Simultaneity in Verse: On Nathalie Handal
by Craig Epplin
“A simultaneity of inconsolable coexistences”: this is the way Charles Bernstein has described American culture. A plural America, ultimately the Americas. Plural because of its continent-spanning reach and plural, also, because its past is always present. The horizon is never just a thin gray line dividing ocean from sky. It’s also a jagged relief of trees and mountains and water towers. Even the purest of horizons waxes, wanes, and occasionally softens with the play of light. Our future, the future of Americans north and south and, really, of everyone else too, lies on that intermittent horizon.
That horizon is the future, founded on the past. And thus, a military raid captures and kills Osama bin Laden, and its codename is Operation Geronimo. A Native American leader, metonym of a history of resistance against imperial fantasies, resurfaces in an ill-conceived conflation of narratives.
And thus also, the Argentine 100-peso bill commemorates, on its flipside, the “Conquest of the Desert,” the military offensive against indigenous peoples that consolidated the nineteenth-century nation state. An extermination campaign as the official story.
What country in the Americas doesn’t have such a past? And which of these pasts doesn’t continually rear its head, unexpectedly, in the most varied contexts? This is why our co-existences are inconsolable.
And what is true of the Americas holds true for every place. Spain, for example. This simple insight lies at the heart of Nathalie Handal’s brilliant new volume of poetry, Poet in Andalucía. In it, her eye abolishes time, combing all pasts into the resonant folds of the present.
I feel close to death tonight.
I just saw the poets
of the Golden Ages and those of ‘27,
there was no time between them—
They speak to her and through her, these poets, across history: Luis de Góngora and Garcilaso de la Vega, bookends of the Spanish Golden Age; Rafael Alberti and Federico García Lorca, standard bearers of modern Spanish verse. They tell her to drink and sing and also that “illusion creates history,” perhaps because it is the illusion of leaving the past behind that allows us to name it as such. The conversation she imagines runs contrary to illusion, then, just as it restages another conversation, one that happened in Seville in 1927 when a group of poets gathered there in celebration of the 300th anniversary of Góngora’s death. Alberti and Lorca were among the group, henceforth canonized as the Generation of 27. They brought Góngora into their present, just as Handal brings them into our own.
And she brings one of them, in particular, to the fore: Lorca. Her Poet in Andalucía is a recreation, in reverse, of his posthumously published Poet en New York. Her own introductory remarks sketch out the way we might read her geographic negative.
Lorca left as part of his legacy a longing for homeland. My own longing stretches across four continents, due to a life made exilic by the political turmoil in the Middle East. His poems are about discovering a lost self. The poems in this collection confront that same loss, and resonate with that same yearning for a sustaining place. Poet in New York is about social injustice and somber love, and the quality of otherness such forces produce. Poet in Andalucía explores the persistent tragedy of otherness but it also acknowledges a refusal to remain in that stark darkness, and it searches for the possibility of human coexistence.
Longing for a place: this is why both titles situate their poets geographically. Loss of self: this is why both collections alternate so visibly among subject positions. Otherness and its reverberations: this is why both poets fixate so much on things and the symbolic forces they channel (and on words as things, especially in Handal’s poems).
There are certainly other points of contact between the two, but I’ll just name one: both poets understand the “simultaneity of inconsolable coexistences” that makes up human (and indeed, nonhuman) history.
For example, in Poet in New York we read lines like these:
It isn’t foreign to the dance
this columbarium that yellows the eyes.
From the sphinx to the vault there is a tense thread
that pierces the heart of all poor children.
The primitive drive dances with the mechanical drive,
ignorant in their frenzy of original light.
From the pharaohs to the titans of Wall Street “there is a tense thread”: history doesn’t repeat itself, as in a spiral, but is rather stitched in a complex of threads, some of which are more tightly spun than others. And those threads are not static. They dance, present and past holding hands. If I had to imagine Lorca’s vision spread out in space it would take the form of a sparsely woven cloth flapping in the wind, some parts of it stained with blood, others reflecting light.
Lorca’s mode is frequently that of an accusal. When he reveals the ties that bind present and past, he also seeks to uncover the violence of that binding. And thus the poem titled “Office and Denunciation” begins with these lines:
Under the multiplications
there is a drop of duck’s blood.
Under the divisions
there is a drop of sailor’s blood.
Under the sums, a river of tender blood;
He mentions the death of a human, but he’s really concerned with the animals, as we see later on in that same poem:
Every day in New York they slaughter
four million ducks,
five million pigs,
two thousand doves for the pleasure of the dying,
a million cows,
a million lambs,
and two million roosters
that leave the sky in splinters.
The pain of violent animal death underlies the balance-sheet arithmetic of slaughterhouse administration. This subterranean truth is brought to light in these verses.
Cruelty buttresses civilization; the past inheres in the present. Both formulations repeat the modernist trope, running from Marx to Freud to Debord, of a truth, an awful and awesome truth, that is concealed from our everyday perception, whether through a fetish or through the sound and fury of the spectacle. In Poet in Andalucía, the question is refracted through the lens of language itself. And thus the collection’s title keeps the Spanish “Andalucía” instead of the Anglophone “Andalusia.” The title bears the trace of its own past, its peripatetic origins. And thus too the first poem in the collection is titled “Ojalá,” left in Spanish, a Spanish word that comes to us from the Arabic “Insha’allah”: God-willing, or in lay terms, let’s hope. In the almost eight centuries of Arab occupation of at least part of the Iberian peninsula, thousands of words filtered into the local languages. Handal captures something of this history in the Qit’as presented here, each of which bears the title of a Spanish word of Arabic origin, each of them explicated below the short poem. The truth of the Spanish language is the truth of its hybridity. It, like all languages, is a mestizo tongue.
That affirmation has its own history, and it is a history of repression. If Arab-occupied Iberia was a motley pot of Jewish, Arabic, and Latinate cultures (among others), post-“Reconquest” Spain was marked by its intolerance. This was the Spain of the Inquisition, the Spain that expelled its Jewish population in 1492, and a little over a century later the Moriscos (Muslim converts to Christianity) as well. A version of this purity-fixated Spain resurfaced under the government of Francisco Franco (1939-75), when manifestations of linguistic and cultural diversity were persecuted. Handal is sensitive to this past when she writes, for example, in a poem significantly titled “La Guerra” (“War”),
After the bomb,
I held a comrade’s arm,
listened to Radio Cadena Española,
and looked at the moon.
The bodies weren’t moving.
I went closer—
we must remember
what we looked like once,
a country cut in half.
And that metaphor of splitting, of one half running up against another, divided by a tenuous border, recurs in her collection. For instance the Qit’a titled “Acitara” (“Wall”):
Can the sky recover after a bombing,
can a house break into two cities,
and secrets hold the wall
between two bodies?
Tell me, what are borders?
The violent past of a nation divided (the idea of the “two Spains” is a constant trope in the country’s essayistic tradition), here acquires poetic weight.
And yet, as she herself marks out in the prologue, the collection seeks a path beyond division and alienation: toward the possibility of coexistence, to use her word (and Bernstein’s). And thus the book’s eighth section is titled “Convivencia” (“Coexistence”). How can we live together? Through the intimacy of touch, the section seems to suggest, given the number of sensual, bodily scenes. Perhaps this is a recognition of our shared embodied nature, and the capacity of our bodies to feel pain, weight, touch, and arousal. Recognition of this simple truth lies at the origin of life in common. The politics of that shared life is also an erotics.
That question, how can we live together, runs throughout Nathalie Handal’s Poet in Andalucía. I see in it a very American (in the broad sense of the Americas) problem, but this is certainly short-sighted. It owes, I assume, to the simple fact that I live in the Americas, two continents or one where our languages are marked by the violence of conquest and the struggle for coexistence. But this is the story of all humans, at least I think so. And this is why Poet in Andalucía—about Spain, about the Middle East, about shared destinies and hopes—touches me deeply: it reminds us of what’s inconsolable, of what’s multiple, of what’s irreducible, and what’s simultaneous.