A Visit to the Casa de hablas


Photo: Ricardo Blasco

It is impossible to construct an image of Ana Enriqueta 
without making particular mention of her house, without referring
Ricto the intimate arrangement of the space of her magics, 
which, with distinct adaptations according to its place,
always ends up as the very same house.

Eugenio Montejo.

After several erratic twists and turns, we find the Casa de hablas. It’s not her representative book, but rather her home: we notice it thanks to the big silver letters on the upper part of the wall. Everything is covered in stone, and everything inside is foliage, plants and bushes moistened by the frequent rain. Geraudí smiles, a bit further along, like a happy little five-year-old girl: he pauses by my side and confirms, with certainty, that this is her house.

Mundaca, the intimidating guard dog, welcomes us with warning barks. We hear the voice of a man - thin, young, and dark-skinned - who’s coming down a staircase with no bannister. He’s the one who gave us the exact address a few minutes before over the phone, telling us to use the rocky material of the facade and the three palm trees on the other side of the sidewalk as a reference.

We walk at a calm, premeditated pace as we enter. That pace in which you look two or three times at the same objects that appear in your path, as if you were stepping on wet ground made of shifting plates, or easily breakable pieces of ceramic. First Geraudí, then me, and, finally, the young man. We ascend in that order. On our left, I saw flowerpots sprouting long, thin, green branches, covered in a permanent dew. On our right, some windows and more greenery spread all over the wall. There are very few meters of staircase left before the door, it’s true, but I feel like the climb has taken ages. The door opened, and I thought She would be waiting to return our first glance (it’s absurd to search in our mental records for a faithful photograph of the person we all know, to think that person would appear with the same makeup, wardrobe, weight, or age).

In the kitchen, we come across a young woman with a baby in her arms - friendly, if silent, guests. I make out musty, mixed up smells, like in an old stately home. I slow down my pace. I shorten my steps to look at the paintings and objects hanging from the walls, the kitchen saturated with utensils, the altar on a big table covered in Virgins, old metal crosses, and a tortoise made of flattened iron. There is little space left on her walls: there are countless drawings, made by herself or by fellow Venezuelan artists. They all, as I can tell, “sleep in the air.”

The young man tells us to move forward until we arrive at the door that will lead us to the mistress of the Casa de hablas. We enter, but we don’t see her. Maybe she’s at the back of the huge wooden bed, or on the hospital bed, or in the wheelchair. She’s in none of these places. Where is she? I thought they must have tricked us, She only existed in books and in her beautiful photos, showing off her adolescent appetites. We stood there for a few seconds, but they felt like minutes. The silence was penetrated by a firm, somewhat hurried voice coming out of the next room. It asks the young man to wait for a moment before entering her room. We leave immediately so as not to disobey. More than a minute passed before we heard it again. It told us to enter. I thought I would see her standing or in the wheelchair. She is in the wooden bed, on the left side, lying down. We saw Ana Enriqueta Terán, in existence, for the first time. We saw her shy, doubtful, uttering trembling expressions of greeting. She wears a dress with buttons on the front down to her ankles, dark sunglasses, and a brown-toned pashmina. Black stockings cover up the feet that contradict her ninety-eight years. Her legs are slender, but still apt to hold up that body with hands covered in bracelets made of metal, ivory, and wood. She makes excuses - we’re not sure why - for the simplicity of our reception and her attire. The poetess, as she firmly defines herself, speaks with elegance.

“The word poeta is a trap laid by men - they should call themselves poeto.” She tosses the suggestion out jovially, explaining that she is the only Venezuelan poetess, owing to the many women writers who prefer to call themselves poets.

Scattered on the wave of her sheets, I could see a couple of books and two leather-bound agendas. The remote control of a wide-screen Soneview TV also rests on that wave of cloth; it’s the only 21st-century object you could find in her room. I look at the poetess and her room. It’s her natural habitat. Everything is there. I’m surprised by the sleeping cat, curled up in a ball, on her hospital bed. I’m surprised by her immobile placidity.

Ana Enriqueta picks up the agenda in which she writes and takes notes. There, horizontally, she writes in large print. She transcribes quotes and composes her sonnets. She has told us that she has twenty, unpublished and very recent. She loves this metric, strophic form, and she offers us two spontaneous definitions: “The sonnet is a precious parcel that sustains me and helps me to be free,” and “extraordinary glasses of victory.” Ana Enriqueta had promised to read Geraudí an unpublished sonnet dedicated to Saint Teresa. She hastily flicks through her notebook. She pores again and again over the pages, but doesn’t find the text. She apologizes. To revindicate herself, she reads a sonnet by Juan de Tassis. She talks about her passion for Luis de Góngora. “I’ve never had a library,” she tells us, since she has moved house sixteen times. She raises her voice to talk to us about Rómulo Gallegos and his Doña Bárbara, about the “meanness” of the Swiss Academy in their refusal to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature. She talks with admiration and warmth about her husband and companion, José María Beotegui. She praises Andrés Eloy Blanco, the godfather of her brother Diego. She reads the Bible, but only as literature, like she would read Fyodor Dostoyevsky or William Faulkner.

“To whom does an old man complain?”, she says, as if listening to my thoughts. Is it a verse cited from elsewhere, or a phrase of the poetess’s own invention? The question troubles me, turning over and over in my mind inescapably. Her involvement in the conversation takes up new evocations. We fall silent and allow her to speak, to cite anecdotes and authors. I want to butt in, to offer comments. Useless: in such cases one cannot interrupt the current. Her presence in the bed, her voice, to be more precise, is a river that flows with great power. I take out a copy of Pasajero with a dedication from my green bag. She takes it from me with graciousness and patience. I’m surprised by her healthy vision, almost excessively vigorous. I offer her my copy of Piedra de habla, her ample anthology published by Biblioteca Ayacucho in 2014. I timidly ask her to sign it for me. She says no, a generous and firm “no” inviting me to a new encounter, more familiar and better planned, with the weighty dedication. I quietly accepted. We spent a moment in the silence of mutual respect. I don’t remember the exact order of what happened next. 

Everything happens in the space of her discourse, her desire to tell us how she arrived at poetry and her admiration for her brother Luis Daniel Terán Madrid, who never published a single verse but was, according to Pepe Barroeta, a “master poet.” She confirms this herself, without arrogance, describing how she has managed to put together his work, always with the arquitectonic support of tradition. She passionately elaborates on a painting by Braulio Salazar that hangs near the entrance to the adjoining bathroom, one of the few nudes by the Valencian artist. She exclaims, “You almost want to pray to that nude, so great is its purity.” We see it the same way; that is to say, that innocent gaze, like that of a saint, that returns the youthful firmness to those breasts. She continues, “Prayer has a function in all religions, and it works.” She says so referring to her devotion to the daily act of praying, on top of everything else.

Ana Enriqueta continues to speak - to pray - and sometimes she picks up her little leather-bound notebook. She reads - she recites - with character, and sometimes she raises her left hand with a clenched fist, vehemently, to emphasize the precision of her reading, as if at an imaginary rally. She is giving us an intimate recital, for a reduced public of only two spectators, Geraudí and me, before we even realized the nature of her act: “Like one who writes a prayer and asks for much humility and a lengthy breath to resist the brilliance and nearness of the WORD.” She speaks of the sacrality of language, of words, sacred words.

Ana Enriqueta is a classic example of miraculous longevity. She is an older poet - in terms of both age and aesthetic - and the godmother of 20th-century Venezuelan poetry. She has consolidated a poetics linked to the greatest inheritance of poetry in Spanish. Her work persists in the infinite possibilities of meter and the classical forms - especially the sonnet and the lira - flying in the face of the somewhat exhausted vicissitudes of contemporary free verse. Her work is inseparable from the trance of poetic creation, from the composition that makes never-before-seen combinations possible in a work that is always conscious of the world of dreams: “This time, we made the distance with tight masks / to the purest delight, the purest, solitary sign / of the maiden and her customs of a plant in mourning.” She has practiced the task of forging book after book, few but always marmoreal books, since 1946, the publication date of Al norte de la sangre. I want to offer her one of her poems in my own voice. I read her the poem “Cena.” In her face I see pleasure, approval, when she hears herself in the voice of another.

The conversation heightens. We ascend briefly to Morrocoy, some fifty years ago, in Ana Enriqueta’s old rural house, with no water and no light but with fish, squid, and whiskey brought from Caribbean islands. She spent twelve years in those lands, where she gave birth to her Libro de los oficios. Twelve years in which she ceased to be Ana Enriqueta and became “lady doña missus”, as the locals used to call her. In the little town of Morrocoy, she played hostess to the Valencian visual artist Wladimir Zabaleta and the poet Eugenio Montejo while they were still very young, carrying all their baggage of inexperience. And there was another high point in the conversation: a letter from Juana de Ibarbourou, to “My dazzling Ana Enriqueta.” The letter is lying unpublished, she assures us, in some archive. And another letter from Pedro Emilio Coll. We imagine some luxurious chest full of missives from Latin American poets from the 1940s on. Relics, one might say. Noticing our excitement, she calls the young man back to lead us to the house’s lower stories.

A sliding wooden door hides the descent. We go down. Ana Enriqueta remains in her room. The descent is dark, with very little light. While we walk, I make out many framed diplomas on the walls. Two honoris causa doctorates, one awarded by the Universidad de Carabobo and the other by the Universidad Latinoamericana y del Caribe. The most remarkable is the National Prize for Literature - a recognition for the poetess praised by Mariano Picón Salas when it was awarded. Illustrious daughter of Trujillo. I don’t know why I forgot that this was the main room of her house. There is an order to everything we see. Her artist friends make their appearances: Oswaldo Vigas, Braulio Salazar, Juan Calzadilla, Wladimir Zabaleta, Gabriel Bracho. Their colors and shapes are all there: an Egyptian dog by Alexis Mujica and a painting by Armando Reverón.

This is not a house, it’s a gallery. Geraudí hangs back, more patient than me. She gestures for me to move back but I don’t notice. It’s hard to be patient surrounded by so much brilliance. I go on alone, one step ahead. In the most inner area, a little table marked the focal point of the room. Three huge art books sit upon it: Gómez de la Serna, Wladimir Zabaleta, and someone else. All around it there are chairs and sofas, one of them the color of wine, looking out on a wood-framed bay door with glass windows on each side. I get closer: fifteen volumes, large and numbered, of Lope de Vega. Was the madrileño poet really so prolific? At that moment, I saw it to be true. Above Lope, on the upper shelf, many piled-up copies of De bosque a bosque. A single copy of Al norte de la sangre, her first book, has been placed on the stack with greater care, although its cover has been eaten away over the years. Next I see four copies of Verdor secreto and about ten of Albatros. It all looks more like an altarpiece than a library. I sit down on the wine-colored sofa. I pick up the books. I give them a quick glance, hoping to see as much as possible, to take temporary control of that landscape of the elder poetess. We are not alone: the young man, a few meters away, watches us, keeping close track of our presence.

Abruptly, we go back up. It’s already 5:00 p.m. Back in Ana Enriqueta’s room, sitting in the same position, she holds a copy of Pasajero. By her side are a white cup, already out of coffee, some biscuits, and half the coco bread we brought her. Soon, the slender young woman enters in a homemade housecoat with our own cups. The poetess mentions that she liked the little text I wrote about her, published more than a year before in a cultural supplement. I felt overcome by joy when she read the final verses of the book’s first poem, appropriately entitled “Pasajero.” Her sincere approval, her way of reading me, is a compliment in itself. She deliberately emphasizes the image of the stoplight, its lanterns, and especially the yellow color that is recurring in her poetry. Old, remembered verses come to her mind, many verses, about flowers and birds and foliage. Although she is Andean by birth (Valera, 1918), she has lived in Valencia for many years: she has assimilated its trees and avenues; she has made her permanent home in this Valencian toponymy. 

The salon continues for an hour longer, and I notice her necklaces hanging in little bags. Rows of necklaces, held up on nails by the side of the television. There, the coquetry of stones and colors rests in repose - stones and colors that are commonplace in many of the poetess’s appearances. She confesses that she crafts her own accessories, bracelets and necklaces. “I’m terrified of plastic!” she tells us, responding to a question from Geraudí. That’s why she prefers stones, artisanal materials, resources used by Indigenous and African artists. Nothing synthetic or artificial. We didn’t know that side of her, shown off in artistic exhibitions: the poetess as artisan, creator of the articles of feminine attraction.

The itinerary that Geraudí and I had brought was rendered unnecessary by her brightness. We discarded our plans: Ana Enriqueta Terán Madrid was unique in her splendor, surprising us with her affable Being. We said goodbye with a brush of cheeks and hands that did not want to let each other go. Slowly, we left the room, went down the stairs, and departed. The drive back to San Diego was untroubled. On the highway, there were no hassles and no distractions. Something serene, something calming, stayed with us.

Néstor Mendoza
San Diego, Venezuela, August 14, 2016

Translated from the Spanish by Arthur Dixon

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LALT Vol. 1 No. 1
Number 1

The first issue of Latin American Literature Today features a dossier of Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia, who passed away in January of 2017, and short stories by the outstanding young Mexican author Nadia Villafuerte.