The poetry of Martín López-Vega: Adult Foreigner

By Rob Packer

I first came across Martín López-Vega in mid 2011 through his poem ‘Última lección (Final Lesson)’ read on the Radio Nacional de España show La estación azul. That poem was a touching depiction of a boy’s memories of his grandfather, “who knew everything / who knew how to catch a flash of trout with his hands / who could whistle to attract goldfinches”, and then his sudden deterioration in old age. It seemed uncannily familiar, similar to the my own grandfather’s life that included playing catch with plates with a restaurant waiter in Berlin followed by his decline.

I recently managed to get hold of the poet’s excellent 2010 collection Adulto extranjero (Adult Foreigner, no translation available). The collection reads somewhere between a collection of poems and a travelogue narrative—strangely, as six poems were only added in 2011 as part of a re-edition. Some poems are personal stories about family members, while (sometimes very funny) pages of ‘Reading the Newspaper Aloud’ punctuate with fictitious news headlines like “Does Angelina Jolie know how to mount a donkey?” or “The United Kingdom advises the Pope to create his own brand of condoms”. But most focus on living or visiting another city, often outside Spain: apartments and internet dating in Lisbon, taking a particular tram home to Prenzlauer Berg or museums in small (Eastern European?) countries with tantalizing references in other poems to where it could be.

What seems relatively simple at first glance becomes increasingly complex and there is a sense of lack that permeates the book, especially after the poem about the narrator’s grandfather and another about the death of a loved one (girlfriend, mother, we’re not sure). In ‘S.P.Q.R.’, the narrator sees footprints in the cobbles of a square in Rome and wonders “Are they ours, are they ours from nine years ago?”. Even in the exuberant euphoria of a skinny-dipping couple walking through Barcelona naked “the night they stole everything”, there is a hint of menace. It almost seems like the narrator is a spectator on his own life and that raises the question whether the narrator is just on holiday, is travelling to escape his past, or even if these vignettes are fantasies of happier lives lived elsewhere.

López-Vega is clearly interested in the wider context of European poetry: his blog references Polish, English or Swedish poets as well as Spanish, and poems reference Hölderlin, Sappho and others by name. But where I felt this most was near the start of the first poem—its Lisbon setting creates unavoidable allusions to Pessoa—where I also heard a vague echo between “Who pays attention to alarms any more?”[1] and the famous first line of Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?”[2]. It may be that I was reading also Rilke at the time and any textual comparison does really end there, but for me they do both evoke that same existential helplessness. The adult foreigner of the title appears as the constant outsider, often a spectator, never fitting in and never giving too much away: which, combined with the powerful portrayals of emotion, is what keeps the collection so interesting.

Martín López-Vega, Adulto extranjero, dvd ediciones (2010/2011)

[1] ¿quién hace caso ya / a las alarmas?

[2] Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?


2 Responses to The poetry of Martín López-Vega: Adult Foreigner

  1. leifhendrik says:

    This is a very nice post and interesting literary criticism. I appreciate the wide poetic viewpoint, with the references to other poets from other cultures whose works relate to the one you’re examining. I’ll look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.

    • Rob says:

      Thanks for the comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I find López-Vega’s work actively engages with multiple traditions (for evidence just take a look at his blog!). Personally I really like poetry that does that: it just makes it feel a whole lot richer.

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