Friday, August 30, 2013

Círculo de Bellas Artes: Seamus Heaney in Madrid

Círculo de Bellas Artes, Madrid
Early this morning, easing into a parking space near Notre Dame’s Performing Arts Center, I glanced down at my smartphone on the passenger seat and noticed the blinking green light that signals an unread e-mail, text message, or Facebook IM. It turned out to be the latter—from a friend I normally don’t hear from at this hour, who lives in Dublin, a city I harbor a particular affection for.


The first time I heard Seamus Heaney I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley.  I had dozens of poetry readings under my belt. This was the mid eighties, the years I worked at The Berkeley Poetry Review, and so I averaged two, sometimes three a week. In other words, I’d attended some good ones. The Heaney reading at Dwinelle Hall was a drab auditorium with people sitting in the aisles; a poor, practically non-existent sound-system; me sitting near the very back, cramped. 

In those years, my Berkeley years, I mostly tuned out the chatter whenever his name came up. Some worshiped him. Others admired the “early work,” but felt he was repeating himself by then. The Irish poet I was reading wasn’t Heaney. It was John Montague, who’d been a visiting writer for a semester. One afternoon I stepped into his office and showed him a poem...

Before I knew it, I was spending my fourth year of college in Barcelona, Spain.  My attention had shifted to Federico García Lorca. In fact, it wasn’t until a year or two after I returned to Spain—to Madrid this time to do an M.A. via New York University (“NYU in Spain”)—that I decided to sit down with Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist, a Faber edition I’d picked up at an English-language bookshop that was walking distance from the Rubén Darío metro station.

I had decided, a year earlier, that I would not be returning to the United States after my NYU degree. I wasn’t getting Spain out of my system any time soon. Yet I had no job prospects except trying to land work as an English-language teacher. But I wanted to live in Europe.

And I was undocumented. My student visa had expired, though my condition as a native speaker of English allowed me to sign a full-time, under-the-table contract with a private language academy. But my teaching load (24 contact hours per week) was fairly miserable. All my time revolved around preparing lesson plans, teaching, and preparing more lesson plans. This was not what I had in mind.

After that first year, I decided to pursue a Cambridge University/RSA Certificate in TEFLA. In the midst of all this, the Spanish government implemented a regularization process for those of us who could demonstrate having been gainfullly employed, albeit illegally. Long story short: I was able to secure a legal work permit. What this meant was that I could pursue a part-time contract that would still entitle me to access Spain’s national health system. I landed a job with a different academy that offered a better wage because of the training I’d undergone. And: one of the students I’d taught the previous year contacted me about private lessons. I’d taught this former student one-to-one five mornings a week for several months, and I’d made a good enough impression that he recommended me to a friend of his who was looking for an American tutor for his children. I went to meet this friend and his wife for a brief interview. I could tell, from their address, bordering Retiro Park (think: Central Park West) that I’d be able to charge them a respectable hourly rate.

And so my situation improved: a part-time contract with a private language academy for whom I worked in the mornings, and about five hours of private lessons a week with this family: two evenings a week for 2.5 hours. I was earning just enough to get by, not saving any money, but having time to read, translate, write, enjoy Madrid. 

It was around this time that I sat down with Seamus Heaney’s work, in earnest.

It seems--I’ve come to believe this--that we read and absorb particular poets when we most need them. It’s been that way with me with a number of what I'll call my "touchstone poets"--poets whose work I return and return to, again and again. From this distance, today, it feels like I was meant to re-encounter Seamus Heaney not in the U.S. but in Europe, and not only in English, but in Spanish, as well (I’ll explain in a sec). 

After Death of a Naturalist, my teaching schedule allowed me to work through, with delicious relish, Door into the Dark, Wintering, North, Field Work, Station Island, and The Haw Lantern which, curiously enough, is from 1987, the year I first set foot on a Spanish tarmac.

But it was the occasion of Seeing Things, when I was near the beginning of what became a long-term residence in Madrid, that I’d like to hone in on for a bit. Shortly after purchasing it, I got wind that Heaney would be giving a reading in Madrid. I decided to give him, and myself, a second chance.

I was better prepared this time. I was familiar with all the work published until then. I arrived early in case there’d be a repeat of that sweaty overcrowded Berkeley lecture hall. By the time the reading was set to start, there were maybe thirty of us, forty at most, in a gorgeous columned room in Madrid’s Círculo de Bellas Artes. And yet, the feeling wasn’t that we were at a poorly attended event: the number of people uncannily matched the movable chairs that had been set up. Heaney had not yet won the Nobel Prize. His work had only just begun to get translated into Spanish. In fact, the occasion of the reading was the launch of a modest volume of his selected poems in a bilingual Spanish edition. And so that evening, those of us present had the exquisite experience of hearing Heaney read a poem, and then his translator read the same poem--in Spanish. Poem after poem after poem for about one hour: first in his signature, deliberately paced English; y después en español. It was magical. I'm getting tingles recalling it, and what came next.

I brought Seeing Things with me that night, and I wasn’t sure why: I normally don’t go for the I-must-get-my-book-signed routine. I was still in sporadic touch with Robert Pinksy, who I'd had as a poetry workshop instructor as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. He was early into his stint at Boston University. In a note to me from those years, Pinsky mentioned “Seamus” as a reason he enjoyed being in Boston, since Heaney taught at Harvard at the time. And so, as I waited in line to have my book signed, I thought:  This will be my in for a bit of chit chat (“I’m a former student of Robert Pinksy’s from his time at Berkeley.”)

Seamus Heaney asked me my name. I told him, and added my Pinsky tidbit. I mentioned, on the fly, how much I enjoyed hearing his poems in both languages, and that I thought the Spanish versions sounded wonderful, which they did. After he signed my book, he held it, his body language suggesting he wasn’t going to return it any time soon. 

“What are you doing here?”
“Uh, I completed a Masters in Spanish, and I’m teaching English now…”

There was a pause.

“I mean your writing, what’s your plan?”

At first, I was a bit thrown off by his question, which I wasn't expecting. There wasn’t a long line of people waiting to have books signed so I relaxed a bit. His gaze seemed to be conveying: Okay, you’ve told me you studied poetry with Robert Pinksy: tell me more. 

And so I did. I told him about my decision not to return to the U.S.; my struggle to eek out a wage so that I could still have time to write; that I wasn’t really sure if I’d made the right decision, but that I was going to have a go at it anyway; that I loved living in Spain, and getting in touch with another literary tradition; that, without meaning to compare, I thought of Milosz living in Berkeley surrounded by English, but writing in Polish; that the first time I heard him (Heaney) read I wasn’t really prepared to appreciate his work… 

He stood there, not in any hurry, looking at me, listening, attentively taking it in, it seemed. I stopped speaking maybe after a minute, two, three, who knows. He’d been holding the book to his chest. Then I saw his grip relax a bit. He started to hand the book back to me. His gaze seemed to intensify as he readied a response. He spoke at a volume that was for me and me alone.

“Congratulations, Francisco. You’ll do fine.”

That was the reason I was in Spain, tentatively attempting a life in letters, in voluntarily exile. Heaney's succinct message of encouragement meant the world to me, giving me courage to stay on in Madrid, and pursue my own, if unorthodox, "career" path. My time in Madrid, which I wouldn't trade in for anything, would continue for another seven years, providing the material for what would eventually become my first book, Puerta del Sol.


When I glanced down at my smartphone, which I was now holding in my hand, after getting out my car this morning, I saw what appeared to be a very lengthy Facebook message.  But on closer inspection it appeared to be a news article, sent from my friend in Dublin, who'd copied and pasted it as a message. A snippet of the article caught my eye: “A statement issued by his family this morning confirmed his passing." And then I saw what it was and, almost involuntarily, began writing in my head this bit of prose that is ending right now.



My ‘place of clear water,’
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass

and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings,
with pails and barrows

those mound-dwellers
go waist-deep in mist
to break the light ice
at wells and dunghills.

Seamus Heaney
(April 13, 1939 – August 30, 2013)

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