The Night So Long by Marjorie Agosín
Translated from the Spanish by Alison Ridley.
Dedicated to Carlos Vega
That night became longer still.
Around us the silence turned dark as well,
An opaque hue of gray without blue.
Bewildered girls asked what had happened.
All their mothers knew to do was play with their disheveled hair.
On that long night
I thought about the cities of my grandparents:
Odessa, the city of violins,
Istanbul, the city of water,
Vienna, the city of beauty and horrors,
The city of my great-grandmother, Helena,
With her crimson dresses,
Her garnet rings.
I thought about a veiled universe,
A tattered universe.
I thought once more of Helena, who,
Dressed in her festive clothes,
Traveled between the bonfires of wrath
On the Night of Broken Glass,
Headed toward the southern hemisphere,
To Valparaíso, Chile,
The city of refuge,
The city of balconies and lighthouses.
I could not stop thinking about Vienna,
The city of my great-grandmother,
My aunts and uncles,
The shards from picture windows
And lamps adorning living rooms
In that imperial city,
The windows of synagogues
Searching for God.
But we were not in Vienna,
And it was not 1932…
Or was it?
When they announced the victory
Of the winner in the United States,
Of that celebrity
Who repudiated women,
Who mocked the disabled,
Who was cruel to those from other countries,
Who wanted to expel foreigners,
Who didn’t understand the cadence of mercy,
It reminded me somewhat of 1932, Vienna,
The world spiraling downward
In an unanticipated frenzy.
Had the unspeakable happened once more? I wondered.
Had we lost our minds?
Had the wolf devoured the lamb?
And what if I summoned Helena from the other side,
From the realm of the dead,
The realm of restless life,
So she could enlighten me,
So she could guide me?
But even in life Helena refused to help me understand.
She said that it was impossible to understand,
That I should not attempt to toy with reason.
All at once,
While our souls were raining,
I understood that we were not what we once were.
Carlos explained to me with his habitual lucidity,
With his elegance like a light,
That we are two countries,
Two unrecognizable nations,
Separated by two coasts, two seas,
And everything in between,
A silent abyss.
We were ignorant of those who lived in fear,
Of those from rural areas crushed by poverty,
Of those who feared the influx of foreigners
Because they did not know them,
Because they feared the cadence of other languages.
“How do we learn about them?” I asked myself.
“How do we draw closer to those who are so far removed?”
The long night passed,
And we began to think that none of our fears was founded,
That the wings of a nightmare or a broken butterfly
Had breached our reality.
Later we discovered the multiple realities,
The hidden wrath,
The phobia of foreigners
Who do their jobs trying not to be noticed,
Who live in a room without light, shared by many people,
Who, afraid, venture out at dawn in search of food.
I did not find out who we were on that long night
Or where the persistent currents of fear would take us.
Reason and the threads of memory
Had abandoned us.
I thought about refuges,
Perhaps the sketch books of children,
The ones with blank pages,
Or the sound of the rain on houses in the southern part of Chile
When the wood played with the spirits.
I thought about music
And listening to forbidden composers,
To those who had to abandon their faith, like Mahler.
I thought about the water spirits,
The pools of light.
I thought about my father,
Who loved his piano for its sounds
That reminded him of other times,
Of times of grace and faith.
Carlos was right,
We were two countries divided by fear,
By the darkness that separated us,
By the hate incited by that new voice that would become
And on that long night
Perhaps we were thinking about how we would live from one day to the next,
How we would adjust to the fear of the night,
In which lighthouse we could dream of another light:
The light of God,
The light of the soul,
The light of goodness.
Then the noble angel of justice said,
“There will be no more hate, no more forgetting.
We will all be one entity,
And within that entity we will be distinct and equal,
And from the fragments we will create
A majestic sun.”
I returned once more to the dense Viennese night,
That night about which everyone spoke
But no one spoke.
That long night
I thought about you,
Sweet and brave Helena,
When you left with your customary elegance,
With your hair the color of moon,
The color of ash.
You left self-assured.
I knew that this long night,
Another Night of Broken Glass,
Would pass and that from those window panes
We would create something new,
Something that would be more beautiful,
And that from the pieces and the shards
We would forge a single piece of glass.
That long night would teach us
How to live between the light and the darkness,
How to ride out the waves,
How to sail on murky waters,
How to compose new signs and new alphabets.
The angels of good will returned anew.
They wore multicolored wings,
They wore hats of living water,
And they resembled the colors of autumn:
Yellow, ochre, lilac.
They were the angels who,
Upon beginning to sing with the softness of a new rebirth,
Told us that living in forgiveness and truth
Were possible paths,
That living in the light of justice
Was a necessary virtue,
That from all the somber nights,
And from this night so long,
We would learn even more,
That from change would come beauty,
That from the dark confusion
A new light would emerge,
And that optimism was not madness
But the new understanding
Of unexpected things.
The angels departed,
And we remained alone between the long night
And the faltering dawn.
The light arrived,
The music of twilight.
The warmth of the sun arrived,
Along with the birds that had been slumbering,
And, suddenly, the ghost towns filled with new life.
The men and women lost in the meadows
Approached the people living in the cities.
They looked at one another with innocence and guilelessness.
The voice of justice said again,
“There will be no sorrow or forgetting,”
And the long night turned into a long day.
Later the night returned without solemnity or fear.
It was a clear night
In which new horizons could be glimpsed.
The parks filled with lovers,
Children returned to the seesaws,
And there was no anger or forgetting,
Only a necklace of glass,
Some luminous sights,
A few twinkling and merciful stars.
And we were distinct again, but all alike.
We were a country abundant in love.
Everything resumed after the chaos,
But the chaos dazzled us with its order and its precision.
We learned from uncertainty
And the power of discovering one another.
We travelled to the furthest limits of our souls
To converse with the truth,
And that is how we learned that
Perhaps we would continue to be two countries,
Just as we have two hands
And two feet,
But countries like mirrors, the one reflecting the other.
And we dreamed of the water spirits and the spirits in the air,
Of the arrival of dawn
And the red glow of afternoon.
We were all part of the same horizon,
Of history in the making.
Marjorie Agosín has been teaching at Wellesley College for more than thirty years. Apart from being an academic, she is also a poet, a novelist, and a human rights activist. Considered one of the most prolific and versatile writers in the Americas, she has been recognized by the United Nations with the Human Rights Leadership Award, and by the Chilean government with the Gabriela Mistral prize. She is also a poet laureate for the Harvard Refugee Trauma Program. She is the author of more than fifty books that include narrative poetry, theater, and memoirs. Among her most renowned books are I Lived on Butterfly Hill, winner of the Pura Belpré Prize, and her most recent collection of poetry, Las Islas Blancas (The White Islands). Agosín divides her time between Concón Chile, Wellesley Massachusetts, and the coast of Maine.
Alison Ridley teaches Spanish at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. She received her doctorate from Michigan State University. Her scholarly work focuses on the theatre of Antonio Buero Vallejo. She has published articles in Gestos, Neohelicon, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies and Estreno, book reviews in a number of journals, and translations in two books edited by Marjorie Agosín: What is Secret: Stories by Chilean Women and These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry by Latin American Women. Currently Alison is translating two forthcoming works by Marjorie Agosín: a collection of poetry about the author’s great-grandmother, Helena Broder, and the sequel to the novel, I Lived on Butterfly Hill.
Photo: Marjorie Agosín, private
Photo: Alison Ridley, private
Published on February 1, 2017.