El último apaga la luz: Obra selecta. Nicanor Parra. Edited by Matías Rivas. Santiago: Editorial Lumen, 2017. 473 pages.
In 1971, a press called Nueva Universidad published Poesía rusa contemporánea by Nicanor Parra, a new edition of a first draft that appeared in the Soviet Union without circulating much in Latin America. It was made up of variations that the poet created based on literal translations by José Vento, and it included poems, photos, and biographies of Block, Maiakovski, Ajmatova, Tsvetaeva, and Esenin, among others. One copy of this book survived for twenty years, hidden in a house in the hills of Olmué, until one day it was discovered by a fifteen-year-old boy who lent it to me by the exit of our high school. That book was never again published or anthologized; it suffered the fate of many other Chilean books that were seized in the dark times. But on that afternoon, it was, for two young people, an introduction to poetry, to friendship, to school-age terrorism, and, above all, to the potency and structure of the “antipoetry” of Nicanor Parra.
Perhaps the inclusion of these poems would have been excessive in the volume of Parra’s work compiled by Matías Rivas and published by Lumen, which bears the marvellous title El último apaga la luz [The last one turns off the light]. Besides that, another of the author’s recreations is justly featured: fragments of his variation on Shakespeare’s King Lear, in a gesture better known in English-language literature than in Spanish that is sustained on the idea that every translation is an exercise in recreation and appropriation. It is interesting to note how, in the complete works of U.S. poet Elizabeth Bishop, her translations of Brazilian poetry are included without a second thought. We can also understand that this appropriation, and that of King Lear in particular, is extremely unusual in its transference from one linguistic and cultural system to another using a lexicon that makes Shakespeare end up being just as contemporary as Parra.
Another plus is the inclusion of various complete works that are fundamental in order to understand Parra’s work, such as Poemas y Antipoemas [Poems and antipoems], La cueca larga [The long cueca], Sermones y prédicas del Cristo del Elqui [Sermons and preachings of the Christ of Elqui], Hojas de Parra [Leaves of Parra], and Mai Mai Peñi, Discurso de Guadalajara [Mai Mai Peñi, Guadalajara Speech]. In this sense, Rivas trusts that any reader who approaches these five hundred pages will be one who seeks initiation, or who invites another to the same initiation. However this baptism may be, it is a generous gesture that makes the reader a participant in the formation of a body of work that is no less radical now than at the moment of its writing.
One attention-grabbing inclusion are poems from News from Nowhere, originally published in 1975 in the journal Manuscritos. This represents a clever recuperation of hard-to-find, elusive material whose high point is the prose-poem “Improvisaciones más o menos premeditadas” [More or less premeditated improvisations]; this piece acts as an ars poetica, declaring the uses of the colloquialism as a sort of impossible appropriation; the ridiculous Parrian character comes into play, this time writing all sorts of sentences on the walls: sentences that then begin to multiply without the action – at least the evident action – of his will in the public space. Rodolfo Walsh, with furrowed brow, would have argued that “the walls are the presses of the people,” and I think that would have sounded an alarm in Parra, although he doesn’t seem so convinced. This poem is an interesting parody of the relationship between the poet and the word, his total incapacity to go with the flow, even signing anonymous gizmos to build up his clientele.
What detracts from this selection is its effort to display Parra’s visual works, whose faults are explained as problems of format, which is half understandable, since a previous selection undertaken by Julio Ortega, Poemas para combatir la calvicie [Poems to combat baldness], included a couple of artefacts in a much more multicolored sample. It’s also only half understandable because Tu vida rompiéndose [Your life falling apart], Lumen’s anthology of the poetry of Raúl Zurita, contains a series of graphic elements and visual works, presented in high quality, that completely open the fan and reveal the possibilities of this writing. At the same time, we miss some trace of books like Poesía política [Political poetry] or the Ecopoemas [Ecopoems] that, while not fundamental pillars of this structure, are functional parts of its ideological framework.
Now, the machine rolled out by Rivas rolls and rolls well, thanks to the fact that it seeks the origins of antipoetry and the evolution/reinvention of Parra’s writing. This ship, without covering the sun or being too light, floats and slides like a presence through which any reader of contemporary poetry should study while laughing out loud, with seriousness and pause. Parra said it himself in an interview with Julio Huasi in 1969: “Antipoems were born perhaps because I had already arrived at a repugnance for absolute formulations and the tedious lyricism of the typical poetization of the majority of poets.”
One of the first critics of Nicanor Parra was the poet Enrique Lihn, who, before the publication of a volume of the Antipoemas, had already written a text that resolved, with youthful enthusiasm and unexpected maturity, the development of a poetic thought. And these conversations between the two, which they maintained for a long period, were reproduced as texts published between 1984 and 1985. In “Aparición de unas Hojas de Parra” [Appearance of some Pages by Parra], Lihn says that, reunited in the classic Confitería Torres, they had lunch together. In this digestive intersection, the antipoet confessed his interest in the Tao Te Ching: “Before reading the Tao Te Ching – he tells me – I was a sort of leaf in a storm; but it must have been some sort of initiation, because by reading it I understood my own poems.”
Here, Parra refers to how the logical system of Lao Tse offered him the possibility of understanding the development of “multiple hypotheses,” that is, the act of proposing a contradiction without resolving it: “no synthesis: thesis and antithesis.” Although Lihn listened to him with some misgivings, perhaps even as they drank their coffee, he set his spoon aside to understand that the subject constructed by Parra never let itself be trapped, it kept itself in contradiction, like an indomitable electron that, when shot against a metal plate, leaves two prints from a single passage. Upon this basis, perhaps, we can understand that delirious battle cry – “Deaths yes, funerals no” – or that bone-breaking passage that reads “new rise in bread causes new rise in bread.”
One day, the influence of the Tao Te Ching on Chilean poetry, from Pablo de Rokha to Juan Luis Martínez, will be studied in depth, but what’s interesting is how the antipoet recognizes within that text a triumph against dialectics. This allowed him to be neither a “solemn fool,” “nor a sacred cow,” maintaining his freshness in a ludic exercise that constantly pricks up its ears to hear what the reader has to say. Because Parra is always listening to us, as if he had his own Borgesian Aleph, portable and equipped with a periscope, attentive to the syntax and lexicon of the fishmonger, the cobbler, and the fruit and vegetable grocer (also of the academics or “doctors”). “I just write what people say. It’s a phenomenon of recognition,” he tells Lihn, pausing this sentence in time, as if it remained installed in some corner of Confitería Torres: a corner which, by the way, is not appropriate for all pockets.
These things allow us to imagine this Parrian machine while it prowls the known universe. Its mechanisms, and those to which we grew accustomed while never ceasing to be surprised, are his readings of ourselves “and the luminous signs / and the bathroom walls / and the new price lists.” They are also his approaches to others, distant in time, close in humanity, beings that, brought to the here and now, can affirm: “That the water of my eyes / at least serves to set the clay.” But, above all, a way to stretch language as taut as an elastic band that, when released, can cover a great distance with grace and elegance or, on the other hand, hit us directly in the face; surely his intention is for both of these things to happen in a poem. All the rest are the friends we’ve made thanks to his books.
Diego Alfaro Palma