Introduction
by Raúl Zurita, translated by Forrest Gander



This anthology of eighteen poems reflects my personal taste and represents,
for me, the greatest poems written in Castilian in America. The
selection begins, however, with a poem written before the imposition of
Castilian. Translated from Nahuatl into Spanish by Miguel León-Portilla, it
is a song by Nezahualcóyotl (1402-1472), king of the ancient Mexican city-state
of Tetzcuco, and its subject is death and the brevity of life:

All of us must disappear,
none is given to stay.
Where can we go where there is no death?

My selection ends, as if poetry were never more than an eternal return, with
a poem by Gonzalo Millán, “Life.” Along with José Watanabe’s “Guardian
of Ice,” “Life” functions as the contemporary Latin American expression of
Nezahualcóyotl’s inaugural song. So in a relentless crescendo, “Life” begins
by describing the birth and flowering of everything that lives — trees and
plants, animals and birds — and it ends by embracing all of it:

Lizards grow new tails
when they lose their old ones,
and when crabs lose their pincers and legs
they grow new pincers and legs.
Wounds on men and animals scar over;
broken bones mend on their own.

The poem abruptly breaks off, there’s a space, and then come three of the
most powerful lines written in our poetry:

Cells, organs, tissues wear out.
Life forces wane.
Death is the end of life.

Although there are many other more than remarkable Latin American poems,
they nevertheless seem to me, despite their achievements, subsidiaries of
these I’ve selected. One poem by each of the eighteen poets. For most of the poets,
the choice of the poem was obvious, but in the cases of Gabriela
Mistral, César Vallejo, and Pablo Neruda, the job was practically impossible
and at the same time fascinating. The question was: what poem, had it
not been written, would have rendered the author another author and Latin
American poetry something else? I would have liked to include examples
of the immensity of poetry written in Portuguese by poets such as Carlos
Drummond de Andrade, Joâo Cabral de Melo Neto, Ferreira Gullar (with
his “Poema Sujo”), Lédo Ivo. I would have liked to include the complete
600 pages of one of the major poems of our time,
Gran Sertón: Veredas by
Joâo Guimarâes Rosa, a novel that suspends the barriers between genres in
ways comparable to James Joyce’s Ulysses, Hermann Broch’s
The Death of
Virgil,
Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, or Juan Rulfo’s The Plain in
Flames
and Pedro Páramo, and so becomes one of the pinnacles of the language,
but of course, that would have called for a second list that exceeded
my purpose. In any case, placed against the work I’ve collected here, I asked
myself what other poem, or fragment of a poem, or what single line written
by any poet I didn’t include could stand with dignity against the poems of
Gabriela Mistral, César Vallejo, Vicente Huidobro, Pablo de Rokha, Jorge
Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, or “Letter to My Mother” by Juan Gelman. The
only thing I could consider on par or even superior to them would be “You
Don’t Hear Dogs Barking,” a tale by Juan Rulfo from
The Plain in Flames
which is, along with other stories in the book, one of the finest poems of the
twentieth century in any language.

What follows are some brief notes about each of the selections.


°°°
“The Fugue” by Gabriela Mistral (Montenegro, Valle de Elqui, Chile, 1889–
New York, 1957) whose real name was Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, is the signal
poetic record of the Latin American landscape transfigured by dream,
memory, and death. Published in
Tala (Slash), 1938, a book composed in
nine parts, one of which, “America,” includes the poems “Cordillera” and
“Tropical Sun,” “The Fugue” foreshadows what will be, twelve years later,
Neruda’s
Canto general. “The Fugue” is a startling, hallucinatory elegy that
opens the book’s first section, “Death of My Mother.” It shows us a landscape,
an actual landscape, cliffs along the Elqui, a river stretching below an endless
succession of mountains in which the figure of the mother appears
repeatedly, always in the nearest one. The mother materializes in one mountain,
then another, and then another, without ever coalescing into wholeness.
So we come to understand that what we call nature, geography, and
landscape are nothing but huge white canvases we fill with our passion for
life, with our misery, joy, or nostalgia. The mountains in the poem by Gabriela
Mistral are inaccessible because the life of the past is beyond us, because
death, which is the face of someone who has been loved, who is dead and
appears in dreams or in memory, never lets us in, because it is a figure like
the mountains in which the mother emerges, forever outside language.


°°°
Altazor by Vicente Huidobro (Santiago, Chile, 1893–Cartagana, Chile, 1948)
represents the major effort in Latin American poetry to build a work associated
with the European avant-garde of the early twentieth century; it radically
tore itself from the straitjacket of Spanish poetry that, from Quevedo
and the baroque of Góngora, imposed an academic formalism so severe it
lacked any capacity for renewal. Beyond the romantic movement, Spain
didn’t undergo the kind of aesthetic explosion that took place in France,
Italy, and the United States. Without a Baudelaire, a Rimbaud, a Whitman,
or a Leopardi, it depended on its former colonies to broaden the horizon
of Castilian, that language for which American poetry seemed to feel
resentment, as we see in César Vallejo’s
Trilce, and claustrophobia, as we
see in the avant-garde ambitions of Vicente Huidobro who, in
Non Serviam,
a 1922 manifesto, after asserting that “the poet is a little god,” introduces
his program called “poetic creationism.” Huidobro demands that
the poet must not mimic nature but create his/her own universe. As is often
the case with manifestos, its precepts are surpassed by his best poems.
Altazor’s
theme is double. On the one hand, and this is what precludes any
criticism,
Altazor is an extraordinary experimental work, its formal freedom
unmatched, that cuts against the linearity of conventional poetry; its theme
is the slow descent by parachute of someone, Altazor, who knows where
he is falling but doesn’t know from where he falls and whose final disintegration
matches the disintegration of the whole world being represented.
Secondly, perhaps more crucial for the understanding of Latin American history,
Altazor, one of the most remarkable poems in the Castilian language,
a language imposed on Latin America by conquest, is paradoxically
a poem of the destruction of that language. Dividing the poem into seven
songs plus a preface, Huidobro begins the first canto in a masterful, almost
ostentatious language that he mines for all its sonorities, its magnificent
images and metaphors, its rhythmic and metric possibilities. The second
canto represents one of the most enduring love poems produced in the last
century, but by the third canto, Huidobro refers to the language we speak
as a dead language. As the poem progresses, the language is transformed,
metamorphosed, ruptured right through to the end of Canto VII, where
the idiom is absolutely pulverized, as if to show us that the poem, the true
poem, only begins when the book ends, and it is the reader who must raise,
from the crushed remains of the dead languages we speak, a fresh language.


°°°
Spain, Take This Cup from Me, a book-length poem by César Vallejo (Santiago
de Chuco, Peru, 1892–Paris, France, 1938), was published in 1939, a
year after his death, in the eponymous book, and its importance, along with
Pablo Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” surpasses every literary
categorization in demonstrating for us the impossibility of separating history
from our very particular history as speakers of an imposed language.
In the poems of Vallejo’s
Trilce (1922) words seem nailed together over a
relentless shriek; lines are shredded by a broken syntax full of archaisms
and neologisms, exclamation points, ellipses, words set apart in capital letters
or separated into syllables, as if everything were laid out in positions of
permanent torture and poems were physical bodies, hooded, about to die.
In contrast to
Altazor in which Vicente Huidobro shatters language according
to the dictates of an avant-garde that guides the poet’s choices, agendas,
and productions, in Trilce Vallejo shatters language in obedience to a
kind of existential tension, an extreme anxiety that feels like expressionism
and through which the poems are demolished because the subject, at one
with the poems, is demolished. With Vallejo, we sense poems exploding
from within, spewing out bits of viscera, organs, bones, and they can’t fail
to show the signs of their agony. It will be the reader who comes to travel
along those lines one by one, giving a little space to the words, unpinning
each from the others, reordering them so that the poems, at last, can live.
The price is that it falls on the reader to bear the death the poems contain,
but this is also the condition of our speech. The Spanish speakers of the
Americas speak a language in which every sentence, syllable, and turn of
phrase contains a memory of the infinite violence that prevailed, and so, in
Vallejo, poems are dying bodies. They make clear, just as Huidobro does,
but by opposite signs, the tortuous relationship to a language we admire
because it is ours, it is the language we read and write, and yet at the same
time it instills a deep grudge in us because its imposition signifies the death,
marginalization, and misery of millions and millions of human beings in the
biggest holocaust in history. Fifteen years after the appearance of Trilce,
Vallejo wrote
Spain, Take This Cup from Me in which, by focusing on
the Spanish Civil War, he provides the keys to understanding
Trilce; they
are no more than the keys for comprehending the constant and dramatic
spasms of Latin American history, its internal turbulence, and its endemic
inability to build projects that have durance. The problem is at the heart of
words. At the end of the third stanza of
Spain, Take This Cup from Me,
Vallejo observes that if Spain falls to Franco, we will have to go backward in
language, descending level by level along the stair of the inherited alphabet
until we arrive at the letter “in which shame is born.” What César Vallejo is
telling us is that through all these vast territories we travel in words, we’ll
never be happy because pain is encrusted on every particle of the language
we speak.


°°°
“The Old Man’s Song” by Pablo de Rokha (Licantén, Chile, 1894– Santiago,
Chile, 1968, his real name was Hernan Díaz Loyola), published in 1961, is
one of the most moving tragic poems written in Castilian. Displaying both
a verbal power, comparable only to that of his archenemy Pablo Neruda,
and an uncounterfeitable tone present through all his work from the adolescent
Versos de infancia (Childhood verses), 1916, to the monumental Mis
grandes poemas
(My great poems), 1969, a compilation he prepared but
which appeared posthumously, Rokhian poetry is an extreme attempt by
an extreme poet to redefine the national. Beyond his monumental achievements
and monumental blunders, Pablo de Rokha develops a cartography unequaled in
its emotional force, its affections, sympathies, loathings, and repudiations,
pushed to the limit, forged from a language in which prose is
exposed in all its rawness even as it takes on the tragic and solemn intensity
of great funerals, liturgies, oracles. Appealing to “gutter” slang, orgiastic
and pregnant with speech, the work of Pablo de Rokha signified, in our language,
the deepest cut by which, up to that point, poetry might be comprehended.
Much more radically than Vicente Huidobro and decades before
the revolutionary antipoetry of Nicanor Parra, De Rokha with
Los gemidos
(The wailing), published in 1922 (the same year that saw the publication of
Ulysses by James Joyce, The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and Trilce by César
Vallejo) anticipated the major literary transformations to come in the literature
of the last century: the fusion of poetry and prose, stream of consciousness,
the deletion of punctuation. But the real beauty is that, like the work
of Pablo Neruda, this new writing was not limited to an aesthetic proposal,
as with Huidobro, except in as much as De Rokha proposes to refound a
continent just as Neruda does in
Canto general, with the difference being
that this territory for Pablo de Rokha, as fervent an anti-imperialist as Neruda,
is devastated by the omen of defeat and absolute ruination. It is an
irreparable sadness that finally overwhelms Rokhian landscapes. De Rokha
makes colossal, he reiterates the outrageous, stretching words as if the mission
of those words were to bury the intolerable, bestowing on the real an
eternity that exists only in the deep unreality of the poem. It’s a fierce and
wounding paradox that reveals defeat in “The Old Man’s Song,” but it’s
also a fierce and wounding paradox that such defeat underlies all writing
and all existence. In his excess, in his monumentality, his limitations and
exorbitant errors, Pablo de Rokha understood that fateful paradox for all of
us. He committed suicide on September 10, 1968.


°°°
“Conjectural Poem” by Jorge Luis Borges (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1899—
Geneva Switzerland, 1986) appears to be quite distinct from the last two
poems mentioned and yet its theme is not alien to them. As in the cases
of “White Stone on a Black Stone,” the poem where Vallejo announced
his death, Pablo de Rokha’s “The Old Man’s Song,” and the poem by
Jaime Sabines, “A Few Words on the Death of Major Sabines,” the core
of this poem is identity in the face of death, or rather, the definitive identity
bestowed by the imminence of the end, but with a radically contrasting
effect. The entire oeuvre of Borges represents a successful attempt to
bestow upon language a literary rank that language doggedly denies. In
“Conjectural Poem,” recalling the famous book Civilization and Barbarism
by fellow Argentine Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, one of the characters,
a certain Francisco Laprida, a man who dreams up another man, discovers
his “destiny as a South American” just moments before being murdered.
He is killed by gauchos, by the conquerors. Borges’s poetry never
reaches the prodigious linguistic dimension, the abyss of contradictions, or
the depths of other major Hispano-American poems. It’s not in his conception
of the thing-made-literary (where, as noted in his poem “The Apocryphal
Sermon,” the worst sin is emphasis), but in his best poems, when they
are released from the straitjacket of academic discussions, Borges achieves
limpidness, a clarity, and lucidity unique in our language’s poetry. A small
final remark: Borges’s “Conjectural Poem” is, from its very title, reiterating
a paradox present in all his work, that every name is an alias because one is
just one of many: “I who have been so many men / never was the one into
whose arms Matilde Urbach swooned” he writes in one of his best-known
poems, so that the true madness, the absolute craziness, isn’t that someone
wakes up in the morning as a cockroach, as in Kafka’s famous story, but that
you wake and for a few seconds you believe the completely implausible fact
that that you are the same as you were. The verification of this metamorphosis
is literature and every poem is an awakening.

In one of those awakenings, a celebrated writer who believes he is
Borges, Francisco Laprida — who is about to be murdered by gauchos, the
strangers — experiences an ineffable moment, an epiphany: it’s the instant in
which he comprehends his “destiny as a South American,” which is to say
he realizes that to be a South American is to accept that the only moment in
which we come together in community is the moment of death.

The sockdolager — and here is the genius of this accumulation of blood,
pervasive night, and blindness that we know as Borges — is that he shows
us that every death is a murder. “Conjectural Poem” is profound and moving,
but even at that, it isn’t Borges’s best poem. There’s another. It also has
a peculiarity that is, perhaps, its secret desire. The most South American
of Borges’s poems, the one in which he names his ancestors who fought in
the War of Independence, wasn’t written in Castilian but in English. If in
“Conjectural Poem,” Borges shows us that all death is murder, in this other
poem, which he never rendered in Castilian, someone who was, maybe, or
dreamed he was, a celebrated writer shows us that death is an imminent fact
and therefore that every human being, even the most abject, has the right
to ask for love. I’ll print it here. This is the second of Borges’s “Two English
Poems”:

What can I hold you with?
I offer you lean streets, desperate sunsets, the moon of the jagged suburbs.
I offer you the bitterness of a man who has looked long and long at the lonely moon.
I offer you my ancestors, my dead men, the ghosts that living men have honoured
in marble: my father’s father killed in the frontier of Buenos Aires,
two bullets through his lungs, bearded and dead, wrapped by his soldiers
in the hide of a cow; my mother’s grandfather — just twentyfour — heading
a charge of three hundred men in Perú, now ghosts on vanished horses.
I offer you whatever insight my books may hold, whatever manliness or humour my life.
I offer you the loyalty of a man who has never been loyal.
I offer you that kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow — the central heart
that deals not in words, traffics not with dreams, and is untouched by time, by joy,
by adversities.
I offer you the memory of a yellow rose seen at sunset, years before you were born.
I offer you explanations of yourself, theories about yourself, authentic and surprising
news of yourself.
I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart; I am trying
to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.


°°°
“The Heights of Macchu Picchu” by Pablo Neruda (whose real name was
Neftali Reyes Basoalto, Parral, Chile, 1904–Santiago, Chile, 1973) is the
greatest poem in the history of the Spanish language. To read it is to imagine
that nothing exists outside the pulse of a few words, of certain stanzas
and rhythms that loop around and around in your head with a throbbing
that never ends. It belongs to that class of poems such as Book XXIV of
The Iliad, the biblical Psalms, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and Whitman’s
Leaves of Grass, works that seem to be telling us that we ourselves, the
readers, are just a minor occasion of something written long before the
human was invented. The sensation is not unlike experiencing the vastness
of the Pacific or the peaks of the Andes. Poems like these remind us
of those dimensions. Neither the period in which they were written matter
nor the centuries whose generations engaged in writing them, such works
are so full and overwhelming that the human is superseded by the presence
of world, nature. This is what happens with “The Heights of Macchu
Picchu” from
Canto general, a book that often seems to exceed the limits
of individual creation in approaching mythical stories. Neruda’s poetry, if
you will allow a hasty comparison, is something like the image of a river: its
banks may widen or narrow, its current move faster or slower, and sometimes
just a simple bend, a change of light, renders it unlike itself. It’s that
books such as
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Residence on
Earth,
and Canto general represent the river that Neruda’s long and narrow
country (Chile) does not have.
Canto general. It takes two words: and
in them the sum of lives, of stories, of names, of places, a poetry that is our
river. Neruda is our Mississippi. In the currents of that river, the towns of
a continent have understood love, the constantly renewed anguish of existence,
and the variable winding paths of their history and the possibly better
future. Latin America before Neruda is something else after Neruda.
The crucial question, forever unresolved and recurrent in masterful poems
is: if human beings are capable of producing art, poetry, how is it that at the
same time they torture other human beings, that they slaughter them, rape
them, exterminate them? Without poetry, it’s possible that violence would
be the norm, the steady state, but because poems exist, all violence is unjusti-
fiable, is monstrous. I think that for Chile, for America in general, the first
answer to that question was the long sixteenth-century epic poem,
La
Araucana
by the Spanish soldier Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga, who spoke
on behalf of the conquistadors and in the language they imposed. The
second answer, 350 years later, was the response of
Canto general, which
presents the first major Latin American take on itself, its nature, and its history.
This book opens with an image that can only be read as a response to
Ercilla and the conquistadors. It is the beginning of the first poem of Canto
general, “The Lamp on Earth”: “Before the wig and the coat / There were
rivers, arterial rivers…” “The wig and coat” refer to the costumes of the
Spanish officers (civil servants, judges, officials) who came to America for
the conquest. What Neruda tells us is that prior to their arrival in America,
there was already a place (rivers, mountains, forests) countermanding
Ercilla’s vision of nature as nothing but background for the progress of
the conquest, and that this nature precedes all human adventure as a constant
reserve against oppression, conquest, or subjugation. Attention to the
presence of landscape in Latin American poetry of the first half of the last
century has evolved in such a way that it comes to express the full range of
human emotions, linking geography and history into a single expression.
But the major mark of Neruda’s work is most evident, as I mentioned, in
the second poem of
Canto general. “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” references
the Inca citadel of Macchu Picchu, which remained largely unknown
for more than three hundred years. “The Heights” is the assurance that
poetry from south of the Rio Grande rises from a new world. The fact that
it was written constitutes, in the respective histories of independence of the
countries of that continent, something much more crucial than wars of liberation
against Spain’s dominion.

Actually, the poem needs to be heard aloud. It’s as though a river were
dragging a mountain of stones up to a point when, suddenly, the stones fall
away precisely into the places where they were forever destined to be. Into
each singular, perfect place. In extreme contradistinction to César Vallejo,
Neruda’s words suggest an absolute reconciliation of the imposed language
and its speakers. “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” thus anticipates a
future dream that was, perhaps, the dream of Alonso de Ercilla, when in
an episode from
La Araucana, this same poet, Ercilla, an on-duty soldier,
helps the wife of one of his enemies to find, among the dead, her husband’s
body so that she can take it home to her village for a proper burial. From
both sides of a curse that has never relented: the curse of violence between
human beings, the curse of their massacres, their conquests, their submissions,
the Spanish soldier Alonso de Ercilla intuited in the language of the
invaders a peace, and a prediction that in times to come, their language
would be welcome. Pablo Neruda in
Canto general anticipates that vision
of a language in which some might sing the felicity of those who speak it.
This is finally the dream that Neruda expresses and how he gives to
Canto
general
the dimension that defines foundational poems. In the last verses of
“The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” Neruda asks the dead to speak through
his mouth, to return to speak, to return through him to the word: “Cling to
my body like magnets / Hasten to my veins and to my mouth.”

What’s certain is that these verses have been fulfilled. What Neruda’s
detractors have a hard time understanding is that unceasingly, without end,
those lines are fulfilling themselves: in designating himself the interpreter
of the dead Incas, Neruda shows us that in speaking, no one is singular.
That the act of speaking is the opportunity for those who have preceded
us to return, to be granted words. To look, to feel, to hear is always to see
through the eyes of our predecessors. A peak of the Andes or the Rockies
is also the sum of the many eyes that have gazed on it and anyone who sees
those peaks again is greeted by those bygone eyes. That’s what is so moving
about the world: every grain of dust, every weed, every piece of grass
is the port of arrival for a river of the dead in which those who came before
us find themselves and are given speech, sight, hearing; in short, by living
our lives we give the dead an opportunity for new existence. “The Heights
of Macchu Picchu” was written to grant such possibility to all the victims,
the oppressed and marginalized, to find in poetry a new destiny in wait for
them, one which had not been waiting before. Writing Canto general, Neruda
couldn’t know that his book would come to be the proof of the people
who wrote it through him, who spoke themselves there, who had to endure
yet another “general death” — the ignominious dictatorships and the monstrous
sequence of assassinations and disappearances — and survive it. At
the beginning of the conquest, a Spanish soldier unknowingly spoke to us
of the disappeared of our time. These works aren’t in the past because, in
fact, no one is in the past. When we read a book, we put it in front of our
eyes, not behind them, which is to say, more or less, that we open ourselves
to a dimension of our future. As such, reading is a form of the future and for
poetry the future also can be a phenomenon that occurred five hundred or
a thousand years ago. Vast and terrible events such as wars, dictatorships or
the Holocaust have, for the poem, an intensity equivalent to a drop of dew
on a leaf in a forest of tea trees, of a butterfly zigzagging between flowers or
the glint of a nascent tear behind a closed eye. For the poem, as for a life, the
end of humanity or a new birth may already have taken place or is taking
place constantly. The Pacific War, the destruction of Troy, the construction
of the Great Wall of China, the conquest of America go on constantly inside
our lives and in poetry.


°°°
“Soliloquy of the Individual” is one extraordinary example of the revolution
accomplished by Nicanor Parra (San Fabian, Nuble Province, Chile, 1914)
who, like Baudelaire with romanticism a century before, upturned
and mocked an idealized vision of poetry and of the poet as someone special,
set apart from ordinary people. Already “The Heights of Macchu Picchu”
had carried poetry to a summit beyond the reach of emulators. There
where Neruda was swimming (which calls to mind the time Joyce brought
his daughter, who was suffering from mental problems, to Jung saying, “but
she writes like me;” “Yes,” came Jung’s response, “but where you swim,
she drowns”), his imitators drowned, and in that sense “Macchu Picchu”
is a culmination that, at the same time marks a diminishment of the hymn
from poetry’s horizon, or at least its immediate horizon. This is what Nicanor
Parra, founder of Antipoetry, understood: that he might restore to writing
a vitality that Castilian hadn’t seen since Francisco de Quevedo, using
humor, orality, self-confidence, self-delusion, a task that fused high comedy
with radical skepticism and disbelief. Against the portentousness of
Neruda, Parra constructed a poetry of the ordinary, the everyday, of the
antiheroic that nevertheless didn’t avoid the issues of “great poetry,” but
approached them at a slant. This is what we see in “Soliloquy of the Individual”
in
Poems and Antipoems (1954), which along with being a kind of
parodic emulation of
Canto general, gives us a synopsis of everything that,
up to this moment, calls itself antipoetry.

Nine years after the appearance of
Poems and Antipoems, in a booklength
work called
Manifesto, Nicanor Parra would declare, in a phrase
that has become legendary, that “the poets have come down from Olympus,”
and he would impugn the poetry of his colossal predecessors:

We condemn
— And I say this with respect —
The poetry of the little god
The poetry of the sacred cow
The poetry of the raging bull

in a clear reference to Vicente Huidobro, Pablo Neruda, and Pablo de
Rokha. The impressive thing is that for all its diametrically contrastive
intentions, antipoetry, in its dimension and scope, is no less impressive
than the proposals of Parra’s Chilean predecessors. His revolution is comparable
to Joyce’s when, in
Ulysses, he realizes that the mythic journey of
twenty years from the time Odysseus leaves his homeland to his return is
exactly equivalent to the passage of a day for any man in a modern city who
leaves his home in the morning and returns again at night. It’s Parra’s arrant
rupture and the poem “Soliloquy of the Individual” is an example of this.
So the overwhelming monumentality of Pablo Neruda, the cosmic trip of
Huidobro’s
Altazor and the sometimes bombastic gigantism of Pablo de
Rokha are sidestepped for a history of the world narrated by a subject, “the
individual,” any person who signifies that the entire history of humanity is
the history of every single human being and is, therefore, meaningless in
terms of the individual. Nicanor Parra invented a new freedom for poetry
and his work stands at the head of the insurgence and is written into the
future. He showed us the irrefutable democracy of speech, its shared attributes,
making us realize that human beings, like their words, aren’t divided
by steep hierarchies but are equal. Antipoetry fulfilled itself in the task of
freeing working words, those in which our lives are grounded day by day,
from the submission imposed by sacred words. What his work proposes is
a communitarian claim to the plurality of forces that, depleted, under alibis,
enslaved, lie beneath the tyranny of ownership. Speech absorbs the
“mighty” works, and these in turn are but particular modulations of the
languages of tribes that rise into being and submerge again. Plato, Shakespeare,
and Quevedo are flashes in that sea of speech with not a whit more
prerogative than the back and forth of two washerwomen on the riverbank
or two students in a bar. This is what Nicanor unveiled and his revolution is
nothing less than that. At the start, prisoners of a shameful world, we think
we’re masters of what’s being written, what’s being spoken, and so we grow
obsessed with copyright, individual authorship, to wit: profit. Nicanor
Parra reminds us of the uncanceled image of a dream deferred: the dream of
the end of privilege, that is, the dream of the end of loneliness.


°°°
“When You Love What Do You Love?” is the most vaunted poem by
Gonzalo Rojas (1917—2011), whose technical virtuosity is comparable only
to Pablo Neruda’s. Few poets can cover the range of registers that Rojas
deploys. During the time of antipoetry, Rojas incorporated forms of spoken
language in a manner no less radical than Nicanor Parra. But unlike Parra
who, true to the slogan from his 1963 manifesto — “the poets have come
down from Olympus” — assumed that common speech was the only source
for poetic or antipoetic work since it alone can give a true account of life,
Rojas channeled multiple streams of diction. His poetics draws from the
biblical Song of Songs, from Latin poets, from the dazzling Spanish poetry
that culminated in 1600 in the so-called Golden Age, and from neighborhood
vernacular. Into this plurality of languages, Rojas also assimilated
the visions and movements of his predecessors: symbolist poetry, surrealism
(which he tapped briefly), and then later he drew from Paul Celan. But
above all other influences, there was César Vallejo from whom he took, and
made more extreme, a particular mode of line break that stresses multiple
meanings.

In Vallejo’s work, the abrupt line breaks, the exclamation points, the
ellipses, the capitalized words all lead to decidedly expressionist connotations
that suggest a world of perpetual sacrifice. In Rojas, the contrary
is true. His is essentially a poetry of desire in which the lineation doesn’t
assume any metric or visual unity but instead, cut off mid-sentence or after
an article, for example, or in the middle of a word, contracting or dilating,
follows the rhythms of breathing, an asthmatic gasping that characterizes
most of his poetry with a kind of orgasmic intensity or peremptory eroticism,
a figuration of sexuality produced by the eros between words and things.
In this sense, to read Gonzalo Rojas is to encounter the most intimate
texture of a language, its very particular way of linking sounds with world.
Along with Neruda, Rojas embodies a poetry of pleasure and desire in
which the senses — smell, touch, sight — acquire a relevance that had been
absent from Spanish poetry (which with almost no exceptions translated
eroticism into mysticism), producing a sound that had not been heard
before. But Rojas’s new sound is also, as indicated by the last lines of
“When You Love What Do You Love?” the sound of the old Paradise.
And this is why his short poem stands as one of the great poems of desire
bequeathed to us by modern poetry.


°°°
“You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking” appears among the stories of The Plain in
Flames, a masterpiece far beyond the compartmentalizing literary jockeying
that makes its author, Juan Rulfo (Sayula, Jalisco, Mexico, 1918–Mexico
City, 1986), Mexico’s matchless poet and one of contemporary literature’s
best. As in his novel Pedro Páramo, Rulfo thematizes the Mexican desert,
transforming it into a universal space of suffering, atonement, and pain,
creating a language that, perhaps like Homer’s Greek, was never actually
used, even if people — that heterogeneous conjunction generally identified
by their gestures, their tics, their modes of talking and arguing — recognized
it as speech. A poem without redemption, its journey the anticipation of a
defeat as universal as it is intimate, “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking” makes
clear that misfortune is bound to be reiterated because beyond secular
injustice, abuse, exploitation, and violence, its source, as Vallejo’s poem
also insists, springs from an imposed language. Few images in the history
of art and literature match that of the old man carrying his dying son on his
shoulders through the night. What this parable of defeat shows us is that
the history of language, those 150 thousand years during which we’ve crisscrossed
the earth exchanging grimaces, grunts, and words, is also a fable of
misunderstanding: “And you didn’t hear them, Ignacio?… You didn’t help
me even with that hope.”


°°°
Oblivious to bombast, disinterested in the scramble for novelty, “Not Anymore,”
by Idea Vilariño (Montevideo, 1920–2009) is the most momentous
example of how Latin American poetry has handled the ubiquitous theme
of love and loss. As if the poem desired to disappear into what it names,
each line bears the extremity of pain before which words succumb, making
clear to us that extreme happiness, like extreme pain, is inexpressible and
neither the embrace of two people who merge for an instant, nor the shout
of irremediable separation imposed by death, nor utter heartbreak can be
evinced within the confines of language. It is this limitation that comes so
clear in Idea Vilariño’s poem. Like Shakespeare’s speaker’s observation in
sonnet 76, “Spending again what is already spent: / For as the sun is daily
new and old, / So is my love still telling what is told,” Vilariño’s monologue
is unique precisely because it is so common; it has been declared innumerable
times and stamped into countless poems, songs, and stories with virtually
the same words, because for all the poem’s apparent simplicity, its
repetitions reveal the spectacle of a desolation that attends all of us even
while it promises the fullness of human experience.

We see, then, that poems exist because pain never can speak of pain,
pain is the black hole of language, all words are sucked up into its immediacy,
and part of the force of Idea Vilariño’s poem is that it makes clear that
one of the most necessary conditions of all groundbreaking poetry is that
it be written at the edge of death, at the precise boundary beyond which all
language fails. The poem is the last glimmer of the speakable, the final glow
of words before they are extinguished and absorbed, and at the same time,
the poem is what emerges first from the unspoken. At the margins of death,
the poem announces that the life and voice that are about to flicker out are
just being born. “Not Anymore” is everything that can’t be perceived in the
other, everything that won’t be created through the other and the sentences
that declare that impossibility — quotidian, common, domestic — take on, in
the poem’s measure, the fullness of sacred revelations. The poem’s finale,
in its brevity and its irrevocable truth, is one of the biggest in the history of
literature: “I won’t see you die.”


°°°
“Prayer for Marilyn Monroe” by Ernesto Cardenal (Granada, Nicaragua, 1925)
is perhaps, after Neruda’s “Poem XX,” the most widely read poem
in Latin America. Deeply marked by his experience as a Trappist monk,
Cardenal is often concerned with the ineffable presence of God whom
he curses, begs, and prays to, but at the same time, his poems are thoroughly
penetrated by reality; by newspapers, movies, the Somoza dictatorship,
billboards, and they seek meaning in neon letters, in automobile
graveyards, in discarded cigarette packs. In short, Cardenal’s God is a sixties
God of Pop, pierced and suspended over a world “polluted with sin
and radioactivity” as he writes in “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe.” At the furthest
end of the spectrum from metaphysical poetry, Ernesto Cardenal continues
the legacy of the baroque bleeding Christ that Spanish Catholicism
imported to America, but in a completely new mode, closer to the kind of
atheistic luck-theology found in the antipoetry of Nicanor Parra than in the
tormented religiosity of a God who fails, suffering, and is deposed in that
agony of Vallejo’s assemblage of body parts. It isn’t the “I was born one
day/ when God was ill” of Vallejo’s
The Black Heralds, nor is it the “I’ll
grow tired of your scent of supplications and sobs” from “The Request” by
Gabriela Mistral (in
Desolación, 1922), but something altogether distinct.

What Cardenal displaces is the idea of intimacy. While in Vallejo and Mistral,
religiosity is generally ascribed to the self, in Cardenal God is sacred
because he illuminates the materiality, the tangibility, of things: “You know
our dreams better than the psychiatrists.” Except in the case of a few
poems, including some of his famous epigrams, we find that intimacy in
Cardenal is always situated outside the self, modeling what he calls “exteriorism.”
Although it is based entirely, like Nicanor Parra’s work, in vernacular
speech, it is unlike Parra’s in as much as Cardenal’s exteriorism sucks
in a historic and cosmic breath that Parra’s antipoetry rejects. Three years
after his “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” Cardenal published another of his
best-known poems, “Mayapán,” and a year later, in 1968, Homage to the
American Indians, the book in which he meant to steal the wind from Neruda’s
Canto general and “The Heights of Macchu Picchu.” “Mayapán”
advocates for “Tahuantinsuyo economics” in an homage that is really more
of a refutation:

Neruda: no freedom
no social security
and not everything was perfect in the “Inca Paradise.”

But in fact, the main rebuttal that Homage to the American Indians makes
is not ideological but formal. Cardenal rebuts Neruda not with his own
poetics but with the poetics of Ezra Pound. And indeed, in its constant references
to the economy and exchange value, in its inclusion of facts and figures,
its absorption with speech, its ceaseless fusion of past and present, its
achievements rise into this finale:

The journey was to the beyond, not the Museum
but in the glass of the Museum
the dry hand of the mummy was still clutching
its sack of grain.

Homage to the American Indians can be read as one more canto in the
immense structure of Pound’s
Cantos, one that hadn’t been included before:
the one concerned with American civilizations. Twenty years after
Homage,
in 1989, Cardenal published the principal work of his career so far, Cosmic
Canto, which like the
De rerum natura of Lucretius and The Divine Comedy
of Dante, aims to merge science with poetry in a story of the drift of the
universe following the big bang. It is also the story of the struggle to overthrow
the Somoza dictatorship. It has incredible passages where it fuses
the immensity of the cosmos with quotidian scenes that call to mind a line
from “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe” that might be said to express his entire
work: “alone like an astronaut up against the galactic night.” “Prayer” isn’t
concerned with Inca economy or the derivation of the cosmos, but with
something infinitely smaller and infinitely more transcendental: it’s concerned
with “a little shopgirl / who like any little shopgirl dreamed of being
a movie star.”


°°°
“A Few Words on the Death of Major Sabines,” Jaime Sabines (Tuxila
Gutiérrez, Chiapas, 1926–Mexico City, 1999) is a singular lonely expletive
covering every sphere of existence and to read it is to experience, as though
it were born in that very instant, a scream of pain, of anger, and helplessness,
capable of dissolving everything, capable even of returning the universe
to its original chaos — if it weren’t for the reader. The reader, in the
piety of reading, is granted by the poem the possibility of transcendence
into another body. The poet, disqualifying the reader, struggles to ignore
this possibility: “Goddamn anyone who thinks this is a poem!” he shouts,
reaching a paroxysm of suffering heard earlier in Cuco Sánchez songs like
“Arrastrando la cobija” (Pull up the Blanket) and “Háblenme montes y
valles” (Tell Me Mountains and Valleys) or in José Alfredo Jiménez compositions,
to name the best-known examples, but never heard before in the
cautious and well-schooled poetry of Mexico.

Excessive, spilling into extreme forms of lewdness, Sabines’s poem
insults sickness, death, and God as never before. He commands tears and
death to “fuck off,” he calls cancer “Lord Asshole,” says God is the “armless
one with a hundred hands,” an “old, deaf, childless man,” a “pimp.”
The whirlwind of death stirred up from bones, vomit, liver, tears, Venetian
blinds, calls to mind the poem “Only Death” from Pablo Neruda’s
Residence
on Earth.
But beyond such parallels, for Sabines the bloody joke
is trying to write poetry against the profligacy of death. Unlike Pablo de
Rokha, Sabines isn’t interested in the social realm, that apocalyptic language
associating dignified death with the heroic dimension of popular
wars, as we see in “The Old Man’s Song,” and in certain passages from
Neruda’s Canto general, and for that reason “A Few Words on the Death of
Major Sabines” is left to the solitude of its own howl. It’s a poem that permits
every excess and overcomes them all by force of its own consequence,
a consequence stemming from the poet who, in absolute solitude, connects
the death of his father to a conspiracy involving the totality of existence:
the sea, land, bones, rain, himself, and God as a senescent man who drools
laughing at the destruction of what He created. So the ire and rebellion of
the poet Jaime Sabines. He doesn’t want to write a poem. He is ashamed
— he says — to try to write these things, to hover over the death of his father
like a scavenger bird. He refuses to be “God’s errand boy,” the collaborator
in His dirty work. And yet, he can’t help but involve himself to the point
that the poem becomes less about the death of the father than about the
death of the son, of the poet himself, who is willing to exchange his death
for his father’s life, begging a desolation no one can escape, but at the same
time revealing to us that the only warning death gives us of our own death
is the death of those we love.


°°°
“Letter to My Mother” by Juan Gelman (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1930–
Mexico City, 2014) is a singular poem, unique in any language’s contemporary
poetry. Masterfully constructed, it consists exclusively of a succession
of interminable questions that a son poses to his mother after receiving a
letter from her twenty days after her death. The questions open out like a
spiral, encircling the passage of two lives, revealing familial scenes, memories,
reproaches, outpourings of tenderness, places the two held in common,
emigrations, creating a crescendo that touches the most fragile, numb,
encrusted, and swollen realms of what we persist in calling human. With
an imposing intensity that recalls Greek tragedies centered on mother figures
— “The Libation Bearers” from Aeschylus’s
The Oresteia or Sophocles’s
Electra, in which the central motif, as in this Gelman poem, concerns
detachment (of son from mother, of mother from son) — the poem unfolds
in shocked grandeur, at once intimate, torn, inconsolable. Beyond showing
us Whitman’s maxim that each of us contains the whole of humanity — “I
contradict myself, I contain multitudes,” he asserts — this grandeur makes
clear that the sentiments, each one of them, contain all sentiments, that
words such as love, rejection, hatred, tenderness are nothing but the result
of the twining of countless emotions that collide, splitting themselves to
reveal, like icebergs, only their prominent tip. We are shaped by this series
of visible peaks, and one of the most startling implications of the poem is
that we ourselves are only vestiges of the unpronounceable. Thus the feeling
of infinity that provokes “Letter to My Mother,” in which each question
opens another and this other opens to an abyss where all meanings collapse
because the answers are either always scattered or never heard by us since
they are infinitely anterior to the very questions that inspire them. The
poem was written in 1968 and was published as a book a year later. Earlier,
I mentioned the Greek tragedies; of course, there are multiple readings of
a poem of this magnitude, but there is one thing for certain: if Sophocles
or Aeschylus were authors in our day, they would have written a work like
this one.


°°°
Hospital Británico is the last work of Hector Viel Temperley (Buenos
Aires, Argentina, 1933–Buenos Aires, 1987). As with “The Old Man’s
Song,” “Conjectural Poem,” and “A Few Words on the Death of Major
Sabines,”
Hospital Británico takes place against the background of death,
its imminence. And yet it is utterly distinct from those other works even
with regard to the idea of its author. To start with, it isn’t the wailing imprecation
of loneliness of Sabines who curses anyone who thinks that what he’s
writing about his father’s death is a poem, nor is it the tragic loss of Pablo
de Rokha who takes poetry to be the heroic expression of a war waged to
the very end, despite the knowledge that it is lost from the start; it is at odds
with the dazzling precision of Borges and it doesn’t try to demystify the
poem by creating an antipoetry. In short, it doesn’t look like any other text,
because it’s a poem written in the margins of the poem. With Temperley,
we don’t encounter an author who writes; writing is the condition of suffering.
The shredded attempts to anchor writing to the real; the obsession for
dating the fragments that compose the poem, the name of which,
Hospital
Británico,
references a real hospital in Buenos Aires. The poem’s allusions
to a bandaged head correspond with the fact that Temperley underwent
brain surgery in that hospital, together with many other details that follow
and, in their intermingling, are linked to vivid memories, the dead mother,
a beach, the card with the image of Christus Pantokrator. Rather than adding
up to a life, they whittle away at an insurmountable impossibility: that
writing is pain. Suffering, pure suffering, comes out of the world and everything
said or expressed is no more than a substitute shadow coming to tell
us the only words we have to express extreme pain, that is to say: we have
no words to express extreme pain.

The cry of suffering is the real limit of existence, aimed at everyone and
no one. At the same time, it is the beforehand of language, the Inferno of
what never actually arrives into words and if there were such words, if that
nothing, that shadow stripped from the world and from language, actually
succeeded in saying “I suffer,” it would only be because it had reached,
once again, the threshold of the scream and so had decided to participate
once again in life, that is, in the purgatory of words. That’s what
Hospital
Británico
expresses. Written in a series of prose fragments that are situated
before and after the brain operation that emerges as a central event, starting
with the most recent entry to the poem: “Month of April, 1986” and continuing
with a series of texts, the majority written in the year before the final
entry, titled “British Hospital,” “Pabellón Rosetto,” “Christus Pantokrator,”
“Long corner of summer,” “Your Face,” “Your Body and Your Father,”
“My head is bandaged,” “They have taken me from the World,” “Freedom,
summer,” “Lies Dying,” “Asleep on Your Lips,” titles that are repeated
many times before the oldest fragment, “In Order to Begin Again,” dated
1969. But this isn’t one of those classic stories that unwinds backward from
the present toward the moment when you triggered the sequence of events
leading to the present. Instead, it’s a field littered with shrapnel from a head
that has literally exploded, that has been trephined, strewing its own detritus
among images of a sometimes extreme beauty, indescribable, beginning
with the dedicatory phrase: “my mother is the smile, the freedom, the
summer,” where the mystical acquires features of a surreality often eerie,
blue, crosshatched by multiple specific references, precise ones: the new
wall that they painted white in The Rosetto Pavilion, the postcard with the
iconic figure of Christ on which “Christus Pantokrator: 13th Century” is
written, a long summer beach where the speaker appears with his mother,
all of which are traces of life and, at the same time, forms on the border of
their own dissolution because that biography, the desperate anxiety to, as
we say, nail down what was real, is the shadow that comes to fill the void of
the scream. What we read then is a trace, the trace left in the water by Charon’s
ferry as it hauls its cargo of dead to the other side.


°°°
Diana’s Tree is comprised of a series of brief stanzas, among the loveliest
short poems written in Spanish, whose author, Alejandra Pizarnik (Buenos
Aires, Argentina, 1936–Buenos Aires, 1972), writes in a style that is arguably
the most imitated and admired by young Latin American poets. With a talent
for imagery that has few equals, Pizarnik is heir to the best of surrealism
— that of Paul Éluard and of Robert Desnos’s “A la mystérieuse” — and yet
her writing never surrenders to unnecessary obscurity or the fashionable
“magicismo” practiced by more than a few authors from Latin America.
Instead, Pizarnik’s poetry, with a clarity that becomes piercing, illuminates
the abysses of emotional sensitivity, desire, and absence that, pressing
against our lives, touch the most exposed, fragile, and numb parts of
humanity. Without ever abandoning her dreamy tone, by which she channels
the porous face of the real, Pizarnik constructs in her work a biography
of solitude and strangeness that, more than anything else, is the strangeness
of being, the surprise of being suspended beneath an identity only the voice
of another can define with a face, a form, a profile, as in “Solo un nombre”
(Only a Name):

Alejandra Alejandra
I am below
Alejandra

What emerges is a world doubled upon itself, a self-awareness of life and
love where the vividness of emotions attains a precision and power of synthesis
that only mastery allows: “when you see the eyes / I have tattooed on
mine.” That is poem nineteen. It’s about a journey on which beauty and
farewell are merely faces of a neglect that bottoms out in the indescribable.
“Diana’s Tree” was published in 1962, and two extraordinary works followed
it:
Extracción de la piedra de locura (Extraction of the rock of madness)
in 1968 and, in 1971,
El infierno musical (The musical Hell), which
was her last. But everything was already said: “explain with words of this
world / that bore from me a boat elsewhere.” That is the thirteenth poem.
Alejandra Pizarnik committed suicide in Buenos Aires on September 25,
1972.


°°°
“Then, in the Waters of Conchán” by Antonio Cisneros (Lima, Peru, 1942–
2012) summons the experience of a village, in the sands on the coast of
Peru, whose people, the “poorest of the poor,” behold in front of them
a huge, dead whale floating in the sea. This poem ends Cisneros’s book
Crónicas del niño Jesús de Chilca (Chronicle of the Christ child of Chilca),
published in 1981, which — along with
The Plain in Flames by Juan Rulfo
— is the most penetrating portrait of poverty yet rendered in the poetry
of Latin America. Unlike Rulfo, whose poem’s characters meet situations
and conflicts so intractable that not even death solves them (just as in
Pedro Páramo, his prose masterpiece), Cisneros shows us, with magisterial
intensity, a dimension of joy and celebration that has never before been
expressed so succinctly.

His tone is unique. Descriptive and at the same time psalmodic. Lightweight
yet cautionary. And among its many readings, it can be considered
as a parable. The creator of a novel tonality, Cisneros published an essential
book at the age of twenty-two.
Canto ceremonial contra un oso hormiguero
(Ceremonial song against an anteater) won the Cuban Casa de las Américas
Prize which was, at that time, the most prestigious and coveted Latin
American poetry competition (showing, incidentally, that although unlikely,
it’s possible that a great poem can win a poetry contest).

With this book’s publication, Cisneros began to exert a tremendous
influence on a younger generation of American poets. His poetry — colloquial,
rendered in a common tongue — lacks the programmatic burden of
antipoetry, giving it a freshness and breadth that paradoxically make it
extremely receptive to the many-layered urban Castilian language of Peru.
However, not even his indubitable genius could presage the magnitude
of the poems that Cisneros would write in what we call now, given the dry
fact of his death, the second half of his life. Since the publication in 1978 of
El libro de Dios y de los húngaros (The book of God and the Hungarians) in
which he abandoned neither his calculated lightness, his brilliant associations,
nor his humor, his poems gradually became more serious and more
self-reflective in order to finally reveal that what he’d been writing since the
beginning was a chronicle of his agony, and that poetry, whatever its subject,
form or time, is forever the history of those curious creatures, maybe
unique in all the universe, who write poems because they understand
they are going to die. In the durable poetry of Antonio Cisneros, there is
no pathos, just an ultimate revelation made clear in the last line of his last
book: “But none of it is yours, you tedious diabetic. Shut up and learn. All
you have are a few grams of insulin and a herd of tawny pigs.” It was on the
journey to such lines that Cisneros came into his most important poem,
“Then in the Waters of Conchán.” Written as a parable for our times, it is
perhaps the only Latin American poem that might have been plucked from
the
Bible.


°°°
“The Guardian of Ice” by José Watanabe (Laredo, Peru, 1946–Lima, 2007)
was first published in
Cosas del cuerpo (Things of the body), 1999, and
twelve years after its publication, it is recognized as one of the prime examples
of new Latin American poetry. A mestizo, a Peruvian, a poet, the son of
an Indian mother snagged in her youth to work on a sugar plantation and a
Japanese immigrant father, a painter, who taught José the art of haiku, Watanabe
reveals — from his first book,
Álbum de familia (Family album) 1971,
to
Banderas detrás de la niebla (Flags behind the fog), published the year
before his death — his basic themes: his peasant childhood in Laredo, the
memory of his dead brother, his time in hospitals, and scenes from the natural
world as, for instance, in “The Praying Mantis.” In that poem, describing
how the male insect is devoured by the female in the act of copulating
with her, Watanabe writes in a direct language, almost oral, which asserts, in
the complete absence of temptation toward rhetoric, its capacity to extract,
just as Juan Rulfo does in his proverbial prose, a tremendously powerful
representative capacity that gives his poems the texture of parables. As we
read what painfully since 2007 we must call his complete work, we see that
Watanabe was sketching for us, in poem after poem, the portrait of someone
who had wanted everyone, all of humanity to see what he was seeing, to
hear what he heard, in order not to have to perform the bloody ritual of registering
what only he could see, what no one else could hear, the condition
only he could feel exactly like that, that way, with that particular intensity,
in the moment when the pain subsides. We understand then why poetry
is the loneliest of occupations, because the poet must assume, on behalf
of all humanity, that no one will be there because to die is to allow everyone
else, absolutely everyone else, to go on living. José Watanabe, watching
the ice melt under the relentless sun, understood what Vallejo, Rulfo, The
Pizarnik, and Millán understood: that poetry is the loneliness of the dying.
So the poet is the guardian of ice.


°°°
“Life” by Gonzalo Millán (Santiago, Chile 1947–Santiago, 2006). Composed
a few decades before the arrival of Hernán Cortés to Mexico and the
beginning of the conquest of America, the Nezahualcóyotl poem I quoted
at the beginning of this introduction, part of what we now call Nahuatl
poetry (although it isn’t right to use the word “poetry” since the Nahuas
didn’t develop the concept of poetry conceived in the West, simply because
they didn’t need it), like testamentary texts or the Hindu Mahabharata,
is one of the extraordinary creations of mankind. What broadly characterizes
the songs of the ancient Nahuas is an essential wisdom, naturalness,
and purity that seems to be unclouded by anything beyond its own material:
this is also the case in the poetry of Gonzalo Millán. Five hundred years
after Nezahualcóyotl’s song, Millán writes a poem, “Life,” that is its reflection,
the singular work of a singular poet. Author of a seminal book,
La ciudad
(The city) 1979, which constitutes one of the cardinal literary reference
points of the Chilean anti-dictatorship, Millán pushes beyond the stance of
objectivity, with often devastating effects, to show us the sum of evidence
for our world. Renewing Latin American poetry in a moment when poetry,
after the explosion of Nicanor Parra’s antipoetry, seemed trapped in the
margins of the trivial,
La ciudad ratchets up the consequences derived
from the conception of a wide-spanning poetry based on minimal elements
arranged through small objective displacements of words and sounds that
freeze-frame emotions and register what is visible to everyone, the fact that
poetry returns to things precisely what poetry had almost given up: the
overwhelming force and the strength of the obvious.

Dying prematurely, like the great companion of his generation, José
Watanabe, Gonzalo Millán, unlike Watanabe, pursued a poetry without
an “I.” His poem “Life” rises into a transparency, grandeur, and comeliness
that makes apparent its kinship with Nahuatl songs, as though what
we finally call poetry were nothing more than the relentless repetition of
evidence:

And after going along with your eyes closed
through the guiding darkness,
to open your eyes and see the
darkness that leads us,
to open your eyes and see the darkness that leads us
with your eyes open and to close your eyes.

This is the final poem of the book
La ciudad. In the distance, the horizon
sits below an empty sky etched with that endlessly resonant line: “Death is
the end of life.” But it is likewise the beginning of all poetry.