I knew I was in trouble as soon as I walked into the classroom, late on the first day, and saw only two other students and the professor.
It was 1985, my junior year, and the spring of my self-importance. The sound of the Mississippi River lapping at her banks across the bridge from campus enchanted me more readily than stuffy classrooms and the stuffed shirts lecturing in them, so I often arrived late to class, if I arrived at all. These companions, smirking at me from their front row seats, were thinking the same: this will be the longest quarter ever. We three were the ones who appeared for class at random, sat in the back row, muttered wisecracks under our breath, and experienced the occasional ire of a fed-up professor.
Our well-mannered and more studious counterparts were all away in Spain that term. As the only three in Advanced Spanish Literature, we would have no one to slouch behind and snicker at. We’d have to show up–on time and every day. We’d have to pay attention and do our work.
I formally studied Spanish for eight years. During college, I retreated from a Spanish major to a Spanish minor and finally to a Political Science major with a long trail of Spanish classes dragging behind. I excelled in grammar and all things written. I was nominally functional in conversation. Literature was my anathema. And it earned me an equal place in the hearts of my professors.
Reading the works of Miguel de Cervantes and Francisco de Quevedo in their native Golden Age Spanish proved my downfall. I read page after page, comprehending little and retaining less. The day after I read Cervantes for three hours straight, my companions persuaded our Peruvian professor to hold class under the giant oak outside our building. After I failed to answer a single question correctly, she squinted into the sun so as not to look me in the face and suggested that perhaps, tomorrow, I could read con los ojos abiertos. With my eyes open.
After a number of midterm withdrawals from Spanish lit classes, I abandoned hope of a degree in the language. But my love of it went on. I’d spent the previous summer, and would also spend the next, in Argentina, living and learning the rich Castellano spoken along the Rio de la Plata. Without even my two troublesome classmates to rescue me, I learned to speak the way one does when one wants to survive. In order to be fed, to go from here to there, to work, to love. But my professors–from Peru, Spain, Mexico–had little patience with the Porteño tint at the edge of my accent.
I resolved not to sit in another Spanish class and took to reading less Cervantes and more from Hebrew poets like David and Asaph. I followed familiar words in a bilingual text as they worked their way into my mind and body. I found myself thinking in Spanish more freely than in English, as though in some Quixote mind trick I was able to slip by an English-speaking censor in my head.
It’s no surprise to me, then, that my venture into poetry would come full circle, bringing me back to reading Spanish literature. But this time, rather than the dense prose of 16th and 17th century authors it is the earthy poetry of Pablo Neruda, who hands me words I’ve never heard, but that make perfect and instant sense, words I was looking for without knowing.
Tal vez tu sueño
se separó del mío
y por el mar oscuro
cuando aún no existías,
Perhaps your dream
drifted from mine
and through the dark sea
was seeking me
when you did not yet exist
–Pablo Neruda, from “La Noche en la Isla” (Night on the Island)
The Captain’s Verses: Love Poems