During the ten years I lived in Brazil, I visited Argentina on five occasions, spending at least two weeks in Buenos Aires each time. I loved the city, and I loved the people, the long-suffering people of Argentina, who had endured the most savage and macabre of military dictatorships of all the dictatorships of South America.
Within a few years of returning to democracy in 1983, the country was yet to suffer further at the hands of the dictatorship of international capital, which led ultimately to a virtual overnight devaluation of the country’s currency in 2002 and stripped the value of millions of people’s savings. Despite the terrible years of political and economic attrition, the population remained dignified and proud of its cultural heritage, proud of the tango and of its immensely rich artistic culture and its love affair with books. While it was rare in Brazil to see people on the public transport system reading a book, in Argentina the opposite was true, and in Buenos Aires, at least, there was a bookshop on every street corner.
I wrote the poem below in my hotel room one afternoon and it was inspired more by the crisis in my relationship at the time than by the problems of the Argentinean economy. The hotel, ironically, was called Casa calma (the calm house) but for me it was anything but calm. I knew that that particular visit to the country was going to be my last, certainly, my last with that particular partner.
As to the form of the poem, inspiration came from two sources. The concept of ‘the first of the last times’ I borrowed from a poem by an elderly Nicaraguan poet, José Coronel Urtecho, whom I had met some years previously in his home, a few months before his death. The poem was called Panels of Hell, and my translation of that text was commissioned and published by Harold Pinter. The second source was from the catechism lesson I was taught as a child in primary school:
Q. Which are the four last things to be always remembered?
A. The four last things to be always remembered are: Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.
The Last Waltz
What will be the first of the last things
The first word of the last words
The first day of the last days
The first kiss of the last kisses;
What will be the first breath
Of the last breaths, the first sigh
And the first of the long goodbyes?
Here in Buenos Aires the streets
Are haunted by those who have
Gone before, by those who have walked
These noble streets that fell in recent years
Upon such hard times, a sad dreary elegance
Now clinging to so many crumbling façades.
This clear blue sky and crisp ocean air
Known to Borges, known to Cortázar,
Which weathers the skin in the daily bounty
Of those who survive. This may be the first
Of the last memories, the first taste
Of the last tastes to tantalize my palate
The first of the last loves to be made
In the first of the last beds. And as I wake
And dress in the first of the last clothes
Put on the shoes that may be blessed
To take the first of the last steps,
I recall the sibilance of Emily’s valley-licking train,
A vector of sound in the long speechless distance
A vector of thought, a rugged nugget of words
Condensed around an ecstasy of emotion:
From distance, the sensation of intimacy,
From a silence broken, the tactile meaning of words
Of love, the first of the last words of love,
The first of the last brushes of skin against skin,
Of lip against lip. This is, and always was a merry
Macabre dance, whether upon a lush city stage,
A retarded Calvary or in the empty heart of the pampas:
Our steps are numbered, even as the band is poised
To strike up the very first chords of our very last waltz.
Buenos Aires 31 October 2011