As the Traveling Poet / Como el poeta viajero
Book Review by Ernesto L. Abeytia
Poet in Andalucía
by Nathalie Handal
Pitt Poetry Series
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012
144 pages, $15.11 ($16.95 Kindle)
I am seven
it is the day before our departure,
the day my father
gives me a notebook,
and I tell him,
this is where I’ll keep my country.
—Nathalie Handal, “The Thing about Feathers”
When I reflect on my current work and what I like to write about, I inevitably drift to thoughts of Spain, my brief life there, and my travels across it and its neighboring countries. There’s something about the food, the people, the very air in Spain that pulls me to write about it. Beside my familial connections to the country, I simply feel at home there, especially in Madrid, where I lived and studied for two years, and have gone back to visit many times since. Because Spain’s world of intimate secrets continues to influence my writing, I’m drawn to poetry about Spain or poetry that has Spanish influences.
Nathalie Handal’s Poet in Andalucía is one such collection. As Handal explains in her preface, Poet in Andalucía is a response to Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York, a collection of poems written over his ten-month stay at Columbia University from 1929 to 1930. Handal’s collection, written eighty years later, is a similar journey of self-discovery and of loss and longing for place. Written while she visited various provinces throughout Andalucía, the southernmost region of Spain, Handal’s poems speak to place in terms of location, landscape, local customs, and first and lasting impressions.
Handal’s poem, “The Courtyard of Colegiata del Salvador,” for instance, traces an Arabic boy’s ancestral immigration to Southern Spain centuries after the expulsion of the Arabs and Moors, and his later rediscovering of self:
He couldn’t count the waves
that led him across
the Strait of Gibraltar
so he tore his memory,
left where he came from behind,
and learned to pray differently.
He knelt instead of bowed.
spoke any language but his own.
Handal uses Granada’s Colegiata del Salvador, as a symbol for how identity is sometimes lost through change and reshaped by history. The Colegiata is a Muslim mosque from the ninth century that was converted into a Christian church in the fourteenth century after the Spanish Reconquista. As the poem shows, the Arab boy has to assimilate to the dominant Spanish culture, forgetting the customs, and even the language, that formed his identity. However, the Arabic influences in Granada persist and are easily identifiable. Handal expresses this sentiment of the Arabic culture’s steady presence across Andalucía and within the boy:
Years later, sitting
in a courtyard he is startled
by the loudness of the wind,
almost like the start of the adhan [a Muslim call to prayer].
He feels a small fire alongside his heart,
what’s sacred always returns.
While the boy, like the Moors and Arabs of Southern Spain, feels displaced, the Islamic relics continue to influence, linger, help shape the current landscape. Many buildings throughout Andalucía are repurposed buildings from Islamic Spain, while many proper names and words in Spanish have clear derivations from the Arabic language, despite the many costly and bloody efforts made to remove Islamic influences in Spain.
As Handal moves across Southern Spain, she chronicles the world she passes through as a way of understanding herself and her place in Spain. She uses her poem “Alhandal y Las Murallas de Córdoba,” which spans eleven pages, to trace the Arabic significance of her surname, Handal, and how it relates to the fortified walls surrounding Córdoba, a city known for its blend of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures and influences. In her poem, she comes across revelations about self with the rhetorical technique of question/answer:
Then you ask, where are
the cities of our childhoods,
and those of our deaths—
who will you be?
I tell you—
I will be the hilltop
and the round that split open
to allow the jasmines to bloom.
I will be
the bone collector sold
to see the woman he loves.
I will be
the well where water meets water.
This moment in “Alhandal…” continues with more assertions of what the speaker will be, what the speaker will do as she reclaims/retains her place in Córdoba.
Work like Handal’s Poet in Andalucía is excellent in how it celebrates and discovers identity within Spain. The integration of and meditation on Spanish culture throughout the book is refreshing and welcomed. In fact, it is this very mixture of languages and cultures that make the writing so powerful and pertinent.
Ernesto L. Abeytia is a Spanish-American poet and teacher. He holds MAs in English from Saint Louis University and the Autonomous University of Madrid, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, PBS NewsHour, The Shallow Ends, and elsewhere. His essays and reviews have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Finishing Line Press, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter: @eabeytia.