New Welsh Review
A South American Childhood
This radio talk by Lynette Roberts on her South American poems is published here to celebrate the recent publication by Carcanet of her Collected Poems, edited by Patrick McGuinness. A revealing autobiographical piece, it conveys a sense of the vitality of Roberts’s prose, and is among a small hoard of fascinating documents left among her papers. These include an account of her visit to Lorca’s grave, a witty but bemused description of a tea party at the Sitwells’, and an account of a meeting with T. S. Eliot. It is hoped to publish a collection of her prose in 2007, including her unpublished diary, ‘A Carmarthenshire Village’, her short stories, autobiographical pieces and collected articles.
One of the earliest memories I have of my childhood was to wander out of the gate and stare at the South American pampas. The quiet grey grass stretched over to the horizon where a plantation of sugar cane and maize drew a thread of bright green along its edge. A bison wandered over the plains and nothing more. Near the house lived an old woman who earned her living by making mud bricks. My father, who was in charge of the Mechita railway junction, and always rode back and fro to work on horseback, scolded me one day for straying on the plains. Then the bison disappeared.
It was when I wrote the rondel ‘Blood and Scarlet Thorns’, which was published in my first book of Poems in 1944, that I used these early images for the birth of Christ. I shall now read you the poem:
Who bends the plain to waist of night
And stems the bird to tree of flight,
Who stretches leagues to see a bone
Of bison cast as proud as stone,
Who lengthens maize and sweeps the light
Of grenadine right out of sight;
It is the hard and monstrous plight
Of weeping birth this citron dawn,
This citron dawn,
A heart breaks through the ice of night
Who is, and bursts a paper kite
That sails the day into a dome
Of joy, and tears, and monotone,
This day maintained: a child was born,
A child was born.
The New World with its strange subtlety absorbed me with its vivid impressions, the spinning windmills irrigating the quintas, and as the corrugated containers filled with water, I bathed in them within shadow of the peach trees. A favourite haunt of mine was the patio kitchen, filled with creollos and flies, with the smell of the carbon fire and oil, where I would wait until I had sucked the very sweet maté amargo out of their bombillas as they passed the gourd round. We ate frogs and wild birds and the first view I had of a large spider lifting the roof of his house in the mud and slamming it back, I shall never forget. The small pueta where people lived with their horses tethered to the wooden post outside their shacks, their songs, knife-fights, guitars, the dark shadows the peons cast as they gamble behind clouds of dust as the horse race took place. They were and still are the root culture of the Argentine soil. So when the thatched roofs were torn down and corrugated roofs placed in their stead and values were placed on the wrong issues, I rebelled and wrote to establish belief in these people in my poem called ‘The New World’. Here it is:
Memory widens our senses, folds them open:
Ancient seas slip back like iguanas and reveal
Plains of space, free, sky-free, lifting a green tree
on to a great plain.
Heard legend whistling through the waiting jabirú,
Knew the two-fold saying spinning before their eyes
Breaking life like superstition, they too
might become half-crazed.
Staring sitting under the shade of Ombú tree,
Living from the dust: kettles simmer on sticks,
Maté strengthens their day’s work like dew
on hot dry grass.
So the people baking too close fulfilled time,
Mud became brick walls and the legend flared high,
Shadows broke, flames frowned and bent the sky
proclaiming Indian omens.
Roofs fell clattering in on man and child,
Black framed their faces, from fire not from sun:
While before them land divided announcing
stake peggers’ loud claim.
Death ate their hearts like locusts over a croaking plain,
Tears fell red as fireflies on the rising dust;
Barbed wire fenced them in or fenced them out,
these outcasts of the land.
So the people fled unwanted further on into the land,
On to the Plain of White Ashes where thorns spread
Like the wreath of Christ. Further out on to
the Ancient Sea of Rhea.
Ombú turned hollow as it stood alone:
Spiders lifted the lids of their homes and slammed them back
Sorrow set the plovers screaming at the falling
hoofs and feet:
Cinchas bound their eaten hearts: leather sealed their lips;
Ponchos warmed their pumpkin pride: as insects floated,
As windmills grew. Ventevéo! Ventevéo! And further they
strove, the harder not to be seen.
Lost now. No sound or care can revive their ways:
La Plata gambles on their courage, spends too flippantly,
Mocks beauty from the shading tree, mounts a corrugated roof
over their cultured hut.
This reminds me that an editor asked if I couldn’t change ‘corrugated roof over their cultured hut’, it was so ugly. He did not see that that was the purpose of the whole poem. The estancias were being sold or mortgaged and the money drifted into the Casinos at La Plata. The peon or gaucho and the land were left in despair.
During holidays from the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Buenos Aires I often went on my father’s yacht on the River Plate. He had such a fever for boats and sailing throughout his life that I even remember his building a boat and its hull, which hung like a skeleton mammal in one of the Mechita stables. And this was far from water on the plains. So I watched this River Plate as it lapped past reflecting the blue sky, the oranges blown into the water, wild sylvan grass and its own warm fawn colour, and I wrote this song for the River Plate:
The pampas are for ever returning
The orange river pounding the sea,
From a high dry plain with a tint of tea
La Plata spreads, and churns drowning
The dust from the charcas murmuring
At the bare roots of the Ombú tree:
The pampas are for ever returning
Bright green birds into a piranha sea.
Over spare-dust and barbed wire slowly
Cattle die from thirst wounds, returning
Like maté ships shivering, bringing
No sound but white bones back to me:
The pampas are for ever returning
Bad bones and dust into an angry sea.
Other holidays were spent at the foot of the Andes on the Chilean lakes. At Traful there was just the one house and on a distant hill a white horse, whose owner would appear once or twice a year to change maize for leatherwork he had made. No one knew his language. A guarani sang as she washed at the open tub, a wild fox tame at her side. Mrs Dawson had tamed it, and her husband was out shooting pumas, the children riding barefoot and bareback throughout sandstone gorge. We raced after the wild animals and threw bolas. But I rode with a sheepskin and could not throw the bola well. They caught their game. Then into an Inca burial, where a skeleton was found lying upside down, handmade gold jewels and trinkets. Mrs Dawson had them on her mantelpiece. So I wanted to know more about Peru and the Incas. Certain phrases of theirs inspired me, such as lion grass, the mountain where the sun was tied up, the eyebrow of the mountain. The word ‘Traful’, where we played, apparently meant ‘lake of pools’. And these later grew into a poem with the Inca title ‘Xaquixaguana’, meaning ‘the Valley of Beauty’. In this I tried to create the whole quality of that race:
In the lake of pools
Where icebergs stand firm on the ground,
And refrain to move for beauty of their image,
Five Temples lie wounded on their sides
Each plundered and more progressive than the last.
I speak of the one with the grey-crusted sleepers
Sitting in the splint-blue cave.
Especially he, of the up-side-down burial
With arrows set like buhls in the rib of the wreck:
Who was this white man of Peru?
And what flat burial did he deserve
To stir their sandstone agave? To face emerald sky
And snarling rocks where the sun’s tied up:
Lying stiff among gold filaments and animate clay
Snouting Azrael forms and intricate beads:
Those Huacas spread and exposed under cacti waterbeds,
Green as tunas, weathered with poisoned alizarin darts
Who was this man who stole their store of gold?
Who found down here down Pilcomayo way,
Near lion grass and glass birds sailing the lake,
Who was he, that lies buried at the Haravec’s feet
Aggrieved by this ice and basaltic sheet?
During the interval that my father was General Manager for the Buenos Aires Western Railway and was contemplating buying an estancia in Mar del Plata, I sent him a sonnet supporting his opinion of administration and the beliefs which he held. And beside him throughout this period was the office boy who first helped him at the Mechita Junction. He was now his private secretary. I said in this poem to my father in 1939, which I called ‘Argentine Railways’:
To you who walked so proudly down the line,
Promoting men from engine plates, skilled
Workers from the sheds: the Board soon killed
The cut you had to socialise the ‘decline’.
You, who planned man’s bonus among the whine
And shrill of people on the go; filled
The sleeper’s clock with admiration; drilled
Time in travelling into a close combine.
But now I prefer to think of you set back
Upon the land, with eucalyptus trees
Shading corral from dust; plan as you please
The round hill into a wholesome farm. ‘Their’ lack
To accept your methods receive with ease,
For they will come to that in the end or ‘freeze’.
For the British born in the Argentine there are many sea voyages, and on one of these ten trips I particularly remember having the director’s coach sent down to us in order that we might go up the one cable railway to São Paulo. During the war, in a Welsh village, these nostalgic saudaded came back to me and I wrote this poem, ‘Royal Mail’:
I would see again São Paulo:
The coffee coloured house with its tarmac roof
And spray of tangerine berries.
I would again climb the mountain cable
And see Pernambuco with its dark polished table,
The brilliance of its sky piercing through the trees
Like so much Byzantine glass or clear Grecian frieze.
As we stumble higher, strolling gourds and air-plants
Spring from muscoid branch to barnacle wire:
I would see old man should it come my way,
The mahogany pyramids of burnished berries, gay
With surf-like attitudes of men sitting around
In crisp white suits, starch to the ground.
The peacock struts and nets mimicrying butterflies,
And the fazenda shop clinking like ice in an enamel jug
As you open the door. The stench of wine-wood,
Saw-dust, maize flour, pimentos, and basket of birds,
With the ear-tipped ‘Molto bien signorit’, and the hot mood
Blazing from the drooping noon. Outside sweating gourds
Dripping rind and peel; yet inside cool as lemon,
Orange, avocado pear.
While in this damp and stony stare of a village
Such images are unknown:
So would I think upon these things,
In the event that someday I shall return to my native surf
And feel again the urgency of soil.
And then on these same journeys almost as soon as the ship had
dropped anchor off the Cape Verde Islands, Las Palmas, Madeira, a great sweep of hundreds of boats frail as matchsticks, overloaded with lace trinkets and shawls, and up these men would scramble and without pause for the eye to rest, in a flash the long stretch of the main decks were transformed into gorgeous bargaining bazaars. The gulls screaming and gliding overhead the farewells. Here then is the ‘Seagull’ poem:
Seagulls’ easy glide
Drifting fearlessly as voyagers’ tears:
Quay and ship move as imperceptively,
Without knowing we weep.
Cry gulls who recall
An ocean of uncertainty;
Greed of rowing men
Mere flies at the ship’s sides.
Last bargains roped and reached:
And as imperceptively regretted,
Tears of fury and stupidity
Reel down the runnels of those cheeks.
And then after a long interval, as I drew upon the rich store which this lovely country had given me, I wondered if I might not write a long ballad, an autobiography of my early childhood. Then I again rebelled. There were too many books, poems, etc. of childhood memories. I resolved then to write about a true [story] which had occurred on the pampas, in surroundings which I knew. Mr Cadvan Hughes had sent me many letters about [an] expedition his father-in-law had made into Indian territory. And as this had been conveyed to him personally, while Mr Evans was living, I chose this theme. And so the Ballad of ‘El Dorado’ was born. In it of course I used many of my own memories, as a background, or reconstruction of the event. For instance, a habit we have on the pampas when out riding of continually tightening or loosening up the cincha, the belt which holds down the sheepskin, the leather stirrups, the hooded ones that I had seen and the looped leather stirrups which I had used. The quality of the thistles which they used for fuel and making rennet, their hollowness and crack, seeing iguanas as they flashed past from before the horses’ hoofs, the legends, the racoon that I found on my dressing table, and who later was found curled up in sleep in my bed, the nutrias in hundreds, and flight, colour and song of the myriad birds, these I wanted to recreate. And so from the journey out of four companions, the Indian massacre of three and solitary return of Evans to his Patagonian soil, there remained for his
comfort the pampa lullaby, one that the great naturalist W. H. Hudson quotes as being two centuries old. The same lullaby which my mother in Mechita sang to me and is recorded here at the end of this ballad, which was broadcast in the early months of this year, and from which I will only read a few stanzas of the setting out, and a few stanzas of the return of Evans alone:
Up then leapt the leader Evans
On his favourite spirited steed,
High and proud on his mounted pack
A pioneer in the lead.
A pull on the cinch and Davies was up
On Zaino with new head gear,
The raw hide bridle upon his horse
Incenses him to rear.
They would ride they said for gold, Hughes
Evans, Davies and Parry,
To mountains unseen, and unknown places,
For its hidden in dust or scree.
The bells rang as the mare set off
With tropilla of packs and hide,
Thirty horses followed her pace,
The wilder one tied to her side.
They moved dark forms from out the corral,
Creating light on their way:
Quiet and silent as gauchos ride,
Who leave at break of day.
A creak of leather fills the air
And rhythm of their hoofs,
The lights soon twinkle in distant huts
From holes in iron roofs.
The siskins upside down on thistles,
The migrants yellow and blue,
The scarlet cardinals, humming birds
All shimmer as South Seas do.
In space like this possessed by birds,
The Indians cut a stalk,
And piping still transform these birds
And make the cuena talk.
And then Evans with the solitary return journey, riding for days over the desert and unknown lands until he reaches his native river:
Down towards the Chubut River
Past the Iamacan,
Evans sought the Indian trail
Like the fox of man.
It all was known and sweet to him,
He spun through pampa blasts
As it flickered high around his horse
Like a sea of tossing masts.
Then slower as he journeyed on,
With sad reflection back,
No friends, and no madrina bells,
No flourish of hoofs on the track.
The Chajá cried into the night,
A wagon rumbled high
With twenty horses leading abreast:
Wistaria spread in the sky.
As dawn arose, the Settlement,
So quietly it would seem,
No herd, or dogs had turned their head,
It might have never been.
A child had scampered out of bed
Curled in the Patio sun,
With corn cob hair and racoon bear,
She sang this song to her son.
‘A ro ro mi niño,
A ro ro mi sol
A ro ro pedazo
De mi corazon.’
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