October 25, 2020

From an unknown country | Babelia

I look on the shelf for a book by Louise Glück that I like a lot, Hell, and when I open it again, in a private celebration of his Nobel Prize, I remember the first discoveries I made in the United States, when I went there for the first time a season, a spring semester academic that did not last six months and in which the most fleeting thing was spring. Those were great winter lessons that I learned above all, and then the other lesson of the early summer of the South, when the vigor of the vegetation and the humid heat of the days caused a jungle fog.

From an unknown country

Sitting in front of a window, like a panoramic screen, I saw the snow storms, the hot floods of the tropics, the transparency of the days of clear sky and deceptive sun in winter. Sitting in that large swivel chair, sometimes I looked at the absorbing panorama of the stations, and other times, turning to the side, the succession of films, contests, news programs, documentaries, on a television with a wealth of cable channels that still it would take them a few years to get here, and that they helped to train my ear in the language in which I was first immersing myself. It was a remote age, which now seems calmer and more innocent, the first months of Bill Clinton’s presidency. One night I saw Hillary present to Congress a universal health care program that predictably would come to nothing. TO Hillary clinton I liked listening to her because her English was clear and superbly articulated, which was a great benefit to my learning.

In that summarily furnished living room, in addition to the large window and the television, I counted for my accelerated education on newspapers, magazines and books, which were a permanent feast, although I had to frequently resort to a dictionary that I also discovered then, the American Heritage Dictionary, another feast in itself of precise definitions and illuminating examples, not to mention the typographic beauty of its design and the exhilaration of its volume and touch. A blizzard and The New York Times Sunday made a perfect combination. The storm discouraged any temptation to venture out in the open. The newspaper, with all its booklets and supplements, weighed two or three kilos, and guaranteed plenty of reading no matter how long the blizzard continued to blow.

Now we have forgotten, but until not long ago, going far was going completely and truly. Transoceanic phone calls were very expensive. You didn’t read the newspapers in your country, you didn’t watch television, you didn’t listen to the radio. In that distance, Spain was a non-existent country. An airmail letter with one’s name written in handwriting as identifiable as a face or voice was a flash of joy in the mailbox. The lessons from afar were as rigorous as the winter lessons, and like those in the language one eagerly learned every day: in conversation, on the radio, on print.

I started reading Louise Glück then. American life was always rather impenetrable for me, but its literary, musical and aesthetic culture, which had always attracted me, completely seduced me when I was able to immerse myself in it, taking the surprise of discovering to what extent in its own country it was a minority . In the United States I have found fewer fans of jazz, blues, American film noir or Cole Porter songs than in any intermediate European or Spanish city. If I think about it, perhaps the decisive learning was that of a certain idea of ​​written expression. I am not talking about the command of the language, but about the use that I saw that it was given in two precise fields, apparently distant from each other, that of poetry and that of non-fiction, including in this the prose of the newspapers, and the one of those magazines in which journalism is an exalted form of literature. When you arrive in a country and a language, your ignorance is compensated by your lack of prejudice, by a kind of innocence that in your own culture is impossible. I will always remember the impression that reading in The New Yorker the story of a man who regained his sight after 20 years of blindness and could not understand anything he saw because his brain had forgotten how to process visual impressions. It was a form of prose that I had never encountered: entirely literary in its expressiveness and beauty, and at the same time cleanly natural and informative. I was better able to appreciate the writing of Oliver sacks because he didn’t know who it was, because he read it without the expectation of admiration or rejection.

It was an enlightenment that had a lasting influence on me. And something similar happened to me with poetry. Perhaps fiction held fewer surprises for me because I was much more familiar with it, although until then it had mostly come to me in translation. In contemporary American poetry the lesson of naturalness was even more powerful, because I did not seem to have heard anything like it in my language. It was a poetry much less enclosed in the neurotic self, more open to life and to everyday language and to nature, without secrecy or rhetorical mannerisms, and at the same time without a trace of vulgarity or expressive negligence, and often with a nerve of social political protest, of environmental vindication, of celebration of work with the hands.

With my big dictionary open on the table as if on a lectern, I read the thick pages of words from newspapers and the much more concise ones from books of poems. Each poet I discovered led me to another, to another. I discovered Mark Strand, Howard Nemerov, Denise Levertov, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Louise Gluck, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Frank O’Hara , Jane Kenyon … Sometimes, contrary to popular belief, the very good abounds. The lesson of poetry was inseparable from that of nature, which was always so present in it, and also from the great example of the clarity of words, those that name the immediate and diurnal and those that suggest the mystery, the limit of the silence, what can no longer be said.


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