Never Look Back
In the Ayuntamiento offices she spells my name into the phone with the call letters of cities and nations. “Aleshire: Almería, Lugo, España, Sevilla, Huelva, Italia, Roma, España. How long will you be here in Granada?”
“Just two more days,” I lie and she shrugs, hangs up the phone and immediately stamps my document with a seal and signs it. The Spaniards are fond of stamps.
I thank her and fold my new poetic license carefully into thirds, tuck it in the breast pocket of my suit just over my heart, and walk back outside through the open courtyard's mosaic of over-grown cobblestones. Past the Nativity and the crowd banging tambourines and guitars, bellowing Christmas songs. Are they drunk? I can't believe this is City Hall, which until now I've only associated with vague bureaucratic horror.
Past the Moorish prince tucked in a nave in a corner of the courtyard, his body shimmering in gold satin. He's still grinning with his saber and feathered turban while a troika of blanquita grandmothers have their pictures taken with him. They titter as he holds his scimitar aloft in one hand, and gathers all three of them into the frame with his free arm. Where are the other two Kings? Is this vaguely sexual? Maybe not at all, and it’s horrid of me for even wondering. The prince looks like he’s having a good time—but then again, he's being paid to look like he’s having a good time. A man with a camera orders me, Come, come, take a Christmas memory! and I think of all the tourists snapping photos of me in the plaza, our bizarre kinship of spectacle for consumption. All these posed photos of the prince and I won't even molder in a shoebox; they'll live forever in the Cloud, or at least until the desert city of whirring servers slips into the sea.
Before the door opening back onto Plaza del Carmen there’s a metal detector and an X-ray but the guard who's running it is smoking outside and everyone streams in and out without having their metal detected or their bone structure illumined in ocher. Which is good for me, since typewriters always look exactly like bombs under an X ray, and it’s difficult to explain how and why I carry it around the world to write poems for strangers in the street.
I’ve come here because yesterday a gruff policeman in a large white helmet kicked me out of where I was working in Plaza Nueva. The size of his white helmet seemed in direct proportion to his authority, and he used one wide sweep of his arm to illustrate his point that this whole plaza was “Not for activities!”—despite the enraptured crowd watching the flamenco show, the dancers’ shoes cracking like whips on the wide smooth geometry of flagstones, and the cirquero starfished and revolving inside a plastic ring like Da Vinci's sketch of Vitruvian Man.
“Isn’t there an area where it is free to write poems?” I asked innocently as he strode away in his motorcycle knee boots. At this he stopped on a dime and pivoted back to eye me before shifting his speech to serious machine-gun cadence.
“I is just to arrive today now,” I lied, shifting too, into disarmingly touristy Spanish. It's been six months since I was nearly arrested by those fascist private security goons on the southbank of London, but I still always fear for the worst when interacting with cops, any cops. I was about to tell him I'm a student on vacation, but then he just said to go to City Hall and pick up a license. I thanked him, and then he added severely, “Mañana por la mañana," as if he might arrest me as the cathedral strikes noon.
It's too cold to write poems outside, except for precisely 5 hours when the sun streams over the Albaicín's labyrinth and into Plaza Nueva. Everyday something surreal happens. One of the first people I write for is a guy in plaid pants, walking his dog. He's got that signature fauxhawk-pompadour look that Spaniards can somehow pull off in a casual manner, and after I give him his poem, he pulls out a scroll from his bag and hands me one of his own. Then an old timer tells me about Lorca as if they were good friends, and recites one of his own long rhyming poems from memory. One day a film crew arrives and says they're doing a documentary on poetry in Granada and they'll come back tomorrow to interview me but before I can hammer out a business card for them they evaporate into a narrow alley and I never see them again.
Very quickly I realize I have to change my sign from POET FOR HIRE to UN POEMA PARA TI or I won't get any business—and I start bringing my dictionary along, because unlike in Cuba, most people here insist on having their poem in Spanish, which is terrifying. The first one I write in Spanish is for a twenty-something named Sofía. I want a poem about the sea, she says, looking off into the distance. Granada isn't near the sea at all; it makes me think about looking for what we want in all the wrong places. Isn't it an act of defiance, sometimes?
Are you from the coast? No. Have you ever been to the sea? Only once, as a child. Will you ever return? At this she thinks for a long time before pronouncing a No that felt like the period at the end of a long novel; I'll have to work with what I've got. She promises to come back in ten minutes.
Which approximates to:
T H E S E A
You search for the sea in an obsolete machine
You search for the sea in a labyrinth of alphabets
You search for the sea in an infinitude of olive-groves
You search for the sea in the cathedral's womb
You search for the sea where there aren't any waves at all
(because you won't be commanded, not by the moon
nor anyone else)
It's a little pithy and surreal (“I'm not convinced the poem's length justifies it's employment of anaphora,” I can hear a workshop somewhere deciding) but I think she might like it. There's a vagueness to the language that might allow it to become about whatever it was that's both pushing and pulling her back to a childhood shore. When people refuse to tell me the secret behind their poem, I used to avoid vagueness like the plague, and try to read them, try to mystically guess what it was that happened. Once in a while this can have spectacular results—when it works, the poem pierces through the invisible vellum that separates strangers, and we hold eachother and weep—but it can also backfire. A suicide might actually have been a broken wrist, might have been a rape, might have been a divorce, might have been nothing at all. In those cases when I guessed wrong, it made me feel like a charlatan, so now I try to interview people more, try to truly get them to trust me with their pain, with their raw memories. But it has to be their decision; if they don't want to talk about it, I can't force them—in these cases I take more of a fortune-telling approach, where a certain amount of vagueness allows them to write their own meaning into what's written. The ending is a paradox but it also describes her own personal power as, “what validates the poem's central conceit,” as workshop jargonese might venture.
Or so I hope. There's only ten minutes to make these decisions, after all, and in that ten minutes there are crazy people droning at me about their grandfather's typewriter and I'm hungry and I need to piss and children are pointing their fingers and laughing at me in this seething mass of humanity where I am somehow astoundingly alone.
Five o'clock strikes just as the sun's yolk slips behind the buildings lining the other end of the plaza: it feels just like an abrupt blackout on a theatre stage. Instantly I'm shivering, and remembering that I'm actually in a desert, and realizing sadly that Sofía is never coming back. Another orphan-poem. These ones fascinate me—either the customer never cared very much in the first place and simply forgot to come back and pick up the poem they ordered, or some strange event conspired to prevent them from returning. (In New Orleans, people just wander off and get drunk in an unspooling skein of bars and completely forget—which is why I reluctantly had to institute a down-payment system there for anyone holding a drink, especially hand-grenades.)
But never in my life have I had as many orphan poems as in Spain. One day a grown man asks for a poem as a birthday gift for his elderly mother, then never comes back! Ay de mí. What horror. This girl Sofía, though, she was a poetry customer par excellence: when I asked her what she wanted, she gazed off into the distance and named the first beautiful thing that came into her mind. She seemed overjoyed that a foreigner in a suit and tie was going to compose a poem for her on an old typewriter for whatever price she was able to pay; I was certain she would come back. Something must have happened, prevented her. In times like this, I love to fantasize—was she waylaid by some sudden obligation, and raced back at dusk only to find the plaza deserted except for the pair of winos huddled by the cathedral doors? Did her appendix burst, or what? Was she hit by a car? And why is it easier for me to imagine her death than to consider that she might not actually care about poetry?
Later that night I write to my friend in Madrid and tell her the story. As way of explanation, she just says simply, “Spaniards never look back.”