Summer Reading

During the Heat of Summer, My Mind Turns to India

Most people’s idea of summer reading is of some cheap paperback to be consumed on a beach towel or on a long plane, train, or bus ride. There are a large number of trashy novels written each year to satisfy this undemanding audience. My taste in reading material, however, is more of what you would describe as deep-dish.

When the temperature rises into the 80s F (30s Celsius), there are certain books that appeal to me. Looking back over July and August in the last several years, here is what appeals most to me during temperature spikes:

  • Books about India, such as those written by William Dalrymple, author of City of Djinns
  • The novels of William Faulkner set in Mississippi
  • The novels of Brazilian author Jorge Amado set in his native State of Bahia
  • The novels and short stories of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño
  • American and French noir novels
  • The Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald set in South Florida
  • Travel books such as those written by Freya Stark, who traveled extensively by herself in the Middle East

Sometimes, I go in the opposite direction: I recently read Chauncey C. Loomis’s Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, about a failed trip to discover the North Pole.

I am currently rereading William Faulkner’s Go Down Moses and have Jorge Amado’s Home Is the Sailor in my TBR pile.

“Her Leopard Legs”

A Poem by the Chilean Writer Roberto Bolaño

I never thought of Roberto Bolaño as a poet before, but his collection entitled The Romantic Dogs set me straight on that score.

LUPE

She worked in la Guerrero, a few streets down from Julian’s,
and she was 17 and had lost a son.
The memory made her cry in that Hotel Trébol room,
spacious and dark, with bath and bidet, the perfect place
to live out a few years. The perfect place to write
a book of apocryphal memories or a collection
of horror poems. Lupe
was thin and had legs long and spotted
like a leopard.
The first time I didn’t even get an erection:
and I didn’t want to have an erection. Lupe spoke of her life
and of what, for her, was happiness.
When a week had passed, we saw each other again. I found her
on a corner alongside other little teenage whores,
propped against the fender of an old Cadillac.
I think we were glad to see each other. From then on
Lupe began telling me things about her life, sometimes crying,
sometimes fucking, almost always naked in bed,
staring at the ceiling, hand in hand.
Her son was born sick and Lupe promised la Virgen
that she’d leave her trade if her baby were cured.
She kept her promise a month or two, then had to go back.
Soon after, her son died, and Lupe said the fault
was her own for not keeping up her bargain with la Virgen.
La Virgen carried off the little angel, payment for a broken
     promise,
I didn’t know what to say.
I liked children, sure,
but I still had many years before I’d know
what it was to have a son.
And so I stayed quiet and thought about the eerie feel
Emerging from the silence of that hotel.
Either the walls were very thick or were the sole
     occupants
or the others didn’t open their mouths, not even to moan.
It was so easy to ride Lupe and feel like a man
and feel wretched. It was easy to get her
in your rhythm and it was easy to listen as she prattled on
about the latest horror films she’d seen
at Bucareli Theater.
Her leopard legs would wrap around my waist
and she’d sink her head into my chest, searching for my
nipples or my heartbeat.
This is the part of you I want to suck, she said to me
     one night.
What, Lupe? Your heart.

Roberto Bolaño, The Romantic Dogs: 1980-1998 (New York: New Directions, 2006).

“Resurrection”

Lake Balatón with Tihany Abbey, Burial Place of Magyar Kings

In 1977, I went to Hungary and Czechoslovakia (before it was split into two countries) with my mother and father. We spent a couple of days in a hostel on the shores of Lake Balatón, one of the largest in Europe. I remember it as a large but shallow lake in which one could walk out a half mile before getting in over your head. The average depth of the lake is only about 3 meters. The cafés around the lake served a kind of carp called, in Hungarian, ponty (that’s only a single syllable, which can be pronounced only by Hungarians).

I was delighted to find this poem by the Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño, which mentions the lake:

Resurrection

Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
slips in and sinks
like lead
through a lake infinite as Loch Ness
or tragic and turbid as Lake Balatón.
Consider it from below:
a diver
innocent
covered in feathers
of will.
Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver who’s dead
in the eyes of God.

Those last few lines pack a punch, which I am still trying to figure out. Maybe the original Spanish will help:

un buzo
inocente
envuelto en las plumas
de la voluntad.
La poesía entra en el sueño
como un buzo muerto
en el ojo de Dios.

Or maybe it won’t help. But that’s what poetry is all about. Coming back to it again and again until everything seems to click into place.

“The Hostility of Life Outdoors”

Gustave Moreau’s “Triumph of Alexander the Great”

This poem by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño is based on the above painting. I thought it was interesting to match a poem with a painting, especially when the poet is as interesting a writer as Bolaño. The title of this poem is “The Outsider Ape.”

Remember the Triumph of Alexander the Great, by Gustave Moreau?
The beauty and terror, the crystal moment when
all breathing stops. But you wouldn’t stand still under that dome
in dim shadows, under that dome lit by ferocious
rays of harmony. And it didn’t take your breath away.
You walked like a tireless ape among the gods,
For you knew—or maybe not—that the Triumph was unfurling
its weapons inside Plato’s cavern: images,
shadows without substance, sovereignty of emptiness. You wanted
to reach the tree and the bird, the leftovers
from a humble backyard fiesta, the desert land
watered with blood, the scene of the crime where
statues of photographers and police are grazing, and the hostility of life
outdoors. Ah, the hostility of life outdoors!

 

“Ernesto Cardenal and I”

Poet, Priest, and Sandinista Politician: Ernesto Cardenal

Poet, Catholic Priest, and Sandinista Politician: Ernesto Cardenal

It suddenly struck me that i haven’t done a poetry posting on this blog for some time. Keeping it all in a Latin American vein, here is Roberto Bolaño’s “Ernesto Cardenal and I.” Ernesto Cardenal was the Sandinista minister of culture from 1979 to 1987 under Daniel Ortega’s government.

Ernesto Cardenal and I

I was out walking, sweaty and with hair plastered
to my face
when I saw Ernesto Cardenal approaching
from the opposite direction
and by way of greeting I said:
Father, in the Kingdom of Heaven
that is communism,
is there a place for homosexuals?
Yes, he said.
And for impenitent masturbators?
For sex slaves?
For sex fools?
For sadomasochists, for whores, for those obsessed
with enemas,
for those who can’t take it anymore, those who really truly
can’t take it anymore?
And Cardenal said yes.
And I raised my eyes
and the clouds looked like
the pale pink smiles of cats
and the trees cross-stitched on the hill
(the hill we’ve got to climb)
shook their branches.
Savage trees, as if saying
some day, sooner rather than later, you’ll have to come
into my rubbery arms, into my scraggly arms,
into my cold arms. A botanical frigidity
that’ll stand your hair on end.