“When that moment arrives, a verse or a phrase will come into my head, and that will be the start of the process. Once I have those few words in my mind, I know that I have a poem, no matter how long it takes for it to take shape.”
The infanta walks her poodle after a sandstorm
Clarel Neme, “Niñas y sus mascotas”
Town has become dune overnight, streets erased
into silence. Duennas pray their glum hearts out
in stifling dark, peer from thresholds still menaced
by sand. Under a blue ash sky, the infanta
sails her farthingale over grit and shingle,
white blur on a leash, followed by a labouring
menina. The dog has to be walked. Mass
can wait, lessons with the nun-tutoress
too, and anyway Sister Marcela’s geography
is shaky at best. Should she dare to step out
into this changed world, she would be lost
on the rippling drift, never find her way
back to safety, church or the ochre
precincts of the half-buried palace.
What inspired this poem and what was your writing process?
“The infanta walks her poodle after a sandstorm” is part of a project I’m currently working on, which involves poems based on the work of Uruguayan visual artists. I like writing ekphrastic poems (I’ve written pieces inspired by painters as varied as Sofonisba Anguissola and Ilya Repin, to name just two), but in this project I’m focusing exclusively on Uruguayan artists. These poems will become a pamphlet in due course, and I hope they’ll make readers want to look for the paintings that inspired them.
“The infanta…” is based on a painting by Clarel Neme (Uruguay, 1926-2004) entitled “Niñas y sus mascotas” (“Little girls and their pets”). Like much of Neme’s output, it’s a surreal piece – slightly absurd and not a little ironic. But it also somehow transported me to imperial Spain – with its princesses and ladies-in-waiting moving around shadowy rooms in cumbersome clothes – with its barren plains where the likes of Don Quixote might be pursuing adventures – and that imagery or notion ended up forming the basis for the poem. I imagined a young, headstrong princess walking out of her palace into a world transformed – in this case by a freak sandstorm. After that, the poem more or less wrote itself – not that it didn’t take a lot of effort to get the tone and atmosphere exactly as I wanted them to be.
There are several references in the poem to Hapsburg Spain – the duennas, for example, those elderly women who for many centuries, including the seventeenth, chaperoned young girls in both Spain and Portugal – and of course the real-life nun in Diego Velázquez’s “Las meninas” (which may or may not be the inspiration behind Neme’s painting) was the little infanta’s governess, and called Marcela. And, while you might think introducing a poodle into this scene is a bit anachronistic (at least if you look at the big mastiff in “Las meninas”), it turns out that poodles were a favourite dog of the European aristocracy long before the Renaissance, if Wikipedia is to be believed!
I hope I’ve done justice to the painting’s eerie but not hostile quality, to the sense of magic and possibility in a hazy town where a girl in crinoline skirts and mantilla skips over the sand, leading her little dog by a gossamer leash.
How do you write a poem generally?
All my poems start with ideas. I will consciously or unconsciously realize that a certain idea might make a good poem, and this notion will stay with me, even if the actual writing of the poem happens much later. Some of these ideas have taken me years to turn into a poem – they have just remained there in the background, waiting for the right moment.
When that moment arrives, a verse or a phrase will come into my head, and that will be the start of the process. Once I have those few words in my mind, I know that I have a poem, no matter how long it takes for it to take shape.
I always put my first drafts away for some time before returning to them, and when I do I will almost invariably make changes and improvements, or find the answer to some nagging difficulty I’d had in the first round of writing.
Most of my poetry is written in English, which is a second language for me, while most of my prose is written in Spanish, my mother tongue. I suppose that duality makes me a kind of rara avis in the Uruguayan literary scene, though by no means the only one. In my teens I discovered the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets, fell in love with them, and started writing very cheesy and stilted poems which borrowed their trademark imagery – icy lips, creamy brows and all that. My poems were of course toe-curlingly awful, but it was in itself remarkable that a Uruguayan teenager would write that kind of thing, and in a foreign language too. It’s perhaps also interesting that these old tropes and images were being deployed –however clumsily– by a very young woman instead of a mature man, which is what the authors I was looking to overwhelmingly were; so I suppose that, in a way, I turned the stereotypes upside down. Some of these authors have remained hugely relevant to me – I just hope my own stuff has gotten better over time!
For some time now I’ve found it satisfying to write poems structured around couplets or tercets, which I feel allows me to highlight images or ideas in a more distinct way. I’ve realized, as the years go by, that I seem to be striving for a stripped-to-the-essentials vision, way simpler and starker than some of my previous work. I’ve also ditched rhyme – not that I ever was much of a fan. I’d say my poems have become less gaudy and at the same time more attentive to the details of the world around me. What has not changed are the subjects that interest me – history, places, art and, above all, our fraught, human, day-to-day experience of happiness and loss.