The Romantic Dogs, Roberto Bolaño (trans. Laura Healy). New Directions. 128pp, $14.95
English-language readers have experienced Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s career sort of upside down and backwards. None of his work was translated into English until after his death in 2003, and it wasn’t until the publication of Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives in 2007—nearly a decade after it took the Spanish-language literary world by storm—that Bolaño got serious attention in the United States. That novel, a sprawling, mesmerizing masterpiece, was the rare translated work that achieved both critical and commercial success. Its renown has led to renewed attention to the handful of other volumes of Bolaño’s fiction that are available in English, and has led New Directions to step up their admirable program of translating all of Bolaño’s older works. Now, coinciding with the English-language publication of the last novel Bolaño wrote, the horror-show magnum opus 2666, we have The Romantic Dogs, a career-spanning poetry collection translated by Laura Healy.
Bolaño would likely appreciate the irony that the translation of his poetry is only viable in the wake of the success of his fiction, for he always considered himself a poet rather than a fiction writer, explaining, “I blush less when I reread my poems.” He turned to prose out of necessity late in life, when faced with the need to support a family. His diagnosis with fatal liver disease only increased the pressure, and while he continued to write poetry, it was into his novels that Bolaño poured the majority of his energy in his final decade. Yet even the novels are suffused with poetry—or, more properly, the epiphenomena of poetry. Amulet opens with the narrator stating “I could say I am the mother of Mexican poetry, but I better not. I know all the poets, and all the poets know me.” The Savage Detectives is lousy with poets declaiming, drinking, fighting, fucking. But there is almost no actual verse in the books—the life of the poet, the trappings of poetry, are what matter, while the poetry itself is passed over in silence.
Reading The Romantic Dogs, it’s hard not to imagine that this is the poetry that is elided in the novels, the ghostly work that both drives and justifies the rackety lives recounted therein. The 43 poems collected in this slender bilingual volume are all unrhymed free verse, most of them set in short, even fragmented lines. Not unexpectedly, they reveal the influence of the Romantic movement as refurbished by the Beats, but at the same time they are idiosyncratic and individual, shot through with both a Borgesian cosmopolitanism—Bolaño’s locations and references span the globe—and a peculiar air of dread common to all of Bolaño’s work.
Readers of his novels will also recognize some of Bolaño’s recurrent and essentially inscrutable preoccupations. In one group of poems, detectives—”frozen detectives, Latin American detectives”—get “lost in the dark city,” simultaneously an image of questing and of oppression, with their “interrogations left unresolved” and their searches in the “ignominious archives.” A border village that is “at least two- or three-thousand years old” suggests both Ciudad Juarez and the unexplained mystical year of 2666, both of which assume talismanic power in the fiction. Other images are less hermetic, but no less memorable. Poetry “slips into dreams / like a diver in a lake.” The horizon in the Sonora desert is “that flesh-colored horizon / like a dying man’s back.” A black motorcycle is “like a burro from another planet.” A lost lover’s eyes are “. . . like the ideal / geography book: / maps of pure nightmare.”
Those “maps of pure nightmare” could serve to describe the formless menace that runs through the poems. At times it seems directly traceable to the violence and repression of the Latin American politics of Bolaño’s youth, as in these lines from “Self Portrait at Twenty Years”:
. . . I put my cheek
against death’s cheek.
And it was impossible to close my eyes and miss seeing
that strange spectacle, slow and strange,
though fixed in such swift reality:
thousands of guys like me, baby-faced
or bearded, but Latin American, all of us,
brushing cheeks with death.
Or this from “My Life in the Tubes of Survival”:
And because I was smart and unwilling to be tortured
In a work camp or padded cell
They stuck me in this flying saucer
And told me fly and find your destiny.
In other poems the dread seems more organic, free-flowing, an inescapable fact of a life necessarily lived in the shadow of death. This sentiment is seen in these darkly vivid lines from “On the Edge of the Cliff”:
No one understood a thing.
Everything was off: the sound, the perception of the image.
Nightmares or splinters slipped into the sky
at nine o’clock at night.
In hotels resembling live organisms from horror films.
And violence is ever in the air: “On the Edge of the Cliff” continues, “Like when you dream of killing a person / who never stops dying.”
Some of the poems succeed on the sheer, brash, energy of youthful (and fundamentally masculine) abandon. In “The Donkey,” a friend sweeps the poet away on a motorcycle,
Chasing an unnamable dream,
Unclassifiable, the dream of our youth,
Which is to say the bravest of all
The opening of “Self Portrait at Twenty Years” could serve as a snapshot of the globe-trotting craziness at the heart of The Savage Detectives: “I set off, I took up the march and never knew / where it might take me.” The poet continues, explaining that he went despite his fear because, “I heard that mysterious and convincing call. / You either hear it or you don’t, and I heard / and almost burst out crying.” But those accounts of the itinerant life don’t deny its costs, especially in the book’s later poems. “I was only fit for chemistry, for chemistry alone. / But I wished to be a vagabond,” proclaims one speaker—but the very title of his poem tells us where his journey will end: “Dino Campana Revises His Biography in Castel Pulci Psychiatric.”
Dino Campana’s story forms one of the most moving poems in the book. As with Dino’s poem, Bolaño is at his best when the speaker steps aside, choosing instead to listen, then offer up a story that belongs to someone else. A teenage prostitute who also appears in The Savage Detectives, Lupe Velez, who “was thin and had legs long and spotted / like a leopard,” lies in bed and tells the poet of the baby she believes was taken from her by God for her broken promise to leave her trade. Another woman, La Francesca, tells a similar story of sexual exploitation in her teenage years, “a porno horror flick.” The poet is unsure what to do with her sorrow,
And I didn’t know what to say,
I really didn’t know what to say,
Except to caress her and support her while she moved
Up and down like life.
That, and remember her story.
The Romantic Dogs offers some frustrations that could have been alleviated by a bit more editorial attention on the part of New Directions. Though the facing-page Spanish lets the reader compare what seems a strong translation to the original, the need for a translator’s note is obvious on the first page, where the words “los perros románticos” in the title poem are left untranslated. In the absence of any notes, we have no way of knowing how that decision was reached. Some more information about the dates of composition or publication for the poems would have helped, too, considering the volume draws from Bolaño’s whole career. Though some critical schools would argue otherwise, I find it hard to think that a reader’s interpretation of “Self Portrait at Twenty” wouldn’t be enriched by knowing whether it was written when the poet was twenty, or byan older man looking back.
Ultimately, there is nothing in The Romantic Dogs that seems particularly groundbreaking; it’s not inappropriate to think that the volume would have relatively little long-term value had Bolaño not become a master of fiction. (Bolaño would not be the first artist to be wrong about where his gifts lay.) But that’s not to say that the poems aren’t rewarding: they pulse with life, offering many real pleasures and some unforgettable imagery. And for Bolaño fans who see “the shelves stacked with books, the chairs / stacked with books, the floor / covered with piled-up books,” but so few of them by Bolaño, The Romantic Dogs will be essential, one more element of his sadly truncated oeuvre, and an opportunity to witness him reveling in the practice of his first love.
Levi Stahl has written for the Poetry Foundation, The Bloomsbury Review, the Chicago Reader, McSweeneys.net, the New York Moon, and the New-York Ghost, and he blogs at I’ve Been Reading Lately. In his day job, he serves as the publicity manager of the University of Chicago Press.
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