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The Poet in His Labyrinth


Ana Menendez




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The Poet in His Labyrinth
By Silas Haslam (translated by Joseph Martin)

HE HAD DREAMT OF A VERSE AND WHEN HE WORK, HE FOUND HE HAD DRAGGED IT BACK WITH HIM ACROSS THE VISCOUS BORDERLAND OF SLEEP. We will listen to these hymns and attach wings of gold to them, and they will cross the sea. He repeated it out loud, listening along with the words. We will listen to these hymns and attach wings of gold to them, and they will cross the sea. The images were familiar, but the words themselves were a mystery until he realized someone – something? – had translated them into English. And as he thought this, another thought simultaneous to that one told him that both these thoughts and the earlier one had also been translated. He ordered himself to think in Spanish, but the order itself was delivered in English.

He understood then that he had woken on the other side of something, a place that he had no name for. He stood. It was dark. At first he thought he was outside, in the fields. But when he looked to the heavens, he saw they were black but for points of candlelight, evenly spaced. He was indoors, but an indoors he had never seen and could not describe in words. He began to walk. Again, he grasped for the rounded vessel of his native tongue, and again the words that returned to him were his, but not his own. That I am a dead man, still walking, is clear. His limbs felt light and insubstantial, but they cast small shadows in the strange, steady candlelight. With each step, he felt the life flowing out of him. He was still in some borderland and must find his way home. The place was quiet, empty of men. He had woken near a bank of chairs and he walked towards them now, slowly, taking care because of his legs. From a distance the chairs seemed to be floating, but when he came close, he saw that they were merely connected one to another, the whole series resting on a single shiny base. What miracles man was capable of! Everything could be invented except wings. He passed through a corridor and came to a crossroads. He hesitated for a moment before turning left and following another corridor. Here the sky was lower, though still studded with faint candlelight. Shiny paintings lined the walls. At first, he mistook them for windows. The poet moved closer to inspect them. He recognized the sea and recoiled, understanding that he was back, somehow, in his native land. How his compatriots loved the sea, the huge flat level sea. My aim is the sky, he thought, though these were not the words he would have chosen. It was early winter, that much he could tell, the air pleasant. At the end of the corridor he came to another crossroads and turned left, this time without hesitation. Here the space opened up on both sides of the corridor. Banks and banks of the slender chairs were lined up in rows on either side of him. Beyond the chairs loomed the largest windows he had ever seen, and beyond them, the night. So this was it: he had woken in some kind of purgatory, a great waiting room in some train station he could not describe. The poet’s footsteps resounded on the bare floor, though he objected to this construction as well, especially to the word “resounded”. Above him, numbers flashed in red lights. Perhaps these were related to Edison’s invention. But the poet could not decipher them: 06:21. He stood under the light and after a moment, the display changed again 06:22. The poet stood and counted. At 06:23, he understood this was a new kind of precise and unforgiving clock, its malignant silence marking time with neither pity nor poetry.

He walked on. The darkened glass was further obscured by condensation, as if he were moving inside a bubble of artificial air. Such things were possible, he knew. He was an educated man, had read in his time Verne and Whitman, had found in Verne a kinsman. As for the American, he was not always in the best of taste, but audacious, alive, unencumbered: a winged angel. Such things were only possible for Americans. His countrymen would always be weighted with history, constrained by the straight-jacket he himself had woven. The poet knew this without having to tell it to himself. But if only he could think without words. He was weary of the foreign tongue in his mind, as weary as he had grown of so many of the things of this world before falling asleep and awaking here in this lonely limbo.

At the end of the long, wide corridor, the poet found himself at another crossroads and turned left. Now he had to find a way out. Here there was no place to rest. No one to hear him shout. No point to this endless quest. Another bank of chairs and in one of them, a book. He hoped it was a book of poetry. He picked it up to find it as light and insubstantial as his legs. Loving Che, left behind by a tourist who would not miss it. A novel, by the looks of it. The genre did not please him. There is so much feigning in a novel and the joys of artistic creation do not make up for the pain of moving through that prolonged fiction, surrounded by dialogues that have never been heard between people who have never lived. He returned the book to the chair and continued looking for an exit. What devil had landed him here, what malevolent spirit was filling his mind with foreign words?

All these years without speech and to find himself now, unable to affect the simplest of ideas or to form one last thought in his native tongue. He reached the last corridor, turned left and stopped before a scene so baffling that he lost all ability to express it, even to himself. Overhead, in gold letters was his own name written beside indecipherable symbols. Beyond them, dawn had lit an impossible place: an imagined universe populated by cylindrical train cars, each of them winged, waiting like giant birds atop their wheeled legs. The poet stood, in awe, before coming slowly to his knees. He kissed the ground before such mysteries. Truly, he was a minor thing in this world.

Already he understood the symbol, knew his time had come. Behind him, the flurry of footsteps and men shouting in that other language that he could no longer form to his liking. Though he could not comprehend, still the rhythm was beautiful and he was overcome by nostalgia: an ancient memory of his mother, the soft syllables of her goodbye. The poet stood and waited for the handcuffs, the familiar rhythm of imprisonment and death. He tried one last time to say what he meant, but failed. The men who led him away handled him roughly. The poet returned to them a smile: “Gentlemen,” he said, “there are affections of such delicate honesty…”




Ana Menendez

Ana Menéndez was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of Cuban exiles. She is the author of four books of fiction, In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, which was a 2001 New York Times Notable book of the year and whose title story won a Pushcart Prize, Loving Che (2004), The Last War (2009) chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the top 100 books of the year, and Adios, Happy Homeland! (forthcoming in August 2011). She lives in Amsterdam and Miami.


The Jose Marti quotes in italics in “The Poet in His Labyrinth” are taken from Jose Marti: Selected Writings (Penguin Classics, 2002) and reprinted and used with kind permission of the translator, Esther Allen, and the publisher.


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