Media Center



April 12, 2005 - Washington, DC

Obviously, it is quite an honor to be here with you today. When I was invited here, I felt the typical torment of having to express myself in prose. I’m not a logical thinker; I’m not a good thinker. I am lucky to be a poet, in the sense that as a poet, I can start a sentence wanting to say one thing; and by the time I’ve ended it, I’ve contradicted myself.
But this is something that Gould Whitman, the great American poet, says: if I contradict myself very well, well I contradict myself. To make a contradiction in front of an audience such as this one, with ambassadors and other distinguished people is terrifying; on the other hand, it isn’t terrifying because evidently we’re all human beings, which means that the responsibility of a diplomat, of an ambassador, is the conscience and I thought, if I’m going to do something like this, perhaps I shouldn’t choose a piece of prose in which I might say predictable things such as the great future that awaits us all - there are only two versions of this, right? -, and do something in between the two.
So what I’m going to do here, perhaps to put all of you in this position, is to recite you a poem, but I’m going to try to do it because XX century poets don’t often feel encouraged to say much about any subject, especially in verse; and yet what we have to see in the world around us, has to do with the conscience, it has to do with responsibility, and it has to do with what we inflict upon ourselves, in the sense that at times we’re unwilling to accept the horrors that occurred in the XX century. It would seem that they are constantly self perpetuating in the XXI century and this institution where I am today is concerned about these horrors, some unimaginable, others which are repeated.
It is not my duty to do nothing, but what a poet always does in a society. A poet once wrote that all that poets can do is simply warn…warn; so I’m not here to be a prophet. However, in another society, in a place of honor such as this one, it would have been natural for a poet to speak to the ambassadors, senators, and politicians of another type of civilization. In our civilization, this voice is silent. It can be found in literary magazines or in a conference now and then. Therefore, what I’m going to read you is something very casual; and I don’t want this to turn into a literary magazine, but I’m going to talk about something that I thought would be interesting to read to you on this occasion.
This is about a man, about whom I know little; he’s a fictional character. I’m not a novelist; I don’t really know who my character is. I also write plays, but in this sense, I don’t know what it is about or about whom I am speaking. I’m not very certain of his biography; all I know is that this seems to be good for UNESCO, a large institution. It seems that he was someone from the academic world, a professor at some university, perhaps a university of little prestige in England that is quite fond of the Jacobian poets that followed Shakespeare; and in some way this person enters into an agreement with a third world country. He isn’t dishonest, but what he does is create an uprising in the country where he is working; and I would say that for me, this poem especially was a very exciting challenge because it is a model of something that could be by Graham Green or John Le Carré, one of those exciting political plays. But in reality, it is written in verse and for me, this was a challenge.
The person at the center of this story is someone who is afflicted by the desire to do good, but he is restricted by the circumstances, by the conflicts due to certain realities. So apparently he makes a deal with a Third World country, something that has to do with tractors or I don’t know what. I’m here as if I were listening to what he says, although I’m creating him; so I try to remove myself a bit from the situation. I’m not participating directly in it, not forming it nor trying to listen inadvertently; but the heart of all this, when I wrote it and when I continue writing, I notice that this had to do with something immense as a subject; and this subject had something to do with the horror of the XX century, the holocaust, the fact that the XX century was a time of hunger and disease and of all these cheerful things that we mention every day in the office.
The fact is that the man I was speaking about was a common man. He wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t a great intellectual. And in the epigraph that I took from the Book of Revelation, what I found there caused me great pain. Just saying it now causes me pain because the last verse says: See that this harms neither the oil nor the wine. It is very painful; that is, do not destroy the oil or the wine. This warning is a warning for everyone, but especially, and we hope, for those who assume power, those who are to assume power at this time. See that neither the oil nor the wine is damaged.
I took the title from a work of Thomas Nash from the year of the Plague in London. It tells of an unfortunate traveler. My title is The Fortunate Traveler, and when I look around, I see the names of many countries, and some of them are going through this, and the role of the antihero in this poem is someone who is able to travel and pass through all these countries, who can go to meetings in these countries, who can go to round tables, to discussions, to interviews, to make statements, but who is fortunate enough that he can always leave these suffering countries. So, someone can visit a place where there is hunger as an ambassador, as a delegate, and he has a return ticket; and that return ticket makes him fortunate. He has to see suffering, but he doesn’t have to stay. That is what we have to do. We have to share what we see, this suffering we see, in these immense disasters that affect us, but that don’t affect us personally. Disasters, some disasters are too big to comprehend. So sometimes a digit can make a difference in our own suffering; and that is why all these XX century organizations are based on compassion, not on the economy. They are not based on how much money will be obtained, but on which country will contribute to the welfare of the rest of the world; and my character in this poem is trying to do this, but he makes a tragic error. He tries to make a deal with another country on something else that has to do with tractors. I don’t know what the deal is, but he is to be assassinated by the enemy of the country with each he has made the deal; and that is normal. As I said, the quote is in the Book of Revelations; and when I wrote the poem, it was dedicated to Susan Sontag, who passed away recently.
I heard a voice in the middle of the jungle that said: a measure of wheat for a cent and three measures of barley for a cent, and I see that is doesn’t affect neither the oil nor the vine. So this a sort of monologue that possibly this person I’m writing about, it was in winter, with the towers frozen, the snowflakes falling, a compact man across the channel, on a patio with a flower in his lapel, waiting for the assassin and a rectangular coffin with measured shapes in the grass where I wrote the word: Mercy. I sat on a cold bench, among skeletons; two men with black skin were across the river. They spoke over the dark river, which grew and contained the harvest of the winter streets. We can count on you. To find the tractors? I asked. I gave you my word. My country is asking why they are doing this, sir. Silence followed. I know you are going to betray us. You can’t hide smoke here…so at the start, this is the deal he made, a dark transaction that he thinks will benefit the country, but will turn around and betray him.
A window in Haiti, I remember that pane of glass in the window with the hand of a said thank you, sir, merci monsieur, merci monsieur. Hunger is the cross of statistics, and the desert is a mouth that moves and in the middle of this land of 10 million backs that move, there are 750,000 skeletons and counting. All these issues of figures are numbers, whether disaster or hunger, massacres. It’s something we are used to in the newspapers; we shrug our shoulders. The more they occur, the more we become used to disasters. So now we measure disasters numerically, for example: only 50,000 died in Pakistan, we say. This is the type of statement we are used to, maybe because of the access of the press, not because we are heartless, but because we are used to this figure. These figures become part of our daily breakfast.
We meet in Bristol to conclude the agreement. Here the towers look like the lances of tribes, the call of church bells, the shrouds near its heart, now nobody will see the jet that appears for a cloud of flowers. One travels in first class, he is a backward telescope that sees the pain of individuals and also if this is condensed to zero and later the clouds. He returned to London from a mission and in a black taxi from Heathrow to my apartment. They are like cockroaches that enter the black holes of power, that move among the columns hailing taxicabs...certainly we are optimists and we are the first to escape when everything disappears, returning to Geneva, to Washington, to London. Under the airplanes I heard, and I read this again, at this time the figure is disappearing as if it were a mask and then the telephone rings, saying: We’ll pay you in Bristol. We’re falling on the pillow, in a snowstorm, we see the tiger’s tongue…I’m thinking of malnutrition because he’s going to arrive in a country where the people are dying of hunger. For a time, they are dying of hunger, but the agony of hunger can be seen; this can help us to understand the responsibility better. I was practicing the feeling of hunger and that wasn’t charity. I found my piety desperately searching the horizons of the story, from the communes to sacred lakes, with water wheels and the brilliancy of all this and common ingenuity. I visited Africa bathed in a light that, where I saw the first wheat and barley fields and in these ceremonies and in the great IPAC, I saw the Sahara, my charity fertilized this heritage. Everything felt like the latter XVII century, I thought about the anxiety of the Jacobians, the salmígera torches, and she arrives...and I saw the soul of my duchess and saw the children eating green meat with the ferocity of rats…I returned to Bristol and the floating pieces and the patron saint and I thought, who cares how many million die of hunger, here the souls will rise and shine, we leave the sunset of the estuary and here in England they are in a circle, the birds still fly away and Mercy has it in its magnetic field and seeing the glaucoma at the time I arrive to England. England will be the one next to the sea…it is so fortunate to be able to see the world, undoubtedly I have seen the world through portholes and it clouds my vision, seeing this road and this sea, kneeling on the hot sand, knees on white lilies in some hidden place, in some part of the Caribbean.
Now I have arrived to the place where the ghosts live. I’m not afraid of ghosts, but of real people. The blessing of the islands and a snail on a leaf, the souls in the pipes of organs pass a blue lake and this arrives at the concrete church as the harmony of the morning and smoking chimneys can be heard. Black faces covered with dew, dew on the plum trees, through the teeth and the white skulls and at some point the summer wrinkles through the river within the heart of the darkness.
The heart of the darkness is not Africa. The heart of the darkness is a core of fire, the very center of the Holocaust. The heart of the darkness is something that has to do with asepsis, with the chimneys, and nickel instruments that sound.
In the last letter, I received these verses: Think of a God who doesn’t lose sleep, where the trees break down and sob, so there is indifference. This is the darkest hour, a lamp is brought, I close the curtains, I sit on the rail, I look at the stars waiting for dinner, nothing is as awake as my mind, and the wheels where Christ is, the fire dies and the rushes wash their hands of the pulp and there is a haze of flies that come from the swamp because this famous statement of Nieztche is that God is dead. Since God is dead and these are not his children, then we have a sanctuary of lamps and it is in the heart of the darkness of this world that watch is kept over his body. The lamp is beside the bed, the majority of the tribes of this world don’t need this declaration that God is dead to continue..............., keep the news of this blissful ignorance, the hungry of this world will go to the tree of life, as they go to seek justice ...but they are alerted about that and they become compassionate, their paragraphs like the windows of a train, where the world shows this and it is seen through the eyes of children. We turn to read. Rimbaud knew it. He says that this Roman fire is still protected. They didn’t know that we care less about a human face than the conflicts of Alexandria and that the dark silhouette passes with a blinding light until we pay our debt.
This is an ordinary secret; this comes in long strides. From the vacated beach, the fishermen have closed their eyes and the palm trees shake. I have already found my sanctuary, the night. There were two men in the town who asked me why I had come and the one in the center tells him that we must hurry and they will be back; and in the clouds there is no charity. The ant will eat Russia and the sharp teeth will mercilessly eat the desolation of the harvest as if it were a bowl and there will be no charity. Yet through the thin stems of the cicada, the leather, the leather hull.
Today at lunch we had a conversation. During the course of the conversation, the man on my right asked me about believing in optimism. What we were talking about was very interesting, not as consolation, but as a response to what we had read. There was this dream that was described by a young woman and she said that she had had this vision of all the birds in the world in the sky. She didn’t know what it meant. Generally, I don’t take dreams seriously, but I took interest in this on and it is called: The season of phantasmagoric peace, and I think that this describes all the suffering described in the foregoing poem, but this epiphany, this absolution, occurs because at the end of time, there is no reconciliation and healing. All the nations of birds, all together in the air and with the shadows of this world, a multitude of dialects that cross and the tall pines cast shadows on the hills and even on the streets, the shadow of the plant on a city window and the birds that warble, until there are no more seasons, only this passageway of phantasmagoric light with its shadow so narrow and man will not be able to look up to see what it is that the geese follow, and in these silver chords, emitting peaceful sounds, covering this world like a vine or like a trembling mother covers the trembling eyes of her son trying to sleep. This is what will be seen in a yellow October, without knowing what change has caused this to have a yellow light all around or something immense and silent that covers the cities, the fields where the birds are.
This is something of the seasons, loves; it belongs to the seasons, something brighter than the piety that opens windows and holes. It lifts the nets of the silent voices where everything betrays the sun that shines, and this season lasted a moment like the poem between the darkness and the light, between war and peace, and now this has lasted a long time...Thank you very much!