es bueno

I found this in a bookshop and stood rooted to the spot:

Secret Autumn

by Jorge Teillier, trans. by Carolyne Wright

When the beloved everyday words
lose their sense,
and we can’t give a name to bread,
or water, or windows,
and all dialogue not with our own
abandoned image has been false,
we can still look at the ruined prints
in our little brother’s book;
it’s good to greet the plates and linen set upon the table
to see that in the old cabinet
the cherry cordial our grandmother made
and the apples put by for storage
still keep their joy.

When the trees’ form
is not more than the slightest recollection,
a lie invented
by the troubled memory of autumn,
and the days are disordered
as the attic nobody climbs to,
and the cruel whiteness of eternity
makes light flee from itself,
something reminds us of the truth
that we love before knowing:
branches break gently,
the dovecote fills with flutterings,
the granary dreams once again of sun,
for the party we light
pale candelabras in the dusty salon,
and silence reveals to us the secret
we didn’t want to hear.

One can only legally distribute such work in small amounts, I am told, and only if their distribution serves the purpose of critique. I do not wish to critique this. Pithy arguments like “it’s too beautiful to critique” aside, this is a translation and I do not speak Spanish. Moreover, I have known exactly one person who suffered under the Chilean regime under which this poem was written. So I lack context.

Things I would like to know: Why does the whiteness of eternity make light flee from itself? Something scientific about the spectrum of light? Or winter? Is it a way to talk about something hidden to me, without getting arrested at the time it was written?

I was attracted to the poem, initially, by the reference to lost words. My mother, my inbox tells me this morning, is going into a dementia care facility as soon as someone there dies and frees up a spot. So yes, lost words–and disordered days–matter to me. But, like the people who listen to me in my darker moments discussing my mother, I can only take so much grimness. So “the truth that we love before knowing” matters more. Dreaming again of sun, lighting candelabras against the darkness: that matters more. Even the secret we don’t want to know is no secret. And it matters. I’m assuming “the secret” here is that all this is ephemeral. A grim fact to many, it’s true. But a blessing of a kind to those who know what will happen before they die. Who know what their mind will devolve into and cause them to do to their loved ones before they forget them. In that context, the fact that it ends–that it’s ephemeral–is something to be grateful for.

The next poem in the book, “Joy,” also has a line that begins “it’s good to…” I checked the original Spanish of both poems, to see if it was just a foible of translation or of they really had both begun that way, and they do. Es bueno saludar lose platos y el mantel puestro sobre la mesa. Es bueno beber un vaso de cerveza. I wanted to check because, reading the English, I love when writers say these things. Not because I need a playbook–with silver linings or otherwise–but because I value knowing how other people cope. I value knowing what matters to them. When they take that step back, and say something not directly about this or that character, or about themselves, but about “how things are,” even knowing that they can only conceivably be commenting from within their own worldview doesn’t tarnish it for me. Maybe the necessarily limited nature of their scope gives such statements greater value, even. Because the writers aren’t stupid. They know their limitations. But they’re going out on a limb and saying, not “this is how it is for Bob,” or “this is how it is for me,” but “this is how it IS, dammit!” It can be seen as arrogant, yes, if they’re blind to their own limitations. But if they are aware of those limitations, and still say it, it’s ballsy as hell.

Also the candelabra lines put me in mind of Mrs. Dalloway, with whose efforts I strongly align:

“One feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.”


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