In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when we were not at a lecture nor lecturing, nor reading a volume by Courant or Bourbaki, Horacio and I walked the streets of Buenos Aires. There was a part of math in this activity, to be sure: the streets, with their numbered buildings, a hundred per city block, form a sort of coordinate system, each edifice a point on some line; the lines, however, are streets identified by names, and those names can be intensely poetic, or so they seemed to us. When we landed in New York City in August 1963, with the purpose of getting our math doctorate at NYU, we found that Manhattan streets had names up to Greenwich Village, but then numbers all the way up, as if the city authorities had run out of poetic spark.
We walked the streets in and around the Village reminding each other of our walks in Buenos Aires. One of our memories was of an evening spent trying to decipher the writing on a signpost. It carried the name of the tiny square, actually triangular, at the intersection of Francisco Bilbao and Membrillar, recently baptized “Plazoleta Herminia Brumana”. The name was clearly legible. Almost as clearly, the plaque had been recycled, and we could see, but barely, the faint traces of a previous name: the plaque was a palimpsest. As twilight turned to dusk, we forced our eyes and tried to identify the underlying letters: we could tell that at the end there were two fs. We could think of streets ending in f, like Beauchef, where dwelled Chichí, she of the alluring hips. But in two fs? We thought of Kirchhoff, we thought of Birkhoff, and of other scientists with similar names, and for plazas or plazoletas named after them, in vain.
How young and naïve we were, concentrating on heroes and scientists. Years later, on a city map, we found a sizeable square located in a barrio, Versailles, which we had never visited: “Plaza Ciudad de Banff”. In the small town of Banff, in Northeastern Scotland, the Aberdeen Angus cattle were bred in the 1820s, and exported to Argentina in 1879. Since nothing has been historically more important for Argentines than beef, the size of the municipal homage seems only fair.
Revising the folders of my old correspondence, I recently found letters from Horacio with some Spanish sonnets, all dated in Urbana, where he was a math professor at the University of Illinois, in 1980, quite in the middle of our lives, when he was at the peak of his scientific career, and I was taking my first steps in my literary trip. With his permission, I’m transcribing here one of those sonnets, followed by a somewhat free English translation.
Ciudad con calles
Las calles, telaraña de espejos condenados
a reflejar nostalgia y sentimiento
cuando con ritmo lerdo y somnoliento
intento recordar pasos andados.
Filigrana de rumbos olvidados
que mal resisten crónica y recuento,
serpentinas que esperan en el viento
nuestra andariega fe de enamorados.
Calles en prosa y calles remolino
con sus nombres pequeños o robustos
de humildes profesiones y donaires,
o de inciertos linajes argentinos.
Calles llenas de besos y de sustos,
calles que quiero y soy, en Buenos Aires.
Spiderweb of mirrors so arranged
as to reflect our longings for the past
when, careful to avoid moving too fast,
we turn our mind to what has changed.
Tracery of loved routes long estranged
which hardly keep count of what has passed,
flapping streamers summoning us to a last
walk, sure to lead into a place wondrously strange.
Streets prosaic and streets open to the wind,
streets darkling or shining with a thousand flares,
with names like “Pescadores” or “Güiraldes,”
or heroes of the land like San Martín.
Streets replete with kisses and with scares,
streets I love, my streets of Buenos Aires.