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BOOKS & THE CULTURE A Voice from No Man’s Land Language, Death, and Enrique Lihn BY ROBERT BONAZZI FIGURES OF SPEECH: Poems of Enrique Lihn. Translated by Dave Oliphant. Host Publications. 208 pages. $12.00. F figures of Speech is the only book by Chilean Enrique 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 PoIn 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 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 25, 2000