Two Old Poets: Portrait of A Friendship

Our friendship began when everything seemed to be ending. Shops were closed, everyone was housebound. Hospitals and cemeteries were the busiest places in town.

During COVID’s season of collective retreat, a woman I knew urged me to contact Juan Mobili, a poet who immigrated to America from Argentina in the 1970s.

“I find similarities in your poetry.” Similarities didn’t do it for me. I was too busy being gainfully alone. But when she said, “His two favorite poets are Robert Lax and William Stafford,” I relented.

Lax and Stafford were also favorite poets of mine. Lax because of his oceanic spirituality, his sense of humor, his minimalism. (Lax, like myself, wrote poetry into his 80s. Juan, at 66, is a relative youngster.) Stafford because his poems are like old growth trees—deep, solid, wise, and written in the American idiom.

A new friend in old age, when all one’s old friends have taken up underground residency, seems to come from somewhere deep in the genie’s bottle. Juan, more outgoing than I, has friends in all age groups. He works the room, as they say. I sometimes pop my head in, but the rest of my body refuses to follow.

Our introductory Zoom, in August 2020, was a little different from all the weekly Zooms to follow. There was an immediate ease between us, as if our friendship was already an established fact, and all that remained was filling in some of the historic and psychological blanks.

Juan has a strong, calm face that bends easily in the direction of ironies. A striking characteristic is the cigarette that nests unapologetically between his lips, as if this were the 1950s. He made me think of all the poets I met in Latin America when I was in my 20s and doing stories on Latin American radicals. They were mostly young. Unlike Juan, a mature family man, they could be wildly romantic about poetry, seeing it as the blood-soaked flag of revolution one moment, and a kind of literary priesthood the next.

Juan will say simply that he writes poetry, “to make the world a more hospitable place.”

His father, Jorge Enrique Mobili, was an Argentine poet of note, and a chain smoker. (My own father, Jack Hirschfield, a hotel maintenance man, was also a chain smoker. But he never a read a book in his life.)

So, despite our occupying disparate points on the aging compass, Juan and I share a common heritage of poisoned lungs. His poem, “My Father Smoking” (Adelaide Magazine, 2022), draws you deftly into the old ceremonial world of the religious smoker.

  The sound when he flicked the lid open would make the whole family pause,

  the sort of collective awe Argentinians experience at the movies

 when Fred and Ginger danced on a terrace under a sky full of stars

My friend came of age politically during General Videla’s military dictatorship in the late 1970s.

“There was this reality going on where people would be disappearing, but you still went to buy bread and hoped someday to have a girlfriend.”

He was part of the Argentine underground and took the nickname Chacho. His closest friend, Claudio, also with the underground, took the nickname Memo. Memo was captured and thrown to his death from a helicopter. (A Bolivian friend of mine, Isaac, a mining leader, met the same ghastly end.)

In his “Letter to My Body,” in his chapbook Contraband (The Poetry Box, 2022), Juan recalls:

  how you vaulted out of bed

 when a car stopped suddenly at the corner;

 we became so quiet then

A new friend is a mystery to be unraveled. Juan may have come from a place of darkness, but his writing is marked by careful evaluation, tender reflection, and outsider wisdom. All of this in his second language.

“In my 30s, there was a moment when I said, ‘I need to write in English because I live in English.’ Spanish didn’t seem natural to me.”

“How did it begin?” I asked him, of his journey toward becoming an extraordinary writer of poetry in the English language.

He recalls for me a day in his early 20s. He was waiting somewhere in Long Island for a haircut. He saw a store selling books and magazines.

“I bought an issue of Rolling Stone, Psychology Today and a pocket dictionary. That’s how I started to learn English.”

In due time, came these words in his new language:

   I saw a stone in the shape of a resentful heart

   and a question mark in the shape of a lamp

Juan moves among the mystery of things without making a big deal of the mystery or the thing. How far will language take us? It is the silent question beneath many of our questions. We find ourselves holding on to different ends of the same rope.

We don’t talk much about the rope’s fraying. Perhaps because we see it as blossoming even as it seems at times to be growing weaker.

“I still live my life with the thought that what happens next is what I am passionate about. Though I may be 66, I am also 20. I have the feeling that time will not be an issue if I keep writing. “Friendships run smoother if certain tribal illusions are maintained. I see that with you. Your vitality. Vitality and health are not the same. Vitality lives in the question, ‘How am I going to work today with images that will become something I could not even have imagined before I set them down?’”

At 84, the vitality Juan refers to is often necessary to beat back dread when images freeze in their foxholes. I’ll read him a new haiku about my father’s dying to reassure myself I can still write a new haiku:

   the room

  the shape

 of his cancer cough

The subject of memory and poetry dots our conversations.

He is a fan of my chapbook, my only book, The Road to Canaan, about my mother’s Alzheimer’s.

“You write about a time where you have memories, but you want to see what else is there that you missed. I always say, ‘I go back to see what I missed. I don’t go back just to affirm what I remember.’”

Saturday mornings, when Juan and his cigarette appear on my Zoom, and the old porteno gives me one of his humorously emphatic greetings, I am beyond gratified that we didn’t miss each other.

Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer and poet. He has spent much of the last five years writing and assembling poems about his mother’s Alzheimer’s. In 2019, Presa Press published a volume of his poems titled, The Road to Canaan. His work has appeared in Parabola, Tricycle, Spirituality & Health, Sojourners, The Moth (Ireland), Tears in The Fence (UK) and other publications.

More on friendship by Robert Hirschfield:

Remembering Is What We Bring: An Old Man Recalls An Old Friend — Hirschfield recalls his friendship with Alan Solomonow, founder of the Middle East Peace Project (MEPP) “We were both young, and as children of the 60s felt it was forbidden to grow old. Now in my 80s, part of me still adheres to that ridiculous dictum. The same part that refuses to make peace with the reality that old friends die, and with them, parts of ourselves that were young.” Read more.

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