BY DAVID BLOMENBERG, Poetry Editor
It is likely that few of us have heard of Nicanor Parra, but in his native Chile he has been a major literary force for decades. His first book was published in 1935, and his latest book, available from HOST Publications, shows that his vitality and incisive wit have hardly been weathered now that he has reached 94 years of age. Published in December, this book shows the breadth of Parra’s scope, not only by its size (513 pages!), but by the grand range of subject matter and the playfulness of the language.
Parra considers himself an “antipoet” in that he doesn’t at all hold with ostentatiousness and other preciosities that poetry, rightly or wrongly, have become its reputation in the eyes of the greater public. His poetry, here in parallel translation, is full of puns, bluntly conversational tone, and linguistic fireworks, wonderfully replicated in the translations of Dave Oliphant. The individual pieces fit in the larger context of five public banquet speeches in which the speaker praises certain literary figures, tears others down, skewers political figures, and warns against ecological catastophe. In one of the poem-speeches, on the occasion of his honorary doctorate, even the bastions of Academia are not spared. In “Mai Mai Peni,” a speech centered around the speaker’s accepting a literary award, he states things deprecatingly, only half-way through, in a poem titled “I See That You’re about to Fall Asleep”–”That’s the idea/ I work on the theory/ That the speech should be boring/ The more soporific the better/ Otherwise no one would applaud/ And the speaker’d be considered a rogue.”
Human rights and conservation of the world’s natural resources figure heavily. The speaker wanders, in quite interesting ways, to women’s rights and deforestation by way of Portugese writers, Shakespeare, Gorbachev, Neruda, and the prospects of writing poetry, including “Son Don’t Go on Beating Your Head against a Wall”: “his lady mother used to tell him/ Poetry no one reads/ / It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad.”
It appears it’s not been been since 1977 that the English-reading public has been able to get their hands on a translation of Parra’s work. The world has changed a lot since then, ecological and human-rights concerns have become ever more urgent, and Nicanor Parra has no interest in staying within the ivory tower of poeticizing. “It is not the earth that belongs to us” he says throughout the book, “but we belong to the earth.” Recommended.
After Dinner Declarations, HOST Publications, 513 pages, ISBN 978-0-924047-63-3