I will refer in these pages to a poet who brings something new to the Chilean literature of his time, and by “his time” I mean a considerable stretch of years. The past three decades, to be precise: the greater part of the poetic career of Roberto Onell, born in 1975.
There is no need for me to summarize the characteristics of this literary period; there already exists an extensive bibliography on the most diverse aspects of this time, rife with both gloom and promise in Chile and much of the rest of Latin America. As far as we writers and artists are concerned, we need only consider the cultural deterioration that has come with the ongoing consecration of banality, not to mention other troubles already thoroughly studied and decried: the literary endeavor, now more productive than ever, has all too often become less meaningful than ever. This is a trend that, observed calmly and from an appreciable distance, seems difficult to offset. Sándor Márai wrote in his diary on June 5, 1984: “There are ever more people who want to write, and ever fewer who are willing to read.” Warnings such as this make it all the more worthwhile to read a poet as esteemed and consistent as Roberto Onell.
His poetic oeuvre is made up of three books thus far: Rotación (2010), Los días (2015), and Voz en camino (2020); a thoughtful body of work that has left neither critics nor readers indifferent. In the past few days I have reread, along with his books, some valid and enlightening observations on them by readers whom I admire.
I will mention only five of these readers, whom in Chile are counted among the most attentive and demanding commentators active today, and are likewise commendable practitioners of both creative writing and the essay: Juan Cristóbal Romero, Adriana Valdés, Francisco Véjar, Juan Antonio Massone, and Ismael Gavilán. These are readers of established prestige, who seldom squander praise on novelties from their own country or anywhere else. I give them special mention here because, in their pages on Roberto Onell, I have come across approaches to his work that are both suggestive and invite us to reread his poetry: for example, Francisco Véjar’s reading of the book that inspired these lines, titled “De lo cotidiano a lo trascendental”—from the everyday to the transcendental—although I am inclined to emphasize the latter term, as will soon become clear in my own approach to Voz en camino.
Being, as he is, a poet whom I consider outstanding, and one who shirks away from notoriety and clout-chasing (a merit all the greater for its rarity in these media-saturated times), I think it opportune to offer a brief outline of his body of work. While I will not pause over every consideration that might illustrate my own fondness for his poetry, I will try at least to insinuate the reasons behind it.
For this purpose, I will make use of what might be called guide-sentences or guide-words that I see as animating forces behind our poetic endeavor. These are ideas I see as truthful and central for all of us lifelong learners: brief but suggestive reflections that have come to the aid of many, helping them to both avoid the avoidable and delve deeper into what remains.
The first is the disenchanted reflection with which Gabriela Mistral refers, with a single phrase, to her impression of the flippancy and irresponsibility many poets display in verses with an utter lack of rigor or exactitude. In one of her notes, she bemoans “the banality in which Hispano-American poetry drowns.”
Since his first book, Roberto Onell has been capable, both critically and creatively, of distancing himself from this banality, of which we are all victims, and for which some of us have perhaps been responsible, whether voluntarily or inadvertently.
I will quote an excerpt from Onell’s first publication, which, while it might evoke a certain closeness to Mistralian practices of apparent simplicity in its tone, likewise reveals fortuitous verbal alliances born of the author’s own vision, according to the demands of the subject. Or complex expressive intrigues that might refer—and that do indeed refer, I believe—to another fundamental warning from Gabriela Mistral: “Write under the rule of intensity, which is qualitative.”
Here I cite the second stanza of the poem “Historia de noche,” from Onell’s first book:
For you, my night of this lone night,
when you come to pass, your wake opaque,
eyes somber, shunning brilliance,
in full contact with your difficult skin,
this hymnless, nameless night,
I ask and I await, heavy, myself, the name… (p. 47)
Other notable examples from this first book are “Curso” (p. 17) and “Déjenme” (p. 27).
Onell’s next book was Los días, eighty hexasyllabic quatrains that, as a whole sequence, emerge as a reflection on temporality, of intense “fragmented breath,” as Ismael Gavilán has said. Onell’s power of suggestion is memorable for the consummate skill with which its frequent alliteration gives harmonic form to fugacity and points toward the impossibility of permanence:
Winds, voices, come.
Voice and wind go.
Where will they get
with what they don’t have. (fragment 21, p. 29)
This book stands out for its constructive rigor, which makes “its wager of its risk” (Gavilán). These are the risk and rigor of time itself—the days that come, stay, and go with even stealth—which is to say, time and age. In no way arbitrarily, I believe this poem could even be perceived as a sort of epigraph to certain verses from the famous “Décima de los relojes” by Rodrigo Fernández de Ribera, the seventeenth-century Sevillian poet (a ten-line stanza long attributed, as is well known, to Luis de Góngora):
Where do you leave your tracks?
Your path escapes me.
Oh, how deceived I am;
you fly, you run, you roll:
You, Time, are the one who stays
and I am the one who goes.
Other sentences that might illuminate a reading of this recent book (ones no doubt well known to its author) have come to me in my recent survey of his poetry. I will make brief note of them here, as I have consulted them one by one in this appreciative effort. One of them is from Vicente Huidobro’s prologue to the only book—a fundamental book—by Luis Omar Cáceres, Defensa del ídolo, from 1934, in which Huidobro calls Cáceres a poet who “hears in depth, not only on the surface of appearances.” To “hear in depth” is a mission completed step by step in Voz en camino.
Likewise, Onell’s poems often remind me of the essential characterization of the poetic task we owe to the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, when he wrote the following to one of his coworkers from the magazine Orpheu in 1915:
I call insincere the things made to astonish, and also the things—take note of this, it is important—that do not contain a fundamental metaphysical idea; that is, the things through which there does not pass, even as a gust of wind, a notion of the gravity and mystery of life.
Roberto Onell, an illustrious connoisseur of the thought and oeuvre of the heteronymic poet, is just as faithful to this stricture as Pessoa. The first poem, a beauty, from Voz en camino, titled “Apuntes para caminar,” shines a light on this lesson as no other poem could: with lived experience of uncertainty and a lucid gaze over time and the world.
I will finally mention two notes that strike me as particularly significant: the first came to my mind while reading the poem “Secreto amor (otra vez)” (pp. 31-32), which at first sight might appear to belong to the existing corpus of love poetry; but we must bear in mind that a poem always, or almost always, says or can say something else, as we perceive while reading the sequences that make up the aforementioned poem. They unfold within it—with sibylline and mysterious expression—into a disturbing intersection of love and death. I also think of the poem titled “El 11” (pp. 40-41), which configures and opens a space of terribilità for every Chilean. Nonetheless, there is within it absolutely no trace of the vociferous, the imprecatory, or the obvious. It strikes me as exemplary in the full dimension of its statement: may he who wants to listen listen.
Subtlety and truth in the poetic word is a formula that perfectly describes, to my mind, the figure of this author—one that plainly reaches, in a single poem, the radiant fusion of experience of life and experience of language.