Sunday, April 08, 2007

Tanka and Duende

I read with interest Michael McClintock's article, 'Tanka in Collage and Montage Sets: Multivalence, Duende, and Beyond,' in the Summer, 2007, issue of Modern English Tanka with considerable interest. His thoughts about multivalency, building on an earlier article by Denis Garrison, are thoughtful and thought-provoking, but I confess to being startled by his evocation of the Spanish concept of 'duende' in reference to tanka. 

I have to say, I think that tanka spirit and the Spanish duende are polar opposites in manifestation, although I grant that they both come from the same numinous root -- as all creative energy does. From McClintock's article I went searching and learned that duende has recently entered the English lexicon of art vocabulary, but while I don't fully grasp the meaning English speakers apply to it, I do think I have an excellent grasp of its original Spanish significance. 

In North America, the tempestuous Gypsy girl stamping out her dance is our archetype of a creature possessed by duende; it is not for nothing that they are called enchantresses and witches. In English 'glamor' once had the same meaning; 'glamour' was the magical enthrallment of supernatural creatures that dazzled men's senses. We have lost the numinous meaning of glamour and now apply it to merely mortal men and women who happen to have the money and right facial bones to meet the current definition of 'beauty', yet true glamour doesn't require a particular face. It is the spirit that wells up inside and transforms the flesh that makes a woman beautiful or a man irresistible. 

The epitome of duende in Spanish culture is the bullfight. When the matador and bull enter the arena it is foreordained that one of them must die. The only question is which of them, and how much beauty the matador can imbue the spectacle with through his or her skill and courage.  When applied to the arts, most especially flamenco and related forms, duende is the embrace of self-annhilation that paradoxically grants life. To have duende is to have the power of the flame that devours all with its radiance. In short, if there is no death or darkness, there is no duende. It is only when we embrace of darkness that we have heat and light. 

While I don't doubt that there are English-language tanka that manifest duende, I think they are few and far between. Reading the various authors McClintock cited, 'duende' in the Spanish sense was not what came to mind. In tanka we expect the reader to bring his or her own experience into the poem so that the work is a co-creation of the poet and the reader, but this is not the case with duende. Duende engulfs the audience so that they lose their sense of self and become thralls of the performer for as long as the music lasts. Tanka has never and most likely never will cause stadiums full of people to roar for blood. 

The genres of Spanish art that manifest duende are very different from tanka as we know it; if we are going to go looking for tanka with duende we must start with the Spanish tanka poets. Our lack of knowledge of other culture's tanka traditions must not lead us into the hubris of thinking that we have discovered or invented something new.

Consider this tanka from Tigres de Oro, by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is not merely a great Spanish poet, he is one of the great literary figures of the 20th century:

Bajo la luna
el tigre de oro y sombras
mira sus garras.
No sabe que en el alba
han destrozado un hombre.

~Jorge Luis Borges, Tigres de Oro/The Gold of the Tigers, 1976 [1972]. 

Under the moon
the tiger of gold and shadows
looks at his claws.
It doesn't know that in the dawn
a man was destroyed.

[trans. M. Kei] 

This poem gives the collection its Spanish title, the English translation of which is somewhat distorted. The phrase "tigres de oro" means "tigers of gold", not "gold of the tigers." The line "tigres de oro y sombras" is "tigers of gold and shadows". Perhaps it is a simple description of the coloration of a tiger, but it is an eminently suitable entry into the 'dreaming room' of this poem. 

While at first read it seems to be the tiger that has destroyed the man, that is not explicitly stated.  It is merely the juxtaposition of the two images that makes us think so. It is entirely possible that the man's destruction has no connection at all with the tiger. Likewise, it might be the moon, or the man himself, rather than the tiger who is unaware of the destruction -- dreaming room indeed. 

Even the word "tigre" is problematical. While it does indeed mean "tiger", in Latin America the same word is applied to the jaguar -- and I do believe that 'jaguar' is the creature Borges means here. Jaguars come in two colors: gold or black. The gold version has shadowy spots on it. The jaguar gods were gods of the earth and war, and their pelts were worn by powerful, high ranking men. The gold jaguars were the gods of the light, or the upper (living world), the black jaguars were the gods of the lower world (world of the dead). 

Jaguars are also associated with the Chacs, the gods of rain and thunder, and when I was young, horror stories about the Chac-Mool scared the bejeezus out of me. The statues so named were altars that received the hearts cut from the bodies of human sacrifices. Now the 'mool' stories have been discredited as the fabrications of an early anthropologist, but the resonances remain. 

There is more here, the image of the "tigre de oro" calls to mind the legend of Eldorado ("el dorado" - "the golden one"). For a Latin American like Borges, Eldorado cannot help but bring to mind the history of Spanish imperialism and its bloody conquest of the Americas in the quest for gold. 

The bloody claws of this tiger hold the whole lacerated history of the Americas. That, dear readers, is duende. And we can see that it has nothing in common with tanka as we know it. 

You can read Lorca's frequently excerpted article in full here:

You can read Borges in The Gold of the Tigers/Tigres de Oro in a bilingual edition published by E P Dutton, 1976. 

Google and can provide endless information about pre-Columbian religion.



  1. Dear Mr. Kei,

    Thank you for your message. May I apologise for my breach of etiquette in quoting your translation without permission. I assumed that if I put your name on the quote with a link back to your blog then it wouldn't be a problem. I have now also added a link back to this original article. I do hope this is satisfactory. My apologies again.

    Yours sincerely,

    Michael Lambe

  2. Thanks for understanding. Denis (editor of Modern English Tanka) puts a lot of love and effort into the journal, plus he's always been very good to me and other poets, so I try to make sure he gets his due. Poetry doesn't pay, so it's important to give back in other ways.