Chile: Pigs of Gold
Accepting the invitation, the U.S. poet arranges an all-day flight to Santiago and then a low-altitude sortie up the coast to La Serena, a neo-colonial town of churches and convents founded by Indian-killer Francisco de Aguirre in 1549 (ten years before the other, more notorious Aguirre launched his doomed expedition for El Dorado). From the scrappy municipal airport, a regular taxi curries the arrivant through streets flanked with white houses to the corner of Calle Domeiko and Avenida Francisco where he is deposited on the curb across from a muffler repair shop, there to wait until a collective taxi driver rustles up three more passengers bound for Andacollo. Unthinkable to drive with an empty seat. The foreign, a crossing place of languages and codes.
It’s a squeeze and an hours-long ride through cactus plains and semi-desert mountain roads yielding glimpses of the snowcapped Andes, a languorous sine curve of a journey that ends with the brake-smoking descent into an abyss where the beleaguered town of Andacollo has been flung.
The universal getting-off place, La Iglesia de La Virgen del Rosario de Andacollo, is perimeterized by four adobe walls studded with ex-votos. Cut from marble and iron and sandstone, many are shaped like hearts, shields, and open books. Thanks to the Virgin “por haber escuchado mis oraciones”—for having heard my prayers, “por salvar nuestro hijo”—for saving our child, “por el milagro concedido”—for the granted miracle. In an unusually specific ex-voto, a mother thanks the Virgin for helping her daughter turn from the demon of drugs. In another, the only one in English, Miriam offers
The river is dry, a depository of bulging green plastic bags and noisome litter. Andacollo: haunted by the ghosts of miners and gritty with tailings that blow from buzz-cut and beveled mountains, one behind the other into the horizon. An apocalyptic pastoral with micro-avalanches of sand serpentining in slow motion down sun-baked hills.
In cratered flats, tarry,
In the miniature room where he is given lodge, the American poet sleeps with his suitcase on the bed; two feet away, his roommate snores like Beowulf.
Awake at 4 a.m., he steps into the street to check the stars and watches an old man bicycle past. Their glances catch and hold. Appraisal and plaidoyer and judgement forever unknown. The bicycle quivers into a dark that pours something alien into the core of the figure at the door. In the quick friction of mutual acknowledgement, a word is partially birthed. Curse or invitation? Who has plunged deepest into the other? Why will one remember this moment so long?
Listen. The three thousand dog nights of Andacollo.
At dinner, the Santiago poet averts her face from the gringo although no one else is sitting close enough for her to engage in conversation. A synecdoche, he is taken for his government. She lights up and blows sullen smoke down the table. With suspicion at the threshold of dialogue, there is always a word blocking the first word.
And on the second day of the festival, after many papers, a consensus emerges that there are no longer regions of poetry; there are zones. A distinction weakened, perhaps, in translation?
Final night, a local poet accuses the host of avoiding the issue of regionality altogether, of talking around it with clever language games when, in fact, some people’s lives are at risk, even now, at this moment, because of what they write, because of where they live.
Another shouts from the audience that vanguard poetry doesn’t speak to him, it is elitist, the tone of the whole conference is elitist.
And so the last evening dissolves into tensions,
A dinner table balanced
like a barbell, partisan drinkers
clustered at either end.
The outlier can’t control his situation; mastery eludes him. After four days in another language, he who started out infinitely sensitive is completemente rendido, rent by the effort of constant attentiveness.
The gift of books cannot be refused, despite there is zero room in his suitcase. Arigato-meiwaku, Basho would say as he hiked through villages accumulating presents he could not humanly carry. Thanks, but no thanks.
Walking beside his young wife, the paisano steers, with a menacing glare, the eyes of the foreigner away from her.
Before reaching the Virgin’s sanctum in the church, pilgrims pass displays of gifts from abroad. Samurai armor. Hammered silver spoons. A red robe from Kenya. Chinese banners. All sent in praise of the Virgin of Andacollo.
The last daylight spiders down from a small ring of stained glass in the ceiling. According to legend, a peasant found this figure of the Virgin, carved and pristine, lying—waiting—in the wilderness.
She stands three feet high on a small platform looking down into the nave of the church, the empty pews. There is a pull rope connecting the Virgin of Andacollo to the grate that protects her from visitors to her sanctum. One must kneel to pull the rope and see the Virgin
creaking, swivel to
face the visitor.
She too awakens the unknown inside him. A white, silken, isosceles gown, strung with loops of amethyst, covers her from neck to feet. Her wooden head is topped with a golden crown. From her slightly out-turned ears, two leaf-shaped earrings dangle. One of her brown eyes looks sleepily ahead while the other focuses down.
When fog covers Andacollo, says the barkeep, someone is about to die.
surround the bare twig in the
sand of the flowerpot.
And those things that look like stupas on the hills around Andacollo? A cult of Tibetan monks, says the barkeep, but the unlikely story evaporates into the night.
For a while, linguistic fluency may be bluffed with a good accent and fast delivery, but speed leads to grammatical mistakes and embarrassment from which the speaker can only emerge, like a gambler playing the Martingale, by doubling the speed and then the mistakes until he finds himself fallen into a well below the world of human voices. So the one who was hosted becomes hostage.
One night, he rides a bus to La Silla, The Saddle, an observatory bordering the southern extremity of the Atacama Desert. Trundles into the high, cold, desert night with others to look through a telescope at a constellation named for a parrot. Cuernos de cabra in bloom all around,
The night fragrant, windless,
holding afloat a low
mmm of conversations.
When the mines played out and companies folded, a few families remained and dug for whatever might have been left behind. Then they too disbanded. The town began to crumble. This four-man wildcat operation has likewise begun to fail or never stopped failing and so the owner, his gums mottled and brown, flecks of saliva at the corner of his mouth—a sign of mercury poisoning—welcomes rare tourists. In the sear of afternoon sun, one miner is crushing stone, another scooping the pieces into a rudimentary wooden sieve. The owner steps under a tin roof where sieved gravel is swirled in large washtubs. From his pocket, he takes a vial and pours several beads of quicksilver, mercury, across the life-line of his palm. He smears this against a tin plate he attaches to the washtub. After swishing the muddy water with a paddle, he removes the metal plate, flecked now with gold precipitate. This he wipes into a cloth filter, again with his bare hand.
A door is a door. So says poet Raúl Zurita in dispraise of abstraction. And maybe torture (now that everything in your life has changed) inclines survivors, like Zurita, toward identification with the tangible world.
He says in those days of brutality, distrust, and terror, the reign of Pinochet, he began to imagine writing poems in the sky, on the faces of cliffs, in the desert. A city poet all of his life, he began to dream of nature. He started to imagine fighting sadistic force with poems as insubstantial as contrails over a city.
His words Ni Pena, Ni Miedo (Neither Shame Nor Fear), bulldozed into the sand of the Atacama Desert, would gradually fade away joining thousands of men, women, and children who disappeared in shame and fear during the Pinochet years. But schoolchildren from the closest pueblo come with shovels and turn over the ground inside the letters, refreshing them. And so, in situ, new editions of the poem are published.
Zurita’s remarkable presence. His nose, expressive as a collie’s, marks him for melancholy. His grandmother was Italian and he talks with his hands. His face, tense with gravitas, suddenly zooms forward, breaking into a smile, a laugh that issues from the whole of him. The warmth he emits. But even after his recent operation, it was nothing, he still has four kidney stones and doesn’t look comfortable on the hard wooden seat at the small breakfast table in The Orly Hotel.
In the Plaza de Armas,
A cannon sends shock waves through my shirt,
the pigeons whoosh into the air,
a spadeful of exploding fists.
A little girl with a balloon giraffe grips her mother’s hand.
The bus lets him off. Classic comic scene: the travel-bedraggled foreigner on a dusty road looking in either direction for a sign. Then he is dragging his luggage through tawny dirt toward Restaurant Veinte Poemas de Amor. How, now he’s come all this way without an address, is he going to find Nicanor Parra, the nonagenarian Chilean anti-poet? He orders lunch and glances idly at folk art on the wall. One painting, decorated with shells, represents a simplified map of Isla Negra. Below a square house on the main road, the artist has written Neruda. At the end of the road that curves along the boundary river, another house is labeled Parra.
Donde una puerta
se cierra, otra
He is the only guest at a hostel called La Casa Azul. The caretaker, an Argentine painter, shows him through the kitchen, coffee and oranges, and to his room. Yes, yes, the Argentine knows the famous poet Nicanor Parra. In fact, Parra’s writing studio is just up the road. But Parra doesn’t actually live in Isla Negra. He lives two towns distant.
Flagging, the wayfarer trudges back to the main street to bargain with a taxi driver. Yes, yes, the driver knows the famous poet Parra and the town where he lives. Twenty minutes away. But when they arrive at Las Cruces, the driver slows to ask the first person he sees where Nicanor Parra lives.
A gated house, butted against the sea. He leaps out with books, gifts, a note, in case Parra isn’t there, explaining that he is an admirer come this long way in hope of meeting even briefly, suggesting that if Don Parra wants to fall together, he might leave a message at La Casa Azul in Isla Negra. The muchacha sticks her head out from behind the door and tells him No, he cannot see Parra. Is she sure? She is sure. He asks if he can leave the gifts and the note. She takes them and closes the door in the same fluid gesture, and he goes back to the running taxi and waits, hoping that Parra might read the note and step out to greet him. No luck. The taxi driver, commiserating, takes him back to Isla Negra. At La Casa Azul, he alerts the painter that he is expecting a call from Nicanor Parra. A call, the painter says, perplexed. We have no phone here.
Neruda’s House, Isla Negra
Abandoning all hope, as has been written, he decides to look at Neruda’s house before it closes, and he walks over and pays for the tour. Rooms of ship figureheads, collections of shells, a narwhale tusk, African masks, hand-carved furniture, broad rafters carved with names of his dead friends. All museum quality. Back at La Casa Azul, darkness condenses. The painter sees him making for his room. Oh, the painter says in Spanish, Don Parra came to see you. Drove here by himself in his orange VW and stood at the door with some books.
Did he leave the books, a message, anything?
He just said, Tell them that I came.
There is a poem by Walter de la Mare about a man who gallops his horse to a ramshackle mansion on a dark night and, when no one responds to his pounding, shouts up at the windows, Tell them that I came. Parra, who knows English poetry well, might have been quoting that poem. There are Chinese poems, too, written by disciples who hiked into mountains to visit a master and waited and finally left without making contact. None of the literary precedents, which the traveler recalls from his bunk in the cold, dark room, comforts him.
He takes himself to the good restaurant, a mindful guest. But
The bowl of local
shellfish called locos
tastes like steamed thumbs.
The waiter’s strange, serious manner might be mistaken for contempt, but it gradually becomes clear that he’s trying to make an impression with the rigor of his hospitality.
Next morning, there is the sleathy stranger standing on the street waiting for a bus to Valparaiso. Sidling toward him, a pitiful, matted dog with a hairless tail. It rolls onto its back offering its belly, revealing a black testicular tumor the size of a tennis ball. Chewed open to the raw pink tissue deep within.
Across from the bar, he is seated in a alcove in the wall just capacious enough for the tiny table and two chairs. Neruda was a denizen here, he is informed, as he is so informed in every Chilean bar. The waiter warns him not to hit his head when he stands, which, on two occasions an hour apart, he nevertheless manages to do.
Valparaiso. Pastel city of hills with narrow, spooling cobblestone streets. Jungled gullies hemmed by technicolor houses of tin, wood, native stone. Burned ruins and dreamy casitas with views of the bay, side by side.
Viña Tarapacá, the waiter announces proudly, Ex Zavala, 2002, Cabernet. Third best wine in Chile. The guitar player in the corner strums a song written by Violeta Parra, the celebrated poet’s sister: Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto. Who can listen to Parra’s song without shedding their self-concern, their burden of gripes?
Though the path to the bar reeks
of cat urine, the men’s room dispenser
serves chocolate condoms.
At Neruda’s Valparaiso house, cylinders of music are stacked on his writing desk. Polka, The Barber of Seville, L’Angelus de la Mer, and Les Tribulations d’un Pipelet.
An unconceived ingress, he stumbles upon a back-alley haunt in which the names of thousands of passers-through are scribbled with markers and pens across everything—the walls, cabinets of antiques, windows—and photos of these innumerable pilgrims are stuck into every picture frame and mirror, obscuring whatever else once appeared there. A dark shrine memorializing those who are not at home. He orders the country’s third best wine.
A bent man in a baggy suit enters, leaves, returns, smiles, approaches a young couple eating, goes out again, returns and mimes clapping his hands. And then from a shelf of antiques in a corner of the restaurant, the old man plucks up two gourds. An accordianist emerges from the kitchen and sits on a chair by the door and begins to play, swaying, while his companion shakes the gourds and breaks into song—something to do with butterflies coming out of someone’s mouth with end-words that rhyme, in Spanish, Valparaiso and I adore you. More people crowd in. The gringo orders another round.
At the next table, two young lovers, eating the traditional dish of steak over French fries, clap when the last song in the set ends. The packed room joins in the clapping.
Putting down the gourds, the singer drops a battered envelope on the table and winds his way around the tables, greeting those he knows with boisterous exclamations. The air is smoky, the voices loud, the envelope says, Gracias por su valiosa cooperacion. The foreigner puts in a few bills and asks in a low shout for a tango—the musician cups his hand to his ear—he shouts again. The singer nods to the accordianist, three generations of a family file through the door and disperse into the chaos, the musicians launch into a song called El Indio Vigoroso, more town people arrive, bottles appear and disappear from the tables, the room is mobbed and raucous, the thousands of hand-scrawled names pulsing on the walls, the multitude of photographs staring fixedly at the living, he takes off his jacket, his eyes slanted, unblinking, reptilian. He stands, wobbling, to try to make his way toward the toilet, but the space in the room is contracting, expanding. And yet it seems to him that at last he’s in rhythm with the local, at home, that the foreign has rendered itself accessible and his life is taking place in real time in the place where he has arrived. Immediately he finds himself alone in the alley kneeling on cobblestones while behind him, within the throbbing, roaring cantina,
The Valparaisan night
copies his face and signs
his name to the wall.