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Cyrus Cassells

Cyrus Cassells

Born in 1944, Francesc Parcerisas, the author of 14 volumes of poetry, including Still Life with Children, Triumph of the Present, and The Golden Age, is considered the premier Catalan poet of his generation—a “miracle generation” of poets who came of age as Franco’s public banning of the Catalan language came to an end. He is also a masterly, award-winning translator of an impressive array of significant international writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing, Cesare Pavese, Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Rimbaud, Susan Sontag, William Styron, and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. Among his numerous translations from French, Italian, and English into Catalan, he is most famous in Catalonia for his translation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Cyrus Cassells's sixth book, The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award and the Texas Institute of Letters Helcn C. Smith Award. His honors include a Guggenheim fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, a Lambda Literary Award, and a Pushcart Prize. A professor at Texas State University, he is the translator of Still Life with Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas. His translations of Catalan and Italian poetry have appeared in several anthologies and magazines.

Francesc Parcerisas and Embattled Catalonia

To meet Francesc Parcerisas, Catalonia's premier poet, and to learn more about last fall's disastrous referendum for independence that led to police violence and the political exile and imprisonment of key Catalan leaders, I return to Barcelona after half a decade. Given the shock and gravity of recent events in Catalonia and the fact that the bulk of the work on Still Life with Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas was done in 2006 and 2007, I felt a postscript and update to this volume was essential.

Parcerisas, the august but always affable poet ("he reminds me of a Russian prince," a mutual friend says) graciously whisks me away from the El Prat airport to his summer apartment in Vilanova i La Geltrú, not far from the much more famous watering spot of Sitges. It's June 23, La Revetlla or La Nit de Sant Joan (The Night or Eve of Saint John the Baptist), and there are traditional holiday cakes and delicious pastries in the resort town's queue-filled bakeries, and after dusk, raucous firecrackers, showy fireworks, and customary beachfront bonfires ("Saint John's fires," meant to repel witches and evil spirits) to celebrate the baptizing saint's feast day and summer's exhilarating start. I've returned to a "small homeland" of bright acacias and eye-catching yellow ribbons everywhere (a sobering emblem of solidarity with Catalan political prisoners), and of course, the marigold and crimson of the Catalan flag draped over wrought-iron balconies and Mediterranean terraces. "Welcome to occupied Catalonia," Francesc tells me, matter-of-factly, as he shows me around the beach town, which is graced with opulent 19th century buildings, including the fine Victor Balaguer Museum and Library, appealing squares, a marina, and a lively rambla, and is the site of a once-significant railway and a complex of thriving factories, bombed by Franco's forces during the Spanish Civil War. A bit of local graffiti sums up the fierce clash behind the ongoing political crisis: on a nondescript downtown wall, "Som un naciò" ("we are a nation") in Catalan has been scrawled over in black paint with "No somos una nación" ("we are not a nation") in Castilian.

I received, on the first of October, 2017, a brief, cryptic message from an American friend in Paris: "Has the Spanish Civil War broken out all over again?" By coincidence that very morning, I had been working on a chapter of my first novel, set in Barcelona in 1939. I had no notion of what my expat pal was alluding to until I turned on the TV that fall day and watched petrifying footage of police, commandeered by the Madrid government, storming Catalan polling stations, and in some cases, brusquely confiscating ballot boxes, or worse, viciously clubbing people who had come out to vote.

After the Saturday night pyrotechnics and summer hoopla of the Saint John holiday, I sit down with Francesc, on a tranquil Sunday afternoon, to watch footage of the now infamous referendum day: "a referendum that could only be held," as another Catalan writer, Teresa Solana, declares, "thanks to the disciplined complicity of thousands of citizens who combined to fool the Spanish police and secret services. We Catalans had to hide ballot boxes in private houses, in niches in cemeteries, in the bottom of lifts, in the boots of cars, in false ceilings, among the branches of trees. . . And we had to protect our votes with our bodies . . ." Many of the Catalan polling places were located in schools and small villages, and the specter of van-loads of routing police, in glistening, beetle-black uniforms (reminiscent of the sci-fi film Robocop), descending on classroom voting places presents a very surreal, sinister, and unsettling picture. The nightmarish physical obstruction of the referendum by the truculent Guardia Civil was halted in the afternoon at the vehement insistence of German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Francesc was at his local polling place, located in the elementary school across from his Barcelona apartment, and as his partner Mireia Sopena (a specialist in Catalan publishing history, with a focus on the first two difficult decades following Franco's victory) mentions, Francesc himself was nearly walloped by police; all in all, a dismal day for sanity and democracy in Europe:

"What have we done," Francesc wonders, "to be thrown back into this abject and intimidating condition of brute political and physical coercion? As a writer, I want to use my language and promote my culture, as a citizen I want a free Catalan republic. Is my vote, and the vote of my neighbors, not enough? Are we not equals to other citizens? Why can't I decide my future? Why is someone telling me what I can or can't do? Or say? Or, probably, write? In the election of December 2017, I voted, like millions of Catalans, for legal political parties, and for politicians who are now in prison, or in exile, for a Parliament which has been dissolved and replaced with direct rule from Madrid, due to the absolutism of the Spanish state, following the triggering of article 155 in the Spanish constitution."

The issues surrounding the referendum and recent events in Catalonia are deeply serious, inherently complex, and controversial; not everyone I know in Barcelona was for independence. I have tried, on occasion, to convey to skeptical outsiders unacquainted with Catalan history (who tend to believe most bids for independence are crackpot or extremist) about the longstanding attacks against Catalan culture, including the systematic suppression and public banning, for decades, of the Catalan language—hable Cristiano ("speak Christian") Franco's followers demanded, as if prolonging the Spanish Inquisition—and the viciousness of El Caudillo's years in Spain. I can say, from my own experience as a translator and scholar of Catalan literature, that the divisive dynamics that engendered the Spanish Civil War remain abiding and volatile. In 2014, when I taught, for the first time, an honors course called Literary Barcelona, with the aim of highlighting modern and contemporary Catalan literature, at the proposal meeting, I was needled somewhat by a member of my university's Spanish department, I suspect, in order to quell the department's fear that I might be "a Catalan separatist."

In Francesc's own words: "During my life span, I've managed to see the rebirth of a country and a culture that had been viciously crushed after the Spanish Civil War. And now we are back here again, regressed full circle to the same experience of intolerance and brutal arrogance on the part of the Spanish state, which marked my childhood and youth. Despite the familiarity of the state's actions, as a writer—but even more so, as a citizen—I'm unable to comprehend a postulate that denies citizens the equal and democratic right to determine the nature of their political community. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, as far as I'm concerned, are not empty, abstracted words; they evoke for me specific values, life-experiences, and memories."


After a lively but productive weekend of fine-tuning Still Life with Children one last time, we head back to Barcelona, so Francesc can participate in a radio interview to promote his latest book, Un Estiu (A Summer), an elegiac and already prize-winning memoir. On the return drive to the city we talk about his sons, whom I got to know on Eivissa (Ibiza) eleven years ago: Pol, who is now working as a financial consultant in London, and Nil, who has just graduated from university.

Parcerisas' latest poem has some of the same rich sonority and allegiance to safeguarding the Catalan language that are hallmarks of the prodigious work of Salvador Espriu, the grand man and high priest of modern Catalan literature, so I coax an obliging Francesc to make a detour to Arenys de Mar, the Costa Maresme town made famous by Espriu as "Sinera." We find a truly disinctive and commendable "art exhibition" in Arenys' famous hilltop cementery that deftly and elegantly features Espriu-inspired sculptures and intriguing, well-chosen passages of Espriu's poetry. It's a clement and buoyant June day—perfect for an impromptu pilgrimage to the panoramic, cypress-lined cemetery, where the great, indomitable poet (our mutual mentor and tutelary spirit) rests, and the sea-view, the teal blue swatch of the Mediterranean through the arched gate, is stunning.


We're ensconced in Francesc's book-laden apartment in Horta, where 13 years before I listened to him recite his poem, "Objects," and made the quick but firm decision to become his translator. On a sultry summer evening, he asks me to share a recent long poem, "Two Poets Quarreling under the Jacarandas," inspired by incidents in the lives of Salvador Espriu and the Mallorcan poet, Bartomeu Rosselló-Pòrcel, who died at age 24 of tuberculosis (like a Catalan Keats) during the Spanish Civil War. By reading my poem aloud to Francesc and Mireia, I feel as if I'm finally, after over a decade, returning the favor.

While Parcerisas has never been an overtly political poet, the 73-year-old writer has always been dynamically engaged with his beleaguered culture through his impressive verse and the meticulous translation of world literature into his imperiled language: the vital transmission of culture as a form of political advocacy in itself. In the spring of 2018, Francesc had a powerful and memorable opportunity to read in Brussels before members of the exiled Catalan government, so, in closing, I'd like to share a passage from an essay he wrote in English, published recently, in the Welsh magazine, Planet, "Follow the Sap Through the Branches: The Role of the Writer after the Catalan Referendum," as well as a poem that he recited on that moving occasion in Belgium, a new poem composed in January in the chilling aftermath of the referendum—work that deftly emphasizes the need to preserve and protect Catalan language and culture that for far too long has been under attack:

"We Catalans have an enormous advantage on our side: our language has always been on the sacrificial altar, it has been the language of the once weak and impoverished underdog who fights back. And if we, as poets, can delve into it, we will always be able to make our culture flourish again. As a citizen I will fight for our democratic rights, for civil liberties, for the right to self-determination; as a poet, I will balance words and silence. We cannot take words for granted, and silence can be a rebellion. Let's only speak when searching for truth. . . to be always faithful to our country, our people, our language; to be faithful to our rights. The only tools we can use are words against hate, against terror, against darkness."

Vilanova i La Geltrú, Arenys de Mar, and Barcelona, June 23-28, 2018


In order to say

cobblestone, cemetery, glacier,

to pair winter with mimosa,

love with a poppy's burst,

to convey you and I,

defusing the words them and ours,

we keep watch over our language.

To go on adopting the stubborn will

of oars breaking the water,

to restore clarity to the dawn,

learning to discern yes from no,

we safeguard our language,

for those now absent,

for the time when we ourselves

won't be here,

so there will never be a prison

or a muting of our voices

to prevent us from saying

olive tree, welcome, mothersea, freedom.

January 2018


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