Monday, March 28, 2016

The Four Poems Of Easter

"To the bells, love. To the bell towers of joy, entertainer. Yes, I would climb. But you will not climb. Not to the bell towers of joy.
"Heaven, as that of Easter, a gate. His body full of blue blows. And on the chest, with the movement of birds. The white moon, now dead. With a strike of the lance, Blai. That never heals.
"To the bells, love. To the bell towers of joy, entertainer. Yes, I would climb. But you will not climb. Not to the bell towers of joy.
"To the coral of gardens. Love open from pomegranates. How close to the distant bells. In the dawn of jasmine. Doves on the sea. To the sticks, pineapples of paschal candles."

These peculiar verses (even allowing for my less than perfect translation) come from "Pasqua Nova"; New Easter, if you like. It is one of four poems of Easter that were published in 1950, the first works to go into print by a poet and writer with whom you are probably unfamiliar but who is considered to be one of the greats of Mallorcan and Catalan literature. His name is Blai Bonet.

In Santanyi's Casa de Cultura, there is a centre devoted to the contemporary poetry of this son of Santanyi. He was born ninety years ago into what was a family of modest means. At a time when education in Mallorca was limited to say the least, he was, by the age of fifteen, conversant with the works of Virgil, Ovid, Plato and Aristotle. He owed it all to the seminary in Palma that he entered at the age of ten and so quite possibly also to the Marquis Barberà, the owner of the finca where his father worked.

He was to turn his back on the priesthood, suffering in different ways: mentally and physically. He was to live with a lung condition, the result of tuberculosis, while something of an existential crisis when he was still young - only 21 - caused confused attitudes to religion and led him to embark on a career as a writer.

"The Four Poems Of Easter", one of the works he was to write while in a sanatorium for his TB, reflects some of Bonet's struggles. In "Pasqua Nova" he talks to himself, blending curious natural imagery with allusions to Christ on the cross. His references to nature, commentators suggest, were mostly drawn from Santanyi, and not least from the coast and the sea: one of his greatest works, started while he was in the sanatorium, was "El Mar". Fifty years after he had embarked on the writing of this novel, it was made into a film. Agusti Villaronga, the Mallorcan director, described it variously as sordid, illuminating, beautiful, haunting, poetic and full of love for its characters. He also spoke, and Bonet had now been dead for three years (he died in Santanyi), about the attitude to religion, to the riddle of existence and to struggles in confronting death. In essence, and Villaronga could have been talking about "The Four Poems Of Easter" as well, Bonet was constantly fearful of his mortality, the consequence of his illness. He lived his life expecting to die. 

Though celebrated among the ranks of the Catalan literati and though also enjoying a good career, his condition was such that his doctors advised him to settle again in Santanyi (he had been, among other places, in Barcelona and Germany). The climate, it was felt, would be best for him. This was in 1972, and he went into what was a semi-retirement. His work and he himself began to be forgotten, but he was to return in 1987 with a book of poems called "The Young". He received numerous awards, including the Balearic Ramon Llull prize (posthumously in 1998).

The rediscovery of Bonet was to lead critics to place him on a high pedestal indeed. One has compared him with James Joyce in that stylistically he was an innovator in avant-garde literature. There is also the story of how the musician Lou Reed attended an event devoted to Catalan poets that was led by other musicians, Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson, and chose one of these poems to recite himself. Its title is "All Brow" from a collection by Bonet called "Nova York". All Brow was in fact a Panamanian boxer Al Brown, the first Latin American boxer to become a world champion.

Bonet is one of the writers celebrated in the Walking on Words project that has seven routes that combine walking with the life, the times and the works of major names in Mallorca's literature. And in the south-east corner of the island, Santanyi is a town that can boast its own strong literary, cultural and artistic tradition. It was here, on the coast, where Josep Costa Ferrer (Don Pep), painter, caricaturist and writer, was to create Cala d'Or, originally a haven for artists and writers. And it was here where Blai Bonet saw the sea: El Mar.

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