In the homeland of languageI've been meaning to write about this for days, but you know how it is. I'm sure the same thing happens to you. The things that are most important are the hardest to write about. So, I kept putting it off. It's about the most intimate thing I know, language. Because language is the way we construct ourselves, with every thought and every statement -- at least for me. I don't know how to begin, so I guess I'll approach my subject indirectly. By talking about Saúl Yurkiévich.
Saúl approaches everything indirectly, or so it seems when you read his poetry. But sometimes he is very direct. Like the Sunday before last, when he suddenly dropped in on us. We didn't even know he was in the U.S. -- he's lived in Paris for decades -- but there he was at our door, and he ended up staying for dinner.
He's a loving and lovable little man -- really tiny -- with an immense vocabulary and a wide compassion for humans of all languages. Susana has known him since she was a girl in La Plata, and I've known him for almost as long as I've known Susana. He had come to the States this time to present his two latest books -- the first bilingual (English & Spanish) editions of his verse -- and to read from them at various schools; he'd already been to Harvard, was scheduled for Columbia, and later in the week -- last Friday -- I would get to hear him read at the CUNY Grad Center. He has written 15 books of criticism of other Latin American writers, and 17 volumes of his own poetry. And his conversation is a fantastic chase through allusions and references. Julio Cortázar (who knew him well) pokes gentle fun at him in the novel El libro de Manuel (I think this was translated as "A Manual for Manuel"); in that comic and terrifying book about Argentine exiles in Paris trying to think of something, anything, they can do to overthrow the dictatorship in Argentina (this is around 1973), Saúl appears under another name as one of the conspirators, speaking in long and convoluted sentences flavored with the rarest of words.
Saúl's first language is not Spanish, but the Yiddish his parents continued to speak after escaping Europe and ending up in La Plata, Argentina. He has, doggedly, made his home in the Spanish language, exploring its byways and crevices, and now he knows it as thoroughly as any botanist may know a forest that the rest of us just blithely walk through. If you get a chance, take a look at his new book, Background Noise / Ruido de fondo, tr. Cola Franzen (North Haven CT: Catbird Press, 2003). And when you do, you might turn to one poem whose meaning is absolutely clear, and sad, and yet bravely persistent in the face of many tragedies: "It All Tattoos You / Todo te tatúa".