Consuegra is a town in Castilla-La Mancha, Spain, with a population of about 10,000. Families dress up to eat out in the evenings. The children look like Victorian miniatures and they incongruously tuck into mountainous platefuls of chicken portions and chips. The church is a dominating feature. Shops close on Sundays and a market opens up by the river selling cheap shoes and serviceable clothes. The streets are quiet and do a lot of sloping, an inconvenience to the several crippled or half-crippled women, conveyed by relatives or struggling along with walking sticks. They’ve obviously never considered thirty sit-ups a day or put power and walk in the same thought. This is not a self-conscious community, except in terms of social cohesion. I sit in a bright, hospitable café beside the Estación de Autobuses, the only place open during the siesta, and watch a spill of awkwardly-mobile tourists go labouring up the hill to see the restored windmills in honour of Miguel de Cervantes. (They don’t do sit-ups either. They don’t carry mirrors.) They come back looking somewhat satisfied, if only to be getting back on the coach. I like this town, despite its inwardness, or because of it. It’s its own self. Children play in the mule-eyed streets; their laughter rides on the night air from houses fortified with door curtains and finely-wrought window grids.
The family-friendly bar-cum-restaurant has a casual library of about a hundred books. I decide to learn some Spanish by trying to translate one of Antonio Machado’s poems. I take the first one in the book: “Retrato” (“Portrait”). The text is online here. I like the way “Retrato” sounds like “retract.” A portrait is a revision. Frozen in time, its purpose is the present. The words “retrato” and “portrait” are cognate, both deriving from Latin trahere to draw, pull, drag. Jill Savitt, a teacher of language arts at Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, writes:
“Sacar” means “take.” “Tirar” means “pull” when on a door, and “throw away” in this phrase: Los humanos están tirando todos los recursos del planeta. (Humans are squandering the planet's resources.) So, the thrust can be away or towards, but force is implied at any rate. What force is needed to describe or portray oneself—to pull oneself out or throw oneself out? Many portraits use symbolic objects or settings to imply aspects of character or status. Even the denuding Lucien Freud does this at times, for example in his portrait of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza.(2)
As a teacher, I am perhaps more sensitive, better equipped to understand when a Spanish-speaking child from Puerto Rico says, “We threw pictures at the party,” because I know that in Puerto Rico, the active verb for snapping or taking a picture is “tirar,” which literally means “to throw.” Looking up the idiom “to take a picture” in a Spanish dictionary might confuse the neophyte, for the idiom changes from one Spanish-speaking country to another. Thus, “sacar una foto” and “tirar un retrato” mean the same in English, are understandable to all Spanish speakers, but may remain awkward to some.(1)
In “Retrato,” Machado remembers a lemon orchard in his childhood: “un huerto claro donde madura el limonero”. I translate this as “a luminous orchard where the lemon tree matured”. I generally associate orchards with apples, so I’m surprised into imagining what it would be like to grow up in the company of this rebellious acid fruit and its secretive curative properties, its hard health.
The musical interpretration of “Retrato” by singers Joan Manuel Serrat and Alberto Cortez renders it a bit like Sinatra’s “My Way,” but it has much greater philosophical reach, concealed by its abab rhyme scheme. Outward rebelliousness finds a deeper register in what is presented as its inner opposite:
Hay en mis venas gotas de sangre jacobina,
pero mi verso brota de manantial sereno;
(Note the mirrored syntax.)
I translate these lines thus:
The “serene spring” subverts fashion and craft. The speaker dislikes “las romanzas de los tenores huecos” (the ballads of hollow tenors, possibly those above), implying also their resonance and effeteness. He aims neither to be classical nor romantic. Let his verse decide what he is.
My veins bear the buds of Jacobin blood,
but my verse sprouts from a serene spring;
¿Soy clásico o romántico? No sé. Dejar quisiera
mi verso, como deja el capitán su espada:
famosa por la mano viril que la blandiera,
no por el docto oficio del forjador preciada.
The self, not the instrument. But the self is dual. Self-driven means driven by an inner conversation that poses as soliloquy. Eventually this leads to “God.”
Am I classical or romantic? I don’t know. I’d like
to leave my verse as a captain his sword:
famed for the virile hand that brandished it,
not for the skilled work of the prized craftsman.
Converso con el hombre que siempre va conmigo
-quien habla solo espera hablar a Dios un día-;
mi soliloquio es plática con ese buen amigo
que me enseñó el secreto de la filantropía.
“God” becomes the sea, which the poet will finally enter, on a ship that will not return. He travels light, “almost naked.”
I talk with the man who is always with me
-whoever talks to himself hopes to talk with God some day-;
my soliloquy is a conversation with this good friend
who shows me the secret of philanthropy.
me encontraréis a bordo ligero de equipaje,
casi desnudo, como los hijos de la mar.
Why are the sea’s children “almost” naked? Do they wear their faces? Their skin? Their resistance? When are we wholly revealed?
You will find me on board, lightly laden,
almost naked, like children of the sea.
During ten days in Spain, I was pinpointed about a hundred times, whenever I accessed the Internet, downloaded an app, entered a museum, Metro or bus station. My profile has been drawn and redrawn, facelessly. The Internet claims to know me, and the horror is that this might have some degree of fact. Individuality in the sense of indivisibility is an untruth. We’re infinitely divisible, a collection of behavioural and structural modes. The portrait isn’t necessarily about the face at all. The face is the cover. Its best use may be to put others off the scent.
In 2014, National Geographic set a self-portrait assignment, and the submissions generally focused less on the face than on context and demeanour.(3) A subsequent assignment was to submit a faceless portrait. Here, it’s what extends from the person that reveals.(4) To catch someone in a characteristic mode is probably the best that can be done before the illusion of a single identity dissolves.
Machado’s children of the sea are not totally naked because the sea clothes them. Whether the sea pushes or pulls is of no consequence because everything contains everything else, and there’s only one, unhuman face. The self is two; the two is many; the many is one. The sea, or as it seems to be, the collective life-force, is a keeper of personal data, choicelessly, for no apprehendable reason. Maybe it’s the closest there is to a true picture.
You were down here once, among me.
Droves of waves roamed overhead
and missed you.
Such a pity, your particularity unshared.
Thankfully, the light eked in and speared you.
You opened up like the crown gems.
you rose to the top, met the brass.
Total upgrade. Hi!
The wise operator in the modern world
carries her chisel everywhere.
As for the hammer—Here, Boss.
Myrna delights in her smile. Honestly,
where can you go with an unfurled mouth?
The terms of engagement are clarity itself.
Interesting slants are for the private eye.
The writer who closes his eyes to think
is definitely a no-return-o.
No one gets to Myrna’s fest without
a perfect video of interaction.
She means, the programme must be got with.
Quirky natural may be kinda cool, but reality is,
the public eye wants no vitreous floaters
in its projected limpid pool.(5)
(1) Jill Savitt. Poems and Translation (from Spanish to English)
(2) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza (Madrid)
(3) National Geographic: Self-Portrait
(4) National Geographic: The Faceless Portrait
(5) Máighréad Medbh. From a work in progress.