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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

A Leg, A Moon and An Exile Fraught with Language

I’m passing a tall house with a sea-green door. The breeze flutters a sandwich bag along the pavement and I trap it against the step. I blow inside the bag and shake invisible mites of detritus from its inside. It is an ideal bag. I slip in the remaining half of my grilled ham and cheese sandwich and twist it closed.

The musicians in the market behind me are playing tango and the young Montevideanos are embracing and singing and dancing, still ruminating on the glories of the night. The older generation are shopping; they pass time with the store holders, watching surreptitiously in case the unthinkable occurs.

When I turn the corner the volume is muted and for a moment I am alone. But from the far end of the street a wedding party struts towards me. The bride and groom lead with their hips, two maids of honour, sisters, in pale makeup and strappy dresses, followed by friends with half finished bottles of sangria dangling from fingertips, the women in flowery dresses, their men in tightly tailored suits, kissing as they walk, children weaving in and out of the legs of their parents and relations. The remains of song on their lips. Tears. Tired smiles. Verse, rhythm, ever reluctant to leave.

I tuck myself against the wall of a house and watch them pass. The bride has dark eyes and dark hair which flash and shimmer in the light of the sun and she takes huge strides on legs hidden beneath the skirts of her dress. Her new husband is a drone. She is a rainbow, borne by beauty. The world worships her. She will know happiness all her days. It rushes headlong towards her.

‘Come with us,’ a mawkish mother calls. She gestures towards the market. ‘Breakfast at the Parrillada.’ I give her my best face. They are early for lunch but someone will provide ribs or sausage or milanesas.

The smile is pinned to my face as they go. I am paralysed by their happiness; their inability to perceive tragedy or loneliness or to imagine spiritual isolation has allowed me to forget my own poverty. Momentarily it seems we are together, inextricably stamped into each other’s lives. Perhaps no one ever dies alone?

I am brought back to the street when the wedding party has left, and my smile and my loneliness are rediscovered, their backs against the wall. Over the road a curtain moves and a gnarled hand and arm behind the glass are trapped for an instant by the rays of the sun. I can’t make out if there is a face behind the arm or if I imagine it, a gaze from a hollow-eyed skull, a being of darkness, of silence and grief.

Poets notice these things, these moments, and it is our task to use them as a launch-pad for the imagination. This is our curse and our blessing. This street is ordinary and ancient. It is within sound of the market and the Cathedral. Nothing distinguishes it and it is studded with adequate symbols.

A woman opens her door and peers out; she has heard the wedding party but is too late. She has missed the plot; the narrative has gone ahead of her. She looks one way and the other before retreating back inside, condemned to a life within her cardigan.

I hobble on. The sole of my left trainer has worn through and that part of my foot near the big toe – the first metatarsus? – contacts the pavement simultaneously with what remains of the shoe. In sympathy with this plight the skin around the area has hardened into something similar to shoe leather. I am handicapped by this calamity, more so when it rains. But I don’t let it get me down as it also comes with the territory of being a poet. It is a badge.

Back at my room in the conventillo I sit in silence. The silence is a composition of small sounds; the far-off wailing of a child, the shuffling of a mouse in the cavity between my room and the top of the stairs, the spluttering of a moped in the street. Along the landing behind the door with the polished wood handle a protesting babe is born into a corporate world.

My table has a white formica top, it’s surface scarred with razor slashes like the forearms of anxiety and emotional turmoil. Long ago my father, who never listened, had a similar table in his garden shed. A place for his seedlings. My chair has one loose leg. If I forget and lift the chair the leg falls off. But it works like a normal chair if I sit on it. We have a relationship, me and the chair. It is the first meaningful relationship I have had with furniture. I am drawn to the lower orders. Unlike husbands and wives, we have no nerve wars.

The light fades and I push the switch on the lamp. I open my pad at a clean page and lift my pen. I expect to write. I am infused with hope.

But nothing comes. Each turn in my imagination leads to another banality. I check the window and see the crippled girl in the street. The single crutch. The white face opening like petals as she glances up at my room. I rush down the stairs. But she is gone by the time I get there. Impossibly gone.

I feel I might, one day, be meaningful in her life. She herself both loves and fears the idea. Part of her wishes for someone with a car; a man who would drive her out to Aguas Dulces or Costa Azul, ply her with sweet wine and discuss holidays or interior design. Not me. I would bring her something less defined, colder perhaps but more substantial, a world wholly tangled. I must pursue her with more passion, more avidity. I would hate the knowledge that I let her slip away through inertia.

As I wonder how she has escaped me, a huge, full, silver, and unpredictable moon sails over the rooftops into the street. Everyone is gazing skyward. There should be music, brass or strings..

Back upstairs in the crumbling conventillo I slump in front of the pad, clutch my pen and stare into the space between me and the page. The poem I want to write tells how you can travel round the world, set up home in Montevideo and find you’re almost exactly the same guy who started out from Tiger Bay eighteen months earlier. You’re only different inasmuch as the expectations of those around you have shifted; and the language in some way distorts your natural posture. You are marginally freed while being just as securely chained.

I reach for a starting point, a first line, a word. But it is like praying to God; only silence is returned. I lean further into the stillness, loosening all that tethers me, living on faith. I shrivel my world into two: death or glory.

After time has shifted oceans and mountains; after the perfectibility of man has been achieved and forgotten; and when a leg has been healed and happiness unmasked, there is a movement, a scuttling in the dark corner behind me and I am primed. I wait for the pure wisdom of someone who knows nothing to knock on the door of my mind, to take me wheeling through the enormous void of the stars. I wait to trap and craft a visiting verse.

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