Keith Payne’s letter from Galicia, first published in The Level Crossing, introduces two of the new wave of Galician poets.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural …
IT WAS AS IF MacNeice had predicted what was happening in front of me on the screen last night. I was sat at my desk in Vigo correcting some Galician translations, a half dozen tabs open on the desktop as I clicked back and forth between dictionaries, verb tables and the newsfeed coming from the exit polls for Spain’s general election: the two-party system was over, things had changed suddenly.
… I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various
‘Spain is Different!’ Manuel Fraga announced in the late sixties as he began to package Scandinavian and British tourists off to the Costa del Sol. Like his boss, Fraga was Galician and was Franco’s Minister for Tourism. Just forty years on and the PP, the conservative party that Fraga founded, was finally realising that things were indeed, very different, but not how they had imagined. Ada Colau, an anti-eviction activist, has become Barcelona’s first woman mayor. Manuela Carmena, a retired judge, defender of workers’ rights and of detainees during the dictatorship, is the first independent mayor of Madrid. I hummed a few bars of Old England is Dying, and listened for the Medusa howls of Spain’s elite as Podemos, Equo, Barcelona en Comú and En Marea (The Turning Tide)washed over Old Castile, and Fraga’s party were left ‘not waving, but drowning.’
Waves of emigrants have been leaving Galicia since boats were first floated. According to the Leabhar Gabhála, it was Galicians, Breogan’s sons and grandsons, who were the last to populate Ireland. You know them as the Milesians. In my partner’s family there is exactly five years each between her mother, her uncle and her aunt. A common pattern in Galicia where it took five years to make enough money for a return ticket from the Americas before going back, a son or daughter conceived just before you sailed away. Su’s family all recognized Frank O’Connor’s ‘My Oedipus Complex’ when I told them the story one Friday night at the house. Almost every house in the region has a ship’s trunk somewhere where you will still get a whiff of Brazilian coffee when you open the lid and stick your head in. For the most part it was the men who emigrated, waves of them, and the women were left behind to raise the family, mind the house and manage the land, if land there was; it’s written all over their hands. Since the Nineteenth-Century Galician Revival, the figure of the stoic, weeping Galician woman stood on the cliffs has been forged in iron in the collective memory.
But the wave is turning. A wave of young Galician poets, women mostly, have reimagined themselves as something other than that tragic figure on the cliffs weeping and wringing her hands helplessly as the ships sail away. She may still be found on the cliffs from where María Do Cebreiro writes back that ‘The wind puts across the body’s cut / in so soft a manner it is no longer / an invasion or even a sign of / ownership.’ She celebrates that ‘the joy of skin / is in its loosening.’ Blown free as it were, Do Cebreiro is joined from the cliffs and the streets, the cafes and bars, from bed and balcony, from ‘Picking apples in Tolstoy’s Garden,’ from New York’s ‘Sing-Sing Prison,’ from ‘Midtown Manhattan’, ‘The Charles Bridge’, a ‘Taxi in Lima’ and the ‘The Cotton fields of Thessaly’ by her contemporaries Yolanda Castaño, Chus Pato, Lupe Gómez, and Elvira Ribeiro among many others. Some of whom send me back and forth and back and forth again and again through the pages of Servando Pérez Barreiro’s Diccionario Completo Galego-Inglés as my finger digital clicks back to the exit polls that ticker-tape down the screen. A change is washing over Spain and as these poets write the wave, I allow myself a little drunkenness on their variorum edition.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay as we supposed.
MacNeice visited Spain in 1936 with Auden, and when asked which side he supported in the Civil War responded: ‘I support the Valencia Government in Spain. Normally I would only support a cause because I hoped to get something out of it. Here my reason is stronger […]’ To the same question, Beckett responded ‘¡UP THE REPUBLIC!’