“Alive with Secret Words”: Mexico in My Heart by Willis Barnstone

Jordi Alonso

Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 2015. 400 pages. $23.99.

In his most recent book, Mexico in My Heart, Willis Barnstone joins the tradition of wandering poets established by Tristan Tzara, H.D. Constantine Cavafy, and Ezra Pound. His exceptional craft is most evident in the poems inspired by his travels, rooted in physical space as they explore a number of decades, languages, and poetic traditions.

Reading this book, we are thrust into a multilingual, multicultural world from the first poem to the last. “Unseen ancestors” populate each page, and yet we need not speak the languages Barnstone does—among them English, Spanish, Greek, Latin, and French—or feel conversant in those literary traditions, to feel a sense of belonging between his covers. Being a consummate classicist, he epitomizes the concept of xenía, or stranger-friendship, prevalent in the Hellenic culture in which he is so steeped. In “Με περιμένει το ταχί” (“The Taxi Waits for Me”) we the readers are a spectral presence looking at Barnstone’s poetic “I,” reflecting on his last few minutes in Athens as a taxi waits for him while he holds “the moon in my pocket / and in my ear the sea.” Its short refrains, making up the bulk of the poem and redefining “the world” as “a napkin” and “lovers” as “two eggs” call to the mind’s ear “The Maid of Athens,” a poem by another Anglophone xenos who wrote poetry and made Greece his home for a time: Lord Byron.

While Byron’s poem is melodramatic as only one of his poems can be, his refrain, a variation of “Hear my vow before I go, / Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ”[1] offers a glimpse at the tradition with which Barnstone may be experimenting when he writes in Greek first and then translates himself into his native language. This act of auto-translation will be familiar to readers who have dipped into his books, Café de L’Aube and Moonbook and Sunbook (portions of which are reprinted in the present volume). For all his polyglot erudition and technical prowess, Barnstone remains a curious and a playful poet, wielding his languages like building blocks in the game of poetry. This playfulness gives us lines in the English version of “The Taxi Waits for Me” like “The sun is an onion / stinking of bitter dream. / Again I leave for far. / The taxi waits for me” that sound just foreign enough in non-poetic speech to arouse our curiosity but are still completely intelligible within the world created by the poem. Aside from heightening the surreal mood of the poem, this “foreignness” is a subtle nod to the constraints of translation; Greek lacks indefinite articles, which makes “stinking of bitter dream” a more faithful translation than if he had written “stinking of a bitter dream.” That small detail, an invisible “a” here and there, marks the speaker of the poem (and the poet by extension) as a knowledgeable voice, even though he may be “the only xenos in / the village.”

As the only foreigner, he stands apart from the masses, and, if prose is the lingua franca of the everyday world, a poet and his readers are even further made xenoi—a fact which Barnstone acknowledges in the first poem of his collection of sonnets The Secret Reader. Here, the speaker of the poem, a poet himself, tells us: “I write my unread book for you” and, a few lines later, qualifies it as “just this apocryphon which I forgot /  for you the secret friend. You are like me: / one soul fleshed out for ecstasy and night.” Poets are known to exaggerate here and there—nobody has ever heard of a “prosaic license,” after all—but this talk of secret friends, foreigners, extensive travel, and the speaker’s suggestion that “we are alone, / Alive with secret words, then blackly free” could lead us to believe that “The Secret Reader” is the lynchpin of Mexico in My Heart. It is during this sonnet that we learn our guide is no mere traveling poet, but one familiar with the secret power of poetry. Like a Roman vates or priest of the Orphic Mysteries, our modern-day seer-poet has chosen us, the readers of this volume, as his acolytes who, finding this book “in a box / or cave or dead man’s pocket or the inn,” have read it and in so doing come into the inner circle of poets where it’s not only acceptable but encouraged to commune with great literary figures.

 
Note
[1] Translated by Byron himself as “My life, I love thee.”

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