- I Am Thinking of Pablo Casals
Not as a boy, his first cello a gourd, and not as a cellist celebrity sawing away at the world, but Casals as an old man in exile, Spanish to the hilt, who has taken up residence in the French Pyrenees. He has vowed a vow never again to set foot on Spanish soil so long as Franco lives. But now the dilemma: en route to an international concert, he must change planes in Barcelona. To visit Spain would be to condone a brutal fascist state, to legitimate a despot who murders his own citizens and, with the help of Nazi warplanes, firebombed Guernica into ash. Then brilliance seizes Casals: why not pass through the airport without setting foot in it? A verbal quibble, yes, a linguistic wobble, sure, but one that will shame Franco. I am thinking of Pablo Casals—bald-headed, with wire-rim glasses, like Gandhi only earthier. To complete the scene, cue up Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello, their mournful seesawing like incoming waves over the airport terminal. Casals debuted these suites in his twenties, after practicing them two hours a day for twelve years. In a wheelchair, he could have glided through the lobby, his feet mere inches above Spanish soil, and thus kept his vow. But there was no wheel-chair. Instead, picture him carried aloft by four burly attendants, all Catalonian. No chance to tour the city he loved—to ramble Las Ramblas, or salute the thirteen sacred geese guarding La Seu Cathedral, or take in Gaudi’s visionary drips and flourishes. He cannot amble into the men’s room or grab a cafecito at a kiosk. No, he has to be carried, an attendant on each limb. I am thinking of Pablo Casals, a prisoner to his own integrity, but free free free. Casals, who at age eighty will stun the world by taking up with his twenty-year-old student, Marta. His physician will warn him off such nonsense, saying it might prove fatal. But Casals will ignore all critics and marry her for love, conceding, “Well, if she dies, she dies.” This is the cellist who sails past astonished gawkers, dividing crowds the way Moses parted the Red Sea. Maybe a pant leg rides up, maybe arthritis spikes through his left shoulder. He waves, this advocate of rosin and horsehair, the Bach suites swirling around him, foreplay to some greater mystery, his eyes closing for a moment, as ours should, so we can begin to hear. [End Page 268]
Lance Larsen, poet laureate of Utah, is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Genius Loci. His nonfiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Black Warrior Review, and Denver Quarterly. A professor at Brigham Young University, he recently directed a study abroad program in Madrid.