Enrique Lihn en la cornisa (Ediciones UDP, 2019) is the title of the last posthumous publication about the poet who died thirty years ago. In this case, penned by Lihn’s ex-partner, journalist Claudia Donoso, who dusts off six hours of conversation recorded in 1981 which she zealously filed while waiting for an unappealable distance that would allow for measuring, by today standards, its poetic radicalness in the days of a Chile under dictatorship. Divided into eight chapters plus a “Preliminary Note,” the volume has a subtitle as extensive as the waiting period: “A pending interview, an unearthly poem, a photographic sequence.”
The interview in question occupies the central place and is a revisiting of Lihn’s essential themes, but supported with the imprint of a new enthusiasm due in great part to the presence of the interviewer, Claudia Donoso, then a twenty-six-year-old journalist with whom the poet would fall hopelessly in love. Death, the journey, meta-literature, the chronic lack of authenticity of the Latin American cultural subject, and the recourse to the mask and farce in order to elude the censorship of the times are again voiced by Lihn with a magnetism and force that owe much to Donoso’s listening. At times, eroticism and its assimilation to writing carry the dialog to a slippery terrain and it is plausible to think that the four-handed editing of the material that both undertook was a propitious setting for the loving outcome. Regarding the “unearthly poem” that has the title of “Written in François Villon,” it is the report in verse that Lihn would leave about this love at first sight event, which he would write just days before leaving for New York for several months. The poem, in eight-verse stanzas, is a gift to the readers of Lihnian poetry and of which the critic Matías Ayala once justly said was “an acquired taste,” meaning an unnatural pleasure that one nourishes and educates to figure out the luminous impenetrability of its figures. But “Escrito en François Villon” is also of philological interest since it is the direct antecedent of the collection of poems Al bello aparecer de este lucero (Ediciones del Norte, 1983), which Lihn would dedicate to Donoso and would publish a year later when all that was left of the passion were its embers. Finally, the “sequence” mentioned in the subtitle refers to photographs that Inés Paulino took during the interview sessions and in which, without much difficulty, one can guess the immediate complicity that emerges from the encounter between the future lovers. Some of the shots such as the one of Lihn inviting the reader to stop by his house of words, however, were captured by interviewer herself. RB
Claudia Donoso: How did you work La pieza oscura?
Enrique Lihn: They’re texts that I corrected, that I polished over some years. In other words, I was very aware of what I was intending to do because it was the first time that I was writing with a plan in mind. That is to say, there already was a structured question with respect to the subject I was talking about in those texts, something I had not done before. Those poems are, for me, still totally valid. It may even be that my best poems are in La pieza oscura because they were written with a maximum level of rigor and with an awareness of what I was doing as far as that is possible, with a tension, with a consistency in relation to the writing subject that seems to me a good thing.
C.D.: The configuration of the subject you are talking about is something that seems to me very difficult to achieve.
E.L.: Of course, the identity of the one who writes with the one who speaks and of the one who writes with the one who lives. Now, to believe that such an identity has been achieved can also be an illusion; but to be capable of maintaining that fiction, recognizing the one who speaks, the one who writes, the one who lives, that trilogy and the feeling that it’s integrated is difficult to achieve, by the way, because if it’s not, the subject cannot be distinguished from the plankton in which it is submerged and then it means nothing.
C.D.: All that seems to extend to the relationship of memory with literature.
E.L.: Yes, memory organizes your true but nonexistent past that’s not dated like photographs in an album. Memory sends you to certain imaginary images that move with time above fixed dates and things that happen. I don’t know exactly how to distinguish this from imagination, invention, or literature. Memory is related to writing and obviously to dreams, and writing and dreams are communicating vessels.
E.L.: No, I’m thinking about those dreams that sometimes tells us an unprecedented and surprising story about ourselves with a hyperrealist exactness. I’ve literarily taken over some of those dreams. One such example is a love affair with an aunt my age that came to materialize dreamlike forty years later. That’s how Las siete vidas de Eros, the novel I am writing now, begins.
C.D.: Could it be said that for an author memory is the practice field for the work, or the source for the work?
E.L.: It’s the infrastructure of writing and also pre-writing. It’s in memory where the author is written and where he is constantly writing himself. That’s why literature demands from you skillful time, your free time, and the time or anti-time when you sleep and dream.
C.D.: And how do you live the here and the now? Are you conscious that certain situations that happen to you today are possible literary material for the future?
E.L.: Certainly. I believe that one has a profound relationship with the here and the now. The problem with the present is that it does not allow itself be memorized; the present, the moment in which one dies, let us suppose. The present moment invades me, but it only interests me to the extent to which the past, or memory imprints it with sense. This means seeing the present in three dimensions, as present, as past, and as future. The majority of the things I’ve written in recent years are an “immediate” answer to the stimuli that feed that submarine platform of memory by their impact. Furthermore, that sedimentary machine incorporates what is read. Thus, the relationship of memory with literature is absolute, and with this I want to say that one writes, also, on the basis of what has already been written.
C.D.: So, then what you’ve written in the past acts upon what you are writing in the present?
E.L.: What I’ve read and what I’ve written assimilates to that infrastructure and is constituted into style. I seem to remember having heard that the virtuosity of a musical performer is the exercise of conditioned reflexes incorporated into the muscular and nervous systems. They’re memory acting out its function. It’s memory that becomes an instinct, a sophisticated intelligence that acquires certainty from the zoological movements.
Roland Barthes says in Writing Degree Zero that images are born from the body and the author’s past and that they become little by little automatisms of his art.
C.D.: It’s assumed, in general, that one writes about what one knows, but several of your books have been prompted by trips abroad.
E.L.: It has to do with the incentive to leave Chile, which for me has always been an exciting matter because I’m bound to Chile, but at the same time it’s an ambivalent relationship, in other words, hateful. Maybe it’s normal that it be that way. Meaning that it is the place where one lives, not the place where one would like to be, a subject of neurosis and literature. It’s the subject of literature because perhaps the act of writing has to do with that, with being in the writing and not in the place where one is living. I mean that beginning from the gesture of writing you are already relocating to another space, the space of the imaginary.
C.D.: In that sense, it could be said that literature is a sort of exile.
E.L.: It’s a sort of escape from the place where you are in a truly present, absolute, and precarious way. I went to Europe when I was around thirty-six years old. I had never before left Chile, with which I maintain a link that I’ve not been able to break; a link with a place that makes you uncomfortable and which perhaps makes you produce. That declaration of hostility is reproduced in other places, but the act of leaving and staying away for a time has always caused in me a sense of relief although the truth is that I’ve never stayed too long in any place when I’ve left. And it has also produced in me another tension, which is that of not belonging to the place where I am, and which is also a discomfort. There’s an incident that I recounted in the book of conversations with Pedro Lastra and which I can recount again. An American asked me, “Why do you write about New York? You have been living here for only six months, and you say that you can’t find your bearings, that you don’t speak English. How does one write about something that one doesn’t know about? I answered him with something very pedantic: When one wants to get one’s bearing in Paris one reaches for the Michelin Guide and not The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge because they are something else.
C.D.: Okay, but you were a pedant with style.
E.L.: The point is that I believe that’s precisely what literature is: one does not write about a place, rather one constitutes a place from the point of view of the text. It doesn’t matter whether or not it looks like the place where one is. The perception of the difference, even though one may be mistaken in terms of the information that one is giving, has to do with the process of writing, with the poetic process. So, I don’t worry so much when I write abroad if the information assimilates to the text or not, if it is good or is bad.
C.D.: What you take advantage of is the circumstance.
E.L.: Certainly, it’s about the response to a situation. Besides, what happens is that New York is the navel of the world. There, you encounter and reencounter things that you’ve seen in a precarious way through reproductions, through readings: you encounter them there, in the places themselves as a physical fact. I’m thinking about the visual, of painting. I really like painting, I’m a frustrated artist, or something like that. So, the relationship with the visual arts is a matter that occurs corporally in that place in an unimaginable proportion for the provincial who sees there all of Monet, all of Picasso, all of everything and that produces a physical exaltation.
C.D.: Which in turns produces responses in what is written.
E.L.: Of course, what functions there is simply the literary hormones. New York is not a place for getting lost easily. It’s a checkered tablecloth, only it has height. So, the vertigo is produced by its vertical immensity. It’s one of those dream cities that you see in dreams and I have very often dreamed of cities, or with the relationships between cities, and with their communicating vessels. For example, I leave here, go around the corner and I am in Paris. The city as object of desire, the eroticized city, the city as the other. Also, as literature. What I’m trying to tell you is that in dreams you see that you’re going around a place, but you don’t know that geography. It is an anti-geography in which you see, but you don’t know what there is on the sides, there is no context as when you see a photograph in an album.
C.D.: After thinking about the city as an object of desire, how does it become an object of writing?
E.L.: Writing is like an appropriation, like an erotic relationship. It is the appropriation in the language of something that escapes from it. It’s desire as contrary to need; a desire whose objective is always evasive because it’s the opposite of satisfying a need. It’s that thing which I also identify in the act of writing; it’s following the track of what is constantly escaping from what you are doing.
C.D.: There’s also the topic of the connection between cities and women.
E.L.: Yes, that’s a very old metaphor. It’s about the attraction for what is different, which starts with the sexual difference, but which is also a cultural difference. It has to do with what you are not and are never going to be; so, then it can be personified as a woman.
C.D.: In the case of your poem “La despedida,” you’re talking about a concrete woman, Nathalie.
E.L.: Of course, Nathalie. She embodies that, the foreigner and that situation always becomes a possibility within the framework of the strange. Later on, in Paris, irregular situation, one does not speak to a woman directly, but when one writes, one is addressing someone directly.
C.D.: So, you mean that there is always an interlocutor in poetry?
E.L.: There’s always an interlocutor in literature, in any case, and it can be a collective interlocutor, or a specific interlocutor, unique, a man or a woman. But if you only have that one person in mind, you’re going to speak in a language with intimate meanings and other things that don’t work in literature. In that case, if one wants to say something to a person with a first and last name, it’s better if you write a letter, or make a phone call.
C.D.: Let’s return to Nathalie. Would there be a poem without her?
E.L.: In “La despedida” I had that interlocutor, Nathalie, in mind even though I was not expecting her to read my poem by any means. Years later, Mauricio Wacquez, by chance translated it for her. In that moment, I felt totally…how to say it? …Well, I was in love with that lady, and I was suffering a lot because of the separation that came about. It’s the only thing I’ve written in a complete state of drunkenness at a friend’s house, with a bottle of whiskey that I entirely drank, and I was crying as I wrote and kept falling off the chair. The little poem could have been shit, but it turned out, which is rare in my case because whenever I write I intervene and govern my emotions. Writing, for me, is also a performance.
Enrique Lihn en la cornisa. Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2019. Extract published courtesy of Ediciones UDP, Vidas Ajenas Collection.
Translated by Rosario Drucker Davis