A spike in the human heart

Rubén Darío in 1915, the year before he died at 49.

I started studying Spanish in a university classroom years ago when I needed to converse with people at the Albany County Jail who’d been locked up for coming to the United States without papers.

Early on, I talked to the prisoners with a college student as my translator but, after being stood up twice, I took charge: Español.

I have an advanced degree in Greek and Latin and studied French for years and later Dutch, while writing a book on crime and punishment among the 17th-Century Dutch in Albany (Beverwijck then), and had an interest in language since high school, maybe as an altar boy.

And when I started to study Greek and Latin and French, I took an interest in how language works — its linguistic forms — as well as how people pick words to say what they need to say; there’s also the matter of the range of meanings a word can have without losing its identity — words can stretch only so far.

A problem in the United States today is that a sizable portion of the population turn words upside down at will, using them to mean what they do not, and cannot, mean — causing anxiety in everyone. At one time “that” meant “that” but the schemers say “that” now means “this” or some other text du jour. It’s an upheaval that batters at the walls of sanity. And the greater the battering the greater the loss of consciousness.

French flowing from Greek and Latin is a Roman(ce) language so I was interested in how words went from parent to child — as well as how the child develops a common language. It’s more than Deus becoming Dieu.

And though language constricts the tongue by summing matters up, my long-term interest has been in how language frees. Which always involves the subjunctive — the mood of doubts, possibilities, fears, and wishes — containing the secret of how a society comes to exclude some from a bounty meant for all. As in justice for members-only.

The kids in my first class, 101, were 50 years younger. They all had Spanish in high school — I was surprised to see how well they spoke though sometimes it seemed hollow, as if they were skating on top of the tongue.

And they knew nothing about grammar — society’s agreed-upon rules for saying things economically, being understood with the littlest effort — I cannot recall one of them asking the teacher how a society learns to speak cordially.   

For me, the toughest assignment in 101 was the five-minute presentation each student had to make at the end of the semester, in Spanish, in front of the class, no notes. The speaker had to use nouns and verbs in flowing sentences: no rattling off vocabulary.

We were told we could speak on any topic we liked.

At the end of each chapter in our text there was a short selection in Spanish of the work of a famous writer or artist — a poem, an essay, a biographical sketch.

One of the writers featured was the Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío, whom the book called the Father of Modernism, El Padre del modernismo.

What stunned me was not that he shaped how poetry was done in “the colonies” but back in Spain as well. He was a revolutionary: a sea flowing back upon itself, the vanquished a conqueror.

I picked Darío for my talk.

Just about every other kid — I hate to say all — picked something like “at the beach” (a la playa) or “drinking cerveza”; a complex topic was “cerveza a la playa.” But maybe somebody did do Frida Kahlo.

On days that presentations were made, I was amazed to see that none of the kids seemed nervous — I think because they had PowerPoint at hand — everyone made a PowerPoint presentation: the playa people showing slide after slide of beautiful white beaches stretched along beautiful blue water — a back-from-vacation travelogue — and the cerveza contingent projecting guys in party gear celebrating cerveza, 20-year-old dorks — excusez moi — skating along the bottom of the tongue.

When the slide was something the kids found funny, a titter ran through the room — they saw themselves. I heard nothing about Spanish-speaking cultures — here, Spain, or anywhere. Maybe someone did do Kahlo?

I grant the age gap between me and my classmates as well as the divide in education and culture — I taught at that university — plus I’m a poet in love with language: but I thought maybe one or two would be interested in someone who changed the way people lived.  

To tell the class about Darío, I did not use PowerPoint — I don’t like it — but came with pieces of poster board — 12-by-30 inches or so — on which I’d pasted pictures of Darío and his environs. Following good pedagogy, I panned the photos left to right across the room, slowly, so everybody could see, holding them high for the mezzanine, while giving my spiel en Español.

I did not see eyes sparkle with Darío, nor faces light up over modernist poetry in Spanish, not even interest in someone who had such an impact on life that people called him Father. There was no titter.

Something about the beach/beer presentations bothered me. They dismissed the treasures of the Spanish-speaking-Spanish-writing art and culture world, the lives of those who shape the common tongue.  

The kids accepted my posters; I think they were saying, let’s give the old guy a break — which I’m not doing here, calling them on their juvenile beer/beach infomercials.

I made my disappointment known to the Spanish Department, asking if there was a way to get the kids to be serious, to submit to a foreign culture, address the Spanish-speaking world in words beyond beach and beer.

The next semester, when it came to choosing topics for our talk, the teacher handed out a sheet with a list of acceptable themes — poets, writers, architects, people of justice — I wondered if I’d had a say in it.  

One thing I liked about my Spanish classes — and language classes in general — is that, when someone makes a mistake, the teacher doesn’t wait till the end of class to correct the error, or write a letter, but corrects the student in the flesh on the spot in front of all — “Willie, it’s not manana it’s mañana” — which I liked — correction and redemption rolled into one.  

There’s more to say, in that the poet who moved into Darío’s house, after his family left, was Alfonso Cortés. I presented him to the class the next semester, pasting photos on placards like I did with Darío, and later I wrote a paper on him that I presented to a local poetry group — translating his poems.  

There was no need to mention Cortés at the jail but at least the prisoners and I could speak as one. In one case ICE got involved — the local agent was a woman of justice — the deported soul was back in a week.

How sad these days that even the guy next door turns words upside down and seems to relish the doubt and confusion he creates, even in the suspicion and hate that follow — a spike in the human heart.   

America is having such a hard time admitting She’s crazy, that She’s split and quartered like a side of beef, begging for therapy. Words fly by with such vehemence and rage that people at Anger Management think they’re in Jurassic Park.

And I went to every class with an open mind.