Two Or More Ghosts


Photograph by Damien du Toit

by Marcelo Cohen. Translated by Jessica Sequeira.

There’s a poem by A.R. Ammons in which he talks about lost lives, not abstract lives, but those belonging to a specific individual. The poem was written in 1981 and is called “Easter Morning”; it begins like this:

I have a life that did not become,
that turned aside and stopped,
I hold it in me like a pregnancy or
as on my lap a child
not to grow old but dwell on

it is to his grave I most
frequently return and return
to ask what is wrong, what was
wrong, to see it all by
the light of a different necessity
but the grave will not heal
and the child,
stirring, must share my grave
with me, an old man having
gotten by on what was left […]

Over the course of a hundred verses, the meditation continues, not always in such a melancholy tone, as the poet walks through the countryside, visits old relatives and acquaintances from his hometown — people who could be real or imaginary — looks at the landscape, and speculates about the boy who never came to be, as if in the poem he were seeking calm after some terrible chance bifurcation of his life path.

Archie Randolph Ammons (1926-2001) was one of the last great North American poets of nature; he embodied his longing for contact in a fluid, shifting form based on careful description, suffused with reverence for mystery as well as scientific designation. Rather than calm he preferred to write stability; rather than restlessnessdisorder; and rather than spiritcomplex mechanism. He was a poet of immanence: for him mystery lay with the idea that the world contains everything within itself, even the possibility of knowing it. That is why it is not strange to find a poem like this one amongst his work, though he rarely wrote in such an intimate tone. It speaks of the way the unfinished persists, and of the continuity of the seemingly interrupted. The poem possesses such hallucinatory clarity that occasionally it appears as if Ammons were invoking a dead twin, but no: he’s speaking of the unforeseen meeting with the foreigner we all carry within, the resurrected body of some of our eliminated possibilities.

I translated his work into Spanish in 1995, with a month to go before returning to live in Argentina again after twenty years in Spain, or to be precise, the Catalan state. And so I associated the Ammons poem with “The Jolly Corner”, a story by Henry James in which a man who has lived for thirty years in Europe returns to his native New York, which has changed and is beginning to fill with skyscrapers. Spencer Brydon, now in his fifties, comes back to the three-storey house that he inherited. Since this is the same house in which he grew up, he is overwhelmed with unresolved questions about the fate of the boy he once was. Brydon begins to visit the house regularly at night, a practice which almost becomes a vice: he wanders alone for hours through its deserted rooms, until at last, lying in wait, he feels a presence, and the presence reveals itself to him. The figure Brydon sees and James defines with a couple of strokes (he wears a top hat; the hand with which he covers his face is missing two fingers) shakes him up so much that he faints. The next morning he awakens at the foot of the staircase, in the arms of his female best friend, in a stupor of horrified pity and recognition.

Adapting the story to my case, I interpreted the ghost in the James story and the unrealized life in the Ammons poem as symbolizing the same thing: namely, the importance of chance. All that’s necessary is to consent slightly less than unquestioningly to the independent course of facts, showing a slight reluctance to the natural material form taken by events, for each unseen turn to intensify the obstinate struggle between plans and life. To maintain a strategy is exhausting, and in the long run possibly damaging. But if one accepts that fatigue, and can sit down and look at the past, it’s possible to clarify to a certain degree what has been left behind or given up at each juncture. In my case, I needed a broad vision about decision and spontaneity.

Around a year and a half before, during a visit to Buenos Aires, a writer I didn’t know had offered to interview me. A few days later, the afternoon of the meeting, I opened the door of the house where I was staying, and there she was. That is to say: there She was. Let’s skip the year and a half of deliberations, urgent meetings, and drawings-up of accounts. The accounts were very divided; in the Argentina stained by the dictatorship of 1976-1983 there was now a fledgling democracy, but I also had a complete history and pleasant daily life in Barcelona, one out of many possible complete and pleasant lives one can lead. The question of where I wanted to grow old could not be silenced; it was an unending back-and-forth. But if we’re on the subject of spontaneity, the best way to understand it is as a question of the heart. In the end, there was no decision to make. Neither fate nor reasoned causation had to do with it: as always, it was chance that played the most important part, and in this case sent me back.

But now, on the brink of return, absorbed in Ammons and James, I wondered who I would have been if twenty years before I hadn’t left my city, if indeed there was some city that was mine. I remain convinced that this is not a trivial question, or a redundant one. It’s useful: it complicates the story one tells about oneself. In the last few decades, talking about a story has become increasingly practical for a number of disciplines, from philosophy, anthropology and psychology to political science and journalism, even television. There’s a widespread agreement that humans see or live their experiences as one or another kind of narration, that we’re naturally novelists of ourselves, and that to be able to narrate oneself with richness it’s essential to have a full and sincere personality and lead a good life.

The absence of a personal story would indicate a tendency to psychosis or immorality. At the same time, some philosophers like Galen Strawson argue with detailed reasons that these theses are false. According to Strawson, not only is it untrue that there is only one correct way to experience being in time — there’s the Proust way, and the Joyce way, and the Pessoa way, to take only famous examples — but obliging oneself to be a unit capable of being narrated can close off paths of thought, impoverish one ethically, and kill off what doesn’t fit the model. There are diachronic subjects, who consider their essence to be a fundamental substance that was there in the past and will continue to be there in the future, and episodic subjects, who don’t conceive of themselves as a continuous present. Strawson says that if there is in fact a self in each individual, it is a “synergy of neural activity”, in such a way that the hypothetic subject of experience is the changeable product of a cerebral material always in process, an indefinite agglomeration of passing selves inscribed in networks of cells. With this material one can set up one story, or several, or an endless puzzle. In my view, given the state of linguistic atomization that affects the world, the adhesion of personal stories to the hackneyed inventory of mass culture, and the incapacity to express nuance due to the the average speaker’s syntactic sclerosis, I believe we need an art of detailed argumentation. We need arguments, provided that they dispense with the old pattern of introduction, body and conclusion and the conditioning demand of tension and growth to which the global public is habituated. Such a conditioning transforms the cult of identity into one of the identity of roots, a highly efficient producer of identical subjects.

This being the case, wondering who I would have been had I not left a place is so absurd as to upset an ordered narrative. But that absurdity tempted me. For years I’d exercised disinterest in the past because the past had no use for life, which is in reality a strobe-light succession of presents. It hadn’t been hard to further conclude that exile, with its complex of guilt, resentment and pain was a false problem created by words. I’d chewed over my Bataille: sovereign is he who knows that in the vast flow of things, he is only a single point given to reemergence, one that doesn’t make itself a project. I’d been able to depersonalize myself, and it made me happy to feel like the precipitate of what many others deposited in me. But it’s also true that for all it relieved me to have Spanish identity papers, I’d never stopped referring to myself as an Argentine: I continued to be from a country. And truth be told, if to return I had to prepare myself so much, I must not ultimately have been so very sovereign. Love filled me with recklessness and energy, but the real Argentina filled me with fear. In a previous visit to Buenos Aires, while getting a haircut, I’d heard some men evaluating the odds that President Menem, that short, crafty Latin man, had slept with the golden German model Claudia Schiffer. It occurred to me that such childish credulity fit well with the perversity that had devastated the country during the dictatorship and Malvinas war, which still made itself felt in the uses of the police, immunity of hundreds of assassins, and pleasure the country took in self-congratulation. And I thought that the glibness of Argentines, with their compulsion to embellish all pauses of a conversation with witticisms, was the reverse side of a panic at emptiness. Good: my young self had been skilled at erasing anything Argentine of that kind. For Macedonio Fernández the world was an inward-turning egoism [“almismo ayoico”]; I’d only glimpsed what Macedonio meant while living in another country, or maybe with the passage of time. Now I feared falling prey to the servitude of the continuity of a self with its past. And what if I couldn’t write anymore? What if I succumbed to a doctrinaire realism, mere arid imitation? For me literature was the most radical form of escapism, a transformation of the substitute reality in which we live into the possibility of contact with the real, and that’s why I wrote literature of the imagination; I began to take precautions, as much with promiscuity as with nostalgia. I wrote down all the stories that occurred to me; they took place in an invented world called the Panoramic Delta, which I proposed to explore from one tale to the next; a world made from the splinters and possibilities of our own, from which — this was the idea — our world could be seen better.

And despite everything, upon returning there came over me a sweet feeling of fulfillment, of consistency; the cessation of a hidden anxiety about fate, the silent vacillation about belonging to a place. A repose. Although the feeling was suspicious, it included a need to act in the polis, to join a society, that of my origin, with my mind refurbished. It’s true I immediately confirmed that my fears were well-founded. In Argentina there was no public society apart from spectacle and corporations, institutions and political organizations, and the indestructible family. The Argentine petit bourgeois bragged about not paying taxes; it diligently remodeled its house but ignored the sidewalk in front, and on other sidewalks let its dogs do their business. Argentine social discourse only accepted what was spoken from recognizable positions, and all positions, even those that were subversive or voiced by the many immigrant groups, formed a hermetic system of complementary oppositions: la argentinidad. Defining oneself was fashionable and necessary, and within the repertory of defined figures were to be found the colorful madmen, the eccentric geniuses, the skeptics and dissidents. Even my fears regarding them, however, paled next to those during my meetings with childhood friends and acquaintances, so different from my brief visits, because they spoke to the person they supposed I’d become, according to the logical development of the embryo they remembered. Those dear friends didn’t look at or listen to me; in fact, they managed not to even see me, so as not to meet with that false suggestion of the Spaniard, that man whose criticisms of the country seemed the observations of a tourist. Since they seemed to be speaking to someone, however, it was impossible not to ask to whom. Who would I have been had I not left? Let’s leave aside the possibility I could have been dead or “disappeared”. Those friends had survived, struggling to maintain their composure in the midst of illegal jobs, devastation, and political complacency, remaining entrenched in their convictions without revising them — even when single party socialism was already collapsing, another prisoner to ineptitude and barbarism — without reflecting on how to achieve a practical emancipated future, and without revisiting our eventual role in a battle we’d lost, perhaps because they were too broken and isolated. In them I saw one of those I would have been, a possibility made more bitter by the fact that they were generous, altruistic, and wished for a world that was more just if not more free, which they’d tried to introduce one more time despite the fact that a good number of Argentines had turned a blind eye to the massacre.

I didn’t reproach my native city because it had changed, but rather because it had remained the same. And I reread the poems by Ammons as an omen, since the man I would have been would have comfortably inhabited that city at a standstill, with its population — so anxious, irritable and authoritarian in its sympathies — given to a fundamentalism of roots, even by those most resistant to authority; a city of hot-headed personalities, godless priests and superstitious atheists, pegged to the mysticism of personal and national growth and the incessant march forward, and not at all attentive to its underlying racism; a city in whose culture the family was not only a refuge, a tangle of affection, attention and resentment, but also a convent, business venture, source of legend, origin of uncreative sentimentality, lending bank and overheated tribunal. I didn’t want to meet my past self again; I had a very poor opinion of him. So I began to distance myself from the old friendships that insisted on returning to it. The procedure became one of resistance; to combat vernacular myths, I forced myself to forget the tango lyrics I’d stockpiled during mornings listening to radio in my mother’s kitchen, memories of my childhood in Buenos Aires as a male son of the people. Instead I boldly kept up my friendships and work relationships with Spain, and in the end, after a period of hesitation and distrust, I forged bonds of friendship with people I’d met in trips abroad — that is to say, those who had met me in an advanced state of transition. With them the lack of focus was smaller. But only my wife spoke to my present selves; only she connected with my story, as I did with hers. I don’t know if this mini-phenomenology is right, but the push-pull between possession and submission can make lovers very nervous, until they truly surrender themselves. In the meantime, my wife and I studied one one another, and the open Argentine minds she brought me in contact with went about preparing a new version of me, one which as I’d foreseen was received in the polis with that degree of effusion and aversion only awakened in the community where one grew up.

“Put two individuals in relation with the cosmos and they’ll truly connect with one another,” said Robert Creeley. Though I’d tried to begin in detachment, I grew bitter that the strident bipolarities of politics, the pressing tensions of love, and the contributions and inquisitions of new acquaintances had led me astray. As a man of letters, it didn’t escape me that interference came via the viral character of language, that great tool of systematic control and false communication. Argentina is a country of fierce dialectal monolinguism, proud of its eloquence, syntactic eccentricities, inventive lexicon, and rapid and good-natured prosody. On this much has been written, and it’s true that the language is rich in peculiarities; absorbed by spectacle, however, it’s drifted toward a gleaming and squalid variety as its model, an affected and hegemonic mass of technical terms referred to as Argentine expression, a toasty verbal greenhouse of immediate recognition in which despite any differences in speakers’ opinions, all buds end up developing as plants of the same species. Since I know that someone who says the same thing as everyone else can’t think with nuances, to the point he ends up not experiencing them — and even less so if he ignores the use of subordinate clauses — I got worked up over the question. To top it off, my rebellious relics from Spanish often provoked irritated sarcasm. I said vale instead of bueno or está bien, and calabacín instead of zapallito; sometimes an inappropriate tone escaped me. “And what language does this guy think he’s speaking?” I heard the murmur of that implied question directed at those returning from many different exiles. In a foreigner, such slips are delightful; in an Argentine, they’re vanity or high treason. It tripped me up at first to be marked, but in the end such differences are the sort of distinction the immigrant clings to. They became a declaration that my twenty years in Spain hadn’t been a mere parenthesis of exile, but a life full of irrevocable alterations. And it was in that mood that I wrote. My most political plan consisted of contaminating Argentine expression with various impertinences, both local and taken from the central trunk of Spanish, boring into it in order to expose its empty depths and infuse it with a new mixture. This is the fantasy, it’s obvious, of someone who detests his language as much as he adores it. I was reflecting on this desire when I suddenly understood that to the ghost of what I’d have been had I not left Buenos Aires, had been added the ghost of what I could have been had I stayed in Spain.

This was promising; an interesting complication of the cliché.

The union of those two probabilities, to which others were no doubt added briefly before being abandoned, shaped the foreigner within me, that foreigner who wrote: an evolution of the implicit foreigner always present when one sits down to write. At the same time, I also discovered an error. In Spain, through the epic genre of comparisons typical of an exile, I’d been able to protect my vernacular murmur from the encrustations of the imperial tongue; luckily, however, I’d ended up contaminating myself, and through that contamination had found the modicum of authenticity that each piece of writing can contain. I wasn’t now going to protect myself from the contagion of Argentine expression, was I? An immediate corollary of detachment is the comprehension that things and beings emerge into reality together; we are knots inseparable from a weaving that is always maintained and renewed by relationships. And so I began to see that if language is a virus, it is also the medium of the relationship; and that perhaps the constant work of building relationships is the exit from the general system of techno-financial control. Only by opening myself to others’ additions and subtractions to language could I avoid enclosing myself in a story impermeable to ghosts. Even the masters of mysticism remind their followers that the desire for self-conservation is imprudent and inadvisable. “If all touch irritates you, / how are you going to clean your mirror?,” asks a poem by Rumi.

I had to silence the conscience police while simultaneously applying discerning judgment: something that could well define a poetics. A major Yes and minor No, or the opposite. Not only to destabilize the typical Argentine and persistent Spaniard within me, challenge hierarchies and expert opinions, and encourage the ever-active transformations in any symbolic system — not only to prepare the field and set it trembling — but also to defy the narrative sequences which paper over ruptures and discontinuities of the facts, chaining life to a certain logic and so often hiding with reasonable continuity the depths of a delirious history. An associative thought was necessary to match the rhythm of relationships.

It seemed to me that literature had the power not so much to influence the real, for better or worse, as to do things with the world. And the ability and effort required for independence, and for that knowledge inseparable from benevolence, seemed to arise from given conditions. Everything begins with assent. Don’t harbor false illusions, the Buddha told his disciples: nirvana, that state of the cessation of anxiety, is the samsara, the wheel of reincarnations, meaning this world. And the samsara, this world, is nirvana. I needed a few reincarnations to understand that. For a long time what I needed was friction.

Friction converted daily life in Buenos Aires into a generator of hypothetical lives. A whisper of out-of-joint time, of impermanence, now came to accompany my two ghosts. Was there something to fear? If I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t have experienced distance — that mix of nostalgia, guilty astonishment and listlessness when the immigrant looks toward his place of origin, and of dramatic irony, excessive composure and critical elucidation when he looks toward his place of adoption (and origin too). The space-time interval in which he happens to find himself helps him find distance from his own self; one day he happens to be where he is, and the process allows him to view from the outside how his supposed other has been destroyed. But just as how in the breathless theater of Argentina, the show never ends, the returned immigrant doesn’t immediately realize that his interval of exile continues; that exile is forever. For me, the self I would have been had I stayed in Barcelona didn’t make me apprehensive; he wouldn’t have been so very different. At a certain point one is already formed. Thinking of this, I grew apprehensive about my self on the other side of the ocean: an irreparable subject. Jung says that at around age forty-five there is a decisive critical juncture in life, from which point the individual can either repeat himself, declining into acceptable stagnation, or open himself to modification and change. I don’t want to imagine the books I would have written had I not gone to Spain, but neither does it tempt me to imagine those I would have written had I not returned. The truth is that I don’t imagine anything. On the same lines, it would also be distressing if my friends from Barcelona spoke to me exactly as they used to, because that would also mean I haven’t changed. And it seems undeniable to me that I have.

My wife had an eleven year old daughter, who is now a woman of twenty-eight. There’s no need to talk about the magnitude of profound changes associated. In those years an extreme appreciation was born in me for the present, for endless modification, and I wanted to be faithful to it. If I’d stayed in Barcelona I would have had an energetic and less arduous economy. In contrast, in Buenos Aires any independent initiative confronts a great variety of difficulties and constraints. But constraints, as sonnet writers and followers of Georges Perec well know, can provoke unexpected changes of course, senseless detours, abrupt brakes and improvising fantasies; they can lead stories down avenues so strange that they end up becoming more true. This can also happen with joint ventures. I support this poetic vision: if one contributes attention and enthusiasm to a project, constrictions can open opportunities where it seemed there was nothing. It’s useful to add a few constrictions of one’s own; and even better to create a repertory, norms to respect which are different from the juridical, economic, or moral norms of the international system, fulfilling them as principles until the collective that one is part of decides to replace them with others, to be respected no less. Artists call this “procedure” or “method”; when implemented by a group, it can become a politics of sociability. It can encourage useless costs, imagination and generosity. And it can serve to profitably recover a multitude of things that the march forward has left dilapidated by the wayside, but which before abandoning completely it’s worth trying to put together a different way. Even the family.

At the end of the Ammons poem, the walker, in a town no longer his own, hears the crying of the boy he never became on the side of the road. He sits to rest and sees something he’s never seen before: two big black birds appear in the sky flying together, very high up, on their way north. All of a sudden one turns a little to the left, while the other, perhaps not realizing, continues forward for a minute. The straggler begins to glide in circles as if searching for something, maybe lost. But then:

the other bird came back and they both
circled, looking perhaps for a draft;
they turned a few more times, possibly
rising at least, clearly resting
then flew on falling into distance till
they broke across the local bush and
trees: it was a sight of bountiful
majesty and integrity: the having
patterns and routes, breaking
from them to explore other patterns or
better ways to routes, and then the
return: a dance sacred as the sap in
the trees, permanent in its descriptions
as the ripples round the brooks
ripplestone: fresh as this particular
flood of burn breaking across us now
from the sun.

To take a break from these lines a moment, I too have stopped to look at the clouds out the window, as if giving time to some of my alternate lives. I like to reread this poem of loss and reconciliation, assigning it this message: that we inevitably possess the other we have alongside or in front of us, and that the other possesses us. It’s a structural phenomenon; we are beings of submission and incorporation. And two are the start of a community, if one gives in to the impulse.

What a shapeless story, says my Inner Speaker, that unfailing voice within, to which I pay attention. Or perhaps the story is too tidy. What’s the best way to talk about the foreigner at the margin of history, or the current violence of immigrations — the arrival of the exhausted African or Burmese to a beach where the police lambast him in a language he’s never heard, the Romanian woman who appears at a Baltimore port from a container reeking with vomit opened by a Mafia overseer? The sea or immensity traveled by the immigrant is an abyss; it terrifies. The sordid vehicle in which he often arrives expels him as if from a stomach. The Martinican poet Edouard Glissant says this; but he also believes that the experience of the abyss, which is all-encompassing, transforms the unknown land into a place where the abyss presents itself as the root of knowledge. The one who has crossed is open not only to the specific knowledge of the appetites, pains, and gifts of a people in particular, but to the knowledge of Everything, a knowledge that liberates since the everything is an unceasing relationship, or an unceasing relationship is everything. “That’s why we keep writing poetry,” concludes Glissant. Yes, but narration is also an art of relationships.

Take my nebulous case. While I was writing this one day, I happened to see a photo in the Spanish newspaper I read three times a week. An opposition member of the Valencian parliament, exasperated by the corrupt practices of the regional government, wore a T-shirt reading “We don’t need money. We have enough thieves [chorizos]”. I showed it to my wife, and since her expression seemed to ask for an explanation, I explained to her that a chorizo [Arg. Sp.: spicy pork sausage] is the same thing a chorro would be in this country, a thief. She laughed a little and commented that the common root was probably the verb chorear. In other times people here also said chorizo, I added. Or, she suggested, perhaps chorear was originally Spanish and the Spanish forgot the verb and kept the noun. It might also be the case, I said, that we’ve manipulated the noun chorizo to derive the verb chorear. Then why isn’t the verb derived choricear?, she asked, going deeper into the question. In the pause that followed I heard a few crackles. The lines of several possible stories were breaking off. Without any warning a mob of ghosts took advantage of the moment to speak from my mouth: I urgently need to buy myself a good dictionary of Argentine expressions, I heard myself say.

One could go on telling these stories forever.

This essay first appeared in the book Música prosaica (cuatro piezas sobre traducción), published by the Buenos Aires-based editorial Entropía in 2014.

Cover image by Alberto P. Veiga.

About the Author:

Marcelo Cohen is a writer and translator living in Buenos Aires. His work includes the novels El oído absoluto, El testamento de O’Jaral and Donde yo no estaba, the stories collected in El fin de lo mismo and Los acuáticos, and the volume of essays ¡Realmente fantástico!. He has translated over a hundred authors from different languages into Spanish, among them Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, Wallace Stevens, Scott Fitzgerald, J. G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Italo Svevo, Raymond Roussel, Machado de Assís and Clarice Lispector. Between 1975 and 1996 he lived in Barcelona, where he was editor of the cultural magazine El Viejo Topo and wrote for a number of publications. With Graciela Speranza he currently edits the literary magazine Otra parte.

About the Translator:

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator living in Buenos Aires.