Poet Francisco Aragón is the American-born son of a Nicaraguan mother and calls English his “principal language.” Though he grew up speaking Spanish at home, he could neither read nor write it until he was an adult, and so Spanish is in some sense both a first and second language for him. The decade he spent living in Spain—where the language differs significantly from its Latin American forms—deepened Aragón’s complex relationship with his two native tongues, and that relationship is a principal theme of Puerta del Sol.
Every poem but one is presented in both English and Spanish, translated by Aragón himself and printed in the classic mirror fashion, with the different versions placed directly opposite one another. The sole exception, “Veo Lo Que Dices When You Write,” employs both languages to evoke an epiphany of bilingualism:
For I recall the first morning, waking
Beside the sound of his breathing,
Sitting up & thinking, What time is it?
But uttering with surprise & wonder
When he opens his eyes, “¿Que hora es?”
The poem conveys the pleasure of owning a language so completely it begins to come alive within you. With language, there’s always more at stake than simple mastery of words. It’s is a fundamental part of our connection to other people, made clear when the speaker’s effortless use of Spanish inspires a kiss from his lover. The kiss is an acknowledgment that the speaker has crossed a divide, not just in communication but also in understanding.
Language doesn’t simply express our thoughts; it actually shapes them on a very deep level. It’s largely through language that we make sense of our experiences. To grasp the language of another person is to gain some ability to see the world as he does, and the same holds true on the broader cultural level. It’s no accident that we speak of crossing a language “barrier.” There’s something liberating, even subversive, about being able to shift readily between languages. It makes you a kind of cultural switch-hitter who can transcend tribal category. That’s one reason scholars and writers such as Aragón promote bilingual literature as an important artistic territory. It may also be the reason bilingualism makes a lot of Americans so nervous.
The shift in perception that accompanies a change of language shapes our interior lives, too. For Aragón, the very sound of Spanish has a particular magic, putting him in touch with unique emotions and sensations. “Poem” celebrates a Catalonian man’s accent, “his tongue / a loom / weaving / with intricate pride” the name of his homeland. In “What Else Will I Recall,” an outburst overheard on his first arrival in Madrid stirs feelings he barely understands: “[S]omething in me fluttered / hearing those vowels, as if I started / to understand, as if those rhythms / carried, even then, the message / I’d take years to unravel.” The message isn’t specified, but Aragón’s visceral response to the man’s speech suggests that encountering a different language can provide us with a new understanding of ourselves.
Aragón’s fascination with language is inseparable from his attachment to places, particularly to Spain. The Puerta del Sol for which the book is named is a plaza in the heart of Madrid. A national landmark, it’s a destination for tourists, protesters and New Year’s Eve revelers. It’s also a place of departure, marking the starting point for Spain’s major highways. Puerta del Sol shares something of that dual character. Whether the locale is Alaska, a Berkeley café or a “filthy city beach” in Barcelona, nearly all of Puerta del Sol’s poems have a strongly rooted sense of place. At the same time, there’s a powerful sense throughout the collection of life spent in transit. Many of the poems are built around Aragón’s travels, ranging from transatlantic journeys to subway rides.
The twin themes of rootedness and restlessness are brought together in “The Bus Driver,” when a prosaic cross-town route is transformed in the driver’s mind to a literal fantastic voyage, “finally docking at the end / of the line—Puerta del Sol / bereft of fountains, / newsstands, rent boys, / the plaza now a port.”
“All Saint’s Day,” perhaps the most impressive poem in the collection, is an imaginary tour of notable tragedies, told in 29 tumbling stanzas. The death of River Phoenix, who “slips and falls, rolling / off the planet“ in Malibu, begins a journey that goes on to Federico Fellini’s deathbed in Italy and a kidnapping in the Basque country of northern Spain, finally ending with a terrorist assassination in Madrid. These unconnected events are tied together by recurring elements in each scene—a warm wind, a coat, a lamppost—but what gives the poem its cohesiveness is, paradoxically, the broad distances in its narrative. Aragón suggests that isolated suffering and death are best understood in the grand context of our shared passage on this ever-turning planet.Puerta del Sol contains a mere 28 original poems plus their translations, yet it feels like a very substantial collection. Aragón touches on a wide range of topics, from deeply personal experiences of love and mourning to observations of a chaotic, violent world. Lovers of lyricism may find that the poems lack rhythmic appeal. For the most part, their strength lies more in imagery than form, but bilingual readers can take pleasure in the dialogue between the translations, in which, Aragón says, he “felt no inclination to remain wholly faithful to the English.” The monolingual readership will have to make do with Aragón’s remarkable ability to evoke the rich experience of moving between languages, places and cultures.
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