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   Jacket 34 — October 2007        link Jacket 34 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Craig Santos Perez reviews
Puerta Del Sol
by Francisco Aragón
Bilingual Press, 2005.
109 Pages. $12, Paper.

This review is about 6 printed pages long. It is copyright © Craig Santos Perez and Jacket magazine 2007.

Rhythms of life


Puerta del Sol, a busy square in Madrid, marks the center of Spain’s radial road network. In the 15th century, Puerta del Sol was one of the gates that surrounded Madrid; its name, meaning ‘Gate of the Sun,’ came from the rising sun that decorated the eastern facing gate. The poems in Francisco Aragón’s Puerta del Sol resemble gates of light as they capture the shifting hues of the poet’s experience living abroad in Spain and the memories of his native California.

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The bilingual textures of Puerta del Sol reflect Aragón’s bi-continental experience. As we learn in the Notes, Aragón personally “elaborated” the English versions of these poems into Spanish. This decision was not merely an aesthetic choice:


[...] at my mother’s funeral I briefly addressed her friends, saying that one of her gifts to me was raising me in Spanish. And yet, as someone born and educated in the United States, English inevitably became my principal language. I spoke Spanish but was illiterate [...] until I graduated from college. Studying, living, traveling, and working in Spain for ten years helped. To this day, however, whenever I open my mouth in Spain, it is clear I am not a native. (xii)


Aragón doesn’t use the word “translation” because his “elaborations” from English to Spanish involved “rewriting, reordering, or re-creating specific lines.” The results are lyrically beautiful poems in both languages that shine through the many layers of personal and linguistic displacement and migration.


The book opens with poems that capture life in Madrid, from the weather (“My first day the weather // was something I wore — August / a sweat-lined shirt / like second skin”; “Mi primer dia llevaba puesto // el tiempo como prenda — agosto / una camisa forrada de sudor / como una segunda piel,” 7); to the environment (“The sky above Puerta del Sol turns / a darker shade of blue. Who says / it doesn’t become night’s / one eye / as it scales the heavens”; “El cielo sobre la Puerta del Sol toma / otro tono de azul. ¿Quién dice / que no se convierte en el único / oko de la noche / al escalar,” 9); to the people:


The Bus Driver

       His visions

are spilled across the pages
of sketchbooks. When he isn’t
gripping the wheel he’s gripping
a pastel — his Madrid

a city on the water
[...] in his sleep he isn’t
a driver but a captain stepping
down into his red

windowed craft — the 53 surging
and pausing
in the rush-hour swells [...] (16–9)



Conductor De Bus

Sus visions

están derramadas por páginas
de cuadernos. Cuando no
aprieta el volante aprieta
un lápiz de color — su Madrid

una ciudad sobre al agua
[...] Mientras duerme, no es
un conductor sino un capitán
que embarca en su navío

rojo con ventanas — el 53 avanza
se detiene, avanza en el oleaje
de la hora punta [...] (16–19)


Aragón doesn’t present a postcard view of the city, but he creates his Madrid through a poetry that swells with provocative, figurative language and imaginative transformations of urban banality. Even the sounds seem to rise and descend through his often unexpected line breaks. Experiencing Aragón’s Madrid through both the Spanish and English situates us within his own bi-lingual, bi-cultural perception.


The second section of Puerta del Sol complicates his Madrid as the city becomes haunted by Aragón’s memory of his former home, the California Bay Area. In “Winter Sun,” a student cancels his lesson with the speaker, allowing the speaker to wander the city and ruminate:


a walk in the winter sun, this unhurried
errand — picking up a new
pair of glasses — producing in me

a mood I’m trying to name, the air
— after last night’s storm —
crisp enough to taste, sprinkled

with sputtering vespas and horns,
the newly scrubbed neoclassic
façades along Alcalá

and faces, faces glanced
or gazed at, waiting for the light
to change [...]

approaching exhilaration,
subdued joy — those Fridays in college

I didn’t cross the bay to the City,
and would meet her
— who’d taken BART

for me — at Mario’s on Telegraph
Haste: tamales, beans, and rice
on a huge plate . . . (58)



a un paseo bajo un sol de invierno, este
mandado sin prisa — recoger un par
de gafas nuevas — causando en mí

un humor que intento nombrar, el aire
— después de la tormenta de anoche —
lo suficiente fresco para saborear, rociado

de ciclomotores destartalados y cláxones;
y estas fachads neoclásicas, recien
fregadas, por la calle de Alcalá

y rostro, rostros vislumbrados
u observado, esperando que cambia
el semáforo [...]

que se aproxima a la alegría,
un júbilo sojuzgado — esos viernes en la facultad

que no cruzaba la bahía a la ciudad,
y me reunía con ella
— que había tomado el BART

en mi lugar — en Mario’s, esquina Telegraph
y Haste: tamales, frijoles, y arroz
en un plato enorme. . . (59)


Like Puerta del Sol itself, Aragón’s poems become the site of frenetic movement, both physical and emotional. Although the poems’ nostalgia haunts the distance between Spain and California and between English and Spanish, Aragón always weaves this nostalgia into an unhurried joy for the present moment. The poems only approach the mood that he’s trying to name, but this mood exists beyond words from either of the two more widely distributed languages in the world.


The final section of Puerta del Sol is the quietest of the three, focusing on small moments between two lovers removed from the urban sprawl. The poems range from describing “winter socks” (“waiting for him / to re-enter the room / and slip them off / or, not bother, leaving them on”; “esperando que él / vuelva a entrar / para quitármelos / o, sin molestarse / dejármeolos puestos,” 80–1); to a siesta between classes (Above // all, the sofa: digestion a nap, / my head nestled in his lap”; “Sobre // todo, el sofá: la digestión una siesta, / mi cabeza recostada en su regazo,” 82–2). These tender moments culminate in “Veo Lo Que Dices When You Write,” which is the only poem that isn’t “elaborated” in this book. Instead, the poem presents a gorgeous exchange between the lovers with Spanish and English woven together:


My new tongue, my small triumph
and you stroke the back of his neck
whispering, “I study Mandarin thinking

of you.” Yes, I see what you’re saying
cuando escribes: Mi nueva lengua,
pequeño triunfo, y acaricias suavemente

su nuca, susurrando: “Estudio
la lengua china pensando en ti.”
For I recall a first morning, waking

beside the sound of his breathing,
sitting up & thinking, What time is it?
but uttering with surprise & wonder

when he opens his eyes, “¿Qué hora es?”
And instead of reaching for his watch
on the nightstand by his shoulder

he rises and pecks my cheek. (85)


Aragón’s willingness to travel, study, work, and love in Madrid — and in two tongues — is no small triumph. From his first day when he wore the weather like a second skin, to the moment of this poem when his two languages become one skin, we witness the power of poetry to bridge disparate places, experiences, and memories. And we feel this power in the linguistic texture itself, as Aragón embraces and elaborates his hybrid fluencies.


Puerta del Sol is a rare triumph in bilingual poetry and exemplifies one poet’s attempt to understand the rhythms of life: “as if those rhythms / carried, even then, the message // I’d take years to unravel”; “como si aquellos ritmos / contenían, incluso entonces, el mensaje // que tardaría años en descifrar,” (96–7).

Craig Perez

Craig Perez

Craig Santos Perez is the co-founder of Achiote Press and author of 2 chapbooks: constellations gathered along the ecliptic (Shadowbox Press, 2007), and all with ocean views (Overhere Press, 2007). His first book, from unincorporated territory, is forthcoming from Tinfish Press in 2008. His poetry, essays, fiction, reviews, and translations have appeared (or are forthcoming) in New American Writing, Pleiades, The Denver Quarterly, Jacket, Sentence, 26, and Rain Taxi, among others.

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