Getting used to you, who ask for nothing,
love, turned out easy. And it is enjoyable
to try out life’s force
in your life, love,
who offer me everything every day.
But today you receive a letter
with names from other places,
with faces that love you from afar
and, suddenly, I feel I am the last one,
the one who arrives late for your party,
to which she was not invited,
and through the window, late at night, spies
the laughs of all the others,
their glasses not even emptied yet.
And then, waits alone, trembling
with fear, and cursing,
in the coldest corner of the house.
Here is another poem by Berta Piñán. It is the last one I am going to put up in this little series. The dramatic development is easy to recognise and familiar to anyone who has had more than one partner in their life. I like the way that she switches from I to she. It makes the image of her huddling in a corner of the house more poignant: and I think we have read enough of Piñán to realise that the house is more than just a structure of bricks and mortar.
I can relate to it because I met Carmen six years after I separated from my first wife, and more or less the same time after her first husband died in a car crash. There have been moments when I have felt that I arrived “late for her party” especially when friends unanimously say how wonderful Lorenzo was. Perhaps she felt the same when we were in England together.
We were talking yesterday evening about yesterday’s poem. She pointed out that the house does not always come down the female line in Asturias.
“But you and Lorenzo bought this house because it was close to where your father grew up, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Well, yes, but we looked at other houses as well.”
“Including the house where your father grew up…”
“No, I mean we looked in other areas. We just happened to like this one.”
“So it doesn’t mean that the house had to be in your heartland?”
“Not really, no.”
But she nodded her head about the house belonging to the woman. It makes immediate emotional sense to her. Of course the woman controls the house and what is in it: is a man going to do that? That would be absurd.
I suppose I notice it more because it is not my experience. My parents’ house, for example, seems to belong more to my father than my mother. He would deny it, but I remember her once looking at the heavy, Victorian furniture and saying, “This is your dad’s style. I have always felt more attracted to Scandinavian openness and light.”
When I first came to live in Spain with Carmen I developed a theory about the house and home here. It seemed to me that women control the house with a fierce energy, cleaning things that do not need cleaning, ordering things, controlling things and descending into a kind of aggressive bossiness. They place bits of lace on seats so that you do not know where to sit down. Men take refuge from this by going outside where they conspicuoulsy scorn these female touches: in the bars they throw napkins on the floor, workmen leave piles of concrete for someone else to clear up, young men casually throw litter in the street. Inside and outside. The inside scrubbed to within an inch of its life and barely liveable; outside grubby, tatty and energetic with overweight men waving their fat fingers around and stroking their moustaches.
This caricature is not a true picture. It is certainly not true of Carmen. But it has just enough in it to raise a chuckle from people who might have noticed something similar.
I had to give up the caricature when I read a book called Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett. Tremlett is a journalist who lives in Madrid. For the first half of the book I was chuckling to myself and saying, “Yes, I’ve seen that too.” By the time I got to the end I was desperate to move on. It made me a little sick in the stomach to think that I was becoming an ex-pat. Groups of ex-pats get together and have a good old whinge about the country they have chosen to live in. It makes them feel better. I didn’t want to be one of them. I didn’t want to go around noticing how badly people drive in Spain, how frustrating the bureaucracy is, how passive people are in the face of authority and then to be building little theories around my observations. It makes entertaining stand-up comedy but it is the reverse of what Berta Piñán does with her poetry: she does not write to score a few points, get the nod of recognition and maybe a few laughs; she is not building a theory about women or even a theory about the house. Poetry works differently. I think good poetry takes its images from life and assembles them with peculialry potent rhythmic language that makes those images sing.
This blog gives me the pretext to read what poets say about the world, to think about the world they are describing, to listen to their voices. Although I write my comments here I am not jostling forward with a grand theory about what I am reading. I always put the poem first and the comments at the end: that is my order of priorities; first read the poem; second read the commentary. And if I have introduced my home life into this post, it is only to share how reading and listening are a part of life itself: they are not separate activities in a niche called Literature.
Finally, I should say that Ghosts of Spain is a good book that makes a serious attempt to investigate the silence over the Franco years in Spain. It is well-written and well worth reading if you are planning to visit the country.