A Voice from No Man’s Land

Figures of Speech is the only book by Chilean Enrique Lihn (1929-88) to appear in the United States since 1978, when his first major collection, The Dark Room and Other Poems, was published by New Directions. This present volume contains sixty-two poems translated by Austin poet and publisher Dave Oliphant, and is selected mainly from later books. The collection includes signature texts on the poetic process which rank among this hemisphere’s most powerful.

“There is no lucidity like that of Enrique Lihn,” said Nicanor Parra, referring not to the meaning of the poetry but to the poet’s self-awareness and linguistic clarity while creating it.

Enrique Lihn was obsessed – in a self-critical and imaginative way – with the paradoxical nature of art, and the limits of communication. From perception to naming in his work there emerges poetic evocation; from text to reader opens internal listening, the source of dialogue; and from the original idiom to the translated language, cross-cultural interpretation. What we read is a series of resemblances – never equivalency. What we experience is the metaphorical process.

“Those who insist on calling things by their names / as if they were clear and simple / cover them simply with new ornaments,” proclaims Lihn. “They do not express things, they dig around in the dictionary, / they render language more and more useless, / they call things by their names and those answer to their names / but they undress themselves before us only in the dark.” (“If Poetry Is To Be Written Right”)

In a thoughtful introduction, Oliphant clarifies this judgment as: “…Lihn’s preoccupation with the function of language, how it should be utilized, how it can stand in the way of true understanding, and how yet the poet would be nothing without his words. The idea that poetry is ‘nothing’ is, from beginning to end of Lihn’s writing career, the cause of his sense of futility as a creative artist and yet remains for him the subject that he must forever confront and the object that he must continue to make.”

Poems about poetry are generally reflexive rather than reflective. But the effect of Lihn’s texts prevents the reader from slipping into a cozy romanticism about Ars poetica, and challenges one’s arrogance about what the poem literally means. “By An Uncontrollable Force” begins:

I hope these poems have been written by an uncontrollable force, with the inadequacies of such a case. I may have botched them, but will not forgive myself if I have done so beyond the bounds of a certain sincerity that even the words are permitted; and seldom did I believe I could write in such a dated manner as this, naturally.

The voice pretends to be speaking beyond the margin of these lines, as if the poet were in the wings while his poem performs on stage. The passage is grounded by comic self-deprecation, leaving open to debate the nature of this “uncontrollable force”: is it neurotic and thus uncontrollable, or is the poetry actually under artistic control?

I see a summer fade where it finally existed and its knot is now in my throat that never aspired to song yet neither to cold speculation. Overstatements strike me as justified, in truth we live by them, each in his way just as one can die of an excess of common sense. Sea and sun, for instance, are naturally exaggerated or if one wishes: rhetorical while of the logical mad we already have the most perilous supply.

Lihn characterized his own poetry accurately – he was neither lyrical nor coldly philosophical. His discursive sermons are littered with oxymorons, wordplay, and political wit that illuminate his own truth, somewhat like Parra’s sparer antipoems, which broke the mold of Modernismo. He then begins to play with the absurd in the poem’s final passage:

Soon all the tricks of language – and language itself is the original artifice – wanted to place themselves here at the service of a poetry that’s neither artificial nor natural; a no-man’s land it may be but a familiar spot where those poles have come to touch and in the best of cases by an uncontrollable force.

Since “language itself is the original artifice,” what would this “poetry that’s neither artificial nor natural” be? Lihn does not say directly, but his poems map this “no-man’s land.” His “familiar spot” cannot be reached by academic logic, psychoanalysis, or automatic writing. The poetry cuts against these methodologies, yet it contains a rigorous logic, a humane insight, and a painfully ironic spontaneity.

These aspects are strikingly evident in the nakedly honest Death Diary, a selection of which closes this edition. Chileans have written memorable poetry about death – Gabriela Mistral’s Sonnets of Death, Pablo Neruda’s “Nothing but Death,” Parra’s gallows humor, Oscar Hahn’s The Art of Dying, Marjorie Agosín’s books about the “disappeared” – but only Lihn wrote about his own dying.

“Pain Has Nothing To Do With Pain,” an eighty-line discourse, offers this warning: “The words we use to mean those things,” (like pain and death) “are contaminated / There are no words in the mute zone.” But thirty lines later, the voice in the “mute zone” continues its discourse!

A dead man who has a few months of life would have to learn a clean language for hurting, despairing, and dying which beyond mathematics would be accessible only to specialists of an impossible and equally valid knowledge a language like a body with all its organs operated on that would live for a fraction of a second in a brilliant fashion…

If Lihn was frustrated by the veils of language obscuring living reality, how futile was his attempt to evoke the final unknown? His evocation of death emerges as the image of a dying body. By “operating” on the body of language, the poet transforms prosaic function into poetic creation, in the eternal instant: the poem. The text of the body becomes the body of the text.

However, the narrator insists that “this is already stating / the merely obvious with the help / of a figure of speech / my words obviously cannot cross the barrier of that unknown tongue / before which I am like a baboon called upon by extraterrestrial beings to interpret / the human language….”

Within these fifteen deathbed poems, Lihn searches for a way to transcend the melodramatic rhetoric of death by facing the silent reality of dying. “Limitations of Language” offers another perspective on the inexplicable: “Language awaits the miracle of a third person / (but not the one that’s absent from Arabic grammars) / neither a character nor a thing nor someone dead / A real subject who may speak for himself, in an inhuman voice / of what neither I nor you is able to say / blocked by our personal pronouns…”

There is no such person, of course, but the second stanza teases us with another variation: “We have here a man, pressing the trigger close to his temple / He sees something between that gesture and his death / Sees it during an elemental bit of time / so short that it will form no part of that / If something could prolong his death without placing it in time / a drug (discover it!) / The first pallid echoes would be heard / of an unpublished description of what it is not….” This published version of “what it is not” ends without a period, leaving open the search.

Closure comes in “The Artificial Hand,” “that brought / paper and pencil in the bag of the terminally ill,” but it will not “sign a decree / making an exception that will return him to life.” Instead, he rejects the hand and the false hope it represents, knowing he cannot be saved from death.

His orthopedic hand moves like an idiot who would play with a rock or a piece of wood and the paper fills itself with signs like ants on a bone.

These last poems take Lihn’s discourse on language to its final stage: silence facing nothingness. His life, however, brimmed with words about everything under the sun, written in various styles and in several genres. According to Oliphant, the prolific poet also wrote novels, stories, essays, reviews, “one-man dramatic shows, as well as drawings and sketches.”

Oliphant has divided Figures of Speech into six sections, revealing a range of styles and themes. The first opens with “Portrait” – dated 1952, printed posthumously in 1998 – and two rants against Catholicism. “As ‘Portrait’ indicates, Lihn could be psychologically incisive in his clinical self-analysis, yet always with an ironic touch that lends his observations a somewhat comic objectivity,” Oliphant writes. “This is true as well of his treatment in ‘Belle Époque’ and ‘News From Babylon’ of the oppressive religious atmosphere of his childhood, which yet inspired his writing and was the basis for much of its vital ‘neurotic’ imagery.”

The second section contains fourteen poems on writing – including sonnets, one poem that also appears in The Dark Room, and “The Wailing Wall” – which point up aspects of the translating craft. The sonnets demonstrate the poet’s technical control and the translator’s linguistic ingenuity, but these five are among the weakest and, when the English feels forced into the rhyme scheme, the results are pedestrian. But overall, Oliphant’s standard yet flexible language reads smoothly and his edition should endure.

Of “The Wailing Wall,” Oliphant relates this story: “The English translation was first published in 1978, but without the Spanish, which Lihn and I both somehow had lost along the way.” In 1987 Oliphant asked the poet to reconstruct it in Spanish. In January 1988, Lihn said “that he had ‘reconstituted approximately’ the original poem, even though he went on to declare that ‘the reconstruction was improbable.'” Lihn was not fluent in English, but the “improbable” Spanish reconstruction holds up, and the exchange reveals the poet’s confidence in his translator.

Section Two is a set of nine poems about art, displaying fresh perspectives of Degas, Kandinsky, and “Monet’s Years at Giverny.” While Lihn was discursive, conversational, and often noisy, his contemplation of a painting closes with a calm vision of “the moment that consumes the substance / and leaves only the embers of Being / that conflagration that comes from clouds and wind / and burns – spread out on the waters – its image.” (“J.M.W. Turner [1775-1851]”)

The fourth section includes thirteen poems about his travels from Chile (“this horrendous / trivial country”) to Madrid, Rome, New York, Toronto, plus two written during a 1985 stay as a visiting professor in Austin. One of the seven love poems in Section Five, “Echo of Another Sonata,” recalls several of Lihn’s themes and subjects, in the memory of Eros (here in its entirety):

In your opinion one love erases another and it’s so, dear, but in love not everything belongs to the arrow and the quiver –the erasers–nor to the wound that bewilders all pleasure all pain twin of death, metaphor of birth The victims of Eros survive the crime of which, gladly, they are its passive agents its authors in a mysterious moment and do not forget I at least: my memory of you independently of love retains it

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