Berta Piñán- The Letter

Getting used to you, who ask for nothing,
love, turned out easy. And it is enjoyable
to try out life’s force
in your life, love,
who offer me everything every day.
But today you receive a letter
with names from other places,
with faces that love you from afar
and, suddenly, I feel I am the last one,
the one who arrives late for your party,
to which she was not invited,
and through the window, late at night, spies
the laughs of all the others,
their glasses not even emptied yet.
And then, waits alone, trembling
with fear, and cursing,
in the coldest corner of the house.

Here is another poem by Berta Piñán. It is the last one I am going to put up in this little series. The dramatic development is easy to recognise and familiar to anyone who has had more than one partner in their life. I like the way that she switches from I to she. It makes the image of her huddling in a corner of the house more poignant: and I think we have read enough of Piñán to realise that the house is more than just a structure of bricks and mortar.

I can relate to it because I met Carmen six years after I separated from my first wife, and more or less the same time after her first husband died in a car crash. There have been moments when I have felt that I arrived “late for her party” especially when friends unanimously say how wonderful Lorenzo was. Perhaps she felt the same when we were in England together.

We were talking yesterday evening about yesterday’s poem. She pointed out that the house does not always come down the female line in Asturias.
“But you and Lorenzo bought this house because it was close to where your father grew up, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Well, yes, but we looked at other houses as well.”
“Including the house where your father grew up…”
“No, I mean we looked in other areas. We just happened to like this one.”
“So it doesn’t mean that the house had to be in your heartland?”
“Not really, no.”
But she nodded her head about the house belonging to the woman. It makes immediate emotional sense to her. Of course the woman controls the house and what is in it: is a man going to do that? That would be absurd.

I suppose I notice it more because it is not my experience. My parents’ house, for example, seems to belong more to my father than my mother. He would deny it, but I remember her once looking at the heavy, Victorian furniture and saying, “This is your dad’s style. I have always felt more attracted to Scandinavian openness and light.”

When I first came to live in Spain with Carmen I developed a theory about the house and home here. It seemed to me that women control the house with a fierce energy, cleaning things that do not need cleaning, ordering things, controlling things and descending into a kind of aggressive bossiness. They place bits of lace on seats so that you do not know where to sit down. Men take refuge from this by going outside where they conspicuoulsy scorn these female touches: in the bars they throw napkins on the floor, workmen leave piles of concrete for someone else to clear up, young men casually throw litter in the street. Inside and outside. The inside scrubbed to within an inch of its life and barely liveable; outside grubby, tatty and energetic with overweight men waving their fat fingers around and stroking their moustaches.

This caricature is not a true picture. It is certainly not true of Carmen. But it has just enough in it to raise a chuckle from people who might have noticed something similar.

I had to give up the caricature when I read a book called Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett. Tremlett is a journalist who lives in Madrid. For the first half of the book I was chuckling to myself and saying, “Yes, I’ve seen that too.” By the time I got to the end I was desperate to move on. It made me a little sick in the stomach to think that I was becoming an ex-pat. Groups of ex-pats get together and have a good old whinge about the country they have chosen to live in. It makes them feel better. I didn’t want to be one of them. I didn’t want to go around noticing how badly people drive in Spain, how frustrating the bureaucracy is, how passive people are in the face of authority and then to be building little theories around my observations. It makes entertaining stand-up comedy but it is the reverse of what Berta Piñán does with her poetry: she does not write to score a few points, get the nod of recognition and maybe a few laughs; she is not building a theory about women or even a theory about the house. Poetry works differently. I think good poetry takes its images from life and assembles them with peculialry potent rhythmic language that makes those images sing.

This blog gives me the pretext to read what poets say about the world, to think about the world they are describing, to listen to their voices. Although I write my comments here I am not jostling forward with a grand theory about what I am reading. I always put the poem first and the comments at the end: that is my order of priorities; first read the poem; second read the commentary. And if I have introduced my home life into this post, it is only to share how reading and listening are a part of life itself: they are not separate activities in a niche called Literature.

Finally, I should say that Ghosts of Spain is a good book that makes a serious attempt to investigate the silence over the Franco years in Spain. It is well-written and well worth reading if you are planning to visit the country.

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Berta Piñán- A House

Raise a house that would be like
a tree, like Daphne growing amongst
its branches, feel the seasons, the leaves
new after the winter, the first fruits
of the summer. A house that would be like a tree,
that survives the storm, clears
the hail, scares away the frozen winds
of time.

Raise a house that would be like
a river, navigable and light, changeable,
fleeting, to drink from its sources, to stop off
at its pools, to run with its streams. A house that would be
like a river, that sweeps away defeat,
pulls up the pain of the drying yards and carries it
with the current, downstream.

Raise a house that would be like
a world, cross the geographies of its passages,
mountains of stairs, the windows open,
the bridges, the roads. Sit down in front of the door
and see life walking past, a friend, a country,
a language, to greet them for a moment
when they go by.

Raise a house that puts on our
name, the personal touches that one day we get wrong,
a word, a face, the memory of the one
we loved,
and so, raise a house, only
in case you come back.

This poem comes from the same anthology by Berta Piñán as yesterday, Noches de Incienso (1985-2002) (Trea Poesía: Gijón, 2005): it originally comes from the collection Un Mes (2002).

Berta Piñán is giving me a lot to think about and I want to share it with you. As I mentioned yesterday the house is a symbol rich with meanings for the poet. Here she stretches the symbol until it is at breaking point. In the first stanza she wants a house like a tree. Daphne is the nymph that Apollo chased until she called out in desperation to her father, a river god, who turned her into a laurel tree. Apollo is the god of poetry and the crown of laurels is used to signify literary or musical achievement. Piñán does not spell any of this out, but it is not accidental. We are invited to think what kind of “house” this will be: resilient and strong, resistant to the weather.

The next house is the river, reminding us that Daphne’s father was a river god. Compared to the static prison of the tree as a house the river offers movement and power. The tree can resist the weather, but the river has the strength to sweep away defeat and destroy things in its path. It pulls up the pain of the drying yards: a sequera is a place where cereal used to be put to dry before it was milled. I did not know this word. I have a feeling it is local to Asturias because it appears in my Diccionariu, Asturianu-Castellanu, Xuan Xosé Sánchez Vicente ed. (Trabe: Uviéu, 2008) but not in my Spanish-English dictionary. There used to be three mills around our village in the mountains. It was a typical part of country life to take your cereal- commonly spelt- to the mill and have it ground to flour. Blanca Elena, one of my neighbours, remembers the mills from when she was a child, says that everyone knew which one gave short measure and which was an honest dealer. Now you go to the supermarket to buy flour. The fields are almost exclusively given over to pasture for cows and alfalfa and corn to feed them in the winter. Using the word sequera then is anachronistic. To suggest the river washing away the pain of the drying yards, therefore, works as a symbol on two levels: on the first level, there is the liberating force of water clearing away something that is about to be milled; on the second level, there is the sense that this clearing away is taking away a vestige of history.

In the third stanza the house has become the world. This is so grandiose an idea that it is inverted so that the world becomes a house where you can sit at the door and watch life go by. This is again a local touch. My friend Fernando built himself a house with a garden out the back where he could sit and enjoy the evening. This was puzzling to the people in his village: “Why would you want to sit at the back of the house?” they asked. “How are you going to know what is going on?”
In an Asturian village there is often a bench at the front of the house where people sit and stare at the traffic going by: no one wastes time with a garden, the back of the house is given over to a vegetable plot.

Up to this point we have spiralled outwards in layers of pantheism, from tree, to river, to world. The poem ends with a radical recentring of the idea of house. The house she says should be ourselves. The house becomes a memory machine: something that will preserve us when the day comes that we start to forget, start to get those personal touches wrong. Again there is a local reality underlying the global sense. The house I live in is Ca’ Candida. It is still known after the woman who lived in the house before Carmen bought it fifteen years ago. There is a conservatism in folk memory. In the Basque Country there are houses that have carried the same name for hundreds of years because the survival of the “house” was so important. Asturias is not quite the same but has its own unique culture that also feeds into the concept of the house that Berta Piñán is using here.

Unlike many other cultures, in Asturias the house definitely belongs to the woman. I know many men even now who moved to their wife’s village when they got married. Even if the house comes down on the man’s side of the family it may be “his” but there will be a woman who has emotional ownership. A spritely eighty year old woman comes down the road and says, “I’m just going to look at my house.”
“But isn’t that Ramón’s house?” I say to Carmen.
“Well, if it is Ramon’s house it is his mother’s, isn’t it? That’s just obvious,” she replies.

In everyday language it is understood that the house is the woman’s territory and that she controls what goes on in it and around it. My neighbour, for example, finds it entirely incomprehensible that I would work in the garden with Carmen planting flowers. “I look after the animals,” he says in puzzlement. “My wife does the garden.” He moved to his wife’s village when he got married more than forty years ago: people still see him as an outsider, even though his village is only four kilometres down the hill.

This means that Berta Piñán’s grounding symbol, the house, has a particular interest for women. We sense this from the beginning of the poem and the allusion to Daphne and, if we allow it to, the poem rounds the concept out towards the end.

These observations are not directly relevant to this poem. You can enjoy it without them, but I find that as I read Berta Piñán she enriches my understanding of the world around me. That is good poetry, isn’t it?

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Berta Piñán- In Memoriam

You come to me. You know all the corners
of this house, the plenitude of the air when winter
attacks and we remain alone who came alone.
From what strange province, from what absurd season
of ashes and rain do you come to me tonight
if death, they say, cannot reach beyond
death. At my side your lost years grow on you,
those years that time betrays us and denies us,
and for one night, this night, you’re back
and give life to life,
you, who know of life only its death.

From Noches de Incendio (Trea Poesía: Gijón, 2005)

This morning I was watching a video on Youtube about Jonathan Williams, the North Carolina poet. The particular interest of Jonathan Williams to me is the way he combines words and images: he described it as a kind of oscillation between Charles Olson and Ian Hamilton Finlay; for Olson the poem being an extension of breathing; for Finlay a solid visual object.

Williams set up Jargon Press to publish poetry. He says in the Youtube video that the audience for poetry is small. When he was a student at Black Mountain College, the audience was the community of students and staff there. To write meant to write for that community. Once he left the college he found other communities by writing letters and making friends. Even though he never met many of those friends in person, they were the audience for his work: he wrote for them and published their poetry at his press, in beautiful editions that are “embodied” like Finlay’s work.

So, I am sitting in Villandás in a cold kitchen that is getting a little warmer as the wood-burning stove gains pace. In front of me I have Noches de Incendio by Berta Piñán. It is 16.5cm x 12cm. It is not a pamphlet: it has 150 pages; 52 poems that mostly don’t go beyond a page in length. They are taken from four separate collections. I hold the book in my hand and am more conscious than I normally am of the physicality of the book and the poems. Partly it is because I still have Jonathan Williams’s laconic voice in my head, but it seems to me that these poems by Berta Piñán in this edition are striving to be solid visual objects.

I can’t get over just how strange this poem is. I am not going to go into metrics because I don’t think that is going to help much here, but think about it: a poem with eleven lines? Isn’t that rather startlingly… well… odd? The oddness of it is not the unintentional consequence of incompetence. The nimble enjambement of “winter//attacks” and “beyond//death” tells us that much.

What is this house she is talking about? You are going to have to take my word for it that the house plays a role throughout the collection as an organising symbol. Piñán is a smart poet so she doesn’t explain her metaphors. The house works as the symbolic embodiment of the female experience of life, but it radiates out from there: it seems to stand for life and literature in Asturias as well. Susana Reisz talks about this in her short and penetrating intoduction:

The house, or home, is one of the most persistent symbols in Berta Piñán’s poetry. And also one of the most transparent due to its ancestral roots in the collective imagination and its all-purpose presence in the real-everyday. Home is the centre of the ego, the beginning and the end of stories, the point of departure and the final destination. It is the mythic source from which flow happiness and unhappiness at the beginning of time. It is childhood and primordial love but it is also a trench and tomb for other loves. It is the fatherland, a refuge for travellers, a place of meetings and farewells, a magnet that attracts lovers and allows their joining, a nuptial chamber, burning wood, embers, battlefield, a fortress destroyed or a friendly port after the storm. It is a dwelling of stone and clay but it is also a dwelling for dreams, promises, hopes, memories.

I think you can see from this list that the house, or home, is capable of generating many meanings.

Berta Piñán doesn’t want us to settle too quickly on one meaning for this little poem, however. Ask yourself what the line “we remain alone who came alone” could mean. The use of we implies that the sense of alone is not solitude, but being single, unaccompanied. So the house, or home, is not a place to find companionship.

When I read the poem to Carmen she said straight away, “It’s a child.” The returning figure whose lost years grow and who only knows death of life is a lost child who once knew all the corners of the house. This makes the poem a singularly intimate piece of writing, like the Curros Enríquez poem Ay. Gettting back to my meditations on Jonathan Williams, I wonder who the original audience for these poems was: what community of understanding was ready for these poems about home and house, death and loss, belonging and isolation?

Perhaps if I dig around I can find a few answers to these questions.

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Daniel García Granda- Philadelphia Skyline

For Miriam

The giants are as quiet as intentions
of glass, and their souls
lean out between their lids
searching the vagabond breeze of the skies.
At this hour
the city is a black woman
with gold alleyways wrapped round her neck
like warm amulets.
No one,
not even the stealthy
steps of a dream, is going to stop
at the lights. Only
the whinnying of a taxi
burns the curves of the centre,
heart of 36th and Market, waking
your memory that was flying off distant
bringing to you at the window the pigeon distance.

(August night 2002, Sheraton Hotel, Philadelphia)

Daniel García Granda, from Leyendas Urbanas


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Pedro Juan Gutiérrez- The Triumph of the Politically Correct

When I am worse
worse than yesterday
or worse than the day before

When it all starts turning black
and the stink of shit grows
in the passages
and the stairways
I always have some small reserve
to keep open all night.
Tiny little antvirus microbes
which I casually release
while that poet
tells me dead leaves scare her
in her poems.
She doesn’t know how to get rid of the dead leaves.
“Oh Johnny, too many dead leaves,
it’s a vice to go on writing and writing,”
she tells me sadly
with her downtrodden melancholy eyes,
a little drunk.
I listen to her
and believe that at these heights
my eyes are also faded
and sad
at least exhausted

I take a sip of wine
and think about the shit
that is invading the whole building
where I live
One day I will have to leave
this cocktail
One day the successful, sad poet
will stop complaining
of everything that is unnecessary in her poems
and will empty my glass
and the waiters won’t bring any more bottles
and will smile professionally
with empty hands
like someone saying farewell, goodbye, so long.

And I will have to go back home
where the shit stinks
and advances disgustingly.
I will try to walk
in the neatest possible way
without stepping in the shit, I mean.
Without smelling the shit.
Without looking at the shit.
It’ll be hard.
I doubt I’ll be able to achieve
that instant
that is so asceptic.
So hygienically-correct.
To walk next to the shit
and not be contaminated.
That is to say,
the triumph of political correctness.
And then
the sons of bitches will say:
“At last we’ve got him by the neck
don’t release him!
Don’t let him go!
Tighten the bonds!
At last we can give him medals and laurels.
John Snake domesticated.
At last we will be able to applaud him and cajole him.
We will make him enter our lodge
the Order of the Great Opportunist Knights
so that Johnny
can be a happy man,
as well as being blind
and deaf-mute.”

Pedro Juan Gutiérrez was born in Matanzas, Cuba. I found this poem in Leyendas Urbanas (ed. José Cezón and Ángel García) a collection of texts by writers from Siero. The collection is impressive. I try to put it into a context I am familiar with: what if someone were to put together an anthology of writing from Leiston in Suffolk or Taunton? Would you come up with the same quantity of good writing?

José Cezón says in his Prologue that the editors realized that Pedro Juan Gutiérrez wrote most of his stories about Havana, which is twinned with Siero, and decided to write to him to ask him to take part. Gutiérrez is a well-known writer whose Dirty Havana Trilogy achieved a moderate success about ten years ago in England.

I came across him by reading backwards through the book and, even when I read his brief bio, did not recognise the name immediately. I was, however, taken by his description of himself:

Resident in Havana, he has worked many different trades: ice-cream and newspaper seller, sapper, swimming and kayak instructor, sugar-cane cutter, agricultural labourer, construction worker, technical draughtsman, painter, sculptor, radio announcer and journalist.

This is so far different from the usual tiresome lists of prizes, gongs, publishing triumphs and prestigious medallions that it is instantly charming. It also reflects on the meaning of the poem, which burns like a gob of acid reflux in the anthology as a whole, because some of the other writers are rather urgently interested in their own importance!



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Francisco de Rioja- Silva I

Silva I
A painter who wanted to paint the figure
of Apollo on a laurel wood panel.

I wetted my brush with colour in vain
to flesh out, O Phoebus, your figure
on a laurel panel: Oh, the colours
obey neither the mind nor the hand,
Daphne even flees a painting of you,
the tree still has not forgotten your love.
She lost the snow and rose that once
tinged her forehead and mouth,
but not the chastity she lived with
as she keeps it still in her hard bark.
She lost only
colour, beauty.
Elusive Daphne, do you live on in the coarse trunk
in your disdain, still your living image?
I painted Dawn across the horizon
amongst flaming and distinct clouds,
with pure highlights and rosy trappings.
Of the Nymph who lives in the dark hollow
I made a gesture of my desire with the brush,
giving body to her at the same time with various tints.
And you, proud Mars, though a warrior,
did not shake your shining steel at me
because I showed you with my colours .
breathing ferocity.
Only this virgin shows her hardness
to me, because I tried
to make Apollo embrace the formless wood.
Daphne has conquered art,
O Cynthian Apollo, and it is your fault!
Where is your bow, where is the divine breath?
From such weak power she has to run away
and hide away from it somewhere.
Tell me, does the old fire
still flow imperiously in your blood?
Disdain can only conquer one who has given in!
Now I feel for her disdain of you and not of art
because your story (illustrious Apollo)
remains without glory, without lustre to the world alone.

Francisco de Rioja

Francisco de Rioja is another of the poets in the circle of Francisco Pacheco in seventeenth-century Seville. Pacheco included this poem in his Treatise on Painting, which is a mine of information about the techniques, iconographical problems and personalities of his time. He also produced a book called the Libro de Descripción de Ilustres Varones, which includes drawings and biographies of famous men of his time: Francisco de Rioja is one of these.

This poem is put into the mouth of a painter who is trying to paint a scene with Apollo but is having trouble. Apollo is the Greek God of learning, music and culture. He is also associated with the sun. As is common with many Greek Gods he engaged in amorous adventures the most famous of which was immortalised by Bernini in the wonderful statue that shows him descending on Daphne. This is how Ovid describes the moment:

So the virgin and the god: he driven by desire, she by fear. He ran faster, Amor giving him wings, and allowed her no rest, hung on her fleeing shoulders, breathed on the hair flying round her neck. Her strength was gone, she grew pale, overcome by the effort of her rapid flight, and seeing Peneus’s waters near cried out ‘Help me father! If your streams have divine powers change me, destroy this beauty that pleases too well!’ Her prayer was scarcely done when a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty was left.

(from Poetry in Translation)

She was turned into a laurel tree.

The poet imagines the painter having difficulty painting Apollo and ascribing his difficulties to the fact that the panel he is working on is of laurel wood. Apollo is a the god of the intellectual side of art. It is no surprise that we imagine angels with harps- that is the Apollonian harp. The devils play wind instruments and drums. This means that the poem works simultaneously at metaphorical level: the painter’s desire to impose his creative will on the panel is dierctly equated with Apollo’s desire to impose his procreative will on the nymph. Both are frustrated.

I’m not sure what I make of the conclusion. It seems to be an argument for rape. What do you think?



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Juan de Jaureguí- Dialogue Part II

ESCULTURA: Painting, you don’t convince me
with all that talk of your greatness;
as those men you are talking about
will be dead in two days,
them and their works.

You can think of his fame
as complete whose foundation
is just a thin layer
of canvas or a painted wall,
which the wind will wipe clean in a moment.

My bronzes are powerful
against your vain envy;
and in fearsome marbles
my Praxiteles and Phidias
will live on, forever famous.

PAINTING: The fame of your chisels
does not lie in broken marble;
that fame is shared by my Apelles,
Parhassius and Polignotos,
with no trace of their brushes.

Matter can never
give honour to the artist,
who exceeds it with his art;
and concedes to wax
the same life as to bronze.

Our arts are given credit
when they perfectly know how
to copy the forms they imitate.
and their honour is not limited
to whether they last or fade away.

NATURE: I would like to allay
your dispute without annoying you,
so that the truth may be understood
and not to offend
the wisest artist.

I say, then, that you should not doubt
that you are equal in nobility
in one essential point,
which is the end that you give yourselves to
in copying my nature.

But the means alone
by which this end is attained
(Sculpture do not get angry)
give preeminent honour
to the art of Painting.

Because by the joining
of perfect colouring
and one or another precept,
her imitation is extended
to all visible objects;

and with her mixed tints,
with a foundation in good drawing,
her imitated images
come to be as believable
as my own formed works.

The chisel cannot imitate
faithfully in any material
fire, the sun’s rays
fields laid out, the sea,
sky, stars, sun and moon.

And given that the supreme honour
of the sculptor and painter
is when he strives to imitate
man, who is the creature
that is most similar to the Creator,

also in man it is plain
that colours come forth
with admirable beauty,
giving to the human body
a thousand inner passions.

Whose eyes are not fooled
by the strange lifelikeness
of some face where can be seen
even the sparkle in the eye
and the subtle eyelash?

The quality of the painter
grows also when you see him tasked
with great difficulties,
and always in need of
genius and ability.

And if the sculptor alleges
that his blows are tiring,
it is a blind allegation:
since it is more tiring for the one
who rows, digs or reaps.

And if the liberal art
of the good brush and chisel
were honoured by such work,
we would owe the same honour
to low and manual occupations.

The higher work
which gives value to the arts
is employed in creativity;
and this is the work that
the painter diligently employs.

Sculpture, with a more tempered
and more relaxed spirit,
looks at and measures without deception,
the bulks it translates
into form, action and size.

But he who paints on flat surfaces,
is not informed by size,
action or form of what he works on,
nor is there any distinct clarity
that the paintbrush does not re-form:

there is no measure to help him,
and his gaze does not assure him
unless it is accompanied by wise art,
when, with pure hard work,
he corrects and changes it all.

This is now Perspective
on which base is founded
all that the paintbrush paints;
a difficult and elusive art,
and, more than difficult, faithful;

for if the painter who understands it
prizes it and does not offend
in the darks and lights,
he forms the strange foreshortening
that tricks the eyes of the wise.

From this admirable labour
and extreme difficulty
the sculptor lives apart;
and to the ingenious painter
gives supreme authority.

I have pondered the parts
of most greatness and pleasure;
and don’t say I have held back
the honour I owe to both sides
in the highest degree.

This is the conclusion of the Dialogue. You can see that Jaureguí settles for painting as the higher art in the end. This is based on the breadth of its potential for imitation. We have tended to move away from the idea that imitation of nature is the foundation of art. However, I find the argument is still fresh. The idea that “matter can never give honour to the artist” is still intriguing today.

Jaureguí came from a npble Basque family. The prestige of painting in the seventeenth-century is shown by the fact that he went to Italy to study painting. Pacheco refers to him as an artist and Cervantes says he made a portrait of him. I have been unable to find anything that is unequivovally by his hand unfortunately.

He won poetic competitions in Sevilla and went on to Madrid where he wrote against the current of difficult, highly ornate language of Gongora and his followers. Seville was the great emporium of the south attracting people from all corners of the Spanish empire to trade goods, money and ideas. In this respect it was more international in flavour than Madrid, even though the court was based in the capital.

In Seville there was a fruitful interplay of poetry and painting. Poets took the classical idea that they were “painters with words” and played around with literary games such as ekphrasis, the description of painted scenes. At the same time painters enjoyed the prestige of their association with literature, prided themselves on their connections with poets and emphasised the intellectual side of their work. Francisco Pacheco’s uncle was a poet and canon of the Cathedral who ran a small writers’ group.

Ut pictura poesis, a motto derived from Horace’s Art of Poetry, gave classical authority to an age-old theme: that poetry is like painting and painting like poetry.

The image is Baltasar del Alcázar from Pacheco’s Libro de descripción. He had a house he called the Casa Jocosa where he had literary tertulias and lived a jovial life. I think you can see that from his face!



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