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Photostory ‘A Painting of a House’ for Liberated Words by Charles Olsen

As part of the Word and Image section of the website I am very interested in photo stories or photo essays. I was over the moon when Charles submitted the following to me, and I think it provides a perfect blueprint for such writing, also crossing over into the terrain of travel writing, as in my essay ‘Motherland’ on Marc Zegans’ Lyon Street and visiting and reading in San Francisco.

The best things in life are so often culled from quiet observation, and writing is a testament to that. Charles’ eye for detail, stillness and space which hangs over this narrative, also can be found in his poetry film In Silence.  Writing from a stay in Colombia, the account features  the touchstone of  Tomás – a source of inspiration… [I think that Charles knew I would like this concept very much since Tomás is a parrot!] At one point Charles is described as ‘born painted’ [and also maybe born painting] and indeed this is a word painting – a real-life scenario that slowly unfolds before our eyes.


Café, sal, azúcar moreno, arroz, huevos y un plátano… instant coffee, salt, demerara sugar, rice, eggs and a banana. The surface, wiped clean to avoid the tiny mites that dart over it when food is left out. I crack the eggs into separate glasses because a couple were a runny brown mess inside even though they didn’t bob in water. The sugar is for freshly made juices—tree tomato, melon, guava.

The extractor fan above the stove is installed back to front. It blows the hot air straight back into the kitchen. I go outside to check the outer wall but there is no ventilation hole.

Tomás is 38 years old and has outlived a number of the family. I chat with him over breakfast in the patio. We listen to the birds next door. He copies their call. We listen to the radio and sometimes he dances along to a salsa tune. We listen to aunty Carmiña in the kitchen and he says quietly ‘loca’(crazy). We listen to the dogs making a racket in the street and he barks back.

Tomás is the mascot of a poetry project I began in 2011. Called Palabras Prestadas, or Given Words in English, it invited people to write poems including five words donated for the occasion. Since 2016 I’ve run the same competition for Aotearoa New Zealand’s National Poetry Day each August. Tomás donated the words to the 120th edition of the Spanish competition in 2017, where you can see a video of him swearing away in Spanish.

The next-door neighbour listens to the early morning evangelical mass. There is hardly a breeze and I’ve not slept well because of the noisy fan my wife uses. I open the glass fibre curtain hoping for a slight waft of air, come on in mosquitos—I don’t care any more; the bites on my legs are beginning to heal anyway.

I’ve got used to the bars on the windows and the doors. They mean the doors and windows can be kept open to allow a draft through the house, but my aunt closes them all at night, all except this one above my bed. I’m also used to seeing the broken glass sticking out of the dividing wall between the properties—to deter thieves. For this reason there is always a lock on the gate at the front door and another on the gate to the footpath, like a two-stage security check to sign in to your online bank.

Although he tries to bite people I begin to open the door to Tomás’s cage sometimes, so he doesn’t always feel shut in.

Carrots are fatter here than in Europe. Shorter and fatter. The local store doesn’t have courgettes and there is only one variety of tomato with little flavour.

The fridge is empty except for fruit for a week of juices. My aunt calls the corner shop for the day’s ingredients: a tomato, an onion, a green pepper, a pound of steak, a litre of coke. A few minutes later a lad is at the front gate with the shopping, his bicycle leaning on the waist-high curb.

Every house has its own footpath and steps down to the road, maybe a sloping driveway. Here I miss my twice-weekly runs. On the one hand, my wife is worried about this white European being robbed or assaulted, and on the other, where can I run? The footpath is an obstacle course with steps, walls, trees, raised gardens, narrow paths, cars parked across driveways. And there are no zebra crossings so you take your life in your hands at every main road.

There is a corner where we sit with Carmiña on plastic chairs. With our meat pasties or fried anise breads and a bottle of beer, and the amplifier next to our table playing salsa music, we watch the goings on. Unlike other intersections, here the traffic slows to a donkey’s pace to avoid scraping on the concrete. I imagine neighbours thinking it’s a good job—potholes are more effective than any zebra crossing. Cats and dogs cross languidly. A man in shabby clothes shuffles across the road to ask if we want our shoes shined. We all look down at our feet, we are in flip-flops and his toes overhang the front half of his battered shoes. A red squirrel skips along one of the many electric wires that criss-cross the street.

Yerson takes a break from painting the front fence and I tell him about wanting to go for a run. ‘Come with me,’ he says, ‘nice and early when the air is fresh.’ ‘What time?’ I ask. ‘Four thirty,’ he says, ‘before the city wakes, it’s the best time of day.’

In the evening, in the kitchen, I cut some sultana bread to eat. Tomás stirs in his cage and in a soft voice he calls ‘lorrrito, lorrrito’ (little parrot, little parrot). I cut a chunk off for him and he takes it in his claw.

Thieves can’t access the gated estates in the north so they come to the middle-class areas with their decorative wrought-ironwork fencing. In poorer neighbourhoods the doors are wide open, a television or sound system playing inside—a figure silhouetted in a rocking chair.

In the north, street signs prohibit horses and carts but here the clip clop of horse’s hooves mixes with the rough horn blasts of careering buses, the droning megaphone of a flatbed truck collecting odds and ends, street-sellers pushing handcarts and calling out the fruit, paintings, plants or furniture they’re selling, or the elegant Zoraida, a metal bowl on her head overbrimming with sweets made of coconut, sesame seeds, fruit and raw cane sugar, her gentle smile and singing voice calling ‘alegría, cocada, enyucado, caballito…’ (happiness, coconut sweets, cassava cake, papaya sweets…).

Zoraida, Zoraida! we call. Unlocking the gates, we sit and wait in the shade of the tree on the footpath while she finishes chatting with the neighbours across the road.

I want to wander the streets with my camera, to photograph every corner, house, tree, but my wife and aunt insist it’s not safe to carry the camera in the neighbourhood and especially not alone. So I’m making a poetry film of the house instead—it’s a microcosm of the city in any case and our imaginations can fill the gaps.

A gentle draft enters from the street, passes the rocking chair, down the passage and out the back door, where Tomás dozes in his cage in the patio.

Although the sun is hot, and there’s a breeze, it’s so humid that the clothes take all day to dry on the line. I make my bed and handwash my own clothes to save my aunt the bother, there being no washing machine. She’s not used to this. One morning I’m busy rubbing soap into the clothes in the outdoor sink, Tomás whistling in his cage behind me, and I turn to see my wife and my aunt both quietly watching me from the doorway—a man doing the domestic duties.

The patio is where I find my towel, which I’d left carefully folded on the bedframe so I could go straight into the shower when I woke up. I sleepily pull on some shorts and patter up the hallway to retrieve it from the line. I wonder if Tomás has a similar feeling of unease as his cage is cleaned or moved between the kitchen and patio, his bowl of rice is delivered, or people come and go in his life.

We visit the cemetery where two family members were buried during the pandemic. A mother and an uncle, a sister and a brother. The closely spaced graves are marked with simple engraved stones, and gaudy plastic flowers and spinning-wheels in bright colours stretch out into the distance. I begin to read dates and ages but stop with the sudden realisation they are all from 2020 and 2021 with young and old together.

On my last day in Barranquilla I decide to sit alone in the street opposite the house with my watercolours—after weeks only leaving the house in company this is a rebellious act. It feels like the first steps outside after an illness, or a pandemic lockdown—returning to life but also entering a different world with new eyes.

Last morning in Barranquilla. 11 January 2023.

A neighbour is playing old salsa tracks as he works on the driveway. The boy from the corner shop down the road makes deliveries by bicycle. A dog lies on the footpath in the sun. The girls next door start shouting for their dad to catch them the iguana—it crosses in front of our house and climbs the tree which is recuperating from the pruning it got before we arrived. The iguana vanishes in the foliage. Men push carts up the hill and hold them back going down—a black fridge, odds and ends. Passers-by say ‘buenos días’‘buena pintura’.

Yerson pops over to see the watercolour and comments on the trees, the dog, the iguana. ‘Tu naciste pintado’ (You were born painted!) he says.

Carmiña’s cooking smells good in the kitchen.

The taxi will arrive at 3pm.

Winter waits in Madrid.

—Photographs, watercolour sketch and text by Charles Olsen.

Charles Olsen (Aotearoa New Zealand, 1969) Poet, artist and audio-visual creative.
In 2018 he received the III Antonio Machado Fellowship of Segovia and Soria which led to his latest collection of poems La rebeldía del sol (Rebellious Sun, Olifante Ediciones de poesía, 2022). He has contributed essays to The Poetics of Poetry Film (ed. Tremlett S., Intellect Books, 2021) and has written about poetry film in Colombia for The London Magazine and WMagazín. Together with the Colombian poet Lilián Pallares he directs the audiovisual producer antenablue ‘the observed word’ and their poetry films have been included in international festivals and featured in Moving Poems, Poetry Film Live and Atticus Review. Their collaborative Māori language film Noho Mai, won Best Poetry Film in the 8th Ó Bhéal International Poetry Film Festival, Cork. They are also on the Jury of the Aotearoa Poetry Film Festival taking place in Wellington, New Zealand, on 2–3 November 2023. You can see more on his web charlesolsen.es and blog pensamientos lentos.