My attempts to find Maria Zafarelli Strega and The Card Collection by Peter Boyle

Peter Boyle lives in Sydney. He has published six collections of poetry, most recently Towns in the Great Desert (2013) and Apocrypha (2009) which won the Queensland Premiers Award in 2010. A new book of heteronymous poetry Ghostspeaking is due out next year with Vagabond Press. As a translator of French and Spanish poetry he has had four books published, including Anima (2011) and Tokonoma (2014) both by the Cuban poet José Kozer. He is currently completing a Doctorate of Creative Arts at the University of Western Sydney.


My attempts to find Maria Zafarelli Strega

During my partner’s absence in Bhutan I went by myself to Buenos Aires in late May 2014 to find out what I could about Maria Zafarelli Strega. I had read the few poems by her included in the 2011 Antologia de Poesía Rioplatense published by Alianza Editores and wanted to find out more. It seemed she was still alive but where? A friend in the film and theatre business in Buenos Aires had suggested an address but no one there had heard of her. Asking at nightclubs and bars in the Palermo district (a suggestion sparked by correspondence with one of the staff at Alianza) eventually brought a result.

After three nights of useless searching, I met a middle-aged woman who gave her name as Carlotta and immediately sparked up at the mention of Maria Zafarelli Strega’s name. “Of course I knew Maria”, she said. “Buy me another drink and I’ll tell you about her.” The chill from an open side door drifted across us. Up on the stage a rather shrill singer had just finished a round. A noisy group of Spanish tourists had moved on to another nightclub. We settled down at a table in the rear of the bar and she began, “Maria was tough – her life was tough. When she was young she was wealthy, I mean they were all wealthy, her family, but cursed because of that father of hers, a monster if there was ever one. Dead now and anyone might have done it though I’ve got my theories. The only really happy time in her life was the summer holidays with her grandparents in Uruguay – at Punta del Este. She’d talk about the huge drop from her grandparents’ house to the ocean and the din of cicadas. And then, when she was twelve, her grandparents both died. I don’t think she ever got over that shock. She told me too about when she was fourteen and another girl in her class sat on a window ledge to feel the top of her head, found all these bumps and told her she was destined to be a great genius. She never spoke about her father and the terror she and her mother knew because of him – I think she was too frightened ever to talk of that. But, as I said, he’s gone now, found in a lane near Teatro Colon with three knives in him. She disappeared just after that.” She said this last phrase slowly, with a knowing look I thought, but maybe I’m reading too much into it. “Maria told me she was twenty two,” Carlotta went on, “when she finally got free of her father. She’d left secretly for Uruguay, finally ready to become someone else – the only way she could ever be herself. It was tough, her three years in Montevideo. Moving from place to place, half-starved sometimes, looking for cheap places to eat or sleep or escape from it all with alcohol or pills, mostly in Aguada and Villa Muñoz, never that far from the Estación General Artigas – that was when she met Aurélie, the great love of her life. But if you know about Maria you know about Aurélie. I don’t want to talk about Aurélie – if you know how it ended it’s too painful to talk about, and maybe I’m jealous – maybe I hoped somewhere I would be loved like that. But I was never Maria’s type. We got to know each other around the time she and Aurélie broke up, after she’d tried to kill herself with barbiturates. But I don’t want to talk about that.” And at that Carlotta looked worried, confused, downed her drink, swept everything into her handbag, and prepared to leave. “I forgot. I should be somewhere else. Come back tomorrow night and I’ll meet you here. I don’t want to talk any more but you can see the scraps of writing she left me. It’s all I have of hers . . . she never liked photos.” And with that she rose to her feet and, slightly the worse for her several drinks, vanished into the chill late autumn night.

The next day I went back to the bar and waited and waited. At one in the morning there was still no sign of her so I left. I returned the next night and waited. When she hadn’t turned up by twelve thirty I started to leave. We almost collided in the door as Carlotta walked in, making no apologies as if the missed night had not existed. Once we were seated at the same table in the rear of the bar she produced from her handbag a battered dog-eared copy of a French edition of Aurélia by Gérard de Nerval. And, as I opened the front cover, there on the title page was the word “Aurélia” surrounded by hand-drawn stars and a strange shape that on closer inspection was a bolt of lightning severing a pigeon into two parts. Flipping through the book I saw pasted onto various pages small cards covered in what I took to be Maria’s handwriting, at times in a peculiarly disjointed Spanish. Were these really the writings of Maria Zafarelli Strega, the poet born in September 1961 whose whereabouts had been unknown since 1995? Her name was written on the front cover, in a neat miniature script that certainly looked like the one letter of hers I had been shown from the archives at Alianza Editores or, to my mind, like the scrawl on a handful of similar cards later brought out by the owner of a bookshop on Florida, another enthusiast of her poetry whom I met through introductions from my film and theatre friend, Fernando. (When I spoke to the woman at the bookshop a few days later, shortly before flying back to Australia, she gave the impression she was tired of the mysterious disappearance and the endless speculations. She seemed fairly certain that if Maria had disappeared it was because Maria had wanted to disappear. After all, she said, the years of the dictatorship were long gone and there seemed little reason to suspect foul play, and yet?)

Carlotta spoke very little that second night, content to give me time to read the notes and, with her permission, I copied down several of the cards. There were many I barely glanced at, cards with only phone numbers, names of people, individual disjointed words or phrases scrawled in ways I could not decipher. They seemed to point towards a privacy I already felt should be left as privacy. It was Maria’s writings as a poet I was interested in. I already felt I had come as close as I ever would to the real Maria. Her thin volume of poems I have never been able to track down – only 100 copies were produced in 1988 and there have been no re-issues. It is only her poems in the Anthology I have ever been able to find. The fragments I found on the cards I will reproduce (in translation) here. I was struck by the strangeness with which she wrote about herself, almost always, in the third person, not unlike the poem in the Alianza Anthology titled “From the notebooks of Maria Zafarelli Strega”[1]


[1]Only later on the plane back to Sydney did I recall a certain phrase used by Ana, the woman in the bookshop, “Sometimes when people disappear they stay exactly where they are.” It occurred to me that if Maria had changed her name once she could do so again and for a few moments I wondered, but it seemed too crazy a thought, could Carlotta be Maria?



The Card Collection

MZF’s vertiginous reinvention of herself began at age 22 on a sidewalk near the Cementerio del Norte in Montevideo, a cold morning in mid-winter. She no longer had a name – that baggage of evil had fallen into the sea on the ferry from Buenos Aires – and for three days she had wandered the city without a name. That morning she saw it appear all by itself on a shop window frosted over by 6 am chill: Maria Zafarelli Strega. Her name.

She heard only the sounds no one hears.

Poor Maria. If she could just climb out of herself and step down into the other world. Then she could love.

She always dreamed of living in Paris but every time she saved up money to go there someone would break into her flat or strangers would steal it. Even when she had no flat, even when she had no money. She was destined to survive here only or not at all.

It will not be easy to be born under the earth. I have heard plants tell me that.

An ordinary evening in the park near Paseo de Florida. She was invited by two mice to accompany them and she tracked her way across the park into a deserted building, the two mice constantly looking back to make sure she was following. Once she entered the building, they wanted her to go down into their underground burrow and she had to explain patiently that this was not possible. And from the window, just above her, the leaden weight of the sky kept trying to force her to surrender.

For a whole month during the bitterest winter of my memories, in a hovel near the docks I would unfold my map of Paris. The two working girls who let me stay there marveled at the joy I took in my map. I would say out loud, I will write this novel on this street, on this street I will write a poem, at a bar near this corner I will begin my most famous book. And I would imagine making my way through the curves and steep tunnels of lanes leading to Père Lachaise or heading across the Marais. The two girls watched with incredulity as I played with the map. I was at some time the lover of both girls but we did not make love anymore. Our bodies had become too strange, too much a tangled skein of catastrophes. I remember once kissing the long scar that trailed down one girl’s belly. I remember a very drunken dawn when one of them tried to kiss the knot of pain that kept exploding deep under my skull. When they made it back to the room at dawn after all the clients of the afternoon and the night, after working the streets and sometimes being kicked and beaten, they came back to sleep.

Years later I had a much older woman who was my lover. When she left me she said, “I have made this for you. Lay this small sack of herbs over your eyes and you’ll find sleep. Someday you’ll see. When you can’t give love anymore, at least you can give sleep.”

I was destined to survive here only, to invent my name, to discover almost nothing – but that slender thread would be everything.

Self-sabotaging faces in a frosted mirror at dawn.
We were breathless like the wire of the sky.

When the cat came to play with me and I had to explain that I would be dying soon it understood everything straightaway. Everything I could never explain to people was clear straight away. And because words were almost unnecessary, new playful words migrated into my head or suddenly were just there, secreted by some twist in a vein or fold of tissue, puffed up there and then like balloons in the vexing inner chamber of my head. The words were not audible. I simply saw them, like the words of my new name that just wrote themselves out before me one morning. They made me remember things that came from another world.

She was being driven out along the magical bridge of the seven rivers. River after river flowed slowly by under the narrow bench of her carriage while, in front, the driver sat idly flicking a knot of string into the air above the horse that shifted a little forward every few moments. An immense dawn sky stretched in layers of gold and pink interrupted by white wisps of cloud but there were no birds. She wondered why in all the teeming flow of waters there were no birds, and why the silence of the world was so total. “India” she thought to herself, and here she was, being driven towards this secret India devoid of people, this plain of silent rivers and limitless dawn. Each river she crossed was less than a river – it was as if every river had been shredded into thin ribbons of water in an inexhaustible plain. Is this the Ganges or the pampas, she wondered. “Nous voyageons vers l’Orient mais nous sommes en ‘Oriente’”, she said to herself in French, using the old Argentine name for Uruguay, and then, counting each separate stream she was passing, she thought “when the sequence of finite numbers has run out I will wake up at my grandmother’s house in Punta del Este”.

Waiting out the grey wind. Sometimes I wake and I think: it is somewhere. In a small box slipped under the floorboards of the stairs, my blue wish, my breath. What came out of my eyes one night, what hid away.

At a certain time I had to say, No, I will not go any further down the dark road. I will stop just here, under this tree, and write for two days, then I will die. And the two days grew and grew and started to look, almost, like a lifetime.

Along the flat endless road where I walk sheltered from the brisk wind by fragrant burning piles of cow-dung, I stop beside a small one-room house where I catch sight of a tiny mirror dangling from the ceiling. Stepping through the doorway I am suddenly in a corridor of whirling mirrors each turning at different angles at different speeds as if in answer to a multitude of undetectable breezes, a myriad of off-centered climates or micro-whirlwinds that arise only in private deserts. Fearfully I step among them and my face slips into one mirror while my hands, my legs are elsewhere. I am enjoying my fractured loneliness when a woman steps from behind a curtain. She is wearing purple gauze and a conical blue hat that is topped with the sign of the moon. “It is all frightfully simple,” she says. “You just choose.” And her smile slides back and forth between a wide gentleness and a knowing carnivorous intensity. Between the small circling diamonds of glass I freeze and I wonder, Am I she?

Who is it who comes to me, who is almost known, almost visible, almost might leave a glance inside me, a thumb print on a wall, a name, even just a single word, now in extremis as a curtain falls back into place when the breeze stops, something or someone whose gliding past brushes me, glare of the one day so awful, yet needing to be stayed with, this absolute face I yearn for, the longest arc of days, washing of the sea through the window of death, wave on grey wave tilting towards the end of vision, almost slightly, who?

Yesterday all day rats circling round me – first in the rat eyes of the old woman nibbling at the fingers and toes of the children caught in the sugar house, then in the two small sandals worn by the woman eaten by rats. When all that is left is terror and hunger. When we are both the rat with its numbed eyes and the victim unable to escape, a wilted starved body nailed to a bed of collapse. In the distance the rising falling notes of the legendary piper who would lead away our nightmare. A music in the world’s far corner that holds the key to our unsuspected otherness. The part of us already elsewhere.