Chance has a mighty hold on our lives. A hold many would like to deny. To eradicate. Particularly those who squeeze up from the bottom on a tube of toothpaste. Those who claim not to understand poetry.
In the last weeks, happenstance has brought back so many memories of the time I spent in Edinburgh that I decided to rewrite a poem I wrote back then. The inspiration for it came from an afternoon of idle online wandering, when I somehow came across the US Social security death index and looked up my name.
The search retrieved 107 people who had died in the US with my proper name: mostly old men, but also men in their twenties, and even babies, just a few months old.
The poem is a boustrophedon, which means, in Greek, “turning like an ox while plowing”, and apparently was a poetic form of which people were very fond of in antiquity. I learnt about it through the writing of a Cuban writer, scriptwriter and translator -of Joyce’s Dubliners- who was, like me, enamoured of the English language: Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Indeed, Bustrofedón was the name of that unforgettable character from his novel Three Trapped Tigers (“Tres Tristes Tigres”), which I read for the first time in Edinburgh: a whacky representative of the non-representational power of language whose sole raison-d-être was to play on words and pull everybody’s leg, vindicating play as a universal constant and agent of change.
Here it is, published for the first time. Enjoy the game:
Albion Ni Rorrim Srettel Ruo
To the US Social Security Death Index, for inspiring this boustrophedon,
to Edinburgh and those who shared that city with me, with love
You may ask yourself why I write,
,etriw I gnihtemos siht krow ti seod woh
or why have other people read me?
ma I tahw neewteb ecnatsid a tahW
and what I write, but nevertheless,
?yeht t’nera... era yeht ereh
A defying, consummated act
.htiw dehsinif m’I
In nights when I imagine my death in Noibla
.em ot emoc slobmys elibun eseht ylno
I write because news arrive I died across the Serpent,
,xnorB eht dna nylkoorB ni
and I regret not having called myself, back then, say in 1949,
,uoy tegrof lliw yeht dna eid lliw uoy: edifnoc ot tsuj
poetry never meant a thing to them.
etirw lliw I yademos
about my 106, and seven, deaths,
,redaeR raed, uoy tub
can take a gleeful glance
emoc ot sdrow lla ta
or read what I plagiarized at the age of eight.
.dne eht llit pu flesym etriw dluoc I
Only if that raven would stop fleeting...
...enil eht gnidloh eno-on si erehT
Here, Reader, it’s no surprise:
.ereh deneppah reve gnihton
I write and could write
,seceip dedlig dlim esoht fo eno
never mind but yes, yes,
enoemos eb syawla lliw ereht
ready to pierce someone’s eyes with snails
.yteip fo tuo tohs a drow or
Reader, answer this, will people think about me:
?sngis fo yretemeC eht ni epol ot desu ohw eno saw eh
But hush, dear Reader,
,erised eman reven
better stroke the trifles:
tsal ym em lleter uoy fi
I will tell you my one hundred deaths.
,enigami su tel... hsuH
for desire is only in absence,
in so many places, dear Reader,
...yawa derehtiw ydaerla ev’I