidad de la materia que acoge el recuerdo
cual cofre silente entregado a la retroexcavadora.
frío y bello como el hielo azul de los glaciares
que pudiendo apenas y con la venia de dónde la carretera
tampoco sabe ni pregunta
y toma la sartén por la mango y entierra bajo el trueno del hacer
el bellísimo pensar y encadenado al fuego
que una vez ya nos fue arrebatado.
Verónica Zondek was born in Santiago de Chile in 1953. She has a History of Art degree from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and has published a dozen poetry collections and an anthology of Chilean poetry, Cartas al azar (1989). She is a writer of diverse interests, having compiled a major study of the Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral, and a children’s book: La mission de Katalia (2002). She is a member of the editorial committee for the independent publishing house LOM Ediciones in Santiago, and has translated many poets from English – most recently, Anne Carson.