by Alexandra van de Kamp
Puerta del Sol, Francisco Aragón's first full-length book, is an intimate look at life in contemporary Spain as well as a convincing depiction of one person's attempts to navigate the overwhelming effects of loss and violence. Named after one of the main plazas in Madrid, the book opens its first section with the poem "Plaza," which begins by stating, "My first day the weather // was something I wore--August / a sweat-lined shirt / like a second skin." With these lines, the speaker introduces place not as an abstract entity but as something intimate and visceral; Spain and Spanish become a second skin in this book, a fact reflected in its bilingual format. Aragón comments on this when he asserts that his Spanish versions of the English poems are not "translations" as much as "elaborations," which he feels at liberty to play with. As a native of California, Aragón grew up with his Nicaraguan mother and was able to speak Spanish but was unable to read or write in it until after college. Then he spent ten years in Spain adding yet another linguistic layer to his Spanish. Hence, it is no surprise that his book is a geographical hybrid, spanning the diverse locations of California and Spain.
The book begins with a prelude, which is an "elaboration" in English of the Rubén Dario poem "Lo Fatal." At one point Dario's poem (offered in the original at the back of the book) states: "pues no hay dolor màs grande que el dolor de ser vivo." Literally translated this reads: "There is no pain larger than the pain of being alive," but Aragón's version reads "Tell me / of an affliction / more acute / than breathing." Here we have one of the main premises of the book: that pain and life are inextricable, but that life is a sensual, intimate experience, and some of the pain we encounter may be offset by being a vivid witness to this experience.
Such vividness is abundant in the first section of the book, in which several well-paced narrative poems celebrate the fact of place. "City Moon" captures the sultry hungers of the city of Madrid with images like: "perfect disc of moon, huge / and simmering / low on the capital's filthy horizon." while not forgetting "the firm-thighed"
boys from Lisbon
a block away, who work
Kilometer Zero's sidewalk, the neon
shoestore they lean against
cupping the flames
of passing strangers.
Meanwhile, "First Time Out" steps away from Madrid to describe the speaker's first time sailing in Barcelona and ends by depicting the rise and fall of the Mediterranean: "this rise // this fall a heaving, / sighing, or merely the Mediterranean / releasing / the breath / that sustains, fulfills // the sail." This image of a breathing sea, reinforced by the short, breath-like lines (a device Aragón uses frequently), once again reminds the reader of the prelude's visceral declaration of breathing as witness and of how we have no choice but to filter this world's beauty and tragedy through our own selves, via the small successive increments of our breath.
The poems in this book are strongest when they expand this idea of witness to encompass the political and personal. In "All Saints' Day," Aragón deftly brings together, in a tautly written lyrical narrative, the lives of three men and the grim facts of terrorism. The poem begins with a West Coast image of the warm Santa Ana winds that, like the human breath weaving in and out of the book as a whole, carry the poem's backdrop from California to "the other // side of the globe" where "Giulietta / Masina feels a warmth / on her cheek," as she nurses her dying husband, Federico Fellini, during the final days of his life. From here, the poem moves seamlessly into the life of a second couple as "another wife's wish // is fleshed out" and her kidnapped husband, finally freed, "pulls // open a tavern door / and walks in and calls / a cab, / his limbs and organs // intact." The poem then deftly states: "But if // her husband had been / another--the army doctor / down the block / a year short // of retiring" and goes on to recount how the doctor is gunned down by terrorists one morning while trying to cross the street to his bulletproof car. Aragón's skillful overlapping of the private and political shows most vividly in images such as the notes of a street musician's flute mingling with "the notes // spitting out of the Parabellum / pistols," and in the poem's closing image, when the speaker, referring to himself in the second person, states that the day before he had accepted from a teenage boy and girl a flyer for Telepizza and while heading home had tossed the flyer
into a green
fastened to a lamppost at the edge
of the curb: same
as the one the doctor will grasp
the next morning, wrap
his arms around, wrenching
as he falls, trash
to the ground
meters from the car.
This quotidian detail of a trash can as the nexus where private lives and political events collide demonstrates powerfully the haunting everyday details of violence and of how, unwittingly, we can brush against other people's tragedies.
The next two sections of Puerta del Sol focus primarily on personal relationships. Cataloguing facts and sensations, Aragón depicts the death of his mother as well as the deaths of friends by AIDS. In "Light, Yogurt, Strawberry Milk," the speaker, unable to sleep, goes to his Madrid kitchen to snack on yogurt, which triggers a memory "of Father Dan, who, back home, / had buried her" and of how, for months after, the speaker, now a grieving son, had watched the priest "raise a chalice / every morning / to his lips" as he was now raising the yogurt to his own. Once again, small, mundane details become weigh stations for pain--physical symbols embodying more overwhelming emotional realities. While car bombs and assassinations interrupt the domestic harmony of Madrid, AIDS punctures the everyday reality of San Francisco in poems such as "The Calendar," in which Aragón subtly brings to the surface the ravaging effects of the disease:
I want to tell you how, in the fraction
of an hour, waiting for the J
at Market and Church, I saw four
fragile men managing
through an afternoon: two with
canes, though not of the age when canes
Yet there is also much joy in this book; Aragón often spends a poem simply reveling in a particular moment. In "Madrid in July" the speaker recalls one summer afternoon "stacking well into the afternoon / tablecloths and napkins" while working in a restaurant laundry, and his physical attraction for a co-worker: "the blood that thrives // whenever I glimpse / the hair on his wrist." Such sensual delights continue through poems like "Winter Socks" and "Lunch Break" and seem to culminate in the short rhyming poem "Mi Corazón is a Bilingual Mirror," which playfully depicts the narrator drawing a heart and placing it in his lover's pocket. Of course, there is some ambiguity as to what exactly the speaker's heart is--the poem itself being written or something more ephemeral that slips past any language's ability to name it. The poem is so short that the Spanish version of it (written with similar end rhymes) is offered on the same page and provides for the reader a literal bilingual reflection of the narrator's emotions. In a sense, this more whimsical piece sums up the emotional topography of the book, which is a bilingual heart--an intimate look at the author's emotional attachments to two languages and to the two locations these languages represent for him.
The final poem of the book, "What Else Will I Recall?" ends with Aragón openly wondering at what he will most remember from his years in Spain. He ponders several possibilities but then ends with a beginning: the first moment he stepped off the plane in Madrid in the height of August heat and overheard a Madrileño commenting on the unbearable weather: "and how / something in me fluttered // hearing those vowels, as if I started / to understand, as if those rhythms / carried, even then, the message // I'd take years to unravel." What message that is the reader is left to discern, but one can only imagine it is connected to the more inscrutable messages of loss, of the mysterious power places can have over us, and of the author's attempts to come to terms with the political and personal events he has witnessed in the diverse geographies of two languages.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005