Tag Archives: Bogotá

Ballad of the House

2 May
Romulo Bustos

Colombian poet Romulo Bustos Aguirre

 

 

Last Tuesday saw the launch in Bogotá of Rómulo Bustos Aguirre’s Collected Poems (1988-2013), La pupila incesante. The event was introduced by another fine Colombian poet, Darío Jaramillo Agudelo. Both poets feature in my forthcoming anthology, The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America, to be published by Seren in October. Using a language rich in metaphysical allusion and sensual imagery, Rómulo Bustos is a writer of ‘slow’ poetry, inspired by the landscape and themes of his native Caribbean. A professor of literature at the University of Cartagena, he has won the National Poetry Prize from the Instituto Colombiano de Cultura, and the Blas de Otero Prize from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Here is my translation of a poem of Rómulo’s, which was published in the Irish poetry magazine Cyphers, back in December 2014.

 

Ballad of the House

You will find a house with a strange name

	that you will attempt in vain to decipher

And walls the colour of good dreams

But you will not see that colour

Nor will you drink the red plum wine

	that expands memories

On the fence

a child with a half-open book

Ask him the way to the big trees

whose fruits are guarded by an animal

that sends passers-by to sleep just by looking at them

And he will answer while conversing

	with a green-winged angel

(as if it were another child playing at being an angel

with wide banana leaves stuck to his back)

barely moving his lips in a gentle spell

“the cockerel’s song isn’t blue but a sleepy pink

like the first light of day”

And you will not understand. And nevertheless

you will find an immense hallway that I crossed

where the portrait of a lord hangs, shimmering

	slightly, his heart in his hand

And at the back, right at the back,

the soul of the house seated in a rocking chair, singing

But you will not heed her


Because in that instant

A distant sound shall crumple the horizon

And the child will have finished the last page

 

Translation by Richard Gwyn

 

 

Balada de la casa

 

Hallarás una casa con un nombre extraño

que intentarás descifrar en vano

Y muros del color de los buenos sueños

Pero tú no verás ese color

Tampoco beberás el vino rojo de los ciruelos

que ensancha los recuerdos

En la verja

un niño con un libro entreabierto

Pregúntale por el camino de los grandes árboles

cuyos frutos guarda un animal

que adormece a los andantes con sólo mirarlos

Y él contestará mientras conversa

con un ángel de alas verdes

(como si fuera otro niño que juega al ángel

y se hubiera colocado anchas hojas de plátano a la espalda)

moviendo apenas los labios en un leve conjuro

“el canto del gallo no es azul sino de un rosa dormido

como el primer claro del día”

Y tú no entenderás. Y sin embargo

hallarás un zaguán que yo recorrí inmenso

donde cuelga el retrato de un señor que resplandece

levemente, con el corazón en la mano

Y al fondo, muy al fondo

el alma de la casa sentada en una mecedora, cantando

Pero tú no la escucharás

 

Pues, en ese instante

Un sonido lejano ajará el horizonte

Y el niño habrá pasado la última de las páginas

 

Rómulo Bustos Aguirre (Colombia)

 

Bolívar Square

9 Sep

Bogota homeless man

 

I caught sight of this man crossing the Plaza de Bolívar, and from a distance something looked very wrong. He had a strange loping gait, and was clutching a small white ticket in his right hand, and what looked like sheets of parchment in his left. I am sure they were not sheets of parchment, but they could have been, in another story. His eyes were gone, into the lost territories of the crack addict or the madman. I had the sensation that something or someone was speaking to him, and he was attempting to respond, talking aloud, although not shouting, and waving the sheets of parchment as though they had a particular meaning. He seemed accustomed to the fact that people turn away from in the street, and dogs follow him nervously, but no longer paid it any mind. Like many homeless people in Bogotá he lives mainly off the things he finds in refuse bins, eating food that people have thrown away, searching the same street or group of streets again and again in the course of the day, occasionally confronting an intruder on his territory, at which point the two will face off, possibly come to blows, and then one will shuffle off. I saw this happen earlier in a park at the top of Avenida Jímenez, where the San Francisco river once came down from the mountain and is now channelled via a concrete waterway, where it accumulates debris and rubbish and plastic bags, and is left that way. The mountain beyond is nearly always covered in mist. The weather is complicated, and the late afternoon and evening, inexplicably, is colder than the night.

bogota cathedral

 

Bogota up the hill

 

 

 

 

The Two Worlds of Bogotá

8 Sep

 

homless

Photo by Juan Arredono

 

Navigating Bogotá can be an exasperating business, on several levels. Certain aspects of life in the city are perplexing. The street system – while appearing quite logical on paper – is practically incomprehensible. Yesterday we spent over an hour in a taxi whose good-natured but confused driver was unable to find the address we had been directed to in the elite outreaches of the city. We took so long arriving our hosts had begun to worry we might have been abducted. The city sprawls upward and outward, housing the upper reaches of society in the north, while to the south dismal shanty towns, without fresh water, sanitation or electricity and spewing sewage into the muddy streets, have been occupied over the years by a stream of refugees from the violence and poverty in other parts of the country. This was a violence that claimed so many lives that it makes the losses of other countries on the continent that suffered brutal regimes in the 70s and 80s look almost paltry in comparison: two million certified dead, several million more disappeared or displaced The number of refugees has swollen the population of the city – officially around 8 million, but generally acknowledged to be well in excess of that figure.

Meanwhile, as in so many other cities, the comfort and privilege of the few are considerable. If you walk or drive around these smarter streets, you will, however, come across the most desperate beggars imaginable. I don’t know why that is: the homeless shouldn’t be on a sliding scale of depravity and wretchedness, but somehow the street-dwellers of Bogotá seem more lamentable than anywhere I have been. They are often so moribund that they are too far gone to put out a hand, or mutter a supplication: many of them just sprawl flat out on the pavement, or hang onto a railing, gurning toothlessly as the world passes them by. The victims of poverty, rampant drug abuse and despair, these sorry individuals, caked with grime, shoeless and utterly beyond concern, stagger around the streets as though returning visions from hell. And today, as I pass by a newly opened Dunkin Donuts, one of them stares at me briefly, glazed, uncomprehending, covered in the filth of centuries, clothed in colourless rags, and to my shock I realise that this ancient vision is actually a young man, probably still in his twenties, and I shudder.

 

 

The Cure, ‘Killing an Arab’, and The Others

4 Sep

 

Sometimes the past just won’t leave you alone.

When I lived in London – a long, long time ago – I went to a lot of gigs and occasionally had walk-on roles as a ‘poet’ with bands at insalubrious venues in the punk and immediate post-punk era. My most stellar performance took place alongside The Cure at a gig in Walthamstow. I don’t have a clear memory of the circumstances – in those days most social interactions took place in a frantic haze of amphetamines and alcohol – and so I am unclear now whether the things that I remember are the things that actually took place, or whether some other version of events has taken their place, perhaps a version enacted or modified by the person I refer to as my Other, who has been responsible for many of the things I would rather not remember over the years.

Because I foolishly mentioned it in a blurb when I was short of ideas, the ‘Cure gig’ has become a recurrent incident about which I am required to give an account at various events in different places in the world where, for reasons quite beyond my understanding, I happen to be interviewed by a Cure fan. This morning was possibly the worst example yet.

I was introduced to the sound of ‘Killing an Arab’ pounding over the speakers, in front of over a hundred Colombian schoolchildren, who, I was almost certain, would have no idea who The Cure were, and a few jaded poets of my own generation, who probably did. I was then asked to give an account of what happened that fateful night in 1980 when somebody introduced me to Robert Smith, and I ended up on stage spouting all kinds of drivel dressed up as performance poetry (and was, I seem to recall, asked back by Mr Smith to do another set).

I then have to talk to the kids about How to Be a Writer. I am in the process of delivering my usual reply, of reading a lot and learning to lie with impunity, when it occurs to me that the whole Cure story might just as well be a lie. Did I in fact make this story up? Perhaps it would be easier to claim that I have, and then I wouldn’t need to recount what happened when I can’t really remember. I could just say Sorry guys, that was just a lie. I made it up. Or else I could recount it anyway, on the understanding that what I was saying was not necessarily the truth; that these things happened, but happened to my Other.

However, after the event, these beautifully turned out and well-behaved Colombian school kids, to whom I assumed I was talking of matters as remote as The Magna Carta, turned out to know as much about the British punk scene of the late 1970s as I do (or can remember). Did I know the Sex Pistols? How about The Clash? Was I friends with Johnny Rotten? Johnny, I tell them, makes commercials for a popular brand of butter these days. They seem a little bewildered by this reply.

Which brings me to the post of two days ago: ¿Donde están los otros? ‘Where are the others?’ I have a feeling this graffiti is going to pursue me for the duration of my Colombian trip. And I wonder if there is another wall, in a parallel Bogotá, in which the others have written an identical message, referring of course to the ones who put the graffiti there in the first place, making them the others’ others.

And as I watch the TV after the reading, with its footage of mass shootings in Iraq, I begin to imagine how this question, ‘Where are the others?’ could keep recurring in an infinite series of parallel Bogotás, to the soundtrack of The Cure playing a song with a horribly contemporary title.

 

 

 

 

 

Deconstructing the Wise Old Man

3 Sep

The Wise Old Man

 

Lord, protect us from the wise old men of literature

Though in fact, the Lord may be the last person to do this protecting. At the literary festival I am currently attending, and at every such conference or festival I have attended to date in various parts of the world there has been a celebration of some great writer, living or dead. All, with a single exception, have been men.

Last night, a Mexican poet was celebrated here in Bogotá. During the sycophantic introduction to this venerable and ancient poet, I was alarmed to be told that he was responsible for one of ‘the three great works of misogyny’ of the 20th century.

How can it be acceptable to make a statement of that kind, especially in the context of a society like Mexico, in which violence against women is of epidemic proportions? (You do not need to have ploughed through Bolaño’s 2666 to be aware of this fact, although it helps). How can it be acceptable for educated men to make jokes about this, and to laugh amongst themselves, as they did at the event last night? Would it be OK to laugh at an announcement that such and such a book was one of the ‘great racist novels of the twentieth century’? And yet somehow, in too many places, it is perfectly OK to derogate women in a way that would be considered unacceptable if a similar derogatory comment were directed at people of another race or colour.

And here is where we get to the ‘maestro’, the great man of literature, whose sonorous tones must be heard, whose opinions must be listened to, even if those opinions are self-regarding pap and without conceivable value. It is one of the dangers associated with the prestige given to writers in certain societies, as compared, say, with Great Britain, where no one gives a toss what writers think, and where the prestige of the poet is somewhere on a par with that of a refuse collector – but well beneath that of a pest control operative.

European writers might at first be impressed or flattered by the respect afforded writers elsewhere, and the bowing and scraping that goes on in the presence of so-called ‘great’ writers, especially old ones, however decrepit, lecherous or boring they might be. However, the problem is that the stereotype of the wise old man is, to put it crudely, a bit of a bollocks.

The fact of the matter is that many people simply get stupider as they get older; their prejudices atrophy, their most disagreeable characteristics come to the forefront, and they are only interested in talking (or hearing) about themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where are the others, Señor British Citizen?

2 Sep

Britich Citizen

Landing at Bogotá must be quite challenging for an airline pilot. The city is on a plane high in the Andes, and both times I’ve landed here we’ve come down with a bump. Lonely Planet online warns its readers: “Bogotá is at 2640 meters, slightly above 8300 feet. Altitude adaptation takes time – the first day or two, take it easy.” By taking it easy, do they mean one should walk more slowly than usual? I will attempt a slow walk up to the shopping centre from my hotel, where I am being hosted by the cultural programme entitled Las Líneas de su Mano – where we will perform our work and discuss translation. But first I must get a cheap phone. As I leave the hotel a bicycle courier crashes his bike into the kerb and falls headfirst over his handlebars. He looks shaken, but claims to be OK. In the phone shop the young man with the complicated haircut takes my passport and photocopies it. When he returns with my purchase order, I have a new name: Richard British Citizen. Since Spanish surnames are composed of two parts: the father’s and the mother’s surnames respectively, I guess they must have thought my dad was called British and my mother, Citizen. It kind of makes sense. As much as anything makes sense. Walking back from the phone shop a youth darts into the traffic without looking, causing a truck to brake and swerve across the road. The weather is cloudy and the air is thin. It rains for ten minutes, then stops. The sun is far away, behind the clouds, beyond the mountain peaks.

Donde estan los otros

 

Walking back to the hotel I see a piece of graffiti: ¿Donde están los otros? Where are the others? Indeed, where are they? Have they crashed their bikes, or been run over by a truck? Or are they just late in arriving, because they have to walk so very slowly. Just as well we are not in La Paz, whose altitude is over 4,000 metres. People there would walk really slowly, were it not for the fact that there is always a helpful street vendor to hand, selling coca leaves, which, I am assured, help with respiration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t wash your femurs here

7 Jul

no lavar femures

Why would anyone leaving a sign above a sink with a warning that femurs should not be washed? Probably only in an archaeology laboratory at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. I was visiting the labs with two archaeologists at the university, Elizabeth and Luis, who showed me some of the work they are undertaking with human remains from the pre-Columbian period: burial chambers, sarcophagi and what not. They also showed us around the Museo de Oro, a fabulous museum containing more gold than anyone will ever need. I am not big on gold, but some of the craftsmanship of the work was extraordinary. I was more struck by the section on shamanism, the images of animal transformation and artefacts associated with the use of hallucinogenic plants, with which many of the indigenous people of the region have been closely associated.

The figure below, a pre-Columbian anticipation of Rodin’s Thinker – the elongated head apparently indicates status, but could equally well be the result of ingesting too many of the aforementioned hallucinogens – was particularly striking.

thinker bogota museo de oro

Finally, on a not unrelated theme, a nice piece of street graffiti from Bogotá advertising a ‘Carnaval Cannabico’, in which we might safely guess that very little got done.

carnaval vannabico