Recommended Author: Álvaro Enrigue

Álvaro Enrigue first came to my attention while I was assembling materials for my sports literature course. I was looking for a strong piece of fiction to round out the week on tennis, and came across Pooja Makhijani’s list of recommended tennis books at Electric Literature. Both the brief plot description and the strikingly simple cover of Enrique’s novel Sudden Death (trans. Natasha Wimmers, Riverhead, 2016) immediately caught my eye, and as luck would have it the JHU library had a copy in its collection. I checked it out, and was soon transfixed.

Sudden DeathSudden Death is, by design, a difficult novel. The central action of Sudden Death is a fictional tennis match between the Spanish poet Quevedo and the Italian painter Caravaggio. Although, when I say “tennis,” I don’t mean the modern form of the game, the sort we associate with Roger Federer and Serena Williams, but rather the much older game of real tennis, which only passingly resembles the current version of the sport. A major challenge of the novel is figuring out the rules of real tennis; for example, serves had to bound off the roof of the spectator’s gallery to be valid. This fact makes the match itself difficult to follow, but also gives the proceedings the manic energy of a duel—which, we learn as the novel progresses, is exactly what this tennis match is.

But the duel between Quevedo and Caravaggio is really a mechanism for framing various digressions into history and politics, from the execution of Anne Boleyn to Spanish colonial administration in the Americas. It’s a novel that deliberately blurs the boundary between fact and fiction: presenting actual contemporary documents alongside fabricated ones, slowly stretching historical anecdotes before one starts questioning their veracity. For instance, it is true that Jean Rombaud was the executioner summoned from France to behead Anne Boleyn, but it is not true that he had tennis balls made from Anne Boleyn’s hair.

I will admit that, while I admire Sudden Death greatly, it’s a difficult novel to love. The research (and the “research”) can overwhelm the book at points, and the narration tends to distance the reader from the characters. It’s the sort of novel that will inspire you to write a thesis, but it’s not as likely to give you an emotionally transcendent experience. Fortunately, for those wanting a smidgen of sentiment with their stories, a new essay by Enrique will have you covered.

Recently published on ESPN’s website, Enrique’s latest piece explores his ever-changing relationship with baseball, from his childhood in Mexico, when he roots for the Cafeteros de Córdoba but can never see them play at their home park, to his adulthood in the United States, where he takes his son to as many Baltimore Orioles games as possible. While Enrique’s love of baseball never leaves him, what the game means to him evolves as he goes through life. It’s a wonderfully thoughtful exploration of sports fandom.

Though certainly not to the extent as in Sudden Death, history and politics play a role in his newest essay as well. His family’s support of the Cafeteros mark them as provincials in the more cosmopolitan Mexico City, and economic crises compel him to leave Mexico, and Mexican baseball, behind. But in this piece, personal reflections reign supreme, even when they take on some philosophical significance. Consider this passage on the sports fan’s greatest virtue, loyalty:

I think it’s impossible to change teams once one has made a decision: You can admire some generation of players or develop a deep respect or even some care for a franchise, but your team is your team because it becomes fixed in your brain at an age when small things are huge. Once, talking about soccer, the late Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia—an unbiased, philosophical, and quiet man—told me in an unexpected rapture of passion: “Only perverts change teams.”

Or take the essay’s conclusion, after Enrique and his son go to their last O’s game before the latter goes off to college:

Childhood is a planet with a population of one person, but on a very few lucky days, our memories and those of our children cross paths, like in an eclipse. That day I came out of Camden Yards understanding something that took me years to grasp: that loyalty to a team can be a two-direction road. We inherit objects of devotion from our parents, but sons and daughters leave a legacy for us too. The Coffee Drinkers stand untouched in the crystal box of my memory, but the Baltimore Orioles are my team. They are the unexpected bequest of my son.

Erudite and perceptive, bold and direct, Enrigue is a writer I’m glad to have found, and I eagerly await more of his work. I hope this short piece will encourage you to check him out, too.

If, after looking up Enrigue, you want more reading recommendations, I recently discussed Stephen King’s 1990 essay “Head Down,” which, coincidentally, is also about children and baseball.

Henri Cole and the Sentimental Interruption

Natural disasters, death, isolation: how many poems take these topics as their subjects? Poets from all over draw inspiration, however weary, from such grave events, yet these are difficult subjects to address well. The temptation is always present to slip into sentimentality or detached philosophy, which would do great disservice to these grave subject matters. What could trivialize heartbreak more than a Hallmark card?

At the same time, we expect poets to find deeper meanings within the events they relate; rarely are we satisfied with the written equivalents of still lifes. This is especially true when it comes to subjects worthy of elegies. Without the solace that poetry can provide us, we’d be left staring at despair — perhaps an emotionally powerful experience, but hardly a useful one. And so the tension poets face: how is one to avoid cloying sentiment on the one hand and callous objectivity on the other?

The poems in Henri Cole’s latest collection, Nothing to Declare (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) — which often describe scenes of devastation, physical and emotional — resolve this tension in a curious way: they temporarily indulge in sentimentality, only to change course abruptly and return to the facts at hand. Like a release valve, the sentimental interruptions relieve some of the pressure that these scenes entail, but not to the extent that their powers are completely emptied.

To demonstrate how this “release valve” technique works, let’s take a close look at two of Cole’s poems: “City Horse” (originally published in The Threepenny Review, text available here) and “Dandelions” (originally published in The Paris Review, audio available here). In both poems, the speaker momentarily departs from a gut-wrenching situation, only for the situation itself to drag the speaker back into the moment. Once that final transition is complete, the speaker (and so the reader) gains a fuller of understanding of the tragedy they face, one for which the earlier sentimentality would not be sufficient.

As a single sentence spanning fourteen lines, “City Horse” captures a moment of continuous agony: a boy seeing a dead horse in the aftermath of a storm. The opening line leaves little doubt as to the direction of the poem; it’s a journey to “the end of the road from concept to corpse” (line 1). What was once a living, moving beast has been tossed by wind and waves, dumped alongside piles of inanimate debris (“uprooted trees, crumpled cars, and collapsed houses” [3]). Although she is positioned “as if trying to raise herself still,” she is irretrievably dead (4). The only question is how to confront that fact.

At first, the speaker appears absorbed with the physical facts of the horse’s death: broken legs, face in the mud. Of particular interest is the horse’s appearance: “the color around her eyes, nose, and mane (the dapples of roan, / a mix of red and white hairs) now powdery gray” (7-8). The declension narrative is clearest here. This beautiful horse, because of the capricious weather, has been reduced to a monochromatic object. One might expect, then, to read of further and further decay.

Instead, the speaker interrupts the description with a set of apostrophes: “O, wondrous horse; O, delicate horse–dead, dead–” (9). The register is so elevated, the repetitions so sudden, that it sounds out of character for the speaker. Whereas the first eight lines were earthy and plainspoken, line 9 is more consciously poetic, if not bathetic — can readers feel this sort of emotion for a horse they hardly know?

But “O, wondrous horse” is not indicative of the poem’s progress; it’s a sudden pulling back, an unsustainable retreat. Just after the speaker’s interruption ends, we hear the boy who sees the horse with his vernacular speech: “‘She was more smarter than me, / she just wait'” (10-11). The two voices in succession shake the reader back and forth, from lofty sentiment back to the raw details. And once the poem returns to those details, the import of the interruption becomes more apparent.

The closing image sees the boy attempting to comfort the dead horse, “stroking the majestic rowing legs, / stiff now” (12-13). It’s a heartfelt gesture, but a futile one, much like the horse’s attempt to escape its fate. She simply “could not outrun / the heavy, black, frothing water” (13-14). But then, neither could the speaker “outrun” the tragedy of the horses death by invoking some sentimental muse — he must return to the situation, the heavy, black, frothing situation.

“Dandelions” follows a similar path as “City Horse”: the speaker is confronted with an uncomfortable situation, attempts to escape via a sentimental interruption, but gets drawn back to the reality of the scene. What makes “Dandelions” a little unusual is that the scene itself has no reality — it’s a dream, as the first stanza explains:

In the dream,
a priest said
it was time
to be entirely
adult. (1-5)

The set-up suggests a confrontation between the speaker and the priest, but in fact the priest is addressing the speaker’s mother, who is “bedridden / because of diabetes” (6-7). The priest seems convinced that the speaker’s mother has little time left, repeatedly asking about her beliefs. His insistence frightens the speaker, who retreats into his own head (or further within his own head, as the case may be).

Specifically, he starts to think of the title flowers, of their simple beauty, which appears to provide him some comfort in the midst of the confrontation:

those silver gray
stems and lemony
blossoms
that transform
any landscape (36-40)

That landscape, of course, is the speaker’s mental state. For the moment, his mother’s health and the priest’s insistence have faded into the background, subsumed by the soft colors of the dandelion imagery. If “City Horse” drifts into the language of sentimentality, “Dandelions” indulges in its visuals.

But, as with the sentimental interruption in “City Horse,” the speaker’s self-distraction cannot be sustained here. He’s brought back to the dream-proper when his mother’s ailment intervenes: “and then I heard / Mother lifting her stumps, / where the hands had been” (41-43). It’s an unnerving image in any context, but when contrasted with the dandelions, it’s a downright shock.

“Dandelions,” however, arrives at a different attitude than “City Horse.” The mother’s closing declaration (“‘I believe / in these living hands'” [44-45]) might provide the speaker with some consolation at the end of the dream. His mother is aware her hands have been amputated, but she does not try to ignore than fact. Instead, she finds a kind of strength within her condition, hence why she loudly lifts her stumps. She has embraced her situation and come out stronger for it. Perhaps the speaker, once he awakes, can learn from her example.

Cole returns to the structure used in “City Horse” and “Dandelions” throughout Nothing to Declare, and it proves surprisingly durable. It never loses its punch, seeing that moment where a sentimental interruption collapses and the speaker confronts reality again. It reenacts a thought process which all of us indulge in at various points in our lives, then shows the limits of that very process. Whether solace or mere devastation await at the end, Cole’s poems show us those difficult facts that our minds attempt to cloud.

Nothing to Declare is available through Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s website and through Amazon.com.

(Disclosure: I received Cole’s collection as part of a Goodreads giveaway sponsored by the publisher. Neither the author, nor the publisher, nor Goodreads had any input regarding this post.)