Tugs in the fog
Her thigh-bones broken under the weight of ninety years,
suspicious and greedy, my mother-in-law watched us closely,
and that coward of a father-in-law, chronically obese,
held his tongue in ten languages. My son, with a dark,
cold hole in his head, sat stuffing himself with food,
his face in front of the television.
My brother was gorging himself to death, swelling visibly
and uttering obscenities at the white table-cloths.
My parents, withered and dumb from years of mutual hatred,
wore on their faces a look of terminal loneliness.
This was a moral banquet, disgusting, fantastical.
Having salvaged our friendship from the wreck,
you smiled as you gazed at me,
but so many years of monsters have been relentless.
Those three blows from hands smacking the wall:
Knock on the wall: who is going to fall?
While they ring out we rush forward
then stop, watching Death whose back is turned,
but who will whirl round suddenly to catch out
anyone still teetering from their rush,
and eliminate them from that game forever.
Knock on the wall: who is going to fall?
The light is fading. Like a spot of gold, the candle
makes the shadows in the bedroom tremble.
Why is that post-war time so bitterly cold?
Death turns round and sees how my sister,
in her fever, tosses and cries under her ice-packs.
Knock on the wall: who is going to fall?
The past was my father’s face:
prison-cells and scars, defections.
How the blows from those hands
smacking against the wall terrified him.
He cannot suppress a restless movement.
Anger and fear denounced him to Death.
Knock on the wall: who is going to fall?
We never strayed from its side.
And now I play with my dead child.
Why did I never read that look in her eyes?
But the future is crafty, and always cheats.
I never heard the three blows: she smiled at me
and her empty space was already beside me.
And the game had to go on.
Knock on the wall: who is going to fall?
I no longer care if Death can see me:
I turn round to smile at those who follow me.
Now that I’ve reached the wall,
I know nothing of what there might be behind it.
I only know I am going there with my dead.
This poem follows a children’s game. There are similar versions of the game in a lot of countries. Facing a wall, a child smacks it three times with the palms of his hands and calls out the refrain of the game: this refrain in Catalonia is “Un, dos, tres, pica paret” (one, two, three, knock on the wall). In the UK children would say Knock on the wall: who is going to fall? In the meantime, from a little way off, the rest of the children move forward. The child turns round, and, if someone is moving, he or she is out of the game.
The damp and narrow street is almost blocked
by heaped belongings: rusting refrigerator,
two mattresses propped up against the wall,
a sofa and a standard-lamp, both broken.
All that is left, now, from an eviction.
They’re debris from the future.
They’re things you often find in streets like these,
but now he’s thinking they might be his own
remains, the things he’s seen.
He turns: a cat creeps underneath the sofa
and stares at him with green eyes just like hers.
GOING PAST THE TERRAMAR
Sitges, in the sixties: that old, luxurious hotel
where I wrote the book, Winter Sea.
Thirty years later, when it was only a short
time before her death, we went there together:
the paint was already peeling, with the railings
damaged by the sea, and the moquette
worn thin in places by passing feet.
But the glasswork was well-cared for
in those still sumptuous rooms,
separating sitting-room from bedroom,
and made from huge double panes of frosted glass,
with ears of wheat and flowers pressed between them.
That’s the way those few days we spent
together there have remained in my memory.
Perhaps you’ll go back with her to the Terramar,
says the horizon’s blue looking-glass.
We, the old, don’t look for truth.
Every certainty is nothing more
than a useless wound.
It was left over from the war, the old cloak
of a deserter on my bed(*). At night I felt
the rough touch of years that were not
the happiest of my life.
In spite of everything, the past ends up being
a brotherhood of wolves, melancholy
for a landscape skewed by time.
What remains is love—not philosophy,
which is like an opera—and, above all,
no trace of the damned poet: I am afraid,
but I get by without idealism.
Sometimes, tears slide down
behind the dark lenses of my glasses.
Life is the cloak of a deserter.
(*)At the end of the war, when times were hard, the warm cloaks worn by soldiers were used as extra bedding in most homes.
The bricklayers at dawn get a fire going
with the remains of plank mouldings.
Life has been a building under construction
with the wind at the top of the scaffolding,
and always facing into the void, because you know
that the man who’s installing a safety-net has no net.
What use is it to have gone on repeating
words like love?
Feeble light-bulbs at the end of a line,
memories come on. But I don’t want
anyone to feel sorry for me: I find
that easy kind of contempt repugnant.
I need pain against oblivion.
A bonfire lit from scraps of wood
burning beside some scaffolding, is who I am:
a tiny blaze
which, whatever it may mean to be judged,
no one can deny me ever again.
Morning in Montjuïc cementery
I have climbed the hill of the tombs.
I have reached this spot by crossing the waste ground
of Can Tunis, snowy with plastic bags
and syringes, where junkies wander
shakily about like statues made from rags.
They say the Council wants to bulldoze it,
concrete over these fields of weeds
in front of the huge wrought-iron gate
of the cemetery, that rises in front of the sea.
For the dead it will mean less congenial company:
the dead, their wall and their silence
accord well with the junkies wandering
about like lost soldiers after a defeat.
As I climb up the old path above the port
ships and cranes grow smaller
and the sea spreads itself out. Here,
right at the very top,
you are spared the grief of the world.
It was crouching in a furrow, and when I picked it up,
it felt as though your hand was in mine.
There were patches of dried blood on one wing:
the tiny bones, like ribs,
were shattered by buckshot.
It tried to fly but, trailing the wing,
could scarcely drag itself along the ground
before hiding beneath a stone.
I still feel that warmth in my hand,
because a fragile creature gave meaning
to each of my days. A fragile creature
likewise now beneath a stone.
A street-light has had its glass smashed
and is out. Its purpose
is not to shed light on the pavement,
but to be an iron post in the darkness.
In the street there is a burnt-out skip,
blackened, with its plastic damaged.
The thing itself, too, is
twisted and capsized, a piece of rubbish.
Our daughter is this anguish
at time passing, time freezing our life.
Now, her purpose is not to love
or be loved, but to be the dust
of grey, insensate material.
Everything loses its fragile purpose.
And look, love, I just don’t care
what name we end up giving all this,
because this is where our strength comes from.
This part of me that you know nothing about,
where I keep my cold, intemperate grief,
the part of me you dislike the most, is the part
that has been closest to you, the part of me that
has always, unconditionally, loved you most of all.
SELF-PORTRAIT WITH SEA
It’s that quiet child who plays by himself.
He’s behind these old man’s eyes
resisting the onslaught of noon,
listening to the waves’ confused verses
and the cries of naked, rusting bodies
entering cold clear water
on that stony beach. He is ashamed,
and goes from one tale’s hiding-place to another.
Sleep within me, lost child:
Sleep within me on a Three Kings night
when broomsticks fly in silence
and wolves leave paw-prints in the snow.
Outside, the sky fills up with apricots
and the sea, the deep blue of plums,
breaks open on the rocks’ black knives.
This summer with freezing alcohol in my eyes
I feel my black and yellow life
like the flesh of a fruit that is rotting
around memory’s stone.
Hide within me, lost child.
Inside me, sheltered from noon,
tell the story about the grey boy
and the miserable bicycle
that the sad cyclist of the suburbs rides.
He’s searching for you and is now quite close.
The bubble of light within the tunnel
carries our faces away with it into the dark.
Although I recognize some trace
of that war-time child corrupted
by the gloomy myth of purity,
I look at myself in the glass of the metro carriage
with a mineral indifference,
because I already know that nothing inside me will change.
An old man’s love is as hard as the fig-tree
with its dusty, horribly contorted limbs, his heart
is dark and hidden, like the heart of the rose
among its crimson petals that are big but weak.
Cold passion is even more blind.
Sex puts up a fight in a hovel
with hardly any light, at the back of your mind.
Outside, death waits to come in.
Beginnings and endings
Once, I was a girl with a future.
I could read Horace and Virgil in Latin,
recite the whole of Keats by heart.
But when I entered the grown-ups’ caves,
they caught me and I started to bear
the children of a stupid, conceited man.
Now I drown my sorrows whenever I get the chance
and weep if I remember a line of Keats.
When you’re young, you don’t know
that you can’t stay in one place forever.
And you marvel if the man or woman
you longed to place your trust in never appears.
You don’t understand, when you’re young, that beginnings
have nothing to do with endings.
PROFESSOR BONAVENTURA BASSEGODA
I remember you as tall and fat,
obscene and sentimental: you were then
an authority on Deep Foundations.
You always began our class
with the words: Gentlemen, good morning. Today
it is so many years, so many months, and so many days
since my daughter died.
And you used to wipe away a tear.
We were in our twenties,
but the sight of you, a big fat man
weeping in front of the class,
never roused a smile from any one of us.
How long is it since you stopped counting the days?
I have thought of you and of all of us
now that I am your bitter shadow,
because for my daughter
it is two months, three days and six hours
that she has in death her deep foundation.
A photograph taken
three years after war had ended.
It’s the garden, in fact a neglected yard
that lay behind the house.
Not one of us there is smiling.
Fear steeps these garments, so often
torn and mended, as families are.
We’re looking straight at the camera: my mother
with the swept-up hair-do of a film about
My grandmother twists a handkerchief in her hands
for one of her sons, still in prison.
I hardly remember the other woman:
weakened with so much suffering, my aunt
died of a heart-attack a few months later.
Amidst the three of them, astride a bike,
four years old, grave-faced, I look like an adult.
How little there remains,
stored in memory’s poky little room,
overlooking the dry garden of an autumn
with ghosts of roses: the garden
of childhood, fear’s back-yard.
Sleep, Joana. May the Loverman, tragic, dark,
of that soprano sax
your brother played in the solace of Montjuic
keep you company through eternity
down the pathways music knows so well.
And if it may be don’t forget your years
in the nest you left within us.
We shall grow old keeping safe all the colours
that shone in your eyes.
Sleep, Joana. This is our house,
everything is lit by your smile.
It is a peaceful silence where we hope
to round off the stones of grief
so that everything you were may become music,
the music which shall fill our winter.
Away from this winter morning fine and mild,
please, don’t go,
but in this courtyard stay, submerged
like a wreck, inside our life.
Between the bay-tree and the aspidistras
with their broad, green, romantic leaves,
please don’t go, don’t go away.
All is set up so you can carry on,
so stay, then, please, don’t go away.
Just tell me you remember: I need
some words that have the deep, clear
voice of absence so I can ask you
about your fleeting triumph over the never more.
But you are quiet, resting in the past,
that bed of flashing sadness.
And so you went, shutting yourself inside
the bud of darkness during these eight months,
until today when, terrified by light,
comes flapping out
death’s pale and furious moth.
But if you’re dying, you are still alive,
and I make the final happiness
unfold across your tired face
with your small hands clasped in mine.
To be dying is to be still alive, I tell myself.
this winter morning fine and mild,
please, don’t go, don’t go away.
MOTHER AND DAUGHTER
Your hands are her entire past:
thirty years of love held in your palms.
You have watched over her the whole night through
and you lie down on the bed beside her,
with your breast against her back
and your face rubbing her tired hair.
You hug her and you talk softly
while you caress her.
These are the final nights. You feel the heat
of her worn-out body you know so well.
In death you will learn how to take care of her.
She has always been a child: watch over her sleep,
which is coming to look more and more, and more,
like the deep dark of joy
where she is falling, into your hands.
CHRISTMAS LIGHTS AT SANT JUST
Shivering bulbs light up
just like someone’s tears.
I gaze out at our courtyard under the lilac-
coloured sky of evening where, against
the light, the laurel leaves are drawn
in a sharp, black print. Your mother tells me:
You and I, now and then, we lose everything.
The Christmas lights are shivering in the streets:
Suddenly, for you, they’ve all gone out.
Today all the colours inside fairy-tales,
like the greens of reeds beside the river
and the clouds reflected in the old washing-trough,
are shining in Joana’s eyes.
It starts to rain and, over there, across
the yard, it’s Christmas of the year before,
with figures moving. I see Joana laugh,
but all at once she turns her head towards me,
stares, and then I know that it’s a memory,
because the rain is falling through her.
About Joana (2002)
The poet’s daughter, Joana, suffered from Rubinstein-Taybe syndrome, a mental
condition which also involves severe physical problems, especially motor difficulties which compelled her to use crutches or a wheelchair. She understood that her well-being depended on the affection of those around her and she learned very early on that affection breeds more affection. But the poet came to understand all this slowly and with difficulty, over a period of many years, and so Dark Night in Balmes Street, a poem set around the time of Joana’s birth in 1970, reveals how badly prepared the poet was for this grief. The poem narrates and assesses facts he could not confront poetically (that is to say, in reality) until much later.
Thirty years after the night the poem discusses, the story came to a close with the last eight months of her life, which are the theme of the book, Joana. Her parents’ anguish always led them to picture their daughter’s defencelessness once they themselves had disappeared. As far as the poet is concerned, he does not know whether he is a better or worse person, but what he is convinced of is that, if he had not had Joana’s constant company for those thirty years, he would be a lot worse. This is the theme of the poem, The eyes in the rear-view mirror, which celebrates the shining qualities of that girl.
THE GIRL AT THE TRAFFIC-LIGHTS
You are the same age that I was
when I began to dream of finding you.
I didn’t yet know, just as you
haven’t yet learned, that some day
love is this weapon loaded
with melancholy and loneliness
which is now aimed at you by my eyes.
You are the girl I was searching for
for so long when you didn’t yet exist.
And I am that man to whom
you will one day want to walk towards.
But then I shall be far away from you,
as far as you are now from me at these traffic-lights.
Like the dark backs of a herd of colts,
the waves draw near, collapsing
with a dull but lyric murmur
that Homer was the first to know how to listen to.
Weary from their long gallop,
they begin to tremble.
Then they moan, hoarse with pleasure,
like a woman in the arms of her lover.
The waves, later, start
to hurl themselves, foaming, like wolves
that may have scented prey.
The setting sun, arriving from behind me,
lays red medals on their backs.
In the sand’s wet edge
I see your footprints and, through the air,
your body’s golden shadow passes.
So, it was about you, that the sea
with its deaf-mute gestures, was warning me.
It is saying that the place, within me, that you occupy
will be part of hell if you leave it empty.
That in the depths of this love there comes back to wait for me
the desolation of my twenty-year-old self.
I wasn’t afraid of the water, but of you,
it was your fear that made me afraid,
and the deep end where the tiles couldn’t be seen.
You gripped me, I still remember
the strength of your arms forcing me
while I tried to cling on to you.
I learned to swim, but later,
and for a long time I forgot that day.
Now that you will never swim again,
I see the blue still water ahead of me.
And I understand that it was you who cling
to me in order to try to go through those days.
These blue days and this sun of childhood.
(Last line of poetry written by Antonio Machado at Collioure)
Buried in the mud of the Ebro, heroism.
But it was still important, even for the defeated—
already dressed in shabby civilian clothes—
to keep that dark-eyed glance,
a cheeky neighbourhood lad with his easy laugh.
Exiled, he was put on a train.
During those lengthy stops in the night,
on the wooden seat, between rifles,
he feels how war is a huge wild beast
pushing him with its claws to Bilbao,
with no kit and empty pockets.
They leave him on the platform one grey morning.
Tired by the journey and by defeat “weary” or “tired” will be better
he washes in a fountain and, deep in his eyes,
there shine his epic and the weapons It’s necessary?
of long ago, the old weapons of those Sunday
dances in the tawdry open-air bars of Montjuic.
He searches out the streets of tarts and hovels.
Close beside her, he smells her cheap
scent and the dark glance of eyes
where the mascara has left
black flags of dead anarchists.
Her nails, of a dirty red,
are flags that the Ebro was dragging away.
And I am proud to write again,
as in poetry’s good days,
a poem about a whore
who saved herself and a man through love.
This happened when the war was over.
Meanwhile, for me the blue days
and sun of childhood were passing by.
THE GERMAN TEACHER
In that secondary school in the aftermath of war
I must have picked up a smattering of Greek
and left with some veneer of the classics.
But, if learning anything in that place
was hard enough, the subject with less than nothing
going for it was German, with Berlin
then in ruins, blackened under the snow.
Of our two languages, mine
was a persecuted, hers a defeated tongue.
In a tiny room in the mansion that housed
the school, as I went into class,
I’d always find her on her knees, scrubbing
beside the bin and talking to herself.
I know no German, and in general have
no good memories of any Germans,
but I have never forgotten that woman’s grief.
Now that I’m taking stock of what I am
I’m on my knees feeling the cold of icy tiles
to wipe away the past, as she was doing
scrubbing the red border of the tiled floor.
THE EYES IN THE REAR-VIEW MIRROR
We have both grown accustomed, Joana,
for this slowness,
when you lean on your crutches, and climb out of the car,
to start off a sally of car-horns and their abstract abuse.
Your company makes me happy,
and the smile of a body so far
from what was always called beauty,
that tedious beauty, so far-off.
I have exchanged it for the seductiveness
of tenderness that lights up the gap
that reason left in your face.
And, if I look at myself in the rear-view mirror,
I see a pair of eyes I do not easily recognise,
for in them there shines the love left
by looks, and light, the shadow
of everything I have seen,
and the peace your slowness reflects back to me.
So great is their wealth
that the eyes in the rear-view mirror don’t seem to be mine.
Liberty is the reason for living,
we used to say, we dreamers, when students.
It’s the reason of the old, we now say, for a change,
their only sceptical hope.
Liberty is a strange journey.
It began in the bull-rings
with chairs in the sand
in the first elections.
It’s the danger, mornings, in the metro,
it’s the newspapers at the end of the day.
Liberty is making love in the parks.
Liberty is when dawn breaks
on the day of a general strike.
It is dying free. It is the medical wars.
The words Republic and Civil.
A king leaving by train to go into exile.
Liberty is a bookshop.
Travel without papers.
The songs that are forbidden.
A form of love, liberty.
It’s you as a child, carrying a jug and you’re waiting
at the slaughter-house to buy blood.
On the cement floor there are some benches
where rows of goats are tethered,
with neck outstretched, hobbled and bleating.
You’ve placed the jug beneath one of them,
black and soft. Unhurriedly, a man,
armed with a knife, has cut its throat.
Just as at Delphos, the message
of the red jet gushing into the jug
with the same sound you’re hearing now,
was difficult and obscure. You’ve spent
forty years trying to understand it.
You’re doing that now, pissing blood.
DON’T THROW AWAY YOUR LOVE-LETTERS
They will not abandon you.
Time will pass, desire— this arrow
of shadow—will rub itself out
and the sensuous, intelligent, loveliest faces
will hide in a looking-glass within you.
The years will fall and books become boring to you.
You will stoop even further,
and lose even poetry.
The cold noise of the city against the window-panes
will gradually become the only music,
and the love-letters that you will have kept,
your final reading-matter.
I am sleeping with you and I hear the trains go by.
Lights from windows cross my forehead
ripping the dark blue velvet of this night.
The period of silence leaves me with a red light,
the note on a stave of dark and shining
cables and rails. I am sleeping with you
and I hear how they fade away with the saddest of sounds.
Perhaps I was wrong not to have boarded one of them.
Perhaps the last and best choice is—my arms around you—
to let the trains go by in the night.
In the dreary Girona of my seven-year-old self,
where post-war shop-windows
wore the greyish hue of scarcity,
the knife-shop was a glitter
of light in small steel mirrors.
Pressing my forehead against the glass,
I gazed at a long, slender clasp-knife,
beautiful as a marble statue.
Since no one at home approved of weapons,
I bought it secretly, and as I walked along,
I felt the heavy weight of it, inside my pocket.
From time to time I would open it slowly,
and the blade would spring out, slim and straight,
with the convent chill that a weapon has.
Hushed presence of danger:
I hid it, the first thirty years,
behind books of poetry and, later,
inside a drawer, in amongst your knickers
and amongst your stockings.
Now, almost fifty-four,
I look at it again, lying open in my palm,
just as dangerous as when I was a child.
Sensual, cold. Nearer my throat.