The Door of the Sun

Roads start at Kilómetro Cero in the Door of the Sun.

I've come to live at the other one.

(5th October, 1993.)


The Puerta del Sol ("The Door of the Sun" in English) is the square at the centre of Madrid from which road distances in Spain are measured. My rather literal translation of the plaque paving stone in the image above reads, "origin of the radial highways." Wikipedia, not always the best source, tells us that the origin of the fantastic image, "the door of the sun," comes from the fact that "The Puerta del Sol originated as one of the gates in the city wall that surrounded Madrid in the 15th century. Outside the wall, medieval suburbs began to grow around the Christian Wall of the 12th century. The name of the gate came from the rising sun which decorated the entry, since the gate was oriented to the east." And, here I was, thinking it came from something more poetic, perhaps Apollo, the sun god, driving his chariot through the sun's door...

When you are in the Puerta del Sol, there is no doubt that you are at the square centre of the "bull skin". This was Catalan poet Salvador Espriu's term for Spain: an amazingly apt coining of an image and a metaphor for Spain's physical shape, as well as for brutality, for colonisation, and for empire. I came into awareness of his work through the translations of the late, great Irish poet Pearse Hutchinson, whose work in general I highly recommend, both his Collected Poems from Gallery Press in Ireland, and his beautiful collected translations, Done Into English. (If Heaney barely wrote a poem that wasn't set in Ireland, around half of Pearse's were about non-Irish locales and subjects.) That a Catalan came up with this image is not a casual mistake, as Spain has never been as unitary as we have been led to think. Castilian (Spanish) is not the only language. Catalan, Basque, Galician are spoken in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, and versions of Galician are spoken in Asturias and in the Leonese borderlands. (Catalan dialects are spoken along the east coast.) Travel from Andalusia to Galicia or the Basque Country, and you could not have travelled further and remained within the same country (both autonomous regions are far from the traditional stereotypes of Spanishness).


Anyway. The poem, to me, is about the fact that the putative centre is not always "central". I love the many parts and identities of Spain, and although I enjoyed living in Madrid, I have always found that I have learned more living in places that were supposedly "marginal". Big capitals like Madrid or New York City, or London are for people who have the "Paris, Milan, London, New York, Tokyo" syndrome. Places like Santiago, and other towns further afield, are for digging in, and going deeper. Certainly, Santiago de Compostela in 1993 felt "provincial", but in all the right ways. I had the sense when I lived there that there was the space and the time to learn something, and not just have my preconceptions confirmed for me via some self-congratulation at living at the "centre" of things. The periphery can often be the real centre.


(This is the second of a new series of blog posts, in which I'll be sharing poems from my second collection, Santiago Sketches, which is entirely set in the pilgrimage capital of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. (For more on the background of the writing of the book, take a look at this recent post.) You can read more poems here, in Spanish and in English, and if you feel inspired to buy the book, purchase information is on my website.