written by the Judge
Published almost exactly a year ago in Spain, Alguien que sea yo (‘Someone who may be me’) is Manuel del Barrio Donaire’s second collection, and one of the most enjoyable poetry books I’ve read in a good while. It is a short little thing, made up of some seventy pages, counting thirty-two poems. The style and the vocabulary are generally quite simple, so it can be read in the space of a couple of days.
AQSY is utterly contemporary poetry, not only in the sense that it distances itself from the more classical formats of the lyric, but also in that it displays not the slightest preoccupation with its own sense of permanence. It brims with references to brands, titles and objects that will be out of fashion, even quaint, in the space of a couple of decades.
The starting point for this collection is the assumption that our identity is shaped by our objects of consumption. This allows Donaire to explore the way that said identity ends up being sucked into the language of economic exchange that characterises those objects. As he puts it very plainly in Dime un insecto en una planta, ‘You are what you have, / you are what surrounds you at a distance of less than 3 metres, / the dog you take for a walk, / that jar you purchased because it looks good on the table, / an iron ring on the pinky, a flowery dress, / the softener you put in the washing machine, / I mean it, / you’re an Orbit packet of chewing-gums.’ The final image stresses at once identity (in the brand name), and the simultaneity of the visceral and the artificial in the process of chewing gum.
These concerns are not particularly original in and of themselves, but they are taken in some very interesting new directions later in the collection. Most impressive and intriguing is the way that Donaire places the character of the poet on the same plane as that of other fashionable personas defined by their items of exchange. Far from being a neutral, invisible onlooker, or even a salvational intermediary, as it is sometimes treated in other self-reflexive verse, the ‘poet’ here is simply another slogan one can wear. This is something that has been attempted by other contemporary poets (including British ones), but in my experience it always trips on the same problem – the poet’s attempt at satire always end up betraying his/her own sense of self-importance. Donaire’s work is, I think, more genuinely self-ironic. One of his poems describes a Spanish bar which I would have no trouble recognising in any other European country, since it is described as ‘a refuge for young intellectuals / like me, / everyone sits at their marble tables / drinking coffee, whiskys, martinis with vodka, / everyone’s there with their laptops, / their Moleskine notebooks, / with volumes, papers, cellulose, pens and Stabilo Boss highlighters / to underline notes, / paragraphs from the Decameron, / everyone with eyes half-closed writing something important, / something new, the great novel of our generation.’ (El Pepe Botella, por ejemplo).
What makes this criticism especially memorable is the sense of humour and lightness with which it is carried through. Our own Sam Riviere makes some similar points to Donaire (the two artists are in fact surprisingly alike – not least in that both their collections were initially serialised in blogs), but his outlook comes across as grey and disenchanted. AQSY is different in that there is not the slightest trace of cynicism, anger or bitterness. I am normally wary of poets who write about poetry (I know, I know – it’s a contentious claim), as I like verse that branches out of its own discourse rather than falling back inside it, but this is an outstanding exception. Donaire’s treatment of the subject fully succeeds in being satirical rather than mythical, and it is never lost on its own irony.
The satire of the poet crosses over with the other supporting theme in this collection – the tension between a sense of social and individual responsibility which is nonetheless shaped by our artificial identity, and the desire to just lay back and enjoy oneself, again, however, by falling into commercial signs of exchange (like laying back on the couch, smoking and playing with a Playstation). The two drives contaminate each other as the poet sometimes ends up on the couch, writing poetry on his Macbook Air or his G4 ibook, uncertain as to whether he is doing something worthwhile or just acting like it. The poem Sábado, which I have translated at the end of this article, exemplifies I hope both this tension and the lightness of mood with which it is presented.
AQSY is a short collection not particularly broad in its scope or ambitions, but all the more credit-worthy for that. It makes its point with a punch and does not outstay its welcome. In contrast to other exponents of the (rather remarkable) panorama of young Spanish poetry, Donaire never shoots for linguistic prowess or aulic metaphors. His poems sound like everyday speech and are always very easy to follow. In the space of a few days of the reader’s time he makes an original and memorable statement and provides him/her with a new outlook on the topics he chooses to treat, and in this writer’s opinion that’s exactly what a modern poetry collection should do.
I spend Saturday evening on the Playstation
watching Lost In Translation for the fourth or fifth time
while I think that I should quit the bullshit
I’m not entirely sure what
but write something,
a poem, anything to update my blog
so I won’t feel guilty tonight when I go out
and I step in amid the young
and I drink some beers
and women look at me as they would any other without knowing that I
don’t waste my time watching football or formula one because I’m
a writer goddamitt and if I want to fuck them
it’s not for the sake of fucking
but so I can write about it
and so I can be someone in life
and so I can look back