Thursday, 4 March 2010
Maybe now that I’ve left Argentina, I’ll have time to say a little more about my stay.
There were many high spots during my six weeks in Buenos Aires, but a good place to begin is a joint reading with Sam Hamill, a poetry evening arranged by his Argentinian translator Esteban Moore. Esteban is a poet of Irish descent who has published several volumes and is well known in Latin America. The second week in February he invited friends and fellow poets to a bar called La Poesia in San Telmo, the oldest part of the city. We arrived early, so I had time to walk two streets over to the former Biblioteca Nacional, which from 1955 to 1972 had as its director Jorge Luis Borges. It’s now the National Center for Music and Dance, a fact fully evident when you noticed students congregating on the steps outside. A guard allowed me to have a look at the former Reading Room, quite similar to its counterpart in the British Museum in the era when the British Library was housed there: a very high, octagonal room capped by a dome and lined with bookshelves. Remember the opening of Borges’s “The Library of Babel”? “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” Borges said he conceived of Heaven as a library and cited his father’s library in the family home on calle Serrano as the central, determining fact about his childhood. Borges was an heroic reader, in the same way we say Achilles was an heroic fighter, and he had an Achilles heel as well: the eye defect he inherited from his father, which eventually left them both blind. The convergence of those two facts, directorship of the National Library and his blindness, led to the writing of one of his best-known poems, the “Poem of the Gifts,” pervaded with a calmly tragic sense of humor. Borges fame arose around his fiction writing, but as time has passed I’ve come to prefer his poetry to his short stories, brilliant and original as those are.
Meanwhile, this was to be an evening of the, so to speak, “talking book,” and I made my way back to Bar La Poesia to see if it was time to go on. It was a bilingual evening, given that most of the audience was hispanophone. I read my poems in both languages (using translations made by others or myself, plus two poems that I actually wrote in Spanish first, and later translated into English). Sam read his poems in English, pausing between each so that Esteban could read his very accurate and graceful versions. The picture shown above was taken during the evening, myself on the left and Sam on the right. It was the first time we’d ever read together, and the significance of the occasion wasn’t lost on me.
The person who took the photograph is my friend Mong-Lan, whom I met about ten years ago in Switzerland, during a month’s residency at the Château de Lavigny, in a small village near Lausanne. Even in those days Lan was passionate about tango; in the past decade she has become sufficiently expert to give tango lessons herself. And she recently published a book of poems dealing with the topic, the verses accompanied by her ink-brush drawings. She sees tango as a kind of pain-killer for the underclass of Buenos Aires, a way to forget for a few hours that their lives have strict economic limits and few attractive prospects. Not for most of its dancers a prelude to real physical intimacy, tango is a kind of abstraction of sexuality, allowing equal expression for both genders, though it seems to me that women dancers have a wider repertory of gestures, particularly with the voleos, or whip-lashings of the leg.
One evening Lan and I went to a milonga, a dance hall where people meet to tango. Participants don’t usually arrive as a couple. Instead, men invite women they catch sight of there to dance a number or two, always interspersed with an interval of conversation. That means a dance can be a fleeting encounter or develop into something longer term, depending on circumstances and mutual attraction. The milonga Lan and I went to for some reason is called “Canning” and opens its doors near Palermo Soho around eleven every evening. I have to report I don’t know how to tango and was a fairly resigned wallflower (wallvine?) for the whole evening. But it was impressive to see how well Lan performed, the best dancer on the floor that evening, unmistakably. It was also touching to see older couples dancing, not athletically but slowly and sensitively, some of them upwards of seventy. Granted, the smart youth of Buenos Aires much prefer rock and disco to tango; but it is an old porteño (the adjective used to describe citizens of Buenos Aires) tradition that also draws adepts from all over the world, the poet and painter Mong-Lan included.
During my stay I strolled through the neighborhoods that are most often visited in Buenos Aires—the Palermos (Soho, Chico, and Hollwood), the Centro, La Boca, San Telmo, Recoleta, Retiro, and Belgrano. I visted most of the museums, had good meals in the restaurants, saw my Australian friends Lee Tulloch and Tony Amos at their hotel (the Alvear Palace) and in Palermo, before they went on their cruise to the Malvinas/Falklands, Patagonia, and Chile. Yet it would have been unadventurous to stay in the city for the full six weeks and never visit the other nearby national capital when it is in so easily reached. To get to Montevideo, you either take a ferry there directly or else to Colonia del Sacramento (a shorter ride) and go by bus for the remainder of the trip. I chose the latter route, thinking it would incidentally give me an overland view of the countryside in Argentina’s smaller neighbor to the north. Fairly flat terrain greets you as you leave Colonia, dotted with small houses on a single level, grazing cattle, eucalyptus groves and the occasional palm tree. You see less harvesting machinery than you would in comparable farmlands in the U.S.A., but also a certain appealing simplicity and modesty of aims. Uruguay is the twenty-fourth sovereign nation I’ve visited (twenty-seventh, if you count San Marino, Andorra, and Vatican City). I’ll go on record, too, as having seen all fifty states of the Union, and all but one of its large cities, lest anyone suppose I’m insufficiently interested in my home country.
Montevideo has its own special ambiance, as all national capitals do. Smaller and slower-moving than Buenos Aires, it has only one high-rise building, the Palacio Salvo, but on the other hand that was Latin America’s first such building when it was completed in 1928. It overlooks the Plaza Independencia, which is dominated by the equestrian statue of José Artigas, Uruguay’s liberator and a man with very forward-looking social ideas for his day, ideas that included universal suffrage, not excluding the indigenous peoples and women. The square is at the edge of the Old City, which, though dilapidated in some streets, is now having many of its old buildings renovated and may well end up being an equivalent to Buenos Aires’s Palermo Soho in a few years. I was impressed by the variety of architectural styles (from the 18th,, 19th, and 20th centuries) gathered in this old quarter, as well as by the unhurried and companionable life of the people I saw in the streets.
I also had dinner with a writer friend whom I hadn’t seen since the 1970s. This is Roberto Echavarren, one of the leading poets, novelists, and critics in Uruguay, often a guest at literary festivals throughout Latin America. We met in New York through mutual friends John Ashbery and David Kalstone and then unaccountably fell out of touch, though Roberto taught Comp Lit and Latin American literature for many years at NYU. Anyway, it was a pleasant reunion at his house in Pocitos, where I met his Indonesian-born partner Yudi Yudoyoko, who is a visual artist. We three had a pleasant meal together and caught up a bit. Roberto is often classed with the Neo-barocco poets of Latin America, a description that may or may not apply. He has published a volume of translations of Ashbery’s poetry and could be said to be influenced by that oeuvre, too; though perhaps it makes more sense to say that Ashbery nowadays is a kind of climate of opinion or aesthetics, with an impact on nearly every contemporary poet, as was true with Eliot in the 1920s and Auden in the 1930s. Roberto gave me several of his books, including a theoretical work on the androgyne in literature, which is a timely topic, certainly. I was glad to see Roberto again, and, besides, it always changes the face of an unknown city when you interact with someone who actually lives there.
Next morning I had a meeting with the poet Chip Livingston, whom I know from New York, and his Argentinian partner Gabriel Padilha. They had been living in the attractive Pocitos neighborhood of Montevideo since December but will be returning to the States shortly. We decided to find the monument to Gay Liberation that was set up in Montevideo five years ago—the first in Latin America, but a counterpart to others in New York, Amsterdam, and Germany. It was right at the edge of the Old City, in a little traveled byway called the Pasaje de la Vieja Policia. An upbeat way to conclude my stay in Montevideo.
This blog entry should also conclude, so I will sign off with the observation that my spoken Spanish improved while I was in Argentina, that being one of my reasons for going. Considering that the U.S.A. has a vast Spanish-speaking population, and the role that Spanish-speaking peoples have had in U.S. history, it seems only right that citizens should know Spanish, just as Canadians are expected to speak French even when their mother tongue is English. Besides, knowledge of the language opens the door to a culture and literature of extraordinary richness, as well as to one European country and some two dozen in the Western Hemisphere, where it is the official language.