Stepping out onto Corrientes, you see the surge of lights, the waves of people, the blaring neon. Buenos Aires: wind-swept, bipolar, insomniac, histrionic. Not surprisingly, there are more theatrical shows here than in any other city in South America.
I now find myself here for more than three years, immersed in its culture and people, el castellano (the particular Argentine Spanish), and the tango. Dancing the tango, singing the tango, painting the tango.
There is poetry in the forbidden, the languid nights, the time spent and misspent dancing the tango to the weeping of the bandoneón and the low sighs of the double bass.
Dancers sway in each other’s arms, on city streets, on choreographed stages, in meat-market milongas, in private homes, in the heady sweetness of a complex mathematics that looks at once simple and elaborate and only sometimes involves the heart.
A poetry of the body, a heightening of the senses that exalts the communication of the body between one person and another, a poetry of the senses overwhelming the five senses of the body — the tango. The tango was born in the Rio de la Plata region that encompasses Argentina and Uruguay. Some of the great musicians and singers of the tango came from Uruguay. Much the way Chile made its wines famous all over the world, Argentina made the tango its brand.
The tango is sultry and sensual, not sexual — that is for después. After 17 years of being involved with the tango and relationships of the flesh and the heart, I have come to realize that every relationship is a tango, every movement between that leads from here to there, if it affects us, if it afflicts us, if it calls to our heart and recalls ancient memories.
The tango is more than just a movement, or a series of movements — it is that connection between yourself and your partner, between two hearts, two memories, two bodies moving as one.
I have found that more important than the dance itself is the relationship, a relationship. Give and take. Not just give, and not just take. The follower gives of herself, the leader gives. If the energy is just right, there is a balance, and both are refreshed, renewed. An exchange at once spiritual and sensual, a figure eight that is emblematic of eternity.
Buenos Aires is a city of intense passion, city of song and dance, pot-beaters and rioters of an unstable economy. Things are taken light-heartedly and explained by “es lo que hay” — that’s what there is. A city where if you can take the ups and downs and believe whole-heartedly in luck and the lottery, you can remake yourself in body and spirit. But into what?
Jorge Luis Borges in “El Tango:” Esa ráfaga, el tango, esa
diablura, / los atareados años desafía; / hecho de polvo y
tiempo, el hombre dura / menos que la liviana
melodía, / que sólo es tiempo.” (This gust, the tango,
this mischief, / the busy years challenges; / made of dust
and time, man endures / less than the light melody / that
is only time.)
A city caught and trapped in dust and time, while the mischievous tango endures.
The streets Corrientes and Cordoba surround my apartment. The people are still primal, raw — connected more to the skies, to each other, to the universe than to any technological gadget. One sees the desperation in the eyes of a child of four, reflected from the eyes of her parents.
Where the two main roads intersect, 9 de Julio and Corrientes, there rises a great obelisk, an emblem of the city itself. It is a streak of ego and daring into the sky, as if to say: This is who we are, this is what we aspire to, this is what we were. If we may but look inside ourselves, to what stirrings this ambition may lead us to . . .
This is the city where Borges masterminded and directed the great library, wielded his pen and the labyrinth of his mind in soaring blindness and darkness.
Where mind must function over matter, making matter immaterial. Where a song is heartbreak, heartbreak is forever, and forever is longer than a thought.
For every motion, there is an equal and opposite emotion. For every desire, a non-desire and a lurking fulfillment. Everything — this too is about to extinguish . . . this feeling, this emotion, and desire.
This is the moment I am most alive. The moment I cross the street to meet you, eyes moist. All the threads of a life . . .
Tango que fuiste feliz,
como yo también lo he sido,
según me cuenta el recuerdo;
el recuerdo fue el olvido.
— Jorge Luis Borges: “Alguien le dice al tango,” with Piazolla
(Tango that you were happy,
as also I have been,
following memory’s recounting;
the memory that was oblivion.
— Jorge Luis Borges: "Someone says to the tango," with Piazolla.)
(Translations by Mong-Lan)
Mong-Lan left her native Vietnam in 1975, on the last day of the evacuation of Saigon. A poet, writer, dancer, visual artist, singer, and educator, she is the author of five books and two chapbooks, including her book on the tango, Tango, Tangoing: Poems & Art (the bilingual version: Tango, Tangueando: Poemas & Dibujos). Find a complete list of titles here. Mong-Lan has won the Juniper Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges Association's New Writers Awards, a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, and a Fulbright Fellowship. She received a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arizona. Mong-Lan’s poetry has been frequently anthologized -- in, for example, The Best American Poetry. Visit: www.monglan.com