The girl in the raincoat

The electric went out this morning just as I was casting about for something to blog about. April fool! We were without power for three hours altogether. It was raining too hard to go for a walk, so I found myself reading in the only chair in the house with enough natural light – the one in front of my computer. Damn, I live in a cave!

When the lights went out I had been reading Jorge Tellier, whose nostalgic poems about his childhood in the rainy South of Chile should have been a perfect accompaniment for such a gloomy day. However, they didn’t seem quite what I wanted, and I had to resist the temptation to pull out a volume of Georg Trakl translations instead.

Nostalgia is such a self-indulgent mood. It’s the daydreamer’s ultimate escape, “the country of nevermore” (el país de nunca jamás), as Tellier calls the landscape of his childhood. It is lost in the way we would like to be lost ourselves, distracted forever in a world made from pure longing. It is not the true heaven of the mystic – which exists in the present moment if it exists at all – but its doppelganger, the Land of Faery, the paradise beyond death. How else to explain the apparent paradox that experiences we were in fact barely present for can assume in nostalgic recollection such portentous and idyllic proportions?

And pondering still Walter Ong’s theories about the transition from orality to literacy, I’m wondering if nostalgia might stem in part from a reaction against the increasing irony, the distancing of consciousness from world that literacy entails? We remember with special clarity those years before full literacy, when bedtime stories and ghost stories had such power to entrance or terrify us. The stories we invented then about ourselves and that others told about us probably still form the most solid substratum of our self-identity.

I’m thinking (with some nostalgia) about a woman I used to work with – one of those rare people gifted with what I can only call a pure heart. (William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, described such people as once-born.) I remember her talking once about her largely unhappy childhood, and how she still pictured herself as the little girl in a raincoat with her back to the camera, poking at the water in a puddle with a stick. Yes, I thought, for all her cheerfulness there was something of that sad little girl, deep down – as if a photo I’d never seen had captured her very soul.

I don’t want to rehash past arguments to the effect that the notion of a single, unitary soul is a recent and minority view. What’s indisputable to me is that this substratum of the self formed in early childhood is inhabited by an uninvited guest, whom we may or may not consider a friend: our own death. (I am trying to avoid the terminology of modern psychology, in which I have little grounding.) Communication with the dead involves us in a very special kind of language, older than human speech: the figurative language of omens, markings, gestures, involuntary actions and reactions quicker than thought. Here’s the title poem from Carolyn Wright’s translation for the University of Texas Press (1993), In Order to Talk with the Dead: Selected Poems of Jorge Tellier. I have altered the last two lines just a bit.

In order to talk with the dead
you have to choose words
that they recognize as easily
as their hands
recognized the fur of their dogs in the dark.
Words clear and calm
as water of the torrent tamed in the wineglass
or chairs the mother puts in order
after the guests have left.
Words that night shelters
as marshes do their ghostly fires.

In order to talk with the dead
you have to know how to wait:
they are fearful
like the first steps of a child.
But if we are patient
one day they will answer us
with a poplar leaf trapped in a broken mirror,
with a flame that suddenly revives in the fireplace,
with a dark return of birds
before the gaze of a girl
who waits on the threshold, motionless.

Para hablar con los muertos
por Jorge Tellier

Para hablar con los muertos
hay que elegir palabras
que ellos reconozcan tan fácilmente
como sus manos
reconocían el pelaje de sus perros en la oscuridad.
Palabras claras y tranquilas
como el agua del torrente domesticada en la copa
o las sillas ordenades por la madre
después que se han ido los invitados.
Palabras que la noche acoja
como a los fuegos fatuos los pantanos.

Para hablar con los muertos
hay que saber esperar:
ellos son miedosos
como los primeros pasos de un niño.
Pero si tenemos paciencia
un día nos responderán
con una hoja de álamo atrapado por un espejo roto,
con una llama de súbito reanimada en la chimenea,
con un regreso oscuro de pájaros
frente a la mirada de una muchacha
que aguarda inmóvil en el umbral.

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