Tag Archives: Tom Pow

Fictions and Foreigners: Borges and Alastair Reid

19 Aug

borges in library

The first story I read by Borges, at the age of eighteen, was Tlön, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis. Although the name would have meant nothing to me at the time, the translation was by Alastair Reid. Forty years later, I get to meet the man, now 88 years of age, a little frayed around the edges, but alert and bright eyed as a moorland bird. He lives in New York but spends part of every summer in the Dumfries and Galloway region where he was born and raised. I have been advised that Alastair would prove an invaluable repository of experiences and anecdotes for my researches into Latin American literature, concerning, among others, Borges, Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez, all of whom he knew well – Borges, best of all. And so it was that one bright July morning I set out with my friend Tom Pow across the Dumfries countryside towards our rendezvous.

I have yet to transcribe the recording, but two things stood out in our conversation. Neither of them will be surprising to those who are familiar with the work of Borges, but they are fascinating to me nonetheless.

Alastair Reid

Alastair Reid, July 2014.

Translating Borges was, according to Alastair Reid, at times like re-translating something that had originally been written in English, and subsequently translated into Spanish. This, apparently, was due to Borges’ own familiarity and long use of the English language (he had an English grandmother, was brought up bilingual, and learned to read in English at an early age). The task of the translator, then, felt like rendering the story back into its original language, which Alastair described as a somewhat unsettling or daunting experience, and quite unlike translating other Spanish language writers.

The other thing that stood out for me in our talk was Alastair’s insistence that for Borges everything was a ficción, a fiction. As he puts it in his essay ‘Fictions’ (in the wonderful collection Outside In): ‘Borges referred to all his writings – essays, stories, poems, reviews – as fictions. He never propounded any particular theory of fictions, yet it is the key to his particular lucid, keen, and ironic view of existence.’ I was dimly aware of this, but not to the extent that this infiltrated his approach to literature and the world. In his essay, Alastair Reid elaborates:

A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.

Reality, that which is beyond language, functions by mainly indecipherable laws, which we do not understand, and over which we have limited control. To give some form to reality, we bring into being a variety of fictions.

A fiction, it is understood, can never be true, since the nature of language is utterly different from the nature of reality.

And so on.

Alastair Reid’s essays contain so many observations and aperçus about the writers he has worked with (the 1976 essay ‘Basilisk’s Eggs’ is another gem) it would do them little justice to summarize. And that is only half the story: some of Reid’s most impressive writing concerns his own reflections on travel and identity: on the one side his Scottish beginnings, or ‘roots’ (a word he treats with caution), on the other the years of wandering. Perhaps my favourite is ‘Notes on being a Foreigner’ in which the author makes astute and (to my mind) accurate observations on that state or condition – one that a person is probably born to – as opposed to, say, a tourist or an expatriate.

‘Tourists are to foreigners as occasional tipplers are to alcoholics – they take strangeness and alienation in small, exciting doses, and besides, they are well fortified against loneliness . . .

. . . An expatriate shifts uncomfortably, because he still retains, at the back of his mind, the awareness that he has a true country, more real to him than any other he happens to have selected. Thus he is only at ease with other expatriates . . .

. . . The foreigner’s involvement is with where he is. He has no other home. There is no secret landscape claiming him, no roots tugging at him. He is, if you like, properly lost, and so in a position to rediscover the world, form outside in.’

As for being ‘properly lost’ – this is a theme to be continued ( if I make it back to Wales).

The Question

31 Mar



 by Tom Pow



How do people live?

He was standing two in front of me

in W. H. Smith’s and what

he wanted to know was,

How do people live? He asked

the question as if someone

had given it to him as a gift –

his eyes shone with the wonder of it.

How do people live? He looked around

at us all, knowing the question to be

unanswerable, knowing that no one

had an option but to shake their heads

or to look down at their hands,

holding Heat magazine

or the day’s trivia or greeting cards

which laid claim to the most minor

matters concerning how people live.

Yet he must keep on asking the question –

though a couple of girls giggle,

a boy exhales testily

and a child begins to cry –

for it was never the same question

twice. Each time there was

a subtle difference to it.

How do people live? implied

something substantially different

to How do people live? It was

a question of weighting: one

suggested method, the other

a question of will. Clearly,

to him, it was all a mystery

and a miracle. And who was not

in the queue that morning

who did not feel something stir,

as that man, with the worn trench-coat

and the unkempt grey hair, asked

and asked again, How do people live?

How do people live nowadays?

This new inflection brought the question

close. How could it not, when each day

we saw the world burn, flags on fire,

hatred woven through the air? This question

had a smell. It was acrid –

gunpowder, dying seas, a last

sour gasp. The sound

was of languages falling silent;

children crying, a mother’s despair.


Then, like a ringmaster, he cracked

the whip of that first question again,

as if he had cleared the decks

of the clogging world and we heard

with a new clarity: How do people live?

The question deepened now.

He was rowing us out to the centre

of a loch, where the waters were so dark

as to be impenetrable. But it was the only question

worth asking, though asking it made life

seem chancy. How do people live?

Where was the next breath

coming from? We were climbers

on a cliff of blue ice. We’d slip.

Nothing surer. The space was terrifying.

We watched a lottery ticket float into it,

as worthless as everything, now

that all we wanted was to hold an answer

to us – it was all that could save us.

How do people live? There was no

David Attenborough to tell us

how to make huts, to invent fire,

to carve a hole in the ice. We were far out.

Unreachable. How do people live? What more

could he have done but ask the question –

though asking it gave no relief?


He nodded slightly in his shabby coat, then left us,

to invent fire, to carve a hole for himself in the ice.



From The Poem Goes To Prison – Poems chosen by readers at HMP Barlinnie, edited by Kate Hendry (Scottish Poetry Library 2010).

How do people live?

22 Mar

Swans on the Taff, Cardiff.


How do we construct a life as we go along? The things we do and say, the actions that make us who we are? Sometimes all of this is bewildering. I look for clues everywhere, including under the bed. I find a few empty boxes, some crayons, a broken hunter watch belonging to Taid (my grandfather) which saw out four years in the trenches in World War One but was not able to resist my two-year old daughter swinging a toy hammer. Bits and pieces.

Tom Pow, the Scottish poet, told me the other week that he had been working in a prison and a disturbed long-term inmate had started declaiming, to the world at large, How do people live? – a question perhaps more appropriate, and less taken-for-granted than might at first appear.

Part of the aim of this blog is to reflect on the mutable universe, and the roles that we play within it. One of the delights of having a camera app on your mobile phone is that you can snap things at random, which taken together in the course of a day can cast a peculiar light on that very general plea, made by the prisoner of how do people live, at a very unspectacular level.  It is something I will never grasp entirely, but which can be illuminated by these fragmented moments, taken at intervals with no plan or purpose, amounting to a broken narrative of what passes by. With no plan or purpose, but always stalked by memory.



Warning sign, near Cwrt-y-gollen army camp.



Ancient tree at the bottom of Gypsy Lane, Llangenny. When I was a kid it blew my mind to learn that this tree was here when the Normans arrived.



Bridge where I once played.



Where do we go from here?






A modest epiphany

24 Feb



From left: John Galán (Colombia), Iman Mersal (Egypt), Frank Báez (Dominican Republic), Tom Pow (Scotland).


Sometimes a short poem hits the mark, for no particular reason, and without providing any easy way of explaining to others the random pleasure it delivers.

I am looking through Postales, an intriguing book of poems by the young Dominican poet Frank Báez – for me one of the finds of the Granada Poetry Festival – and I notice this little gem, a sweetly ironic homage to Ginsburg:




I haven’t seen the best minds

of my generation and nor does it bother me.



In the original:



No he visto las mejores mentes

De mi generación y ni me interesa.




Carnival photos

18 Feb

Here are a few pictures from Wednesday’s carnival in Granada, Nicaragua, where The Tears of Disenchantment (or broken-heartedness) were buried, allegedly.



Minotaur, checking the layout of things



Orange dancers



Carnival hearse



Mr Tom Pow, poet of Scotland





Mr De'Ath



Trio of Devils



Ron Winkler, poet of Germany



Blanco reads his poem 'Rules of Conduct'



A coven of devils



Rose and Sasja take a breather




Carnival interaction

Brief interaction



Ann Cotten, Poet of Austria



Derek Walcott in carnival carriage



Policewoman with flowers








Devils with coffin





Burying poverty and misery

9 Feb


The banner photograph at the top of Blanco’s Blog was taken last year in Granada, Nicaragua at the VII International Festival of Poetry, towards the end of a rather hectic afternoon, on which misery and poverty were cast into Lake Nicaragua, encased in a coffin. Whether or not it worked I am yet to see, but am returning to Granada this weekend, with Mrs Blanco, so may find out. I doubt very much whether Daniel Ortega’s re-election as president will have secured the objectives aimed for by the coffin-carrying devils of last year, pictured here by the Scottish poet Brian Johnstone, but next Wednesday, apparently, Las Lágrimas del desamor or the ‘tears of indifference’ will be done away with and buried. We’ll see how that goes.

But to return to the photo on the blog’s banner, a couple of people have pointed out how the black-masked demon pops up behind the three amigos: he is easy to miss, as he seems an integral part of the background. This picture has haunted me for a long time, and I have practically no memory of taking it; everything was happening very quickly, and I certainly didn’t notice the reaper coming up on the left.

The Festival is held every February in the ancient city of Granada, supposedly the first to be built by the Spanish on the American mainland. Poets are invited from around the world: last year over fifty countries were represented by around a hundred poets.  My main interest is concerned with a project I have been working on for the past eighteen months: I am putting together an anthology of contemporary Latin American poetry.  This year, apart from the many poets from Latin America who will be attending, there are big names from the English-speaking world: Derek Walcott and Robert Pinsky (as well, of course, as my other Scottish compadre, Tom Pow).

More will follow.

Who do we think we are?

24 Jul


The birthday card I received from Mrs Blanco this year shows a partly hidden figure reclining in an armchair, cats in attendance, dwarfed by an enormous bookcase that, it is suggested, continues into the vastness of infinity.

She tells me this is how she sees me, which is interesting, and although I would not mind turning into the gentleman on the card at some point in the future, I still have a vague notion of myself as a passionate man of action, albeit with literary leanings. The fact that I have never, in actual fact, ever been a passionate man of action seems to make no impression on the part of me that decides on who I think I am. Like most people, who I think I am does not necessarily coincide with the way others see me.

Pursuing the theme of who we think we might become I have for some years now nurtured an image for my retirement – should such an event ever arise – that I once encountered in a poem (see below) by Jaime Gil de Biedma. I quoted this to a friend, the Scottish poet Tom Pow, a few months ago. He burst out laughing, and told me “But you’ve already lived like a derelict nobleman among the ruins of your intelligence. You did that in your twenties. You might be thinking of doing something differently in your retirement.” He is probably right. Nevertheless, I still like Gil’s poem, caught somewhere between irreparable nostalgia and a melancholy pleasure in the present, as reflecting an ideal way to finish one’s days on earth.



In an old and inefficient country,

something like Spain between two civil

wars, in a village next to the sea,

to have a house and a little land

and no memories at all. Not to read,

nor suffer; not to write, nor pay bills,

and to live like a derelict nobleman

among the ruins of my intelligence.


From Jaime Gil de Biedma, Las Personas del Verbo (1982) tr. R. Gwyn