Little Theatres (Erín Moure)

Erín Moure’s Little Theatres takes its name from the work of Elisa Sampedrín, who is quoted heavily in the text — supposedly. In reality, Sampedrín is Moure’s heteronym (a pseudonym with a fully developed personality and a distinctive style).

Sampedrín’s writing on “little theatres” thus provides a glimpse of sorts into the theoretical underpinnings of Moure’s work. The quotes from Sampedrín are poetic in their own right, and advocate a somewhat Beckettian theatre of small gestures and careful attention to the world. Though the quotes from Sampedrín do not precisely define what is meant by “little theatres,” they elliptically suggest its form:

In little theatres, the stone is about as stony as it can get without making the public’s head suffer a blow. There’s no mist of origins. Once the stone is stony, the play is done. The stone is stony. Do you get it? Why are you still sitting there?

Sampedrín’s humour prevents such statements from seeming unnecessarily pompous, and her promotion of a theatre which approaches the world — in which the world is presented “as world,” without the mediation of artifice (insofar as this might be possible) — and in which the work of experiencing the play is left to the audience, is an attractive concept.

The ethos of “little theatres” thus seems at once like a postmodern privileging of the reader’s authority to create, and a Rilkean privileging of longing motion towards the world coupled with an understanding of its insurmountable distance from the self (though perhaps it would be more accurate to attribute this influence to Alberto Caeiro, a heteronym of Fernando Pessoa, whose work Moure has previously translated).

In much of the book, Moure recalls the fragile, melancholy joy of Rilke and Caeiro’s poetry. The series “Homages to Water” makes use of a particularly beautiful simplicity. Written in Galician and translated into English by Moure, the poems display a child-like surrealism:

In the onion, there’s
something of fire. That fire known as
Fog. The onion is the way
fog has of entering the earth.
Air is the generosity of fog.
With fog, there is generosity on earth.
These two thoughts are identical.

They are two thoughts that sustain the earth.
In these bellicose days that promise wars,
look how the onion helps fog
to sustain the earth.

The repetition of words in the poem, the short sentences, and the simple syntax combine to give the work a sense of softness and melancholy even as the seeming commonness and neutrality of these subjects (onions, fog, air, earth) is transformed by their poetic treatment. Onions become astounding art works whose existence counters the impending destruction of war and its tendency to generate meaninglessness.

The exhortation to “look” is a phrasing repeated throughout the book, and through it the narrative figure of Moure establishes an easy familiarity, inviting the reader to view, reflect, and interpret images in tandem with the author, rather than more aggressively pushing these images towards the reader.

Talk of war is a recurring theme in the book, but Moure’s poems speak of war not with the anger and frustration generally accorded to the topic by poets, but with a deep sadness that is much more affecting. In “Soidade,” a sort of epilogue to the “Homages to Water” sequence, Moure’s narrator states:

All my life I’ve had a tough time
I get scared and feel alone,
me and the earth.
I try not to let it make me sad. I just say
(which me is it talking in the first person?)
that as long as a carrot can be orange,

I’m going to be orange too.

Though war is not mentioned in the poem, the previous poems in the sequence have brought the idea to the fore, and that same subdued but pervasive melancholy echoes through “Soidade,” though at this point it is coupled with a small yet strong sense of hope.

Moure is also a skilled translator, and the collection is strung through with Galician words and phrases, some of which are translated for the reader in a glossary at the back. When Moure turns her poems on themselves to examine the qualities of the language and its poetic qualities, she produces delightful and intelligent meditations on the act of living in and through language.

In particular, Moure’s concluding poems, “the first story of latin (os araos), by Erín Moure,” consider the relationship between English and Latin through a meditation on Moure’s ancestral connection to the Latin language. Moure looks at the language in terms of its mythic qualities, crafting Latin its own creation story:

The hunger we felt before entering the water.
Latin was our language of birth, we
spelled it: L. A. T. I. N.
and it said language to us,
we spelled our language.
Spoke this
as if latin were water and we were entering its ocean
with no turning round.
So few, speaking latin, have blue eyes.
Of those that do,
it’s said they’re from high up, far from the ocean,
where the air burnt them white
when first they opened

One of Moure’s great strengths as a writer is her ability to marry rather complicated theories concerning language and its relation to anthropology and psychology in simple, beautiful terms. Moure is a poet unafraid to display her intelligence, but possessing an intelligence that is not aggressive, confrontational, or pretentious.

It is this quality that is most refreshing about Moure’s work. Moure has a deep and obvious respect for her readers, and the demands that she makes upon her audience are made not with arrogance but a tender insistence.

Sampedrín writes: “Critics have said little theatres is unsatisfactory, primarily this, unsatisfactory. But this is like saying that the alphabet is unsatisfactory. Do you expect the alphabet to come up with words for you?” This is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly echo — too often writers are reproached for crafting work that seems “inaccessible” when the reading public refuses to put in the work required to discern whether or not such experimental work is successful and worthwhile.

Little Theatres is not Moure’s best work — it lacks the visceral impact and uncompromising innovation of some of her other books — but it is a beautiful book nonetheless, a book which manages to make itself accessible without sacrificing its complexity. As such, Little Theatres stands as an excellent addition to Moure’s impressive oeuvre.

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