Review of Puerta Del Sol, by Francisco Aragon
(Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 2005)
There are memories which only tenuously hold a place in our mind and require that we turn our senses fully upon them so as to be brought into sharper focus. It would be a simple and common error to believe that the more intelligible an experience is the more easily it is remembered. Clarity guarantees nothing, only thought does. Ordinary memories, the plethora of casual occurrences, are as plain and clear as day, but, because of their habitual presence, they have no meaning. Only once the ordinary is clearly defined can it be righteously held. When we recall, our mind focuses upon an actual sensation and the result, memory, is determined by duration of thought; those people, places, and things we give no thought to provide no basis for recollection. Memory is an incessant concentration on contiguity; it does not mean to merely bring to mind, but to intimately concentrate upon experience. Memory means as much as devotion.
And devotion implies supreme affection even after the ultimate consequence, that is, death. Literature, according to Richard Howard, is the hold the dead have over the living, and poets express this grip through the lyric, through “the convulsive energy of a pang” which is simply an excruciating attempt at communicating with the otherworldly. The literature of love and loss is itself painful to endure, not because we tend to experience empathy with or sympathy for the subject or author (though this is the supposed intent) but because we have to endure the sensations of antipathy aroused whenever anyone will not cease to dwell upon the relations of others to him or herself. Such is the source of all the awful and mediocre poetry of English literature.
Yet the lyric is not a flawed or outdated form, rather it is a necessary one. The dreadful verse of love and loss can become the exquisite poetry of memory but only when the mind shirks its egotism and allows the burden of thought to press down upon the hand. When, as Heidegger has said, “thinking guides and sustains every gesture of the hand” then what is written becomes a way, a path of thought, toward communion with the whole of being. Yes, it sounds haughty but it is genuine as well as difficult, necessary, and superior to the superfluous verse of the self because such poetry allows others to be capable of remaining upon and making their own path toward understanding the true nature of experience. Francisco Aragon's debut is an elaboration of thought, a dwelling with thought, a book of memory that seeks to tell “of an affliction/more acute/than breathing,/of something worse/than knowing/that we are, yet/knowing nothing,/unsure of which/path to take.” (Ruben Dario as Prelude) Puerta Del Sol demonstrates what is and what has been loved and lost is so more than mere experience or the one who experiences.
Make no mistake, Puerta del Sol is a quiet book, understated and deliberate, its intention is not to appeal to your heart strings or to evoke some nostalgia. Aragon moves us seamlessly from Spain to San Francisco, battling between certainty, “My first day the weather//was something I wore—August/a sweat-lined shirt/like a second skin,” (Plaza) and insecurity, “I breathe//your absence in,/have felt it all/these years,/my focus blurred--//no north,/no compass,/lost.” (The Northside Café) His scenes are at once intensely personal and ordinary (the balance we term intimacy). Always returning “back from a place/I sometimes miss” (The Calendar) Aragon isolates events, encounters with friends and strangers, and chance objects in order to create “a network of strings, patterns//pleasing to the ear.” (Of Rain and Guitars)
While the intelligibility of an experience does not make it certain we shall be impressed by it, memory is aided by the presence of particular physical objects. By elaborating upon such particular objects we are able to pull together the sensations of an experience, to re-member them. Aragon's particular objects only become so once he allows himself to dwell upon them, to think through their existence, as in ‘Of Rain and Guitars' when he sees a street musician and finds himself neither listening to the music nor seeing the guitar playing but focusing on the grace of the action's presence,
Turning your head for a glance
at its shape, the strings, the hole,
you barely blink
of sound billowing) when you see
not the player’s hand
fingers plucking, but
a flesh-colored moth fluttering in place.
The making of the metaphor, the metamorphosis of the hand, into the “flesh-colored moth” creates the memory by making it extraordinary. Earlier in the same poem we encountered the pleasant and uninspiring thought of the speaker staring through a bus window while it rains, “The drops lengthen,//become threads streaming/across the glass over-/lapping as the sun/reappears.” This description is a necessary counterweight showing the movement from merely having a thought to thinking.
Slowly as each poem in Puerta Del Sol reveals itself we come to see that the mind within these poems is becoming enamored with the “codes of doing/and undoing, as if this were ritual/unfurling, paying tribute” (First Time Out) in almost every act or encounter in the past. The deliberate dwelling upon of place and name, the gathering together of thought and feeling of went on at a specific place at a specific time in order to better understand the significance of that experience and show that experience the proper respect and affection—longing. Longing is the most august embodiment of memory because it involves equal parts mourning and praise as the poem Tertulia shows,
for a moment
of something you love to do
and rarely do anymore. That
is how I often feel
whenever I’m away.
Aragon knows that memory is a strength which makes our experiencing of the present more acute. Death stalks all of these poems in the form of terrorism, the loss of a parent, the loss of lovers and friends, and, most of all, in the homelessness or displacement felt both corporally and temporally, “The first flakes of December/--like the pages and/pages of desk/calendars: a confetti of days/at year's end.” (Winter Socks) What allows Aragon to write such deft lyrical poetry is the fact that his tone is not bemused or melancholic but affectionate and friendly, though appropriately somber. The pangs that are experienced in these poems aren't the overwrought pangs of verse but rather the meticulous demands of memory proper. Aragon writes with a delight and sincerity that few mature poets possess and it bears to mind his work as it progresses.