William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 1 – McAllen, Texas

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa Espinasa
Photo: Teresa Espinasa

Finding Blake welcomes another powerful voice to our explorations. Adriana Díaz Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction and a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. In a compelling series of posts for Finding Blake — marking the publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, in Mexico today — Adriana shares with us her remarkable journey from discovering Blake on a family trip to Texas, immersing herself in his work and her own in Mexico, the USA and London. 


When I think of where I first found Blake, the words come to me: “I found William Blake in Hell”. I like the idea.

Hell in this case was a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas, during the last holiday I spent with my family before leaving home. I must have been eighteen. I had heard of Blake before in terms so vague I can’t remember where or how, though I know I was curious.

Now, what was I doing in a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas? And, even more perplexing, what was Blake doing there?

I was born in Guadalajara, in Western Mexico, around the area where the country starts longing to become the north. There are some striking differences between north and south over there, with the north generally looking even more northwards — the ultimate goal being the USA. I’m not sure to what extent this is the case still now, but in my time certain kinds of families had this bizarre idea that going shopping in Texas could be called a holiday. The dogma was that things were so badly made in Mexico (all things: clothing, shoes, make-up, stationery, sweets, LPs, you name it… even people!) that it was necessary to cross to el otro lado (‘the other side’) to get quality stuff that was indispensable for living without sorrow. We made the expedition every year.

Hell - the shopping mall Image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Hell – the shopping mall
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Outgrowing the dogma

For years I believed in the dogma, but by the time I made that last trip I had outgrown it. At 16, after having read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and A Room of One’s Own, I had decided that I didn’t only ‘like’ writing, but that I would become the real thing.

The discovery of vocation came with the side-effect of coming to thoroughly hate those shopping orgies, and on that last one — with all the drama that a teenager worth the name is capable of — I was thinking in despair of ways of saving my soul and intellect in the midst of that temple to vacuity at which my family, and many others, worshipped every day during those trips. “I don’t want clothes!”, I cried to myself in fury (though deep, deep inside I knew I did want some). “I want the things of the spirit! Where can I go in this godforsaken place to avoid contamination?”

The shopping mall had, believe it or not, a bookshop. And it was browsing its shelves in desperation that I came across the Penguin Classics edition of Blake’s Complete Poems. Maybe it was its thick spine that first called my attention, as I was yearning for pages to literally submerge myself in and swim away. I pulled it out and saw the cover.

I had never seen a Blake illustration before, and now I was suddenly confronted by Death on a Pale Horse: some irate deity, face hard as stone, riding on a white steed, seemingly torn between the powers of darkness and light… and darkness winning. It was powerful. Strange and slightly threatening, so utterly other from anything I had ever seen before. Then I read the back cover, which summarised the trajectory of an artist and poet who had been colossal: a visionary, rebellious, and misunderstood. “This is it,” I thought, and bought it.

Death on a Pale Horse Artist: William Blake c 1800
Death on a Pale Horse
Artist: William Blake c 1800
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Soon Blake would be crossing the border to Mexico with me.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Some years would pass without my seeing any more of Blake’s illustrations. Meanwhile, I endeavoured to read his complete poems. The journey started easily enough, but got more and more complicated as I moved forward. To start with, my Penguin edition displayed poetry in a way I found unnerving: with lines from alternative versions of the poems in brackets, the poems themselves divided according to a ‘plate’ number. I hadn’t understood the way Blake worked, nor in what an extraordinary manner his poems had been originally printed, and I resented the interrupted flow of words.

Then there were the words themselves. I was first drawn by the mirroring drama of the Songs of Innocence and Experience as much as by The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The latter’s prestige as an emblem of seditious poetry had reached even Guadalajara — which perhaps wasn’t that strange, it being in those times such a conservative city that poets there had truly no other choice than burning.

I was a big fan of Jim Morrison, and knowing that The Doors had taken their name from a Blakean verse (or from Aldous Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, but he had taken it from Blake in any case) put Blake among my favourites way before I could claim I understood him. I was into Rimbaud and Les Chants de Maldoror. Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell seemed to me to be in that league: untamed, daring all conventional notions of good and evil to stand unshaken in the light of fierce lucidity. I was provoked too by the mystery I sensed in even what appeared to be Blake’s most straightforward poems. However, when I got to what we now call his Prophetic Poems, I was utterly baffled.

Changer of worlds 

For years too, I don’t think I understood them at all. But I wanted to. One thing I knew: that there was an energy contained in there which, though its core eluded me, had the power to change a world. I was intrigued and irritated by them in equal measure, upset at not being able to crack them open. Not even at that tender age was I so naïve as to believe that poetry could change the world — mainly because you’d first need for ‘the world’ to want to change, which is unusual — but I knew that it could certainly change worlds, and I wanted mine to be among them.

Gradually I got to see some reproductions of Blake’s illustrated poems, which brought one of the various quakes which have forced me to reformulate my appreciation of Blake throughout the decades: here was a man who, not contented with being able to change worlds, had created a whole universe himself. Through the union of word and image, that universe lacked nothing.

His pages formed so much more than a conventional poem, a conventional pictorial image or a conventional book. They were unrefutably alive, their elements woven with threads of most exquisite beauty, ignoring all common wisdom about formal rules. He was fierce like a wild beast, playful like a child. It was then that the text on the back cover of my Penguin edition took its fair dimension — William Blake was a free spirit. Freer than anyone I could think of. Maybe even freer than Rimbaud!

However, even in that discovery there was puzzlement. There were a couple of illustrations I didn’t like at all, particularly if seen against the stunning beauty of his other images, both the most ferocious and the most delicate ones. My general sense was that Blake had been a poet and artist in constant overflow, indomitable, for better or for worse. In this I was close to the truth, though I still didn’t know that much about his life, and it enticed me because I had an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art (Blake would call it exuberance).

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell William Blake (1790)
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
William Blake (1790)
Library of Congress

He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him. 


Notes

Adriana Díaz Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.

Cover Ciudad doliente de Dios, crop, Adriana Díaz-EncisoAdriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published today in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

 

In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana recalls her adventures in breaking into Blake’s world, translating his poems into Spanish, creating a Blakean ‘sound collage’ for a Mexican rock band, and embarking on her third novel. But the real world also breaks in, in the form of a horrific massacre in Chiapas state, and the meaning of Blake’s prophetic poems takes on a new clarity for her. 

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