Fifty Years of Antipoetry
BY DAVE OLIPHANT Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great By Nicanor Parra Antitranslation by Liz Werner New Directions 144 pages, $14.95
t 90, the world-renowned Chilean (anti) poet Nicanor Parra remains an amazing chameleon, a vigorous gadfly, and a much needed anti-dote to contemporary political rhetoric and ideology. “Antitranslated” (Parra’s own affirmative term) by Liz Werner, Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great is the first collection of his work to appear in English in 20 years. It includes a selection from Parra’s notebooks (previously unpublished even in Spanish), filled with witty, irreverent, and penetrating insights into the absurdities and contradictions of modern life. The speaker reveals repeatedly the vital issues we need to face, bringing us back down to reality from realms of the abstract or abstruse. In one section of “Something Like That” he declares that “THE TRUE PROBLEM of philosophy / is who does the dishes.” This type of reality check is not new to Parra’s antipoetry, and neither is the thought in his “The Error Consisted,” a drawingless artefact (the artefacts are usually accompanied by his drawing of a heart with eyes and stick arms and legs) whose text reads: “In believing that the Earth was ours / When the reality of the situation / Is that we / belong / to the / Earth / Clara Sandoval used to tell us.” Just as the philosophy/dishes antipoem rings a change on Parra’s theme of reality vs. ideality, so, in the case of this artefact, he has added a reference to his mother, Clara Sandoval, to earlier versions of his ecological theme. She figures prominently as a sage spokeswoman in this latest bilingual collection. Typical of the antipoet is another artefact half in German and half in Spanish, with his drawn heart and a credit to his mother, the latter translated again as “Clara Sandoval used to tell us.” The German is untranslated but reads “ALL KULTUR AFTER AUSCHWITZ IS GARBAGE.” Similarly, the artefact entitled “All Poetry Is Shit” concludes with “Clara Sandoval used to tell us / of course there are honorable exceptions.” “Clara Sandoval,” a perhaps surprisingly sentimental antipoem, pays tribute to her for never losing patience, for peeling potatoes and “washing infinite piles of diapers” after a full day as a seamstress (“one has to feed the family, after all”), for never resting on her laurels (“the greater the suffering / the more reason to keep her nose to the grindstone”), and for still having “time left to cry” and “time to pray.” The most novel feature of the book may be the number of antipoems concerned with aging or the aged, which obviously relate to the antipoet’s having reached the age of 90 last September. A lighthearted artefact announces “80-Something Lover Has Just Been Spotted / Attention all fifty-plus Ophelias.” The antitranslator changes Parra’s “Dulcineas” to Ophelias, as she does in “Something Like That” where the original speaks of “FOUR DEFECTS that my [Dulcinea] won’t forgive me for: / [being] old / [a] lowlife / and [having won] the National Literature Prize.” The allusion to Don Quixote is lost in the antitranslation, which eliminates the antipoet’s crucial connection with Cervantes’ anti-romantic tradition. But perhaps Parra approved of this, since he has also seen antipoetry as an heir to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as King Lear. Parra’s idiosyncratic translation of the latter as Lear, rey & méndigo, was produced to acclaim in Chile in 1992, published in 2004, and garnered him honorary membership from Oxford University. King Lear is of course concerned with old age, as is another of Parra’s serio-comic artefacts entitled “Batty Old Folks,” which asserts that they “Are the only ones who really know what’s going on / Don’t laugh: / That’s Y they spend their time in tears.” s might be expected, there are several antipoems directed toward our sitting president. One is entitled “How Right Was the Owl When She Said,” and continues with another of Parra’s frequent allusions to Hamlet: “Not Mohammed and not Bush: // Hamlet! / The Champion of Methodical Doubt: // I doubt therefore I am.” An artefact entitled “The War in Iraq” is pricelessly and sadly true: “My mouth is hanging open / I doubt that I can ever close it again.” On a wider scale than the Bush Administration and the Republican Party’s campaign of misinformation is the final artefact that closes the book: “Shut the Hell Up!” This one-line antipoem says it all: “2000 years of lies is more than enough!” This, of course, is to be contrasted with the truths that antipoetry tells, or with its very different program in terms of a literary objective. As to the “rewards” of telling the truth, these are catalogued in a section of “Apropos of Nothing”: I nearly screwed myself over being so sincere optimism got me nothing but trouble for being compassionate—for being humble the kick in the ass was double That’s what you get for being a fool That’s what happens when you preach the upstanding and good But then, as so often in Parra’s antipoetry, we see the other side of the coin: Luckily everything’s changed as much as it possibly could now that I steal silver and gold patron-saint charms by the truckload and eat for a hundred, instead of for one: everybody respects me for real now that I don’t ask for or show mercy The antipoet always manages to go both ways in revealing his/our contradictory natures. But a single instance of this balanced view is his antipoem entitled “Seven Voluntary Labors and One Seditious Act.” Here the seventh “labor” inverts the very order of things: “the damned poet / amuses himself by throwing birds at stones.” The one seditious act is perhaps a contradiction in itself: “the poet slits his wrists / in homage to the country of his birth.” Parra’s attitude toward Chile can be both critical and adulatory, though the former surely predominates, as in the antipoem entitled in antitranslation “Yup” (for the very Chilean “Si Pueh”). Here Werner alters the specific reference to “Viva Chile” in the original to “America! God shine his grace on thee,” which takes the kind of liberty that Parra seems to have enjoyed in working with his antitranslator. Nonetheless, Werner manages to suggest, through her use of “America the Beautiful,” the ambiguous attitude of this antipoem. It begins with four letters in Spanish (mier) that would spell shit (mierda), then adds a capital M that changes the sense by making the first two letters into the word “my” and running it into another word without its silent “h” (erMosa). Together (mierMosa) they form the words “my beautiful,” followed by “country” (patria). Parra’s play on words inspired the antitranslator to come up with the very “apropos” patriotic song and to use it so imaginatively in rendering the original’s ambiguity through “YOU PIECE OF SH… ining sea.” arra’s writing career spans more than 70 years. At the age of 40 he had already revolutionized poetry in Spanish. His unique talents were publicly recognized early on by both Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, Chile’s two Nobel Prize poets. The winner of the highest literary awards from both Spain and Mexico, as well as his native land, Parra has been snubbed by the Nobel committee time and again. But the antipoet has had his revenge by penning a number of antipoems in response, one of which appears in this new collection: The Nobel Prize for Reading should be awarded to me I am the ideal reader, I read everything I get my hands on: I read street names and neon signs and new price-lists …for a person like me the word is something holy members of the jury what would I gain by lying as a reader, I’m relentless …of course these days I don’t read much I simply don’t have the time But—oh man—what I have read that’s why I’m asking you to give me the Nobel Prize for Reading as soon as impossible In the same vein of Parra’s contradictory views is another poem that has to do with reading. This antipoem is also entitled “Yup!” but reads: “The greatest truths of the twentieth century / Can’t be found in books // You can read them / On the bathroom walls // Vox populi Vox Dei // This, of course, I read in a book.” Most characteristic of Parra’s double-edged vision is his take on poetry itself, which he has both attacked for its shortcomings as a form of honest expression and praised for its capacity to live up to its name. “Apropos of Nothing” contains several sections that address the nature of (anti) poetry and the effects of telling it like it is. That is, the antipoet satirically recommends that one avoid calling a spade a spade (“the word makes the man”), since if one says euphemistically “Military Decree” instead of “coup d’etat,” they won’t “look down their noses.” He goes on to observe that “yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the truth / the man who says steed instead of horse / already has his future guaranteed.” At times, as here, the antipoet sounds like a salesman, whereas at other times he speaks in the voice of the Christ of Elqui (his fictionalized version of the wandering evangelist Domingo Zárate Vega), who declares that “we make poetry / even when we’re going to the bathroom.” In the end, though, the antipoet warns “DESTROY THIS PAPER after reading it / poetry is tailing you / and me too / it’s after us all.” Here poetry may be the truth that will catch up with us all (and the antipoet, as usual, includes himself) for having chosen unrealistic words just to “guarantee” that no one objects. An early antipoem declared that “the poets have come down from Olympus.” To this lower but more empirical position Nicanor Parra has been faithful ever since his Poems and Antipoems first appeared in 1954. He never presents himself as consistent in his views, never utters godlike pronouncements from on high. Instead he admits his confusion, his doubts, his awareness that as with Hamlet “Knowledge kills action” and “Action requires the veil of illusion.” And in doing so, the antipoet continues to sting the self-satisfied, to ridicule himself, and to recall the sagacity of Clara Sandoval, who took her cue, as does her son, from “those infallible pigeons” that “know exactly what they’re doing” when they see to it that “No President’s Statue Escapes.” As a student at the University of Texas at Austin, Dave Oliphant first met Nicanor Parra in Chile in 1965. He has been reading, translating, and writing about the antipoet ever since. Oliphant’s most recent book of his own poetry is Backtracking (Host Publishing).