You come to me. You know all the corners
of this house, the plenitude of the air when winter
attacks and we remain alone who came alone.
From what strange province, from what absurd season
of ashes and rain do you come to me tonight
if death, they say, cannot reach beyond
death. At my side your lost years grow on you,
those years that time betrays us and denies us,
and for one night, this night, you’re back
and give life to life,
you, who know of life only its death.
From Noches de Incendio (Trea Poesía: Gijón, 2005)
This morning I was watching a video on Youtube about Jonathan Williams, the North Carolina poet. The particular interest of Jonathan Williams to me is the way he combines words and images: he described it as a kind of oscillation between Charles Olson and Ian Hamilton Finlay; for Olson the poem being an extension of breathing; for Finlay a solid visual object.
Williams set up Jargon Press to publish poetry. He says in the Youtube video that the audience for poetry is small. When he was a student at Black Mountain College, the audience was the community of students and staff there. To write meant to write for that community. Once he left the college he found other communities by writing letters and making friends. Even though he never met many of those friends in person, they were the audience for his work: he wrote for them and published their poetry at his press, in beautiful editions that are “embodied” like Finlay’s work.
So, I am sitting in Villandás in a cold kitchen that is getting a little warmer as the wood-burning stove gains pace. In front of me I have Noches de Incendio by Berta Piñán. It is 16.5cm x 12cm. It is not a pamphlet: it has 150 pages; 52 poems that mostly don’t go beyond a page in length. They are taken from four separate collections. I hold the book in my hand and am more conscious than I normally am of the physicality of the book and the poems. Partly it is because I still have Jonathan Williams’s laconic voice in my head, but it seems to me that these poems by Berta Piñán in this edition are striving to be solid visual objects.
I can’t get over just how strange this poem is. I am not going to go into metrics because I don’t think that is going to help much here, but think about it: a poem with eleven lines? Isn’t that rather startlingly… well… odd? The oddness of it is not the unintentional consequence of incompetence. The nimble enjambement of “winter//attacks” and “beyond//death” tells us that much.
What is this house she is talking about? You are going to have to take my word for it that the house plays a role throughout the collection as an organising symbol. Piñán is a smart poet so she doesn’t explain her metaphors. The house works as the symbolic embodiment of the female experience of life, but it radiates out from there: it seems to stand for life and literature in Asturias as well. Susana Reisz talks about this in her short and penetrating intoduction:
The house, or home, is one of the most persistent symbols in Berta Piñán’s poetry. And also one of the most transparent due to its ancestral roots in the collective imagination and its all-purpose presence in the real-everyday. Home is the centre of the ego, the beginning and the end of stories, the point of departure and the final destination. It is the mythic source from which flow happiness and unhappiness at the beginning of time. It is childhood and primordial love but it is also a trench and tomb for other loves. It is the fatherland, a refuge for travellers, a place of meetings and farewells, a magnet that attracts lovers and allows their joining, a nuptial chamber, burning wood, embers, battlefield, a fortress destroyed or a friendly port after the storm. It is a dwelling of stone and clay but it is also a dwelling for dreams, promises, hopes, memories.
I think you can see from this list that the house, or home, is capable of generating many meanings.
Berta Piñán doesn’t want us to settle too quickly on one meaning for this little poem, however. Ask yourself what the line “we remain alone who came alone” could mean. The use of we implies that the sense of alone is not solitude, but being single, unaccompanied. So the house, or home, is not a place to find companionship.
When I read the poem to Carmen she said straight away, “It’s a child.” The returning figure whose lost years grow and who only knows death of life is a lost child who once knew all the corners of the house. This makes the poem a singularly intimate piece of writing, like the Curros Enríquez poem Ay. Gettting back to my meditations on Jonathan Williams, I wonder who the original audience for these poems was: what community of understanding was ready for these poems about home and house, death and loss, belonging and isolation?
Perhaps if I dig around I can find a few answers to these questions.