An Interview with Tomás Harris
For American readers who discovered Tomás Harris’s poetry through Cipango (Harris’s most important work, published in English in 2009), the newspaper and television images of the recent Chilean earthquake may have had the taste and feel of déjà vu. Some of Tomás Harris’s verses, written in the '80s during Pinochet’s dictatorship, read: “The day the earth shook / and the village we called our city / was destroyed, / -- did we dream it, was it an illusion? -- / a yellow horse was galloping time down on Orompello street.”
It’s a situation that fits Cipango, as the book compresses the times of modern Concepción with the Age of Exploration: Christopher Columbus arrives to Pinochet’s Concepción in his discovery and conquest of America.
The day of the Chilean earthquake, I sat in front of the newspaper and my copy of Cipango, feeling anxiety and sympathy for what had happened, and at the same time, I was seeing Harris’s poems lengthening to touch the past of the conquest, the past of the dictatorship, and the present of Concepción, Chile, after the earthquake. Like the generations marked in the trunk of a tree, all times were visible at once.
Seven days after the earthquake, I telephoned Tomás Harris in Santiago, Chile. He read two of the poems in Cipango that speak of an imagined earthquake in Concepción, and we talked about what the poems meant to him then, and what they meant now, after the earthquake.
You wrote "Sea of Serenity," like all the poems in Cipango, under the dictatorship of Pinochet.
And this is a poem about Concepción in Chile.
All the poems in Cipango are really about Concepción in Chile, and all of them were written under the context of the dictatorship -- in other words, an anomalous context, one where there was a lot of fear, a context where one lived the repression day to day, the disappearance, say, of acquaintances, friends, or at times, one's ignorance of the gravity of what was happening. It was the first year of the dictatorship, in the decade of the '70s. Although Cipango I started writing in the '80s. The context of "Sea of Serenity," in a way, touches on what’s happening today.
The day the earth shook
and the village we called our city
–did we dream it, was it an illusion?–
a yellow horse was galloping down Orompello Street,
the whores had gone to the street in corsets,
they were like novices, white doves beneath the now sickly
everything seemed to be ending with the sounds of hulls
sinking toward the West
where the sea should have been;
but there the city's bones creaked
down to the underwater depths of the streets,
Concepción trembled as if beneath candlelight,
as if the city were masturbating down to its soul.
Have you seen Indians give birth, Admiral, whores
hanging from the branches of a hazelnut treem
from the gilt knobs of bronze cots
gulping down pain,
while they bite the same gray rags they use to
wipe off sperm,
and expel the bloody sack of a new being into the city?
It was the same, everything creaked,
and from the sewers the coffee placenta
bloomed and scattered, brushing the streets with its smell
of mossy guts;
the city became a shadow,
and men were replaced by shadows,
pure shadows ambled through the city,
shadows don't feel pain,
they don't bleed,
they disappear at the first sign of light;
dawn will erase us all, I thought,
present witness of These deeds,
the Yugo Bar, the Tropicana Nightclub, the Hotel King
and in their place opened up lunar craters,
full of ash.
In our communications before this interview, you told me you weren’t sure why you had written this poem. “Foreboding,” you wrote, “grief during the dictatorship, the inexplicable factors of poetry.” Can you talk about your past experience with earthquakes, and your feelings about the present earthquake, having written this poem before any earthquake took place?
My personal experience with earthquakes, I had none, except from the earthquake from ’85, during which I lived in Concepción. But it so happened that I went to see my mother in Santiago (in 1985, the earthquake in Chile had a magnitude of 7.8 in the Richter scale and it affected Santiago greatly). And it surprised me there. It was bad luck, but that was the only earthquake I had been in. Strong, let’s say, but nothing in the magnitude of now. Now, maybe, "Sea of Serenity" being a poem written within a dictatorial context, where the emotional tenor was that of uncertainty, ignorance, and fear, the poem I think could have come to be, because in Concepción there had been a great earthquake in the '60s (the earthquake of Valdivia). However, all the references present in the poem have nothing to do with the '60s, when I still did not live in Concepción. That part where it says the Yugo Bar, the Tropicana Nightclub, the Hotel King had disappeared and in their place there were ashen craters; those were places that at the time existed in Concepción, and I imagine still exist. I don’t know if they still stand or not because communications with Concepción are very difficult.
My sons live there, but we can only talk very little, not too long. Now, I’m not saying this poem was prophetic, not in the least, but there is something in it that amazes me. Reading it, I am awash with images I have seen in television, images that bring me a lot of pain. Now, in all Cipango, the bridge over the Bío Bío River never collapses, the Old Bridge, I mean. You have seen it in television now, banked over the river, like an antediluvian animal. The Old Bridge was an icon, not only of Concepción, but of at least my and my peers’ times in university, of friendship, and poetry. It was the icon of our literary and emotional education.
You named this poem "Sea of Serenity." Why serenity?
In Cipango all the poems’ titles, or the great majority of them, allude to the seas of the moon. And on the moon there is a sea called Sea of Serenity. Now, it’s an evident irony, isn’t it? That apparent serenity which precedes every calamity, every disaster. There is always a second where it seems nothing will occur, and the next moment... In the time of the dictatorship, they could kill you at home, they could kill your friends, shoot you in whatever situation; and currently we have realized that this country is a country that is permanently at risk of natural disasters, in this case earthquakes.
Tell me about the three minutes of the earthquake.
For me, they weren’t grave, because in the place where I live (I live in the Condes region in Santiago), we felt it very little. My wife was not at home -- Teresa Calderón, she’s a poet as well -- and that caused me a lot of anxiety. Later when she called I found out that the epicenter had been near Concepción where my two sons live, Diego and Simón, of 25 and 28 years of age. I wasn’t able to talk to them until two days ago, because there was no communication possible.
Afterward, well, here the electricity came back an hour and a half after the earthquake, and I started to see images of the affected zone, which was a zone that goes from Valparaíso to the Gulf of Arauco. The zone that broke, as the seismologists say, was around 600 kilometers. The regions that were most affected were that of Maule and near the Bío Bío River. Almost two hours passed before the images of Concepción began to air on national television. The first thing that I saw was the Old Bridge collapsed over the Bío Bío River. That bridge was no longer an active bridge; it was used for pedestrian walking, or a tourist promenade. But for me it wasn’t a tourist attraction, it was the river from the times of my youthful learning, and above all, it appears permanently in Cipango, which is a book about, in, from, for Concepción.
You speak of Chile as a country under risk. Chile is in the circle of fire, there are volcanic zones, and is constantly threatened by earthquakes and tsunamis. What is the cultural attitude toward living with risk?
The problem is that there is no cultural attitude to live with that risk, because nobody, nobody has assumed it. It is only the very old, who remember the past earthquakes, like the earthquake of Chillán in 1938 and the earthquake in Valdivia 1960 and then Concepción’s. The earthquake of Valdivia, of 9.5, was the biggest earthquake recorded in the Richter scale. So people forget. I think that when people started to have a little more conscience of fear about it, and above all, tidal waves, was when the cataclysm hit the East. But now it’s come.
Imagine, all the adobe huts, that still existed in Maule, in Chillán... a great amount of towns that don’t appear on the maps -- that’s another atrocity: the maps haven’t been updated! There are many zones of Concepción, of the coast, seaside towns, inlets mainly, like Tumbe, Dichato, et cetera, that don’t appear in the maps. So if they were erased by the wave, as they were in fact reduced because the coastal zone of Bío Bío was smashed to pieces, it wasn’t known. In any case, besides the critique that you can make against these institutions, I realize that Chile has held up well, because it was an earthquake of 8.8 magnitude in the Richter scale, that’s the fifth-biggest earthquake recorded in the century. There’s no reason to speak ill of Chile, and even after the initial looting in Concepción, people have begun to return the objects they had stolen by their own will. I think that the other quake, as they’ve named it here in Chile, the social quake, the spiritual quake, the quake of our psyche of being a country, is recovering.
Let’s talk about the poem "Inhabitants of the Night."
That poem has something to do with what we’ve just talked about, with looting.
And the social quake, yes.
Gold has so many meanings.–Félix de Azúa.
"Converted into priests of that religion"
naked, splashed with different kinds of baptismal mud,
tasting the white flower of women's flesh
to break the barrier of prohibition,
at the edge of light,
we advanced through these unreal streets, still smoking,
throbbing embers of traffic lights and hazy
scattered gold teeth,
there may have been survivors,
multiplying through the shattered windows,
on the blinding carpet of broken glass from
we had to advance in groups of three, of five,
repeating slogans and litanies
to stay sane
through the labyrinths of desire
a dark crypt, a movie theater, a secret prison or abyss
were opening jaws
and at the pit of the caver
a glow from a movie theater; shapes, bodies, movement or
the creatures of the night looted a supermarket
before the prohibition
like in Ginsberg's poem,
jars, bottles, fruit
spattered the walls like ectoplasm and splashed liquid
gold like blood,
thick as shit,
those zombies' lips,
their growls shook the supermarket,the city,
the miserable valley of Concepción,
we closed our eyes,
but as always, the images passed through
The end for me has become very meaningful, because since the earthquake struck -- I work for the National Library in Chile which has been closed -- I’ve had to be at home, and because of the preoccupation of not seeing my sons, I’ve watched a lot of television and have seen much disaster, much grief, many collapses not only of the city but of memories. There are many parts of the coastal region swept away by the river that I knew and lived in my adolescence. So the postcard of memory is erased with one stroke of the pen and those images come and come and return and return.
Images that cross your lids.
Yes, images that will no longer be forgotten.
You begin this poem quoting Félix de Azúa: “Gold has so many meanings.” And the end of the poem leaves us with an image of living dead looting the supermarket. Is it our nature to long for gold, or as it happened after the earthquake in Chile, to loot supermarkets for plasma televisions and refrigerators?
Yes, I believe it’s part of human nature to desire gold, gold from a symbolic point of view, as well as from a real point of view. The Spanish conquistadors came to America with a utopia based on gold. The search for gold was febrile. One of the biggest myths established in the Age of Discovery was that of El Dorado, a lost city made entirely of gold. In postmodernity this part of human nature has apotheosized gold and has been exacerbated, at least here in Chile, since the times of the dictatorship with a neo-liberal economy, which has been maintained. Material desire keeps getting fed, even when there’s a big fraction of the population that doesn’t have access to those goods; so they looted when the earthquake came -- the plasma TVs, the refrigerators. I’m not saying it was justified, but I don’t think we can stigmatize the people who looted, even if it was 24 hours after the earthquake and they took objects and not food, because we have spent all the years after the dictatorship incrementing and nourishing the desire to consume. More than solidarity, more than other values that have been forgotten. So I believe it is not just the fault of the so-called marauders of society, but of society itself, and the governors in particular.
In an article you wrote about the looting in Chile, you spoke at length about society’s role, and you made a call to re-examine how Chile made itself a nation. How do you see poetry, your own or others’, contributing to that end?
I believe poetry has permanently reexamined the process not only of how Chile became a nation, but also of Chile being a nation. There’s the General Song of Neruda, the poems of Karra Maw'n by Clemente Riedemann, Anteparadise by Raúl Zurita, and also the poetry of Elicura Chuhuailaf and Jaime Luis Huenún that speak of the Mapuche people, the poem about Chile by Gabriela Mistral... I think it’s a constant preoccupation in poetry, to think itself up as a nation. That is one of the functions of poetry, if it indeed has a function more than the aesthetic one. Maybe on a secondary level, but it is there. I say on a secondary level, because the primary thing is to get a good poem, no? [Laughs]
This poem, "Inhabitants of the Night," has a characteristic that is present in many of the poems in Cipango: that of time folding in on itself: present, past, and future coexisting at once. Where did this sensibility come from?
In Cipango, I always worked with a sort of chronological “simultaneism,” like Ezra Pound. It’s more of a conception of time. I believe time and history and events and experiences and emotions and everything else that takes place within ourselves as subjects results in an inability to live in the past, present, or future, and instead it’s more of a palimpsest. Attitudes are superimposed, and they permanently break on the surface, while others submerge. That’s the constant appearance and reappearance of events, happenings, situations, states of being. I think that there is no end, for example -- we talked about it earlier -- to the urge for gold, because those traits are still not erased from colonial and conquest times. I believe there is a future unknown to us that is present in all time, a future that we ignore but which nonetheless surfaces without our foreseeing. And if that’s so, then the earthquake of 2010 was present in 1986 when I wrote those poems.
In another poem of Cipango, "The Meaning of Desire," Cristopher Columbus offers his teeth to queen Isabelle as the greatest treasure he can give her. Then we see Columbus in the streets of Concepción, crying out that his teeth are all he has left: “My teeth, brothers, that I save for the Divine / in the silk purse / of death smoke / from the '80s.” This poem in effect places Columbus and Pinochet in a same time-space. Tell me about this sense of history.
When I began writing Cipango, I was situating the space of a city that is Concepción, with its streets, myths, inhabitants, in a perspective of a marginal city that believed herself to be a grand city. At the same time, I saw the need to draw near to its diction, which is why the first poem, "Danger Zones," came to be. We lived in danger. This is why in Cipango there’s little space dedicated to the Independence Plaza (now in ruins), the University Bar, the Caracol Hill, Llacolén, beautiful places in Concepción. Because we lived amidst terror during the dictatorship and because of how we felt, I preferred to go to places that were dark, equivocal, and dangerous: the barrio of the whores (Orompello), dangerous settlements, seedy hotels, the Bar Estación which was dangerous in those times, the River Bío Bío which was always threatening to overflow and take with it the border population.
Then I thought, “This city must be populated, must be given movement, meaning that went beyond its reading.” And I had the idea of having the Spanish Explorers arrive to the Concepción of dictatorial times, especially Christopher Columbus. Because I saw many correlations: the story of Columbus was equivocal, in the idea that by traveling west he would arrive east -- well, he was right, if a whole continent wouldn’t have materialized in his way. And so Columbus and Pinochet -- who is never named in the book, only as the Khan or the Great Khan -- appear together. I never tried to draw an analogy between Columbus, who seems to me a more complex figure, and the crude tyrant that was Pinochet.
So what do these figures represent for you?
The character of the Khan is undoubtedly Pinochet: always surrounded by guards, torturers, great wealth, et cetera. But the character of the Admiral -- I never say Columbus except in a few poems but instead choose to refer to him as he had others call him, "the Admiral of the Ocean Waters" -- I don’t see him as a poetic univocal character in the sense that he isn’t a great tyrant. He is a character that finds himself on foreign land where there is fear, terror, where the cities are taken or captured, so he in some ways participates in a symbiotic way, at times detached from the spectacle. I think the Admiral acts, but more than that, he looks on. He observes and sometimes he suffers.
We touched on the cyclical events of Chile, in the sense that this last earthquake was to be expected. In the poem "Orompello V," you write about coming upon a violent scene. You write: “with the same stupefaction / of an idiot before the sea / as before a puddle of rain.” If I understand you correctly, you mean that before a calamity we are not able to digest its magnitude.
In that poem I was referencing the gaze over a body in the context of living with repression and pain in times of the dictatorship. But in all catastrophes, be it a military dictatorship or an earthquake, the body is the first we discover to be affected. It is there where all the rigor, the force, and violence of what happens to us, what immolates us, falls. Of course, back then I was not thinking of the great catastrophe in a telluric point of view. Now I’ve seen and lived it firsthand, and effectively, the first three days were days of stupefaction. Days of not knowing the real magnitude of what was happening to us, and then once I started to take conscience, the stark feeling of almost, almost, losing my sanity. It’s happened to many people, no?
Fortunately, after three, four days with the interrupted calls, the stories and declarations, things began to clear up, but I think the trauma of the event will go on for a long time. I hope the trauma will lead to a re-examination of what we’ve lived for so long without knowing. We went from a strong dictatorship to a democracy that didn’t realize the economic system was leading us to losing the humanist north, to put it that way. Going back to a former question, the human condition is the human condition. In the earthquake in Valparaíso of 1906, one of the greatest earthquakes we’ve had in Chile, the looting began immediately. It was more atrocious even: there was the incident of people seeing a ring on your finger, and cutting your finger off. Of course the situation was handled differently then. Those who were seen looting were shot. But to my eyes, the human condition has not changed from 1906 to 2010. We remain the same: half monster, half human. Society reveals its true self in the darkest, most sinister moments, and we cannot forget this association of the monstrosity within ourselves. We are not the moral savages we dream we are. It surfaces, but there is also the capacity we have to feel empathy, which allows us to act well.
There is great sensuality in your poems throughout the book and it is set in stark contrast to the destruction and violence there. Why sensuality in the face of destruction?
The sensuality and eroticism present in Cipango is there because desire, erotic desire, in the times of the dictatorship, in the times of repression, where one of a few things that kept the life instinct present -- Eros emerging from Thanatos, eroticism emerging from death, in order to save oneself from ruin and destruction and the darkness we lived in that time, which can also be lengthened to the darkness we are living now. In other words, desire and eroticism are not only tied to death, but to life, to the desire of being with someone, of having a body friendly to us, loved by us, which is really the only thing that saves in times of grief and death.
In the story "Ulrikke" by Borges, a character asks the narrator what it means to be Colombian. “I don’t know,” he replies, “it’s an act of faith.”
[Laughs] That’s Borges.
What does it mean to be Chilean?
Well, in this moment more than ever, it has to be an act of faith, but also a will to live in spite of what has happened. Now, being Chilean, Colombian, Argentinean -- I don’t see many differences. I think it extends to being South American. There’s one thing that unites us, and that is language, the word and our culture. Faith is the force of a people that has the capability to rise. Gabriela Mistral spoke of Chile as a “will to be.” Now we owe ourselves to that “will to be.”