Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Half-Eaten Angel

I'VE WRITTEN ABOUT ALVARO CARDONA-HINE here before (most recently last August): an elegant, graceful man, an artist, writer, and composer, who we met some years back at his gallery in Truchas, New Mexico. Truchas is a small town on the fine old Taos road between Santa Fe and Ranchos de Taos; when I last saw it, ten years or so ago, it seemed just on the point of emerging from unchanged centuries, to become something of an artist colony. I hope it's not spoiled.

Alvaro's gallery was full of colorful paintings when we found it, fifteen years ago -- representational paintings, landscapes primarily, in Matisse-like areas of color of relatively flatly applied paint. Modernist they weren't, and aren't: at most, you could call them postimpressionist. I won't describe them further; you can see them at Alvaro's website. I will say that I like them very much; twenty years of retirement from daily art criticism has taught me to value paintings on their own terms, apart from any historical significance we might want to read into them.

When we met Alvaro he was keeping to a steady schedule, painting in the morning, then changing out of his painting clothes and writing or perhaps reading or composing in the afternoons. I admire that discipline; it's not my way, however tempted I am to try to adopt it. It's steady, undistracted, and it gets things done. According to a 2006 interview with Elizabeth Glixman he has published seventeen books, and I have heard more than one ambitious piece of music (most recently an impressive thirty-minute violin sonata): one doesn't produce like that without dedication.

I recently re-read his childhood memoir The Half-Eaten Angel (Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 1981), a pair of small (hundred-page) books the first of which, Agapito, was originally published in 1969. They record a blessed childhood in Costa Rica, a "memory of Paradise" in the author's words. The writing is full of wonder, very much from a child's point of view, although, again in the author's words,
the voice of the protagonist could never be the pure voice of a child. It is both child and childhood's memory, sun and shadow. The accent, or tone, comes from the man inherent in the child; the man this child will someday become and so, in a way, future impinges on the past. I would like this reverse enjambement to represent our triumph over time. Memory is nothing else.
Alvaro has let early reviews of Agapito stand on the back cover, and two of them collide delightfully, one suggesting the book be read in one sitting (though a sitting of "infinite enjoyment"), the other sating "This is not a book to breeze through..." but one to "be read in bits, meditated upon...". Both are correct, and I found myself reading in both modes simultaneously: it's a perfect bedside book.

The books are written in short chapters, a single page or only a few lines, each of them a poignant note, directed to one or the other of the two enigmatic older men who stand as both mysteries and familiars to the observant but constantly wondering child. Agapito is a peasant neighbor; Tuna, whose name provides the title of the second book, is a great-uncle. The reports describe a life teeming with detail, set among extended family; a childhood in nearly always pleasant and rustic surroundings, but full of reference to an unimaginably huge outer world, the world of adults, of Mozart, Quijote, Krishnamurti, distant wars and history.

And always the language: sentences marked by a painter's eye for texture, form, and color; a composer's ear for cadence, line, and sonority. One can only quote:
My father's mother, Agapito, that handful of wheel-chair silver, brittle and illustrious as a river-washed pebble, has come visiting with her jar of home-grown tobacco and her brown slips of paper with which she rolls her own little puffs of pleasure...

An ancient fragrance travels with her, a pressed aroma of petals and Mediterranean linen, of honey and figs, of forests of laurel and chests of oak. She sleeps with a classical book beneath her pillow and her death is a tall and stately girl about to marry.
In the evenings I sit by the brook listening to the speed with which it stays he same. The sky, almost solid with stars, pretends loose yardage and lets its print hang low...
And that deathless instant of Mozart, who is dead and didn't know us, Agapito, manages to come alive and invade our senses. We are mellowed and made wise through magic and astounding ways, without a word, in the midst of play.

This is what I learn once again from Alvaro's books and his painting: that observation, memory, and expression, combined with the skills that come from discipline (and, let's face it, innate talent) produce phrases and images whose immediacy and universality transcend time and history. Just as each petal of each blossom is new for the first time, every detail lovingly considered is another necessary reminder of the continual renewal that makes Time and History possible.

And I'm made to recall, once again, as so often happens, a line attributed (by Hendrik Willem van Loon, in his Lives) to Emily Dickinson:
beauty crowds me 'til I die…


Ned Paynter said...

"...twenty years of retirement from daily art criticism has taught me to value paintings on their own terms..."

The same impossible demands led John Hess to give up restaurant reviewing for the NY Times after only half a year.

Ned Paynter said...

This is weird. My Google account has reverted to the name of my late friend for whom I managed a couple of blogs.

John Whiting

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