Tag Archives: duende

Starving the Dark

by Traci Brimhall

We were too drunk to go to the movies like we’d planned, so my friend and I stayed at the bar and pretended to be wiser than we were, more in love with the world, more humble than we felt. “We are all creatures of want,” he said to me, and I was glad we were side-by-side and not looking at each other when he said it. He was an actor. He wanted to convince me of something. I didn’t believe him, not because I didn’t want to, but because I felt like I was always outrunning something rather than reaching for something. Fear, we are creatures of fear, I wanted to say back but didn’t. I knew better and stayed quiet. I give away my secrets so easily, but that’s one I kept.


The first time I saw Ugolino and His Sons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I felt that terror I knew so well rise up in me and press against my ribs until I had to lean in and look harder. I didn’t know the story then. I only saw how Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux had carved the fingers of Ugolino’s sons so that they dug at his marble flesh, their bodies circling him, their bald eyes hungry. Ugolino stared out, perched above me, his own hands tugging at his cheeks and the corners of his mouth. The toes of one foot flexed and scraping at the other foot. His whole body tense. A solid nerve. Nearly alive. I didn’t know what his sons were offering him, but his anguish was clear, and in my own fear I wanted to commit the unthinkable and break my teeth on the meat of his calf.

Of course I’d read Dante’s Inferno before I encountered Ugolino and His Sons, but who can remember the catalogue of suffering? Who can name all those poor, condemned Italians in Dante’s tour of hell? I only learned later what Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux was showing me, why my terror grew so ravenous in me that I almost violated that sculpture with my mouth. Those boys circling, those sons reaching and crying out and pulling at their father’s flesh were trying to give themselves to their father. Condemned in a tower to death by starvation, his sweet children offered him the flesh that he’d given to them, to let their deaths help give him life for at least awhile longer, and that grimaced face, those tortured feet, that desire so plain for his love to be stronger than his hunger.

How unnatural, I thought, for a child to give their life for the parent. It’s meant to go the other way. A parent should die for a child. Besides, how could a parent live with the grief of a child gone? Could a father tear the muscle from the bone with his teeth and praise that sacrifice? Could he want what life was left to him?


Another man on another night brought me to the Met on a date and said, “Take me to the piece in here that you love most.” I don’t know what he expected. I don’t know if he, too, meant to talk to me about want, but I showed him Ugolino and His Sons. I don’t remember what he said, but he probably he expounded on history, corrected the myth and said that when the bodies were tested later it was proven that there was no cannibalism in the tower. Ugolino and his sons died of starvation as they were meant to, but the blood in my ears doesn’t believe it. The Ugolino before me knows it’s only a matter of minutes before he picks up the fainted boy at his feet and starts to chew.


But sometimes I think my friend in that bar was right. We are creatures of want. We want to drink more than we want to go to the movies. We want to pretend we are wise about desire. We want to show our first dates our terror and say: See? See what we are asked to sacrifice? We want them not to run from us in the middle of a crowded museum when we talk about a sculpture’s magnificent toes.

I want to think transubstantiation could work both ways, that a boy’s blood could become wine in his father’s mouth, that his body could become warm bread as he says: Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me. I want to think I could die for my father like a god, like a gift.


I came around to want when I saw Peter Paul Rubens’ Cimon and Pero. Like so many images, it arrived without its story. An old man with his hands behind his back. A young woman in a sumptuous dress, her breasts exposed. The setting grim, a cell, two Roman guards in the window. And that old man’s face hidden in the young woman’s breast as he sucks the milk from her body. The story is an old one. Done and redone since Roman times when it was emblematic of charity, of filial piety, of a daughter offering herself to her father.

It wasn’t fear I felt when I saw that painting. No, not terror knocking against my ribs, but want. The weight I carried high in my breasts fell, and I knew I needed to find my son so I could relieve us both. A thousand miles away my mother was dying, and I could offer nothing but a phone call and a Mother’s Day present sent early enough to reach her when she could still speak and say Thank you, and How beautiful.

In the painting by Rubens, the father condemned to starvation has a paunch that makes me suspicious. As if he’s not yet desperate. Or perhaps Rubens meant the sacrificing daughter fed her father so well that he’s become more like an infant, fat and happily rotund. In the window, those soldiers. In other versions of this image, the daughter stares lovingly at her father’s balding head. In some, she seems to be looking out the window in fear. In Rubens, I see a pleading, perhaps her own fear, believing she’s been caught. But in the story, it is only by being caught that the father is given mercy. The soldiers see an act of charity they had never fathomed before and let the father live.

I saw that painting, and I wanted more than anything to cross the merciless distance and at least offer, at least hope God had some pardon for my mother. Not blood on the lintel, but milk, and the angel of death might pass over.


Now I kiss my son’s bruises and offer ice and Star Wars band-aids. We are healthy, uncondemned. One night after we mix our ingredients and bake, and the cookies are cooling on the counter, my son stares into the dark window of the oven and asks: Can you turn that light on so we can not see that nothing? I think of Ugolino’s pupil-less stare, what he must’ve felt as his children clung to him, the nothing he feared, the nothing he wanted, the nothing gnawing holes in his teeth. The room smells so sweet. I am full and hungry at once. Yes, I tell him. Not because I’m afraid, but because I want. I want to not see the nothing. He keeps his face against the window, and I turn on the light.

The Languages I Speak

by Jenny Yang Cropp

I grew up in a small city in the southwestern corner of Oklahoma, not too far from the Texas border. I say things like “yall” and “fixing to,” and, when I’m not thinking too much about it, I have a fairly pronounced accent. After my parents’ divorce, I was raised by my dad and his family, Oklahomans by way of Colorado and then Texas, with a mixed heritage of mostly Irish, English, and German.

When I was in high school in the early 1990s, the option to choose “two or more races” did not exist on any form I had ever filled out. I often had to alternate between white, like my dad, and Korean, like my mom, though back then it probably said Oriental or some such nonsense.

I don’t speak Korean. I’m not sure if I ever did. My mother left when I was two, and by the time I realized what I was missing, when I could finally ask her to teach me, she said it was too hard and too late. There weren’t a lot of Korean language classes in Oklahoma, either, so I had to let it go. There are many things I have learned and will learn, but Korean won’t be one of them. I know that about myself.

It has been, however, a sticking point for other people, a litmus test for how Korean I was or wasn’t. There’s this false assumption that I had a choice and that I rejected my mother’s language, but I had about as much control over that as I have over how people judge me for it. Still, it’s hard not to be ashamed, not to hold my mother’s language in my mouth and feel as if my tongue was not made for it, as if her words do not belong to me.

Things have changed considerably since I was in high school. The 2000 Census gave me a new box to mark. There’s a growing field of scholarship, with books and conferences, even an academic journal about multiracial identity and experience. Every week there are new articles to scroll through on my Facebook feed, most recently an NPR piece about the terms we use to describe ourselves. A conversation is happening, and it’s affirming and exciting.

But when I needed it the most, it didn’t really exist. The few books or articles never entered my tiny, pre-internet bubble of life in Oklahoma. Believe me when I say I was looking. I was the kid who checked out 14 novels each time we went to the public library, one for each day until we’d return. My dad once accused me of being on drugs because I stayed up all night, night after night, preferring to read than to function. I was driven, and I was trying to find something.

Although now I see reading as a way into other people’s perspectives, back then I wanted mainly to see myself in someone else’s words. That would have been proof that my experience was valid, that there was a word for this thing I was living through but couldn’t articulate for myself. I might not need that much validation these days, but that’s still how I process my life. I need it in a story or a poem to wrap my head around it.

I was thirty-two when I found Jon Pineda’s Birthmark, a collection of poems about multiracial identity, about loss of language, about a distant parent, and for the first time I saw my own ambivalence laid bare. I’ve read a lot of other things since then that explore the same ideas, but this was the first and most powerful. It’s the one that I return to each time something happens to remind me that progress is glacier-like, and there are still things I struggle to say about my own experiences.

The collection opens with “Matamis.” The speaker is on a beach with his father, sharing an orange, and thinking about the word “sweet” in English and “matamis” in Tagalog:

I remember thinking, in Tagalog,
the word matamis is sweet in English,
though I did not say it for fear
of mispronouncing the language.

What I love is the ambiguity of meaning here. The speaker could be thinking that the Tagalog word matamis means the same as the word sweet in English, and what he fears is to mispronounce the word matamis in front of his father. Simultaneously, you can reinterpret the syntax to mean that the speaker is thinking in the language of Tagalog, and perhaps it is the word sweet he is unsure of and afraid to say aloud. Maybe it is English he’s uncomfortable with. The syntactical blurring in those lines raises questions that are answered in the last stanza with silence, with the speaker’s choice to instead say nothing:

Instead, I finished the fruit & offered
nothing except my silence, & my father,
who pried apart another piece, breaking
the globe in two, offered me half.
Meaning everything.

He refuses, in that moment, to choose one language (and, arguably, one identity) over the other, and this is contrasted with a moment of bonding between father and son. The orange becomes a “globe,” symbolic of the space they inhabit, and it is split in half by the father. This gesture, the handing of half an orange to the son, resonates on multiple levels, suggesting issues of racial, cultural, familial, and emotional inheritance. The final line, “Meaning everything,” is separated from the previous sentence by both a period and a line break. It is also a fragment. What means everything? The gesture, the silence, the symbolic orange, or its halving? All of it. They can’t be untwined. Language and love and identity are all wrapped up in this moment.

The summer before eighth grade, I went to visit my mother in Queens. She lived in a Korean enclave where the signs were in Hangul and the kids working at the frozen yogurt shop laughed my brother and me out of the store when we tried to order in English. It was also one of the few times that my mother’s mother was around, so I was confronted with my inability to speak Korean both inside and outside the home.

I knew from stories that she had carried me on her back the first year of my life, but I didn’t remember her. She wouldn’t let your feet touch the ground, my other grandmother liked to say, chuckling both at the tenderness and the cultural difference. That story made me feel deeply connected to this woman whose words I could hear but not understand. She spoke, instead, in the universal language of grandmothers. She held my hand a lot, or she touched my head, smoothing the same hair that she used to fluff when I was a baby so no one would think I was a boy. She even slipped me money when my mother wasn’t looking.

Pineda’s poems often deal with childhood memories: a fight with a group of boys, a swimming lesson, a boxing match attended by father and son. Whatever the context, there is a longing for connection. The boy he beats looks as if he could be the speaker’s brother. The lost language and lost father are the edges of the pool towards which he swims. Even the boxing match, a metaphor for the father/son relationship, is an opportunity to highlight a shared moment of enjoyment between rounds. When so much of identity is rooted in belonging, the desire to connect is everything.

The title poem, “Birthmark,” is a prose poem in third-person. The speaker is in bed with his lover, and he focuses on and touches several small birthmarks on her thigh which remind him of the Philippines in terms of their shape and pattern. This provides a metaphor for the speaker’s sense of identity as a connection to a “place he has never been” and “a family he wants to touch, though something about it all is untouchable, like love, balanced between desire & longing.” In the same way that you can never fully know or understand someone else’s experiences and never completely merge with another human being in the sentimental “two become one” notion of romance, the speaker can never fully access the experience of a Filipino identity. Despite this recognition, however, his desire to access that experience brings him close enough to it, as close as he can get “to this place that seems so foreign, so much a part of him that for a moment, he cannot help it, he feels whole.” Part of his sense of identity, then, lies in his alienation or separation from the Filipino community. He also evokes the incompleteness that accompanies this experience. Here, in this moment of trying to connect, he has a feeling of wholeness or completeness, but it’s a passing feeling, and one that “he cannot help,” as if he is reluctant to let himself feel that way.

My favorite line in the book, from the poem “In the Romance of Grief,” is this: “Perhaps this world survives its losses/through its forgetting.” That letting go, that willingness to be silent, to forget, could be seen as the easy answer, but it’s not. It’s the hardest thing we can do. Rather than attempt to recover what has been lost, the speaker strives toward acceptance of that loss and incorporates it into his sense of identity.

At a job interview last year, a woman interrogated me for what felt like an awkward eternity. She wanted to know why my bio said Korean American, and why not just American, because her nieces are half Korean, the mother is Korean, but they just think of themselves as American, and well, do I speak the language? Her disappointment in me was palpable, and since my face betrays every emotion, I’m pretty sure I involuntarily cringed.

I gave my usual reply, that I have learned how to say hello and thank you and enough foods to order from a menu. I didn’t tell her about that summer with my grandmother, though, when I learned the only two Korean words that I don’t have to look up just to reassure myself I got them right. Because we often had to be buzzed into the building, she taught us to answer her yoboseyo with yoboseyo halmoni so she would know it was us. She went back to Korea not too long after that, and I didn’t see her again for sixteen years. When I did see her, she pointed to herself and said halmoni so I would remember, and then she hugged me and held my hand and fed me. I never had to say a word.


by Justin Eells

I first encountered the word “duende” in The Gilded Tongue, a purple faux-velvet-covered book of “Overly Eloquent Words for Everyday Things.” Sometime in my early twenties, I started accumulating books like these, in order to amass a gigantic vocabulary that would one day cause gigantic tomes to spew from my head. This particular book, by Ron L. Evans, displays its title in gold lettering on the front cover. Inside the cover is a spot for the owner to write their name: “This book belongs to ­­­________ a pysmatic logomaniac.” I never wrote my name on that line, but I did circle a number of words in the book.

Page 33 features a picture of a sloth to illustrate COSTIVE. I don’t have exact figures, but I’ve noticed a prevalence of nouns and adjectives in the book, with an occasional verb, like HUMBICATE as an overly eloquent alternative for “to lie still, as if in prayer,” thrown in for good measure.

I started with A—the first word I circled was ABDOMINOUS—and made it through H—the last was HYPERGAMY—but I know myself well enough to say that had I made it to M, I would have circled MISONEISTIC, meaning “hatred or intolerance of what is new or changed.” What drew me to the words I circled, many of which are not recognized by spellcheck, was some combination of coolness (which is in the eye of the beholder and impossible to define in any useful way), eloquence, and usefulness. MISONEISTIC doesn’t have any better synonyms, and it describes a great many people and political movements of the past and present (and future). Why have I never seen it outside the velvet covers of this book?

Less readily useful are QUATOPYGIA (“the shaking of the buttocks in walking, a word especially applied to an erotic feminine walk”) and CATHOLICONTHOL (“a universal remedy; a panacea”). I’m hard-pressed to find a non-ridiculous way of using either of those words.

Among the several dozen I circled, there’s only one word in the book that maintains much hold on me:

DUENDE (doo-EN-day): n. from Spanish dialectical (charm), from Spanish (ghost): the ability to attract others through personal magnetism and charm.

This definition is very close to “charisma,” but I don’t think they’re the same. The word “duende,” to me, has more magnetism and charm than “charisma,” which sounds like the kind of personal magnetism that lures angry souls to political rallies. “Charisma” evokes cult leaders, demagogues, reality TV stars. Whereas “duende” sounds romantic, graceful, cool—more like Lady Gaga than Boris Johnson.

Like many of the words in The Gilded Tongue, “duende” is not recognized by MS Word’s spellcheck, which, to some, might mean it should be italicized, being foreign and all, but I don’t think so. English has a long history of subsuming foreign words, and “duende” has been with us, in various forms, for centuries.

DUENDE has two definitions in the OED. The older of the two is a type of supernatural creature, “resembling a pixie or an imp.” The second definition is closer to The Gilded Tongue’s definition:

Passion or inspiration in (esp. artistic or musical) performance, esp. that which is regarded as having the power to possess the performer and is of such a level or quality as to captivate and move an audience.

This form of “duende,” according to the OED, first appeared in the 2 November 1956 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, which claimed Lorca’s “strength lay principally in his possession of the traditional duende, or magic.”

The fact that the first modern English usage of “duende” was in reference to Lorca, and equated with magic, makes the designation higher that charisma. Its meaning doesn’t allow it to apply to demagogic blatherskites; it is reserved for artistic performances that move us.

I think of duende as an aura that surrounds a work of art and induces awe. The experience of duende is probably more like a religious experience than an intellectual one. It’s that transcendent experience that certain books offer, keeping us coming back for more. The adjective form, as it applies to books, might be UNPUTDOWNABLE.

I most recently experienced duende while reading The Ghost Network by Catie Disabado, a novel that archives the disappearance of a charismatic (there’s not yet an adjective form of “duende” as it applies to pop stars, unfortunately) pop star named Molly Metropolis. There’s intrigue in the plot and in the form. It’s faux-nonfiction, a piece of journalism with layers of meta.

For some reason, I’m almost always drawn to stories that take the form of something else, whether it’s Jedediah Berry’s story on a deck of cards or Cloud Atlas’s novel in the form of six novellas, each of which take a different form. Jess Walter wrote a poignant and funny essay about his hometown in the form of a statistical abstract. When a writer pulls something like that off—conveying something deeply human through a medium in the deeply human does not belong—it’s thrilling.

Part of what kept me hooked on The Ghost Network was the way Disabato used the form to complicate the story, to make it about more than just a missing pop star. It takes the form of an investigative report that the editor, who shares a name with Catie Disabato, has inherited from its missing author, who wrote the report based primarily on the notes of a journalist—also MIA—investigating the disappearance of Molly Metropolis. Each of the sources—editor, author, reporter—is a character in the story, a lens through which the events are filtered; and each brings another complicating layer to the story. In fact, those characters mattered more to me that the pop star at the center of the story.

I don’t know about other art forms, but for reading material, complexity and complication have a kind of allure. In life, we typically seek to simplify, but in reading we seek the opposite. We want something to get lost in. Life is always complicated, no matter how hard we try to simplify. Maybe getting lost in other—made-up or real—people’s complicated lives is a more feasible remedy than simplifying our own. I think duende, as it applies to books, is the power to keep drawing us back, night after night, to inhabit these other worlds and other minds, the power to make us less alone.