Manuel Rivas- The Return

In Ithaca they were all dead.
They say it was I, Argos the dog, who was the first to awake:
-Dead, dead, dead!
A smell stronger than shit,
of the living man,
was what made me vomit up the celestial offal,
the bones of clouds,
the skin of the rainbow.
That man who stank of legend,
with the movement of an uncomfortable skeleton
and an angry spectre,
clove the scar with his nails
and smeared dirt shadows over words.
There were all our names.
Also the accurate memory of the trees
in Laertes’ garden.
Half a hundred rows of vines,
the thirteen pear trees,
the ten apple trees,
the forty fig trees.
The old blind man saw his son at last, with earth’s algebra.
Then, Odysseus
went around waking us one by one
and our tears are, since then,
the bond that captures the light
with violent happiness.

Manuel Rivas is a publishing phenomenon. I have to confess that this has put me off him for a long while. I enjoyed the film La Lengua de las Mariposas, which is based on one of his short stories and read his novel El Lápiz del Carpintero. I am sure these are translated into English by someone more competent than myself.

I was given A Desaparción da Neve (Madrid: Alfaguara, 2009) as a Christmas present and it sat on my bookshelf for a while before I got around to reading it. It is a quadrilingual poetry collection, in Gallego, Catalan, Basque and Castilian, the four principal languages of modern Spain. I’m not sure what I make of the idea. Is it generously polylinguistic? Or is it presumptuous? There is no introduction that explains the conceit but the cover proclaims it “an island of biodeiversity”. It is dedicated to Jonathan Dunne, a translator who now lives in Roumania but has translated a number of books from Galician into English. This suggests that Rivas’s idea is tied in with the idea of translation at its root.

This particular poem attracted me since I was meditating on Rosalía de Castro’s poem about Ithaca recently. Ithaca has a perennial fascination for writers in Galicia.

The dog is named Argos, after the god of a thousand eyes. You will remember that Jason’s ship was called the Argo and he painted an eye on the stern. This is why his crew were called the Argonauts. It is an appropriate name for a guard dog. However, here it seems that the guard dog slept through the killing of the bachelors and only awoke to the dead.

What does the return of Odysseus mean? The poem ends with the curious conjunction of tears, light and happiness. I imagine someone stepping out of a prison into the light: tears of happiness. These, however, are not temprorary tears. We have that phrase “since then” (dende entón) to contend with. There is a suggestion that tears and happiness are forever linked now. It is a paradoxical conjunction melded in violence.

Since Ithaca is a topic in Galician literature it is hard not to read the poem as a reflection on the country. There is something curious about this suggestion of the returning hero then. I get the sense that the “celestial offal” the dog has to vomit up is all that he has ingested since Odysseus left. Odysseus does not return as a benign conquering hero but as a an awful spectre who restores and destroys in equal measure.

Perhaps this is what gives that last image of tears of violent happiness its potency.IMG_1446.JPG

About Jason Preater

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2 Responses to Manuel Rivas- The Return

  1. nannus says:

    If I recall the Odyssee correctly, Argos dies after recognizing Odysseus, so maybe “awake” and “vomit up the celestial offal” are metaphors for dying? An interesting poem.
    These old greeks where so obsessed with their kleos, so the “man who stank of legend” is somehow funny.


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