Where Sadness is Not Mute: A Review of Pablo Valdivia’s, ‘Breathing Underwater’

Pablo Valdivia, Breathing Underwater
translated from the Spanish by Ross Woods
Guernica Editions, Fall 2014
102 pages
Trade Paperback
ISBN13: 9781550718799
ISBN10: 1550718797>
Translated from the Spanish
$20.00 Canada, $20.00 US

Where Sadness is Not Mute: A Review of Pablo Valdivia’s, ‘Breathing Underwater’
by Brenda Clews

A stranger. What does the stranger feel? In this book, Valdivia writes from what it feels like. A nomad writing about the alienated self. Minimal poems, bare traceries of the consciousness passing through the landscape of another land that is not home. Home is “the bosom of the olive piles…that burst with happiness.” (The Valley, 31) London, by contrast, “is dying /from the melancholy.” (53) Leaving home is perhaps a broken love affair: “There is a heaviness which lives in the skin /and reopens wounds… //Have patience that time /will leave the path /of misfortune clear /and with its light it will cure the pain”: (Recollection, 21)
This was loneliness.
The coldness of silence
whispering in the bones,
the infinite prison
from which none escape. (Loneliness, 61)
Pablo Valdivia’s, Breathing Underwater (translated by Ross Woods from the Spanish), is a sparse melancholic meditation on alienation and loneliness and the anxiety and pain which accompanies the isolation of the stranger in a strange land. The tenor of the imagery is consistent. Everything, the landscape, the locale, is described only in ways that express the emotional trauma of separation and the isolation of the poet: “The room waits, its keyhole / dormant, until a voice awakens it.” (Doors, 19)

Emptiness lies at the heart of these poems. “Everything returns and perishes.” (Everything Returns, 35). The poet watches lovers kiss underwater, "their lips" pouring "bubbles of happiness," and responds, "I would like to submerge myself /near their hope forever, /so that pain would finally float /away from my smile." (The Swimmers, 23) Many of the poem in this collection describe a stagnation of the poet's joy in life while in a foreign and lonely landscape. As he listens to an evocation of the sea in "River" (59), he sees faces in the clouds who fight through the water and says, "They are like my memories /illusions that tame the current."

Perhaps the collection is a lament for a broken love, the loss of a relationship, or the poet longing for home in an alien land, the lover being Spain itself. This is left deliberately unclear in the poems. He is adrift in a new locale, where he has no community, has not created friendships yet. He is the watcher who does not participate except as a poet grappling with his own feelings of loneliness. Valdivia's writing could be called nomadic, in the Deleuzian sense, but it not post-colonial writing and does not deal with exile, discrimination, race, colour or creed. He is Spanish, living in London, clearly is fluent in English, and, as we learn from his bio, now lives in Amsterdam, where he is a Professor of Spanish Literature at the University of Amsterdam.

I was initially drawn to the collection by the sparse beauty of the poems that were read at the Guernica launch in Toronto in 2014. On a closer read, though, I find that the poems do not seem to grapple with the attitudes of the writer, and that there is little contradiction in the perspective of the poems. This left me feeling that the collection slides over difficulties in the subjective stance of the poetic voice. I was missing a depth that I expected the collection as a whole to have because I thought it would include contradictions to the main voice, echoes of other stances, moments of joy that interfere with the overall sombre tone.

The poem from which the title of the book is drawn:
I submerge myself in the
hopeless evenings
of the first days
of Spring.

Light is a sound
of bodies that walk in the distance,
of illusions that live in houses.

Night begins
to suffocate me relentlessly.

Day has a pulse as difficult and strange
as breathing underwater. Cold.
Meanwhile loneliness writes
my name in the air.

(Breathing Underwater, 25)
Valdivia is outside the outside, coiled within. The fog of London, his melancholia; a visitor, his room a glasshouse of the lonely. In the poems, which are sparse and quite beautiful, sadness is not mute, but, rather, described as carefully as a stranger might map his locale in new territory. Breathing Underwater is an anatomy of a specific sadness. The focus is on the poet's difficulties with his transposition to a foreign country. All images of his new landscape represent his inner feelings of loss, of being cut-off from others, from home. In this way, the collection has a more passionate undercurrent, one might say a more Spanish feel, than we might normally be used to with our English emotional tautness.


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