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Excerpt from Encuentro by Jaime Santirso

—You know, Robert, I’ve been reading “To Tomorrow” and I really liked it, but

 

Robert Gris came down to the hotel lobby an hour and a half late. When he appeared, his face was swollen due to lack of sleep and last night’s vodka. He wanted a bite to eat. As he headed to the dining room I went out to tell the driver we would be ready soon. He was relieved – in the last hour he had asked about the guest every ten minutes. I came back inside. It was late for breakfast, so most of the tables were empty. Robert had chosen one next to the window. The pale and cold light from a winter morning was reflected against the glass of the buildings across the road. I sat down across from him, assuming that after waiting for so long I could take some liberties. His face remained impassive, so I figured I could have breakfast too. Perusing the menu would have been too much, so I ordered what he was having – an English breakfast.

 

Robert Gris was a man at the end of his forties with a regular look; nothing about him would lead one to think he made a living writing poetry. That might have been a common misconception; his was not a world I was familiar with. His Inauguration Day reading was an easy ice-breaker, and from there we started a conversation in which he soon began to mix Spanish and English. With every change of language his personality seemed to adjust too – in English he sounded effeminate, while his Spanish had a marked manly Cuban accent that better matched his physical features. Soon I was pulled into this mingled expression myself, a frenetic mix I assumed to be usual for an American Latino. Robert told me that he had been asked for three poems and, even though he had a predilection for one inspired by his mother, the poem that had been chosen was “To Tomorrow”. I knew the one he was talking about, I had read it on the screen of my mobile phone ten minutes ago while I waited, but I kept this to myself. To tell him what I wanted I waited until we were sitting in the back of the car.

—You know, Robert, I’ve been reading To Tomorrow and I really like it but… I was surprised by the fact that it doesn’t rhyme.

—Oh, it doesn’t have to rhyme. No one rhymes anymore.

It was when I heard these words that I got it.

The origin was where they all are, a woman. The first girl I ever loved and a recurrent fantasy: picture that just by laying my hand over your forehead, you could receive what I am thinking in this moment, it would get into your brain and you could see it just like I see it, removing all the obstacles, no words needed. How beautiful it would be to share thoughts. Until one day I sat down and wrote in one breath a text containing twenty-seven lines in four paragraphs. When I was done, I went through it a couple times, not knowing what it was but satisfied with it – it depicted what I wanted to say in a beautiful way. I shared it with some of my closest friends, they liked it, but none of them said anything that would help me understand it better. I also sent the text to her, but she never read it. Later I was ashamed I had done it.

In those days I was studying journalism, so I turned to a professor of mine. One of the classes I was attending was called Narrative Writing and was taught by Francisco Pérez-Niebla, an academic who had a brilliant ability to distill information into a lead by drawing clear and rational lines, creator of a communication models theory that bore his name. In this class the students got together once a week for two hours to write an opinion column, which we submitted to Pérez-Niebla on our way out. Then he would review our work at home and bring it back the following class, all the while trying not to lose faith in the future of the profession.

One day at the end of class, I approached and as I handed my weekly column to him, I asked

—Hi Francisco, I’d like to ask you something. The other day I wrote a text and… I don’t really know what it is. It would mean a lot to me if you could read it and… give me your opinion.

—Sure,

he answered straightaway,

bring it to me with your next exercise.

So I did, one week later.

—Great, I’ll give it a look.

—Thank you, Francisco.

A week went by. I was anxious to know his thoughts, so as Pérez-Niebla walked past my desk, between the students with their heads down staring at their screens, I couldn’t help but ask

—Hello Franciso, have you had time to take a look at the text I sent you?

—Yes, I read it. We’ll talk later,

he replied vaguely.

At the end of the class I went over to hand in that day’s article. I didn’t have to ask again

—I’ve been reading your text,

he paused,

and I didn’t understand a word.

He raised his eyebrows slightly.

These kinds of texts aren’t my thing,

he continued after another pause,

but I didn’t get a word.

—Not a word?

—Not a word.

he repeated.

Look

he went on,

the other group is taught by another professor, José Mari, who is very interested in poetry.

I had seen him – a guy who used to wear a foulard around his neck. In my university that made him a transgressor.

if you agree, what we could do is I send him your text, and then let’s see what he says.

I replied yes straightaway and thanked him again.

But afterwards I felt pensive. A part of me expected him to tell me that my text was great, very original, that it reminded him of such and such, which would’ve been nice. Another expected him not to like it at all, which wouldn’t have been nice. But to land in that intermediate area was unexpected and much worse. He didn’t get a word, he said. I thought it was pretty obvious, but I wasn’t going to spell out the details of my relationship with my girlfriend for him. Anyways, Francisco Pérez-Niebla had been very kind. Maybe he was curious to know more. Although he didn’t like my style very much—he had never given me good grades—I had the feeling there was something he found interesting in my work. One day in class, Pérez-Niebla raised an example of an article that had finished in what he viewed to be a confusing way: “the tail moves the dog”. I raised my hand to say I liked it very much.

—You like it because you write similar things

he replied. He did it without a bad intention and, besides, he was right: I took it as a compliment. I still think it is a brilliant ending.

It was Thursday again.

Francisco Pérez-Niebla wore his usual serious expression when, as always, I came over at the end of the class with my article.

—What did the other professor say?

This time he was even more straightforward

—He didn’t understand a word either.

Silence.

 

If you have time, wait there for me and when the rest of your classmates finish we can go through it together

he signaled.

When everyone was gone he took out a sheet on which my text was printed. It had a different title then, but the first line remains unmodified even now. He read it out loud, slowly, stressing every single one of the four words.

Language: freedom or jail.

He read it once again and then underlined it

—Do you mean…

 

and he offered an interpretation which had nothing to do with what I wanted to say.

—Mmm…

I hesitated.

Not really…

I didn’t want to be categorical with someone much wiser than me who, besides, was doing me a favor.

It was more like…

I tried to explain myself to the best of my abilities. It sounded ridiculous.

He scrutinized me in silence.

—Do you often write this kind of thing?

—Only now and then…

—And what makes you do it?

He was asking like he was worried about me, the same way a psychiatrist might have done.

—Well, I don’t really know… Sometimes I have an idea and I try to express it the best I can and something like this comes out… I don’t do it often. Actually I could say this is the first time…. But I like the outcome.

 

The conversation didn’t go on for long. I didn’t mention the topic again, not with López-Niebla nor with anyone else. The text was stored in one of the digital files inside my computer, forgotten, until Robert Gris said, like he was answering the most obvious of questions

—Oh, it doesn’t have to rhyme. No one rhymes anymore.

It was when I heard these words that I got it – I had written a poem.

It was titled

 

 

INTO WORDS

 

Language:

freedom

or jail.

 

Words are our dictatorship.

Our throne is chiseled by words,

a powerful gift

Inherited from our parents

and denied to individuality

because a term is a melody

only when shared.

 

But language also oppresses,

imprisons thoughts

in jails with limited bars,

transforms ethereal and unattainable creatures

into incessant codes

repeated ad nauseam (to the point of nausea).

The creation of a race as a whole reduced

to a combination of twenty seven letters.

 

More crime than expression,

ideas screech, convulse,

agonize,

forced to fit inside an artificial shell

that amputates them, that separates them for their essence,

that makes them cry.

 

An unexplored land, virginal, exuberant.

We face the sadness that is produced

by the vision of its closed gates.

And this way, confused,

we know not if we’re in search of darkness from the light

or if it is the other way around.

Because

who knows what’s there

a stream of water, a mirage, the horizon.

 

My idea has already been lost

on its way to the paper.

How beautiful it would be to share thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

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