Imago lacus

The picture above was taken by a dear friend, the American poet Debra Kang Dean (please do not use it without permission). I met Debra three years before, when I went to Walden to work with his late husband Brad, a great Thoreau scholar. Once we spent hours tracking this quotation: "Some men go fishing all their lives without ever realizing it's not fish they are after." We concluded that Thoreau never wrote it, but si non è vero...

Friday, February 13, 2015

Learning Icelandic

It is hard for me to speak about this book of Basque poems since in my case poetry comes out of the difficulty to speak. It is as if somehow I had been trying to correct my mistakes by writing and rewriting it during the last three years.

Learning Basque is not more difficult than learning Icelandic -- it all depends on the company you keep. My need for reading and writing in any language comes in a large extent from my relationship with the literature, and with the social arrangements that make it thrive or decay.  In different ways, Iceland has proved resilient and occasionally flourishing through the centuries and so has the Basque Country. What can we learn from each other? Some poems in this collection explicitly address the connection between both cultures, as when I recreate the Spánverjavígin saga passage in which Jón the Learned sympathetically describes the tragic ending of the relationship between Basque whalers and Icelanders in 1615.

The title comes from an homonymous poem by Bill Holm, which I translated because it speaks about the joys and dangers of learning a new language -- Icelandic in his case, Basque in mine. This is the original, from The Dead Get by with Everything (Milkweed, 1991):
For a week I say nothing,
understand only a little.
Without words, I’m lighter;
float around more
than I have for years.
Give me an order...
I’ll walk away,
over the cliff, smiling. 
The book launches a voyage from the my hometown to Iceland, through France, England, Wales, and Ireland. It has been published thanks to Ur Apalategi (here with me in the book presentation), who lives at the other side of the frontier. That is why the voyage begins in Behobia, right on the border, with a popular run towards Donostia - San Sebastian. There it goes two centuries back in time, to unearth some traces of the 1813 war.

History is present in the book from the beginning. I have tried to balance its weight with a photographic attitude, including some “minimalist landscapes” (as Ekhiñe Egiguren says).  The poems attempt a conversation between place and page, a dance in which language takes us from the local to the global and back. The second section moves from the social into the personal by a meditation on family relationships and the habits, addictions and rituals that make up “the heart’s boarding school”.  The central section is called “lava/land”, a metaphor for the liquid/solid dynamics of both language and society. Here the references to Iceland, a country that thanks to generous friends I have visited a few times since the year 2000, are more explicit.

In the last section, “at the University of Far Away”, the book recapitulates its central theme: learning rather than mourning or anything else. Crises teach. Not unlike aging, learning from crises is about opening a space for new possibilities with a limited number of resources -- about fulfilling what I call “Beckett’s promise”. (In a letter to Shainberg, Samuel Beckett wrote that “A child needs to make a sand castle even though it makes no sense. In old age, with only a few grains of sand one has the greatest possibility.”)

Writing and publishing poetry make as much sense as building castles in the sand. They might disappear with the next wave or the next crisis. But the need remains to do something with those few grains that we have at hand -- even if it is the left hand, it can be used to wave hello and say thanks. To make more with less, I have strived for variety in themes but also formally. There are traditional Basque forms, but also foreign ones such a triolets and sonnets. There is also free verse, found poetry, journal entries, prose poems, aphorisms, and a homage to Seamus Heaney.

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