(The following is an excerpt from a longer work called The Sacred Beasts.)
My mother and I are from the Basque country, a Spanish region that is matriarchal. My mother has always been a cyclone of energy and creativity. Our village is full of competitions in Basque games and arts, most of which are held in the village tavern, as well as outdoor competitions in sports. My mother is the village’s finest bertsolariak, or spontaneous reciter of original poetry. In this Basque artform, you are given a lead for a poem from a previous reciter as well as a particular meter, and then you must continue or even complete the poem. There is applause and cheering after my mother’s performances because she always completes the poem brilliantly, dramatically and resoundingly. She has no equal, not even me. The poems are never written down or published, and my mother has scorned my attempts to do this for her. She loves the pure lawless fire of her imagination and doesn’t want it to be limited in any way, even by a printed page that she will never read.
Poetry is by no means her only skill. She is also one of the village’s best gamblers, for which there are tavern competitions, and she is the finest and most dramatic player of the alboco, a Basque bull horn that makes a sound similar to that of bagpipes. As though that weren’t enough, she is one of the village’s best hill walkers as well, for which there are outdoor competitions. The villages of the Basque region are often very poor, and paid employment is difficult to find. Our village would be impossibly dull without these competitions, which are an important part of our culture.
When I graduated from the university and became a well-published poet, my mother was very proud of me. But, she also believes that spontaneous poetry is the larger share of poetic greatness and has a more direct relationship to the spirit, which she thinks of as a kind of creative fountain. My mother is surely a fountain, but I wouldn’t say that for the rest of humanity and its inspiration. I, on the other hand, believe that the finished poem is greater, since it is the final and cumulative act of a spirit or self that must be tested and trained to channel and understand its inspiration and the universe that has formed it. Because of this, many poets think of themselves as people who must wait patiently in a thunderstorm for the whole of their lives – and are only struck by the lightning of brilliant creativity a few times. Similarly, others think of themselves as cosmic interlopers – perhaps half-human and half-divine – who receive the visit of an angel only a few times in their lives and must create their own inspiration and poetry from such strange, marvelous and ambiguous material. These are ways of metaphorically speaking about inspiration on the one hand (and those are only metaphors poets use, not real angels or lightning), and on the other hand the long hard toil that at last becomes great poetry. That’s my belief, anyway.
One night when I was very young, my mother and I got a bit too drunk in the village tavern and decided to compete as poets. I gave her a lead from a published poem of mine in a certain meter, and we compared her spontaneous completion of the poem with my own labored one. We did this several times and then defended our poems passionately until at last we began to cast original and elaborate curses at one another, which is a precursor to poetry and also done in our village. Soon, we were competing through both curses and poems. The whole village gathered around us in astonishment for the poem after poem and curse after curse that poured from us. I must say that it was one of my life’s most utterly magnificent moments, and I treasure it for both its absurdity and its strange splendor.
Eventually, we were too drunk to remember who had won, and the villagers said they could not possibly decide between us. The next morning, we could hardly stop laughing as we remembered what we had done, but we both silently decided that any attempt to compare ourselves was impossible and that we could never know what form of poetry was greatest. Only the metaphorical angel would know, and there was nothing but silence from her. I think all poets are conversant with metaphorical angels and devils, since poetry is in some ways a truce between the two. So, we had no more discussions about the greatest poetry or further escapades in the tavern that no doubt gave the village such a great entertainment.
My mother is profoundly apolitical, as you might guess. Both ETA and the fascists much earlier as well as the resistance – anarchists, socialists, and communists – have tried repeatedly to recruit her, since all could see her unsurpassed energy and creativity. No one has ever succeeded, however. My mother accepts no master – be it political, cultural or artistic. She says that she honestly has no idea who my father was. But, she is certain it was an itinerant poet, a group for which she has a secret relish. The perfect man is one who will please her for an extended poetic moment and then depart for good.
My mother has been poor for most of her life, as have the other villagers. She inherited our house from my grandmother and has lived on the money won in many competitions as well as government handouts that are common among those who live in the Basque region. As soon as I graduated from the university, I tried to give her money, but she was too proud to accept it. However, she does keep the money I leave behind in the house after a visit, ‘gifts’ that seem to be the work of providence or the supernatural. Her ‘logic’ is probably as original and complex as everything else in her mind. She values herself greatly, and perhaps it strikes her as natural that ultimate reality should do so as well. Too, her spirit is so much that of a creator and gambler with life, and there may be a certain logic to the notion that she ‘wins’ an unknown and inscrutable ‘lottery’ from time to time. I do know that she does not believe the money comes from me; she would throw it into the street behind me if she thought so.
I must say that my mother is the most complex and difficult person I have ever known; though I love and admire her very much. I am always grateful to have escaped from my Basque village, however, and to have found my true freedom here in Barcelona. I’ve tried to convince my mother to come here, if only for a visit; but she refuses, claiming that she, like the other Basques, is of the original wild, historical stock from which the civilized world evolved. She says that she is part savage and can’t stay in a truly civilized place comfortably. I find this argument very disconcerting because, though wild and strange, it has a certain truth to it. I have also read some scientific studies – in archaeology, genetics and linguistics – that give some credence to her claim. And, I can’t deny that she is happy in her ‘wild’ state.
I have a lot in common with my mother. I, too, accept no master, and I treasure individuality and human beings as they naturally are. This infuses my poetry, and it is my personal answer to the question of my life’s meaning, recognizing that all answers to such a complex question are incomplete. Though my mother and I have sparred with one another like enemies, she is a big part of who I am. That is the simple truth, and perhaps the only simple one in the wonderful conundrum that is my mother
By Bev Jafek