My Americas

Donald Davie

We have all been told about the demographic shift in the United States from the North-East to the Sun Belt of the South-West; and the commentators on politics have been eager to explain that among the consequences of this shift is the Reagan Presidency. But our perception of US life and letters has not yet been affected; our listening posts on this side of the Atlantic seldom pick up the weak signals from Tucson or Albuquerque, on a wave-band still blanketed by the vociferous transmitters of New York. And perhaps this is just as well: for one shudders to anticipate the strenuously polemical ‘study’, perhaps to appear any day soon, that will see in any sympathetic concern with Spanish-speaking or pueblo cultures only some PR manoeuvre by the Reagan political machine. But of course the chronology won’t fit. Death comes for the Archbishop, though it is remembered by an Anthony Powell character only as the name of a lethal cocktail, is the title of a frail and delicate masterpiece by Willa Cather, that much underrated writer, which more than fifty years ago delineated the shape that North American civilisation would assume in the mind if its metropolis were taken to be, not New York or Boston, Philadelphia or Washington, San Francisco or LA, but what the historical records establish as older than any of them, the most ancient city of North America: Santa Fe, New Mexico. And in the years since, that appealing perspective has never been lost sight of altogether. Rather, because it has never since found a promulgator so powerful and independent as Cather, the vista has been, by the opinion-makers of the North-East, domesticated and trivialised: Santa Fe is acknowledged as a milieu of aesthetes and weirdos, and Texas is handed over to the media-merchants who make Dallas. It is recognised that life in the states of the South-West has taken in the past, and may yet take again, a distinctive shape: but the distinction is dealt with by allowing that the life is, like the landscapes where it happens, picturesque and bizarre. And after all ‘picturesque’ and ‘bizarre’ are epithets that we need not withhold from some of the most alarming Reaganites, or the most impudent of philistines.

Yet a culture-shift, or something momentous enough to deserve some such grandiose name, has in fact been happening through the last twenty or twenty-five years. So, at least, some of the most thoughtful and independent observers would persuade us. One of them is John Felstiner, whose book about Neruda was reviewed in LRB a few weeks back by Christopher Reid.[1] Felstiner some years ago wrote an essay that I for my part found arresting and persuasive, in which he argued – largely on the evidence of directions taken by several serious poets (Robert Lowell and Robert Bly, Elizabeth Bishop and Ed Dorn are those who come to mind) – that the North American imagination is beginning to define its identity no longer on a West-East axis, across the Atlantic to Europe, but North-South, across the Rio Grande and down to Buenos Aires. If this should be so, then Tucson and Albuquerque and Dallas (though also, it must be admitted, Miami) would bulk larger, in the North American’s sense of himself, than outflanked New York or still more off-centre Boston – a change that Felstiner, himself a New Yorker, was doubtless very alive to. Such switchings of alignment, radical re-orderings of physical geography as the imagination apprehends it, should not be taken lightly: as we shall see, a new seriousness about such matters is precisely one of the things that the new orientation promises itself, and promises us. The point can be made for now by recalling the importance, for Felstiner’s author Neruda, of the sheerly physical configuration of his native Chile. But the reorientation, if indeed it has happened or is happening, has other consequences, more dramatic if not in the long run any more momentous.

Chief among these is the threat it poses to the hegemony of English as the tongue in which the North American identity declares and defines itself. That pre-eminence, taken for granted through four centuries, is challenged as soon as the English-speaking American, seeking to define his identity on a new basis, looks for a bridge to the Spanish-speaking Americans southward of him, and finds that bridge in the North American territories where Spanish rather than English has been the vehicle of historical continuity – New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, though also Florida and in some degree California. For a culture so defiantly and ever-increasingly monoglot as the culture of the United States, where the melting-pot has always been the schoolroom, and what raises the temperature to melting point has always been the insistence on English as the lingua franca, the challenge posed by Spanish, as an alternative and in some ways better-accredited medium for American-ness, is more than disconcerting – it is explosive. The explosions, from gun-barrels, have been heard in the past and may well be heard again. (For how many of the Northern immigrants to the Sun Belt have bothered to learn Spanish?) This explains why, to those who think as Felstiner does, the problematics of translation are a matter almost of life and death; and when they defer to or expatiate upon European theorists of translation like Walter Benjamin or George Steiner, it is easy to miss, as I think Christopher Reid did, the altogether un-European urgency of their concern. For them, translation, and the disputable possibility of it (at least as regards verse), is a matter neither academic nor narrowly literary: it concerns citizenship, and whether and how civil order can be maintained in the USA, where the population is and always has been multilingual though the official culture always has been, and remains, Anglophone.

As for us in the UK, nothing was more fashionable among us, fifteen years ago, than American literature, unless it was Latin American ditto. Of late both enterprises seem to have withered on the vine. No wonder, and not much sympathy: for ‘American literature’, as institutionalised here and in the US, embodies a vast and flagrant deception – it means ‘literature written in English in the United States’. And ‘Latin American literature’ means ‘literature written in America outside the United States, in Spanish and (whenever any one remembers) Portuguese’. The very words ‘America’ and ‘American’, as currently in use among us to designate only the territory and the population of the United States, represent a cynical acceptance by us of inexcusable presumptions on the part of the US. And it is US citizens like Bly and Dorn and Felstiner who, convicting their compatriots of such vaunting and perilous presumption, convict us no less. What we need to recover is a proper sense of ‘America’ as comprehending everything from the Coppermine River down through French-speaking Canada to Cape Horn: either that, or else ‘the Americas’, an elegantly archaic usage that we might do well to refurbish.

In LRB at the end of May, Graham Hough, reviewing Burnt Water by the Mexican Carlos Fuentes,[2] complained that, whereas ‘the novel today is virtually an international form,’ so that Tolstoy is still Tolstoy though ‘an English writer to the English, a German to the Germans, French to the French’, yet the Latin American novel resists being thus transplanted: ‘Closely preoccupied with its own history and politics, or soaring into an enigmatic metaphysical void, or perhaps doing both at the same time – in any case it sets up barriers to the outsider, beliefs and superstitions, loyalties and betrayals, convictions and failures of conviction, that are subtly unfamiliar to the rest of the Western world.’ Any one who has tried to read the Colombian novel A Hundred Days of Solitude – popular as that mysteriously was in its English translation – must surely endorse Hough’s account of the difficulties that confront us, not much less with South American poems than with South or Central American novels. And yet does not Hough’s enumeration of the obstacles that keep us from South American writers apply equally well to North Americans like Faulkner or even Styron? American literature, north and south of the crucial Spanish/English border, is more of a piece than either Spanish-speakers or English-speakers will admit. Graham Hough decides: ‘the foreignness of the Latin American imagination is frustrating.’ Drop ‘Latin’ from that formulation, and does it not remain still true? American literature, whether in Spanish or in English, is for us a foreign literature, and a lot of unnecessary anguish could be avoided if we plainly admitted as much.

If so, what we observe when a North American like Felstiner translates a South American like Neruda is a family quarrel, of which we, as outsiders to the kinship circle, can discern the lineaments only vaguely and confusedly. What we may suppose, relying on nothing more recondite or specialised than common sense, is that south of the border people differ in temperament and in social conditioning at least as much as, north of the border, Elizabeth Bishop differed from Robert Bly, or Robert Lowell from Ed Dorn. Just that, of course, is what the Marxisant intellectuals who have largely taken over our Latin American Studies want to deny, as they will deny such differences everywhere, intent on categorising all of us as either ‘bourgeois’ or else ‘of the people’. How does it help us, or what is proved, when Octavio Paz and Machado de Assis are classed equally as ‘Latin American’? To this question there may be an answer, but, shuffle as we may the categories that Marxist socio-politics presents us with, the answer is not there. For the vulgar Marxist account of Latin American societies (meaning Texas and Florida and Arizona, as well as Brazil and Mexico) partakes very clearly of the Yanqui condescension that Marxists condemn in their ideological enemies: in those societies (they would have us believe) the difference between reactionaries and actual or potential revolutionaries is clear, as it is not in our more ‘advanced’ societies. The bandit, the police chief, the urban or the rural guerrilla, the landowner – in all these stereotypes, as they are presented to us, we discern the same features: ‘picturesque’ and ‘bizarre’. And this, I take it, is what Virginia de Araujo is girding at when she protests, on behalf of the poet she is translating, Carlos Drummond de Andrade: ‘His people are not gentle victims nor crazy bandits.’[3] The people who speak Carlos Drummond’s Brazilian poems, or appear in them, are in no way picturesque, simply because they are (whatever tendentious mileage may be made of the admission) projections or extensions, for the most part bitterly ironic, of the poet’s own self as he understands it.

De Araujo’s versions from Carlos Drummond are precisely on a par with Felstiner’s from Neruda. Her name may mislead: she is entirely North American by birth and nurture, as her own idiom would leave us in no doubt.

Looky now, love leaped that wall
love climbed that tree
right in time to fall ...
Told you, look, love fell ...
From here I can see
blood splash the androgynous flesh
Oh, babe, you’re hurt bad.

Sometimes you wake up well.
Sometimes you never get cured ...

This is, or is not, ‘accurate’. It is at all events South American translated into North American. And to such a transaction the standard of the Queen’s English is quite irrelevant. Seventy years ago, when Ezra Pound told his compatriots that their linguistic milieu, in relation to London, was like that of the Spain of the Senecas in relation to imperial Rome, he had a point – polemical, and more than polemical: but now, when C.H. Sisson trots out the same Poundian trope, it is the merest whistling in the dark. The two halves of the American continent have begun speaking to each other; and in that dialogue the British voice cannot intervene except as a sterilising distraction.

If that is so, why should the British reader attend at all to a transaction so remote from his interests, at which his attendance is unsought if not, by either or both of the transacting parties, actively resented? It is a good question, and one that is seldom asked. Graham Hough, having by long and honourable service earned the right, puts the question when in relation to Carlos Fuentes’ novel he takes on for a moment the accents of Johnson: ‘But in the end we are left doubtful of the purpose and tendency of what we have been told. Are we to stand aghast at the spectacle of these exotic, peculiarly Mexican horrors; or are we to see them as types of the horror to which the world is everywhere being led?’ Hough suavely pretends that the question he asks is nothing out of the way, but, as he knows quite well, his very vocabulary – ‘purpose’, ‘tendency’ – harks back to an era before the modern and indeed not-so-modern criticism that has ruled out of court all such words, and the question that such words make possible. What, does Hough think then that literature is, or ought to be, didactic? If he does think so, he can rejoice to concur with the common reader, who doggedly still supposes this, though generations of critics have told him that he mustn’t. Not suavely at all but with a driving severity D.S. Carne-Ross, a Briton long expatriate in the US, has lately reaffirmed a didactic function for literature, though in a way that brings no comfort to the common reader that we most of us are when we visit, through translations, the life and letters of Brazil or Chile, of Mexico or for that matter New Mexico.[4] Carne-Ross has no truck with such matters, which from his impressively austere standpoint cannot seem anything but ephemeral. Yet he comes near to our concerns, and to Hough’s questions, when he tells of listening to a lecture by the Tewa Indian anthropologist, Alfonso Ortiz. Though wistfully attracted to what he was told of the sacredness which the Tewa people saw in, for instance, sunrise, yet when Ortiz told his white American audience that if they wanted to be saved they would have to go to the Indian, Carne-Ross rightly rebelled, because ‘the pieties Ortiz held up to us could come across only as picturesquely technicolored Native Customs,’ and because ‘an American or European cannot simply turn Indian or Buddhist because he thinks the grass greener on their side of the fence.’ Fair enough. Yet does it follow that any poem by a white American about pueblo culture has to be a piece of ultimately frivolous exoticism, tourism? Carne-Ross I think would say that yes, this does follow: but surely we cannot agree with him. For instance:

The prayer feather fluttered
In the wind that swept the prow
Of the First Mesa at Walpi, fluttered,
Caught in dried earth,
The trodden clay,
Under the great sky,

A bit of down, a thread of handspun cotton,
A twinned pine needle, small quilled feather,
Before a house with a padlocked door
In quiet of an early morning when
Most of the doors of the village
Were closed against
                   the chill sweep of the wind;

A paho, carrying what supplication,
Or what gratitude,
Shaken in the wind which it entreated;
Perhaps,

The sunlight pours unshaken through the wind.
Carry my entreaty, also, fluttering feathers.[5]

What is the purpose, the tendency, of this? Surely not to send us into some counter-cultural charade of beads and blankets – which is all that in practice the injunction of Alfonso Ortiz could lead to. And yet the poem is not an impassive aesthetic construct, still less, a picture-postcard in verse. What it seems to recommend, and winningly to embody, is a quality of frugality, of elegant spareness – both in the religious rite that it talks about, and in the artistic rite that it is in itself. These human performances are commended as profoundly in keeping with the desert and semi-desert landscapes where they are enacted – beautiful indeed, but also unbelievably naked and harsh, an arena where the elemental potencies of sun and wind interact insistently before our eyes and on our skin. Behind the poem, unobtrusive as it is, lie Janet Lewis’s sixty years of devotion to artistic economy, in prose narrative rather more than in verse. But on the other hand all the more compelling testimonies seem to agree that such deliberate severity is indeed the characteristic mode in which the long-established inhabitants, Spanish as well as Indian, come to terms with their hardships, and their physical ambience. D.H. Lawrence seems to have perceived this, though his temperament and his artistic habits mostly stopped him from embodying it. The South-West, we seem to be saying, is in no sense a romantic landscape, and it isn’t romantic arts that can do it justice. The central art is the dance: but a sort of dance that is, one gathers, hieratic and measured, in no way Dionysian. And Janet Lewis can be seen edging her language in that direction, so as to collaborate in what she perceives:

At Santo Domingo on the Rio Grande
Far from Awatobi, yet not so far
As to have been spared the Spaniard’s cruelty,
On the Saint’s Day now, the Saint
Sits in the plaza under a bower of green,
While the dancers,
Beautiful in dignity of pace and gesture,
Dance for him as well as for the Corn.

In Brazil, one gathers (yes, ‘one gathers’ – for translations, it’s too seldom remembered, are meant for ignoramuses), in Brazil there are regions, the arid or semi-arid north-east, where the people have to cope with terrain and weather like those of Arizona. Their coping, for whatever reason, seems never to have achieved the precarious and of course unequal balance that indigenous Arizonans have lately managed; there is a history of appalling suffering in both territories, but more, much more (and still unstanched) in Brazil. Accordingly North Americans – and for that matter, we also – find that angry sympathies are more easily moved by the literature that comes out of that region, and from that suffering level of Brazilian society: for instance, the poetry of Joao Cabral de Melo Neto, devotedly translated by Elizabeth Bishop. The much older poet Carlos Drummond has never handled such inflammable materials, and he, so far as we may know him by courtesy of his translator, would not soon nor easily enter into the range of sensibility where we participate in life on ‘the First Mesa at Walpi’. His is a poetry mostly of urban domestic interiors; and he is very self-absorbed. When I add that the decisive sorrow of Drummond’s life appears to have been the selling out by his father of extensive lands and interests in the interior (we aren’t told that the deal was unprofitable), it will be clear that in any extra-literary competition for interest and sympathy Carlos Drummond scores zero. That must be part of the reason, apart from the inherent unsaleability of translations from the Portuguese, why de Araujo’s versions were hawked in vain round the University Presses of North America: it was left to Michael Schmidt and Peter Jones of the relatively unfunded Carcanet Press to recognise the moral and cultural responsibility. In fact, I find my sympathy goes out to Drummond very easily indeed. I must declare an interest, for I was associated with Virginia de Araujo when she was making these translations, and greatly admired her sinking of her own poetic proclivities in order to serve the poet she was translating. But rereading in handsome print what I remember seeing in working typescripts, I was confirmed in my first impression of years ago: that Carlos Drummond is a poet unlike any other, and immensely likeable. His is, I suppose, a romantic art – ‘romantic’ in the bittersweet Chaplinesque manner that compounds irony with pathos. At times, to an English reader, he seems not light-years away from Philip Larkin: but this is probably only a trick of the light and of the angle from which we come at him. For we are told, and in places can see for ourselves, that both his melancholy and his irony can be called ‘savage’ and ‘corrosive’ – epithets we can sometimes apply to Larkin, but not often.

All the same, if a European name like Larkin’s is what comes to mind (and another that hovers in the background is, inevitably, Laforgue), we cannot help but wonder what there is about Drummond that makes him, not Latin American indeed, but, in the necessary sense I’ve seen arguing for, American. Is Portuguese-American to be taken as standing apart from what Spanish-American and English-American have in common? Sometimes one thinks so. But there are two features that may none the less stamp Drummond as an American author. The first is the serious intentness with which his imagination broods upon geography. The lands and home which Drummond sees as having been reft from him are not to be easily psychologised into the imaginary Eden of lost childhood: they are insistently identified with a highly specific place, the iron-working city of Itabira in the province of Minas Gerais. The particularity with which the region is invoked (not particulars of fact, but highly particular feelings about it) is inevitably a stumbling-block for those of us who have never been there and know nothing about it: though de Araujo does her best to help in one section of her engagingly unacademic Introduction. It’s in any case interesting that in one of his most explicit invocations of the place as he feels for it, Drummond’s emphasis seems to fall where Janet Lewis’s fell – on ‘reserve’, on ‘strengths you properly withhold’, on a spirit that is ‘circumspect’.

The other thing that he shares with Janet Lewis is – among all the melancholy, the bitterness, the corrosive ironies – a curiously attenuated but quite marked serenity:

What I reveal – and the rest
that follows it, hidden in
vitreous portcullises – is
items of human interest,
just being-in-the-world
and plays on words, a non-being-being,
both in so tight a weave
(the play and the confession)
I can’t distinguish myself
the lived from the invented.
All lived? ... Nothing
Nothing lived? ... All

Nothing, from one point of view: and yet, in another way, all. There is nothing here so crass as an ‘up-beat’. Instead what one has to say, however awkward it sounds, is that in good American poetry, whether in English or Spanish or Portuguese (for all I know in French also, and in Quechua), it is first proposed and then proved that poetry provides spiritual nourishment – not what religion itself provides, but a (perhaps shadowy) analogue of that. If, as I think is true, our own poetry rather seldom any longer embarks on such an exalted enterprise, that seems the best reason why, outsiders though we are, we need to go on inspecting the poetry of ‘the Americas’.

[1] Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu (Stanford University Press). See LRB, Vol. 3, No 10.

[2] Burnt Water, by Carlos Fuentes, translated by Margaret Peden (Secker). See LRB, Vol. 3, No 9.

[3] The Minus Sign by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translated by Virginia de Araujo. Carcanet New Press, 168 pp., £3.95, 6 August, 85635 296 9.

[4] Instaurations by D.S. Carne-Ross (University of California Press).

[5] ‘Paho at Walpi’, in Poems Old and New, 1918-1978 by Janet Lewis (Ohio University Press).