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There is now a parking lot at Tucuman 353, in Buenos Aires, set in and amongst a group of hotels just up from Puerto Madero. Gone is the publishing house that once pumped out the series ‘Editorial Americanlee’ in the late 1960s, featuring writers both domestic and international. Like most other cities, Buenos Aires’ times have changed and with that certain creative types and their patrons occupying those great areas have disappeared from memory. But their work, when found, often remains relevant and important as an artifact of human experience within a particular environment. Scottish poet/playwright/translator William Shand is one such lost relic, a one-time resident of Argentina known by few native English speakers.
In truth, there isn’t much personal information readily available on Shand. A Glasgow native born just after the beginning of the 20th century, he came to Argentina by way of Spain in 1938. Working as a book reviewer, translator and critic for the La Nación newspaper, he also produced a significant body of plays and translated poetry editions by Donne and Spender. He and his frequent collaborator Alberto Girri compiled many other poets, both Argentine and foreign, into collected editions as well as collaborating on the 1992 libretto of Ginastera’s opera Beatrix Cenci, going so far as to premiere it at the Teatro Colón.
Shand passed away in 1997, three years after his partner Susana, having lived just off Plaza Carlos Pellegrinni for years. Little seems to have been mentioned about Shand or his work since. His one fairly known but still obscure work, The City and Other Poems, can be found with luck in the bookshops of Argentina’s capital. It’s a rewarding discovery as Shand’s simple poetic verse gives an insight into his formulation as a quiet but intense poet living as a foreigner in Buenos Aires.
Shand’s eye seems to have been connected directly to his heart and his verse writing reflects a strong sense of observation. There are few references to any particular place but with one read of the entire collection, it becomes clear that Shand is detailing his own life in Buenos Aires. His sense of being an outsider in Argentina comes through with precise wording and even a bit of wry humor in poems like ‘30º Centigrade’:
Just before I thought I made it
In a square metre of shade behind a truck,
But it drove away, and the sun flew at my guts.
More explicitly, ‘Rural Woman’ makes obvious reference to Argentine artifacts with a sense of disquieted spectating:
She kicks the dog that nibbles at a bone,
And sipping ‘yerba mate’ from a gourd,
Enters the hut with nothing to fulfill.
There are deep volumes on the writing of exiles, particularly poets seeking to express their inner most feelings through strident verses and highly complex word play in the vein of Pound, Eliot, or Lawrence. Shand’s simple style may not make him any kind of literary acrobat like other writers living abroad. Some passages even come off a bit trite today, as in ‘Together’:
He is with her
He’s alone, though with her
But these simple bits of verse also avoid any pretension that might be associated with others under the tag of “literary exile”. There are no sonnets, ballads, or nouveau haikus. Nor are there any rhyming schemes or teenage romantic clichés, often seen in travellers seeking to convey their basic feelings without any finesse. Shand’s verse is simple and direct thereby giving the reader easy access to what he was writing about. His work is full of life without ever trying too hard to be so.
These qualities all come together in the best observational poems of ‘The City and Other Poems’. A walk through the stony streets of Buenos Aires, lined with overhanging trees but engulfed in the metropolitan activity, might feel for one like the last lines of ‘The Sewer’:
The plaza shows goodwill,
Eager to enfold me in its foliage,
Yet my presentiment insists;
I’m too far from that green,
Evidently that I shall never regain
The means to inhale its innocence.
The tides of life come and go, and with them certain remains of civilization are lost or forgotten. Shand’s work wasn’t revolutionary enough for many to want to commit to memory. Being an English writer in a Spanish-speaking environment didn’t help. But for an English-language enthusiast traveling through Argentina, finding Shand’s works amongst the browned paper stacks of the great many used bookshops of Buenos Aires is finding a refreshing work from someone just like themselves. The precise care in his poetry leaves a warm mark on the mind, worth remembering as lost words from someone that dared to pen his experiences in a foreign area poetically and without overblown linguistic gestures.
As Jorge Luis Borges noted, “William Shand creates symbols to the glorious, tedious and horrible world of our time… his words are charged with fear and happiness.” This is the time of those that seek experience away from home, which Shand himself put it so eloquently in ‘Confession’:
I don’t want to die a hero,
I want to live, at any cost.