One of the most important Latin American poets, chronicler, scriptwriter, professor and translator, he was born in Lima on 27 December 1942. He studied at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, where he obtained his doctorate in Literature in 1974. He travelled to Europe in 1967 and taught at several universities. He was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978 and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst Fellowship in 1985.
He has published the following books of poetry: ‘Destierro’ (Banishment) (1961), ‘David’ (1962), ‘Comentarios reales’ (1964), ‘Canto ceremonialial contra un oso hormiguero’ (Ceremonial song against an anteater ) (1968), ‘Agua que no tienes de beber’ (Water you do not have to drink) (1971), ‘Como higuera en un campo de golf’ (‘Like a fig tree on a golf course) (1972), ‘El libro de Dios y de los húngaros’ (The book of God and the Hungarians) (1978), ‘Crónica del Niño Jesús de Chilca’ (Chronicle of the Child Jesus of Chilca) (1982), ‘Monólogo de la casta Susana y otros poemas’ (Susana caste monologue and other poems) (1986), ‘Dracula de Bram Stoker’ (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) (1991), ‘Las inmensas preguntas celestes’ (The immense celestial questions) (1992). Un crucero a las islas Galápagos’ (A cruise to the Galapagos Islands) (2005). He has published the following compilations and anthologies of his work: ‘Por la noche los gatos’ (At night the cats) (1989), ‘Poesía, una historia de locos’ (Poetry, a crazy story) (1990), ‘Propios como ajenos’ (Own as foreign) (1991), ‘Poesía reunida’ (Poetry collected) (1996), ‘Postales para Lima’ (Postcards for Lima) (1999), ‘Poesía’ (Poetry) (three volumes) 2000, ‘Comentarios Reales´ 2003, ‘Como un carbón prendido entre la niebla’ (‘Like a coal lit in the fog’) (2007), ‘A cada quien su animal’ (To each his animal) (2008), ‘El caballo sin libertador’ (The horse without a liberator) (2009), “Diarios de naufragio” (Shipwreck diaries), (2010). He has published the following prose books: ‘El arte de envolver pescado’ (The art of wrapping fish) (1990), ‘El libro del buen salvaje’ (The book of the good savage) (1997), ‘El diente del Parnaso’ (The tooth of Parnassus) (1999), ‘Ciudades en el tiempo’ (Cities in time) (2001), ‘Cuentos idiotas’ (Idiot stories) (2002), ‘Los viajes del buen salvaje’ (The voyages of the good savage) (2008) and ‘Diario de un diabético hospitalizado’ (Diary of a hospitalized diabetic) (2010). His poetry has been translated into fourteen languages.
Among other distinctions, as a poet, he was awarded the National Poetry Prize, the Casa de las Américas Prize (Cuba), the Rubén Darío Poetry Prize, the Cosapi National Prize for Innovation, the Gabriela Mistral Prize of the Organisation of American States, the José Donoso Ibero-American Prize (Chile), the Víctor Sandoval Prize of Poets of the Latin World (Mexico), the Order of Knight of Arts and Letters of France, the Order of Merit for Distinguished Services in the Grade of Grand Cross of Peru, the civic medal of the Municipality of Lima, the Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Prize (Chile) and the Southern Peru Prize. He was a founding member of the World Academy of Poetry in Verona, sponsored by UNESCO. His work has been honoured at the University of Kentucky, at the Cervantes Institute in New York, at the International Book Fair in Lima and at the Encuentro de Poetas del Mundo Latino in Morelia, Mexico.
He taught literature at the universities of Huamanga and San Marcos, as well as at those Southampton (England), Nice (France), Eötvos Lórand (Budapest), Berkeley and Virginia (USA). He has been a guest of the Royamment Abbey, Paris, where he organized a translation seminar around his work, as well as a guest of the Japan Foundation in Tokyo.
He worked as a journalist in the newspapers and magazines Amaru, Marka, Monos y monadas, Caretas, El idiota, among others, and directed El caballo rojo (The red horse), 30 días (30 Days), El búho (The Owl), and Sí (Yes). He was the creator and host of the radio programme “La crónica del oso hormiguero” (The Chronicle of the Anteater), and of the television programme “Conversando con Antonio Cisneros” (Speaking with Antonio Cisneros). He carried out important cultural work as founding director of the Centro Cultural Inca Garcilaso of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until the date of his death on 6 October 2012.
Antonio Cisneros is no longer among us. For those of us who loved him and had the privilege of being among his closest friends, it will be very difficult to accept this absence. When someone like Toño leaves, it is not just that an existence is goes up: life, one feels, has less brightness.
It is the work of Cisneros, undoubtedly one of the highest works of contemporary poetry in the Spanish language. Its importance in Peruvian literature is also unquestionable. From Destierro (Exile) (1961) to Un crucero a las islas Galápagos (A cruise to the Galapagos Islands) (2005), the poetry of Antonio Cisneros is discovered, in its various scales, as the lyrical chronicle of an experience whose sign is the journey. From distance and encounters, as well as of discoveries and misdirection, he gives an account of a writing that is oriented in the waters – often agitated – of the community and personal history.
“El puerto/casi ha llegado/ hasta los barcos” (The port/has almost arrived/ even the ships) declared, with discreet melancholy, the poetic voice in the book of the novitiate. Fifty-four years later, a feverish and clairvoyant speaker says, in the first prose poem of Un crucero a las islas Galápagos: “No es en esos meandros, donde viven los peces de agua dulce, que yo el gran capitán broadcaster destajero, con cien pesos al mes mientras navego y ciento treinta cuando estoy en tierra, he sentido terror por lo que resta de mi ordinaria vida”. (It is not in those meanders, where the freshwater fish live, that I, the great broadcaster captain, on a hundred pesos a month while sailing and a hundred and thirty when I am on land, I have felt terror for the rest of my ordinary life).
Significantly, among the main settings of poetry of Antonio Cisneros are the coastlines and the shores: changing boundaries that unite and separate margins where destinies are decided and balance sheets are drawn up. The points of departure and of arrival encourage the examination of an identity that is never fixed, because time is its channel and transit is its sign. This is already recognised in the very titles of “Entre el desembarcadero de San Nicolás y este gran mar” (Between the landing stage of San Nicolas and this great sea) and “Medir y pesar las diferencias a este lado del canal” (Measuring and weighing the differences on this side of the channel), two key poems in Canto ceremonial contra un oso hormiguero (1968), which won the Casa de las Américas Award of Cuba, when this award was the most prestigious for poetry in Spanish.
Lyric poetry is, as is well known, the speech of a first person. However, in the work of Cisneros, the voice is one and multiple: through dramatic monologue and a wide distribution of presences, the poet expands the orbit of his expression. The flexible and encompassing form of his writing – vitalistic and cultured, colloquial and archaic, epic and confessional, cosmopolitan and rooted in Peruvian reality – allows the poet to mould dissimilar and apparently opposing materials
Admirably, the formal variety and thematic richness are manifested without ever losing the stamp of his own style. This is shown, with different modulations, in the books already mentioned and also in Comentarios reales (1964), Agua que no tienes de beber (Water you do not drink) (1971), Como higuera en un campo de golf (Like a fig tree on a golf course) (1972), Crónica del Niño Jesús de Chilca (Chronicle of the Child Jesus of Chilca) (1981), Monólogo de la casta Susana y otros poemas (Monologue of the Susana caste and other poems) (1986) and Las inmensas preguntas celestes (The Immense Celestial Questions) (1992).
Already in David (1962), the biblical king is presented to us as a complex being and, therefore, irreducible to a single sentence or a single definition: hero, adulterer, monarch and, above all, poet, the character awakens, depending on the roles he plays, identification or criticism. Sympathy or sarcasm stain the chronicle of the king, but the fuller dimension of the David of Cisneros (or, if you like, of Cisneros in David) is revealed when he speaks, as in “Canto al Señor” (Song to the Lord): “Estoy acostumbrado al amor,/sin embargo conozco tu silencio” (I am accustomed to love,/yet I know your silence).
This confession sends me one of most beautiful books of Cisneros, El libro de Dios y de los húngaros (The Book of God and the Hungarians), which gives an account of the joy – serene or exalted, but always profound – of the religious conversion of the poet. In that book of poems we find “Domingo en Santa Cristina de Budapest y frutería al lado” (Sunday in Santa Cristina of Budapest and fruit shop next door), which for me is the most beautiful poem – for its smooth diction, for the way it sustains a jubilantly solemn tone and for the impeccable luminosity of the images – ever written by Antonio Cisneros: “Porque fui muerto y soy resucitado, / loado sea el nombre del Señor,/ sea el nombre que sea bajo esta lluvia buena” (Because I was dead and I am resurrected, / praise be to the name of the Lord,/ whatever name it is under this good rain).
The poetry of Antonio Cisneros belongs to his time. Like its creator, it now belongs to posterity.
For the first time a Peruvian has won one of the literary prizes awarded annually by the Casa de las Américas in Havana (The House of the Americas of Havana), annually convenes under conditions that signify true international consecration: among 211 contestants and unanimously. The jury that awarded the Poetry Prize to Antonio Cisneros (for a book presented with the spartan title En memoria (In memory), but which will be called, more cheerful and happily, Canto ceremonial contra un oso hormiguero was made up of the Salvadoran Claribel Alegría, the Ecuadorian Jorge Enrique Adoum, the Colombian León de Greiff, the Chilean Juvencio Valle and the Chilean Juvencio Valle, Chile’s Juvencio Valle and the Cuban Fayad Jamís, poets of different generations and aesthetic convictions that are difficult to reconcile, so the coincidence of this decision, which, in addition to a reward of a thousand dollars, guarantees Cisneros an edition of several thousand copies, is even more honourable.
All this is, without a doubt, very flattering for Peruvian poetry, which, with the exception of Vallejo, only in a few exceptions has reached other audiences, and has lived within national borders, cloistered and heroic, thanks to a handful of tenacious creators who were also – or little less – its only readers. But even more so is the fact that this prize, which brings American notoriety and audience to a young Peruvian poet, has fallen into a book of singular poetry, in which the intelligent observation and eloquent diction of the reality that concerns the poet are admirably condensed, the freedom with which he reveals his nostalgia, his anger, his doubts and intimate ambitions, and the imaginative happiness and verbal security with which he projects the description of his personal world on a plane of genuine creation, that is, of universal intuitions and beautiful artistic forms.
Antonio Cisneros was born in Lima in 1942, studied literature at the Universidad Católica and at San Marcos – also nine months of Law -, he was professor of Spanish at the Universidad de Ayacucho, and has published three collections of poems: Destierro (Banishment) (1961), David (1962) and Comentarios reales (1964). For this last book, he won the National Poetry Prize in 1964. Last year he came to London, on the Javier Prado scholarship, and is currently Reader in Spanish at Southampton University, in which he spends three days a week perfidiously indoctrinating his students to neglect Spanish literary studies and take more interest in Latin American authors. Long, affectionate, almost scrawny, passionate about literature and friendship (the poems in his latest book are dedicated to his generation mates, and two of them have as their deep theme friendship), he has travelled through France and Spain, and recently attended the Cultural Congress of Havana, from where he was moved. On the bleak, unseasonably warm mornings of this British winter, it was pleasant to linger with him, in the inhospitable surroundings of Earl’s Court, chatting around acid cups of tea.
Two extreme reactions threaten young South Americans arriving in Europe: a provincial melancholy that catapults them into the most paralysing loneliness and neurosis, or the euphoria of barbarians bewitched by the artificial and flashy prestige of bohemian life, which leads them to dissolve into an invertebrate cosmopolitanism. Cisneros has overcame these two traps and, although short, his European experience has already been extremely profitable: it has broadened his vision of the world, disciplined his vocation, and spiritually and emotionally strengthened his personality as a creator. The trajectory of this enrichment can be seen in the three parts that make up Canto ceremonial contra un oso hormiguero. The oldest is a tight-fitting and punishing version of a poem that appeared in a Lima magazine three years ago: “Crónica de Chapi, 1965” (Chronicle of Chapi, 1965). The title alludes to a massacre of peasants by the “fuerzas del orden” (forces of order) during the guerrillas, and the poem is, at bottom, an elegy, a funeral song for those victims, but its appearance is the grave, impersonal narration of a somnambulant, heroic march: a group of combatants advances, pursued, through a frugal and very rough landscape, which to some of them reminds them of the sea, against a background of indigenous laments. Though no declamation, grandiloquence or lyrical outburst interrupts the severe relationship, sometimes, under the restrained solemnity of the words, between the quasi-religious accents and the dreary monotony of rhythm, there emerges, in a hurtful sarcasm, in a lapidary image, the feeling of anger and solidarity that moves the poet’s hand, in a pure state, dissociated from the verbal world, confronting it. These momentary misalignments between emotion and expression do not frustrate the poem, which usually manages to communicate passion with discreet and dignified beauty, but it is worth mentioning them in order to highlight the achievement of the poems of Cisneros: the balance between ideas and emotions and the poetic word that expresses them.
The second part of the book brings together, under the title “Animales domésticos” (Pets), half a dozen poems – some appeared in the magazine Amaru – shorter and less thematically ambitious than “Crónica de Chapi” (Chronicle of Chapi), but in which the poet feels much more self-confident, more skilful and bold in the use of his expressive means, more original in his findings. A cursory look at his titles and motifs, at the fauna that populates them, at the light, light-hearted, cheerful tone they sometimes adopt, could make believe that they are brilliant witty games, of boasting. In reality, allegories are work out: an intense and dramatic reality beats under that territory of “cangrejos muertos a muchos días” (crabs that have been dead for many days), rude and moody spiders, hospitable whales and anthills capable of housing a man. Dramatic, because that reality is a prison, in which the poet feels imprisoned, like Jonah in the magnificent marine mammal, in darkness, buried alive in the heart of an anthill, condemned to die a victim of that spider that “almuerza todo lo que se enreda en su tela” (eats everything that gets entangled in its web). Intense because the poet suffers in his own flesh that confinement that is also the life of his tribe (“Y estoy por creer que vivo en la barriga de alguna ballena / con mi mujer y Diego y todos mis abuelos”) (And I am about to believe that I live in the belly of some whale/with my wife and Diego and all my grandparents). It is a narrow reality, limited by implacable bars. The six poems are variations – skilful, lucid, imaginative – on a single theme: the disgust of a hostile society, the rejection of that life that binds him like a straitjacket and offers him, as a furtive compensation, an animal pleasure: to embrace under the sun, lying in front of the sea, on hot sandy beaches.
This faculty of transposing into poetic allegories, into independent verbal constructions, into autonomous artistic objects, the concerns that shape his inner world, reaches a remarkable development in the third part of the book of Cisneros – almost all of them poems written after his departure from Lima. Twelve poems make up “Canto ceremonial contra un oso hormiguero” and all of them constitute, separately, a creative feat. Even the least important of them, which gives the book its title – an abomination of black humour against an “oso hormiguero”, which could be a particular being, the world of Lima gossip or simple human stupidity – is a masterpiece of verbal mastery, of intellectual coherence and rhythmic fluency. There is a rational element that always prevails in the poems of Cisneros, a control of reason over imagination and the emotions, and this is one of the factors of the originality of his poetry, in a world, that of poetry of Spanish language, where the predominant trend is rather the opposite. However, the fact that ideas play a central role in his poetry has not detracted from this imaginative boldness, nor has it diminished its vitality. On the contrary: in poems like “Paris 5e” and “Karl Marx Died 1883 Aged 65”, a perfectly logical meditation acquires an outstanding artistic hierarchy because each of its thoughts that compose generates images, unexpected and insolent associations, It shoots off in multiple directions of reality, in dreamlike fantasies, in symbols, in metaphors, without these audacities divert the course of reflection. The solitary theme of “Animales domésticos” has become a vast range that embraces multiple issues: an ominous evocation of Lima, an examination of conscience in the face of a friendship that has been broken, the first European impressions, an enquiry into the struggles, doubts and political passions that stirred his teenage years, longings for people and landscapes of abandoned city a year ago, a questioning of the problem of culture and the destiny of America, a definition in the face of Cuba. Individual or collective, cultural or political, the themes of these poems always incarnate in verbal forms so perfectly suited to the thought and emotion that informs them, that they are emancipated from the particular experience of the author. The verse – almost always long, with grave music – sometimes adopts a confidential, gently pathetic tone (“Yo vi a los manes de mi generación, a los lares, cantar en ceremonias…”) (I saw the men of my generation, to the houses, sing in ceremonies…); others, it is ironically martial (as when he evokes his struggles against drowsiness, which he embodies in a zoological monster, the King of the Dwarves); others disguise himself as mythical fable, religious song or soliloquy. This diversity, however, does not reveal a search, but the richness of movements, the flexibility of nuances and ways of a voice that has conquered a powerful maturity.
The poetry of Antonio Cisneros moves between the discourses of our time in the manner of an extremely sensitive recording instrument. It records the emotional temperature of the consciousness of living in this part of the world. And it does so with the distinct and peculiar intonation of our own voices.
The poetry of Antonio Cisneros, rough, ironic, acerbically critical, densely sensorial, written in quick and acute verses in which a colloquial and direct speech is mixed with elaborate or flashing images, represents the maturity of the epic poetry that currently predominates in Peru.
Fully mature, flexible but organically adjusted to a rigorous poetic conception, as rigorous as his language and the organisation of his texts, the poetry of Antonio Cisneros is one of the most dazzling literary experiences of contemporary Latin America.
Surpassing all borders, Antonio Cisneros is since César Vallejo the greatest Peruvian poet what, being the extraordinary poetry of Peru, is that to say, not a little. Ironic, iconoclastic, lucid to the point of hurtfulness and at the same time extremely delicate, he wrote in his poem Un viaje por el río Nanay (A journey on the Nanay River) one of the strongest and most moving endings in the history of Castilian: “En realidad hay muchas cosas más. Pero ninguna es tuya, diabético tedioso. Calla y aprendo. Sólo posees algunas unidades de insulina y una piara de cerdos amarillos” (Actually, there are many more things. However, none of them are yours, you tedious diabetic. Shut up and learn. You only have a few units of insulin and a herd of yellow pigs). It is bloody painful, but we are left with the consolation of his mistake: Antonio had and has something else: the gratitude and love of that innumerable people who will always love those who represent them in his words, in his truth and in his dreams.
23 October, 2012
“The bicycle was a dazzling emerald green with a 26 rim, the best I have ever had in my life. And yet, there it sat at the top of the snowy hill, as still and empty as a cathedral…”
“The Snow”. A cruise to the Galapagos Islands
A single high pure bicycle stopped in the beautiful cold. A bicycle to fall on your knees and not on your head (as I could fall off mine, which is prosaically red, and the only hill it has known is the Armendariz slope). These verses will never leave my memory. The emerald green of that bicycle, its clear enthronement in the landscape. In fact, the poems of Cisneros cannot leave my memory. In them, grace has volume, weight. Poems that are watched, touched, surrounded. And one more: our poetry, almost blind to colors, opened, however an eye in the poems of Eguren, and the other in the poems of Cisneros. The first, blue eye watercolour: boats or elusive, towers, tremulous, in the sea of Barranco. The second, oil eye, precise and forceful, to hunt the whale once from the blue board wall Cisneros. Or hunt the bicycle. What a desire to pull it out of the snow, push the pedals through the cathedral gates and run down the hill, very white wave to the end, throwing fierce emerald green Marian songs; filled with sacred hymns of war ring 26.
Ángeles & Demonios Magazine. Cusco, December 2012
Toño is gone, but he remains among us. We will all always have a poem of his and ours. Like the countless lovers for whom “Para hacer el amor” (To make love) will always give the right words to name the fire. Or precise prayer for believers in desperate need of patience and faith: “Cómo hablar del amor, de las colinas blandas de tu reino, / si habito como un gato en una estaca rodeada por las aguas”. (How to speak of love, of the soft hills of your kingdom, / if I dwell like a cat on a stake surrounded by waters).
El poeta que amaba la vida (The poet who loved life).
La República newspaper, 9 October 2012
Toño Cisneros was never a whining and painful poet, as has been tradition in Peru, but a splendid poet, admired and loved. El más amado de los pequeños dioses (The most beloved of the little gods). Once, of course, he had his shady enemies, like any man of letters, but they soon vanished, surrendered to his sympathy and his enormous lyrical quality. Irreverent and oblivious to solemnity, Toño was a refreshing breeze in our literature. Toño, no doubt, loved the light and the light loved him, perhaps because he was born to enjoy the feast of life disproportionately: the warmth of the family, the passion of football, the pleasures of good table, the gatherings among friends, las inmensas preguntas celestes (the immense celestial questions), the nights that never end. But above all, Toño was touched by grace.
Cisneros, poet of light.
Caretas Magazine, 11 October 2012
If I had to gather adjectives around the figure of Antonio Cisneros, brilliant would surely top the list. The poet was also extroverted, amusing, curious, affectionate, generous, rigorous, religious, friendly, familiar, pragmatic, intuitive, sensitive, bacchic, tabactic, tireless, elegant and, if necessary, sharp, as well as cosmopolitan and very Peruvian, for he knew the wide world and the diverse Peru well. He was sentimental, not maudlin; he had gone from the illusions of the “década prodigiosa” (prodigious decade) to the later disappointments, with a strict sense of reality, angel, as Martín Adán would say, who guided him continuously. He revelled in speaking French with a southern accent, and his vast modern Renaissance culture encompassed different disciplines without academic heaviness or bookish prurience. It is not for me, of course, to analyse his work or to recapitulate his journey. I remember the bright noon I met him, at house of my parents, when he talk with his usual amenity and I returned from school. I would have liked to accompany him in his last farewell and embrace his own. I would have liked to give him a final kiss on the cheek, a sign of the affection we used to have on arrivals and goodbyes. However, I am far away and I can only, burdened with memories, say to the invisible ear: thank you, my master friend. For your wonderful poetry, always fresh and genuine. For your hospitality, when I was a young boy in Lima and, later, for that season of wisdom and bonhomie in the Berlin flat of Schöneberg. For the lessons given and taken in El Caballo Rojo (Red Horse) and other media. For your constant encouragement, for those many hours in halls, offices, lounges, dining rooms and countless bars, in the various cities where we find ourselves over decades. Thank you, dear Toño, may the divine mystery lead you in the astral ceremony, while here we remain – common and common place – your magnificent poems and your unforgettable figure of a renewed knight of the intensities of life.
La mula, 9 October, 2012
Antonio Cisneros is a stormy, torrential poet; his verses do not bring the peace of aesthetic contemplation but the harsh beauty of critical confrontation with language and the world. Cisneros is one of the Latin American poets who have fully understood the unstable wisdom of modernity: tradition is not silence, it is not sterility, but the constant challenge of polemic and the revision of values – or of their transfer, as Federico Nietzsche would ask. As if Cisneros were to say: let us put into these shining new glasses, which will disappear before the night is over, the wine from the old wineskins of Rubén Darío, Luis Cernuda, César Vallejo, Martín Adán, of that Gospels and that Mapuche poet who is just beginning to transcribe the myths he heard in his mouth of grandmother.
It wasn’t in those meanders, where freshwater fish swim about, that I the magnificent captain broadcaster pieceworker, on a hundred pesos a month on the water and a hundred and thirty on land, felt terror at what’s left of my ordinary life. Terror of the tiger’s claws – cold arcs of raw onion – I felt on the terrace of that so-called happy bar – a mass of legs and buttocks under the burning sun – a few metres from the main square, slippery as the deck of a cruise ship awash with waves, wrecked on a rock in the river Nanay.
It’s the time of year when the tortoises lay their eggs on the beach and then swim downriver as if wanting to escape from their young (or ashamed of them), those soft-bellied, half-blind chelonians, good for a stew when they’re six months old. Monkey prick chilli. Cotton skirts slit up the thigh flare to those perfect salted buttocks. A coleopteran navigates the light. Pulped. And still the kingfisher flies quietly over the quiet waters. Nothing speaks of the turbulent shoals of fish swirling in the depths like flies around the maddened orifice of a gilthead bream.
There’s a wild, Prussian blue silence, also. On the other side of the wooden blinds, around twenty oriental cattle rub against each other so intently that the thought comes of some perverse pact, darker than a gambling debt or a love story. Besides, it’s enough to look at how the waters of the Nanay flow beside my window to know it’s almost 40 degrees in the shade and 90% humidity. Now I know when the heat is intense I need to keep away from woollen blankets and bodies that produce a horrible thirst and heat up the air.
Suddenly, without warning, the grass stops in the mist. Where the landscape is an engraving with ash trees, eucalyptus and clumps of geraniums. There’s also a woman splashed by the high waters as they dash against the rocks. She’s almost naked and gazing at a group of dolphins who keep a safe distance. In fact there are a lot of other things. But none of them yours, tedious diabetic. Shut up and learn. The only things that are yours are a few doses of insulin and a herd of yellow pigs.
The Virgin of Carmel sways in the top part of the scene. Nothing special, maybe, compared to the Virgin of Lourdes, with her serenity, or the pomposity of Our Lady of Paris. Still, her compassionate eyes fill me with consolation. Like the rows of streetlamps when the day ends and night hasn’t come. The yellow lights above the cliff top. Just look at the way she holds the Christ child. Not like flustered first time mothers who’ll drop the baby at first shove. The calm face, more like a matron than a Madonna, tells you that behind death, where gluttony and desire cease, there’s a protective shield for this soul when it’s free of ex-rayed flesh, without time or memory but still burning like a roasting pig. Impossible, in fact, to imagine all that suffering without the certainty that the chubby and goodnatured Holy Virgin of Carmel will stretch out her arms to us after thousands or maybe millions of years (in purgatory after all there’s no time) and wipe away our tears and with infinite patience remove the fleas and bugs from us. While the trumpets sound on high and on the earth our much-loved grandchildren honour us with carob branches and a drum.
I don’t know why it was but he kept wanting me to show great fear of the orange hill that stuck out like a dead horse dumped in the rice fields. “Don’t you feel it’s eating your soul,” he said and all I managed to do was say no and hold off the intense sunlight and the wind that came from the funeral bundles. Afterwards we went down to the beach and did justice to a dish of crabs while he insisted on his rituals which were by now ostentatious and merciless. And he didn’t stop until the calm hour of the long waves that come before high tide. The dead, however, stayed in their place – comfortable, well-located, harmonious. My poor immortal soul, in spite of the droning voice and the roar of surf, remained intact like the sun or a poisonous cactus. A fast motorbike flashed suddenly between the black carob trees of the night.
And what happened to the city, described, not so long ago, with a wealth of detail. There’s only a four-by-four embedded in the mud and the green and black tops of the immense African ficus trees. Only yesterday the votive offerings (a head, a pair of kidneys, and a lung) shone on the western wall of the chapel. Portentous miracles of holy father Urraca, a model of prudence and chastity. The high windows (delicious sherbets) of the old French chemists have also gone to dust. The blue promenade (lovingly named in my poems) is simply rocks smashed down by the storm. Even so, as someone condemned to death, why should this sinister, sudden horizon that appears under my bed really matter to me?
The water has got to the top of the holds and keeps gushing up. Swaying like a huge pancreas above the terror of the hallucinated passengers. Stop moping, for the love of God. You know it won’t be the first shipwreck of the night or the last one. The light at the end of the pier is a tower of redemption. Its beam flickers, rotates every seven seconds. A good night for melopoeia. Or a fox-trot. On the far side of the breakers, thousands of rats float swollen with salt.
I waited the whole summer (and part of the autumn) to take this sacred decision. The hot air balloon leans slightly to starboard a thousand miles above the southern beaches in a 19th century daguerreotype. Further on after the ozone and the smell of fried fish, where the crabs take their rest, the sea blocks my nose like frozen air or an old sandstorm. The turning comes at 60 kilometres and it’s marked by a big advert for English Kola.
Holy Queen of the Miraculous Medallion, you know a prudent Christian hangs up his old frog in the sun and lets it dry out. But I can’t help going back to my memory that’s full of holes. All the waters of the Pacific Ocean crowd through this gulley, smash and roar like a swarm of rats or the taffeta of the senior archangels at the Last Judgement. Fifty years and more I’ve wanted to put you to the test, oh chastest Mother. Excuse the blasphemy. In the end, like Saint Tarcisius, I belong to you body and soul. Look at me, Holy Mother, as I look at myself. Like a diver at Acapulco. Spun around in the deepest waters, the freezing currents rupturing my eardrums and my pancreas like a piece of rag. This is the moment, the one in my prayers. What you have to do is rescue me, strong and healthy, resuscitated, gleaming like an animal. A martyr redeemed for tourists to admire, and a couple of fishermen mending their nets.
I close my eyes and the deep red gnaws and courses through me like a river of larva. It’s shame. You’ll now say, Mother, that everyone in the world is equal. But no. I’m talking about that deep red, fiercer than the flash of a whip on naked buttocks. I asked for a miracle. Just one little miracle. The Ark of the Covenant. Before each of us gets their respective cancer. But the gully’s still there and there’s no dead body. A pelican, a couple of seagulls, a lime ice cream. That’s all. I’m going to brush my teeth, so that my grand-daughter can receive me with her night breath.
Where are the bicycles going, if it’s not to the suburbs of wet sand. A whaling ship lost in the fog. A large house with French windows and a blue patio. Things of the sea and they don’t matter at all any more. But on the other side, a block and a half from the bread shop and two from the chemists, there’s an endless forest, full of tortoises and the occasional tawny owl. Beneath the branches the air is black like a seal skin. The fearful kingdom of shadows. That’s where I’m headed. Like an old pig to the slaughterhouse. Haunches like a wild boar (Peruvian) and a pain at the back of the neck that anticipates the cut of death. And even so, all this great pain would be of no importance, if it weren’t that as I look towards the west my daughters appear, far off, out of the light and the geraniums. Then I can see them, glimpse them, disappearing into the grass for ever, further and further away, so beautiful, with their flowered skirts and their clean hair drying bright under the sun.
It was the night of your first communion (or your wedding?). The priest, at any rate, wore a gold cassock and the huge glass chandeliers sputtered like the shaking leaves of a poplar. The flocks pastured quietly along the line of the cliffs. The great nave mysterious as the love of the newly married or the moments before the Sunday of Resurrection. Now I’m sure it was in the middle of the wedding. And though I never heard a will you nor an I will, the lights were extinguished as they went up into the sky, like the green grass in a stadium when they turn off the light. I can see your future in the entrails of some silly toad sliced in two like a loaf of bread. Which doesn’t matter any more. The thing is that that night, up near the dome, a squashed half grapefruit, the darkest shadows hung in the air, round and shiny, like a huge dripping bunch of Bourgogne grapes.
The postcard is clearer now. In the background of the scene they’re flying, fast and excited, around the altar. The shadows of their wings disturb the bluish breasts of the bride. But the bride,
in a tent of happiness, isn’t looking and can’t see them. They are two or three bats, small ones, for sure, but more persistent than drunken flies in midsummer. They smash to pieces as they fly down against the cliffs and hills that hold up the great nave. Like mashed potato. Look, you said, a flock of turtle doves after the rain. I can see them. Yes, the same. With the same iridescent feathers, fluttering above the succulent shrublands of the Mantaro Valley. It’s the moment of the consecration. Fluttering up there, in the halo of the newly married, their fragile membranes covered with down, their wooden heart, their eye-teeth.
I don’t know why any more, in the middle of life’s path (in the dark wood) I said to myself (without much conviction) it’s marvellous, a wise, serene old age full of seagulls like a salt meadow. A firework in the garden on new year’s eve. I don’t know. I’d like, if it’s not asking too much, to be lying on the beach, without major financial worries and in good health. Like an old seraphim stretched out in a gambling joint or leaning lightly against a jacaranda. That’s what I said to myself (without much conviction) and I remembered that we don’t know anything about you when you passed sixty. Only that you went body and soul to the kingdom of heaven. Once your son Jesus died, history ceased registering you. The gargoyle, that swallows everything, charges you half price in the theatre and allows you a few privileges in the bar.
I’m a furtive hunter on the dunes. Coming down through the ravine (out of the highlands), hard and naked like a peach. Among the soft calico pillows a thicket of sweet basil. Some wild horses, through the half-open doors, take pleasure in looking at how I (stunned) look at you where your pubis is a wild tangle, mad crimson, between your smooth damp thighs.
If we allow for the dozing off (quite usual at my age) and the heat (34 degrees), you are an almost perfect woman. I wallow in your golden thighs, your sea-salt thighs. I love you and possess you with a certain conviction. I look at you. And out of the corner of my eyes, I also look at your faded jeans and lace bra crumpled beside the bed.
The walls are green (colour that calms the sick), like when my father died, with his eyes open, and his furious soul could not get past the ceiling plastered with moths and a neon light.
Ah the tall piles of the great pier! Dreaming always of a bit of money so as to travel north. The sea lapping the rice fields. Where the tide goes down so far that I can reach, without a struggle, the furthest breakers and the four horizons. I am a powerful water buffalo, with a strong pancreas and an impeccable liver. Guarded by the claws of a crab my kingdom is immortal. I’m the Virgin’s favourite son. The best loved of the minor gods.
Galloping horse, free reins. The waves of sugar tangle in my blood, make a ruckus. Especially on winter mornings. The needles (Japanese steel) penetrate my porous, scaly orange skin. Those needles, always the needles. A lunar eclipse in the major and minor blood vessels. A curse.
The sugar crystals in my blood at pasture and blue like tame lambs. A field full of scorpions.
The first prick of insulin is always in the belly and committed by an alien hand. The old whore on her flowery mattress. Rue stalks.
Charon’s boat splashes about like a cockroach in the bends of the main channel. Cuculí pigeon, you’re looking to enjoy my death again. Without much effort, I can recognise your sticky groaning just like a blanket in summer, green hairy spittle in my bed. Your clumsy flapping, your spikey bones, your bleary eyes watching the endless belt that carries the dead to hell, frozen memoryless rags. Cuculí pigeon, I swear by God I will not give you what you want. In the end, a heart attack is not just (as some believe) the pain behind the breastbone that takes us as we leave the stadium. It’s more like a storm of systoles and diastoles full of whales and frigates breaking up in the waves (usually nine metres high). And the shipwrecked gasp between the breakers and the sea floor like wounded hake, until a huge tall seraphim covered in gold frees us from the seaweed with his sword of fire and lies back on the calm waters under a yellow sky. Afterwards, having made peace, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between the Virgin’s compassionate shawl and some cool terrace with blue floor tiles and pints of beer, coming towards us in the sea.
After half a century, the yellow beaches with swirling waters and transparent breakers come back. Now I can see the Virgin’s face (Evening Star, Anchor of Salvation) between the overhead cables. A half-built house, blessed with bottles of beer and a slaughtered ox of modest size. Now I can see the migrant birds coming back from the market buildings half a century later. The water pump. A huge coca-cola lorry and the cliffs growing bigger between the rats and the broken pavements. I can see many things, it’s true. But only the great rolling in the sand with my first love fills the trembling landscape. Two alabaster bodies, sticky as a lizard, groaning. Like the breakwater in the mist.
And who could know, for sure, if the sweet small animal pasturing in your throat is crying. At first sight, the body has stayed with its pores open and in the same position for three weeks (almost a century). Like a carved granite column lying in the grass, half covered, lightly, with the sheets and a yellowish blanket. The bereaved and a few professional mourners (who must have cost a bit) only see the carved granite column lying in the grass, half covered, lightly, with the sheets and a yellowish blanket.
In what corner of the pancreas are Luther’s devils hovering. Where are the dark calls of pleasure of the hairy pelvis. In the silence (a dragonfly with yellow feelers and a great steel lung) the howls and roars and bleats and mews and groans and baas and moos and barks and growls and screeches and howls. That depends on which of his small animals awakens. Often, too, the cries of the skinned beast (granite column) can be confused with the panting of love passions. Ghosts that disturb the silence of the blue hospital morning.
At the end of the ditch a double row of columns rises skywards, a half moon shape, in a large field of grass where all the bluebottles of summer are feeding. My childhood of bread and paraffin. There where the tide’s reach ended. I plaster sand over my arms stung by hundreds of jellyfish (the sea was infected). I shake off the seaweed and its golden pods burst. At the end of the ditch the airfield begins. Here I am, with the sea and the breakwater behind me, lying on my back in the grass. Wasps drone and poisonous dandelion seeds fly about me. On my back under this warm air soft as pumice. There go the planes. Orange painted biplanes come down from the sky. They touch the ground and roll sweetly over the grass towards my heart.
Who lives behind the hills I ask myself. All I’ve seen’s a yellow Toyota parked at the door. Though I don’t really want to know their names. What I want to know is do they talk, smoking on the terrace, or eat pasta on Sundays. Just a while ago they cut down a jasmine bush, it’s a fact. I saw them from an ombu tree. They’ve painted the ironwork on the house to protect it from the seasalt that comes up from the south. It’s a fact. The night behind the hills is as black and damp as the one at my window. Exactly the same, I’d say. And yet I suspect that (behind the hills) they don’t think about death and they’ve got a dazzling horse hidden in the garden.
There’s nothing to see apart from the granite arches disappearing into the sky like a whirl of killer bees. Now I know I’m at the centre of the world. Behind that door, there’s a chapel illuminated by some green candles and an oak coffin. King Saint Louis lies there every night, hands crossed on his chest, preparing for the Last Judgement. His mother, Blanca Flor of Castile, watches over his sleep and shoos off the mosquitoes and the devils that’re already flying around the young sleeper.
These spaces correspond to the second half of the 16c. Further off, behind a streetlamp, there’s a small bar. The waiter uncorks a bottle of champagne which makes the poets happy. In the door of the refectory, sitting on a wooden bench, a beautiful girl is knitting a babygrow for a new born child. Under my bed, there’s a corpse that’s smooth and shiny like a beetle.
The bicycle was a brilliant emerald green with 26 inch wheels. The best one I’ve ever had. And yet, there I was, at the top of a snow-covered hill, still and bare like a cathedral. The apple orchards were just a memory under the snow. The Virgin and a few cherubim floated frozen through the sky. My daughter Soledad seasoning the meat and onion stew and an old drunk friendly Englishman were all there was of the Virginia winter.
It’s the moment of light. The 25 watt bulb (the glass is aniline blue with yellow flecks) separates the dining room from the bushes and rock outcrops where the desert begins. Low quality light. So the big tree full of oranges is no more than a dead chicken. The diners around the table devour the lamb cutlets, dark and silent, like an oilstain on the wall. It’s the Last Supper. In this poorly lit room it’s impossible to make out the holy Christ. Though if we leave aside the dining room (or hall) and bury ourselves, with black knees, in the desert, we can find a corral of crabs on the damp sand, a jar full of wasps and at ten to seven (the moment of the aniline blue glass and yellow flecks) the voice of the mad monk, courtesy of lux soap, the raw guffaw, the snorts, fiercer than damp wool stuck to the body. Like a howl at the bottom of the sea.
I see myself (see my father Alfonso) sitting like a sixty-year-old toad on the edge of the bed. The sea sways and drags with its waves the bright clothes of mad virgins and the cold back of a whale A plane’s deep rumble, in the middle of the night, like an earthquake. I don’t know what time it is. Only that my younger daughter left before dawn. Serene, with her rucksack on her shoulder, and though she’s just had her 23rd birthday, she looks like an adolescent raccoon. Cover her with your shawl, Mother of mine. I entrust her to you. She’s a lovely young woman and well brought up. Don’t loose sight of her. Even though the air is full of devils, like this wild sky beside my bed. It’s easy to recognise her. She’s got yellow hair and isn’t very tall. And she walks with a lot of dignity. How many winters before she comes back, there’s no knowing. Hug her tight, Mother of miracles. Let her days be pleasant and propitious. The frontier police treat her with kindness.
It’s not the moment (I insist) to start a fight (idiotic) for a tin of tuna or a couple of scaled herrings. And though the sea is quiet like a pen of pigs in the night, a faint glow in the sand dunes, behind the motorway, speaks without subterfuge of the Lord’s death. With panting and tender-hearted silence, like licentious loves. The main altarpiece is covered by a mauve curtain. The quinces are rotting, hopelessly, at the bottom of the garden. Keep silent, boy. Don’t jump or put on summer clothes. Search inside your heart, your pumice stone. Eat that dried salt cod from Norwegian seas. Sit down, quietly, beside the screen. Death’s an instant that’s hard to explain. Like fresh afternoons or the reproduction of wild walruses. Tomorrow we’ll go rowing, jubilantly, with the wind in our hair.
Their soul is immortal, crunchy and warm like a bread roll just out of the oven. The Sargasso Sea. The yellow boats on the lake in Barranco (fifty years ago) tattooed on the water, swirls of larvae and worms. (Sandokan, the tiger of Malaysia. The Algerian panthers). Their soul (the warm roll) is immortal. They pile up, prow masks full of shipwrecks, on Darwin Island. Among the palm groves, ferns and green elephant ears. A sort of tropical landscape. Like the leaflet that led those Dutch sailors to disaster (“I paid for a tropical cruise and here I am, fat and alone, with my troubles in the middle of the lava.”) The tortoises are mystical and endemic. They have sacred names. It’s a question of diving (fins and masks of tortoiseshell) till, in sacred communion, they meet their souls of bread just out of the oven and allow themselves to drift. In the far north of the island there’s a laboratory. In the far south, a post and telegraph office and a couple of miraculous caffs.
When I came out of the caff, the night was so dark even the flies had stopped flying. It can’t be, I said to myself, because when I went in (to the caff) it was daytime and the sun was bright blue on the golden glasses of beer and on the neck of a youth.
Endemic animals are those that are born and grow in the islands. They’re podgy and sulky, with no connection to other territories of the outer ocean. The bands of iguanas, for example, only know the great basalt plains or the souls of dead iguanas. Their skin is prickly and the blood cold. That’s why they spend their time stacked up like a pile of rags stretched out dry under the sun. Sometimes they blink in the salt wind and give themselves over without much enthusiasm to the ancient rituals of love.
When the great waves full of jellyfish and sardines finally noticed the canoes coming from the ship, a red moon came out over the sea and the lava outcrop. A few herds of goats (don’t ask me how) were grazing there in a silent mass.
Here the landscape is, in general terms, a wide extension of weeds and a few dense copses of wild bean plants. The humid cliffs that look over the water are made of limestone. Safe ground against earthquakes (7 on the Richter scale) in the South Pacific. Following the shore, down to the colder beaches, there’s a pair of 19th century resorts that have sunk into the sea. There the cliffs are of salty earth and rubble. Though what distinguishes this landscape, above all, is the furious mist that comes up from the bottom of the ocean. All the lights on the promenade and the coastguard beacon are not enough to light up the sky. It’s the thickest mist on the planet. Damp and black like a dog’s eye. Sometimes it swirls inside my house. It slips into the most sacred interstices, without the least shame. At this precise moment, I go rapidly up to the top floor, embrace my wife silently, wrap my two daughters in eucalyptus branches and hide them in a burrow.