Saturday afternoon, driving home from the University of Houston where I visited the M.D. Anderson Library, I listened to a cassette of La Pistola y el Corazon, by Los Lobos. I bought it in 1990, on the same day I first saw Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, in which pistols also make an appearance. Like Blonde on Blonde and The Band, it’s an album I know almost by heart ("mi corazon"), and that’s peculiar because unlike most of the records produced by David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas and Co., La Pistola is a collection of songs sung in Spanish, a language I don’t know. Why does one listen to – and respond to emotionally and come to love -- music with lyrics he cannot decipher?
In this case, part of the reason is the band’s musicianship, especially Hidalgo’s guitar and plaintive tenor. The songs are norteno, a form of Mexican acoustic music, mostly ballads, and the themes are timeless and heartbreaking -- lost love, love unrequited, love scorned. In English, the lyrics are clunky and trite. Here’s the final verse of the title song, as translated in the liner notes:
"The kisses that you gave me my love
Are the ones that are killing me
But my tears are now drying
With my pistol and my heart
And here as always I spend my life
With the pistol and the heart"
Canned sentiments, you might say. But in Spanish, the lines are filled with voluptuous long "o’s," 16 in six lines, three in the title words alone. Here, in Spanish, are the end words of the six lines quoted: "amor," "matando," "secando," "corazon," "la vida con," "corazon." Like Italian, Spanish is rich in open-mouthed voicings, ravishing vowels that make them a pleasure to hear and sing even when meaning is absent. They give pleasure to the mouth and ear.
I thought about this because I’ve been reading Les Murray’s Collected Poems and enjoying myself shamelessly even when I’m not certain what is going on. This reminds me that much of the best poetry, before it is anything else, is artfully arranged sound. Sense is not absent but neither does it insist on primacy of importance. Murray is not a hermetic poet, like Celan or Ungaretti, but he often uses Australian idioms and subject matter unfamiliar to many American readers.
Here’s a Murray poem, "Performance," published originally in his 1996 volume, Subhuman Redneck Poems. On the first pass through this sonnet of sorts, listen to the middle portion as music, pure sound:
"I starred that night, I shone:
I was footwork and firework in one,
"a rocket that wriggled up and shot
darkness with a parasol of brilliants
and a peewee descant on a flung bit;
I was blusters of glitter-bombs expanding
to mantle and aurora from a crown,
I was fouéttes, falls of blazing paint,
para-flares spot-welding cloudy heaven,
loose gold off fierce toeholds of white,
a finale red-tongued as a haka leap:
that too was a butt of all right!"
"As usual after any triumph, I was
of course, inconsolable."
The poem contains two words I didn’t know ("fouettes," "haka") and several familiar words used in ways I didn’t recognize. But even on the first read I understood the sense of excitement and celebration contained in language so densely packed it threatens to burst like a rocket from its own energy – music to be listened to with my ears and "mi corazon."