Monday, July 9, 2018


William Herrick

Fifty years ago, in March 1939, the city of Madrid, capital of republican Spain, surrendered to Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and his complete victory in Spain soon followed. The pain still lingers, especially for Ramon Sender Barayon. It was this pain that sent him on a quest to find the truth about his mother, Amparo, who died when he was but a toddler, and also to find her murderer. ''A Death in Zamora'' is like Nicholas Gage's memorable ''Eleni.'' Mr. Gage's mother was murdered by a Communist firing squad during the civil war in Greece; Amparo Barayon was murdered by a fascist executioner in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War - the extreme right and the extreme left joined in efforts to murder the decent and the sane, each for its particular ''good cause.''

Mr. Sender Barayon was raised in New York State by Julia Davis, a generous writer, after his father had brought him and his younger sister, Andrea, to this country in 1939. For many years he and Andrea, who was a baby when their mother died, kept asking their father about what had happened to their mother. Their father, Ramon J. Sender, the great Spanish novelist, for reasons unknown, perhaps wanting to spare his children the tragic details, always responded evasively.

Ramon Sender had only one peer among Spanish writers of the 20th century, the Basque novelist Pio Baroja. Sender was given almost every literary prize his compatriots had to offer, even those awarded during Franco's brutal dictatorship, though Sender refused to return to Spain during that reign. He did, however, return when Franco lay on his deathbed, and he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds and hailed in headlines. He also received death threats from both the far left and the far right, and bodyguards were needed to protect him. What better measure of a man's worth?

Sender had been sympathetic to revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism, and became friendly with the Communists shortly before and early in the civil war. Then, confronted by the murderous power moves of the Communists, he became stubbornly and outspokenly anti-Communist from a pro-working class point of view, and remained so the rest of his life. He died in January 1982 in San Diego, leaving two sons by two different mothers, a daughter, several women who loved him and 80 works in print, among which is at least one masterpiece, ''Seven Red Sundays,'' a story about a revolutionary uprising in Madrid. This magnificent novel, now out of print in this country, would do honor to any publisher who reissued it.

In July 1936, Sender and his wife, along with their two small children, were on vacation in San Rafael with some of Sender's relatives. Hearing of the nationalist uprising against the young democratic republic, Sender and several other people left San Rafael, walking over the mountains to join the militia fighting against the mutinous army. Before leaving, he told his wife to destroy any papers he had brought with him and to take the children to Zamora, her native town.

It turned out to be a tragic blunder. (Was it guilt for this blunder that later muted Sender's tongue about these events?) It reminds one of the similar mistake made at the time by Spain's great poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was in Madrid when the war broke out and decided to return to Granada, his native city, where he would be among family and friends. What could happen to him there? The same thing that happened to Amparo Barayon, who was murdered in a cemetery where there was no place to hide from trigger-happy Falangist killers except in unmarked graves.

At the outbreak of the civil war, republicans, anarchists, socialists and Communists - caught in enclaves controlled by the extreme right - were murdered by the tens of thousands. On the other hand, nuns, priests, conservatives and extreme right-wingers in enclaves controlled by the extreme left were also murdered by the tens of thousands. The exact number of unarmed victims has never been certified.

It was after his father died that Mr. Sender Barayon decided to search for his mother and her murderer. First he reread several of his father's books; he had been told that his mother was the prototype for one or another character in them. The search then took him to Spain - to Barcelona, Madrid, San Rafael, Zamora. He met aunts from his father's and mother's families, and cousins as well. Two of his mother's brothers, he learned, had also been killed by extreme-right executioners. He found childhood friends of his mother, learned that she had been an excellent pianist and met people who had worked with her for the telephone company in Zamora and later in Madrid.

It was in Madrid that she met Ramon Sender, already a famous man, and lived with him in free love, as it was then called. She later married him in a civil ceremony, not in a Catholic church, and that counted against her when she was marked for execution: her priest and confessor refused her absolution before she was shot. Her betrayer, her brother-in-law Miguel Sevilla, later said it was at her confession that she invoked her own death penalty. But a contemporary journal wondered ''whether the secret of confession was so devaluated in those days, or whether Sevilla only pretended to know to excuse himself for not having moved a finger to save his sister-in-law.''

The most poignant narrative in the book is that of an old woman named Pilar, who, with her daughter, was in prison when Amparo Barayon was brought there with her baby, Andrea. Before she was taken away to die, Amparo gave Pilar a note for Ramon Sender (later torn up and eaten by Pilar out of fear). She also secreted a note in her baby's clothing. It was eventually found by agents of the International Red Cross when they were delivering the baby and her brother to their father, who had escaped into France as the Falangists took control of Spain.

On Oct. 11, 1936, in the cemetery of Zamora, Amparo was shot by one Segundo Viloria, a former suitor whom she had rejected, a trigger man on a Falangist execution squad during the war. It was not unusual during the Spanish Civil War for killing squads of the right and left to murder their victims in cemeteries - it was more convenient that way. Viloria eventually died insane in a government institution. Amparo's betrayer, Miguel Sevilla, had to leave his native village and died a pariah; the priest who had refused Amparo absolution before she was shot was later sent away from the town in disgrace by his church superiors.

''A Death in Zamora'' is not well organized. At times it is even confusing; which of its conclusions are verifiable and which are assumptions is not always clear. But it is a very moving document. Ramon Sender Barayon, about whom we learn too little, in the end discovers who his mother was: a lovely, independent woman, who lived with passion, who was devoted to her children and who had married a famous revolutionary writer. For all that she was murdered.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 1989 in The New York Times.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

"I Don’t Know" by Wislawa Szymborska

They say that the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come—the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line—will be just as hard, since I’m supposed to talk about poetry. I’ve said very little on the subject—next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that I’m not very good at it. This is why my lecture will be rather short. Imperfection is easier to tolerate in small doses.

Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves. They confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it. But in our clamorous times it’s much easier to acknowledge your faults, at least if they’re attractively packaged, than to recognize your merits, since these are hidden deeper and you never quite believe in them yourself. When they fill out questionnaires or chat with strangers—that is, when they can’t avoid revealing their profession—poets prefer to use the general term “writer,” or to replace “poet” with the name of whatever job they do in addition to writing. Bureaucrats and bus passengers respond with a touch of incredulity and alarm when they discover that they’re dealing with a poet. I suppose philosophers meet with a similar reaction. Still, they are in a better position, since as often as not they can embellish their calling with some kind of scholarly title. Professor of philosophy: now that sounds much more respectable.

But there are no professors of poetry. That would mean, after all, that poetry is an occupation requiring specialized study, regular examinations, theoretical articles with bibliographies and footnotes attached and, finally, ceremoniously conferred diplomas. And this would mean, in turn, that it’s not enough to cover pages with even the most exquisite poems in order to become a poet. The crucial element is some slip of paper bearing an official stamp. Let us recall that the pride of Russian poetry, the future Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, was once sentenced to internal exile precisely on such grounds. They called him a “parasite,” since he lacked official certification granting him the right to be a poet.

Several years ago, I had the honor and the pleasure of meeting Brodsky in person. And I noticed that, of all the poets I’ve known, he was the only one who enjoyed calling himself a poet. He pronounced the word without inhibitions. Just the opposite: he spoke it with defiant freedom. This must have been, it seems to me, because he recalled the brutal humiliations that he experienced in his youth.

In more fortunate countries, where human dignity isn’t assaulted so readily, poets yearn, of course, to be published, read and understood, but they do little, if anything, to set themselves above the common herd and the daily grind. It wasn’t so long ago, in this century’s first decades, that poets strove to shock us with their extravagant dress and their eccentric behavior. But all this was merely for the sake of public display. The moment always came when poets had to close the doors behind them, strip off their mantles, fripperies and other poetic paraphernalia and confront—silently, patiently awaiting their own selves—the still-white sheet of paper. For finally this is what really counts.

It’s not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves. The more ambitious directors seek to reproduce convincingly the creative process that led to important scientific discoveries or to the emergence of masterpieces. And one can depict certain kinds of scientific labor with some success. Laboratories, sundry instruments, elaborate machinery brought to life: such scenes may hold an audience’s interest for a while. And those moments of uncertainty—will the experiment, conducted for the thousandth time with some tiny modification, finally yield the desired result?--can be quite dramatic. Films about painters can be spectacular, as they go about recreating every stage of a famous painting’s evolution, from the first penciled line to the final brush stroke. And music swells in films about composers: the first bars of the melody that rings in the musician’s ears finally emerge as a mature work in symphonic form. Of course this is all quite naive and doesn’t explain the strange mental state popularly known as inspiration, but at least there’s something to look at and to listen to.

But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down several lines, only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens. Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?

I’ve mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It’s not that they’ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It’s just not easy to explain to someone else what you don’t understand yourself. When I’m asked about this on occasion, I hedge, too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists. There is, there has been, there will always be, a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners—I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.” There aren’t many such people. Most of the earth’s inhabitants work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn’t pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven’t even got that much—this is one of the harshest human miseries. And there’s no sign that the coming centuries will produce any changes for the better as far as this goes.

And so, though I deny poets their monopoly on inspiration, I still place them in a select group of Fortune’s darlings.

THIS IS WHY I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include spaces within us as well as the outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones, and, at best, he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know,” she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and have ended her days performing that perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement; but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate. So poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paper clip by literary historians and called their “oeuvres.”

I sometimes dream of a situation that can’t possibly come true. I audaciously imagine that I have a chance to chat with Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I bow very deeply before him, because he is one of the greatest poets, for me at least. Then I grab his hand. “There’s nothing new under the sun”: that’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem. And that cypress under which you’re sitting hasn’t been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same.

And Ecclesiastes, I’d also like to ask: What new thing under the sun are you planning to work on now? A further supplement to thoughts that you’ve already expressed? Or maybe you’re tempted to contradict some of them? In your earlier work you mentioned joy—so what if it’s fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt that you’ll say, “I’ve written everything down, I’ve got nothing left to add.” There’s no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.

The world—whatever we might think when we’re terrified by its vastness and our impotence, embittered by its indifference to the individual suffering of people, animals and perhaps even plants (for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain?); whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets that we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead, still dead, we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world—it is astonishing.

But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness to which we’ve grown accustomed. But the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and it isn’t based on a comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases such as “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events.” But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighted, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.

It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.

-Translated from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
© The Nobel Foundation, 1996.

Credits: The New Republic

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