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A Partridge Whistles

Letters So That Happiness
Arnaldo Calveyra

Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018

The British Library’s sound archive, referring to a local partridge, describes its sound as a “harsh ‘skeer-ick’ call”. The bird is known for its clucking; at times, however, this default noise breaks off into a long mournful whistle, a moment of beauty. The Argentine poet Arnaldo Calveyra (1929–2015), growing up in the Entre Ríos region of Argentina, was familiar with the local version of partridge: “And the music-crazy reeds and the partridge’s whistle that answers back: how they hide and then dislocate and rise in the return echo!” he writes, in Letters So That Happiness, originally published in 1959.

Calveyra himself operates a bit like a partridge, using a staccato Entre Ríos Spanish that is elliptical and echoing, hiding as much as it reveals. His book captures the loveliness of specific moments, but not with sustained waves of lyricism that speak beautifully of beautiful things. Melancholy haunts Calveyra’s clucks, even when they break away into whistles. A syncopated read that creates its own space, the 22 pages of Letters So That Happiness demand a different form of attention, a patience similar to that of someone in the countryside listening for bird calls.

Although the title of the book refers to “letters”, the only reference to letters is the following: “She can’t hear us talking and, in as much, time repeats in a syllable. But my letter written with your face before it bent into its bible, leaves a space for later, after its slipping play away.” Perhaps these texts can be understood as correspondences from the author to himself, gatherings of remembrances. A letter is usually thought to be a communication to another person, chattily informal, or if formal at least not baroquely obscurantist, since after all the receiver is intended to make sense of it.

A letter to oneself, however, can operate with greater freedom. These letters read like reminders, jottings about certain objects, clucks that precede the whistling memories that are not written down. As letters these are incomplete, cut off, encoded, the embryo of communication, but their cryptic form succeeds as a specific form of remembrance: a series in time, not communications but glistening notes for some never-written Proustian work. The jagged language produces attentive retrospection both through what it chooses to say and through its absences.

Happiness is not simple in Calveyra’s world, either. The title is ambiguous: What does “so that happiness” mean? Is this writing to create a happiness that is not present? Or is this writing asking happiness for something? After all, anyhow, what is happiness? The first page of the book presents us with what would seem to be its opposite; although the boy is traveling with happy guitarrists, “you know? I didn’t know I was sad until they asked me to sing.” Then: “And now that it’s night, I’m happy to be like the sea, and fall too over a leaf with this beautiful charge of continuing that sea and this wind and touching the village over there past the restless poplar guards.” Further on we read:

Feathered casuarina trees quieted to his step. But because they’d never met the winds that travel from a sadness to a happiness, there was no breeze to wake the nests sleeping in their fist: for them, he was returning, one of so many from the village. […] And he whistled for the feathered casuarinas, and for the rebel night to the phantom light, and for the star there at the top of Zumino’s wild privet.

Images from nature—trees, fields, birds, flowers—fill the text, and there is something cyclical in Calveyra’s view of happiness and sadness, as if their shifting over time is also natural:

When we both arrive at the hills’s counting, at the whole coat shearing, she won’t be as happy. […] And I don’t think the most meager rose on its bending stem, or the train its leaving whistle, or the first barren of the acacia, or the leaves falling in the wind’s green, or the happy years of a childhood passing, or the molten cast of summer days and nights, sing any other song.

With the return to the cut-off Entre Ríos language of Calveyra’s childhood and a sort of searching baby talk, as well as explicit references to this period of life, we know that we are in the land of childhood, with all of its unspecialized noticing, its openness to experience. An atmosphere of childlike babbling is created, a way of talking to objects and playing games in a country background. “The time has come for fables, mother,” Calveyra writes. The childhood is not necessarily Calveyra’s own, for even as he explores his own memories, a certain depersonalization occurs. The self is lost, and a world hyper-sensorially conscious of language and objects is created.

Reading and rereading these poems, one comes to feel their fragile strength. A lightness to the writing exists, as if Calveyra is trying to remove the weight from language, all the ugly connectors and unnecessary transitions, possibly sometimes at the expense of total clarity. Yet there is also a strength to the “plowing words”. This work of returning to the past is doing something, creating something different and new. A fertile land results from the disarrangement of the structure.

Letters So That Happiness was highly praised by Calveyra’s teacher Carlos Mastronardi, who wrote an appreciation of the work in the pages of the Argentine magazine Sur. Borges and Bioy Casares also championed the author’s work and saw in Calveyra a promising young writer. Interestingly, Calveyra himself read his own work in a different and simpler way than these writers did, and did not make any lofty claims about their use of language, insisting that its strangeness simply reflected the Entre Ríos dialect. In any case, their hopes for him were fulfilled after he moved to France, at first attracted by the vivid ’60s culture, then compelled to extend his stay indefinitely due to the increasingly unpleasant political situation in Argentina. It was in Paris that Calveyra consolidated his reputation, writing and publishing most of his works there and receiving a number of awards, including the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres national medal.

A final note must be added about the translation. This could not have been an easy work to translate, due to its truncated syntax, its many localisms, and its heavy use of onomatopoeia. Not only has Elizabeth Zuba dextrously produced the familiar English versions of Spanish phrases (i.e. “cockledoodledoo” for “kikirikí”, “some little boy blue go blow your horn” for “muchachito viejo viruejo de picopicotuejo de pomporerá”, “eeny meeny miny” for “la seta bayeta”), but a certain degree of creative translation has also led her to seek hyphenated solutions (i.e. “throat-slit” for “degollado”, “sun-struck” for “insolado”) and compact Englishisms (i.e. “broom thwack” for “escobazo”, “crumbling horizon” for “el horizonte que se derrumbaba”).

Facing Spanish-English pages make it clear that the translation is not as condensed as the original, but this is perhaps unavoidable — in a sense the translation looks like a creative rewriting of the original text. It is clear that Zuba loves these poems, and in a lengthy afterword (almost as long as the poems that precede them) she talks about her literary relationship with Calveyra, who read her translations. This delightful essay expands on Calveyra’s biography in a helpful way, one that alleviates the reader’s sense of bafflement and calls her to flip back to the beginning.



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