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Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews

An Interview with Alvaro Cardona-Hine: Poetry, Prose, Music, Art and Thirteen Tangos For Stravinsky

by Elizabeth Glixman


I grew up hiding in a rich and confusing thicket of consciousness, peeking out with the passion of a Peeping Tom. The only thing that interests me is beauty, its various metamorphoses. I have wanted the reader, if he has persisted to the end, to recognize in these pages some of the beauty it takes to survive one's youth, to recall the monstrous loss of that person to that someone now so different and so equally at a loss, older and neared the big shift to darkness.
                  --Thirteen Tangos For Stravinksy

Buy now from Amazon! Alvaro Cardona-Hine is a poet, painter, composer and translator. Born in 1926 in Costa Rica, he came to the United States in 1939. Since 1945 when he began writing poetry, he has written seventeen books, most recently a memoir, Thirteen Tangos For Stravinsky, (Sherman Asher Publishing, 1999) and Spring Has Come, translations of pre-Renaissance Spanish poetry (Alameda Press, 1999). Other book titles include The Gathering Wave, (Alan Swallow Publisher, 1961), Agapito ( Charles Scribners' Sons, 1969), and Four Poems About Sparrows (Eyelight Press, 1994). A History of Light (Sherman Asher Publishing, 1998) was named a Small Press Book Award Finalist for 1998.

Cardona-Hine's work has been published in numerous anthologies, including Sur, Joven Literatura Norteamericana (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1970), If Dragon Flies Made Honey (Greenwillow Books, 1977), The Contemporary World Poets (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitvh, 1967), The Other Side Of A Poem (Harper & Row, 1977), The Pushcart Prize IV Best of the Small Presses, 1979, and The Poet Dreaming in the Artist's House (Milkweed Editions, 1984).

Cardona-Hine's poetry and prose have appeared in many magazines including: The Nation, Kayak, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Chicago Choice, and Crazy Horse.

His plays, music, texts for music, and paintings have been viewed and heard by people all over the globe. He has had one-man and group shows of his art in California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, New York, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Connecticut. His work is in private collections around the world. He received a National Endowment For The Arts Grant in 1978, A Bush Foundation Fellowship in 1978, and a Minnesota State Arts Board Individual Artist Grant in 1982.

About his poetry one reviewer, Dr. Robert Peters, in Margins, said, "Cardon-Hine's voice is lyrical, contemporary, ancient, elegiac. The distinctive mark is a compassionate music. The longer poems, particularly develop modulations of sound moving from cries to solemnities to whispers..."


EG     I didn't know what to expect from Thirteen Tangos after reading Jack Butler's introduction to the book:

Alvaro Cardona-Hine is a natural-born wonder. I would use the word genius, but he demurs--demurs, I suspect, because genius is too egotistical a word, too narrowly mistakes the fountains of beauty.

Or of life. As if there were a difference.

Alvaro is nevertheless, several sorts of genius. Just so you know. In his music, in his painting, and in his words, there is that indwelling, that clarity and celebration, that ghost of the north wall's winter shadow blue on the snow, that summer simplicity of daisies in sun, that laughter of saints and masters, those yellows of persimmons and apricots, that plain humanity with its dirty fingernails and inconsolable longings, which we must call genius.

EG     How do you accept this praise?

ACH     I always accept praise with a grain of salt. And I had a good laugh when I read what Jack had written, for I don't believe genius is or should be an exclusive term. All human beings, given a magic touch in childhood, have the potential for unimaginable things. The human brain is only crushed at some point by conventions, by fear and by implanted lack of confidence in itself.

EG     What motivated you to write a memoir?

ACH     A life is not a life unless it is conscious of itself in as many ways as possible. Poetry is a manner of singing while a memoir is a canvassing of detail that brings many persons and much of an environment into focus. The richer the life the more there is to present against the high tide of oblivion.

EG     Why did you choose to put the word tango in the memoir title?

ACH     At the time I met Stravinsky I had heard he was writing tangos. Subsequently I heard them and was amazed to find they didn't sound like tangos at all. They were simply too abstract. In Thirteen Tangos I relate how as a teen-ager I wanted to write tangos and show them to him, something I never did. The book is my late attempt to put some flowers on his grave.

EG     Tell us about the tango. What makes it unique?

ACH     The tango was the popular music I grew up with and, since it comes loaded with sentimental overtones, it fed that hunger for sadness a child needs to develop properly. When the great Gardel, the most admired of the tango singers was killed in an airplane crash in the thirties, millions of women all over Latin America wept their hearts out; I watched my paternal aunts doing it and know that art is the only community level with the huts and homes of my land. The African influences in the tango, fused to an echo of Spanish popular music, led, for us, to the equivalent of jazz in this country, though there were other fusions that took place in Cuba and Mexico, etc.

EG     You did meet Stravinsky. Tell us what that was like for you? What music of his do you most enjoy?

ACH     Meeting that little ogre of a man, who was all kindness to this student, was like meeting God to a believer. See the full account in my Thirteen Tangos . I love most of his music, especially Petroushka.

EG     Here is an excerpt from chapter 13:

One such night Stravinsky mounts the podium and gestures his way through his magically acrimonious music. A Russia of mnemonic proportions attends us with its onion domes buffeted by snow and misfortune, its summery butterflies dictating wings into the unheeding ear of history. It is the Russia of numberless birches standing over a blunder of bones. Stravinsky is as fresh and true as the hidden perennial brook beneath winter ice. But one can wonder how such elegant dances, dances of wit and wisdom, can come from this little man as surprising as a wizened Mozart. He flays, entreating this and that group of instruments, begging the bassoon to forget its hiccups, the clarinet to hover over a string tremolo like a reluctant hummingbird, the piccolo to perch on the highest branch of a questioning tree.

EG     Your writing in Thirteen Tangos is lyrical and light even when the story is sad. Life was a wonder to that young boy. Everything was new. Do you still feel that way about the events of your life?

ACH     I daresay everything is new and shining brightly, with the added surprise that advanced age brings because you cannot jump over a brook or make love to love or feel that life is eternal. And because mortality is so clear a song at this time, everything rings like a bell. I have been a student of Zen since my forties and my last Zen Master said one day in a teisho (lecture): "Learn to see that the brushing of your teeth every morning is a new act and not a repetition."

EG     What lead you to Zen?

ACH     In the late 50's and early 60's I came upon Japanese and Chinese poetry and was fascinated by the compression that can be achieved in haiku, the clarity and straightforward view of reality. I learned that behind those values was the luminosity of Zen Buddhism. I began studying book-Zen, which isn't the same as tasting the peach. In 1967 my friend Gisele Cheney and I began studying the real thing with Zen Master Joshu Sasaki in L.A. This meant serious three-hour meditation periods twice a day, which was very hard for me because I have always had back problems. Besides, I had a full time job. We lived in Sasaki's Zendo and my day was an 18 hour day. I left the Zendo a year and a half later and began painting in earnest instead. Subsequently, after Gisele had studied in Japan and become a Master herself (and an excellent one) my present wife and I studied with her and attended many month-long retreats in the Calif. desert, Spain and Holland. She also asked me to teach poetry to all her students, a thing I continue to do in Europe each year even though she has been dead for some time. Before she died she made a number of us teachers and for a while I had my own Zendo behind my painting studio in this small village and worked with two students. However, I have retired due to my physical condition which makes sitting without moving nearly impossible.

You might ask, why do Buddhists sit, and especially choose the lotus position? In Zen, there are two aspects to the path to liberation: sitting still in such a way that the chakras are properly aligned (by the way, one of the reasons children do so poorly in school these days is because they are allowed to sprawl in their chairs all day long; I have taught poetry in the schools and have seen this. Of course, the experts would never accept such a simple solution to mental discipline and spend millions trying to fix the schooling programs, all to no avail) and in that way watching the monkey mind play its eternal games until it blushes in shame and quiets down enough; and koan work in which that same monkey mind is subjected to its own games to the square root, if I can put it that way, till it has to give up. All conventional reality, habitual thinking and behaving must be transformed in order to be a free soul. People prefer their latte when they get up in the late morning because that is also manifesting true nature. The only problem is they never see the sun rise.

EG     Betty Croft was one of your boyhood loves who you wrote about in Thirteen Tangos. I think every young girl would love to be as admired as Betty Croft was. And Jo Woods, who you loved from afar in high school, was another attraction that gave space for your unrealized longings. There is a tremendous clarity to your perceptions, your self-reflection about these infatuations. The stories open up the inner world of one sensitive shy boy to readers. Many men are not open to expressing adoration or showing vulnerability. Do you think this is culturally dependant? Did growing up in Costa Rica give you a different relationship to the "feminine"?

ACH     The white, Anglo-Saxon North American male, in my opinion, is unlucky enough to be heir to a weakened and therefore unconscious form of Puritanism, and a work ethic that fails to include pleasure. His female equivalent is luckier because the dynamics of being female are more complex than those of the male. That is why I have seen, after 60 years of living in this country, that the number of vital females is much greater than the number of real men. Latin America is different, with the unfortunate fact that the male there tends towards machismo. However, and for whatever reasons, the Costa Rican male has little trace of that. Many female friends visiting Costa Rica have said that to me. I left my country so early that I can't claim to be a beneficiary of that solvency. I can only say that the poetic sensibility leads to appreciation of beauty in all its forms and especially the beauty of women (which is not to be confused with the skin-deep attraction advertisers and Hollywood have for using sex to make money).

EG     In the first chapter of Tangos about coming to LA at 13 you wrote:

For those old enough to know suffering, Asians, Europeans, the decade is almost over and a new and more terrifying one is in the offing; for me, because the world is inordinate, a constant flowering is taking place. Every cell in my body is calibrating an eventual man. I am going to be hurled against the light of a thousand windows.

What is the light of a thousand windows?

ACH     The world, the make-believe mirroring of realities, the illusion of living, the misbegotten pleasures, the hidden motives, the splendors of the flesh, the friendships, the driving a Plymouth four-door convertible to the beach, and the relentless deaths of close friends, grandmothers, parents...You live in a big city. What do you see reflected in a thousand windows? We are all lucky enough to see the light of the sun burning uselessly there and a certain beloved shadow walking on the sidewalk.

EG     Reading Tangos was uplifting even though there was the angst of this shy young boy from Costa Rica growing up on the brink of World War 2 with all that encompassed including problems of finding work and living quarters for family.

December starts and never ends. The Japanese savage Pearl harbor and war begins. Fearing an attack on Los Angeles, we pack and go to Mexico City for six months, see that life there is impossible, and return with our tails between our legs. Dr. Alfaro finds an apartment for us in, of all places, the west side of downtown, to which we must adjust. I do it by becoming a mole, by reading Charles Darwin and books about submarine warfare, catching cold during gym class because all I do is stand in my shorts doing nothing important while the rest of the class pretends a rubber ball is important.

What a miserable time! What saved you from becoming despondent?

ACH     Not being a coward.

EG     Do you think being brave is a learned response to events?

ACH     It depends on the nature of the event. Existential angst, once recognized, can make one strong. Going to the dentist and having him drill your tooth without novocane, as I experienced when I was a little tyke, can be devastating. I have never learned to be brave in a dentist's chair and could never outsmart torturers.

EG     You write about entering the US:

We will have to enter on tiptoe, past ambiguous arms.

Did you feel you or your family were discriminated against because you were not native Americans?

ACH     There is a subtle form of contempt manifested by Anglo whites towards Latins. I saw it when we disembarked from the ship and, later, in 1941, when we were traveling by bus through Texas with all our belongings. Some official questioned my father on the steps of the bus (there was hysteria in those days regarding spies) and showed his disappointment when my father showed him his diplomatic passport. On the other hand, because we were quite visibly middle-class, in everyday happenings and transactions in L.A. we never encountered discrimination.

EG     Have you been in LA lately?

ACH     Not for a few years.

EG     Do you have any feelings about the changes in the City of LA since you lived there?

ACH     When we first arrived there were no freeways and practically the whole city was a well-tended garden. Today it is a barely controlled chaos of speed, violence and ugliness. Not bad, eh, for a 65 year shift some assume is progress?

EG     Certain aspects of progress are hard to measure. Today the mayor of LA is Hispanic. Do you think the attitude toward non native- born Americans has changed since you first came to the US?

ACH     Hard to say. Changes along social and political lines are difficult to measure and they also fluctuate depending on whether the times are good or bad. When specific issues come up, people tend to look to their selfish interests. By the way, your definition "non native born Americans" is subject to question since we Latin-Americans consider ourselves Americans to begin with. The entire continent is America, not just the U.S. Obviously, I cannot speak about the treatment of immigrants from other parts of the world. As I said before, being middle-class folk we never encountered the more obvious kinds of prejudice that working-class people have to put up with.

EG     "We Latin-Americans consider ourselves Americans to begin with." Yes. I did make an error using that phrase. I think living in the U.S. we do not see the broader meaning of "American."

EG     Here are excerpts from Chapter 3, about Dr Alfaro:

In 1940, even if he doesn't seem middle class, being swarthy enough for a Honduran or a Nicaraguan, and somewhat of a flashy dresser, one ( meaning the family) accepts him at face value. But he is definitely a bit too colorful, a bit too amusing, a man in his mid-forties wearing patent leather shoes and a diamond ring on one of his fingers.

He looks like an overripe tomato a child is trying to squeeze for the sake of the explosion. What we suspect is that he uses a girdle, that this girdle gives his shapelessness that dangerous quality, as if everything might blow up at any moment, inundating the flanks of existence with seed. But the truth is that his face goes by the same law of thermodynamics. In this case, his smile plays the role of the inherent girdle on a face which might go the way of all grenades. His row of gleaming white teeth exerts its centripetal charms and miraculously and humorously holds the worst from happening.

The portraits of Dr. Alfaro, Myrna, the Canadian Michaud, and Betty Croft are verbal photographs. Do you like to people watch?

ACH     People-watch is too passive a term for what we do if we are alive. I know that any face that comes before me is a perfect mirror of all the occurrences and mishaps that have happened to that life behind that mask. And I love to read that mask, and I am moved to compassion for many of them when I see that when they look into their own mirrors they read nothing but confusion. I have to confess that I have made huge errors in my life, bigger than most, but I have forgiven myself, for there was no one else to do it.

EG     Your career has spanned decades. What have you enjoyed doing the most and what are you most proud of?

ACH     I began to write poetry when I was eighteen and that was in 1945. Music writing has been sporadic though I am doing much more of it now, and painting began after I was 40 years of age. Writing and painting have always been the most effortless and therefore the most enjoyable while composing the most exciting because it is so demanding. I am most proud of the fact --if proud is the word-- that at nearly 79 years of age I am in greater command of my skills than ever. But look here, instead of the word proud I would use the word amazed.

EG     Tell us more about your musical compositions.

ACH     My musical education came to abrupt end with marriage and children. After that, it took a rear seat to poetry and, later, painting, even though I wrote a few things throughout the years, mostly chamber works, songs and piano music. It is only recently, with more leisure available thanks to working on selling paintings from our gallery, that I have attempted more. A song cycle on words by J.M.Synge was performed a few years ago in Santa Fe. Last year that same cycle was performed at York College in Pennsylvania, and next month, on Oct. 30 fine musicians in the faculty of that College will perform a sonata for violin and piano written and re-written over the last few decades. Hearing my music well performed convinced me that I could tackle larger issues so I am in the middle of writing a full-length opera and have outlined ideas for some 11 very short Zen operas using great koans and a jazz type of instrumentation plus, if one lives long enough, another full-length opera based on a superb Mahayana Sutra.

EG     How did you come to settle in Truchas New Mexico?

ACH     My wife, the poet and painter Barbara McCauley, and I, wanted a new life, away from the city life we had always known, first in Los Angeles and then in Saint Paul. Truchas, at 8,000 feet and an easy hour away from Santa Fe seemed capable of providing us with air and sky and a slower pace. We took a risk, at first not knowing how we would make a living. We opened a gallery in a garage next to our house and began showing my work. I was the only one painting then but soon after Barbara returned to painting and we have survived in this fashion, selling our paintings and meeting wonderful people for nearly twenty years.

EG     In the catalogue introduction for your show Mythic Paintings at the McAllen International Museum, Pierre Delattre writes:

His canvases are saturated with the extraordinary changes of color and light surrounding Truchas, his northern New Mexico mountain village. He seldom paints plein-air, but directly in his studio, relying upon spontaneous imagination nourished by memory. His dominant images have been poetically muted evocations of earth and sky.

How would you describe your paintings?

ACH     My visual work is related to origins in the tropics and the American landscape, reworked in the imagination. The mythic images come from time to time and are never forced into being, that being an oxymoron. And I do a number of small birds each year; they come with a humorous content. The important thing in painting is to remain free of gallery concerns --that is, commercial concerns, and to avoid the hype that manifests itself in blurbs by gallery owners and even artists about their work. They tend to wax into high-flown language that says nothing at all.

EG     Is it difficult to be creatively versatile? How do you know when to write, when to paint or when to compose music? Would you say any of your senses are stronger than other?

ACH     No, it is the easiest thing in the world. It is much more difficult to fit into the rigid categories of work and creation that our society prepares us for. As far as knowing what to do when, I'd say it's up to the belly, one gets up in the morning with a yearning towards a color or a sound or a phrase some bird in one's dreams has spoken in the universal language of energy. All that is required is that you have paid attention to these things since childhood, and that you know they are immensely more important than the translation of life into money.

The only sense I possess that may be stronger than others is the sense of outrage at what man does to his fellow man.

EG     Please share with us a poem you wrote that demonstrates your style.

ACH     Here is a little poem you might like. It has no title:

say at last oh abundance and bend the knee
walk the blond child of thanks a ways
hold quite still while the waters part ahead
willingly remove the spirit from the exhausted earth

EG     Have you traveled to Costa Rica as an adult?

ACH     Oh yes, basking in old family ties before death untied them, basking in the light and the breezes, sitting down once again on the steps of my grandmother's house in barrio Amón, listening to the fast little river in San Isidro and hearing the echo of a childhood gone forever.

EG     Costa Rica sounds like a beautiful place.

ACH     It is mellow above all. Small, crowded, expensive now but still delightful. In San Jose, at 4,000 feet above sea level, one never has to worry about the weather, the weather has to worry about you. There is a long rainy season which everyone tolerates because the mornings are diamond clear. The people are kindly and quite foxy when it comes to politics. The two sides of my family were firmly rooted there. On my father's mother's side, don Salvador Jimenez was instrumental in developing a formal legal code and was the teacher of two important presidents.

EG     Do you write in Spanish or English?

ACH     In both. 17 books of poetry, prose and translation in English. An early, book-length ballad in Spanish published in Costa Rica and now 50 years of poetry in Spanish will be published in Spain in one volume which I call Sucursal de Estrella .

EG     What does Sucursal de Estrella mean?

ACH     Large dictionaries have an English equivalent for sucursal, and that is succursal, meaning branch office. The title in English would be a little sluggish and would have to be used in the plural: Branch office of Stars. One could also call it Star Franchise, meaning the earth is or could be a shining place if we could only live with one another.

EG     Are the poems grouped in any way in the book?

ACH     There are six sections ranging from 'coplas' or popular quatrains you most likely come across in Flamenco, to Romances meaning ballads, to long poems, humble poems about humble people, love poems, and a poetry which is at once surreal and engaged, influenced in some ways by the Peruvian Cesar Vallejo (whom Merton called the greatest poet since Dante).

EG     Would you tell us a poem in Spanish from the book and then translate?

ACH     Here is one of the smaller ones:

TESTIGO AUSENTE

al final todo fue mancha
Berlín fue sombra
Hiroshima y Nagasaki
se hicieron de ceniza para siempre

ahora vuelve a retoñar
el odio con que crecen
los unos y los otros

las balas llegarán a estrella
esto lo sé perfectamente
cuando le abrimos la boca
a la cuchara de la patria

los muertos no sabrán porqué
ni cuando fue que se mataron
por ideas más irlandesas que cátolicas

a mí déjenme vivir caballo al viento
preñar loterías de flores y palomas
compañero del trigal y la tormenta

jardín del cielo quiero ser
cirujano de lo que el cielo cuida
nube luna soles que todo empapan

 

ABSENT WITNESS

at the end everything was a stain
Berlin a shadow
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
turned into ash forever

now the hate with which
we and others grow
starts to green

bullets will reach the stars
I know this perfectly
once we open the mouth
to the spoon of our land

the dead won't know why
nor when they killed one another
for ideas Irish more than Catholic

let me live a horse to the wind
impregnate lotteries of flowers and doves
companion of the wheatfield and the storm

I want to be the garden of the skies
surgeon of what the heavens tend
cloud moon suns flooding all

 

And here's a copla I am fond of so you can see a more lyrical position:

manantial
que se duele del agua
vidas que con soñar
sueñan con nada

brook
complaining of its water
lives that dreaming
dream of nothing

EG     Do you enjoy contemporary music?

ACH     Yes, very much, although what I write is more melodic and less dissonant.

EG     Are you working on any project now?

ACH     I have mentioned the opera, which takes up most of my time. I am also interested in writing two film scripts but cannot say more at this time. I once wrote a film script in Spanish based on my Agapito. A distant filmmaker cousin in Costa Rica wanted to do it but couldn't finance it. For that I would like to interest some German filmmaker to whom I could show the original Agapito translated into German by the Zen Master my wife and I studied with: Prabhasa Dharma Roshi. Ah dreams...!

EG     What is the most beautiful thing you have seen in your life?

ACH     I guess it would be a dead bird in a child's hands.

EG     What an intriguing answer. Please explain.

ACH     Most beauty is a convention but in a child with a dead bird you have a balance between unimaginably fresh life and unimaginably poignant death. The bird has known flight, the child is only beginning to have wings and he is learning from the dead bird what flight means.

EG     Thank you for answering these questions and leaving us with this last image to ponder.

 

Thirteen Tangos For Stravinsky
Sherman Asher Publishing
ISBN 1-890932-07-8

 

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