Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
b y   j o e   b e n e v e n t o   ~   k i r k s v i l l e ,   m i s s o u r i

"A sad, unsettled threat..." -- Alfonso Real
I'VE NEVER liked pretense, but I've always loved pretending. That's why I was so pleased the day that The Centennial Review's Spring 1987 issue arrived in my mailbox, featuring, among other things, my poem, "A Human Condition." Oh, it's not that I think it an especially wonderful poem, I just was pleased beyond words with its epigraph. Perhaps it would help if you could see the entire poem before I go any further:

      "Nunca sueño con la esposa; con ella me siento seguro." -- Alfonso Real

I never dream of my wife; I am safe in her arms,
secured by the warmth of her trusting brown eyes.

So I dream
of icy forests,
white wolves,
terrible howlings.

Dream of her neurotic
green eyes
with adulterous nights.

Dream of that
precious threat
that frightens
me awake,
heart pounding,
alone in the
unanimous darkness.

At first glance, "A Human Condition" is just like so many other mediocre poems you've seen, where the poet takes a line from some obscure source that almost everyone feels insecure about not recognizing, and then paraphrases the borrowed thought and takes off with it for several more marginally bearable lines. Anyone who knows a bit of Spanish can figure out that the epigraph, "Nunca sueño con la esposa, con ella me siento seguro," is very close in meaning to the first line of the poem (the translation would read literally: "I never dream of my wife; with her I feel secure.") But it's within this epigraph that my best shot at both pretension and pretending takes place. You see, I made up that line in Spanish and just attributed it to Alfonso Real. But I was sure he wouldn't mind because I made him up, too!

Oh, I was certain that there were a number of people named Alfonso Real scattered throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and maybe even a few of them had written, but my Alfonso wasn't real at all, nor was the line I attributed to him. That's why I was feeling so smug when the poem was accepted for publication, and even better when I saw it in print in a perfectly respectable journal. You see, I knew that I would not have a wide audience, but I felt secure that there would be at least one or two English majors or professors, even, out there somewhere, who would read the poem and say, "Oh, that line is so typical of Real's best work," or "Yes, of course I'm familiar with his work, particularly his essays, but I must confess that I can't quite place that line."

Now it's true that I had cheated a bit by using a very possible, though not common, name, and a name that was strongly reminiscent of Alfonso Reyes, the very real Mexican writer. Nonetheless, I was delighted with my ruse, and I wondered with quiet delight if any of the potential readers of my poem would be well enough versed in Hispanic literature even to suspect that Real was a fake.

About a month after I had received my copies of The Centennial Review, Leslie Ann Black, my most talented graduate student, came by my office to discuss a group of fifty poems of mine (both published and unpublished) that I had given her a few weeks before to evaluate for me. (I was contemplating trying to get a book of my poems published, now that I had had over twenty of them accepted in over a dozen different journals.) Leslie Ann at twenty-three is nine years my junior, but she's quite intelligent and a pretty fair poet herself; she's already had work accepted in three different journals, which is a lot better than I was doing at twenty-three. Besides, I always enjoyed talking to Leslie Ann, at least as much for her insight as for her considerable good looks.

Even I underestimated the extent of Leslie Ann's diligence, however; not only had she read all fifty poems carefully, she had also typed up comments for each one. She had checked on all allusions, looked up obscure and foreign words and even corrected my spelling a time or two. Predictably, her greatest puzzlement came in trying to track down the Real epigraph:

"My roommate's boyfriend is from Nicaragua and he translated the quote for me, but he's never heard of Alfonso Real, and I couldn't find Real in any of the usual sources."

I like Leslie Ann, but she's a little too serious for her own good sometimes, so I didn't feel that badly over her spending all that time and trouble searching for an illusion. I mean, I hadn't intended to trick her, not really; I had not included that poem among the fifty just to give her a hard time, though I could have guessed, from past experience with her intense nature, that she would react that way. Still, I did feel a bit of guilt mixed with my amusement, so I figured it was time to let her in on the joke:

"Don't feel badly. You couldn't find Real because he doesn't exist."

"What do you mean? Is he a character from a story or play?"

"No, I mean he's a character from my poem, created to help kick-start my lyric. I made up the quote and the name."

"Really? Why didn't you warn me? I was so sure he was real."

"Oh, I'm sorry you went to all that trouble trying to track him down, but I needed to treat you like any other reader, in order to get an authentic response."

Leslie Ann accepted my explanation with a certain aura of equanimity, but I thought I saw her green eyes flash at least a bit of hurt and/or anger, and I noticed that she was fumbling anxiously with her long black hair a bit more than normal. All she said, though, was: "Well, now I'll have to read the poem again with Real's fakeness in mind. It certainly gives the poem a whole new sense of irony. Oh, and guess I should tell José -- that's my roommate's boyfriend -- not to bother his cousin Luis in Chicago, though he may already have called him."

"How's that?"

"Well, José's cousin is a Ph.D. candidate in Spanish at the University of Chicago, a really serious scholar, I'm told. So, I figured if anybody would know who Real was he would or could find out, so I asked José if he would do that favor for me."

"Well, then I'm sorry you went to all this trouble, really I am." And I almost meant that, though I was too self-satisfied by that point not to add: "While I'm confessing, I should tell you that I lifted that last phrase about the 'unanimous darkness' from a Borges story."

"Yes, I know, the opening of 'The Circular Ruins.' We read that together during our independent study last year: 'Latin American Fiction: Magic Realism and the Accomplice Reader.'"

I should have guessed, if anyone could remember a single phrase from one reading of a Borges story (of course she had probably read it a half dozen times to prepare for our discussion) it was Leslie Ann Black: beautiful, precocious, and all too serious Leslie Ann Black.

We went ahead and discussed many of the other fifty poems, though I did not have the stamina to cover the lot of them. I told her we would take up the balance of her comments at a later date. When she left my office that day, I hoped her pride had not been too wounded, and I felt a slight twinge of regret for ever having let Alfonso Real undo her. Though she should have been accustomed to my games with truth and fiction by then, I wasn't certain that she really appreciated the neatness of my little joke. And I was somehow suddenly hopeful that I had heard the last of my own creation, Alfonso Real.

It was not to be. A little over two weeks later, Leslie Ann, whom I had only seen in passing during that interval, stopped by during office hours with some papers in her hand. She handed them over to me with this brief introduction:

"Luis got on the case before José could get back to him. Look what he turned up on our old friend Alfonso."

Leslie Ann had given me a handwritten letter from one Luis Darío, addressed to her via his cousin José, along with some other papers:

To Miss Leslie Ann Black:

Your request came as quite a challenge to me. The name Alfonso Real did possess the faint ring of authenticity, though years of studying Borges and Cortázar, García Márquez and Cabrera Infante have made me question reality's ring more than once. Still, I thought I remembered Real to have been a minor poet of Latin America, vaguely anticipatory of Borges for his questioning of identity and reality and of César Vallejo for his sad life reflected so keenly in his poetry. After you read what follows, you will see that I was not so far off in my recollection.

I, like you, could find nothing in the regular sources, and it doesn't surprise me that the North American-born Spanish teachers you queried also came up short. Actually, it wasn't until I uncovered a gem of a book, which has already proved valuable to my studies, in the rare book section of the library, that I was able to unravel, at least in part, the mystery of Alfonso Real.

The book I uncovered bears the title: Breves Biografías: Doscientos Poetas Hispanoamericanos del siglo diecinueve, or, to translate: Biographies in Brief: Two Hundred Spanish American Poets of the Nineteenth Century. The book dates back to 1896 and was published in Buenos Aires. On page 378 of that book I found a brief biography of none other than Alfonso Real, certainly the Real mentioned in your professor's poem, judging by the enclosed biography.

I was not allowed to photocopy the rare and crumbling book (bookbinding in Latin America has never equaled what is accomplished here), but I was given permission to copy the desired passages longhand (under constant supervision, I might add), and I have since typed out for you the enclosed original Spanish and my translation of it.

I hope this will be of aid to you. I start my summer vacation next week and will be leaving Chicago for most of the break, so if you need any more help you'll need to contact me soon.

Don't bother thanking me. I enjoyed reading about Real, and I never would have found that most valuable book if you had not prompted me to search for it. So, thank you and be well.

Yours truly,

Luis Cortéz Darío"

Reading this letter was disconcerting enough, but what followed was even more amazing. I'll render Luis's translation here only, for the sake of my present audience:

Real, Alfonso José. Perú. Born August 10, 1855; Died November 15, 1888. Alfonso Real's poetry, much like his life, was both intense and brief. Born to the upper middle class, he was educated in private schools and at the University of Lima. Upon graduation, he rejected his father's money and advice and sought a career as a writer. His plays, however, were never published nor performed; they were considered too obscure and far-fetched. Throughout his writing, Real focused on the problems of identity, and the lack of distinction between the real and the fantastic. These indistinctions sometimes became too much for Real himself to bear; he was hospitalized more than once for what were then termed "nervous breakdowns."

In these lines from "My Life" ("Mi Vida"), perhaps his best known lyric, Real begins his poem evincing that sense of a suffering self for which he is best known:

A sad, crazy menace,
the inconstant hand
that tries to take away the
barrier, the bursting that has
no remedy, that always stays intact.

The last few years of Real's life are clouded in mystery, though certain definitive facts are known. It is known that he left Perú to seek out opportunities for publication; he may also have done some teaching in Argentina or Mexico. It was in Mexico City that he spent the last days of his life: poor, sickly, unknown and disillusioned. Real's life ended tragically; he was stabbed to death, perhaps in his sleep, by a former mistress, Ana Meléndez. With his death Latin America lost a potentially great lyric poet; from first to last his misfortunes overwhelmed his art.

My first reaction to reading the brief biography of Alfonso Real (beyond noting the coincidence that he was killed on my birthday) was to recognize how ironic it was that such a sad, pathetic person should serve as the indirect object of the joke in my epigraph to "A Human Condition." I talked with Leslie Ann a while about the strange coincidence of Real being real; I likened it to Ramon Fernandez, the French critic whose name appears in Wallace Steven's "The Idea of Order at Key West." She remembered the allusion; Stevens claimed that he made up the name for the poem and later discovered that "it turned out to be a real name." And I assured Leslie Ann that I would plead the same case. The incredible obscurity of Real's life only further proved that I could not have heard of him before writing my poem. Still, I couldn't help but feel that Leslie Ann left my office that afternoon with a certain sense of triumph, a triumph that seemed to go beyond merely proving that my fiction had a home in reality.

Perhaps it was because she anticipated my next moves. Perhaps she knew that I would wonder about the book that Luis had uncovered, and that it would bother me not to be able to locate it in our school's library, nor find it listed in any of the standard bibliographies. Perhaps she anticipated even more readily that I would be troubled by those few lines from Real's poem. Those lines had a vaguely familiar ring to them; perhaps it was that they anticipated Vallejo's sad lyricism, even as Luis had argued in his letter. I readily recalled one of my favorite opening lines in Vallejo:

"Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes...Yo no sé!"
("There are blows in life, so strong...I don't know!")

and I decided that I should look at the lines of Real's poem in the original Spanish to get a better sense of how they matched Vallejo. Since Luis had included the biography in Spanish, I soon found these lines from "Mi Vida."

"Una amenaza triste y lunática,
la mano inconstante, jue quiere quitar
la barrera, el reventón, que no tiene
remedio, que sigue siempre intacto."

In looking over those lines, I noticed that the translation that Luis had supplied was both literal and unpoetic. For example, he translated, "amenaza" as "menace" when it might be more properly rendered as "threat." "Inconstante" literally is "inconstant" but could also mean "intermittent" or "wavering." And as I started to retranslate and poeticize those lines, they began to become eerily familiar to me. Since I had been working on my poems so much lately, for that proposed volume, it didn't take long to recognize where I had seen those lines before, in a poem that began with my favorite epigraph from César Vallejo, a poem I had written:

      "Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes .... Yo no sé!"

"A sad, unsettled threat,
wavering hand, trying to touch
away the barrier, rift that
knows no settlement, untouched.
Kiss of the damaging wind,
dressed in graceless pain,
redemptionless, absurd.
Timeless is the stream I go
full-wishing in, splashing syncopated
clumsiness at the face of unaltering
beats, hammers, huge nails, living
coffins. Fearing fear its wealth
of variations upon the theme
of my inadequacies, lies I sell
to pay another day full-smiling,
hinting, loafing at my easy answers,
wingless birds expert on flying
because they have witnessed
specks near the clouds,
mistaken them for angels,
only animals following insured
cycles of killing, eating,
sleeping, trying to endure, maintain,
until they are specks no more."

I was stunned to recognize how much the first four lines of my poem resembled the opening lines of Real's "Mi Vida." And the more I investigated the more I realized that those four lines could easily stand as a poetic translation of Real's poem. I looked up "reventón" in the dictionary and found out that in addition to "bursting" it had a secondary meaning of "rift," the word I used in my version. I also figured out that "A sad unsettled threat" was a perfectly apt translation of "Una amenaza triste y lunática," if one took "unsettled" in the mental sense of that word. Of course, I had no way of knowing whether or not the rest of "My Life" resembled the rest of "Where My Life is Going," but I was filled with a fearful curiosity, and went immediately to try to find the rest of Real's poem.

But I couldn't find it. I checked every possible source at my immediate disposal and was unable to come up with any poems by Alfonso Real, much less the one I needed to see. What troubled me even more was that Leslie Ann did not seem a bit surprised when I called her to ask if she could get the phone number of Luis Darío for me.

"I guess I could give you his Chicago number, but it wouldn't do you much good, I'm afraid. You see, I didn't get that information over to you right away; by now he's left for summer vacation. I think José said that Luis would be taking a trip out west by car, to take a well-earned rest from his studies, so it'll be impossible to reach him for some time."

Once again I thought I heard the edge of triumph in her voice. I remembered that Luis's letter had mentioned his imminent departure, so it was too late to seek out his help. Still, I was far from ready to admit defeat. After all, if the special collections of the University of Chicago had the rare book Luis had utilized, they might also have other information on Real. The following morning I got the number and called Chicago. However, the special collections librarian, after an exhaustive search, prompted in large part by my insistence, not only told me that she could not find any works by Alfonso Real, but also that the book Luis had mentioned, Breves Biografias... was not a part of their rare book collection.

Now I was really confused. And the explanations that suggested themselves to me were progressively less attractive.

The simplest explanation was that I had been wrong to assume that Luis had uncovered that rare book in the University of Chicago library. After all, there are lots of fine libraries in and around Chicago, and Luis was probably a persistent enough scholar to have searched a dozen of them. In fact, if the book had been at his own school's library, he probably would have been familiar with it long before Leslie Ann's request for assistance. So, the book could be found, and Alfonso's few published poems could be uncovered, if I wanted to take the time and expense necessary to track down some nineteenth century Latin American literary journals.

I must confess, though, that my phone call to the University of Chicago library was several days ago, and I have done nothing since then to uncover Real. The fact is that I am once again questioning the existence of the man I thought I made up. It has occurred to me that, like any fine accomplice reader in the Borges-Cortázar tradition, Leslie Ann Black has paid me back double by her own fantastic extension of my initial creation. I received no photostatic proof of the existence of a biography of Real, only typed copies and translations of the supposed original. Do you think it would be beyond Leslie Ann's ken to supply Luis or some other Spanish speaking ally enough material to co-invent an Alfonso Real who would be eerily linked to me? Like me, Alfonso Real was fascinated by the theme of identity and the blur between reality and fiction; like me Real never was able to get his major works published (both my novels have been rejected numerous times); like me Real's poems reflect an overwhelming sense of sadness. Could this be mere coincidence? What then of the connection between "Mi Vida" and my poem? What then of his dying on my birthday? Aren't these connections too real not to be imagined?

Of course, you would think that I could just go to Leslie Ann, congratulate her on the success of her ruse, and find out just how she concocted and executed this fiction. But it is far from being that simple. To accuse her of this elaborate hoax without specific evidence would be foolish. What if there is a Real and she finds my suspicions incredible and insulting? What if she goes around telling her classmates and my colleagues that I am "losing it?" Or what if my admitting uncertainty leaves me open to the further execution of her plan?

My uncertainty is complex and grips my throat like an assassin. If Real is authentic, really did exist, how am I to explain away all the parallels to my life and work? What if I do find the rest of "Mi Vida" and discover that it resembles the rest of "Where My Life Is Going"? What can it mean? Are we spiritually linked? Am I his reincarnated spirit, doomed to relive his failures? I am repulsed by such thoughts, sickened by the fact that I am giving such crazy ideas even a moment's attention. Still, the fact remains that Alfonso Real, whether real or imagined, died on my birthday, November 15, at the age of thirty-three, in Mexico City in 1888. As Leslie Ann well knows, I have accepted a Fullbright teaching fellowship for the Spring and Summer of 1988 which will place me in Mexico City on August 10, which is the day, in 1855, when Alfonso Real was born, even as I was born in 1955. Since he died on my birthday, it would be poetic for me to die on his, at virtually the same age. I know that these are the kinds of weird coincidences that are usually played up in The National Enquirer, but I will admit that I have already given some thought to not being in Mexico City or even in Mexico that day, so as not to tempt life to imitate art (for it is known that both love symmetry).

Since Leslie Ann knows when my birthday is, knows about the Fullbright, and is familiar with my poetry, she may well have invented all of my fears, and I should thereby be able to discount them, even as one forgets a poorly written TV drama. But I have one final confession that authenticates at least some of my fears beyond reproach.

All of this trouble started with an epigraph from a poem entitled, "A Human Condition." Have you perhaps already guessed that the woman in that poem with the "neurotic/ green eyes/ red-flecked/ with adulterous nights" is Leslie Ann Black? Our affair was brief and intense; I put an end to it abruptly, exclusively for my own security and protection, though no one has ever suspected a thing, in spite of the published poem, for poems are often assumed to be fictions, and few people are serious readers of poetry. I thought that Leslie Ann had forgiven my indiscretion, and perhaps she had, until I renewed it for her in my poem, the same poem in which I had further humiliated her by creating a poet unknown to any history.

But Leslie Ann has become, perhaps, Real's historian, or, perhaps, my own. Real died by the knife, possibly in his sleep, by the hand of a former lover. His biography, even if fictitious, no, especially if fictitious, may well be Leslie Ann's own kind of "sad, unsettled threat." Has she not, in fact, promised, in the bitter realm of literature, to complete my link with our hurtful co-creation?

I can only say that fiction and truth seem equally fantastic to me, and equally dangerous. A frightening, fictional reality, ushered in by my own initial creation, has given new depth and truth to my dreams, and reified the last lines of my poem, "A Human Condition," as I bolt awake each night in real fear, with fantastic thoughts of a bloody knife, the emerald fire of Leslie Ann's responding, revenging eyes and the sad, true identity of Alfonso Real:

Dream of that
precious threat
that frightens
me awake,
heart pounding,
alone in the
unanimous darkness.

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