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Published Date:04-07-2017
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INTRODUCTION This anthology of eighteen poems reflects my personal taste and r-epre sents, 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 li — tr ves ees 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 nineteen poets. For most of xiiithe poets, the choice of the poem was obvious, but in the cases of Gabriela Mistral, César Vallejo, and Pablo Neruda, the job was practically impossi - ble 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: V eredas 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 lan - guage, 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 sig - nal 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 land - scape, an actual landscape, cliffs along the Elqui, a river stretching below an xiv Pinholes in the Nightendless succession of mountains in which the figure of the mother appears repeatedly, always in the nearest one. The mother materializes in one- moun tain, then another, and then another, without ever coalescing into - whole ness. 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 Gabri - ela 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 asso - ciated with the European avant-garde of the early twentieth century; it rad - ically 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 Whit - man, or a Leopardi, it depended on its former colonies to broaden the hori - zon 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,N in on Ser- viam, a 1922 manifesto, after asserting that “the poet is a little god, - ” intro duces 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. Alt- azor’s theme is double. On the one hand, and this is what precludes any criticism, Alt azor 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 disinte - gration matches the disintegration of the whole world being represented. Secondly, perhaps more crucial for the understanding of Latin American Introduction xvhistory,Alt azor, one of the most remarkable poems in the Castilian lan - guage, 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 (San - tiago 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 his - tory 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 let - ters 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 accor - d ing to the dictates of an avant-garde that guides the poet’s choices, - agen das, 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 xvi Pinholes in the Nighteach 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– Santiag o, 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 - adoles cent 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 achiev - e ments and monumental blunders, Pablo de Rokha develops a cartography Introduction xviiunequaled 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 lan - guage, the deepest cut by which, up to that point, poetry might be compr - e hended. Much more radically than Vicente Huidobro and decades before the revolutionary antipoetry of Nicanor Parra, De Rokha Los with 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 - litera ture of the last century: the fusion of poetry and prose, stream of conscious - ness, 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 Ner - uda, 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 mis - sion 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 xviii Pinholes in the Nightof this poem is identity in the face of death, or rather, the definitiv -e iden tity bestowed by the imminence of the end, but with a radically contrast - ing 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, disco - v ers his “destiny as a South American” just moments before being mur - dered. 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 concep - tion of the thing-made-literary (where, as noted in his poem “The Apocry - phal 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 metamor - phosis 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 Borg — es is that he shows us that every death is a murder. “Conjectural Poem” is profound and mo - v ing, 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 Introduction xixthe 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 Eng- lish Poems”: °°° “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 imag- ine 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 of XXIV The Iliad, the biblical Psalms, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and Whitman’s xx Pinholes in the NightLeaves 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 v - ast ness 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 pr - es ence 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 some - times 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 nar - row country (Chile) does not hav Canto g e. eneral. 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 e - xis tence, and the variable winding paths of their history and the possibl - y bet ter 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 unjus - tifiable, 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 his - tory. 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 Introduction xxiSpanish officers (civil servants, judges, officials) who came to America for the conquest. What Neruda tells us is that prior to their arrival in Amer - ica, there was already a place (rivers, mountains, forests) countermand - ing 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 con - stant 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” refer - ences 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 lib - eration 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 lan - guage and its speakers. T he 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 submis - sions, 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 xxii Pinholes in the Nighthis 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 mo - v ing 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, Ner- uda 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 mon - strous 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. Introduction xxiii°°° “Soliloquy of the Individual” is one extraordinary example of the r - evolu tion 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 spe - cial, set apart from ordinary people. Already “The Heights of Macchu - Pic chu” 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 Nica- nor Parra, founder of Antipoetry, understood: that he might restore to writ - ing a vitality that Castilian hadn’t seen since Francisco de Quevedo, using humor, orality, self-confidence, self-delusion, a task that fused high com - edy 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 Indi - vidual” 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 book- length work called Manifesto, Nicanor Parra would declare, in a phrase that has become legendary, that “the poets have come down from -Olym pus,” 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 xxiv Pinholes in the Nightthan the proposals of Parra’s Chilean predecessors. His revolution is com - parable 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 attri - butes, 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 ali - bis, 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,- Shake speare, 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 Introduction xxvlanguage 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 neighbor - hood vernacular. Into this plurality of languages, Rojas also assimilated the visions and movements of his predecessors: symbolist poetry, surr - eal ism (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 conno - tations 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 peremtory 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 T of he Plain in Flames, a masterpiece far beyond the compartmentalizing literary jock - ey ing that makes its author, Juan Rulfo (Sayula, Jalisco, Mexico, 1918–Mexico xxvi Pinholes in the NightCity, 1986), Mexico’s matchless poet and one of contemporary literature’s best. As in his novel Pedro Páramo, Rulfo thematizes the Mexican des - ert, 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 ar — r guing ecognized 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’v - e criss crossed 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 An - y more,” 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 innumer - able times and stamped into countless poems, songs, and stories with - vir tually 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, Introduction xxviipain is the black hole of language, all words are sucked up into its immedi - acy, 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 thor - oughly penetrated by reality; by newspapers, movies, the Somoza dicta - torship, billboards, and they seek meaning in neon letters, in automobile graveyards, in discarded cigarette packs. In short, Cardenal’s God is a six - ties God of Pop, pierced and suspended over a world “polluted with sin and radioactivity” as he writes in “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe.” At the fur - thest end of the spectrum from metaphysical poetry, Ernesto Cardenal con - tinues 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. xxviii Pinholes in the NightWhat Cardenal displaces is the idea of intimacy. While in Vallejo and Mis - tral, 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 “e - xteri orism.” Although it is based entirely, like Nicanor Parra’s work, in v -ernac ular 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, Homag e to the American Indians, the book in which he meant to steal the wind from - Ner uda’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 r - ef erences to the economy and exchange value, in its inclusion of facts and fig - ures, 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 f Cosmic ar, Canto, which like the De rerum natura of Lucretius and The Divine Com- edy of Dante, aims to merge science with poetry in a story of the drift of the Introduction xxixuniverse following the big bang. It is also the story of the struggle - to over throw 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 con - cerned 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 helpless - ness, capable of dissolving everything, capable even of returning the uni - verse 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 com - positions, 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 “arm - less 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 Resi- dence 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 lan - guage associating dignified death with the heroic dimension of popular xxx Pinholes in the Nightwars, 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 per - mits 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 collabora - tor 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 contempo- rary 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, - memo ries, reproaches, outpourings of tenderness, places the two held in com - mon, 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 - fig ures — “The Libation Bearers” from Aeschylus’s The Oresteia or Sopho- cles’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 Introduction xxxi

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