Sunday, February 3, 2018.
It doesn’t look like a tomb.
It’s a heap of shells, stones, fossils, twigs.
From a distance, it even looks like one of his visual artefacts: a little mound of debris washed up by the sea, topped by a cross made of white wood. Hanging from it are a crown of tired flowers, and a rectangular sign that says:
Beneath all this lie the remains of the longest-lived poet in Chilean literature, reference in the Spanish language, university professor, mathematician, physicist and creator of anti-poetry: Nicanor Parra Sandoval. He died early in the morning of January 23, in Santiago de Chile, at the very respectable age of 103 years old.
Las Cruces is a coastal town 200 kilometers from Santiago, where starting from the ’80s, Parra lived as a bit of a recluse, far away from everything, in a wood house that looked onto the waves of the Pacific.
On his tomb, besides the message, you can find other visual artefacts. For instance, there’s a little rectangular plank of wood that shows black lettering and the Famous Parra heart with hands and feet. It says:
Neither very foolish,
nor very wise
The two verses do well to transmit the spirit of the poet, who stated that to be contemporary was “to learn to live in contradiction, without conflict”, and who in his final days, once he’d crossed the hundred barrier, truly didn’t seem to fear paradox. Nicanor Parra lived at once distant from and very close to death. As if he were dancing a long cueca with it. Or as he himself wrote in one of his poems, one of his many attempts to demystify all that was solemn and grave, even dying:
There’s no reason to be nervous
as the poet said
you’ve got all of death ahead of you.
We can start in San Fabián de Alico, 400 kilometers to the south of Santiago, where Nicanor Segundo Parra Sandoval was born on September 5, 1914. (He was the eldest of eight children.)
And we have to end on January 23, 2018, the date the Anti-Poet died, in the Santiago neighborhood of La Reina. (He was the last of the eight children to go.)
In between, there are 103 years.
Almost half of the period since Chile gained independence. Perhaps for that reason, many of us thought of him as immortal: one more landscape in a country that, according to another poem of his, suffers from a geographical complex: “We think we’re a country, and the truth is we’re barely a landscape.”
Notes for an attempted biography of Nicanor Parra.
One: that he was the oldest son of the marriage of Nicanor Parra, schoolteacher, and Clara Sandoval, housewife and seamstress. That his brothers and sisters include Violeta Parra, the folklorist and Chilean musician who committed suicide, as well as Roberto and Eduardo Parra, musicians too. That all this translates into the following: Nicanor Parra was born in a house full of people, with a lot of music around him but not much money, with an alcoholic father he was afraid of (“When I was a teenager, I thought of him as a kind of monster. Because he drank a lot”) and a hardworking mother who provided for the family (“…she was steady as a rock”).
Two: that he came to Santiago with the intention of training as a policeman (a cop), but it didn’t work out thanks to his height, or lack of it, so instead he finished his studies, went to university, taught at a school, traveled to the United States, became a professor at the University of Chile, traveled to England, returned to establish his career as a professor of engineering and mathematics, made more trips, and kept teaching, although never in all these stages did he stop writing poetry. Or anti-poetry.
Three: that there are too many books. But it’s impossible to talk about Parra without naming certain milestones. Poems and Anti-Poems, for example, which was published in 1954. It was a revolution because it showed that Chilean poetry didn’t have to be written in the style of Neruda, or García Lorca, or Walt Whitman: that it could be as light as a Charlie Chaplin flick, without any loss of honesty. It’s also worth mentioning Salon Verses (1961) and Leaves of Parra (1985). And that in the ’60s he began with his “artefacts”, those conceptual art installations in which he took a popular phrase out of context, or else an image of someone or something famous. For example: Parra writes “Our Father” in the font of those advertisements that say “Drink Coca-Cola.” Or he pierces a tomato with a nail, like Cupid’s arrow through a heart, and writes: “Still Life.” Or he modifies a photo so Pope John Paul II appears with hands curved around his eyes like binoculars, with the punchline: “Visual Poetry.” Or he prepares an installation that shows hanged puppet versions of all the Chilean presidents, giving it the title: The Chilean Payment.
Four: that his relationships can’t be set aside. That he had three partners, six kids, and several grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. But that maybe it was Ana María Molinare, whom he met in the ’70s, who left the greatest mark on him. The Anti-Poet was in love, Molinare left him, and a resentful Parra wrote “The Imaginary Man”, one of his greatest hits:
The imaginary man
lives in an imaginary mansion
surrounded by imaginary trees
on the bank of an imaginary river.
Five: that many times he was asked what anti-poetry was, and all those many times he answered different ways. Such as that anti-poetry “isn’t anything other but a dramatic speech”. Or that “it’s a poetry of contradiction, that is, the poetry of yin and yang”. Or “and you’re asking me? Anti-poetry is you”. Or with this poem:
I won’t let anyone tell me
they don’t understand anti-poems.
Everyone should roar with laughter.
So I rack my brains
to make a bridge to the reader’s soul.
His best answer, true, might be found in another of his poems, one now canonical within Parra’s canon: “The Roller Coaster.” In it, he attacks the literary establishment (“For half a century poetry was / the paradise of the solemn fool”), declares himself its hero and anti-hero (“Until I arrived / and set up with my roller coaster”), not without first warning the journey will be rough (“Obviously I won’t answer if you come hurtling down / blood spurting from mouth and nose”).
Six: that his fanbase has different ages, sizes, genders and nationalities. But that without a doubt Bolaño is partly guilty for the last Parra revival: “May he who is brave follow Parra.” So is the punk godmother Patti Smith, who was in the audience when the Chilean poet received the Cervantes Prize: “His poetry is rebellious and humane.” The Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia shares some of the responsibility too, since he wrote a prologue to the second volume of Parra’s complete works, published by Galaxia Gutenberg in 2010 and 2011: “Parra’s artefacts are to literature in the Spanish language what Duchamp’s work has been for contemporary art.” And before that, a long time before, there was praise from Pablo Neruda in a pair of waggish verses (“His poetry is the delight of morning gold, or a fruit consummated in darkness”), from Gabriela Mistral (“The future poet of Chile”), from Allen Ginsberg (“He’s the creator of a poetry more explosive and intelligent than Neruda’s”) and from the critic Harold Bloom (“He is, unquestionably, one of the best poets of the West”).
Seven: that his death was mourned by people like the President of Chile, the television host Don Francisco and the singer Julieta Venegas. Although his pop fame could be summed up in that TV commercial where the Anti-Poet makes an entrance, drinking a glass of milk. Shakira was involved in the project, and when Parra was invited to take part, he asked to be paid as much as the Colombian singer. After that he said—joked?—that his price was a thousand dollars per second.
Eight: that before and a little after his death, controversies sprouted up like mushrooms. Some because of his relationships with women (complicated). Others because of his children, who today are fighting over his legacy. And lastly because of his comments about Augusto Pinochet after the coup: “In a way he’s a savior, since if it weren’t for Pinochet we’d be like Cuba,” Parra said in a documentary. “That’s a fact. But right away, atrocities were committed. One would like a savior without atrocities. How can one connect the two things? The atrocity with the salvage operation. If you want to think about it on a grand scale, no such savior exists. A short-term savior, what’s that for? A machinery called consumerism, bread today and hunger tomorrow.”
Friday, February 1.
A dusty parking lot on Lincoln Street, in Las Cruces. A few steps away is the house of the Anti-Poet. Outside, on the white wood fence, there are withered flowers, melted candles, verses by him and other poets, photographs, drawings by children in colored markers and pencil, a couple of portraits in black and white. The wind sends a sheet of paper with a sketch flying. It’s the famous heart, Mr. Nobody himself, who’s crying and saying “Will you be back soon?”, in reference to one of his best-known artefacts: the crucifix with nails but without Christ, over a sign saying: “Be back soon.”
One of his neighbors comes out of a house nearby and says she remembers him jogging along the beach.
“Although years ago. When he was younger.”
“And did you go to his funeral?” I ask.
She shakes her head no.
“I prefer to talk with the living. Nicanor’s gone now.”
More people show up at the house. Some stop to look; others just snap a photo and carry on toward the beach.
Minutes later, a neighbor passing by claims that Parra’s favorite dish was conger eel soup (“although seafood empanadas were a close second”). That he went out walking every day, accompanied by a caretaker.
It’s the start of February in the Chilean litoral central, that is, high season, the height of summer. But Las Cruces isn’t a very popular seaside resort anymore. Also, the last few days have dawned gray and melancholy.
“There it is,” says a lady with red hair and nails, a flower-print dress and gold jewelry.
“Yes, down there. The nephew has to open it for you. Go. Ask at the corner.”
A block away from Nicanor Parra’s house, a skinny man with red hair is staked out keeping watch over cars on a bare, dusty plot of land. His white hair is cropped short and his features are hard. Behind a lamp post, he’s stashed a half-liter can of beer. I start walking over. He looks like the modern version of a character in a Dostoyevsky novel. A little shabby, but with a sly sense of humor.
“There, head straight.”
I see him point something out for a seventy- or eighty-year-old man carrying a walking stick, bent over like the hunchback of Notre Dame. The elderly gentleman is looking for Parra’s house, too.
“Where you see people taking photos. Go, before they start to charge. Before they clean you out for visiting Nicanor. Like with Pablo Neruda.”
The man says goodbye and walks at a turtle’s pace toward Parra’s house. I come up and ask what I need to do to visit the house and see the tomb.
“Come tomorrow. At ten in the morning, Lautaro will be here, Don Nica’s nephew.”
A few days before.
Wednesday, January 24, Cathedral, downtown Santiago.
“Why so many people?”
“Don’t you know? Nicanor Parra’s died.”
One of the two men, with a platinum-gray suit and crimson tie, takes out his Ray-Bans and looks toward the cathedral, toward the line (hundreds of people who have showed up to say their goodbyes, including me), stretching out under a scorching and merciless sun.
His friend answers with a smile, and they hurry on without stopping.
An important point left out of the attempted biography above: Nicanor Parra and politics. You can’t revise the life and work of the Anti-Poet who took aim at every political faction (“The left and right united / will never be defeated”) without mentioning politics.
Eight: that Nicanor Parra and politics never got along very well. That unlike Pablo Neruda (who was an unswerving and active member of the Communist Party), Parra had doubts about the Latin American left of beret and raised fist. That in 1970, while the United States was invading Cambodia, Nicanor Parra was invited to drink “a blessed cup of tea” with President Nixon’s wife at the White House. Which of course the Cubans took like a kick to the stomach: Parra was immediately suspended from his role as judge of the Casa de las Américas Prize. And that some time later, after Augusto Pinochet’s coup, Parra accepted a position at the University of Chile, then controlled by the military regime: it lasted only a month, but even so, many leftists continued to reproach him for it, even though years later he would recite poems against the dictator: “In Chile human rights are not respected / here there exists no freedom of press / here the multi-millionaires are in charge / the henhouse is run by the fox.”
Saturday, February 2.
Same guy watching over cars, different can of beer tucked away behind same lamp post. He sees me coming toward him, and beats me to it.
“At six. Come at six.”
In his hands, he holds a rag with gray stains he uses to clean the windshields of parked cars.
“Six in the afternoon. That’s when Lautaro comes. Colombina was here, but she left burning rubber to Santiago.”
“At six then. Sure?”
“You just come.”
Overnight, the walls in different parts of Santiago were plastered with graffiti and posters, some of which are still there today. That’s why in the area around the Anti-Poet’s house in La Reina, just as in Las Cruces, it’s easy to read phrases like “Parra for the Nobel!” The campaign wasn’t the first or last, but in this case, the charm is that it was organized by the author’s fans. People who read Parra, but not from the academy. People who walked to his house in La Reina and hung around, waiting for some sign or unexpected greeting from the Anti-Poet. Some of whom were even curious enough to go see him lecture—even though they weren’t his students—at the Department of Engineering at the University of Chile, where the poet gave classes for 22 years.
Such people included my father, who liked the work of the Anti-Poet despite viewing with suspicion his failure to embrace the left. Whatever the case, he joined a group that campaigned for Parra. The group “Parra for the Nobel”. They even appeared on television.
This happened in the ’90s, the period of the Chilean transition, when we moved from the Pinochet dictatorship to a neoliberal democracy. During that time, my father and his group of friends (all forty-somethings, readers of Nicanor Parra, none linked with academic circles, none considering themselves intellectuals) went up to the house of the Anti-Poet in La Reina, a neighborhood at the base of the cordillera in Santiago. It wasn’t the first time. Every so often, they’d make the visit. Only on this occasion, my father didn’t have anyone to leave me with, so he took me along. That day they talked with Parra about the campaign, about literature and about politics, among other things, and at some point Parra picked me up in his arms to play. I don’t remember much. Just that after a few seconds, the old man got bored.
Or maybe I got bored and cleared off to one of the patios in that big house in La Reina.
Those were my eight seconds with Parra.
My first eight seconds of anti-poetry.
Sunday, February 3.
He’s wearing salmon-colored pants and a white long-sleeved shirt, and his features are extremely Parraesque, just like those of his uncle. Long gray hair the hue of some of the shells covering Nicanor. A broad forehead with several wrinkles. Emaciated cheeks, big ears, a slightly square face and small eyes, which barely open.
Lautaro Parra is smoking a cigarette. He’s talking with the guy who looks after the cars and two neighbors, a man in sunglasses and a woman with curly red hair. I come up and ask if it’s possible to see the tomb.
“Will you wait for me half an hour? The thing is, I’m here finishing this.”
He gestures to his cigarette, which he’s obviously just lit.
“Of course,” I say. I’ve been waiting for him since Friday.
Wednesday, January 24, inside Santiago cathedral.
A line of hundreds and hundreds of people surrounds the cathedral.
The majority can’t enter, and settle for waiting two or more hours to view Parra’s body, in a coffin draped with a shroud made by his mother.
The mass is about to start.
I position myself to the right. I’m standing, not very far away from his body.
The first rows are reserved for family and those close to him, most of them from the local caviar-left. In the first row are his children, the President and the Minister of Culture. Through the cathedral speakers, Violeta Parra, his sister, sings “Después de vivir un siglo”.
Until the priest comes out and the music is shut off.
It’s the usual noon mass, but with many more people than usual; this delights the priest, who emphatically invites us to return. “This is the House of the Lord,” he says. “This is also His house.”
Then he talks a little about Nicanor, and when he does, it’s to stress how funny and clever he was: “Very amusing, this Nicanor.” Toward the end he mentions a section of the speech that Parra gave when he won the Juan Rulfo Prize. I search for it in Google then and there, in the middle of Nicanor Parra’s funeral, on my phone:
I start from the premise
That the speech must be boring
The + dull the better
Otherwise no one would clap
And the orator would be branded a rogue.
Sunday, February 6.
Lautaro crouches down and takes off his gray fedora hat. He crushes it against his chest. Looking down at us from the second floor, squatting, he says:
“There he is. There you have him, there he is.”
A group (around forty people) descends the steps of cement, to approach Parra’s tomb. They position themselves around the white mound that looks like a beach dune. Or the tomb of something that isn’t human. A whale, maybe. Moby Dick. Or a sea lion made of marine debris.
Most of the visitors are on summer holiday, families, couples and a few elderly folks with walking sticks, wrapped up in three layers despite the heat.
The house has three staggered levels. On the first is the house as such; on the second is a terrace; and on the third, after walking down some cement steps, is a dirt patio with the tomb.
It looks out onto the Pacific Ocean: onto Playa Chica, the beach in Las Cruces in the litoral central region, where Nicanor Parra lived from the ’80s and where he’ll continue to be buried. Parra’s tomb doesn’t point toward the beach, however. Lying sideways, it points elsewhere, toward another coastline: Cartagena. That’s where Vicente Huidobro’s tomb is, and not far away, one of the houses of Pablo Neruda.
“They might turn the house into an anti-museum,” Lautaro says.
It was a Friday in April (April 30, 2008) that Nicanor Parra visited the university where at the time I was—reluctantly—pursuing a degree in journalism and literature.
The one at the back of everything was Rafael Gumucio, who was and remains director of the Institute of Humoristic Studies at Diego Portales University. It was Gumucio who got Parra, then 93 years old, to give a talk to students.
By that time, Parra didn’t appear very often in public.
That’s why I thought many more people would show up.
I remember that I got there a little late and that when I entered the hall, Parra was already there with Gumucio. The first was seated, the second was standing with hands clasped behind him. I climbed up to the back of the hall. From there I could see with more detail. Parra was dressed in one of those outfits he’d recently become very fond of wearing: brown corduroy pants, one or several pullovers, a parka and a scarf and a knitted Chiloé cap in his hands. He answered questions and read poems; he even recited Shakespeare in English. It was a dialogue that was somewhat disconnected (no mean feat, in any case, for a ninety-something). I don’t think everything lasted more than an hour. Gumucio babbled something, then Parra spoke. Gumucio made jokes; Parra outdid him with a much better joke. And so on.
I remember that Parra took his time answering, but that every response had a quip or joke; or else he turned his words into darts as humorous as they were poisonous. I also remember that he said some things I’d heard from him already, part of his repertoire of successful one-liners: “I see today’s poet as a sloganmaker,” “The error was to believe the earth was ours, when the truth is we belong to the earth,” “The work of the poet will become the work of the entomologist who goes out to catch bugs,” “The idea is: the reader must doubt even his own existence. That is the aim of poetry.”
At the end of the talk I came up to ask him about Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the beat poets who translated him into English. At the time I was writing what would become my first novel, Rope of Spirits. It included scenes about Ginsberg’s visit to Chile, about his stay at Parra’s house along with Nicanor and Violeta.
Parra turned around. He stood up without too much difficulty. It was like watching a pillar of salt come to life. He looked at me with the eyes of someone who’s just woken up, someone who probably spent the night before writing a poem as if it were a mathematical exercise.
“Do you remember anything about when Allen Ginsberg came to Chile? You were with him…”
His daughter, Colombina, appeared behind him and told him it was time to go.
“I just remember he came with this other poet… Ferlin… Ferlin…”
“Ferlinghetti. But he left,” I said. “Not like Ginsberg. Ginsberg stayed.”
“Allen Ginsberg. Yes, that one even slept at our house…”
His eyes and memory wandered off a little. It seems he didn’t remember anything else on the topic. He smiled at me.
Colombina urged him again.
“Let’s go, Nicanor.”
I managed to ask him to sign two books of poetry for me, both from the ’70s and bought by my mother. He signed one and added the date; on the other he drew a Mr. Nobody, that heart with feet and hands which appears in his artefacts, just like the ones on his tomb in Las Cruces.
After that I saw him walk, bundled up in sweaters from Chiloé, holding his daughter’s hand. Slowly he went down the university steps. The effect was similar to what I just said: like watching a pillar of salt take on life, begin to move, disappear.
The group of us looks at him. Someone shyly asks if he knew him.
“Obviously, I’m the nephew.”
“So hopefully children and future generations…”
He leaves the phrase dangling, without finishing. We keep looking at him. A few seconds go by.
“…can read his work.”
It seems that Lautaro wants to say something more profound. He keeps squatting, hat crushed against his chest. He looks a bit nervous. The people around him stop paying attention. Next Lautaro looks for me, in the middle of the group of people, and says:
“Better late than never, eh?”
I smile and nod.
More people approach the tomb. They take photos. A few make conversation. There are lots of pictures with phones. Some even take selfies: a chubby kid with sunburnt red cheeks makes a peace sign with his hand and smiles with Parra’s white sea tomb as background. Others crouch down amidst the shells and stones to look at the two artefacts.
Lautaro puts the fedora hat on his white head again. He asks us to contribute a few pesos.
“For the flowers. Or, you know, next time you visit”—he says—“bring some flowers for Nicanor.”
The people nod, a few thank him; and of course, there are more photos with phones. Many selfies. Little by little, and in silence, people begin to climb back up the steps, from the third to the second level and from the second to the first, which gives onto Lincoln Street.
As for me, I take a little more time. I stay wandering about the area. I see a dusty armchair, covered in branches and leaves, at the entrance of the house. Elsewhere, in a patch as empty as if a fiery blaze had scorched it clean, there’s a canvas chair. It’s the one where Nicanor, like a lizard, used to sit and sunbathe.
I also see that turning left instead of continuing straight, there’s another space. It’s a small improvised garage: there’s the silver Volkswagen beetle that Nicanor Parra drove until he was over a hundred years old. The car shows few signs of use. Rusty patches, dust outside and inside, a couple dents. As I jot all this down in my notebook, for a fleeting moment, I think I’m remembering it. An afternoon in La Reina, in the ’90s.
We’re just getting home when my father points and says the driver of that silver car going by, that beetle, is Nicanor. I tell him that Nicanor looks like Doc Brown from Back to the Future, a movie broadcast on public television at the time.
Now I go up to Parra’s Volkswagen. I see that all its windows are dusty. On one, with a finger, someone has written the phrase from his famous artefact: “Be back soon.”
Translated by Jessica Sequeira
Jessica Sequeira (San José, California) has published the novel A Furious Oyster, the story collection Rhombus and Oval, the essay collection Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age and the hybrid work A Luminous History of the Palm. She has translated many books by Latin American authors, and in 2019 was awarded the Premio Valle-Inclán. Currently she lives between Chile and the UK, where she is based at the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge.