Living Spain through poetry

In The Art of Travel Fall 2015, Madrid, Books (2) by Daniel McElroy1 Comment

As I’ve said plenty of times before on this blog, Spain is a country built on contradiction. Almost nothing is what you would expect—sometimes charmingly so, and sometimes in the most frustrating of ways. And sometimes the unexpected is simply important to observe. Eye-opening even. I displace the air as I walk, a blunt yet thoughtful book of poetry by Marjorie Kanter about traveling and living in Spain, Morocco and the U.S. over several decades, makes some of these valuable observations with a sensitivity and humor that allow her readers having similar experiences (i.e. me!) to appreciate this country in a new way.

The brevity of Kanter’s writing forces her observations to be of no more than fleeting snippets from life. Most poems are only several lines long, taking up maybe half of a page. In this way, she doesn’t make the reader think too her about the implications that any one poem might have in defining ‘Spanish-ness’, which is good because no singular poem could.

Holding Her Up

This woman calls me on the phone.
She talks and talks and talks and talks.
Then all of a sudden I say two words, maybe three.
She nervously says, “I’ve got to go.”

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, and this poem validates you. Maybe you haven’t, and you’re free to move on. But that occasional validation is key because it says to us: ‘Yes. This weird occurrence just might be a facet of the ever-elusive ‘Spanish-ness’. Run with it and see for yourself!’ One example of the many times Kanter gave me this experience while reading her work is the piece ‘Holding Her Up’. After reading it, I thought of the many times I’ve had a similar experience, and I decided that yes, Spaniards certainly do like to hear themselves talk. And then I moved on, not making many further judgments, an approach that I think jives with Kanter’s own.

Peppered sparingly (and skillfully) throughout Kanter’s work are pieces which acknowledge and validate what might be the truer pieces of the stereotypes held by us anglosajones—a term used by the Spanish to refer to all English-speakers. In many ways, Kanter seems to be saying, Spain is actually just as delightful in its oddities as we’ve been led to believe. In ‘Napkin’, the subject asks repeatedly throughout his meal for a napkin that never arrives. In ‘Closed for biz’, the final piece of the compilation, an open shop refuses to sell an item because siesta time is approaching. Kanter throws these musings in just as we begin to reorient our ideas of what Spain might be, though she never appears to be too exasperated by the stereotype’s trueness… instead she’s simply amused.

The Lesson



when (then)
I (over)heard her mother say,
“I won’t love you anymore
if you (keep) doing that!”

Being an American expat in Spain, Kanter makes some incredibly interesting observations which compare the two cultures and which speak to the unique culture of actually being an expat. One of the most poignant couplings of poems in Kanter’s work is ‘The Lesson’, written in Boston, and ‘Coffee break’, written in Madrid. Children playing is a subject with just enough insignificance for the connection between Kanter’s Boston and Madrid experiences to be easily missed, but much can be said if the reader does catch it. And it’s not just the obviously differing attitudes of the poems’ authority figures that contrast here. It’s the less narrative, more broken style with which Kanter writes in America compared to the lyrical description of ‘Coffee break’. It’s the closure that we get from the second poem with the child’s response instead of the abrupt and upsetting ending of ‘The Lesson’.

Coffee break

A child is playing.
She’s holding a bucket and shovel,
and a little red plastic cup
in her hands.
She’s busy filling the cup with sand.
I hear her grandmother say to another woman,
“Me está poniendo morada de café,”
and then she turns to the child (halfway)
and says, “I don’t want more coffee.”
(Not looking up)
the child says, “(Claro) no more for you,
porque ya no te quiero preparar más.”

The physical structure of Kanter’s poems and indeed the compilation as a whole tell perhaps the most about her experiences at home and abroad. Kanter’s poetry from Boston feels more American just by its rhythm. And I have to say I prefer the style of her poems from Spain more. And I think she must as well. In fact, the section about Boston is titled ‘The Expat’, while the one about Madrid is called ‘The Resident’. Neither term connotes nativeness, but the latter certainly implies more a more comfortable experience. In fact, it would seem there’s nothing she can do about this really, except to write and observe, and to enjoy going back and forth across cultures, which I think is a feeling I’m coming to identify with pretty well myself.


  1. Hey Daniel! It was nice seeing that you chose to look at poems rather than just a regular book. Reading works is one of the great ways to get familiar with a place in a way thats different from wandering around. It gives a different kind of perspective and insight, which it seems it may have given you.

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