In the title poem of her 2006 collection Common Market (Long Poem Magazine 11), Mercedes Cebrián satirised the homogenising idealistic democratic capitalism of the European Union, with its dissolving of borders: ‘at last I’m living the hotel life.//I’m in a meeting and, now that I am,/pain is irrelevant.’ but also remarked ‘our present reality/is dislocation’. Certainly she believed that that ‘reality’ had more positive than negative aspects, and she ended her sequence with a foreboding prayer: ‘Let us pray/for our countries, that they aspire/always to higher/things, that their sputum/never looks like blood.’ Ten years pass, and in a sequence in her new book Malgastar/Squandering (an El País Book of the Year) she returns to the Eurozone, as the E.U. lurches into ever choppier waters. The central poem of the sequence, Brexit, is an Anglophile’s lament at an old friend’s new coldness. Vienna or Milan conjures up a possible future dissolution of the union, as chauvinism (and even a threat to democracy) raise their ugly heads among member states. Elsewhere she looks back to the old systems that democracy and a belief in justice for all seemed to have put an end to: colonialism and fascist dictatorship, and reminds us there were people who these systems suited very well. Mercedes Cebrián treats these grave matters fluently, obliquely and with an omnipresent mordant irony, never more to the fore than when she borrows the persona of Mitterand’s discreet mistress, in Anne Pingeot Speaking. She is a unique voice in European poetry. Terence Dooley
translated from the Spanish by Terence Dooley
- In the indicative mood
That stupid Karen Blixen
introduced us to
the imperfect tense: ‘I had
a farm in Africa’, or whatever
she possibly ran in Kenya, in those parts anyway.
In films and paperback books, Karen
Blixen informs us in her serene Danish accent
she was the proprietress of an African farm. If she says ‘I had’
that means she lost it. If it were it otherwise, she’d say
‘I have’. And I too have lost some of my colonies,
good growing land in a sunny climate they were.
When I was a mother country,
mangos and cherimoyas fruited on my trees.
If a place is a colony, you can’t call
things brought from there imported goods.
My child, once
this papaya was ours and ours only.
- Vienna or Milan. Winter probably.
After the last tram
they don’t leave them out in the street;
they take them to sleep
so people out late
aren’t disturbed by them,
aren’t forced to contemplate
I don’t know why I get on a tram
two stops from the terminus:
What have I to gain?
Ten minutes, or a night
in a conveyance travelling
Here I sit in the tram-shed,
systoles and diastoles,
gazing at the trams
and remembering Neorealism.
The brainwave then is to revert to
our day-before-yesterday selves,
and save plastic bags
inside a bigger one where they fit.
Each has a use: they’re for putting things in,
of any kind, rubbish even, or household
pets, We celebrate survivals,
and that includes plastic bags.
The charcoal tweed coat
united Europe –
we turn up our collars
when the wind blows chill.
The turned-up collar
is the ugliest part of the coat.
Milan is an example:
(But what’s the point
of climbing aboard Europe
if it’s only two stops
to the terminus?)
We’ll have to jump ship
to where there are still
tailors and drapers,
have to show up
every night at the opera –
Since the last disastrous fire,
is wholly uninflammable.
From the plane window I see where you begin.
Arrival is more vivid
in the case of islands; the sea ends,
and there you are. It’s that simple
from the height we’re flying at
as announced by the pilot.
Meanwhile, down there,
the count is taking place.
Finally (who’d have
believed it?) the day came
for the long divorce, though
there was traffic
and the traffic wasn’t one-way,
even if it was on the wrong side of the road.
It wasn’t a to-and-fro-ing,
it was the difference
between mutual and reciprocal.
When we called each other you.
it turns out it was always ‘usted*’.
Let’s keep on talking about
the grey skies
hanging over you. And about
the gaps in your teeth too,
always the first to go.
Were it relevant, I’d recant on oath
what we said about your weather.
You saw me live and stumble in your tongue;
you comforted me
much as an electric blanket comforts. (In exchange,
Spain traded you its summer.) Please tell me now
what to do with my adaptors, comedy series,,
England, you’ll be the one strung-up
if you can’t lay your hands on a hangman.
*the formal you, not the familiar ‘tu’
- Anne Pingeot speaking
All that glisters isn’t good: we don’t want
shiny patches on our trousers. This is why
it was best that Mazarine and I
didn’t shine. Our postal code
is of no possible interest to anyone.
If we were the scaffolding or the house
shrouded in scaffolding, others decided for us.
It’s not who I was, it’s who I was
Le Président de la République spent his nights
with us. And France was ungoverned from
midnight till just after seven. Franҫois’s gift to us
was time, with no fancy wrapping.
When he hung up his coat in the hall,
he handed to us his hours, minutes
and seconds; he wasn’t our prisoner: if France called,
he left at once. When was he at his best? When
was he most himself? Random questions
for either of us to answer. They rained down on us
like pebbles thrown by children.
Daylight now is quite unlike
that of the old days.
During the funeral, the new life beginning
and the old life ending wore the same clothes.
We had crossed the street and not noticed:
we emerged in a dazzle we never dreamt of.
Because my flat on Quai Branly was a school
for secrets. Desks, chalk-board,
crucifix and soup-tureen: the table laid
for a dinner when no word
would pass our lips. It’s in the worst
possible taste to attempt conversation
with your mouth full of filet mignon.
Picture a dinner with Mitterand, cheese and salad
to follow the main: à la franҫaise:
We’re in France here: behold the white
moulded ceiling. Behold the chaise longue.
Well of course we dined off the best china
though there was no-one to see.
Then there’s the photo that circled the globe:
my face apparently riddled with
the black pox, in fact it was
my black lace veil.
Mazarine, 22, in a grey coat.
The right clothes for accompanying
Caroline of Monaco wore a mantilla
to hide her tears when Prince Rainier died.
Mourning is our sisterhood
with women of the South.
To weep for our man
(v) Somebody missing
What she saw and how, and who gave her
those thick convex lenses, to look that way,
and not another way. It happened after
and because of, the fratricidal war
our country is so famous for.
So many photographs of the carnage,
and of its aftermath, so many boys and girls
with gaps in their teeth, so many chronically
She lived through the greyest years, but she liked
the grey she lived through.
The chink of the night-watchman’s keys
made her feel safe in the metropolis
of the withered espadrille.
And then she passed it on, she passed on
the way I walk everyone laughs at. So she was
source, product, sequel, and all this
whirled round between her selves.
Some of her necklaces could have been
worn by Doña Carmen Polo.
Others were copies of Tita Thyssen’s.*
She went to China: she didn’t like
how the Chinese spat in the street.
But she really liked the fjords, though lager
in Bergen is so dear. She was lucky:
she kept her front teeth; only lost a few molars.
She made sure no-one noticed. Her cholesterol
levels: fine. She ate lamb or prawn
fritters whenever she fancied, almost
to the very end. (That could be any
Note: Carmen Polo was Franco’s wife, and Tita Thyssen the socialite and philanthropist (as in the Madrid art-gallery that bears her name).