January 10, 2023
For the past five years, I’ve been working on a novel, The Translators, which will hopefully be finished by summer. Based on the historical Robert of Ketton and Hermann of Carinthia, it’s a story about the pursuit of hidden (and forbidden) knowledge, of love and friendship, and the kaleidoscope of spiritualities in twelfth-century Spain. The actual Robert and Hermann were both priests (the only way to get an education in those days), astronomers and mathematicians; they were both readers and writers of Arabic, which they learned while in Spain (it wasn’t “Spain” then but a series of smaller kingdoms). Robert is credited with being the first translator of the Koran into Latin. My novel takes off from what little we know of them and imagines their efforts to translate Arab science for European readers, while keeping out of view of the Church’s suspicious eyes. Much drama, much intrigue, and still literary fiction!

Maps for The Translators, drawn by A.E. Charters:

Having kept my head buried in my own writing over the past several years while at the same time reading much good work by friends, colleagues, people I don’t know, I’ve decided to start posting a few comments about books I read and like.

First up: a book of poetry, Bien Querer, by a friend in Gaucin, Isabel Maria Sánchez Heras. Isabel has been an associate editor at Fuente de Libros, a small publishing specializing in work by writers and artists of the Genal Valley in Andalucía. Like lots of people in Gaucin I was enchanted with Isabel’s book. Here’s my review

Bien Querer, Isabel María Sánchez Heras
Fuente de Libros Ediciones
ISBN 978-84-945779-7-0

In Bien Querer readers of Spanish will find a wonderful collection of poems from a new Andalusian voice. For those who don’t read Spanish, find someone who can and have them translate it for you. Be sure, though, they read you the Spanish even if you don’t understand it: the beats and sounds of the lines are strikingly beautiful.

Bien Querer is the first venture into poetry by Isabel Sánchez Heras, a friend of mine and native of Benaoján, a gorgeous hamlet in the Sierra de Grazalema. The technical precision of her poetry and the surprising breadth of her vision, inspired by this landscape, have nothing of the ingénue about them. The eye, ear, and passion of her writing show experience in spades.

In several poems, the attention goes deep into the mysteries of everyday life. We get sharp detail and resonant questions side by side. “Mi perro,” for example, begins,

Miro a mi perro
y me dan
ganas de llorar.

I look at my dog
and I
want to cry.

My English translation can’t do justice to the music of Sánchez’s Spanish. We’re not told what the dog looks like: we only see the poet looking at him and the effect he has on her. In the next lines she thinks of the trust in his gaze. He trusts her to feed him well, to never give him poison or stones. In return the writer entrusts her thoughts to the dog during their daily walks. In the last line she worries over those thoughts:

con ellos.

I hope
I’m not
contaminating him.

The mediation on the beloved pet’s feeding turns into worry that the speaker’s thoughts might be veneno—poison. You feel her intense awareness of every word and the thoughts they stimulate—hopefully for good although she acknowledges they’re beyond her control and could end up being for ill. But the portrait of woman and dog is so benign and boundlessly well-intentioned that the fear of unintentional “poisoning” is remote and sits on the page like a joke. This subtle sense of humor that lightens up real sadness plays throughout the book.

“La Cocina y yo” starts with a portrait of the writer and her relationship to traditional feminine work.

No sé
El hombre
que amo
para mi.

I don’t know how
to cook.
The man
I love
for me.

The straightforward diction and rhythm spell out the situation in precise terms. But the next lines complicate things: Her man cooks for her even as he knows the way to her heart isn’t through food but a lifting and “filling” love. Again the last lines give the turn of the screw:

Y puede
a cocinar,
aunque hasta
mi madre
haya intentado
que yo

And maybe
I’ll never
to cook,
even though everybody since
my mother
would have

The short, sharp lines suggest learning to cook is less important than learning to love; but the man who knows this, by cooking anyway, shows his affection for the woman who can only love him in return.

Isabel Sánchez’s depiction of herself as mother appears in what for me is the high mark of the book, the poem “Hija, el mundo”—“Daughter, the world,” where the speaker presents the world to her daughter. After listing ordinary things of nature and home, the poet calls on her daughter to pay attention:

el mundo
se desbarata
cada dia,
la Naturaleza
es obstinada
y a cada rato
se recompone.

the world
breaks down
every day,
is obstinate
and repairs itself
at every turn.

In “La Prosperidad” the weightiness of thoughts of death and afterlife are lightened by the poet’s sense of humor that brings everything back to earth:

que la finalidad
de la vida
la transformación,
no la prosperidad.
al vacío y…:

I would wish
that the end
of life
a transformation,
not a move toward prosperity.
into the emptiness and…:
Save us!

Who or what would save us from the leap into nothingness is left undecided. The poet concludes in a laughing voice that time is nothing, so there’s no reason to fear the end. Time amounts to the clocks somebody created in order to prosper (in earthly time). Responsibility for salvation at the end of life lies in one’s own hands: through imagination, passion, and a saving love of things as they are right here before us, in Andalucía, in New York, London or wherever you happen to be.

Isabel Sánches Heras’s first poetic venture stretches the mind and lifts the heart in wonderfully original moves. ¡Bien Querer, bienvenidos al mundo!—welcome to the world!