They put the umbilical cord around our necks
and gave us wren’s eggs to stop us growing.
They cut our nails so we would not break out in speech.
They gave us crude grease and pushed into our noses
a pointed piece of deer bone
after making us pass beneath three hundred ladders
and dance the musical chairs a hundred times on one leg.
At six months we sat up.
At seven we were teething.
At a year we walked
at two we talked.
We ate the heart of a weasel
and we looked up at a broken mirror.
When someone poured salt on the hearth
or muck on the embers
we applauded the ritual.
Some time after, we tied tin cans to dogs’ tails
and broke bird eggs.
We put a poplar branch behind the bedhead
and put between our girlfriends’ lips the genital organs
of a goat and a pig.
To the pregnant we gave
the lamprey conjured by dawn
so that their children would be born
We beat upon cauldrons with tongs to scare off the wolves
while we screamed at them
Once we rounded them up,
we stoned them to death.
Then the bagpipe called out
a savage howl of joy
and we began the feast.
When we started teething
someone covered the mirrors
with black bandages
if the sun went into eclipse.
The mirrors were smashed.
When we started to talk
someone forged bells
with the scrapmetal of shipwrecked keels.
The bells rang out
without anyone touching them.
When we started to grow
someone roughly worked cartwheels and boundary posts
in wormeaten wood.
Someone, then, would rip out the windows from their frames
and steal the basic farming tools.
They say that Fintan, son of Béchna,
lived 5,500 years.
Our ration was 1,000 springs less
than what was common for mortals.
Fintan was lame
and besides writing topographical poems,
lived in the form of a salmon, a falcon and an eagle.
We engraved petroglyphs which never took on
and dragged around our pride like slugs and tadpoles.
There were no blonde fairies waiting for us in the hillforts.
Whilst the skeletons of the rich banqueters were camped out in the Quintana,
our very own rastas were getting lost in the Ancares
with no Bob Marley to remember them.
Whilst the wolves howled on the stripped hillsides
and earth slipped down into the caverns of the sea,
thousands of ploughings of gold were flushed
away in the Montefurado Sil
to the shame and derision of the Yeats of the Terra Cha.
Whilst those who were satiated with silence and opprobrium
had no bread,
the lords ate venison meat
and drank the sweet liquor of inmortality
in the silvery waters of the Fonte Cabalar.
They broke the nipples with a wolf’s jawbone
with the jawbone of the wolf they blinded the coal.
With the coal they enraged the womb of defeat.
With the defeat they broke the well of return.
With the well of return they boiled the drum.
With the drum they urged on the ribbons and shadow.
The shadow said to the earth it should not raise its voice.
The voice of the earth, slowly, spat out mute words.
The diadem, mother, glittered on the dead.
Blind ides came,
They sewed together lips
with grills of silence
and a wire screen.
They played the drum of exile
in the heart of the hearth.
They spoilt the harvests
and the songsters
and storytellers went quiet.
They destroyed the child.
The destroyed the pollen.
They destroyed the songs.
One night on the wheat threshing floor
one night there was nothing.
Now only the wind howled
and a slow rain fell over the moors.
Where are the saddle rings?
Where is the wine pitcher’s grace?
From Espiral de Sombras (Tambo: Pontevedra, 2013)
It’s raining outside and I have spent the afternoon reading Spiral of Shadows. The collection needs to be read entire as there are themes that wend their way through it: it has a story of generational loss and longing. This is the spiral of the title and the poet cleverly manages his images and phrasing, rising and falling, swelling and narrowing. I encourage you to listen to him read by following the link at the bottom. It will give you a sense of the artist’s voice.
Xavier Seoane has a real touch of quality about him. There is a beautiful music to his words which perhaps does not come across in my translation, although some of its features do survive the transition clearly enough for you to make them out: the way he balances longer and shorter phrases, the repetition of words to start lines to give an almost incantatory or liturgical sound, the strange and powerful imagery.
What is it all about? Some of the imagery is a little confusing because it comes from popular culture and superstition. This is what the spiral of shadows refers to: the way in which echoes of traditions from the past are still detectable in the present. In this poem, with its deerbone nosepiece right at the beginning and its negation of blonde fairies on Celtic hillforts, we have an evocation of a deep, pre-Christian past. Some of the traditions, however, are current: “bailar cen cadeiras” refers to the Galician version of musical chairs. You can watch it here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=gHpwDDsrYM8. It is described as a typical rustic festive game by Carmelo Lisón Tolosana. Some of the superstitions that make up the first part of the poem are international: throwing salt, the broken mirror. Others are surprising: the use of the genitals of the goat and pig, eating the weasel’s heart.
The poet mentions Yeats. I also thought of Ian Duhig as I was reading.
Here is the poet reading Longa Noite de Pedra by Celso Emilio Ferreira. He reads beautifully. Unfortunately I could not find him reading this poem on Youtube. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=slOygreHNSk