Originally published on everythingbutamisprint.tumblr.com in December 2010.
Hafan Books, the Swansea-based publisher who donate all proceeds to the city's Asylum Seekers Support Group, are building quite a reputation outside of philanthropy for their beautiful A4-sized collections of short-fiction, drama and poetry. Each collection, the most recent of which being two one-act plays by Wales' renowned concrete poet Childe Roland (real name Peter Meilleur), is accompanied by a set of photographs included to compliment the text, reflecting back upon it without ever simply attempting to literally illustrate the work of the writer.
In 2008, Hafan published the first poetry collection of Humberto Gatica, a Chilean exile who arrived in Swansea shortly after the 1973 military coup. The poems, included in The Sand Garden / El Jardin de Arena in both Spanish and English, deal with the enforced exile of Gatica and his family and the subsequent struggle to adapt to life in a foreign country. Fittingly, whereas Hafan's other marriages of literature and visual art are often collaborative, The Sand Garden is instead the sole work of Gatica, with the poems accompanied on the page by the poet's black and white photographs of exile in Swansea.
There is a wonderful photograph of a lone figure walking along a deserted promenade which not only highlights the plight of the exile, but also illustrates Gatica's understanding of his adopted, or rather enforced, hometown. The photograph shows Swansea as a city caught between "confusing monotony" and "dead factories", with the Maritime Quarter Lego-land to the left of frame brought into sharper focus than the half-silhouetted docklands to the distant right. The docklands (which the industrial Swansea of the 18th and 19th centuries was built upon) and the ugly, modern buildings of the Maritime Quarter (which the council hope will regenerate it as a desirable 21st century destination), are eaten into by the bay in the foreground – a shoreline indentation which pre-dates the sea-side settlement, and will no doubt survive it. There is a sense of this duality of landscape as being both fleeting and permanent in Gatica's poems, and although neither Swansea nor the poet's hometown of Huellahue are named, their presence is certainly felt throughout the collection.
The City I Live In
I live in
(The Sand Garden, Hafan, 2008)
Gatica's poems are minimalist yet rhythmical, taking influence from both the carefully observed haiku form he uses solely in English ("When I try to translate haiku into Spanish, the line is too long") and the prayers he heard whilst growing up in southern Chile. The subtle hints of memories of the coup d'état in 'The City I Live In' play on the idea of 'home' as being both an immediate place where we rest our bodies and a place distanced from the current self, reached only through the mind's eye. Memories of the distressing history of Chile are thrown up by the harsh climate of Swansea, by comparison a safe haven but still, for the exile, an intimidating place. Gatica and his wife Gabriella have lived in Wales, save for a short interlude working on a community project in Mozambique, since they arrived in Swansea over 35 years ago. Although the poet admits he is glad that, largely by accident, they ended up in Swansea – a place he says is more like a collection of villages than a city – the wounds of exile evidently run deep.The Sand Garden reads very much like a poem sequence, dealing with this emotionally-crippling feeling of hopelessness and isolation in each well-crafted poem; in 'Exile', the poet presents the word within a different context as he "abandons [his] bones" to dream of home, of "the music / of my rains / and my broken / landscapes" – of the people left behind in danger.
A supporter of the democratically elected President Allende, Gatica was amongst the thousands rounded up by Pinochet and his generals following the coup d'état. He spent ten months as a prisoner of conscience, subjected to brutal interrogations by the Junta, before an international solidarity campaign secured his release. Advised by friends to flee the country, Gatica and his wife sought asylum first in Argentina and then Europe. Other prisoners of conscience would continue to be tortured, mutilated, killed or 'disappeared' until the country was taken out of the military government's blood-soaked hands and returned to democracy in 1990.
After the Raid
only a village
of a waterfall
of the missing
(The Sand Garden, Hafan, 2008)
Although Gatica and his native Huellahue are now separated by almost four decades, the poet admits the village he grew up in still has a huge influence on his creative output: "I still have my village on my back. It's difficult to dissociate myself from that experience...out of a great sense of solemnity in my village, comes this desire to make beauty." The Sand Garden is indeed a beautifully-crafted collection of poetry and photographs – beautiful in a way that perhaps can only exist through confronting hardship and transforming it into something positive. Because, for all the understandable lament of Gatica's poetry – the bleakness seen through the undeserved bars of a prison window – there are also faint rays of hope for not just the exile, but perhaps the entire human race.
The Day Wakes Up
under a thick
cover of fog
lights are sighted
words are heard
(The Sand Garden, Hafan, 2008)
For more information about Humberto Gatica, and some further examples of his poetry, visit http://etcheverry.info/hoja/actas/poesia/article_1455.shtml
‘The Sand Garden / El Jardin de Arena (Out of Line Series #2) is available to buy from Hafan Books. All proceeds go to Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group.
Everything But A Mis-Print is a poetry-centric blog which hopes to introduce the world to the little-known poets worth knowing about. From the serial small-press chapbookers to the well-respected wordsmiths largely unread outside their own countries, the EBAM blog strives to place a spotlight on the very best poetry that swims outside the mainstream. You can visit it here: everythingbutamisprint.tumblr.com