Excerpt from Passionate Nomads
Merlin awaits me at the Anchorena lodging. Eternity has recently begun.
I returned to the lodging in Anchorena around dawn. Beneath the unnecessary shade of a grape vine in the corridor, Merlin awaited me. He puffed slowly on his pipe filled with herbs, and at a certain height the spirals of aromatic smoke fashioned amusing images of medieval ladies and warriors.
“Why don’t you sit with me for a spell?” He pointed to a chair that seemed placed there for the purpose. “I don’t suppose that, at this hour of your vigil, you’re planning to sleep.”
Merlin’s attitude was the second great surprise of the night. I wondered if he was just in an uncommon mood for confidences, or if he was planning to yank them out of me.
“You’ve been out strolling around the pond, eh?”
“Since you say so, then I guess you already know,” I half smiled, a bit irritated by so much magical competence.
“Of course I know. But don’t think I owe that knowledge to my Bohemian crystal ball, or that I dedicate myself to spying on you with it in the darkness. I’ve lived a lot, Mansilla, that’s all.”
He cleared his throat, exhaling forcefully a final mouthful of smoke that soon drew the exotic silhouette of a dragon.
“It also seems clear that you’ve had disturbing visits throughout the trip. And that you’re profoundly disenchanted with the trip itself. When I was in Camelot a century and a half ago the same thing occurred to me. It would be the same if I were to return now to my Galician house. And all things considered, you came back with your brow neither all wrinkled nor even too silvery like the snows of yesteryear. Well, yes, Mansilla. The thing is, that’s what it’s like to return. One confuses space with time and believes he’s going to find something precious that’s been lost, something that’s situated in the past and should be recovered. But what there is isn’t there, it’s in the present, the only space that confers answers.”
“And what present do I have? A provisional card for re-entry into material life, and a diluted, equivocal survival in the memory of a country that’s no longer mine.”
“And an extravagant love for a certain individual who doesn’t belong to your same vital frequency.”
“She’s told you –?”
“Nothing. In spite of appearances, my niece is discreet. But I’m not blind.”
“And what? Is that some crime?”
“By no means. Love teaches many things, though almost always something silly – or for that very reason. And you will learn them.”
“Doesn’t it strike you as being a little late to learn?”
“Eternity is just beginning for you.”
“What sort of eternity? In what condition? Where and why the hell? Do you think I was interested in strolling interminably with top hat and cane through a stage-prop garden with paper tendrils and stuccoed plasterwork?”
“Be quiet and don’t complain. You probably deserved the joke.”
“Sometimes they play practical jokes. The impulse toward play isn’t just human. Quite the contrary. It’s a divine impulse transferred in occasional little sparks to humans.”
“But damn it, who plays such pranks? Who has allowed me – and why! – to be here, talking with you, solid and restored thanks to the fern seeds I drink with my breakfast coffee?”
“You want to know everything and, what’s more, all at once. You’ll become unsettled with so many things you can’t understand. You’ve already become unsettled enough waking up at the end of the twentieth century.”
“What do you mean?”
“That nothing convinces you, that you criticize everything, that you – so intrigued by novelties – are fascinated but at the same time disconcerted by modern technology. That you imagine the prosaic and even the coarse side of dreams of material progress made real, while some others, like those related to the greatness of the homeland and its honorable role among the world’s nations, strike you as every day more utopian, in the worst sense of that beauteous word.”
“You’ve read my thoughts, if indeed I have any.”
“You have and will have many more, as you go on growing.”
“Growing in death, or in the other life. That’s what your journey has to do for you. And I’ll give you some advice, though experience tells me that other people’s advice is worth little: don’t remain a prisoner of any of your projected personas.”
“Those that seductive figure who still so dazzles you was constructing, although you pretended and still pretend not to take it seriously. Weren’t you happy with just the mere fact of BEING when you left Buenos Aires? Didn’t you find yourself willing to throw out the car window the annoying weight of the gentleman writer, diplomat, and soldier Don Lucio Victorio Mansilla, nephew of so-and-so and uncle of so-and-so, known by half the world? Of course, it’s hard.”
“Freeing oneself from the past, which should not be confused with a lack of remembering. But that’s the only thing that saves nations and men.”
“You possess, like few of your compatriots, the necessary aptitude. Dare yourself to begin anew. If so many centuries in this world have taught me anything it’s that in the sphere of life, which is the only sphere we know, nothing is ever concluded, even if we propose that it be closed. Because a current greater than the individual lifts and drags him along.”
Merlin extinguished his pipe and began to stand up with his customary calm.
“Look at me, if you don’t believe it. I should have shuttered myself away after the death of Arthur. And nevertheless here I am, mixed up in the negligible history of the most southern nation in the world, and completely distanced from knight errantry. Although now that I think of it –”
Merlin laughed, scrutinizing me.
“What? Do I look funny to you?”
“No, you have a strange resemblance to a certain colleague from the Round Table, and not just your face. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always found you so congenial. You would have struck a fine figure in those days.”
Merlin put a friendly arm around my shoulder.
“Come. Let’s see if they’ll serve us a really good strong cup of coffee. Rosaura has prepared you an extra portion of fern seeds and some protective herbs. Eternity is young.”
English language © 2011 Brett Alan Sanders
Excerpts from Awaiting the Green Morning
Como un salto de animales por la rueda de fuego, como una caminata mortal sobre una cuerda de viento, en equilibrio sobre una tierra cortada, en puntas de pie sobre un cuchillo de hielo que se va deshaciendo a cada paso.
Así, el poema.
Like a leaping of animals through a wheel of fire, like a fatal stroll over a rope of wind, poised over uneven ground, on tiptoe over an icy knife that is breaking apart at every step.
Like that, the poem.
(originally appeared in Contemporary Verse 2, Fall 2005)
Cualidades del invierno
El invierno es redondo como una nuez y hueco como un planeta de cristal donde soplan vientos furiosos. Pero en su centro cálido hierven los frutos del mar y de la tierra y se reúnen los fugitivos de la intemperie.
El invierno es una casa que guarda en los cajones las memorias del amor más antiguo, y una temperatura de regazo y una voz anterior a la palabra que envuelven al durmiente con su ovillo de seda.
Los cuerpos del invierno se enlazan en profundos parentescos, se tejen como mantas para prestar amparo, se iluminan como candiles para guiar al que tropieza en su silencio buscando abrazo.
Qualities of Winter
Winter is round like a walnut and hollow like a crystal planet where furious winds blow. But in its torrid center boil the fruits of sea and earth and the fugitives of tempests come together.
Winter is a house that in its trunks keeps memories of the most ancient love, the warmth of a lap, a voice predating the word – all enclosing the sleeper in their ball of silk.
The bodies of winter become linked in profound kinships, weave into each other like blankets to provide shelter, light up like candles in order to guide whoever stumbles in his silence, seeking an embrace.
(originally appeared in Artful Dodge, No. 44/45, 2004)
Banquete de la muerte catrina
La muerte que ríe, la muerte engalanada con un sombrero de borlas y vestida con traje de comunión, se sienta con nosotros a la mesa. Nos convida con chile y con aguardiente para que la eternidad nos encuentre ardiendo y la mañanita se levante con nostalgias de alcohol y de disfraces.
Muerte catrina, muerte poderosa que le pone al pobre tu sombrero y regalas al ciego una guitarra de cuerdas invisibles. Muerte de la felicidad, roja como la flor de Nochebuena, los vencidos de la tierra te saludan para que los lleves a tu mesa gloriosa, y sean saciados de ira y de justicia.
Banquet of Dandified Death
Laughing death, death dressed up in a tasseled hat, wearing a First Communion gown, sits down with us at the table; treats us to chilis and liquor, so that eternity may find us aflame and the mañanita may rise with nostalgia for strong drink and fancy dress.
Dandified death, powerful death, you who place your hat on the poor, you who give the blind man a guitar with invisible chords. Festive death, red as the flower of Christmas Eve, the vanquished of the earth greet you, that you may carry them to your glorious table, and they may be sated with rage and justice.
The word “dandified” is translated here from the Mexican catrín, -a, in popular usage generally mocking; as a noun it is often represented as a skeleton sumptuously decked out in feathers and finery. Mañanita is the poet’s deliberate play on two senses: the simple mañana of a day’s fresh dawning, with nostalgias of a night of partying; and las mañanitas, which in Mexico are the morning serenades sung to people on their birthdays.
(originally appeared in Mudlark: An Electronic Journal of Poetry & Poetics, No. 27, 2005)
English language translation © 2008 Host Publications.
Exerpt from A Bride Called Freedom.
These e-mail letters were handed to me by their author herself. Viviana Suárez was an unusually gifted undergraduate student in a seminar I gave in the spring of 2002. She was a freshman, and would normally have been ineligible for the class before her senior or, at the earliest, her junior year. I accepted her based on these letters alone, which she presented to me in the present chaptered format. They perfectly fit our topic: the forgotten presence of women in colonial and post-colonial Latin American literature. What’s more, her manuscript constituted an original contribution to the field that any one of her mostly graduate-level classmates would have died for.
Later she would show me her antique Argentine source, copied in elegant Spanish handwriting (analysis dates the ink to over a hundred years old). In her “prologue” she clarifies the circumstances surrounding this discovery; also, the existence of a poem that would seem to corroborate the story’s authenticity.
Both letters and poem concern the legend of one Dorotea Bazán, who was captured by Indians in the late 19 th century. While the source itself is not clear on this, Ms. Suárez suggests that she was a descendant of poor immigrants from Galicia, one of numerous non-Castilian regions of Spain. Be that as it may, I have found the work remarkable, from the document itself to its translator’s own imaginative insertions. I do not pretend to an absolute knowledge of what is true or false here; you, my young reader, must decide for yourself….
Prologue: Dorotea Bazán, Discovered
I’ve happened on proof that she really might have existed!
Can you believe it? Señor Connor’s obsession? The poem he had us recite by memory in its Argentine-accented Castilian Spanish? The sultry thickness of that woman’s voice played again and again on the scratchy record our teacher’d brought home with him years earlier to help yet-future students practice their recitation? The one-act musical play that he wrote himself and cajoled the drama club into presenting before the entire school and families?
God knows you can’t have forgotten, Leeza. We were sophomores then. You were his Dorotea! You sang that very song! First a chorus in Spanish: mysterious and somber, to set the proper mood. Then in Señor Conner’s own adapted English. A poetic rendition, he said, not slavishly literal or else it wouldn’t fit the guitar’s rhythm. The guitar that he played offstage, in unseen shadows, while you his musical protegée dulcetly sang.
I don’t think I really thought much about her at the time. Did you? As someone who might have ever been flesh-and-blood, I mean, who might’ve actually lived. Sure, I’d remembered reading some children’s book about the Mary Jemison story back in fourth grade. North America’s own Dorotea. Miss McNamara had told us that she ended up marrying among her captors and that she loved her husband, bore him children. It wasn’t that I thought it impossible. This song of a white woman captured by Indians? Arguing years later with the Argentine captain who would forcefully redeem her for “civilization”? “Yo no soy winca, capitán,” she’s supposed to have said. “I’m not winca (or white woman) but Indian, by mystery of love.” Of course it could have been true, as Señor Connor believed but couldn’t prove. It could’ve been, sure. But the story, like our old teacher’s obsession, struck me then as vaguely childish. Like something that might’ve interested me years ago but that couldn’t compete with turn-of-the-21 st-century adulthood. Besides, he’d told us himself that the story didn’t exist in its alleged source. A problem that visibly troubled him.
How pleased he’ll be with his former student when he learns that I’ve solved it! First thing when I’m back in the States, I’ll stop in on him. Meanwhile let me tell you, Leeza, my good and faithful friend, how it came to be.
I owe it to my parents who allowed me the luxury of this year-long vacation between high school and university, and my paternal aunt who gave me lodging and freedom to roam in this grand metropolis where she and Papi were both raised. My aunt is a professor of literature. When I laughingly told her the story of our dear teacher’s obsession, she gave me two volumes of Lucio Mansilla’s Una excursión a los indios ranqueles [An Excursion to the Ranquel Indians] – the famous “source,” according to the blurb inside that old LP cover, of Dorotea’s story. Of course Señor Connor was right, it wasn’t there. But the narrative that I did discover absolutely (who knew?) enchanted me.
Just yesterday here in Buenos Aires it’s only by the weirdest chance that I finally stumble on what, with more enthusiasm than certainty, I’ll still call “proof.” Proof? That someone might have existed? The manuscript, though apparently ancient, quite visibly delicate, is the hand-copied shadow of an almost certainly vanished original. Is it truthful history or imitative fiction? The old woman who handed it to me had possessed it in secret for as long as she can remember. When I’d whispered over a sip of the national tea (that bitter yerba mate!) of captive Dorotea’s mystery, she rose, mysteriously. She emerged long seconds later cradling those weathered pages. She said my eyes remind her of how she’s imagined Dorotea’s! It was an inheritance, she said, from her mother, who claimed to have it from a friend of Eduarda Mansilla de García, Lucio’s sister.
Can there be another copy? If mine is the only one, how is it that the lyricist knew both name and story? While I’m still in Argentina, I should do some digging. But do I want to know? Is it perhaps nobler to just believe with pure faith, like windmill-tilting Don Quixote?
Yes: Dorotea lives! What will follow, in future letters, is her “true” history – as recounted privately to Mansilla, recorded but never published.
You must imagine, my darling Leeza, why the story might have finally taken such a hold on me. This woman, whose life now presents itself in more developed form than any previous feminine narrative of these pampas, is too much to resist. But is it history, faithfully recorded, or Mansilla’s invention? Or is it in fact his sister Eduarda’s story, as-told-to or fictional, masquerading, behind her brother’s more famous name? Or is it someone else’s invention entirely?
These are all questions, Leeza, whose answers I don’t pretend to know. Their clarification awaits the investigations of greater scholars than I. To me just leave the full revelation of the romance.
With affection, Vivi
© Copyright Brett Alan Sanders
Excerpts from Quixotics.
The Surface of an Absurdity
Some portion of the story, if not its whole, has been known to more people than you could shake a stick at. In short, it relates the adventures of an idealistic old Spanish gentleman, a chaser of windmills that he mistakes for giants, a gentle don Alonso who, reading too many stories of chivalrous knights in shining armor, becomes a certain don Quixote, losing what in human society generally passes for sanity and setting off into the world to fight evil magicians and other scoundrels, to set to right the wrongs that the poor and defenseless have always suffered; accompanying him is a practical-minded peasant named Sancho Panza, who, in return for some monetary reward to beat his usual fare, agrees to be the knight’s squire. What follows here, in any case, are simply a few fragments, in the poetic form of the prose paragraph, of this reader’s impressions of that story. I hope that each paragraph, like any worthy poem, will bear reading and re-reading, and that the pondering that follows from that act will bear joyous fruit. The reality that each one encloses is a multi-leveled experience, for there is more to any reality than meets the eye. Truth is often concealed beneath the surface of an absurdity.
His names are as varied as our perceptions of him; Cervantes himself could not, or would not, keep them straight. Quijada? Quesada? Quijano? The gentleman knight called himself Quixote, anyway, don Quixote. The Britisher, faithful to the King’s English, may well say Quicksote, but the Spanish x, transformed later to a j, is an h in our ear. Donkey Hotay, we say, ignoring that the don is not a name at all but Quixote’s appropriated title of nobility, comparable to the British Sir, and with a long o instead of an ah. Call him Mister Kehotay, then, or the
Estimable Sir Quicksote. Whatever we call him, this knight of the rueful or sad countenance, this sorry-looking, skin-and-bones, puppy-dog face, he is there, everywhere we look, all around us.
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, quicksotic sentiments: “If … our Quixotics seem foolish or extravagant.” Our foolish extravagances, then, our quixotics, or quixotries, or quixotisms, are simply quixotical. By extravagantly emulating the grand Quicksote himself, the don Quicksote of Cervantes’s novel that we may or may not have read, we become our own Quicksotes, sinking into the quicksand of our lofty, unrealizable idealisms: “Thus the Quixots of this Age fight with the Windmills of their own heads.” But to our mind quixotics is more than foolishness to be forgotten; it is a different way of knowing things, of perceiving the deeper realities that are hidden by their plain surfaces. We declare this definition boldly, without apology to this world’s wise or to the editors of dictionaries, who looking at us askance, smiling out of the sides of their mouths, are wondering if at last we would just stop quicksotizing, or quicksoting, and accept the realisms they proffer.
After the evil magician Frestón’s windmill-giants, there was the Moorish knight Mambrino’s basin-helmet. Don Quixote, sworn to possess it, sighted it atop a barber’s head, where it rested because of a sudden shower; he gave chase, the barber fled, and the makeshift helmet fell to the ground. The conquering knight, making use of the masculine pronoun lo, ordered his squire Sancho to pick “it” up, and Sancho, taking the feminine pronoun la in hand, would seem to have obeyed if it were only the same “it.” This is a grammatical sleight of hand that the translator in English is always unable to convey, just as he cannot do justice to clever Sancho’s invented speech that makes of two visions one. The basin-helmet, now, whatever it had once been, is neither basin nor helmet. It is baciyelmo, a fusion of the original bacía for basin and yelmo for helmet. A word, or a world, is born.
On Reading Van Doren
On the road to adventures, Quixote encounters a troupe of performing artists who put on their masks and act for him. He is wearing his mask, too, for all the world’s a stage, and across the stage dances my youngest daughter the princess in the role of Cinderella. She performs for him Disney’s pirouettes; chivalrously he bows; from the crowd, then, someone shouts that they are not who they represent themselves to be. Much can be said on that point, however. In one voice they answer that they know who they are. And why should we suppose otherwise? Quixote’s madness, as Van Doren writes, is but his chosen profession.
Windmills and Giants
(appeared in Paragraph: A Magazine of Paragraphs, Winter / Spring 1992)
What in its “materiality,” Ortega y Gasset explains, is a windmill, in its “sense,” as interpreted by Quixote, is a giant. It matters little, he writes, that we call Quixote mad, for in other times, out of a different lived experience, humanity had dreamed into being the giant, who in reality we say has never existed nor will ever exist. Likewise, he writes, the ideas of truth and justice are interpretations from measured experience, unknowable by empirical tests. For this reason, we might add, the meanings attached in Anglo and Hispanic visions to a word like democracy are so different, and its actual meaning the whole of its multiple interpretations. We might guess that it is the same with the material forms, or grammars, of every discipline; not least among these is mathematics, whose certainties, as we penetrate them, are fluid, ever changing. Algebra, as Hogben writes in his populist explication of numeracy, is but a descriptive language of the sizes rather than sorts of things in the world.
Quixote, at once gaucho and knight-errant, flees to the liberation of his pampas; the woman, her movements checked, negotiates her freedom with changing captors. Around the fire she tells her story, pleading with the captain who would return her to civilization, her song echoing down to us today through another woman’s rich voice and the gentle folk strains of a guitar. By mysterious love, longing for the rawhide, sun, and grass of her Indian husband’s empire, electing to share that fate, she walks from the fire toward her desert, toward barbarism’s gate, García Márquez’s sad and innocent Eréndira in an incredible, solitary flight. Quixote stands behind her a rearguard, his lance a threat against any man who, denying that feminine will, should now make bold to follow.
(The Dorotea of the preceding sketch is also the subject of my later young adult novella A Bride Called Freedom.)
While the bulk of Cervantes’s novel is fat, like faithful Sancho, its spirit is lean and diffuse, like the solitary knight and his horse. The exercise of this writing has its necessary conclusion, but what might have been written, like Quixote’s quests, is unlimited; Quixote, marked in my books’ margins and my mind’s recesses by penciled notes and DQ’s, reveals himself to me forever in undreamed of epiphanies.
Knights and Friars
Quixote, says Sancho the Good, should rather have been a preacher than a knight-errant. But faith without works is dead, Quixote answers; we are children of what we do. Saints, like Jacob with his angel, have taken heaven by force, as I would now take it in my peerless Dulcinea’s name. I do not take it as a violent man, rashly sacking the earthly kingdom, but as a peaceful crusader and righteous warrior. Knight-errantry is both my ensign and my religion.
© 1990, 1997 Brett Alan Sanders