Like Shadows, Like Clouds


“The Alarm”, from The Emperor’s Rout, unknown author, 1831

by Jessica Sequeira

The Chilean poet Julio Barrenechea won the National Prize for Literature in 1960, when he had published the following works: The Conference of the Butterflies (1930), Mirror of Dream (1935), Murmur of the World (1942), My City (1945), The Book of Love (1946), Life of the Poet (1949), Dying Diary (1954) and Complete Poetry (1958). The first few volumes are pleasantly written, with a certain harmony, but it is the Dying Diary that marks a more serious turn in Barrenechea’s trajectory, and shakes the reader from her complacency. This book was written when Barrenechea was an ambassador to Colombia, and is an intimate engagement with the theme of death. Barrenechea would develop this theme in the ’60s, when he was posted for seven years as an ambassador to India. For him, life as lived in this South Asian country became a way of better understanding death, through its contrast with the world of appearances.

Sun of India, Barrenechea’s book of poems, was published in New Delhi while he was living there. At first read, it may seem a simple take on the traditions of the country as filtered through the sensibility of the poet, picture postcards filled out with costumbrista description, divided into the sections “Festivals”, “Beyond” and “Singing Voice”. Yet a second read, taking into account the preoccupations of Barrenechea’s previous work, suggests deeper currents.

In his poetry, Barrenechea often worked with rhyme, and this book is no exception. While it might seem old-fashioned in another context, rhyme takes on a pleasing correspondence to the material in this case. The themes of equilibrium, ceremony and natural process in the form of birth and death are balanced at the very level of the words. No line is disconnected from other lines, as one might expect in a freer verse. One comes to think that the poetic tradition that enabled this kind of poetry emerged from a very basic sense of union with elemental forces. Traditional form that crafts traditional material may no longer be in vogue, but it does often result from an organic connection to the landscape and the human rites which Barrenechea praises.

The second section of the book explores the theme of death and the beyond. Barrenechea describes houses where pilgrims of this world wait to die. He paints a vivid picture of a cemetery in Agra, itself in a state of decay — “cemetery chosen, for death / cemetery that dies” — and notes that “death translates us / into its mute language”. He is impressed by a procession of naked people covered in ash in Allahabad, “dressed in the heavens”. A sober examination of a Maharajah he meets suggests that death lives within, despite outer ceremony: “But within yourself, in your intimate enclosure, / where two coffins sleep, imperceptible, mute. / There in your heart beats darkness, / and condensed there lives all of eternity.”

In Benares he describes his sensation of a pure frontier resulting from the meeting place between life and death, where “each one creates a way / to meet with infinity”. There is a sense of history created by the people in the “Song for the Hands of India”, which describes the numerous hands that contributed to making buildings, art and life itself, “translations from dream”. (The “Fe de erratas” on the final page corrects the “nel sueño” here to “del” but the mistaken “nel” is rather pleasing, a subconscious nod toward the first line of Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”.) In the poem “The Past”, Barrenechea extends the theme of time, writing of static circles in which “all that has passed is time and nothing has passed”.

At several moments, Barrenechea assumes an ambivalent attitude. In Goa, for instance, he sees places that recall to him Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela, and a sea that reminds him of Chile: “this sea blue, blue sea to look at and taste / this sea that makes me happy / this sea I have seen living / on the coasts of my country”. In Kashmir he marvels: “enormous, green mirror, where the south of my land is seen from afar”. The act of recognizing familiar sites is both a concession that individual places are not unique, and a claim to his own territory.

Barrenechea is similarly ambivalent about people who do not have strong individual personalities, and form part of a larger tradition that incorporates them to the point of erasing individual essences, such as those who marry an arranged partner and become a mere occasion for celebration (the groom is “abducted / without the possibility of being his own owner”, the bride is “almost a doll”), or those who have chosen the life of a sadhu (“what was there in these men who cross our path / like images, like shadows / whom it seems are not concerned / with our quarrels and anxieties”), or those in Calcutta who live in poverty, without access to worldly aspirations (“they do not have beds, / but they are owners of their sleep”).

The “sun of India” in the title of the book is a potent symbol. As Barrenechea writes, “you are the essence, / you are the node”. At first he compares the sun to a ripe fruit, which he returns to in the middle of the poem. Yet he also calls it a “round death / of pure fire”. The sun is responsible for both life and death, “light of glories / and of miseries”. Willing to lose his own self, the poet asks the sun to burn him. But just as the sun creates and kills, it also matures and is itself killed every day. This is the sunset, which crowds gather to see: “To watch you / die, your people, / fill hills, like reliefs.” He ends by saying: “Sun of India, / reason for life, / I die in the afternoons / with your departure”. The death of man accompanies the death of the sun.

The sun also appears in other poems. In “Summer”, Barrenechea calls attention to the heat and smell of the country, a “sweat of the material” which is another product of the sun. And in the final poem, “Indian Light”, he returns to the sun once again. The poet speaks of his search for “the fixed point”, and says he hopes to be “lost in this light, as if dissolved in this clarity”. This would entail being like one of the men on the hill watching the sunset, not an individual but one of the masses, both the creation of a new form of consciousness and the death of an individual self. But, as Barrenechea admits, he has not achieved this yet.

Several of the poems emerge from specific moments or anecdotes that are more clearly and completely narrated in Barrenechea’s non-fiction work Unmysterious India. Chronologically, the quotidian impressions of the latter in prose do seem to have come first, with their stylization as poetry a development and philosophical deepening of the anecdote. In Unmysterious India, there are no big ideas expressed, no profound truths. These are simply the notes made while in a country, without pretensions to covering everything that has happened. There are glancing references to parties, friendships with figures like Octavio Paz, boat rides in Kashmir, a failed attempt to meet a five-thousand-year-old man in Mount Abu, and the gift of a sword from a Sikh, with several of these episodes also appearing in Sun of India. A few descriptions of the customs of the country also appear.

While the reflections in poetry and prose suggest metaphysical contemplation, however, Barrenechea never attempted to express his thoughts in formalized terms. He was interested not in high philosophy, but in lived reality. As the poet put it: “I must confess in a very loud voice my love for the Indian people, for the poor of India. I have always tried to understand them, to comprehend that great dark and anonymous mass, exposed to the most violent expressions of nature. I wanted to extract from them a common philosophy, that is, an attitude to life. Because the high philosophy of India can be studied in books, and for that it is not necessary to go to India.”