Testimony of Circumstances by Rodrigo Lira, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría, Cardboard House Press
Latin America gave the second half of the twentieth century some of its most destructive and incendiary poetry. In Bogotá, in the 1960s, the Nadaistas threw copies of Cervantes into a bonfire and shouted from rooftops of an imminent socio-poetic revolution, and anyone who knows the name Bolaño has likely heard how Mexico’s Infrarealistas heckled the hell out of Octavio Paz. This was the period of poesía rebelde, rebel poetry, in which agitation played a big role on the street and the page. One particularly volatile poet from this milieu was Rodrigo Lira, who stuck out even at a time when this sort of counter-cultural militancy wasn’t unheard of. Testimony of Circumstances, translated into English by Rodrigo Olavarría and Thomas Rothe, secures his position as a true outsider in a world full of pretenders.
Born in 1949 into an upper middle-class family, Rodrigo Lira received a good education and spent his first fifteen years in close proximity to Chile’s elite, but as a teenager he began to veer far from bourgeois respectability. He ingested substantial amounts of weed. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had electroshock therapy at his family’s insistence. He rallied behind Salvador Allende’s socialist government until Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.-backed coup turned Chile into a nationalist, ultra-capitalist nightmare. Anyone with left-wing sympathies risked persecution, and the new regime kidnapped and executed thousands of its own citizens on that very charge. Although Lira grew quiet on political matters, he was hardly mute.
By the late ‘70s, Lira was known for passing out Xerox copies of his poems at the University of Santiago, where he had dropped out a few years earlier. Apart from being vivid portraits of life under the dictatorship, these poems are also vicious attacks on both establishment and avant-garde literary circles. Rounds get fired in every direction, even at potential allies like Nicanor Parra, whose 1954 collection Poemas y antipoemas inspired a legion of writers throughout Latin America. This is something Lira would certainly have acknowledged, since, like many poets of the period, his own style bears Parra’s mark. Either way, this didn’t stop him from mocking Parra’s role as Great Emancipator of Spanish-language verse. Other contemporaries like Raúl Zurita and Enrique Lihn were roasted plenty too, usually in the form of disrupted readings, public pranks and, of course, poems. It’s worth noting that even by avant-garde standards, Zurita, who during a performance scarred his own face with acid, was really far out. As for Enrique Lihn, he was a good friend and even introduced Lira’s first book of poems. Everybody was fair game.
Despite taking the whole literary world to task, Lira was still set on winning its approval. He placed his work in state-sponsored contests and obsessively followed his rivals’ publications. A craving for recognition at least partly fueled his vitriol, which isn’t meant to imply his troublemaking was a shtick—it wasn’t. Every word in Testimony of Circumstances is a projection of Lira’s outrage rather than merely its expression, a slap to life’s face, not just the threat. Every line feels like a knee-jerk reaction to some external trigger, the sort of thing that makes you scrawl a reply to graffiti in a public toilet. His poems are as destructive as they are creative, since having a target worth defacing is the very catalyst for his poetry. They’re a form of literary vandalism, if you will. As much as I would have loved to think that up on my own, Lira says as much himself.
. . . the blind
kind of watch, the deaf kind of hear,
the mute kind of talk, they kind of sing,
and he who had never written anything but copies,
notes, cheat sheets, and the occasional summary chart
that guy who in regards to personal expression had limited himself to
answering graffiti in urinals or toilet stalls, kind of
starts producing things, texts: let’s call these things
This may read like a jab at his peers, but it’s also a pretty good illustration of his own method, especially if we believe his claim that he’s no poet at all. As Olavarría and Rothe point out in their introduction, he saw himself less as a poet than as a “skilled manipulator of speech.” Saying that Lira produced texts is hardly a slur. He’s a collagist, a manipulator of already existing material. He makes full use of the modern surfeit of cultural junk, and the results are loud and slangy, full of traffic, political propaganda, and scraps of seventies pop music. “Extremely Urgent Request” and “Public Notice” lampoon the language of classified ads and neighborhood bulletins. One is a farce solicitation for a girlfriend, while the other charitably informs Santiago’s poor of a free stockpile of raw onions. Both far surpass satire in the degree to which they rig themselves out in the enemy’s clothes. His poems can be satirical, yet they never moralize. He writes rather from some suffocating sliver of existence, battered from every angle by an ill-defined threat, where the only way of asserting one’s will is to throw a punch. Or scream:
Any moment now
my patience will snap and I’ll scream
scream long and hard for several hours . . .
Any moment now
my patience will snap:
my nightly jacking off, our daily joints
won’t be enough
and when the opiates
the strong or light tranquilizers
the bottles of wine beer pisco mineral water aren’t enough.
Even when Lira’s personality feels like it’s center stage, his self-lacerating style of humor and attention to verbal texture usually stamp it out. The spectacle of contemporary language fills its place. Needless to say, all of Lira’s neologisms, wordplay, intertextuality, and assonance-based rhythms would cost even the best translator a pint of blood. Ours, however, are the best of the best and have pulled off an English that’s as shining, breathless, and combustible as its source. It’s often just as inventive, too. Translating a poem like “Ess Tee Pee” (where every line is made up of three words starting with S, T and P) requires a pretty strict disregard for literality, yet the result is itself an excellent piece of poetry. No other approach would capture the music of the original.
- Succinctly, total perception.
Solitary tasting pilsner,
sample the potion:
synthetic tiny particles.
- Seismic trance; phantoms
silence topics prohibited:
solemn temptations, persecutions
sensationalized, televised pompoms,
slutty tites pressing,
sweat, tongue, pubis;
sad thighs parted
Look at any page and you’re going to find an array of solutions to very tough problems. One clear example is the second stanza of “Ecological Poem.” In the Spanish, a lot of momentum depends on rhyming desde (Spanish for “from” or “since”) with the phrase de modo que (which roughly means “so that”). To get an equivalent effect, the translators move the first part of this rhyme up a line, from desde to the English word “gray”. They then interpret de modo que as “in such a way” and lo and behold! We have our rhyme. They didn’t need to shoehorn anything into place, nor fool around with meaning. The biggest change was a tiny shift in stress.
la tal gasa se puso gris
desde un comienzo
de modo que la Muy Noble Ciudad de Santiago
tuvo al fin
un smog propiamente tal ensartado en sus edificios.
this gauze turned gray
from the beginning
in such a way that the Very Noble City of Santiago
ended up with
plain smog pierced by its buildings.
I’m thankful for such a skilled pair of translators. Lesser talents could easily have neglected Lira’s writerliness because of the novelty of his character, a fate which, sad to say, has plagued more than a few of his contemporaries. Not that his own was any less unfortunate: mental illness took its toll eventually. On his thirty-second birthday, without ever having published a single book, Lira cut his wrists and died in his bathtub. Just these sorts of anecdotes, however, are a fetish of English-language audiences, especially if the writer is Latin American. Readers may forget the real point of this collection, which is that Rodrigo Lira was a great poet, arguably one of his century’s best. One whose work was built to last.
Garrett Phelps is an Assistant Editor at Asymptote. He graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, with a degree in Philosophy and Literature. He is currently based in London.
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