for Amanda and Nick
A couple of weeks after publishing in these space the second part of my reflections—my disenchantment, my sense of suffocation, my rage even—about the sorrowful state of what we call the literary world in our times, I received yet another email titled “How to Win a Poetry Award”, which enumerated the steps to follow in order to attain such a goal. The advice, as the goal itself, I can only describe as abject.
The piercing suspicion that I can’t communicate anymore with this world (not only the literary, but the world in its entirety: mechanical, blind, incomprehensible); that I don’t speak the same language, that I will fall mute forever, only got worse. Perhaps the time has come to unsubscribe from absolutely every cultural and literary organisation; to miss, unfortunately, a handful of marvellous dialogues and surprises to save myself from this proliferation of messages that have nothing to do with me and that darken the spirit. There is of course the risk that, by eluding the noise, I’ll be left talking to myself, but sometimes I think that that’s what I’ve been doing for a long time anyway.
It’s October. The treetops change swiftly from green to a vast array of extraordinary colours, all fire and gold, and when there is sunshine light carries you away in its transparency. Cristal-clear, it casts on the façades the trees’ perfectly outlined shadows and an impatient breeze stirs the leaves in a hypnotic dance, a magic-lantern show in which the dry leaves are the music too. But it doesn’t matter how clear the day is, or how intensely blue a sky of infinite depth, on buses or the overground, with all windows open to the light, most passengers travel with their gaze stuck to the screens of their mobile phones. Sometimes that too awakes my fury, my fear (what have we become?, where are we going?), but, most of all, my sadness, or let’s call it, plainly, desolation. I feel like shaking them and shouting: ‘Can’t you see the day, this intoxicating light in each and every one of its unique reflections? Just as every instant of this day under this sky is unique, never to be again. Can’t you see it?’
Ah, the endless lockdowns of Covid, that master disguised as enemy that was going to teach us how to understand the value of our life and our world, haven’t been enough! We were going to learn, if we listened, how to see anew. Free again to go around town (at least for the time being), our eyes are still blind, our soul trapped in a miserable screen that snatches away from us the reflection and the instant, our mind stupefied, addicted, hopelessly fractured. These are now Blake’s dark Satanic Mills.
In such conditions, quietude is elusive even at the diaphanous core of beauty, and every message that comes from screens and newspapers seems to be baleful news—national, international, planetary.
One weekend I went to visit friends in Norwich. I hadn’t been to see them since the pandemic started. To my surprise, the train is crowded, and at every town it stops it is boarded by more and more passengers, most of them with no facemasks, until it’s packed tight. They are standing or sitting on the floor, with the barely contained excitement of those on their way to a great public event. Indeed, I find out, that day there will be a football match in Norwich. Despite all my precautions, and the Covid test I had done before travelling, I am now exposed to contagion more than I have ever been in these nearly two years, and my test’s negative results start to seem to me news from a remote past. At the two last stops the conductor says through the loudspeakers that no one else can board the train; he asks passengers not to block the doors, but people don’t listen and they keep on walking in. My fear of contagion is soon transformed into crowd panic, unable as I am to move or even try to get near the door. And yet, the atmosphere in the train is festive.
Four lads laugh and drink Corona beer, with the visible effort, joyful and painful at once, of appearing adult and free. Beside me, a talkative 84-year-old woman who’s coming back from Portugal is having great fun and takes a picture of the carriage. One of the young men asks her, trying to be defiant without much success, what does she want the picture for; he doesn’t want her to get him into trouble. “This is just delirious!”, she says, laughing. “Don’t worry; I won’t tell anybody that you have impregnated me”.
When we finally arrive at Norwich, the station is full of police, waiting for the football fans with an expression almost as relaxed and festive as them on their face; October’s light makes objects thin and translucid while emphasising shadows, and it seems to me that the sky above the station and myself is infinitely expanding.
The stadium is quite near and the hordes keep on arriving, their face illuminated by the same light which is like burnished gold, ennobling those faces which are already illuminated by laughter and expectation, and I wonder if it’s OK to allow people to go to football matches when Covid cases are still rising, whether I should be terrified of having been infected, or if my immediate reaction, once recovered from the fear of being crushed to death (and surely I exaggerate), which is one of celebration and a perhaps reckless accord, is the right one: the one that life is demanding so that it can go on being life, so that we can all go on. I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, the pandemic has unhinged my instincts.
I’ve been reading Baudelaire again, The Spleen of Paris, and I come across his description of the Autumn sky: un ciel d’automne charmant, un des ces ciels d’où descendent en foule les regrets et les souvenirs.
These skies bring to me indeed a multitude of memories; an instant return to innumerable moments of my life lived in an equal clarity, as if the light’s extreme transparency laid me bare of all history, leaving only the exact sensation of lived experience, without any interpretation to disturb it. A joy that becomes melancholy as soon as reason bursts in, inopportune, making me wonder if those moments that come back to memory are “what is lost”. Might Baudelaire be referring to that when he talks about regrets?
Be it as it may, I love this light, this golden prelude to winter, this interregnum, the time of year that hovers closest to the sky. To look out of the window and see the foliage from afar—a tree that is all burning ochre against the intense and luminous yellow of a taller tree and, beyond, treetops that are still green, still bountiful. The sky full of birds.
It is clear, then, that not everything is lamentation over an autistic, rude, violent and broken-down world. The world is this too, the daily and elusive forms of miracle, those that do not demand for any meaning to be imposed upon them. And yet, how tiresome its noise is sometimes!
During my weekend in Norwich, my friends took me to a place that, though near their home, had remained hidden even for them until they started to explore their surroundings more assiduously during the pandemic: Earlham cemetery.
The cemetery opened its doors in 1856; it has been extended throughout the years and keeps on receiving its taciturn tenants, but it isn’t only a space for death. My impression as I walked in on that clear morning was that of place bursting with life and greenery. Like opening an invisible door to enter a parallel universe, the radiant light tamed and transformed by the foliage, the diverse paths among the tombs an invitation to the soul’s rearrangement, to restraint in the human din so that we can access the immeasurable: paths of stillness that get lost among the trees, the slow and burning dance of the dry leaves as they fall, the awareness of the silence of all the souls that the tombstones insist on calling. The stone on many of them is beautifully carved; there are angels and other imprecise guardian figures, then a Christ. Among the remains of breaths that died out nearly two hundred years ago there are also those of recent burials (a tomb that is still just a heap of freshly dug earth covered with flowers and wreaths); the area for those children who remained children forever, with its sadness clad in colour, toys and pinwheels that also call them by their name, moved by the breeze; the brief and moving mark that signals a future resting place, the eternal repose, for there will be no more time, for those who have decided that this is where, when the time comes, they want to surrender the mystery of matter and its transfiguration.
As I walked, following the curves of one of the paths without wanting to stop, as if the morning were infinite, I remembered writing one of my first poems, Panteón de Belén (“Belén Cemetery”), when I was very young, after spending another, distant morning in Guadalajara, my hometown, engrossed in that dialogue with what has grown quiet, subject to a time that no one measures, among tombs and trees of quite a different kind—I remember the sweetness of the guavas. The memory was as if one experience were superimposed on the other, with no interval or fracture: the urgency to treasure somehow the intensity of peace and silence, the sweet company of the dead, the humble sign of love enunciated in tombstones and monuments. And yet so much life has flowed since then, and I am so much another me.
In another country, watching a tree blaze —the spectacle of indescribable glory in the death of leaves. Reading the inscriptions of lives that are no more, some of them pathetically brief, my soliloquies of the past few days were snuffed out too. Momentarily the raging and the fear died out. All that was left was the awareness of a solemn and inescapable truth receiving my steps. The din ends, even if it is to start again, in other voices and in other hearts. Stillness is truly the final destiny of all striving.
And then another truth, somehow a mirror of the latter: this autumn light is denied to no one; it makes beautiful too the face of those who go without seeing it, engrossed in their mobile’s screen; generous and harbouring no malice, it gives them the glow of the face of angels. Its grace is that powerful, and it keeps on illuminating the world when silence and stillness come. Surrounded by that placid beauty, it seemed to me the highest truth.