The Sands of the Wreck  by Julieta Campos

BOMB 94 Winter 2006
094 Winter 2006 1024X1024

Cuba and the night. One, the night of Martí. The other, the night of Fidel. And you, like everyone, determined to narrate the Island. Making your way through the fog. With infinite ambition. Wanting to give testimony. To many, many voices. Voices written in the book of time. Stirred by the sands of the wreck. Stirred by the lilt of the waves. The lilt of the waves that rock the Island. The shouts and murmurs that thread the centuries together. Night of the centuries: night of all time. Mater dolorosa. Nocturnal island. Foam in the shadows. Memorial to forgetfulness. To be born here. On an invisible island. Gastón Baquero said it. In the middle of the violet sea: Lezama dixit. From the sea, nostalgic for the birth of the gods. Our Lady of Miracles. Compass rose. Key to the Gulf. Outer wall of the Indies. And you, pursuing memory. Not the cursed memory. Not that glimpsed by María Zambrano. But still trapped. Composing a nocturne for an island. A marine nocturne. Wanting to possess the star. A lone star in the middle of an Island. With capital I. Alone in the middle of the Night. Navigator of the Night. Forever and ever. For centuries of centuries. You, composing a requiem. Or composing an ode? To perpetual summer. Repairing the broken. Patching the holes. Penelope reweaving her cloth. Living out, in spite of yourself, the curse. Piecing together the scraps of oblivion. Running after the dead. In order to catch them, like fleeting butterflies, with a pin. Hunting Memory. Yes, with capital M. Yours and everyone’s. Your mother’s. Who died inside, trapped in the fog. Your father’s, who buried her. Your aunt’s, who buried your father. Who buried her husband. Your aunt. Who died alone. With no one of her own blood to bury her. Three days slumped over the keyboard. Her head crushing her left hand. The hand that played Ravel’s concerto. The memory of those who stayed behind. Accusing those who left. The memory of those who left. The memory of the living. The memory of the dead. The memory that has names and faces. The anonymous memory. Obstinate memory. Weaving her web of fireflies. In an eternity of shadows. Dispelling the fog. Fending off the grayness. Clearing up the horizon. In the lilt of the waves the melody begins to flow. It’s the lilt of a wave that forever rocks the melody.

You, in Madrid, one day in 1990. Taking up the thread again. Preparing to unravel the maze. The obscure maze of the years. Leaving the Plaza Mayor. Following the tracks to Valladolid. To Simancas. Returning to the Church of the Holy Cross. Allowing yourself to be led all the way to Seville. Seeing it sink into the sea. Seeing it reappear in archives gnawed by termites. Discolored by the humidity. Refusing to finally fall apart. In the Calle de los Oficios, in Havana. Everything began in a book and has to end in a book. Books pursue you. For you to read them. For you to write them. Everything began in a book of genealogy. Francisco Xavier de Santa Cruz y Mallén had written it. It pursued you for 15 years. You refused to visit it. It was like visiting a cemetery. It was an ossuary of names. You could not open it. You, who had not even dared to have your mother’s name carved on her tomb. Your mother. Your mother who in 1915, onboard the Mascotte, accompanied her father’s corpse from a dock on Manhattan Island to the Dock de Luz, in the bay of Havana.

You, who are only here to bear witness. To listen. To unravel the tangled web of voices. To sway forth among the shadows. You, a little Cuban Scheherazade. Anxiously respinning the skein of the years. Giving the strip a sly twist. So that the hidden underside will bloom. Playing at tracing, with words, a magic picture. A scribble. A drawing of the eternal return. A Möbius strip made exclusively of words. To help you join in that deceitful, but impeccable, juggling act. A juggling act that, between written pages, offers a simulacrum of the infinite. The only one given us to enjoy. You, listening and transcribing. Because something, written in the book of time, commands you to pay attention. You, attempting to defy the wisest, oldest, and most tenacious of all of tenacities: the tenacity of death. You playing, once more, at postponing the verdict. You, serving as amanuensis to the clamor of voices. The clamor of forgetfulness. So that the commanding voice, the voice that charms snakes, will fade away. So that it can no longer practice its beguiling seduction. You, covering with fresh leaves the ancient Tree of Jesse that your mother left you. You, realizing that exile was marked in your lineage from the beginning. You, foolishly consoling yourself with the misfortune of the many. Telling yourself that exile is the fate of all lines. That the one sure expulsion is the exile from this world: the destiny that every generation is fatally condemned to suffer.

A day in June, 1990. Eighty years earlier, your great-uncle, at the side of Gonzalo Sifonte, entered the hollow of Las Llanadas. There, waiting for him, were the claws of the giant sloth. It is you who now digs through the dirt of the years, rearming Megalocnus’s skeleton. You, adding flesh and blood to the bones of your ghosts. You and He, dedicated to reconstructing the Island’s skeleton. You will write that book because there is nothing else you can do. Because the obscure object of desire is winking at you. Because a command runs through you as well.

Because an insatiable curiosity meets you at every step. A curiosity sowed, in your childhood days, by his suggestive words. Words that ran like rivers. Between complicit winks and deep, loud laughter. From those fine lips, half-hidden by his thick mustache. Leading your imagination among the butterflies and polymite shells. Making you circumnavigate the Megalocnus just as Nicolás de Ovando and Sebastián de Ocampo circumnavigated the island. Inviting you to travel, in his galleon of miracles, from the Jardin des Plantes to the Chicago Exposition, from the Leopoldine Academy of Halle to the Alhambra of Granada, from the Museum of Natural History in Washington and a university in misty Germany that carries the name of a poet, to the Lycée Français of Chihuahua and the Universal Exposition of Paris. Alternating those stops with other enigmatic sites: Toa and Jatibonico, San Juan de los Remedios and Cojímar, Yara and Yumurí, the River Máximo with its water jars, and the hills of Viñales.

A day in June, 1991, in Madrid. Taking up the thread again. A day in June, 1491, in Carrión. Juan de la Torre riding toward Granada. Hand at your mouth, you happen upon the doorway to the beginning. Hand at his mouth, He happens upon his destiny. A day in August, 1563, in Seville. María de la Torre embarking on her journey. Imagining the Island. A day in June, 1993, in Madrid’s Cartuja del Paular, you imagining María de la Torre imagining the Island. Telling her, “Of all those who awaken in the fog, none know it better than you do, María. You, who left all of them your surname, who foretold their auspicious destiny, who saw them march in a long and steady caravan, you who learned so much about loss and about love. You, who are crouched in waiting. Watching us be born and watching us die. You, who guide my hand and oblige me to go about inventing them. You, who dictate them to me. You, who tell me: “We are all on a journey. Toward eternity, which is like saying toward night, or toward nothing. But this journey, while it lasts, is life.” A sudden urgency that cannot be put off any longer, and she puts the pen in your right hand and tells you: write.

Write. You who don’t use, unlike the sons of María de la Torre, your maternal surname. But you carry it engraved on every one of your bones. Your bones that will one day end up heaped on the pile of an ossuary. You who already glimpsed radiance and darkness, fragments of sky and ocean, trunks of ceibas and royal palm fronds, an implacable sun, the scent of oregano and wild balsam apple, the voracious roots of the jagüey, gestures and languid voices and impulsive insolences, warm drowsiness and awakening to a light breeze, incipient showers and torrential rains, the hurricane’s all-powerful turbulence, and the perfect vibration of that unrepeatable light that impregnates the air and all things and makes the Island levitate: the infinite blue. You, who will dive to the depths of the sea in order to bring to the surface, one by one, treasures beside trinkets, chains of pearls and emeralds and sets of embossed silver, intermingled with clavicles and kneecaps, mandibles and loose skulls, all stirred up by the sands of the shipwreck. You, who can scarcely distinguish between the voices of the living and the voices of the dead. Because the echoes still reverberate, echoes that will repeat themselves to infinity, in the void of the sunken cavern built by time. You who will hit bottom. You who will attempt, at the wrong time, to give meticulous testimony. You who will carry out the recount. You who will register the days, months, years, and centuries, without whose avatars, duels, chimeras, risks, sorrows, vicissitudes, failures, loves, battles, carnivals, processions, banquets, lineages, disputes, ceremonies, jealousies, lanterns, beds, processes, stages, twilights, treasons, liturgies, caresses, storms, prayers, passions, family crests, sighs, dossiers, navigations, verses—without all those, the streams of blood would never have mixed until arriving at she who inhabits the body that, today, holds a pen in hand and writes.

You, who only write. You who do not ride through evenly spaced olive groves, or do business with corsairs, or found chapels. You who do not buy and sell herds, nor build fortresses. You who do not pull out a shining sword nor dream of entering a convent. You who do not fall in love with your cousin in the middle of the ocean, nor love a poet in love with Death. You who do not take up arms, nor are you shot at. You who do not win or lose in court. You who do not sew bridal gowns nor pass down, in the kitchen, family dishes. You who do not discover, hunting for butterflies, how beautiful and ephemeral is life. You who don’t dig through the dirt of steep ravines, but rather through the dirt of the years. You who in the Cartuja del Paular agreed to let the words flow, that day in October 1990 when some unnamed thing besieged you. Or perhaps it overflowed you? You who discover that you have more memories than if you had already lived a thousand years. And you only need lower your guard for the words to inhabit you.

Translated from the Spanish by Emily Woodman-Maynard.

Emily Woodman-Maynard is currently studying Mandarin in Beijing, China. Having lived a year each in Chile and Argentina, she will return to South America in February, when she will travel to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, to study colonial music and history as a Fulbright fellow. Woodman-Maynard is also cofounder and poetry editor of Princeton University’s first Spanish-language literary magazine, Letra en ruta.

—Julieta Campos (b. 1932), novelist, essayist, and playwright, is widely considered one of Mexico’s leading writers. Her work has had a tremendous impact on the course of Mexican literature, but her literary achievement has yet to receive its due recognition in the United States. In addition to conducting groundbreaking research on the oral histories of indigenous communities in Mexico, Campos has published numerous critical essays and several novels, one of which, Tiene los cabellos rojizos y se llama Sabina (Mexico, J. Mortiz, 1974) won the prestigious Premio Xavier Villaurrutia award. Her works available in English translation include Celina or the Cats (Latin American Literary Review Press, 1995), She Has Reddish Hair and Her Name is Sabina (University of Georgia Press, 1993), and Fear of Losing Eurydice (Dalkey Archive Press, 1993).

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From the train I could look out onto the infinite blue of the sea. I was still exhausted, wakeful from the overnight transatlantic flight to Rome, but looking out at the sea, that Mediterranean sea that was so infinite and so blue, made me forget it all, even myself. I don’t know why.

Originally published in

BOMB 94, Winter 2006

Featuring interviews with Plastilina Mosh, Andy Palacio and Christopher Cozier, Pedro Reyes, Francisco Goldman, Pablo Vargas Lugo and Ruben Gallo, Carlos Brillembourg, Julieta Campos, Jose Castillo, Julieta Campos, Daniel Sada, Jose Luis Rivas, and Beto Gomez.

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