Photographs — Alex Waterhouse-Hayward — Photograph below by Rebecca Stewart
These days past my recent birthday I feel, as the heat of the waning summer, a sense of alienation from my surroundings.
When my friend, Argentine painter Juan Manuel Sánchez (who alas moved back to Buenos Aires some years ago) and I used to sit for coffee he would often talk of a Canadian love for penguins. One of our favourite places for coffee, on 16th and Oak, had the penguin symbol on its window. Sánchez would smile in puzzlement until we found a mutual common ground.
Everybody knows that penguins inhabit the Southern Hemisphere (and creep closely to the Equator on the Galapagos) and that polar bears live exclusively in the Arctic. We decided that the two of us were penguins in the arctic, out of place and particularly in the opening days of the 21st century, out of time.
In 2011 I decided to drive our Malibu to Austin and south Texas. My Rosemary and I were accompanied by our two granddaughters, Lauren and Rebecca. One of my goals was to visit my friend Mike East at his ranch.
While my family had a bit a problem navigating around the possibility of rattlesnakes and an intense heat I was comfortable with it all including the dust I encountered during the castration of soon not-to-be young bulls.
At the large ranch house we seemed to hover and live in the kitchen where we ate the best Mexican/Texan food imaginable. The jingling of East’s spurs early morning, en route to talk to his cowboys, was music to my ears.
I have chosen to illustrate this blog with a snap taken by my Rebecca of yours truly on East’s premier horse, Grammercy Flow. I don’t look as comfortable as East does. But I do know how to ride even if I have forgotten my early years of galloping after South American ostriches on the flat pampa while listening to the “tero-tero” (Vanellus chilensis).
I could not put my finger on why it was that I felt comfortable in a Texas plain. Perhaps it had to do with my four years at St. Edward’s High School in the mid to late 50s. In many respects this penguin got a taste for that peculiar American way of life that is unique (or was unique) to Texas.
This involved seeing women in bobby socks raise their right hands in what in Italy is the sign for cornuto (the thumb and little finger extended) in praise of their University of Texas football team (hook’em horns) and listening to my favourite Brenda Lee rasp out her tunes.
It involved being taught my Brothers of Holy Cross who with a few exceptions were not from Texas and their drawls were, like Brother Edwin’s, from New Orleans.
Somehow my experience with an American way of life was centered in Texas.
But it was in the beginning of my tenth grade that a young cowboy (taciturn he was) came into our dormitory. He was in the 9th grade but there was no room for him in that other 9th grade dorm. I watched him and noticed the dust, his boots, his Western shirt, his floppy hat, his look and I found not an alien but what surely was someone that I was familiar with. He was not a gaucho and he was not wearing bombachas held up by a rastra nor did he wear a facón or a pair of alpargatas. His boots were definitely Texan.
Because we were from separate school years we were never close but somehow I kept a watch over him. How could I have known then that our alliance was that of a polar bear to a penguin?
I must clarify here that at my bedside table I always have a worn Jorge Luís Borges — Obra Poética — 1923/1977.
Today I carefully read his poem Texas and with a bit of research found out here that Borges felt very comfortable in Austin:
A visiting professor position in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Texas brought Borges to Austin in late middle age. He was in residence for an entire fall semester, from September 1961 to January 1962. He taught two courses on the poetry of Argentina, giving an open lecture, too, on one of his own personal obsessions, Walt Whitman. All accounts agree that he greatly enjoyed his classes and colleagues, welcomed being immersed in what has often been described as the heady academic atmosphere of the university at that time. He also developed a true affection for Austin itself, and apparently it became nothing short of a favorite spot of his in the United States. For Borges, however, the beauty of the leafy capital city on the Colorado River was a bit different than it might be for the usual appreciative visitor, not merely a matter of local scenery; in fact, when he lived in Austin his increasingly clouding loss of sight, which had begun some years before, was already at the stage where it prevented him from fully taking in the visual (he was totally blind at death). As affable, ever-smiling Borges reportedly said later concerning why he liked Austin, why he always found it very beautiful: “I dream well there.”
Texas de Jorge Luis Borges
Aquí también. Aquí, como en el otro
confín del continente, el infinito
campo en que muere solitario el grito;
aquí también el indio, el lazo, el potro.
Aquí también el pájaro secreto
que sobre los fragores de la historia
canta para una tarde y su memoria;
aquí también el místico alfabeto
de los astros, que hoy dictan a mi cálamo
nombres que el incesante laberinto
de los días no arrastra: San Jacinto
y esas otras Termópilas, el Álamo.
Aquí también esa desconocida
y ansiosa y breve cosa que es la vida.
Texas by Jorge Luis Borges trans. Mark Strand
Here too. Here as at the other
Edge of the hemisphere, an endless plain
Where a man’s cry dies a lonely death.
Here too the Indian, the lasso, the wild horse.
Here too the bird that never shows itself,
That sings for the memory of one evening
Over the rumblings of history
Here too the mystic alphabet
of stars leading my pen over the page to names
Not swept aside in the continual
Labyrinth of Days: San Jacinto
And that other Thermopylae, the Alamo.
Here too, the never understood
Anxious, and brief affair that is life.