III

THE SONORA DESERT

(1976)

JANUARY 1

Today I realized that what I wrote yesterday I really wrote today: everything from December 31 I wrote on January 1, i.e., today, and what I wrote on December 30 I wrote on the 31st, i.e., yesterday. What I write today I'm really writing tomorrow, which for me will be today and yesterday, and also, in some sense, tomorrow: an invisible day. But enough of that.

JANUARY 2

We were on our way out of Mexico City. To entertain my friends, I asked them some tricky questions, questions that were problems too, and enigmas (especially in the Mexican literary world of today), even riddles. I started with an easy one: what is free verse? I said. My voice echoed inside the car as if I were speaking into a microphone.

"Something with no fixed number of syllables," said Belano.

"And what else?"

"Something that doesn't rhyme," said Lima.

"And what else?"

"Something with no regular placement of stresses," said Lima.

"Good. Now a harder one. What is a tetrastich?"

"What?" said Lupe beside me.

"A metrical system of four verses," said Belano.

"And a syncope?"

"Oh, Jesus," said Lima.

"I don't know," said Belano. "Something syncopated?"

"Cold, cold. Do you give up?"

Lima 's eyes were fixed on the rearview mirror. Belano looked at me for a second, then he looked past me. Lupe was looking behind us too. I didn't want to look.

"A syncope," I said, "is the omission of one or several phonemes within a word. For example: bosun for boatswain, o'er for over. All right. Moving along. Now an easy one. What's a sestina?"

"Six six-line stanzas," said Lima.

"And what else?" I said.

Lima and Belano said something I couldn't hear. Their voices seemed to drift inside the Impala. Well, there is something else, I said. And I told them what it was. And then I asked them whether they knew what a gly-conic was (it's a verse in classical meter that can be defined as a log-aoedic tetrapody catalectic in syllabam), and a hemiepes (which is the first foot of a dactylic hexameter, in Greek meter), or phonosymbolism (which is the independent emotional significance that the phonic elements of a word or verse can assume). And Belano and Lima didn't know a single answer, never mind Lupe. So I asked them whether they knew what an epanorthosis was, which is a figure of logic that consists of restating what's been said to qualify or amend or even contradict it, and I also asked them whether they knew what a pythiambic was (they didn't), or a mimiambic (they didn't), or a homeoteleuton (they didn't), or a paragoge (they did, and they thought that all Mexican and most Latin American poets were paragogic), and then I asked them whether they knew what a hapax or hapax legomenon was, and since they didn't know, I told them. It's a technical term used in lexicography or works of textual criticism to indicate an expression that appears just once in a language, oeuvre, or text. And that gave us something to think about for a while.

"Ask us an easier one," said Belano.

"All right. What's a zéjel?"

"Fuck, I don't know, I don't know anything," said Belano.

"What about you, Ulises?"

"It sounds like Arabic to me."

"And you, Lupe?"

Lupe looked at me and didn't say anything. I couldn't help laughing, probably because I was so nervous, but even so, I explained what a zéjel was. And when I had stopped laughing I told Lupe that I wasn't laughing at her or her ignorance (or lack of sophistication) but at all of us.

"All right, what's a Saturnian?"

"No idea," said Belano.

"Saturnian?" said Lupe.

"And a chiasmus?" I said.

"A what?" said Lupe.

Without closing my eyes, and at the same time as I was seeing everyone, I saw the car speeding like an arrow along the roads leading out of Mexico City. I felt as if we were floating on air.

"What is a Saturnian?" said Lima.

"Easy. An old Latin verse form whose principles of versification are unclear. Some think it was quantitative, others that it was accentual. If the first hypothesis is accepted, the Saturnian can be broken down into an iambic dimeter catalectic and an ithyphallic, although other variations exist. If the accentual explanation is accepted, it's made up of two hemistiches, the first with three tonic accents and the second with two."

"Which poets used the Saturnian?" said Belano.

"Livius Andronicus and Naevius. Religious and commemorative poetry."

"You know a lot," said Lupe.

"He really does," said Belano.

I was seized by laughter again, laughter that was expelled instantly from the car. Orphan, I thought.

"It's just a question of memory. I memorize the definitions, that's all."

"You haven't told us what a chiasmus is yet," said Lima.

"Chiasmus, chiasmus, chiasmus… Well, a chiasmus is the presentation of the elements of two sequences in reverse order."

It was nighttime. The night of January 1. The early morning hours of January 1. I looked back and it didn't seem as if anyone was following us.

"All right, how about this," I said. "What's a proceleusmatic?"

"You made that one up, García Madero," said Belano.

"No. It's a foot in classical meter consisting of four short syllables. It doesn't have a set rhythm and may therefore be considered a simple metrical figure. What about a molossus?"

"You really did make that one up," said Belano.

"No, I swear. A molossus, in classical meter, is a foot consisting of three long syllables across six beats. The ictus can fall on the first and third syllables or only on the second. It has to be combined with other feet to form meter."

"What's an ictus?" said Belano.

Lima opened his mouth and closed it again.

"An ictus," I said, "is the downbeat, the temporal stress. Now I should say something about the arsis, which is the accented part of the Latin metrical foot, which means the syllable on which the ictus falls, but let's continue with the questions instead. Here's an easy one for you, something everyone can get. What's a bisyllable?"

"A two-syllable line," said Belano.

"Very good. About time," I said. "Two syllables long. Very rare and also the shortest possible line in Spanish meter. It almost always appears linked to longer verses. Now a harder one. What's an asclepiad?"

"No idea," said Belano.

"Asclepiad?" said Lima.

"It comes from Asclepiades of Samos, who used it most often, although Sappho and Alcaeus used it too. It takes two forms: the lesser asclepiad, which is made up of twelve syllables distributed in two Aeolic cola (or elements), the first consisting of a spondee, a dactyl, and a long syllable, the second of a dactyl and a trochaic dipode catalectic. The greater asclepiad is a verse of sixteen syllables formed by the insertion of a dactylic dipode catalectic in syllabam between two Aeolic cola."

We were almost out of Mexico City. We were going over eighty miles an hour.

"What is an epanalepsis?"

"No idea," I heard my friends say.

The car headed down dark avenues, through neighborhoods with no lights, down streets where there were only women and children. Then we swept through neighborhoods that were still celebrating New Year's Eve. Belano and Lima were looking forward, at the road. Lupe's head was resting against the window. She seemed to have fallen asleep.

"And what's an epanadiplosis?" No one answered me. "It's a syntactic figure consisting of the repetition of a word at the beginning and end of a sentence, line, or series of lines. An example is García Lorca's "Green oh how I love you green."