I can hear at my back the crying
of the children, I take with me
the words of the dead,
I ask myself right now
if the beds are not even cold yet
how can I not turn and look back?
from Taresa Lorences, Siguiendo a Lot, from Sobre l’arena. This poem is discussed by Berta Piñán in Poesía en Movimientu. I think her account is compelling:
There is no doubt an extreme and tragic sentiment in these verses. Aside from its strictly historical interest I want to introduce them here as a metaphor to help reflection because I believe that they can serve as an example of an ideological construction that cuts right across new Asturian poetry. The underlayer is, in sum, a poetics of exile. This looking backwards, towards what is going to end up irreparably destroyed, towards what we are not going to be able to recuperate because, even though we may turn and go back, it is not going to exist, is a sentiment that is repeated too often in the new poetry for us to consider it merely a chance product or the mutual influence amongst writers. Desolation, loneliness and the impression of a past that inevitably died, and that only verse memory can recuperate for an instant, is joined to the uncertainty of a future that will have to be raised in the desert because what used to be, what we knew so certainly, has been wiped out by the passage of time. But also, as in this poem, new Asturian poetry in general is built as a rebellion against reality, against the mandate of a “foreigner” which has been imposed on the destiny of a language and a culture that, just like the country culture that it so often represents, will not know how to adapt itself without fragmenting and deconstructing, that is to say, without losing its identity.
Asturian poetry is, in this sense, the wife of Lot who flees destruction, who seeks another possible future but in doing so has to pay a terrible price: the loss of that world that as in the famous poem by Xuan Bello “… was high luminous beautiful/ the birth, source and vocation of the river.” Thus, the primordial loss which is the loss of that which we love or imagine we love is superposed over the rebellion against a future which we do not accept as the same for all, a future that will have to be raised in the desert, in exile, but in the end will be our own destiny, freely chosen. How to channel this impulse, how to open this “historic course” that Xosé Bolado spoke of is one of the jobs that new Asturian poetry takes on as its own
This reminds me of R.S. Thomas writing about Wales, which has many points of connection with Asturias, from its mining and steel industries, its mountains and hill farmers to its proud Socialist past. Read this and see what you think:
I saw them stare
From their long cars, as I passed knee-deep
In ewes and wethers. I saw them stand
By the thorn hedges, watching me string
The far flocks on a shrill whistle.
And always there was their eyes’ strong
Pressure on me: You are Welsh, they said;
Speak to us so: keep you fields free
Of the smell of petrol, the loud roar
Of hot tractors: we must have peace
(From A Welsh Testament Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix: London, 2000)
However, as a reader, I am not convinced by the leap that Piñán makes at the end of this section. It seems to me to be the result of groups of writers getting together and devising a “project” for Asturian writing. This is dangerously close to a writer’s work being subsumed into an editorial “project”, a publisher’s “project” being supported by local government money and local government “projects” being backed by European Union money. Perhaps because I grew up in the seventies and eighties, I am suspicious of these conglomerations.
I am an Englishman living in a tiny village in Asturias. If I plant a tree in the garden and cut through the “tapín”, the grass covering, I am aware that there is a whole network of connections between the plants of the field. That is what it is like here in the mountains amongst people: clans, networks of friendship and influence, generational disputes and an affection for what is “ours”, what “belongs”. Planting an English apple tree here is akin to planting a heresy. The people are as tightly knit to the earth as the “tapín”, but it is still possible to plant a garden.
There is no question that these close networks are dissolving. There are fewer people living here than fifty years ago. There are no children. The mills don’t work. The school is a ruin. The chapel is tatty and abandoned. There are abandoned houses and fields turned to briar patches. Farmers plant ugly concrete posts in the stone walls that their ancestors lovingly laid and string barbed wire across them to catch the plastic sheeting the wind carries into the gullies. And the wind brought me here, too.
“I was brought up thinking the English were the big devil,” said my neighbour. “And now you are here.”
I watch him head down the valley to a shed where he keeps the bottles of wine he has purloined for a quick drink.
My experience here does not tell me that what was known so certainly has been wiped out by “the passage of time”. It seems to me that the usual human factors are responsible: greed, politics, state manipulation of the economy and education. The rate at which the landscape is being torn apart to build new motorways is extraordinary. The depopulation of the countryside to turn vast areas into eucalyptus plantation is also remarkable. All the while people want the new stuff and head to the cities to get it.
This makes it the reverse of Lot, doesn’t it?