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from the May 2017 issue

Cardinal Points: Four Basque Poets

When I was asked to make a selection of four Basque poets for Words Without Borders, my mind filled with possibilities. I thought: oh, my fellow coastal poet Kirmen Uribe and his seafaring poems, or what about the tortured Parisian Jon Mirande, the irreverently clever Ricardo Arregi, the always on-point Bernardo Atxaga, the fantastic love poet Padron Plazaola, the newbie Alaine Agirre and her raw, distraught poems, the richly oblique Felipe Juaristi, the difficult but rewarding Koldo Izagirre, or even the father of modern Basque poetry, Gabriel Aresti (whose works have just been published by University of Nevada Press.) There were others, too, names flew in and out of my mind: Itxaro Borda, Arantxa Urretabizkaia, Amaia Lasa, each poet a rich fragment of Basqueness. How to choose, how to represent.

And as is often the case when given strict delimitations, my mind focused. In the end, I thought, what do people know about Basque literature? Not much. So how could I provide a good sketch of Basque literature in four poets then? The idea of four made me think of the cardinal points: I come from fishing people, so I can’t help the tendency to think in terms of north, south, east, and west, the corresponding winds, what comes with each, what landmarks (seamarks) I see, where I stand with respect to each. (I don’t know many other people whose first gesture in entering a place they’re considering to rent is to flip open a compass). It’s in my blood to define territories, to craft maritime charts, to fish, to swim, to sail boats, and now, thanks to the new world, to European ideals about the free movement of peoples and the decline of the fishing worlds, I’ve translated the skills of my ancestors into this, this crafting of literary maps, this fishing for the next rewarding catch.

In the December 2015 Translator’s Relay, I wrote about the Basque language, about how old it is and how complex its history and literary traditions are—oral and written literary traditions in Basque follow two very distinct paths, both very rich and alive; the first is very old, and the other . . . a babe in arms. The paradox of this old but new literary world. For the purpose of giving context to my selection, I’ll need to explain that the first book in Basque was published in 1545 and that very little else was published in the following four hundred years and that the few things that were published in that time were produced by priests (mostly Franciscans and Jesuits). They wrote devotional books, translations of sections from the Bible, spiritual guides. This is no anomaly: for centuries and for better or worse, churchpeople have been the keepers of languages across cultures: annotating them, translating them, writing into their traditions (think of Saint John of the Cross, Teresa de Jesus, Julian of Norwich, even the patron of translators Saint Jerome). The Basque literary tradition has its own collection of writer-priests, starting with the first person to ever publish a book in Basque, Bernard Etxepare, the French-Basque vicar who wrote Linguae Vasconum Primitiae in 1545. But the Basque church’s monopoly in all matters literary began to wane in the twentieth century and, with that, the need for other manifestations of writing in Basque began to emerge.

And to understand this shift and how it manifested, we need to envision and understand mystical geographies.

There exists in the Basque Country a place that is a bit like Camelot. It sits in the middle of the most beautiful network of mountains and valleys, a hiker or horse-rider’s true paradise. It’s called Arantzazu and it’s a Franciscan sanctuary: in 1468 a shepherd claimed to have had the Virgin appear to him among the hawthorns (arantza means hawthorn) and, well, the usual rest ensued. It was declared a sacred site in 1885 by Pope Leo XIII, and in 1950 a huge, ambitious architectural undertaking started to develop on the site of the shrine. And this is where things start to get really interesting, because this apparently benign, tranquil, bucolic site of pilgrimage became the place where the soul and the brain of a new Basque revolution were forged. People forget, but the first few ETA [Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, "Basque Homeland and Liberty"] ideologues were Franciscan and Jesuit fathers (this was before ETA became a military organization—it was a purely political concept first), and it was precisely in Arantzazu, and during the years in which the Arantzazu Basilica was built, that the shift to Basque modern expression (in thought, in architecture, sculpture, literature and music; even the new standard Basque, euskara batua) coalesced. Keep in mind that these were the very harsh years of Franco’s dictatorship, when everything Basque was forbidden—what better place to plot the dawn of a new Basque era than a Franciscan Friary in a mythical site? No one was watching. The Virgin might have appeared in Arantzazu in 1468, but the Basque goddess Mayi and her forest, mountain, and river creatures were there already by the time the Virgin came along, and still are; those mountains are a magnet for magic, there’s a sense of being hidden and protected and left in peace in the ancient caves and steep forests that surround the basilica, on the rocky peaks enhancing the horizons. I rode a horse for the first time there, aged nine, a Basque pottoka (a long-haired, feral mountain horse—they’re as cute as they’re stubborn, and will take you wherever they please) who, over the years and in my many visits to Arantzazu, taught me to trust the wisdom of his meanderings. His name was Gorri ("Red," for his mane).

So here we are, 1950s and 60s, in a radical sanctuary built by a pair of young architects who enlisted the help of the three most avant-garde Basque artists: Txillida, Oteiza, and Basterretxea. Txillida made the bronze doors (and called them the gates of hell); Oteiza sculpted the apostles (fourteen, because there were surely more than 12, and one was Mary Magdalene) and the pietá (Mary raging at the skies with a hole in her heart); Basterretxea painted frescoes in the crypt, which the Vatican ordered be destroyed. So, yes, a Catholic, Franciscan sanctuary . . . but a radical, mystical one, hyperaware of its own key role in the preservation and permutation of Basque culture and identity.

And it is in this contradictorily pagan, spiritual, political, and modernist context that we find Juan Mari Lekuona (1927–2005), an ordained priest who was a member of the Basque Academy of Letters and the first director of the Basque Society of Authors, and best friends with two key figures of Basque modern thought: the sculptor-philosopher Oteiza and Joxemiel Barandiaran, the linguist-anthropologist who largely designed the standard Basque (euskara batua) in use today. In this cardinal initiation to Basque poetry, Lekuona is North, because of the special role priests have had in the keeping and development of Basque literature, and because his poem, "Hand 3," was born in the years Oteiza was sculpting the frontispiece, the apostles, and the pietá in Arantzazu, and it is born of Lekuona’s conversations with the sculptor-philosopher. I can’t help thinking "Hand 3" is about Oteiza’s hands, and about Oteiza and Lekuona’s conversations, and their attempts to create a new aesthetic-poetic interpretation of the Basque soul.

I mentioned earlier that Arantzazu was also key in the development of the ideology that would produce the ETA. In the context of Franco’s oppressive regime, Catholicism was an instrument of rule and coercion, but, in the Basque Country, it also became a means of hiding in plain sight. With the excuse of bringing the word of God to those unruly Basques, the Franciscans and Jesuits (who created the academic Camelotian equivalent to Arantzazu, the University of Deusto) aligned to shelter and protect the language, and educated a new generation of unapologetically Basque thinkers. Joseba Sarrionandia (1958) was one of them. In this clockwise literary trip, he is East, because he had to leave, and headed East, and in the process became the Morning Star of many politically engaged young Basques, who saw him both as a martyr and a beacon of light. He studied Basque philology at the University of Deusto, where he came across the early ETA ideologues. He became a member, and in 1980 he was sent to prison for twenty-two years for his affiliation with the terrorist band. By then, Sarrionandia was already one of a group of prominent new young Basque authors. Together with Bernardo Atxaga, Jon Juaristi, Ruper Ordorika, and other authors and musicians, they created a magazine, Pott, that brought together new works in Basque, the likes of which no one had ever seen or heard before. They were proponents of modernism and the avant-garde and eager to create new Basque literary territories where none had existed before. In today’s parlance, we understand someone like Sarrionandia as a cultural and political activist; in the burning years of the “transition to democracy,” he was somone to make an example of, the “unlucky one” in that group of like-minded writers. Luckily, in 1985 Sarrionandia made a legendary escape from the Martutene prison, hidden inside one of the speakers of a band who’d come to play a San Fermin concert on July 7, the first day of the famous festival. He has lived in exile since, unable to return to the Basque Country. The life of the exile, the issues of banishment and colonization, therefore, loom large in his works. But he is also a literary translator: one of his first publications was an anthology of his translations of his favorite poems, Izkiriaturik aurkitu ditudan ene poemak (published in 1985, its title translates to “My Poems, Which I Found Already Written"). He is the translator of canonical works by Cavafy, Pessoa, T.S. Eliot, Coleridge, Schwob, and many others into Basque, and this worldliness bleeds into his work. Sarrionandia’s works ooze loss and world-weariness, a deep understanding of history, mythology and human nature, and sing with the defiance and the high moral ground of the honorable loser.

Miren Agur Meabe (1962), our South in this seacrossing, also studied Basque philology with the Jesuits, and is the most widely published and translated Basque female poet. I place her South in my selection because the South is my favorite destination, and I’d like to put all known and unknown female Basque writers there. The history of Basque literature has not reserved much of a place for women (all those priests), but things are beginning to change and Miren Agur Meabe leads the charge with the unashamed femaleness of her writing. She writes from the body, from the certainty of her here and now lived experience, and from the void of female representation in Basque letters—she is also a member of the Basque Academy of Letters (she told me there were no female restrooms in the building when she was made a member in 2006—think about that). She anchors her tradition to that of the universal female writers and poets that preceed her, and writes from a perspective of defiance. Making sure she writes everything a good Basque Catholic girl brought up by nuns and priests should not write, using the most beautiful, lyrical Basque. Writing the female everything that isn’t there in Basque letters. The chain of kitchen and family, the trauma of religion, the rawness of sex, the disappointment of imposed limitations, the words that just aren’t there, or aren’t said: menopause, orgasm, desire. Hers is a woman’s struggle to voice and claim an artistic discourse while writing in a tradition with few literary forebears—none of whom are female. I just finished translating A Glass Eye, her memoir of disappointed love and writing and her own glass eye as metaphors for transcending pain (it’ll be published this summer). When I first heard Miren Agur Meabe had written this book, I was surprised, and scared for her—with that protective instinct of friendship. I’ve known this author for fifteen years, we are friends, we come from similar backgrounds (we’re from neighboring fishing villages, fishermen’s daughters), and in all this time she never told me what happened to her eye. I accepted her glass eye as part of who she was, learned to look into her “good” eye when we spoke, and thought that she would tell me about her “bad” one in her own time. With this book, she tells the world what her eye has taught her, what her glass eye has molded her into, what life looks like through a glass eye. My initial fear, I understand now, emerged from the fact that I had perceived her glass eye as a weakness, a disability, something that made her vulnerable. Instead, I now know that her glass eye is her strength, the golden anchor to her otherness. The compass that leads her to claim new territories in an old tongue.

Harkaitz Cano (1975) is West, then, the spirit of dusk, a writer who famously writes through the night with his eyes firmly on seen and unseen horizons, and who belongs to the first generation of Basque children who were able to go to school and be taught entirely in Basque. He is an avant-garde writer who mixes genres and often works in collaborations with other artists (musicians, painters, chefs—including his brilliant culinary-literary-musical experiment with Mugaritz’s iconic chef Andoni Aduriz, BSO). Cano’s works are hard to classify. His slim novel Blade of Light imagines Hitler won World War II and conquered Manhattan, which he rules from a golden tower (ahem). Hitler’s archenemies and the greatest threat to his newly imposed world order are Charlie Chaplin, whom he’s kidnapped and beaten half to death (he escapes), and Hollywood. I’ll confess that in these last few months the prescience of that little book I translated in the hallowed rooms of New York Public Library in the summer of 2010 has haunted me: it’s a great ode to the power of the word, cinema, and imagination in the face of fascism. Another main character in Blade of Light is a dispossessed French stevedore who, after loading the Statue of Liberty into the ship, hides inside the head in her journey from France to NY to make a new life for himself in the new world. Really, everyone in the US needs to read Blade of Light. It’s not a book about the Basques, but only a Basque could have written it. Twist, however, Cano’s latest novel, forthcoming in English translation [in October), is definitely a book about the Basques. A novel about a very famous case, the Lasa and Zabala case: two very young members of ETA (affiliated with the band but without blood crimes on them), were “disappeared” by a paramilitary group organized by the Spanish government to fight against ETA. Lasa and Zabala’s bodies resurfaced ten years after their disappearance, and the legal process that ensued unraveled a network of police corruption and political complicity in the assassination of Basques that brought down large sections of the Spanish political apparatus that existed to support the government-sanctioned GAL paramilitary group. For obvious reasons, all the names of the real-life characters in this story have been changed in Twist, but the events are there in all their gory detail. Twist is surreal and ironic and deals with hard, hard facts (assassinations, kidnappings, survivor’s guilt, the tangled mess of Basque identity and politics) to weave a dark, gripping, sometimes hallucinatory tale (the bones wake up in their shallow grave) that takes you places you didn’t want to go to. And yet, once there, you can’t look away. In fact, you want to stay.

And so, here we are, almost at the end of the journey. Looking West, the sky aflame. Literature and revolution. Bearing witness, torch in hand. In my meandering, Gorri-influenced ways, I’ve led you here. I wanted to give you four characters for this trip, this quick visit: the priest writer, the terrorist-activist writer, the fallen female Catholic rebel writer, the young avant-garde writer who’s written a book (Twist) that contains all of the above characters in it. To explain what cannot be explained but must be explained: the parallel burdens of pride and guilt, of shame and duty, of history and identity; and the joyful, painful mandate of carrying on, regardless, of carrying forward, regardless, of carrying over, regardless, this old language of ours. As far as it will go. Because it’s very much needed still, in this new world.

© 2017 by Amaia Gabantxo. All rights reserved.

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