AYSEN, LETTER OF THE NEW SEA
The following are fragments of Aysen, Letter of the New Sea, originally published in 1988, and the only one of Ignacio Balcells’s books translated into English so far.
Port of Chacabuco, at the end of August of 1987
…..Even though I left the ship yesterday, the table on which I am writting, the chair on which I am sitting and the room in the guest house where I am staying still sway softly as if rocked by the ocean. This earth-sickness, these last oscillations of the sea which pass through my body further lengthening their own lives, disturb the firm land around me. And so, half tipsy after so many days of riding the waves, I will begin to write the letter of the new sea that I promised you some months ago. My prose may begin to oscillate just as I feel I am doing and, so, you, in reading this letter, may not only receive tidings of these immense waters, but also, through the rhythm of the language used, will feel that you are sailing them. What more could a poet desire?
…..I do not wish, however, to hide the difficulty of my task from you. To paraphrase Bolivar, to sing to the sea in Spanish is to plow it. Yes: for a long time, for centuries, the Spanish language and its poets have favored the earth while denying the sea. And they have done this splendidly. An example may be found in a 16th Century song by Gil Polo, which I considerer to be my intimate enemy because of the very beauty with which it describes the earth. The following selected verses are inviting:
“Come to the sweet grove
where Nature was no miser:
where in a lively feast
the warmest nap
is slept with delight.
Escape the arrogant seas;
come here, you will discover
how we sing
such pleasurable songs
that the hardest pains
we suspend and deceive.”
…..As a consequence of the almost uninterrupted dedication of poets to the land, a poet of the Spanish language can barely lay claims to a poetical maritime heritage. Today’s poet, when attempting to open his hearer’s ears to the waves, cannot even rely on the Spanish lexicon because, as it has been confined, it has become jargon. It is not that Spanish lacks the vocabulary appropriate to name things of the sea: it suffices to open sailors’ binnacles to find thousands of terms and names which, if one tries to understand them, are revelations of the novelty, distinction and abundance of maritime Spanish. Were you aware, for example, that the process of the lowering of tides and uncovering of the land was called “the removal of the flesh“? Or that the floating line was known as “water glow“? Or that the reefs below the surface were the “eye-openers“? Or that, when a ship approached the shore, the sea became “a lead-line color“? Or that a ship, instead of anchoring, “springs up“? Or that the wind was called “time”, “contrary time“, “favorable time“? Or that “gyration” was intended to mean course, direction? Or that a peaceful sea was called “conceited” sea? Peculiar but special richness!
…..Neither has our language borrowed maritime knowledge from others: in 1943, at the Sea Book Fair in Barcelona, a naval captain presented a scholarly study which, with unconcealed pride, he named Europe learned to navigate through Spanish books. Europe, no less! Yes, we do have our own maritime tradition, and it is a major one. However, poetry has abandoned the sea. How might the immense depository of letters, binnacles, routes, treaties, arts, sailing instructions, etc., cease to be mere technical accounts and become live nourishment for a new poetic Spanish maritime fantasy? Because it is fantasy that we are talking about. Without fantasy, what is the sea in Spanish?: an abyss or a wall, or, more pragmatically, a mine or a road. As fantasy, what has the sea become, say, in English? It is enough to read The Ballad of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge or Melville’s Moby Dick to discover that, in those floating cloisters, the British and American freed themselves to sail through their pages, to contemplate the world and men’s relationships with Nature and God in such a fruitful and novel way that I do not hesitate to state that core notions of the soul, those: of our Earth, those of the frailty of life or even those of a missing God were announced in each of those two great songs. All this, without mentioning the extent to which the histories of England and the United States or the lifestyles of their peoples have been influenced by these literary works. What does the Spanish literary tradition have that resembles this?
…..Now, as no language can live without a sea, that is, without self-imposing limits, (Homer names the sea “sterile“, i.e. “limiting“) our language has not lacked its own sea either. But the sea of the Spanish language has not been the Mediterranean, nor the Atlantic, nor any sea of water, but, through the genius of Cervantes, a firm, extending sea: La Mancha. The Spanish language, since Don Quijote, has been limited by La Mancha; and La Mancha —I sustain— is the quintessence of America (which was discovered a century before El Quijote was written). America fell onto Europe’s millenary mind’s ground as a drop with a new color, blotting and altering it to such a degree that Don Quijote was able to reach out to rediscover the world in the same fields, valleys and mountains where he had already lived a long time and where all his ancestors had long been buried.
…..From the time of Don Quijote, the epical poetic vocation in Spanish has been to recognize the sea as a stain (mancha). And, just as the magnitude of a stain on a gown depends on whether or not it shows and its size, our relationship with the land (especially the American land) has been to distinguish it from others and to determine its extension. This is why I believe we are obsessed to such a degree with our own identity and are confused by our proportions to the extent of sometimes lending ourselves to caricature. (Furthermore, because we are dealing with a stain, its origin is deemed accidental, which further instills an indefinable sense of guilt).
…..Thus, from the point of view of maritime fantasy, one cannot state that Spanish is a poor language, but rather one that misjudge the sea and attributed its qualities to the earth, thus creating a hybrid, amphibious fantasy. Has the time arrived in our language to separate these waters? I find myself working earnestly in this direction and, because I reside in Chile, a land where the Spanish language comes to be a language without land, I feel a deeper urge for the sea. I press forward so that this shore may become its song!
…..Nevertheless, my haste doesn’t blind me. In order to make the sea ours, we need to do more than to simply embark upon it; it is not sufficient to unfold its speech; nor is it enough to be impelled by its vigor; nor is it enough to be oriented by its signs; nor is it enough for us to reach its limits. We can do all this, and more, but if Spanish, our language, does not cease to be the Captain Araya of languages, (i.e. he who puts everybody aboard and then remains on the shore) poems and fantasies will continue to be those of the inner land. However, if by means of a miracle as well as patience, the Spanish language may harken to the call of the sea and begin to advance over the waters and towards it, and realizes that all of its earthly corpulence suspended from this voice is no heavier than the air poets then will be able to sing to the roses, the mountains, the rivers, the cities and hence will then be singing a song to the sea. Of this miracle which would change our language, only half corresponds to us, and that is hope. Solicitous wait! Navigations of expectation, poems of expectation, studies of expectation, works of expectation, pleasures of expectation, griefs of expectation, successes and errors of expectation. And then, one fine day (maybe today, why not?), as dawn appears through the window and the room receives the kingdom of the outside world, so will Chile glimpse the sea sweetly appearing on the dark glass of its coast. We will then dim our lamps as a light unknown to us will make them unnecessary. Enlightened by the sea, we will not recognize ourselves or the land we live in. And, rising, we will see its day and our own extend.
Aysen, Letter of the New Sea, pp. 11 – 17