December 2009

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

(Against) Poetry by Parra

Pablo Neruda is without a doubt the most well known name in Latin American poetry. Google the words “poem” and “Latin America”, and the exiled elegizing bard appears. Titles like Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair or One Hundred Love Sonnets or Love: Ten Poems -- whatever they might have meant at the time -- have become synonymous with the “Latin lover” and cheese-ball romance. Of course, if you’ve seen a picture of the staunch Kangol-hat wearing Chilean poet, you know he looks more like the deceased rapper Biggie Smalls than any Antonio Banderas; yet, the stereotype is not totally off. The poems are sentimental, sensual (in that way), and romantic. He writes odes to wine, tomatoes, salt, corn, socks. And if it’s not literary love-it-all lambada, it’s political, the this-land-is-your-land material like Canto General. It’s all so… Poetic. Generally, when someone says “I hate poetry” or “I like poetry,” this is what they mean: metaphor, ode, memory, and love (icky-poo!).

Now meet Neruda’s antithesis: nonagenarian Nicanor Parra. According to literary despot and critic Harold Bloom, he is “unquestionably one of the best poets of the West.” (I’d ask, but would Bloom really answer?) “As popular in Chile as Neruda, but harder to copy,” writes the Argentine novelist Cesar Aira. At this point Parra should something like a king in Chile, but a king of jesters. For fifty years he has been publishing his own brand of poetry, that he calls anti-poetry, all the while being quite the anti-Neruda, pooping instead of praising, playing instead of decrying.  

His first book to be translated to English, Anti-poems by City Lights in 1960 is the most gloom-doom, doldrum, guffawingly dastard and enduring book of poems I’ve ever read. It is the silver molar in the teeth of Latin American poetry that´s back cover in squiggly almost illegible script, "The author is grateful for your purchase of this book."

The title stands alone: at once declarative and reactionary. Another manifesto? Another anti-book like the anti-memoir (merci Malraux) or the anti-novel (merci beaucoup Sartre)? Perhaps. But in comparison to other anti-genres, an anti-poem is more polemical. Anti excludes; anti isn’t; anti won’t; while poetry -- as we tend to think of it -- does just the opposite. And still, according to the original title (Poemas y anti-poemas) the volume contains poems as well, so Parra challenges us to separate the poems from the anti-poems, and there’s the crux: many of the obvious anti-poems in their piss-on-it-all attitude ironically creates another kind of beauty, something surely poetic, but not Poetic.

The first poem of the collection Lullabaloo” begins: "As I was walking in / The park one day / I chanced to run into / An angelorium." When Parra tries to finds the right language to address him, it doesn’t work out; when he tries to shake his hand, the angel gives him his foot; and when he tries to describe, he resorts to asinine similes, "As silly as a swan /  As cold as a crowbar / As fat as a duck / As ugly as you." This leads to a fight and the angel tries to cut him with his sword. None of this really bothers Parra, who dismisses him: "Be on your way / Have a nice day / Get run over by a car, / Get killed by a train." And it all ends: "So that's the story of the angel. / The End." This is just the beginning of the book. When not brawling with angels he’s contemplating lettuce (while trying to not to), remembering a girl he can’t remember (“I swear I no longer remember her name, but I know what to call her: Maria"), violently psychoanalyzing himself, even contemplating what his tombstone will read ( “a sausage of angel and beast!”).

The mash-up of medieval tomfoolery and modern skepticism tricks, criticizes, but mostly plays. As he warns in his poem “Roller Coaster”: "Go up, if you feel like it. / It's not my fault if you come down / Bleeding from your nose and mouth." He’s kidding. He’s kidding. None of these poems can break your nose or your mouth, unless you had a friend drop it from a high building while you waited to catch it with an open mouth.

Unfortunately, the book that made him famous is now out of print in English (pieces of it can be found here). Meanwhile, Anti-poems: How to Look Better and Feel Great, a newer edition of Parra’s poems from New Directions, compiles more recent work. Most of these poems don’t match the ingeniousness of his first work, but the edition includes a great introduction to Parra and his work by the translator Liz Werner that effortlessly mixes personal anecdote and historical context. Of her notes, Pablo Neruda’s comment about Poems and anti-poems being “capable of crossing through the gloomiest mysteries” most surprised me. Her time at Parra’s house sounds like going to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Apparently the Parra residence is filled with another Parra invention: “artifacts,” an idiomatic expression that sometime uses pun composed along with some visual element. Para actually has these “artifacts” taped up all around his house. Werner finds one on the Bible that reads “This book is not for fun.”  When she suggests “This book is not for sale” he runs for a marker to change it. The moment, aside from amusing, exemplifies the sort of translation Parra expects: namely one of collaboration. He encourages Werner to find cultural equivalents rather than literal translation, in once case suggesting she switch Dulcinea for Ophelia; although, he admits he’d prefer his readers learn Spanish to read his poems. (I think he’s joking.)

One of my favorites from the collection (after the Artifacts section), “The Nobel Prize” deals with Parra’s various nominations for the coveted award over the years (he had 1/50 odds this year, according to Ladbrokes online betting). Chile, a country of 16 million, has already had two: Neruda (the poet) and Gabriela Mistral. Given the Nobel’s committee commitment to evenhandedness, chances of another Nobel inspired Parra book boom are slight. Parra writes “The Nobel Prize for Reading / should be awarded to me / I am the ideal reader, / I read everything I get my hands on.” Then he goes on to list street signs and police reports, and admits that “of course these days I don’t read much / I simply don’t have the time / But -- oh man -- what I have read.”

Most of the “artifacts” in the collection are ones that Parra has drawn starring a heart-like figure he calls Hamlet. In “War in Iraq,” Hamlet says, “My mouth is hanging open / I doubt it will ever close again.” In another, called “Poetry Is Shit,” Parra writes: “Clara Sandoval used to tell us / Of course there are honorable exceptions to the rule.” The piece is even more ironic when you find out that Clara Sandoval is his mother. Despite their appearance, something of an improvised pencil sketch, they are best enjoyed after multiple readings; they’re worth the entire book.

After-dinner Declarations, released a year ago, doesn’t strike me as much as Anti-poems does, mostly because they are more personal, more repetitive and less daring.

I doubt Nicanor will ever get The Nobel in Reading, but every time I read him, I think one of us should, only that he always seems to be publishing exclusively in Chile, making his books hard to get in Spanish if you don’t live there. The last I heard Nicanor Parra wrote a free translation of King Lear, called El rey Lear y el mendigo -- it includes the fool in its title. If you’re in Chile, I’ll reimburse you via Paypal if you can send me a copy.

Jesse Tangen-Mills lives in Bogotá, Colombia, where among other things he writes for the arts and culture magazine Arcadia.