Discussed in this essay:
• World’s End, Pablo Neruda (trans. William O’Daly). Copper Canyon Press. $15.00. 96pp.
• Selected Poems: Before Saying Any of the Great Words, David Huerta (trans. Mark Schafer). Copper Canyon Press. $20.00. 400pp.
• The Romantic Dogs, Roberto Bolaño (trans. Laura Healy). New Directions Press. $15.95. 128pp.
In this review, we will examine the careers and writings of three of Latin America’s best poets. The first, Pablo Neruda, is from Chile and from an older generation of writers. David Huerta, from Mexico, and Roberto Bolaño, born in Chile but raised in Mexico, are both from the following generation—Huerta was born in 1949, Bolaño in 1953. Fortunately, all three have work recently published in bilingual editions, the way poetry should be presented.
Pablo Neruda, whose given name was Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, was born on July 12, 1904 in the town of Parral in Chile. In memory of the Czech poet Jan Neruda, he began in 1920 to use his nom de plume when submitting poetry to the literary journal Selve Austral. In 1924 he published his best-known and most translated work, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada). Between 1927 and 1935, he was awarded a number of honorary consulships in such places as Burma, Ceylon, Java, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, and Madrid; it was in the last of those that he came to know Federico García Lorca, whose political murder affected him deeply. Returning to Chile in 1943, Neruda joined the Communist Party, and, elected a senator, he took a strong stance against President González Videla, who, although believed to be a populist, turned around and represented the moneyed interests of Chilean society. Neruda was forced to live in hiding for two years and concluded his career with World’s End (Fin de mundo) in 1969.
|Pablo Neruda recording for the Library of Congress in 1966
William O’Daly in his introduction to World’s End writes that this work is “musically refined and thematically orchestrated, this book-length poem is an often startling historical journey through social and political disillusionment. Much like Canto general, [Neruda's] epic of the South American continent, this late work was impelled by the process of clarifying experience in the cold fires of the imagination; by the pursuit of common cause and brotherhood; and by his intuitive sense of the composition and the qualities, the weight and the sound of the bellflower and the planets, of sorrow and stone.” He continues a few pages later: “In World’s End, Neruda seeks to revive hope that a better society will grow from the sacrifices of the brave ones, from the ‘shackled poets of Athens,’ and from the innumerable innocent, in particular the children, who die at the hands and by the decision of colonels or political serpents who conceive of themselves as righteous or cast themselves as deities, by those who wreak destruction from a place of self-delusion or paranoia.”
The section entitled “Prologue” opens with “The Door,” in which many irresolvable questions are asked: “What a ceaseless century! // We ask: / When will it fall?” Through the use of the word fall rather than end, Neruda begins his biblical allusions—such as to the Tower of Babel:
No one wanted to utter a word: all
were afraid of endangering themselves:
between one man and the next distance grew
and languages became so very different
that everyone wound up silent
or all conversing at once.
While alluding to Babel, Neruda also conveys the language of silence in a totalitarian regime.
Neruda extends himself beyond Chile to discuss the entirety of civilization, or the lack thereof. In “1968″ he takes us to the Prague Spring and the moment when “the hour of Prague fell,” when Soviet tanks were unleashed into the streets of Czechoslovakia to quell liberal reforms taking place. Neruda responds:
and now, trying to understand,
whenever we should be singing
we instead must knock upon a sarcophagus,
and how awful it is that they hear you
and that the coffin invites you.
Surrealism seems the only way to write about this surreal century. Neruda, who probably acquired this technique from Lorca, a master of the softer Spanish version, writes in “Today Also Is”
This winter day blooms
with a single dead rose,
the night prepares its ship,
the petals of the sky fall,
and lacking direction life returns
to gather itself in a wine glass.
Given the images that have preceded that page, the life that is filling the wine glass is the color of blood. Contained also in Part III is “Why, Sir?” in which Neruda writes of the United States:
Without why or when
they dishonoured themselves in Vietnam.
Why were they so far from home,
compelled to kill innocents,
while the crimes pour cream
into the pockets of Chicago?
Why go so far to kill?
Why go so far to die?
He immediately contrasts this with Cuba:
Honor, honor to that handful
of bearded heroes in the dawn,
honor to the first fiery glow
of the Latin American sun
In “Ars Poetica,” the book’s fifth section, Neruda makes the reader a voyeur to his creative process:
As a poet-carpenter
I first seek the wood
rough or smooth, so inclined
with my hands I touch the scent,
I smell the color, pass my fingers
over the fragrant integrity,
through the silence of the system,
until I sleep or pass to another body,
or take off my clothes or submerge myself
in the health of the wood,
in its round ramparts.
Neruda reaches back to Baudelaire, Rimbaud and the other Symbolist poets where the things of the senses merge into the act of creation. Is the phrase “take off my clothes” a reference to William Carlos Williams’s “Danse Russe,” and will Neruda dance naked before his own “yellow drawn shades”?
In an absolutely brilliant poem “The Child Guerrilla,” Neruda writes:
It has been one year since in Astrolabia
a child guerrilla died,
beautiful as a cineraria.
She was murdered by bad men,
With sadness and with joy
the good men killed a judge.
The bad then murdered
a courageous student.
And tonight we hear that the good,
in fulfilling their duties,
killed a veterinarian.
Astrolabia is a narrow stretch
of water and volcano, a precinct
of antiquity and fruitfulness:
the beauty sequestered itself
as into a small emerald sack.
But Astrolabia keeps on dying
between the good murderers
and the bad murderers—
till they leave her for dead
between two machine guns.
There is no need for legal language here, no reason for academics to write books, the simplest of language, the stark dichotomy between good and bad lets all know that no matter who the murdered, who the murderer, in the end, if revenge and reprisal become the norm, all will perish and the land will be destroyed. Note that the word evil was not used. If it had been, then a much different dynamic would have been brought into play and we would not, perhaps, have so easily accepted the message Neruda was sending.
David Huerta is to Mexico what Pablo Neruda was to Chile—one of its most prominent and well-respected poets. Born in Mexico City in 1949 and raised within the poetic milieu of his father, famous Mexican poet Efrain Huerta, Huerta published his first poetic collection, El jardín de la luz (The Garden of Light), in 1972. Mark Schafer in his introduction states that
it was Huerta’s second collection, Cuaderno di noviembre (November Notebook), that established him as a bold, innovative poetic voice in Mexican letters. Comprising fifty untitled sections, Cuaderno boasted a vast lexicon in the service of a voice focused, in part, on the process of writing. Huerta’s new work rejected the Romantic and Modernist idea of the poem as a transparent form of communication transmitted by a stable “I” standing outside language, and instead embraced irony, parody, and ambiguity. At the same time, the language of Cuaderno was lush, filled with stunning imagery and, at times, overtly philosophical.
In 2006, Huerta won Mexico’s most prestigious literary award, the Xavier Villarrutia Prize, for his 2005 collection Versíon (Version), which had been described as “combin[ing] Cuaderno de noviembre’s discursive tone with a narrative line. . . . The result is a poetic form that breaks with lyricism and the feverish depersonalization of the poem.”
Of poetry, Huerta says: “For me, poetry is a spark in the nervous system that can unfold through words—words that are coarse but at the same time fine, and are full of the capacity for resonance, even form; their form is in the ability we have to speak them or listen to them. They are not tangible, but they have form.”
And of the poet: “The main responsibility of a poet is to make language sufficiently transparent, so that through him we can see the important things that are in the world and in life, and also in death.”
Before Saying is divided into three sections: “Early Poetry,” “Selections from Incurable” and “After Incurable.” Schafer explains the division of Incurable, which was originally published in 1987: “In the books that followed Incurable . . . Huerta pared back his poems. His shorter poems—shorter both in length and in width—leave behind the extreme self-examination and focus on language on display in Incurable, to some extent shifting from language poetry toward artistic commentary.”
“Early Poems” opens with an untitled poem whose first line reads “Fumbling through the heart of music.” Revealing of what will follow, particularly with its reference to “Rrose Sélavy,” the pseudonym for Marcel Duchamp, this passage reads:
I heard songs in the cadaver’s garden:
songs like the stroking of narcotics.
I thought of the double dream of Rrose Sélavy.
Fumbling through the heart of music
I felt the mute and magnetic pale of hunger,
saw thirst’s throne overlaid with lichen.
I walked through a stand of opium poppies
and donned the gloves of nightmares.
That last line contains an unusual juxtaposition for English poetry but not for Spanish, related as it is to the softer form of Surrealism. In “Acts” Huerta reveals the body of language:
my legs, my hard stag testicles,
my imprisoned flesh, my precise column of tastes,
and the text of my chest, the punctuation, the Morse code,
the calligraphy of my cartilage, goddammit . . . come, concrete time,
abyss of bitter flowers, persistent graffiti, oozing brilliance
suspended in the precipitations of my voluminous rubbish,
come over here, aroma of nouns
This play with language continues in Incurable, which is divided into a number of chapters. From “Chapter IV, Fragment” (as each of the poems in this section is headed, with the appropriate change to the numbering, of course), we read:
Language fled in every one of your words, and
what I heard, with inflated uncertainty and a feeling of wide
was the murmur of the unconscious, blending like brilliant
beasts creeping through the passageways of my ears.
Your unconscious touched my ears,
I heard language overflowing, turbid and fertile,
through the deaf canals of the unconscious you were revealing
I was a piece of myself listening to you.
This quote exemplifies Huerta’s use of sometimes very long lines, a device at play throughout this poem.
The pieces in Selected Poems’s final section are considerably shorter than those encountered before. Shorter, but no less beautiful. “Summer Mist” is very sensual:
I’ve waited for you here
On the damp edges of the break of day
And saw how you arrived holding sway over everything
And I felt the fever of your hands on my flesh and knew
That you were here and the way you quivered slowly toward me
Approaching irresistibly like a prophecy
Like a chunk of wood ablaze on the sea
Like a flight of birds heralding land
Ostensibly about the approach of early morning mist from the sea, the poem turns the mist into a lover’s caress. We read in the title poem, “Before Saying Any of the Great Words”:
there are also the short and decisive words: yes, no, now, never
turbid love, clean death, rattled poetry,
other words that are like art for art’s sake: sandalwood,
for instance, and words like deoxyribonucleic, telescopic
and possessing an undeniably scientific elegance, a diffuse,
intense, and labyrinthine character, all at once, linked
to that other word, life
Here, a lexicon of the language of life is spread out on the page in panoramic splendour. Huerta writes lines that were meant to be written. In “Before Throwing Out the Garbage,” beauty emerges from the stench of the quotidian:
Faced with aluminum foil and an organic vortex—
faced with lettuce turning yellow or brown
and the infamous cigarette butts from the Night Before, before
throwing out the garbage, it is worth
looking at the world with the tranquility of evenings
and the softness of adagios
Huerta takes his poetry into the realm of prose in his later work. An excellent example is “Toward the Surface” whose last paragraph reads:
Toward the surface shine the eyes that weave themselves into it with a hope of salvation, a faith of resurrected icons, of speleological lazaruses of death and burials. Toward the surface head so many images, murmurings that blackened the walls of light, testimonies of abandonment, and breaking of assorted organisms. Toward the surface, walking like a nomad off-course, the poem that longed to be written and could not get beyond the alveoli of silence, advances, shattered with fullness, luminous to the point of blinding, and filled with an appetite for the surface it will never see or touch unless it boasts the afflicted gifts of the shipwreck; the only thing that can take it on a definitive trip toward the surface.
One of the last poems in this collection is “The Science of Poetry / Treatise No. 2″ which begins:
I entered the rainbow’s crossed eyes
and found round water
surrounded by italic flickerings.
I entered the mute letter
and discovered embryos of magnificent novels
—politicians’ lies and slander, too.
Here Huerta displays his recognition that words are capable of creating both beauty and despair; it is the gift of the poet to, hopefully, move toward the former and away from the latter, but the potential for both exists. This is an excellent reminder to poets to respect their art and their craft (for poetry has aspects of both). And this is also an excellent place to leave David Huerta and move on to the poet that has bridged the gap between Neruda and Huerta, between Chile and Mexico.
That gap is bridged by Roberto Bolaño. From his obituary in The Guardian, we read:
Roberto Bolaño, who has died at Blanes in northern Spain of liver failure, aged 50, was one of the most talented and surprising of a new generation of Latin American writers. Born in the Chilean capital of Santiago [in 1953], Bolaño was typical of a generation of Latin American writers who had to cope with exile and a difficult relationship with their home country, its values and its ways of seeking accommodation with a turbulent history. Bolaño turned to literature to express these experiences, mixing autobiography, a profound knowledge of literature, and a wicked sense of humour in several novels and books of short stories that won him admirers throughout Latin America and Spain. Bolaño spent much of his adolescence with his parents in Mexico. He returned to Chile in 1972, to take part in President Allende’s attempts to bring revolutionary change to the country. Arrested for a week after the September 1973 Pinochet coup, Bolaño eventually made his way once more to Mexico, where he embarked on his literary career. At first he wrote poetry, strongly marked by Chilean surrealism and experimentalism, but after moving to Spain in 1977 he turned to prose, first in short-story form and then more ambitious novels.
Whether Bolaño ever met Neruda is unknown, as he returned to Chile just before Neruda’s death. But even if he didn’t, he was certainly influenced by the surrealism of Neruda’s poetry. The same must also be said of his potential relationship and awareness of David Huerta, as he lived in Mexico in the years leading up to the publication of Huerta’s first book. As Romantic Dogs has previously been reviewed in these pages, we will just briefly touch upon the bridging of the divide of Neruda and Huerta.
In the early stages of his book we find the thing that bridges the gap, that being the revolutionary spirit of Latin Americans set out in the ending to “Self Portrait at Twenty Years”:
despite the fear, I set off, 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 a swift reality:
thousands of guys like me, baby-faced
or bearded, but Latin American, all of us
brushing cheeks with death.
No matter where in Latin America one goes, there lies that cry against the injustice of brutal right-wing regimes, either those in power or those threatening to assume power and supported by the elite. One is hard-pressed to find a Latin American poet whose political stance is not left-wing. They are either members of the communist party themselves or supporters of same. We find that revolutionary spirit in Neruda and in Huerta and, now, in Bolaño. And in this essence, cast adrift within this milieu, we end.
The author of poetry, reviews, and essays published in a number of literary journals both in the United States and Canada, John Herbert Cunningham has recently become host of the half-hour radio program, “Speaking of Poets,” which is available for download or streaming from The University of Winnipeg’s CKUW. He is currently working on a manuscript of poetry.
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