For 10 years I have loved a poem, a small poem that I have never understood. I bring the poem to my classes year after year and read it aloud in English and then I find a student who is able to read it in the original Spanish for the class.
The student always begins, "Agosto, contraponientes de melocoton y azucar . . . " ("August, the opposing of peach and sugar"), and that is where the difficulty begins and seems to end. It is not hard to imagine what Federico Garcia Lorca had intended when he said, "The sun inside of the afternoon like the stone in the fruit," nor "The ear of corn which keeps its laughter intact, yellow and firm." Nor even -- to go to the end -- "The little boys eat brown bread and rich moon." I do not know when he wrote the poem. I have always meant to look it up. Every now and then a curious student will bring us a fact or two about Lorca that I promptly forget, starting each semester over again with only the little poem for evidence.
When a student who sat quietly alert during the first class announces that he really won't be able to continue in your class because he has decided to enroll in Logic, you breathe deeply and compliment him on his choice. There is certainly no logic here.
Later, I thought about his voice, the careful way he moved, the case he carried, the suit and short hair so out of keeping with the style of dress of the others, the face which could be 17 or 40, the precision of speech, the look of someone who had not known many happy moments in his life, and I thought how glad I was to be done with him.
I thought fleetingly of my recent conclusion that it was absolutely impossible to determine at the outset who of a class of students would bring forth his own voice into the midst of the writing class, where he might then be hopelessly cut off by the others or where he might flourish, if indeed only for the length of one semester, 37-1/2 hours, if he came on time. I went home to look over the questionnaires I had given them which I knew they hated but which provided me with the opportunity to watch them in the first few moments of the first class and, for those who finish questionnaires quickly, gave them a chance to watch me.
I continue to watch them as I pass out pieces of paper filled with course requirements, poems, sections of prose and work in other languages. I always explain that this is not my field, that I am a biologist, a physiologist, that I work with monkeys, rhesus monkeys, that I do not know English and American literary history but do know a little about frontal lobe function of the brain and once studied perceptual losses (which outfits me perfectly for teaching, though I don't say that). In truth that was years ago, but it seems to get me off the hook a bit -- I am a writer, not a scholar -- and then I can continue to pass out those ditto sheets covered with Lorca, Neruda (one semester my students seemed surprised, when Neruda received the Nobel Prize, that I hadn't invented the name!), Cortazar, Borges, pages filled with the Greek prose poems of Sinopoulos, works of Poles, Italians, Russians, my hands turning purple. They smile sadly and accept, accept.
Later, I warn them that I cannot bear poems about love and death -- that to get to those subjects they must begin with stones, fingernails; that all things, no matter how abstract they have become, were once based on real events, real objects, real relationships. I tell them that the bodies in the Nile River, which the lad IpuWer speaks of 2,300 years before Christ, are as real as the bodies that flowed in the Mekong River in this century. I tell them that the wine cup, the vineyards which Rilke speaks of as the lost objects, are as real as the words we form to say their names.
In the next class he is back. His name is Bonfiglio. He has decided to take the course after all. But what has happened to Logic? His answer is the familiar yellow slip from the registrar's office thrust at me to sign, which of course I do. I always sign them.
I swing from branch to branch carrying them passively along with me while they have permission to poke and prod and make demands. I carry them along with me for years until they are ready to move on their own or until they have found someone else to take my place.
It seemed time to try out the poem on them. Each year I invent a new excuse for hauling it out. This semester we would observe the manner in which the writer entered the language. After all, was it not the beginning of a new semester? Is it not the issue of each new semester to begin? And, as Rilke tells us, is it not a tremendous act of violence to begin anything? He simply skips over what should be the beginning. He is not able to begin. For, he tells us, nothing is so powerful as silence. It would never have been broken had we not, each of us, been born into the midst of talk. The midst of talk -- that seems to be what is expected in the classroom, though writers are peculiarly inarticulate. I certainly don't like to talk. I like to wait, to be silent, to watch. I should probably spend more time letting them write, fill up the 75 minutes (if we start on time) with the sound of their arms moving along the table, the black letters clouding over the pages like a storm.
The question is: What to do with Bonfiglio? In a poem I have been writing, which remains unfinished with all the others like limb buds that have never stretched out to become legs and arms, there is a line about a line which has traveled a great distance and when it returns it longs for those things it touched on its journey and could not or did not name. It is these things which it remembers. That is my dilemma with Bonfiglio. I can neither give him up nor keep him. Soon enough he will diappear. I cannot rely on telling him as a story. It will grow thin and change. Someone will repeat my story to someone else and Bonfiglio will never be the same again. Each time that I think of Bonfiglio he changes in my mind.
Lorca, there are graves built up to the moon on the mountain. They are full of bones like snow; and no words. At the land's end cold water climbs up the shore, and wants a bed, and slips back. Here in March I wait, soon to leave open the windows that green might flower up and the birds wonder and laugh. Lorca, did they know it was you they shot? Green flesh, hair of green. The wind tears its eyes, and the snow dries down into occupied ground. Your words are the seeds we need still, though I imagine your face tells us something we must forget to live. -- From "To Lorca" by Lawrence Raab
To go back or forward -- it is no longer clear -- we skirted the issue of those lines, agreeing that the Spanish was better, the lines flowed softly -- de melocoton -- how could one substitute the word peach for that mellifluous word which called up exotic landscapes, Greek apples, Spanish shrubs, skin pigment, melodies which sing at the very sound of the word as it moves away from the mouth. And wasn't azucar somehow more attractive than sugar -- SO american, so harsh, somehow embarrassing, like having a beloved relative suddenly emerge from the kitchen where she has spent her whole life, to appear framed in the doorway of one's adolescence into which she has just now escaped, now caught in the full glare of the first light of consciousness, that stunted and prejudiced consciousness given so casually to youngsters. But why peaches and sugar which were opposing, which were the contraponientes of August?
At home the night before I had developed a theory that it was a poem of internalizations, great planetary forms taken in by microscopic bodies -- the sun inside of the afternoon like the stone in the fruit, laughter within an ear of corn, bread and moon inside the little boys. In class, contributions came like small charities but the dissatisfaction remained. I gathered up the pages and said aloud that I did not think we had solved these first three lines and I looked ahead silently to new semesters where someone would come and magically unravel those simple words. I kept thinking of the Spanish word contraponientes -- counterpoint. I thought of Bach. I imagined my fingers into the figures and preludes, playing each line clearly without weight or emphasis, so that each could be heard as purely as the other. I thought of Glen Gould playing the same thing better on his harpsichord in the Canadian north woods. I thought how I had always wanted to write a poem whose structure was that of the fugue. The poet Zukofsky says that he has been doing just that for 40 years. I just wanted to try it for a day or so, a little poem, but none ever came.
Without warning Bonfiglio began to speak quietly, with great care and precision, exactly as one might have expected. "In certain countries," he began, "for example, in Cuba, in parts of Italy and Spain, the harvest season for both peach and sugar occurs in August and one must make a moral judgment as to which shall be harvested first. Often it is determined that the peach will be gathered first because it is the more fragile. But great care must be taken to bring in both peach and sugar before the hail storms arrive. This is also the time of the festival of the harvest. The women make a good rich brown bread."
In August I will go out under the rich moon to have a look for myself. Corn, peach, sugar, hail and brown bread. Jon Bonfiglio has earned his place in the class if he never utters another word.