My father has always said that he was born twice. The first time was to his mother Josefina in April 1940 and the second time was as a poet, in January 1951. His life was distinctly cleaved in two by an accident. Before that fateful Sunday he was carefree and confident, the youngest of five brothers growing up in the small Mexican village of Contepec, Michoacán. After the accident – in which he nearly died on the operating table after shooting himself with a rifle his brothers had left propped against the bedroom wall – he became a shy, introspective child who spent afternoons reading Homer and writing poems, stories and plays at the dining room table instead of playing soccer with his classmates.
This picture shows my father before the accident. It has always struck me as a portrait of the boy who was left behind, the scene of his shaken paradise. Frowning in the sunlight, he kneels beside Tarzan, the first in a line of dogs he will love, engulfed by exuberant vegetation. On the wall behind him hang two of my grandmother’s many birdcages, most likely containing songbirds in mid chorus.
Of course it is tempting to imbue this pensive face with the intellect of the man to come. His expression is one of a heightened sensibility, his gaze fastened on something beyond the present. I see both shyness and self-assurance, a precocious gravitas but also vulnerability. The truth is, I will never really know who my father was at the time. Nor will he. After the accident his early childhood became like a locked garden.
And then, in 1971, the memories found a way out. As soon as my mother became pregnant with me, visions from this elusive period started coming back to my father in astonishingly vivid dreams, giving shape to what would become El poeta niño, a celebration of his life before 1951. Imminent fatherhood helped revive memories that had, for two decades, lain dormant.
I am now translating El poeta niño into English. The book, narrated in loosely strung vignettes, provides me with a glimpse of my father in his pre-poet years. I am getting to know the child at a time when sights and sensations were still delivered at their purest, when each day brought new perceptions of his mother and his father, when every villager in Contepec formed part of a personal mythology. It was a time when shadows were palpable and light had a sound of its own.
This photograph with its intimate landscape captures that period in my father’s life better than any other (and there are blessed few): here, he is caught in the dappled afternoon, clasping his restive puppy, pausing for a moment between games, unaware of the monumental changes on their way.
Cover photograph by Jeff Eaton