Finalist : Terrain.org 10th Annual Contest in Nonfiction 

 

 

The disquietude of the word that is lost to us, skewed by a gap in our memory.  
   – Gemma Gorga

Winter

Barcelona’s holiday lights are massive dandelion puffs in magenta, green, and silver. A child’s fantasy of gigantic flower heads with striped silver ribbons. Daisy parachutes with orange centers.

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Nadal in lights. Everywhere. Tennis tournaments at Christmas? I wonder. Before I realize Nadal is the Catalan word for Christmas.

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I invite you to play, to look attentively … I invite you to think.
   – Antoni Tàpies

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When I go to Park Güell, the echoes from 30 years ago begin.

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I did not come here to relive the past. But as I grow older, everything has shadows, shades, ghosts, phantasms.

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Sitting in the Teatre Grec of Nature Square where the specter of Catalan dancers performed. The theater of memory overtakes me. This is where my first husband, a bigamist, took me 30 years ago.

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The mosaics in Park Güell glow with the memory of sitting here with E. when we were newlyweds 30 years ago.

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City of illusory castles, illusory marriages that mosaics—a fractured whole—capture best.

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I had thought E. was a fractured mosaic and my love was the glue. Together we made a trencadís: mosaic in Catalan.

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All the paths I chose, all the missteps I made, have somehow brought me back here.

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Portico of the washerwoman with pigeons on her shoulders and one on her upraised hand: I am seeing her for the first time. Always the working woman who endures and survives.

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Symbol for Barcelona: the pocket—sign of having been picked.

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When I married the Catalan man, he picked my heart before he picked my purse.

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The first thing we did in Barcelona was to have hot chocolate thick as pudding.

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The second thing we did was to go visit his mother who lived on the square of the Sagrada Familia.

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The third thing we did was to stroll on the Ramblas and buy an orchata, a cool, sweet, creamy drink made from ground-up chufa nuts.

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We did not visit the ancient synagogue because it had not yet been excavated. Today I am going to the Gothic quarter to visit the Gothic synagogue, discovered in 1987.

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How did they know it was a synagogue? On the foundation stone, the number 18: in Gematriya (Jewish mystical numerology) the numerical equivalent for chai, life. And the building’s orientation to the east/southeast—toward Jerusalem. And because this building paid no taxes to the king in the 13th century.

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In the 14th century, 20 percent of Barcelona, 4,000 souls, were Jews.

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When the Black Plague hit, and 60 percent of the population died, who was to blame? The Jews—always the scapegoat of history.

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Because the Jews took ritual baths (mikveh), and did ritual hand-washings, far fewer of them died during the plague.

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On August 5, 1391, their Christian neighbors set fire and destroyed the entire Jewish Quarter, called the Call (which probably comes from the Hebrew word kahal, community), and murdered whoever had not fled. One hundred years before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

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When I go shopping for agendas on Astúries, I find one with a six-pointed star on its cover, an inadvertent Star of David. Some residue of the 1,300 years of Jewish presence in Spain, in Catalunya, is seeping back into the culture.

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When I met E., he pretended to be Jewish. By the time we got to Barcelona, I knew his mother was Catholic.

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Like excavating for the hidden synagogue, one night I excavated in bed with him, before we were to marry, and discovered he was not Jewish: his father was Egyptian, his mother, Catalan.

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Later, when the marriage was more a broken mirror than a mosaic, he took a trip without me and became a careless liar—but crueler—saying, he was going to see his anti-Semitic uncle in Texas.

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And beneath that lie was the girlfriend (Jewish), who was going with him to a dude ranch in Wyoming on my credit card.

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As beneath the superstition that the Jews were poisoning the wells or spreading the plague, there was money, so much money, that the Christians owed the Jews. Better to kill them than to be in debt to them.

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When he returned, and I asked him where he had been, he said he had flown to L.A., then Las Vegas, from Texas: places thousands of miles apart. And I believed him.

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Love that starts out blind soon becomes deaf and dumb.

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How else could I not have noticed for months the additional answering machine containing messages from his girlfriend.

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How could she—another smart Jewish woman—who worked on Wall Street or else was a lawyer (I forget), not realize until my call that she was sleeping with a man who had a wife? In fact, two wives.

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I value my sight (my vision) and my insight more than anything. Is love always my blind spot?

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Dios creó el mundo—dicen, y en el sétimo día cuando estaba tranquilo descansando, se sobresaltó y dijo: He olvidado una cosa: los ojos y la mano de Picasso.
   – Rafael Alberti

(God created the world, they say, and on the seventh day when he was quietly resting, he startled himself and said: I forgot one thing: the eyes and hand of Picasso.)

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Picasso befriended Max Jacob when he first moved to Paris during his Blue Period (1904-05). It was Jacob who introduced Picasso to the poetry of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine.

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Why didn’t Picasso help his Jewish friend escape the Nazis? 

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Tonight I saw a play: Himmelweg: Camino al cielo, by Juan Mayorga, about the theater of rehearsing for the world to see the model town (of Theresienstadt). Why did it anger me? Puppets for children acting the roles of happy children and a nurse confessing she had no regrets, she had seen nothing. But the trains: she heard them.

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Why did the Fascists hate abstraction so much? The work of Antoni Tàpies? Because they were unable to fasten down meaning. Fascist comes from the Latin fasces, plural of fascis, a bundle of rods or sticks fastened together as an emblem of power and control.

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The game of knowing how to look.
   – Tàpies

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To allow Tàpies the anarchy at the heart of his painting—an anarchy of forms, of materials, of colors.

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In 1991, after the city commissioned Tàpies to build a modern sculpture in front of the National Museum of Catalan Art (MNAC), he made a maquette of Mitjó (Sock), but everyone who saw it was scandalized by it. They didn’t allow him to build his monumental sock (18 meters or 59 feet). In 1991, he supervised the construction of a smaller version (2.75 meters or 9 feet) that presides over the outdoor terrace in his museum, Fundació Tàpies.

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The sock was an aberration.
   – Tàpies

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Perhaps the sculpture offended and provoked because it has several large black crosses on it: two flung to the ground, one affixed to the side, one atop the wires poking out of the toeless, white sock scrim. The sacrilege of mixing the cross (part of Tàpies visual vocabulary) with the vulgar ordinariness of the sock.

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A humble sock, which proposes meditation, so I want to represent the cosmic order of importance in the small things.
   – Tàpies

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Tàpies thought he was elevating the ordinary, not debasing the religious.

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In one woman’s art, I put my hands over the two holes of air to raise the voices of men or of women.

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How to raise my voice when the voice of the poet is as muffled as one screaming under water?

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I visit the orthodox synagogue on Carrer l’avenir, the Street of the Future, for Friday night services to welcome in the Sabbath Queen. But it is more like the Street of the Past, where women have to sit in the balcony, gossiping, because the voice of the psalmist belongs only to the men davening below, singing a bit off-key.

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I am always at least two people: the one walking, as today on the Ramblas, and the one who is lost, listening for shadows of those who walked before me: gone since the 14th century. Burned. Expelled. Converted.

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My back hurts, my shoulders ache with all I must carry. My son: What will he carry?

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Though not a child of a survivor directly, I am, nonetheless. My generation. We are all children of survivors who feel the smoke, smell the women’s hair inside the now-discarded mattresses.

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The economy here stinks of rotting roses. Would it have been different if the Jews hadn’t been extinguished in 1391?

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Now, 3,500 Jews live in Barcelona, fewer than there were in the 14th century, and a small fraction of today’s population.

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And I fear that I have inherited a considerable amount of her dark side.
   – Salvador Espríu on his mother

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Drap art is recycled art: literally, art made from rags, which is what drap means in Catalan. Shmatte art. What does it mean in language when all of it is recycled?

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Miró wanted to assassinate painting.

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I take the cable car to the beach. I would always rather descend to the water than climb a mountain. 

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Miró, happily married, didn’t brutalize his imaginary women. He understood they belonged with the birds and the stars.

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Mireia and I visit a bar in Gràcia that is jammed with young people waiting to hear polipoetica. After the last light there is another tunnel, declaims one poet.

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The woman in the bar with black eyeliner like an ancient Egyptian said she had no future here. A sociologist working as a waitress.

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When I walk the streets, visit a bomb shelter from the Spanish Civil War, I see Franco continues to cast a very long shadow.

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Do we need oppression for poetry to surge?

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How many elements can you pare things down to and still have an imaginary landscape?

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To achieve the maximum intensity with the minimum of means.
   – Joan Miró

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Hands flying off toward the Constellations. Or hands constellating another sky with a red planet and grey satellite, blue rain, black snow, yellow falls.

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On Monjuic. Not montjuif. Yet still the mountain of Jews (Jewish cemetery). Am I desecrating holy ground by walking here?

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“Extenions Pestanyes” (eyelash extensions). What kind of extensions do I need? Extensions of hope. Of faith. Of love. Of life.

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Melancholia descends. Haven’t I learned that my moods are my internal clouds that always pass?

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When the sun is not even visible, memory must suffice to restore faith.

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As today at the beach in Barcelona, the sky returned to its blasting blue.

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In Gaudí’s Casa Battló, not a straight line anywhere. Such sinuosity.

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I once knew a man who rounded all the corners of his rooms, even the ceilings. Such madness, such genius.

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The staircase may be the spine of the dragon of St. George. Or all of our twisted, unrealized dreams.

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Most searched-for item on Google: anxiety crisis. Even more than economic crisis.

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What is the term I most search for?

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The taste of hot chocolate on the tongue is even better than the memory of it. Of how few experiences is this true?

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I spend Christmas Eve with Mireia’s family. Her father recites Hamlet’s To be or not to be speech, which sounds as though it has been translated into Catalan and then back again into English. Then he recites Espríu, then some Calderón.

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Her two boys hit a wooden log covered by a blanket, with a face on one end wearing a red felt hat.

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When their parents lift the blanket, the boys fall on small gifts: books, or Chiclets. Or a Wrigley’s packet which, when opened, out pops a spider.

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Chueta was the name for Mallorca’s covert Jews. A curse. An insult. Meaning pork lard.

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Mireia’s mother, Margarita, is from Las Palmas and remembers playing with Chuetas. Yet when the children wanted to call someone a bad name, they cried, “Chueta!”

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At the Church of Gràcia, a Mallorcan song sung in Catalan to frighten everyone concerning the Last Judgment.

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Two women, parade up the aisle. One is hitting a snare drum, as though it were a funeral march. The other woman is holding a hollowed-out piece of marble with a lit candle inside. She is dressed in a long black dress, her hair braided down her back, sings with a voice to break hearts.

                                               

Spring

Flesh was the reason why oil paint was invented.
   – Willem de Kooning

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Desire is the reason poems are written.

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In Barcelona, a cappuccino is rimmed with chocolate powder so I have to lick my way around the lip of the cup.

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The flash of D’s laugh before he closes back down into phantasmal night.

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Sitting at right angles to each other, why do we no longer touch? The week before, in a cave, he half-sat on my lap, gave me his tongue.

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The Catalans say El Call, the Jewish Quarter, means narrow street or alleyway. In the medieval period, Jewish men had to wear a yellow and red circle on their chest; women wore one on their forehead.

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In Hebrew, the ancient word for Egypt is Mitzraim (literally, a narrow place).

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Narrow places can be places of slavery or slaughter.

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They may also be places of birth.

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To dally with Dalí is to tally with money.

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Gala left Éluard for Dalí because painting pays better than poetry.

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The sun flares, my heart snares and comes up with empty cockles.

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At Barcelonetta, I am discovering my Barcelona, over a leisurely lunch of lentils and mackerel. A cortado with a cinnamon biscuit. Spring light dappling the shoulders of the passersby. Monuments to babies, soup, fish, laundry on backyard lines of my youth.

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An empty, rusty dwelling of windows looking out at the sea.

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I have had my first orchata in 30 years. The woman in Gràcia mixes a half-sugared, half-plain one for me. Now I return daily.

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To drink orchata is to drink the nostalgia of the Ramblas from the 1980s—when a stroll was less about dodging pickpockets and hordes of foreigners and more about wandering past vendors selling songbirds in cages, flowers, and fresh, sweet orchata.

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The Ramblas means a torrent or a stream of water, which once did flow there.

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In the Jewish Museum of Girona, their prized collection is of tombstones of Jewish burials from the 14th and 15th centuries. Taken from Montjuic.

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Desecrating graves. It’s like death to the second degree. First we were killed or forced to convert, then expelled. Now our tombstones are the only signs of our former presence.

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Several doorposts with indentations—relief of the absent mezuzah.

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I am magnetized to all things Jewish, especially where so few remain.

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The Catalan I have tapas with says, “We’re all of us—or almost all of us—a bit Jewish.” Meaning: So many conversos. So much hidden Jewish blood running in so many veins.

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A scholar has written a book giving irrefutable evidence that Christopher Columbus was a Catalan-speaking Jew: a converso, because of his poor Castilian and the virgules he used in his writing.

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Salvador Esprìu, the most famous 20th-century Catalan poet, found faith in the Kabbalah and called Spain Sepharad.

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The discovery of the women’s mikveh (ritual bath) confirmed that the space had been a synagogue. For a long time no one knew what it was, but they noticed rainwater kept seeping in and filling up a certain space. For a long time, they thought it was a cistern, not a ritual bath of purification.

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The Jewish Museum is built on the site of the last synagogue in Girona. When I utter the Sh’ma under my breath, it is my subterranean way of reconsecrating the space by intoning in the air the oldest Hebrew prayer, which affirms the Jewish people’s (my) belief in the Oneness of God.

 

 

Sharon DolinSharon Dolin is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Manual for Living. Her translation from Catalan of Gemma Gorga’s Book of Minutes appeared in the Field Translation Series (Oberlin College Press, 2019). Her memoir Hitchcock Blonde is forthcoming from Terra Nova Press in Spring 2020. She is associate editor of Barrow Street Press and director of Writing About Art in Barcelona.
 
Read “French Flares” by Sharon Dolin, also appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo of Park Güell, Barcelona, by Pajor Pawel, courtesy Shutterstock.

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