Friday, October 19, 2018

Anna Swir / The Sea And The Man

The Sea And The Man 

by Anna Swir

Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

You will not tame this sea
either by humility or rapture.
But you can laugh
in its face.

was invented by those
who live briefly
as a burst of laughter.

The eternal sea
will never learn to laugh.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Anna Swir / A Woman Writer Does Laundry

A Woman Writer Does Laundry
by Anna Swir
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan

Enough typing.
Today I am doing laundry
in the old style.
I wash, I wash, rinse, wring
as did my grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

Doing laundry is healthful and useful
like a washed shirt. Writing
is suspect.
Like three interrogation marks
typed on a page.

Talking to My Body
Copper Canyon Press, 1996

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Anna Swir / He Was Lucky

He Was Lucky

By Anna Swir

The old man
leaves his house, carries books.
A German soldier snatches his books
flings them in the mud.

The old man picks them up,
the soldier hits him in the face.
The old man falls,
the soldier kicks him and walks away.

The old man
lies in mud and blood.
Under him he feels
the books.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Anna Swir / The Same Inside

The Same Inside
by Anna Swir

Walking to your place for a love fest I saw at a street corner an old beggar women. I took her hand, kissed her delicate cheek, we talked, she was the same inside as I am, from the same kind, I sensed this instantly as a dog knows by scent another dog. I gave her money, I could not part from her. After all, one needs someone who is close. And then I no longer knew why I was walking to your place.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Anna Swir / I Wash the Shirt

I Wash the Shirt

by Anna Swir

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan

Anna Swir / Eu lavo a camisa

For the last time I wash the shirt
of my father who died.
The shirt smells of sweat. I remember
that sweat from my childhood,
so many years
I washed his shirts and underwear,
I dried them
at an iron stove in the workshop,
he would put them on unironed.

From among all bodies in the world,
animal, human,
only one exuded that sweat.
I breathe it in
for the last time. Washing this shirt
I destroy it
only paintings survive him
which smell of oils.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Anna Swir / The Greatest Love

The Greatest Love

by Anna Swir

Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

She is sixty. She lives
the greatest love of her life.

She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,
her hair streams in the wind.
Her dear one says:
"You have hair like pearls."

Her children say:
"Old fool."

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Pablo Neruda / The Word

The Word

By Pablo Neruda
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Pablo Neruda / La palabra

The word was born
in the blood,
it grew in the dark body, pulsing,
and took flight with the lips and mouth.

Farther away and nearer,
still, still it came
from dead fathers and from wandering races,
from territories that had become stone,
that had tired of their poor tribes,
because when grief set out on the road
the people went and arrived
and united new land and water
to sow their word once again.
And that's why the inheritance is this:
this is the air that connects us
with the buried man and with the dawn
of new beings that haven't yet arisen.

Still the atmosphere trembles
with the first word
with panic and groaning.
It emerged
from the darkness
and even now there is no thunder
that thunders with the iron sound
of that word,
the first
word uttered:
perhaps it was just a whisper, a raindrop,
but its cascade still falls and falls.

Later on, meaning fills the word.
It stayed pregnant and was filled with lives,
everything was births and sounds:
affirmation, clarity, strength,
negation, destruction, death:
the name took on all the powers
and combined existence with essence
in its electric beauty.

Human word, syllable, flank
of long light and hard silver,
hereditary goblet that receives
the communications of the blood:
it is here that silence was formed by
the whole of the human word
and not to speak is to die among beings:
language extends out to the hair,
the mouth speaks without moving the lips:
suddenly the eyes are words.

I take the word and move
through it, as if it were
only a human form,
its lines delight me and I sail
in each resonance of language:
I utter and I am
and across the boundary of words,
without speaking, I approach silence.

I drink to the word, raising
a word or crystalline cup,
in it I drink
the wine of language
or unfathomable water,
maternal source of all words,
and cup and water and wine
give rise to my song
because the name is origin
and green life: it is blood,
the blood that expresses its substance,
and thus its unrolling is prepared:
words give crystal to the crystal,
blood to the blood,
and give life to life.

From Plenos Poderes / Fully Empowered (1962)

Monday, September 17, 2018

Eugenio Montejo / The White Workshop

From the home of Eugenio Montejo. Photo: Martha Viaña.

The White Workshop

By Eugenio Montejo
Translated by Peter Boyle

Eugenio Montejo / El taller blanco

Nowadays, anyone who feels drawn towards an apprenticeship in poetry, despite the many impediments which might dissuade them from it, whether for good or ill, can finally embark on their vocation by means of a poetry workshop. The experiment is something new among us but, as in many other cases, it can count on a large number of defenders and detractors. Though operating in a more or less identical form (i.e. the gathering together of a guide and a select dozen participants) poetry workshop can produce results as disparate as the groups of people they are made of. Much depends on the backgrounds and sensitivities of the participants, and above all, the fraternal cordial climate which can begin to develop through practice. That from the start each can distinguish their own voice in the chorus, that everyone sees the guide as persuasive interlocutor rather than hegemonic dictator, is doubtless a good point of departure. The habit of fertile discussion, the stimulus to work, mutual respect and everything which, to use an expression of Matthew Arnold’s, we could call “literary urbanity”, follow naturally from such a beginning.
For my part I don’t underestimate the usefulness of workshops, although I secretly feel skeptical about their results. I nourish the prejudice (somewhat romantic it’s true) that poetry like every art is a solitary passion. A multitude, as Simone Weil wisely advises, cannot even add up; a person needs to withdraw into solitude to execute this simple operation. For this reason maybe the title given by Schoenberg to his Memoirs strikes me as one of the most appropriate to sum up the meanderings of a life devoted to art, to any art: How to regain solitude. Only in isolation do we succeed in glimpsing the part of ourselves which is intransferible, and maybe, paradoxically, that is the only part worth communicating to others.     
I know that many would reply that in poetry, apart from innate gifts, there is the side of workmanship, strictly technical, common to other arts as to the modest labour of goldsmiths and handcraft makers. These are the so-called secrets of the trade, whose mastery is to a certain extent communicable. On the other hand, there are those who would remind me of Lautréamont´s well-known aphorism: poetry should be made by all. The vast body of folklore seems to confirm the triumph of such multiple anonymous contributions. In this process, words become polished by rolling back and forth between people, like stones in a river, and the ones which endure turn out in the end to be the ones most valued by the collective soul. All that is true, with the proviso that we don’t forget that at every instant there existed a real person, that they were never mere teams, however numerous we believe these makers to be. Yes, poetry should be made by all, but fatally written by one alone.
On the other hand, as far as there is a correspondence between poetry and an artisan’s methods of working, the secrets of the trade, that vast area which R. G. Collingwood analyses in this book The principle of art, it seems to me that it is to this field that people in a workshop can really usefully devote themselves. Given that we write in our own language, it is in this, principally, (i.e. through the creations which make up its traditions) that we can investigate the how of its intimate government; of the why and the when we can usefully learn not only in our own language but in however many other languages we master.
The word “workshop”, according to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy, has two accepted meanings, one concrete, the other figurative. The first refers to a place where an item of handwork is produced. The second refers to a school or scientific seminar where many people come together for common learning. The poetry workshop means both the first and the second. It is a workshop in both the literal and the figurative sense. There is an item of handwork as well as participation in a common apprenticeship. I, and those more or less of my age, never knew poetry workshops such as they exist today. We never had the fortune or misfortune of gathering together to initiate ourselves into the trade of poetry. Where, then, did we go to learn it? Others would reply, of course, with their personal stories of beginnings and influences. Personally, I have stated that I never assisted in any place where I gained the experience of this trade. That at least, because I believed it, is what I have repeated. I would like now to rectify this vain assertion. When I was a child, very much a child, I was intensely involved in one such place. I spent a lot of time in the white workshop.
It was a real workshop, just as it really was our daily bread. As a boy my father had learnt the trade of baker. He began, like any apprentice, sweeping up and lifting crates, and with the years he succeeded in becoming maestro de cuadra. Later he owned his own bakery, the workshop where I spent a large part of my infancy.  I don’t know how I could have previously overlooked what I owe for my art and my life to that room, to those men who ritually night after night would gather before the large tables to make bread. I am talking of an old bakery, the kind that doesn’t exist now, in a large house big enough to pile up wood, to store hundreds of sacks of flour and to place in position the straight trays where the massed dough slowly gained body during the night in front of the oven. These are ancient, almost medieval proceedings, slower and more complicated than those of today, but also more filled with mystic presences. The sense of progress has reduced this workshop to a small cubicle of electrical appliances where the task is simplified by mechanical means. Now there is no need for cartloads of wood with its penetrating resinous fragrance, nor is there flour piled up in numerous store rooms. Why? The oven instead of being a yawning chamber of red-hot bricks is now a high-voltage metallic rectangle. I wonder, could a boy of today learn something for his poetry in that enwalled pigsty? I don’t know. In the white workshop perhaps stayed fixed for me one of those mythic ambiences that Bachelard recreated to analyse the poetry of space. Flour is the essential substance which stores those years in my memory. Its whiteness contaminated everything: the fringe of your hair, the hands, the skin, but also things, gestures, words. Our house stood there like an igloo, the dwelling of an eskimo, under dense snow. For that reason, when years later in Paris for the first time I contemplated the quiet fall of snow, I didn’t show the usual amazement of a man of the tropics. That old friend was already known to me. I felt only a vague curiosity to verify by touch its smooth presence.
I am speaking of a real poetic apprenticeship, of techniques I still use in my nights of work, for I don’t want to weave metaphors around a simple memory. This very thing I’m saying, my nights, comes from there. The task of the bread makers was nocturnal like mine, accustomed to the late peaceful hours which make up for the oppressive heat of a midsummer day. Like them I’ve got used to the strangeness of the laborious vigil while around us everyone is asleep. And in the depths of night whiteness is doubly white. The moon is present on the walls, the wood, the tables, the caps of the workers. The learned and wise workers. There is the air of an operating theatre, the silent steps, the quick movements. It is no less than bread what is silently being made here, the bread they will ask for at dawn to take to hospitals, colleges, barracks, houses. What labour can share so much responsibility? Isn’t the same preoccupation as poetry?
The oven, which purifies all that, reddens whoever works there with its invigorating fire. Loaves of dough, once formed into a mass, are covered with a cloth and placed in large bowls like sleeping fish, until the moment comes when they are ready to be baked. How often, setting aside the first draft of a poem to revise it sometime later, I’ve felt I’m covering it myself with a cloth to decide its fate later on. And I have said nothing of those labourers, serene, serious, and tough, with their mythology of slums, of cheap liquor. Should I seek for the sacred further off in my life, paint human purity with a different face? Christ could change stones into bread, for that reason he was more like a carpenter, that beautiful workshop with its distinctive colour. For those men who never spoke to me of religion, perhaps because they were too religious, Christ was in the humility of flour and the redness of the fire that started burning at midnight.
From the white workshop I gained the sense of devotion to existence which I found so often in those masters of the nocturnal. The care due to the making of things, the brotherhood which is part of a common destiny, the search for a friendly wisdom which doesn’t lead us to lie to ourselves too much. How many times, looking at the books lined up before me, I’ve thought of the line of trays filled with bread. Can a word reach a page with more care, with more intimate attention than that given by those workers to what they produced? I would give anything sometimes to approximate to the perfect execution of their nightly workshops. To the white workshop I owe these and many other teachings which I value when I face the writing of a text.
Bread and words join in my imagination, made sacred by the same persistence. By night, sitting down in front of the empty page, I see in my lamp a halo of that ancient whiteness which has never abandoned me. I no longer see the bakers, it’s true, nor hear close by their fraternal chatter; the song of roosters is replaced by wailing sirens and the sound of taxis. The fury of the modern city has driven far away the things and the time of the white workshop. And yet the ritual of its nights survives in me. In each word I write, I feel the prolongation of the watch that gathered those humble artisans together.
Maybe if I had not been involved in its daily watches, if I had not been mixed up in the deep ceremonies of its labours, I would in any case have found something that fed my desire for poetry. The cry of Merlin would have always tempted me to follow its trail in the forest. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine where, if not there, I would have learned my word to recognise the sacred devotion of life. I jot down this last line and listen to the crackling of the wood, I watch the cloud of smoke spreading, the iconic faces coming and going through the room, the flour meticulously covering the memory of the white workshop.      

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

So the Song Remains / Cosmic Orientation and Landscape in the Poetry of Eugenio Montejo

Eugenio Montejo
Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo. Photo: Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza.

So the Song Remains: Cosmic Orientation and Landscape in the Poetry of Eugenio Montejo
by Luis Enrique Belmonte
Translated by Arthur Dixon

Para que el canto permanezca / Orientación cósmica y paisaje en la poesía de Eugenio Montejo

The civilizing character of the poetry of Eugenio Montejo, its constructive and binding desire, has a close relation to his cosmic vision of landscape.
Any inhabited territory becomes a cosmos. To give a territory cosmic orientation is to cosmicize it. It is impossible to civilize a territory, to imprint it with a truly human significance, if it has not been consecrated through its cosmic orientation. As Mircea Eliade says, “it is important to understand well that the cosmicization of unknown territories is always a consecration: in organizing a space, the exemplary work of the gods is reiterated.”
Montejo’s poetry is the map of a cosmicized territory. The idea of a map leads us to the notion of spatial location, that is, to the orientatio, the active principle without which it would be impossible to inhabit a territory and provide it with a cosmic arrangement that fortifies it before chaos and separates it from the strange, homogeneous, and undifferentiated.
In order to cosmically orient ourselves, we must establish a center that serves as an intersection of four cardinal horizons. When a man pauses in his passage over empty ground and draws on the earth, with a stick, a circle around himself, establishing a fixed point, a center from which four cardinal horizons emerge, he is repeating an archaic act: the cosmicization of a territory. Another operation inherent in the cosmicization of space would be the configuration of a vertical axis or axis mundi, an opening toward the high and the low, a rupture of undifferentiated levels. In this way, the fixed center, the cardinal points, and the axis are fundamental principles in the construction of any humanized and civilized space. Cosmic orientation, order, fixedness, stability, realization.
Landscape in Montejo’s poetry is the terredad, the “earthdom,” of the world. Many have spoken of Montejian earthdom; I only wish to add that the earthdom of a space is determined by its cosmic orientation. Therefore, the earthdom of something or someone is given by its cosmicization, because earthdom is the cosmicized space. As we know, Terredad (1978) is a foundational book, a fixed “center” from which the four rivers or cardinal horizons of the Montejian map are plotted. Poetry of cosmic orientation, without a doubt, hence precisely its earthdom, a neologism coined by Montejo that, with the passage of time, will surely pass into more popular and extended use.
Through symbols, we access the cosmic dimension of our existence. Without symbolic representation and understanding, we could not grasp the experience of the cosmic. Primordial symbols of the cosmic dimension of earthly existence are: the number four (the four cardinal points, the four seasons of the year, the four ages of life, the four elements, the four kingdoms—mineral, vegetable, animal, human—the four psychic functions, etc.); the four temperaments of man; the quaternity (series of four); the square (idea of totality); the cube (the Earth); the square spiral (constructive and materialized energy); the cross (axis, ontological-spatial origin of temples and cities); the grid; the vertical monoliths (milestones, Hermes, totemic figures); or the archetype of the Father.
Montejo’s poetry accesses its cosmic orientation through certain concrete symbols of our earthdom, like the tree, the bird, the river, the lovers, the frog, the ox, Orpheus, the cassette of Orpheus, the stones, the doors, the buildings, the cock, the cicadas, the taxi, the lamp, the clock, the boats, the airplanes, the tropic, the alphabet, the palm trees. Note that, upon listing these elements, we assume that in Montejo’s poetry eartness has nothing to do with the telluric, nor with the homely, nor with the swamp. Earthdom does not exclude the foundling man, nor the city, nor the artefacts or essentials invented by civilization. Perhaps this is why, as Francisco José Cruz says, Montejo’s poetry is “demonstrable,” such that, upon entering in contact with it, we can have “certainty that we continue in the world.”
I would like to pause, as Francisco Rivera did before, on two symbols that, due to their power and efficacy, have the capacity to constellate and cosmically align the other Montejian elements. I am speaking of the tree and the bird. Both symbols, in a mysterious way, just like other more biological or tangible forms, are intimately related. The symbiotic relation between tree and bird is easily demonstrable. Trees serve as the seat of the birds, and birds spread the seeds of the trees, for example. But there is a less evident dynamism in the tree-bird relation that connects with a more mythical dimension, a point in illo tempore, at which tree and bird were united, at which sky and earth had not yet been separated.
The tree symbolizes the axis mundi, the ordering and orienting principle of what is above and what is below. In the Montejian landscape the tree has not been humanized, as many might be able to suggest upon hearing that in his poetry “the trees speak little,” or that they “spend their whole lives meditating,” or that “they come together in parks.” Instead of the humanization of the tree, the poetic operation that appears in Montejo’s poetry is the arborization of the human, such that man accesses his earthdom, his cosmic orientation, through the emotional and real connection with the tree, providing human experience with a cosmological status. The earthdom of man, therefore, does not belong exclusively to him, as it will only be cosmic if it is shared with the earthdom of the tree. Earthdom is always manifested in a we that links the human to the other natural kingdoms: stone, tree, birds, lovers. Montejo’s tree is, then, a space consecrated by its cosmic orientation, a space in which an intimate connection to the human appears, since only by virtue of human intelligence can a territory be constructed, organized, inhabited, cosmicized.
The other primordial symbol of the Montejian landscape is the bird, configured magnificently by that verse that says that the “earthdom of a bird is its song.” Because it is through song that the bird may access its cosmic orientation. The scale of sounds that is given off in the bird’s song leads us to a rupture with homogeneous space, lending it importance, establishing correspondences with other elements of the earthly and thereby founding, miraculously, its earthdom. The song links the bird to Orpheus, the frogs, the cock, the cicadas, and the men. But birds in Montejo’s landscape are not exotic, nor do they appear in a flock. They are rather solitary, fortified, foundling, city dwelling birds. If they were disbanded birds, for example, they would be more oriented toward chaos than toward the cosmos. And if they were exotic birds, it would be harder for them to blend into the surrounding space. Montejo’s birds are common birds. His favorite is the thrush, for example, although there are also sparrows, buntings, and mockingbirds, as well as other winged beings propitious for song, like crickets and cicadas, also closely tied to the tree and the forest.
Another interesting element of the Montejian bird is that its movement has a descending direction. It goes from the sky to the tree, not from the tree to the sky. Traditionally, the bird has been assimilated into myths of flight and ascension. Through the bird’s flight, man accesses a superior reality. A messenger between the sky and the earth, the ascending bird symbolizes the spiritualization of matter, its sublimation toward more elevated and indemonstrable spheres. Montejo’s bird, nonetheless, as Francisco Rivera says, “gives body and movement to a descending energy of condensation that, humble but obstinate, unites the poet with the earth.” I could add no more to what has so splendidly been said; I would only like to close with an association that could provide an additional turn of the screw in the question of landscape and that related to another of the great themes of Montejo’s poetry.
This is the ibis of the ancient Egyptians, mentioned tangentially in Montejo’s poetry and perhaps a little more strongly in his essays. The ibis is a real and mythical bird that has been linked to the Egyptian god Thoth, god of wisdom, of knowledge, of language, of writing and scribes. It is significant that the god Thoth has been represented, in ancient Egyptian art, with the body of a man and the head of an ibis, just as it is significant that the ibis comes to be manifested precisely in the head of the god Thoth, since the head is the site of human intelligence, the capacity to communicate and cosmically orient ourselves.
There are ethological theories that suggest that human language might have emerged from the imitation of birdsong. This leads us to point out the relation of the god Thot with logos, that is, with the cosmic intelligence manifested in all rational things, with the power of the mind expressed in speech, according to Plato, or with the word incarnate, hierophany or theophany, according to Christianity and other schools. Here is the alphabet of the world that concerned Montejo so much, the materialization of the spirit, the logos that descends and is imprinted upon the earth, making it more human and habitable. But the logos also has a more archaic and primitive connotation, if we consider its relation with the lunar light that illuminates the night and with the constructive principle that is actively placed before chaos and darkness. Without logos, there can be no cosmos. Montejo’s poetry is attended by the god Thoth and by logos. This is the source of its civic and civilizing character, its constructive and binding desire, its vocation of order and fixedness. To make the formless space more habitable. To remain in the earth by the song. So the song remains.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Leila Guerriero / Searching Nicanor

Nicanor Parra

CHRONICLESearching for Nicanor
by Leila Guerriero

He is a man, but he could be something else: a catastrophe, a roar, the wind. Sitting in a a low armchair, covered by a wool blanket, he wears a denim shirt, a beige sweater with several holes, corduroy trousers. Behind his back, a glass door separates the sitting room from a balcony with two chairs, and, beyond that, a yard covered in bushes. After that, the Pacific Ocean, the waves biting at rocks that look like black hearts.1
“Come in, come in.”
He is a man, but he could be a dragon, the death rattle of a volcano, the rigidity that comes before an earthquake.
“Come in, come in.”

It’s easy to find the house on Calle Lincoln, in the coastal town of Las Cruces, two hundred kilometers from Santiago de Chile, where Nicanor Parra lives. The hard part is finding Nicanor Parra himself.
Nicanor. Nicanor Parra. Born in San Fabián de Alico, the first son of a total of eight brought into the world by the union of Nicanor Parra, a high school teacher, and Clara Sandoval. He was twenty-five when World War II began, sixty-six when John Lennon was killed, eighty-seven when the planes hit the Twin Towers. Nicanor. Nicanor Parra. Born in 1914. In September he turned ninety-seven. Some believe he is no longer among the living.
Las Cruces is a little town of two thousand residents, protected from the Pacific Ocean by a bay that connects various towns: Cartagena, El Tabo. Nicanor Parra’s house sits at the edge of a ravine, facing the sea. In the front garden, a staircase ascends toward the door, marked by graffiti painted by the local punks so that no one will dare lay a finger on the house. It reads, “Antipoesía.” In the hallway that leads to the sitting room, written in thick marker on the walls in masterful calligraphy, are the names and phone numbers of some of his children: Barraco, Colombina.
“Come in, come in.”
Nicanor Parra’s hair is a sulfuric white. His beard is growing out, and he has no wrinkles: only furrows on a face that looks like it’s made of things of the earth. His hands are tanned, with no marks or folds, like two roots polished by the water. On a low table sits the second volume of his complete works (Obras completas & algo +), published five years after the first by Galaxia Gutenberg, compiled by Niall Binns of England and Ignacio Echevarría of Spain, with a preface by Harold Bloom that says, “...I firmly believe that, if the most powerful poet to have come out of the New World thus far is still Walt Whitman, Parra must stand with him as an essential poet of the Lands of Twilight.” At the end of the eighties, when he still lived in Santiago, Parra stopped giving interviews and, although there have always been exceptions, direct questions displease him in unexpected ways, such that any conversation with him takes place under the influence of an unforeseeable drift, with topics that repeat and that he brings up with any excuse: his grandchildren, the Manusmṛti, the Tao Te Ching, Neruda.
“Men of the south. How did they say men of the south. Let’s see, let’s see…”
He tilts his head back, closes his eyes, repeats the peremptory mantra:
“Let’s see, let’s see… What did they call the people of the south, the first people of Chile? They used to call them Ona, Alacalufe, Yaghan…”
“That’s it, that’s it. Selk'nam. There is a line. ‘The land of fire goes out.’ Author: Francisco Coloane. A great line. But he was a rather nasty person, eh? Unbearable.”
“Do you know Tierra del Fuego? The ‘land of fire’?”
“I’ve passed through there with my grandson, Tololo. He has also created some phenomenal lines. The first thing he said was ‘dadn.’ And then ‘diúk.’ Years later I told him, ‘You’re going to tell me what ‘dadn’ was supposed to mean.’ At the time I was translating King Lear and I was pacing one way and another, and he was in his crib, and I recited, ‘I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.’ And I thought, ‘How should I translate that?’ And that’s where he got the ‘diúk.’ And I asked him, ‘And the ‘dadn’?’ And he said to me, ‘To be or not to be: that is the question.’ That is: ‘dadn.’ Once the director of his high school called his mother to an urgent meeting because she was calling roll and Tololo didn’t answer. So she asked him, ‘Hey, kid, why don’t you answer when I call roll?’ ‘I can’t because my name is not Cristóbal any more. Now my name is Hamlet.’ Since them, I gave up on literature and devoted myself to writing down the children’s sayings.”
This might seem like a joke, but no: Parra takes note of the words of his grandchildren, or Rosita Avendaño, the woman who cleans his house, or the people who pass by, and he transforms them into the deceitful simplicity of his poems: “Then they wanted to send me to high school / Where the sick kids were / But I couldn’t stand them / Because I’m no sick little girl / It’s hard for me to say the words / But I’m no sick little girl,” he wrote in “Rosita Avendaño.”
“Have you been to India? I was there for a week. I didn’t get to know the Manusmṛti. If I had, I would’ve stayed there. The final verse of the Manusmṛti reads, ‘Why?, one asks oneself. Because there exists no greater humiliation than existing.’”
He counts the syllables on his fingers, marking the rhythm with his feet.
“Pay attention. The Manusmṛti says: the ages of man are not two or three, but four. First, novice. Second, gallant. Third, anchorite. When the first grandchild is born, the man retires from the world. No more woman. No more family. No more material goods. No more search for fame.”
“And the fourth age?”
“Ascetic or shining butterfly. Whoever has passed through all these ages will be rewarded. And whoever remains halfway down the path, punished. He will be reborn. But the other, the ascetic, is not reborn. Because there is no greater humiliation than existing. The greatest reward is to be erased from the map. And what does one do after that? One leaves India and comes to Las Cruces.”
He had a childhood of scarcities and moves until, at sixteen or seventeen, he left for Santiago, alone. Thanks to a grant from the League of Poor Students, he completed his studies in a prestigious institute. Since he had high grades in humanities, but not in sciences, he studied Mathematics and Physics at the University of Chile “to show those morons they knew nothing about mathematics.” In 1938, while he was making a living as a teacher, he published Cancionero sin nombre [Unnamed songbook]. In 1943, he traveled to the United States to study advanced mechanics; in 1949, he went to England to study cosmology; starting in 1951, he taught mathematics and physics at the University of Chile. In 1954, he published Poems and Antipoems, a book that, with apparently simple language but a very sophisticated approach, revolutionized Latin American poetry: “Neither too bright nor totally stupid / I was what I was. A mixture / Of oil and vinegar / A sausage of angel and beast.” It included a prologue by Neruda, with whom Parra would sustain a relationship heavy with contradictions, in part because his poems began to be read as a reaction to any form of high-minded poetry, and were received with high praise. After that came a period of generous production. He published La cueca larga [The long cueca] in 1958; Versos de salón [Sitting room verses] in 1962 (“For half a century / Poetry was the paradise / Of the solemn fool. / Until I came / and built my rollercoaster.”); Manifiesto in 1963; Canciones rusas[Russian songs] in 1967. In 1969, he won the National Prize for Literature and compiled his work in Obra Gruesa [Thick work]. At fifty-five years old, he was pro-Castro and a juror of the Casa de las Américas Prize when, in 1970, he attended a meeting of writers in Washington and, along with other guests, he paid a visit to the White House. They were received, unexpectedly, by Nixon’s wife, who invited them for tea. The cup of tea with Nixon’s wife, in the midst of the Vietnam War, was, for Parra, annihilation: the Casa de las Américas took away his juror’s privileges and insults rained down upon him. If his political position fell under suspicion, his literary work didn’t take long to suffer the same fate: in 1972 he published Artefactos [Artefacts], a series of sayings accompanied by drawings that moved between irreverence, blasphemy, and political incorrectness: “The right and left united will never be defeated,” “White House House of the Americas Madhouse.” The kindest critics said this was not poetry. The cruelest said it was the best propaganda that the fascists could hope for. In 1977, during Pinochet’s dictatorship, he published Sermones y prédicas del Cristo de Elqui [Sermons and preachings of the Christ of Elqui] (“I bet my head / that nobody laughs like me when the Philistines torture him”) and Chistes para desorientar a la policía [Jokes to disorient the police] (“Upon appearing I appeared / but only on the list of the disappeared”). But, just like other poets who remained in Chile during those years, he suffered under the weight of the suspicion that he did not oppose the regime with sufficient vigour. In 1985, he published Hojas de Parra[Leaves of Parra], and, shortly after, he went to live in Las Cruces. Then came twenty years of silence until, in 2004, he published, through Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, a translation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, which was received as the best ever translation of the play to Spanish.
Nicanor. Nicanor Parra. He writes with an everyday ballpoint pen in everyday notebooks, he takes ascorbic acid in massive doses, he always eats the same things: stews, roulades, soups. He was a candidate for the Nobel Prize on several occasions, and is eternally up for the Cervantes. A while ago they asked him to film an ad for milk, and, since Shakira was part of the project, he asked to receive the same pay as her. They ended up paying him thirty thousand dollars for every half-minute of his time, and, since then, he often repeats that his rate is one thousand dollars per second. He has two houses in Santiago, one in Las Cruces, another on Isla Negra. Nobody knows what he does with the houses where he doesn’t live.
“He’s well aware of what he’s worth, and in that sense he’s also an antipoet,” says Matías Rivas, director of Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales and the man who approached Parra to propose the publication of his translation of King Lear. “After we published his King Lear, he came to the university with thousands of students behind him. He came back transformed into a rock star. He’s more alive and more awake than anyone. That’s why peers of his age, or a little younger, get scared by the Artefactos. Nicanor is part of the punk wave, and the older readers arrived during his jazz wave. ‘New is better than good,’ he always says.”
The sentence is not an empty declamation: not long ago, Parra wrote a rap verse, “El rap de la Sagrada Familia” [The rap of the Holy Family], that tells of the relationship between an old man and a student, and his production of Artefactos, which he now accompanies with a drawing of a heart with eyes, has not only continued to grow but has also come to include his Trabajos prácticos [Practical works], modified objects like a cross on which, instead of Christ, there hangs a poster that reads “I come and go,” or a photo of Bolaño with a quote from Hamlet: “Good night sweet prince.”
In 1940, he married Anita Troncoso, with whom he had three children. In 1951, he married Inga Palmen. He had one child with Rosita Muñoz, who was his employee, and two more with Nury Tuca, who was thirty-three years his minor. In 1978, he met Ana María Molinare, who was a little over thirty. She left him, and he, biting the dust, wrote a radioactive mantra, a poem called “The Imaginary Man”: “The imaginary man / lives in an imaginary house / in the midst of imaginary trees / on the bank of an imaginary river.” Three years later, Ana María Molinare committed suicide. In the mid-nineties, he met Andrea Lodeiro, who was several decades his minor—maybe six—and with whom he stayed until 1998. Since then he has remained—more or less—alone. “What I urgently need / is a María Kodama / to take care of the library… with a young widow on the horizon / ...the coffin is colored pink / even the belly pains / provoked x the academics of Stockholm / disappear as if x enchantment,” he wrote. In his later years, he began to cultivate a gauche image. He buys second-hand clothes in the Puerto de San Antonio, a low-class place through which he moves comfortably, as he does everywhere. When, some time ago, some of his writing notebooks disappeared from his house and he learned that some local dealers had received them as payment, he went in search of them and they were returned to him with apologies. His reticence toward publishing is legendary. Even when Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales put out two more of his books—Discursos de sobremesa [After-dinner speeches] (2006) and La vuelta del cristo de Elqui [The return of the Christ of Elqui] (2007)—he took years to sign a contract, and months to arrive at a version of the texts with which he was comfortable. The process of publishing his complete works took almost a decade. In November of 1999, Ignacio Echeverría and Roberto Bolaño, who had become a great promoter of Parra’s work (“he writes as if he were going to be electrocuted the next day,” he wrote), came to visit him.
“On the way back to Barcelona,” says Ignacio Echeverría, “Roberto suggested to me that we put together Parra’s complete works. Everyone told me it was impossible, but I proposed it to him and he said he was willing. Of course, after that I sent him the contract, he had it for six months and then told me he’d lost it, and we had to do the whole thing again. Three years went by until, after Bolaño’s death, I traveled to Chile. I visited him and he told me, ‘I’m going to sign the contract. Roberto would have liked that, right? We’ll do it for Roberto.’ But I still suffer an ever-growing doubt about having pressured Parra to do something he didn’t want to do. He conceives of antipoetry as something that is written on a wall, on a napkin. And I think the idea of the complete works repulses him.”
In the house’s bathroom, hanging from a nail over the commode, is a cardboard plaque that, in his calligraphy, says, “Do not throw paper in the toilet bowl.” In the sitting room, Parra drinks tea and recites, in Greek, the first verses of the Iliad. Then, he tilts his head back and places the tea bag over his right eye.
“I’ve got something in my eye. This’ll fix it. Last time I went running to the clinic, in Santiago. The urologist told me, ‘Get ready, my friend, because tomorrow you’re going into surgery. A simple cytology.’ And then I told him, ‘I’d rather die. Let me go or I’ll jump out of that window.’ And I was going to jump. I just discovered a book called The Book of Disquiet in my library.”
“By Pessoa.”
“It doesn’t work anymore. That thing with the pen names. Okay, man, we get it. He has one poem that’s unbeatable. It says, ‘All love letters are ridiculous. They wouldn’t be love letters if they weren’t ridiculous.’ And it continues, ‘In my time I also wrote love letters, equally, inevitably ridiculous.’ Think of all the somersaults he does. Like those Argentine women poets. That María Elena… María Elena... “
“Yeeeah. Let’s see, there are others.”
“Alejandra Pizarnik?”
“Ah, that Alejandra Pizarnik. Fantastic. And which of them wrote ‘La vaca estudiosa’ [The studious cow]?”
“María Elena Walsh wrote for children mostly, but not exclusively, and in that area she earned high prestige. But, in any case, her work is very different from that of Alejandra Pizarnik, an obscure poet who commited suicide in 1972. ‘La vaca estudiosa’ is a song by María Elena Walsh that tells the story of a cow who wants to study.”
“Oh, how marvellous. And to stave off her boredom the cow enrolls in a school. And she draws the children’s attention, so she says, ‘No, I commit to being a studious cow.’ No, that María Elena. We’re with her one hundred percent.”
“He’s got that cunning about him, Nicanor, to discredit without stridency,” says Alejandro Zambra, who worked with Parra on King Lear and who, like other young writers, assures that he has always carried himself with titanic generosity. “He won’t tell you anything negative about Neruda, but he’ll tell you something in such a way that you feel solidarity with him, and not with Neruda.”
“He’s a stray cat,” says Sergio Parra, an editor and poet who has known Parra since the eighties. “Once we were in his house and he went to look for his notebooks. He told me, ‘I’m going to read you some texts.’ And suddenly he turns around and tells me, ‘But don’t move, eh?’”
“Did I tell you the story of the huiña? The huiña is a wild cat, from the forest.”
Parra opens the door that separates the sitting room from the balcony and points at a piece of wood among the plants in the back garden.
“She was unfriendly. But one day she came close and I was able to touch her. And the next day she was dead. It bothered her that I touched her. She felt deflowered. She’s buried here. We gave her a funeral.”
Back in the sitting room, he puts on a green jacket and a straw hat.
“Let’s have lunch.”
In the car, en route to the restaurant, he looks out the window and says, amused, “You’re from Buenos Aires? Once they asked Borges what was going on with Chilean poetry and he said, ‘What’s that?’ And they told him that there was a Nobel Prize winner here, who was Pablo Neruda. And he said, ‘Juan Ramón Jiménez already said it, a great bad poet.’ And the problem was that Neruda hadn’t discovered kitsch yet. And they asked him about Nicanor Parra. And he said, ‘There can’t be a poet with such a horrible name.’”
The restaurant is a family-style place, with a menu offering empanadas and seafood that he scrutinizes, not using the magnifying glass he carries in his pocket (he doesn’t wear glasses).
“I’ll have a shrimp empanada,” he tells the waitress.
“It comes with two.”
Parra is silent for a moment.
“Then I don’t want anything.”
Another silence.
“Well, alright. Two empanadas. And nothing else. I’m already mad, that’ll do.”
The conversation turns to certain Chilean poets, to a visit by the Argentine photographer Sara Facio in the fifties to his house on Isla Negra to take his portrait.
“Sarita’s visit was a turning point. A magazine put my photo on the cover with the caption, ‘The poet of Isla Negra: Nicanor Parra.’ Neruda saw that and said, ‘This is the head of an international anti-Neruda conspiracy, and I’m going to unload all my ammunition against the Nicanor Parra’s head.’ Said and done. He unloaded all the power of the international Communist Party against me.”
“Do you remember that line of Neruda’s, ‘or kill a nun with a blow on the ear’?”
“A poet, Braulio Arenas, taught me that every ten lines you’ve got to throw in an obscure one, one that no one understands, not even yourself. And that’s how it’s done.”
Later, on the way back to his house, in the car, he points out a hill.
“There’s a car junkyard there. I go sometimes. I like that place.”
“Are you happy with your Obras completas?”
“Surprised. I read those poems and I don’t feel like the author. I don’t think I’m the author of anything. I’ve always just grasped the things that were floating in the air.”
The asphalt slides by, smooth, between the pines and the sea, under a soft light.
“Pretty, eh?”
“Makes you want to live here.”
“To die here, that is.”
Something about the afternoon calls to mind the calm breathing of a sleeping animal.
“Think about all they’ve done, and they haven’t been able to resolve the issue.”
“What issue?”
“The issue of death. They’ve resolved other things. But why don’t they focus on that?”2
Translated by Arthur Dixon

This chronicle was published on December 3, 2011, under the title “El aire del poeta” [The air of the poet], in the Babelia supplement of El País, Spain.
2 On Tuesday, January 23, 2018, Nicanor Parra died at the age of 103.