The Child Poet by Homero Aridjis (tr. Chloe Aridjis). Archipelago Books. $16.00, 153pp.
Because our lives move in straight lines but our perceptions do not, we are forever trying to squeeze the latter’s unruliness into the former’s rigor. This, perhaps, explains why memoirs so often have the clean story arcs, senses of closure, and thematic consistencies that our lives never, ever have. Memoirs are lies; autobiographies are lies with footnotes. Somewhere in those footnotes, though, in those interstices clarifying and digressing from the main tales, lies glimmer of the real.
In The Child Poet, Homero Aridjis gives us such gleaming footnotes and green shoots of offhand mystery that we’re reminded that it’s not necessarily bad to be told lies, so long as the teller realizes that he is indeed lying. As Albert Camus said, fictions are lies that tell the truth. Through Aridjis’s memoir, the Mexican writer eschews the straight line and the tidy summation, opting instead for dark flashes and dream logic. The tale he tells of his childhood and adolescence isn’t, in the end, a tale at all but rather a series of vignettes. Some are lush with physical detail, while others are spare. Some vignettes are told at a remove even though it’s clear that Aridjis was present for the events. Others are visceral, immediate snapshots, even though they are hearsay; the memoirist captures the aura of events for which he wasn’t there.
But then other moments feel like a bit of both, in that they are conveyed with such tactile fervor that it’s easy to forget—and maybe he wants you to forget—that he couldn’t possibly remember the event being described, though he was undoubtedly present. Take the book’s opening:
To suckle. The world was an immense tit, a mountain the size of my mouth. Fingers. Pacifiers. Suction. Female faces with a maternal presence. White instants. Milky light.
The concave hour. The warm crib. And I, center of the room, awaiting the punctual breast, which would transmit to me, like a cornucopia, life itself.
The passage feels immediate, as tactile and pungent as a first kiss, but nobody has a memory this good or one that goes back so far. Here, and often in The Child Poet, Aridjis is imagining a memory rather than recalling one. Or, at the very least, he’s blurring the line between the two.
In this blurring, Aridjis mimics the evolution of one’s consciousness. The first passage is dominated by a staccato rhythm created by bursts of sensation and a lack of structure. There’s only one complete sentence here. The rest are nouns, quick flashes without connective tissue, images but not (yet) contexts in which to place them. In short, the passage—of the infant Homero suckling his mother—imitates how a baby understands the world around him. Infants haven’t mastered verbal language, and so rely solely on the senses to interpret life. Everything is at once too big and centered entirely on such a small creature (the infant). It’s as if Aridjis is saying this: If babies don’t get language just yet, then why should the language evoking infancy?
By the third passage, The Child Poet is offering full sentences and a cognizance of life other than the author’s:
My mother’s footsteps in the corridor. A door opening or closing. Rain on the roof.
My thoughts drifted towards my father in his store. I imagined him entering the room, sitting down on the edge of the bed, and remaining by my side.
But he didn’t. And all of a sudden I would find myself calling out, “¡Papá! ¡Papá!” knowing well that as soon as he heard me he’d drop everything and come at once.
As Aridjis grows in The Child Poet, the sentences get more complex, the vignettes become narratives instead of poetic shards, those narratives get longer, and the book becomes populated by more and more people. Again, this mirrors how we develop as humans, becoming keener with language and, through it, more aware of a wider world. Within twenty pages (and roughly eight years), Aridjis’s small Mexican town of Contepec feels full to bursting with people, politics, and the sordid, bewildering business of life.
“Sordid” is key here. Aridjis depicts himself as a sensitive, emotionally porous kid who observes all kinds of violence. Political occupation comes to Contepec, with all the attendant corruptions, bribes, and petty cruelty. Uncles hate each other for no good reason. Relatives mooch off each other. Husbands and wives fight, sometimes with knives. Teenage boys sexually harass girls, sometimes flirtatiously, sometimes with scary, raw aggression. (At times Aridjis joins in, feeling up a feeble-minded girl’s breasts only because he can do so; he’s not even that interested but it’s the thing to do.) Desperate, near-homeless villagers plead with Aridjis’s father for help, or just a day’s food, lingering around the man’s general store in increasing stages of starvation. A schoolkid’s father is killed by a cacique. Aridjis watches as a young friend’s mom cheats on her husband with a powerful political boss, and she basically abandons her son for the man, leaving him destitute.
That last one might read as potentially treacly, except that, by this point, Aridjis has already established that the son, Ricardo El Negro, is a little thug who thinks nothing of terrorizing the local kids and of shooting pet cats for sport. At times, our author isn’t much better. The Child Poet is thoroughly unsentimental about childhood, or family dynamics, or small-town life. Mayberry, this is not. But the memoir’s tone is shot through less with cynicism than bewilderment. Homero observes plenty but doesn’t comprehend all that much, leaving the reader to fill in the emotional gaps and the political subtexts. Aridjis is not trying to depict his childhood with the benefit of hindsight—though obviously that’s inevitable. Instead, he’s portraying his young life as that ten-year-old boy would have understood it, with the same urgency and bafflement at the ways of adults. When you’re living through childhood, the casual cruelty is just part of life; it’s only as adults that we try to psychoanalyze it, contextualize, and make it fit into a larger pattern.
Though The Child Poet may have no larger lessons, there are big events. The biggest occurs midway through, even getting its own section. “The Road to Toluca,” the longest narrative of the book, recounts how Aridjis accidentally shot himself at age ten. As with most violence in The Child Poet, it occurs almost casually, offhandedly, as if happening to someone else at a dreamy remove:
Standing on the bricks, I saw some birds alight on the sapodilla tree next door, to be momentarily covered by the branches. . . Until they returned to the air, over my head, high in the blue above. . . And without wanting to, I aimed the shotgun at them and fired, not intending to kill a single one.
I watched with relief as they all flew on until they were lost in the distance. But as I let the shotgun drop, the butt hit the bricks and the second shell fired into me. Such was the blow I felt from the shots that I thought infinity had entered my belly.
Invaded by ammunition, engulfed in the smell of gunpowder, my blood hot and my right hand bleeding, I wasn’t aware of my state until I tried to take a step and a feeling of being torn apart kept me from moving.
That shotgun blast isn’t the primary point of “The Road to Toluca” but just the opening salvo. The aftermath holds Aridjis’s attention more—the hospital recovery, his fading in and out of consciousness, his observations of fellow sufferers, the visitations of Father Felipe and doctors and nurses, his parents whispering in the hospital room while he pretends to be asleep, his searing pain. All of the kid’s powers of observation come together during this convalescence. It’s here, says the book’s cover copy and promo materials, that Aridjis the boy becomes Aridjis the poet. Chloe Aridjis, Homero’s daughter and this book’s translator, claims that her dad always claims this moment as a flashpoint, furthering that narrative.
But I don’t quite buy it. In The Child Poet, Aridjis has emphatically, nobly refused to ascribe a grand narrative to his childhood. In this way, at least, he won’t lie. Indeed, almost thirty pages before “The Road to Toluca,” we get “The Poem about Shadows,” a three-page piece that seems to hone in on the emergence of his poetic consciousness well before he shoots himself. It begins:
My eyes practiced on the sacred morning’s shadows and I learned to tell them apart by their darkness and their light
and ends with:
made my poem
and I recited it trembling
Throughout the memoir, Homero proves to have a febrile, discerning sensitivity, alert to the town’s emotional atmosphere and the emotions of those around him. And he doesn’t decide to take up writing until the memoir’s last 15-20 pages, when he’s nearing the end of high school. His childhood isn’t cleaved neatly in two halves by a shotgun shell. “The Road to Toluca” is significant—it was a near-death experience, after all—but Aridjis allows its weight to remain mysterious, its effect on him not entirely knowable.
That’s childhood. When we’re kids, the adult world is incomprehensible and our own lives are puzzling. When we try to make sense of childhood and adolescence as adults, the puzzle pieces never quite fit neatly; there’s always a few missing; the puzzle we’ve filled in doesn’t look like what’s on the box. The Child Poet lets those missing pieces stay missing, and for childhood to remain as fragmentary and incomplete as it is in our memories.
Walter Biggins is a writer and book editor based in Athens, GA. With Daniel Couch, he is the author of the forthcoming book, Bob Mould’s Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017).
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway Books are published all the time that rely on the classic novelistic tropes that guarantee a satisfying emotional experience. Alternatively, plenty of books rely on the “un”-traditional tropes of experimental literature that guarantee a satisfying intellectual experience. Somehow, Ridgway has written a book that accomplishes both....
- The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico GarcĂa Lorca Ascends to Hell by Carlos Rojas Most visions of the afterlife entail some kind of deliverance from the burdens imposed by memory—after all, what heaven could be more fitting than one where we transcend our Earthly failures? Spanish author Carlos Rojas ingeniously shows us the arch obverse of that in The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico...
- Milosz as California Poet In 1960, a visiting appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, led to four decades on the West Coast. It would be pat to say he gave us the past, and we gave him the future. It implies that the scales were equal, when there are 314 million of us...
- Short Disclaimers, Extravagant Tablecloths: Harry Mathews, Poet If Harry Mathews is esteemed predominantly for his masterful fiction, it is nonetheless as a poet that he ventured upon a writing career. The marriage of form and content evident in the inventions of Tlooth or Cigarettes emerged from the discovery, as he puts it in a 1987 interview with...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Walter Biggins