Places Where Words Have Made Their Way Onto the Page (by Theresa Malphrus Welford)

For our Thanksgiving holiday, my husband and I traveled to Spain, where not many decades ago, a dictator ruled. In fact, this dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, ruled from the late 1930s until his death in 1975. A casual visitor to the country would probably notice no signs of a brutal dictatorship, but the history is everywhere: in monuments, in art, in literature, even in movies such as Pan’s Labyrinth.

In Madrid, we saw Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s painting depicting the aftermath of a Nazi bombing attack on the Basque region of Spain in 1937, which destroyed the town of Guernica and killed over 1600 women, men, and children.

When we visited Toledo, a gorgeous town near Madrid, we saw monuments honoring Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, and we saw unlimited quantities of t-shirts and other souvenirs featuring his famed characters, including this one by Picasso:

On our day trip to Segovia, another gorgeous town near Madrid, we saw that Antonio Machado lived there, taught French to high school students there, and wrote poetry there.

I am always interested in visiting writers’ homes, and when I saw that Machado wrote about the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which ended with Franco’s takeover of the country, I decided that a visit to his house was a must, particularly since I had also just seen Picasso’s stunning depiction of Guernica.

According to a biography in the Asheville Poetry Review, Machado was among the poets known as “the generation of 1898,” who “proclaimed a moral and cultural rebirth for Spain” following its defeat in the Spanish-American War. In 1939, though, Machado was forced into exile: “Forced to leave Spain because of his support of the Loyalist cause during the Spanish civil war, he crossed the Pyrenees on foot and died in France a month later.” Upon his death, Machado’s last poem, “The Voice of Spain,” was found in his pocket.

As I said above, I am always drawn to sites where writers have lived and worked. I am equally drawn to their birthplaces and their final resting places. On a Study Abroad field trip in London in 2007, I rested my hand on the rough stone marking Geoffrey Chaucer’s burial place in Westminster Abbey. In a self-conscious tone, I told my students that I was “channeling” Chaucer, but I think they could see that I was genuinely moved by the experience of being that close to one of my favorite writers, a writer whose work I struggled to read in translation as an undergraduate and again as a graduate student; whose work has broken my heart (Troilus and Criseyde); whose work has made me bust out in great big guffaws every time I’ve read it (The Miller’s Tale). I think it goes without saying that, as a literature major and a writer and a passionate traveler, I’ve made the obligatory visit to Shakespeare’s birthplace, undeterred by the freezing winter weather or the heaving crowds of noisy tourists. The sight of his low-ceilinged childhood bedroom brought tears to my eyes. The same happened when I saw George Eliot’s grave in Highgate Cemetery. The same happened when I visited the town in Northern England where James Herriot practiced veterinary medicine and wrote All Creatures Great and Small and the other books in that series. And the same happened when I saw these lines inscribed on Dylan Thomas’s grave in Westminster Abbey: “Time held me green and dying, / Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Anyway, I visited Antonio Machado’s house in Segovia, Spain, not because I knew his work but because I always find it meaningful and moving to visit sites where words have made their way from a writer’s heart and mind onto the page. This poem by Sandford Lyne, which is featured in Loch Raven Review, captures why I visit such places:

…You just want to be with them,
touch their sandals, wash their feet,
know a little of their courage,
walk, listen, learn….

One of Machado’s poems, “The Crime Was in Granada,” describes the death of fellow writer Federico Garcia Lorca, who was shot by Franco’s soldiers:

He was seen walking between the rifles,

down a long street

out to chill fields

still lit by early stars.

They killed Federico

when the dawn broke.

The executioner’s crew

dared not look in his face.

They shut their eyes,

said: Nor will God save you!

Federico fell dying

– blood on his brow, lead in his guts –

…To think the crime should be in Granada.

–  poor Granada – in his Granada….

Since I’ve read two of Lorca’s plays, Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba, I’m especially interested in visiting his home. I want to see where he worked, want to absorb as much of his vitality as I can. As he himself put it, “In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.”

In The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson describes a tourist who repeatedly made pilgrimages to Mark Twain’s childhood home although he hadn’t read any of Twain’s books. When I contemplated visiting Machado’s home, I briefly felt as if I were no better than this guy. But the more I think about it, the more I feel that, in at least one way, it isn’t necessarily bad to be like him. After all, he was interested in Twain’s home. Heck, he was downright passionate about it. There are much worse things to be.

Even right here, in the state of Georgia, we can visit sites where writers have been born, have grown up, or have spent parts of their lives. These include writers from the past: Conrad Aiken, Raymond Andrews, Elias Boudinot, Jean Toomer, W. E. B. DuBois, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Henry W. Grady, Margaret Mitchell, Joel Chandler Harris, Flannery O’Connor, Ferrol Sams, Robert Burch, Toni Cade Bambara, Harry Crews, James Dickey, Erskine Caldwell, Sidney Lanier, Carson McCullers, Walker Percy, James Kilgo, and Olive Ann Burns. These also include living writers: Bailey White, Melissa Fay Greene, Pat Conroy, Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter, Alice Walker, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Coleman Barks, Terry Kay, David Bottoms, ZZ Packer, and Natasha Tretheway.

_______

[1] It is widely believed that Franco collaborated with the Nazis when they attacked Guernica.

[2] “Antonio Machado,” Asheville Poetry Review. http://www.ashevillepoetryreview.com/tag/antonio-machado.

[3] “Antonio Machado,” Asheville Poetry Review. http://www.ashevillepoetryreview.com/tag/antonio-machado.

[4] “Machado, Lorca, Neruda, Jiménez,” by Sandford Lyne. http://www.lochravenreview.net/retrospectives/SandyLyne/lyne16.html.

[5] “The Crime Was in Granada,” Antonio Machado. Found on the Poetry in Translation website.  http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/Machado.htm#_Toc187483810.

[6] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/f/federico_garcia_lorca.html#GOdxou76SV0ezsx1.99.

[7] Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. New York: William Morrow Books, 2001.

Advertisements