Tabea Linhard, PHD
Professor of Spanish, Comparative Literature, and Global Studies, WUSTL
- Email: TLINHARD@WUSTL.EDU
Professor Linhard’s main research interests cover Spanish and Mexican literature and cultural studies, Mediterranean studies, Jewish diaspora, and migration, and Spatial Humanities.
Linhard teaches courses on Spanish and Spanish American literature and film, the Holocaust, and migration. She is one of the lead organizers for Hostile Terrain 94 in St. Louis.
¿Quién me presta una escalera?
As we were getting ready to install Hostile Terrain 94 at the Danforth University Center in April of 2021, it turned out that getting hold of a ladder on a campus with covid restrictions in place would be a challenge. In my quest to solve this problem, the verses that open Antonio Machado’s poem “La saeta” (1912), widely recognizable thanks to the version that singer songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat popularized in 1969, came to mind:
Dijo una voz popular:
¿Quién me presta una escalera,
para subir al madero,
para quitarle los clavos a Jesús el Nazareno?
A “saeta” is a traditional song, usually performed without accompaniment during Holy Week. It also is a poetic form that “addresses God […] directly, in a straight line, on the wings of its melody,” hence its name, saeta, or arrow. The poem’s words, even more so once Serrat set them to music, evoke a sorrowful emotion that is not misplaced in relation to Hostile Terrain 94. Having said this, our need for a ladder was more immediate and prosaic than what is expressed in Machado’s and in Serrat’s “La saeta.” Our team needed a ladder to make sure we could reach the highest sectors on the Hostile Terrain map in order to be able to place the manila and orange toe tags that belonged in those places.
In the end, getting hold of a ladder was not as complicated as I had feared, yet I kept on hearing “La saeta,” in my head and thinking about Machado. The Spanish poet died in 1939 as a refugee in a neighboring country (France), shortly after an arduous journey across hostile terrain, the Pyrenees. Machado is buried in lovely Collioure; his gravesite is covered in memorabilia from Spain’s ill-fated Second Republic, and fresh flowers never cease to appear. Tourists, school children, and, needless to say, emotional academics regularly visit Machado. Collioure is also not far from Portbou, where Walter Benjamin took his own life and where Dani Karavan’s Passages serves as a memorial to all those who lost their lives trying to cross borders.
Hostile Terrain 94 reminds us that not only famous poets or philosophers deserve a place to be remembered, as well as place for the bereaved to grieve their loss. This is about, as Mina Karavanta has put it (riffing on Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the right to have rights,”) “the right to have rites.” And before such rites are even considered –as filling out the toe tags has reminded us over and over again– this also is about the right to leave one’s home without facing a cruel and painful death in any kind of hostile terrain, be it the Mexico-U.S. borderlands, the Mediterranean Sea, or elsewhere.
Once we were armed with the suddenly very meaningful ladder, we were ready to proceed with the installation of the exhibit. This part of the process became another act of mournful protest. It also became a sacred ritual, meaningful even for the very secular ones among us. The more I thought about, the more the connection with “La saeta” continued to resonate and to make sense.
Serrat’s 1969 album Dedicado a Antonio Machado, poeta was not the last time the singer songwriter musicalized the words of poets. His album Miguel Hernández (1972) includes “Elegía,” a poem Hernández dedicated to a dear friend who had died at the young age of 22.
Quiero escarbar la tierra con los dientes,
quiero apartar la tierra parte a parte
a dentelladas secas y calientes.
Quiero minar la tierra hasta encontrarte
y besarte la noble calavera
y desamordazarte y regresarte.
Hernández wrote these words in 1936, in a different place and a different time, and yet his desire to gnaw the earth with his teeth and to kiss a noble skull before returning it to a place of rest conjures up an unmistakable sense of the physical that, perhaps in these times of pandemic more than ever, belongs in our acts of collective grief and remembrance.
 Edward Stanton, The origins of the Saeta, Romanische Forschungen, 88.4 (1976): 338-394
 Mina Karavanta, “Riting Rights: The Apopolis and the Call on the City,” In Search of Asylum: An Interdisciplinary Discussion, University of Chicago, April 4-5, 2019.