‘To tell love one must write,’ as the philosopher Gaston Bachelard has said. And in this new sequence of poems that is what Mexican-New Zealand poet Rogelio Guedea does so wonderfully well, in a voice so clearly authentic and with great and passionate conviction. There is no romantic posturing here, and no ornamental poeticising, given the subject matter and the demands it makes.
A poet friend, much experienced in the matter, once remarked: ‘It’s the heart poems that are the most difficult to write.’
I sleep in the empty space you left
on the other side of the bed:
it’s empty, like a hole that stretches
down towards the basement, dark and untraversable:
I could reach my hand out to save it,
draw myself back to my own spot,
but I’m still here, dark and empty,
alone and, as you’re well aware by now,
It is the heart that knows more intensely what the head only understands. And Guedea shows this time and again in this finely shaped book of love-letter poems to his absent wife and family; shows us with much distinction how it’s done. Shows how the poetry of intimacy from the branched heart can be realised – out of the everyday, the ordinary and the rituals of the domestic routines that provide a kind of security for a lived life.
In this series of love poems we see and hear what astonishments are there in the ordinary. The poems take the imagination into the heart, where the deeper and more poignant story of love’s absence is played out. Or rather the presence of love’s absence: the wife who, in the tradition of billet-doux, is the muse of memory, and whose loss/absence strikes an elegiac note. And the occasion for the introspection and re-flection on what it means to be in that place, where the simple ritual of a shared cup of coffee, ‘even with three spoons of sugar / coffee still tastes bitter without you / tastes of nobody: without you’.
A very thoughtful poet, Guedea knows – as he shows us in these poems – that the small things, valued and honoured given the voice of intimacy, are at the heart of the matter. One can’t resist a quiet shout of pleasure in the reading for this ‘way of saying’ – even if the dark moments are sometimes a swarm that needs tending to.
The poet-persona as a housekeeper of domestic routines is also a housekeeper of a heart sundered. That kind of felt knowingness is a ‘truth of poetry’ that Guedea celebrates with ‘a particular and serene gravity’, as the poet Vincent O’Sullivan states in his lucid and insightful introduction.
they say my love, that what I write
and I reply:
since when is despair
That Guedea throughout doesn’t fall into the plaint of sentimentality, into the mawkish, into the facile play of the ‘confessional’ is a triumph of poetic judgement, and exemplary.
In an earlier book by Guedea (Caída Libre / Free Fall, 2005, 2009), a book of prose-poem essays, we read and hear, through the particular curves of his imagination, something of a poetic-credo declared:
… perhaps our life is only that: a brief essay,
an unfinished dialogue, a reflection on an author,
a joke, or perhaps the rough draft of a poem
that will never finish
(‘Homage to Alejandro Rossi’)
And in another prose-poem essay, we read and hear what sounds like a preludial thematic note on the book under review:
When my wife went things went poorly.
Many years passed before I understood that
the mirror never reflects our true face, and
that one is not oneself until the memory
of the woman who leaves us fills up the
presences of our forgetting.
As Vincent O’Sullivan remarks, these poems in a series of love letters elaborate on what is at the heart of this collection: The presence that Love demands. What we read and hear is the poet-persona responding to the absence of his wife (and family), so that the ordinary, the everyday, and the objects and experiences of domestic life, become occasions for the recall and re-creation of the shared intimacy of their relationship. Guedea knows that ‘poetry makes intimate everything that it touches.
In his work in general, Guedea is attuned to the sense of the reality of the physical as a way of being in the world and in the intimacy of relationship. Readers are caught by a language that tells us what it feels like at the centre of separation, loss and longing.
it’s the things we’ve bought together
that bring us together
that throw nets around us:
the blender, the stove, the comb, the cup of coffee,
… these emit small filaments
that link our shores, unite our extremities,
we can’t as time goes by toss out
like your red jacket or my black shoes
at times they breathe for us,
they dream perhaps what you and I don’t dare to
In another poem addressed to the wife-lover, we see how the light of memory and the dark of absence are in conversation with each other, and provide a ground of being: a place ‘to tell love’ out of a deep longing, and how hollowed-out the poet feels:
Always when you go I discover
something new in the hole you leave: a new way
to say tree, sea, bird,
the ground I tread, my feet,
the notebook of the girl who’s off to school
a bridge that links two countries,
a wall that separates them,
always when you go I discover something new
in the hole you leave,
but without you
it’s no use to me.
‘Deep equals true,’ Heraclitus, the Greek poet of water and time and the invisibles of the world, declared. When Guedea goes below the surface, inside the alphabet of intense feeling, there is often a poignancy of regard and tenderness that opens these poems to a deeper reading; and to a deeper experience beyond the casual and stock response: well then, ‘who’s missing anyway?’ In a poem that focuses on the daily habit of household chores – the unfamiliarity of using the dishwasher and the nagging floundering about that ensues, one fumble after another – what emerges is a poem about the tenderness of regard: ‘The other evening, for instance, I broke your cup: / and then my sweet, I really missed you’. There is a sensibility at work here that is direct and true to the understanding that ‘candour itself is an emotional force’, as O’Sullivan so perceptibly has it. A poem in which tenderness is at the heart of the matter: I think that I can hear or at the very least imagine that Guedea is aware that, from time to time, we all need more than just a touch of tenderness. And he has the sensibility and the courage to suggest as much. Contemplation of the shifts in tonal colour, the rhythms of good talk, its warmth and directness, the small flashes of wit and humour, give the poems an emotional depth not apparent in a simple cursory reading.
The separation from and the loss of the other is an existential cri de coeur for the poet, ‘a desperate man [who] grabs what he can’, and whose voice reaches out trying to bridge the gap: ‘I saw myself left dry like the grass / beneath the trampoline: / from lack of sun, / from lack of you’.
The feeling of being an incomplete self without the other. And the fear of ‘falling’ into that great hole behind words, where the naming of the other breathes life back into a hollowing out of a life lived in the company of aloneness:
I hope when you return your cup will be intact,
I drink my evening coffee from it,
I can feel your hand beneath mine,
I’m gripping it,
like when we’d go into a dark cinema
and you’d hold mine tight:
so I wouldn’t fall.
There are also moments of celebration and affirmation in this book of love letters. Just as, always, there is light in the dark (and the dark is sometimes light enough), so out of the courage of his despair, the poet finds occasions to let ‘lightness of being’ break through:
I haven’t told you this but
for the first time in the nine years
I’ve been living on this island
I don’t feel alone:
I’m supported by a network of friends
a new island,
a new blue cloudless sky
lovely as the song of the little bird that every morning
summons me to throw open the window and face another day …
The last poem in the book, a rather touching epigraphical citation (also, of course, a love poem) is infused with the light of affirmation:
since you won’t come back:
I’ll come to you.
The end of another beginning.
This is a book exemplary of how the language of poetry, in the original and through translation, with a particular sensibility (out of a Mexican/Latin American poetic tradition) can enrich the contemporary making-of-poetry in New Zealand. The poet is first a maker, in the original sense of that word (and only later, if he or she is unfortunate enough to fall for it, a personality). Guedea is a true maker of poems who has come from afar, but who is very much here. It is worth noting that Guedea, writing true to his cultural traditions, restores credibility and value to the romantic imagination, currently largely – and fashionably – dismissed as ‘problematic’. All the more reason to celebrate the quality of style and vision – the ‘furious clarity’ – that Rogelio Guedea brings to his poetry. This is poetry that ought to get as wide a reading and hearing as possible.
The translations by Roger Hickin are very good indeed. They are accurate and clear, and most importantly Hickin has extensive familiarity with both the original language and its culture. Hickin gets it, and he gets it right; his renderings (interpretations really) don’t stand in the way of the originals, and yet as poems in themselves they have life, they hold their own – and they are not ego-driven, always a good sign in a true translator. This is an ideal collaboration.
MICHAEL HARLOW is a poet, writer and practising Jungian therapist who lives in Central Otago. He won the 2014 Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Distinguished Contribution to Poetry in New Zealand, and his most recent poetry collections are Sweeping the Courtyard, Selected Poems, Cold Hub Press 2014, and Heart absolutely I can, Mākaro Press 2014.
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