Jul. 17, 2004

I Picture You at Your Piano

by Enid Shomer

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Poem: "I Picture You at Your Piano," by Enid Shomer, from This Close to the Earth. © University of Arkansas Press. Reprinted with permission.

I Picture You at Your Piano

For D.M.

Tonight, hearing Chopin,
I picture you at your piano
as a young man,
the eighty-eight keys
distinct as nations
and your hands stately
diplomats. It is the moment
before the music comes.
You unlatch the metronome
that will rest like a small
coffin atop a larger one
after the sawmill
takes four fingers.
But now it lolls at legato
as if your whole future
could be spanned by a hand
practiced in languor.
You play for an hour,
a fever on your cheeks
as you invoke
the noble peasantry—
that bouquet of bare
shoulders, red ribbons swift
as grace notes in their hair.
You will forever after
be a romantic
and though you'll never
leave the small town
of your birth, you'll travel far
into exile like Chopin
and burn for lost causes
and believe more in the silences
of the world
than its sounds.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1936 that Nationalist rebels launched a military uprising all across Spain, signaling the start of the Spanish Civil War. Political tensions had been growing in Spain throughout the 1930s, as the country was becoming fragmented into many different political parties, including fascists, communists, anarchists, and moderate republicans. In February of 1936, a coalition of leftwing parties had come into office by fewer than two percentage points. The rightwing Nationalist Party, made up of the rich, the church, and the military, decided to take back power by force.

General Francisco Franco amassed about 25,000 troops in Morocco, and after the uprising began he invaded Spain from the south and marched north toward Madrid, slaughtering the farmers and workers who tried to stop him. He got bogged down when he reached the capital, and the battle quickly grew into a bitter and brutal war.

It was one of the first wars in history to be covered minute by minute by the news media around the globe. Photography had been modernized to the extent that journalists could take action shots of battle, so it was the first time that newspapers could show pictures of actual warfare, rather than just the aftermath. In one of the most famous war photographs of the twentieth century, photographer Robert Capa took a picture of a Republican militiaman just seconds after he had been shot, falling backward, lifeless, but caught by the camera in midair, still holding his rifle.

The international community took special notice when Hitler and Mussolini began providing support to Franco, and Stalin provided support to the Republicans. The Western democracies just sat back and watched, terrified that if they got involved the Civil War would become another world war.

Intellectuals, writers, and artists in England, France, and the United States were outraged that their countries were failing to defend an elected government against fascism. Then, in April of 1937, Hitler's planes attacked the Republican city of Guernica, bombing and machine-gunning businesses, homes and innocent people on the street.

The bombing of Guernica was the first ever total destruction of an undefended civilian target in modern warfare. The Spanish exile Pablo Picasso, living in Paris, responded to the event by painting a picture of a screaming horse, a dead soldier, a woman on fire, and a woman holding a dead baby in her arms. His painting, Guernica, became one of the most famous paintings of the twentieth century, and it helped to inspire a resistance to Franco's assault.

Spain became a rallying cry among students, intellectuals, and unemployed workers suffering through the Great Depression. Even though the Western democracies refused to send troops or aid, more than 40,000 volunteers from almost every country in the world, including 2,800 Americans, voluntarily joined the International Brigades.

Writers were among the most enthusiastic supporters of the Republican cause. A relatively unknown journalist named George Orwell joined a workers' militia in Catalan. Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos both covered the war as journalists, and both wrote novels about the war—For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Adventures of a Young Man (1939).

The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca tried to remain neutral at first, but he eventually became a supporter of the Republicans. When he gave a poetry reading in Barcelona for common workers, the crowd was so large that it spilled into the street and the reading had to be broadcast over loud speakers. Afterwards, he shook hands with hundreds of artisans, mechanics, children and students. Lorca wrote in a letter to his mother, "It was the loveliest act I have experienced in my life... . No doubt the Right will seize upon all this in its campaign against ... me, but it doesn't matter. It is almost better that way—the way we stand will be out in the open once and for all. Anyway, in Spain it is no longer possible to be neutral."

The French novelist Andre Malraux recruited a squadron of airplanes, and helped lead bombing raids against the fascists. He later wrote in his novel Man's Hope (1938) about the day one of the planes of his squadron was brought down among mountain villages. Stretcher-bearers had to carry the wounded pilots down the narrow mountain paths, and the villagers they passed began to follow them in single file. At each one of the villages through which they passed, the entire population joined the procession down the mountain. When Malraux got to the bottom he said, "I raised my eyes [and] the file of peasants extended now from the heights of the mountain to its base; it was the grandest image of fraternity I have ever encountered."

Franco was an accomplished general and a brutally decisive leader. He once had a solider shot for refusing to eat his rations. When his men interrupted him during a meal to ask what should be done with women who were found on the road carrying rifles, he didn't even stop chewing to say that the women should obviously be shot. The republicans, on the other hand, were split among their many factions, and they had no central leadership. Some wanted to restore the elected government, while others wanted the war to result in a communist revolution.

Germany and Italy kept Franco supplied with military equipment, while the republicans were constantly running short on provisions. In December of 1938, the nationalists began to drive the disorganized republicans out of the country. Franco had taken Madrid and won the war by March of 1939. Neither Hitler nor Mussolini would survive World War II, which began a few months later, but Franco went on to rule Spain as an absolute dictator for more than thirty years.

The French writer Albert Camus said, "It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward."

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